Lachin Corridor standoff between Azerbaijan and Armenia enters third month

Image by Milivoj Kuhar. Free to use under Unsplash License.

This article was first published on OC Media. An edited version is republished here under a content partnership agreement. 

The blockade of Lachin Corridor, which started on December 12, 2022, continues with residents saying food and energy are depleting quickly while no solution is in sight. In December 2022, Azerbaijani citizens claiming to be environmental activists began blocking the Lachin Corridor, the sole land route connecting Armenia to the Karabakh region. The protestors are demanding that Armenia stop mining gold and copper-molybdenum deposits in Karabakh, which official Baku claims Armenians are exporting illegally.

Since the blockade began, Karabakh Armenians have faced cuts in goods supplies, services, fuel, as well as, internet access and gas supplies. The government of Azerbaijani has denied any involvement in the blockade. And although lorries from the Red Cross and the Russian peacekeeping mission in Nagorno-Karabakh began transporting humanitarian aid to the region, local authorities in Stepanakert (Khankendi in Azerbaijani) say the aid is insufficient for the city of 120,000 people.

In January, Nagorno-Karabakh began rationing buckwheat, rice, sugar, and cooking oil. The list expanded to cover eggs, fruits, and vegetables in February. Marut Vanyan, a Stepanakert-based journalist, told OC Media that there are queues for food and that the region is struggling with the food rationing system.

“The city looks like a village”

Since the blockade started, Nagorno-Karabakh’s gas supply from Armenia has been cut off seven times. Officials from Yerevan and Stepanakert have accused Azerbaijan, as all gas pipes pass through Azerbaijan-controlled territories. “There is almost no traffic in the city. The city looks like a village: silence and smoke from stoves,” Vanyan told OC Media. “In the evenings, the city is shrouded in complete darkness.”

People have resorted to burning wood for heating and cooking, relying on wood stoves, Vanyan explained. Shortages in energy supply have also disrupted education as some educational institutions have partly closed, while others adjusted to using wood stoves for heating. An electricity supply shortage has forced the residents into temporary blackouts, with hour-long power cuts six times daily. Local authorities say the cuts are due to damage to electricity cables in territories controlled by Azerbaijan. According to the news outlet EVN report, on February 19, Artsakh authorities said, “public classes will resume in gas-heated public schools on February 20.”

On Monday, Nagorno-Karabakh’s local power distribution firm, Artsakhenergo, reported supply chain breakdowns in several parts of Stepanakert as a result of overloads in the system. Residents of the city were instructed to save electricity to avoid further damage.

Hospitals in the region have also reported shortages of medical supplies and equipment, putting a hold on around 600 non-essential surgeries so they could tend to more urgent cases in operating rooms.

The Red Cross has also transferred several patients requiring urgent medical assistance to hospitals in Armenia.

Lachin Corridor is supposedly under the protection of Russian peacekeepers who have been deployed in the territory since November 2020, following the Russia-brokered agreement signed between Russia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. They are also in charge of providing security for entry and exit points of the corridor. In a broader context, however, the role of some 2,000 Russian peacekeepers remains vague. The lack of clearly defined roles, responsibilities, and activities in the 2020 agreement is now becoming an issue. The blockade is a testament to that.

On February 9, human rights watchdog Amnesty International issued a statement warning that the ongoing blockade was endangering thousands of lives, calling on “Azerbaijan’s authorities and Russian peacekeepers to immediately unblock the route and bring an end to the unfolding humanitarian crisis.” In addition, Marie Struthers, Amnesty International’s Director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia, said:

The Azerbaijani authorities have internationally recognized sovereignty over these territories and exercise control over the territory from which the blockade is being carried out. It is Azerbaijan’s obligation to undertake to ensure that the population in Nagorno-Karabakh is not denied access to food and other essential goods and medications. For its part, the Russian peacekeeping mission is mandated to ensure the safety of the Lachin corridor. However, both parties are manifestly failing to fulfill their obligations.

International calls to reopen the corridor continue

In January, UK and US Ambassadors to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) urged Azerbaijan's government to “restore access” and “allow for the unhindered movement of humanitarian goods and civilians.” On February 7, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock joined the calls, saying that in light of the escalating situation on the ground, it was “essential that the blockade ends immediately.”

On February 10, the French Foreign Ministry also demanded an “immediate” reopening of the corridor. In an interview with Armenpress, former French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe said, “Azerbaijan was creating a humanitarian crisis for no reason with its ‘illegal and illegitimate’ blockade of the Lachin corridor.” On February 14, Josep Borrell, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, said in a statement that the “EU remained seriously concerned about the distress the ongoing restrictions to freedom of movement and to the supply of vital goods were causing for the local population.”

On February 18, during the Munich Security Conference, leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan met for the first time since October 2022. The October meeting was hailed as a landmark breakthrough as leaders from Armenia and Azerbaijan pledged to mutually recognize each other's territorial integrity and sovereignty at the European Political Community summit held in Prague on October 6. The Prague meeting was mediated by the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, and French president, Emanuel Macron. The trilateral talks in Munich were with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

Ahead of the meeting in Munich, Armenia's Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan announced that a peace plan was offered to Azerbaijan on February 16. Speaking to journalists in Munich, Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev said although there was progress based on the wording of the peace treaty, “it was not enough.” According to OC Media reporting, “three key issues remain undecided in Azerbaijan and Armenia’s peace agreement process: the demarcation of borders between the two countries, the opening of transport links, and the rights and security of Nagorno-Karabakh’s Armenian population.” Last year, official Baku proposed its own five-point plan.

Meanwhile, the International Crisis Group (ICG) released a new report in January 2023, warning of a possibility of another war in the South Caucasus less the risks are mitigated with the involvement of mediators such as the European Union (EU), which dispatched a civilian monitoring mission to the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan in January 2023.  In its report the ICG wrote:

While much remains to be fleshed out on the new mission, it aims (in the EU’s own words) to ‘contribute to stability in the border areas,’ ‘build confidence’ and ‘ensure an environment conducive’ to peace talks. These goals are ambitious but appropriate. Providing the EU deeper and more immediate knowledge of the situation on the ground may alert it to building tensions, helping position it for timely diplomatic engagement, and would also enhance its mediation efforts.

Olesya Vartanyan, Senior South Caucasus analyst with the ICG, shared a Twitter thread on the significance of the EU mission and the stakes. “In theory, this deployment should significantly shorten the time it takes the EU or member states to react if any new fighting flares up at the Armenian-Azerbaijani border,” wrote Vartanyan.

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