Beyond the Blocking of the Lachin Corridor
On December 12, under the pretext of environmentalism, dozens of Azerbaijani state-backed “eco-activists” blocked the only land corridor in the Stepanakert-Shushi section connecting Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh. As anticipated, the “environmental” slogans were soon politicized, and political demands were raised by enforcing a blockade. A humanitarian disaster was created for the 120,000 Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh. The real question is why Azerbaijan went for such a provocation and at what risk? Hence, in this article, I will shed light on the current crisis based on my meetings with Azerbaijani experts (keeping their identities anonymous) on the sidelines of several international conferences and online interviews I have conducted to analyze the Azerbaijani perspective and highlight the threats, arguing that the current humanitarian crisis is much deeper than the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, and it is related with the “battle of corridors” and beyond.
The battle of the “corridors”
The blockade of the Lachin Corridor should not come as a surprise to us as such scenarios were already discussed in Azerbaijani media. The only surprise has been Russia’s inability to solve the crisis. Weeks ago, Turkey’s defense minister Hulusi Akar, during joint military drills with Azerbaijan near the Iranian border, called on Armenia to “grasp the opportunity and respond positively to Turkey’s and Azerbaijan’s peace calls.” Commenting on the so-called “Zangezur corridor” Akar said, “It is our sincerest wish to re-establish the railway and connections in the region, especially the opening of the Zangezur corridor, to start economic activities, and to ensure a comprehensive normalization throughout the region, including the relations between Azerbaijan-Armenia and Turkey-Armenia.” The Turkish defense minister said that Turkey will vow to continue supporting Azerbaijan’s “righteous cause” against Armenia.
On the second day of the protests organized by Azerbaijanis and the blockade on Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijani media outlets had made their intentions clear. Azerbaijani media and protesters started demanding the replacement of the commander of the Russian peacekeeping mission in Nagorno-Karabakh, Andrey Volkov, and also asked to ensure the control of the Lachin Corridor and the “full restoration of the Azerbaijani sovereignty in the territories under the control of the peacekeepers.” News.am, quoting Azerbaijani Haqqin.az, mentioned that the “Azerbaijani activists” are “determined to prevent the functioning of the Lachin Corridor in its previous format and will continue the action until the control of the road is ensured by Baku.” Interestingly, some Azerbaijani activists also naively asked for the removal of Russian forces and their replacement with UN-mandate forces.
Is Azerbaijan ready to take a risk and ask for the removal of Russian peacekeeping forces and their replacement with international peacekeeping forces? According to several Azerbaijani experts, currently, Baku is against the withdrawal of Russian forces by force since the annexation of Nagorno-Karabakh and the ethnic cleansing of Armenians will tarnish President Ilham Aliyev’s image in the West. Azerbaijan fears that such an action would force the EU and the US to impose economic sanctions. For now, Baku prefers to see the Russians staying, but under control. For Azerbaijan, as one of the experts claimed, it is much easier to deal with a weak Russia, rather than with Europeans. That’s because Baku is familiar with the “Russian mentality.” Hinting at the Russians, one Azerbaijani expert said “a microbe when it is in full shape – is highly dangerous, but once you destroy the microbe to its half capacity, it turns into a vaccine.” Baku prefers a weak and “good microbe” that can boost Azerbaijan’s immunity and consolidate Aliyev’s grip over the Azerbaijanis.
Another Azerbaijani expert agreed that the current crisis is between Azerbaijan and Russia. Russia is unable to fulfill its “peacekeeping mission and prevent the “Armenians of Karabakh from exploiting the natural resources in the region.” However, his resolution for the crisis was not related to the mining but to the Russians ensuring the opening of the “Zangezur corridor” connecting Azerbaijan proper to the Nakhichevan exclave. According to the expert, “Azerbaijan wants additional guarantees that it will have a safe connection with Turkey, in exchange for Karabakh’s safe connection to Armenia.”
Interestingly, at the same time, Azerbaijani media have accused the Armenians of inviting Iranian military experts to train the self-defense forces of Nagorno-Karabakh. According to Azerbaijani accusations, these Iranians crossed the Lachin Corridor and entered the territories under the control of the Russian peacekeepers.
Aiming to control the activities of the Russian troops, Baku is not seeking to kick out the Russians or replace them, but rather to control their mission, monitor the transit in the Lachin Corridor and use the corridor to pressure Yerevan to open a “corridor” in Syunik that would link Azerbaijan to Turkey. From Baku’s perspective, from now on, the destiny of the Lachin Corridor is related to that of the opening and the future status of the “Zangezur corridor.”
Does the appearance of Ruben Vardanyan pose a threat to Baku?
For Azerbaijanis, the sudden appearance of the wealthy Russian-Armenian businessman Ruben Vardanyan in the political life in Nagorno-Karabakh was a source of concern. According to one of the Azerbaijani experts I contacted, the main clash with Russia started when Russia sent Vardanyan to Nagorno-Karabakh. This was unacceptable to Azerbaijan as he “bombarded” the ongoing negotiations between Stepanakert and Baku, and Russia is doing its best to disturb the “peace process.” Baku is concerned about the “Abkhazia-sation” or “Crimea-zation” of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Another expert from Baku argued that Vardanyan’s appointment as State Minister complicated matters, and Moscow is directly to blame for it. The expert argued that Vardanyan will be pushed to take the premiership in Armenia in the future to “keep Armenia in Moscow’s orbit.” From his perspective, the Russian side is trying to “provoke a conflict between the Armenians and Azerbaijanis to secure the extension of the peacekeeping mission up to 15 to 20 years.” Vardanyan’s appointment happened “when the peace negotiations seemed to have gained a real momentum”; Russia tried to torpedo the process. Interestingly, all the experts I contacted reminded me that during his appointment, Vardanyan claimed that Armenians in Artsakh and Azerbaijan should live “next to each other but separately.” This comment “provoked” the Azerbaijani side arguing that Armenians once again are pushing for “separatism.” That’s why Azerbaijanis believe Vardanyan must be removed from his post.
It seems that Vardanyan’s contacts with international media and the re-internationalization of the crisis in Artsakh have raised serious concerns in Baku. Moreover, Vardanyan’s appointment as State Minister in Nagorno-Karabakh is viewed by Azerbaijan as a Russian attempt to consolidate its presence in the region by shifting the balance of power in Armenia in the future.
Reflections: Heading for a new military aggression?
Interestingly, many European and Azerbaijani experts viewed PM Nikol Pashinyan’s refusal to sign the CSTO final document as a sign of Russian weakness and “an unprecedented event.” Baku has realized that Russia no longer has the upper hand on Armenia and cannot grant a corridor in the south. Therefore, “if there is no corridor in Armenia, then there will be no corridor in Azerbaijan” and “Baku will play all its options.”
It is important to remind readers that Azerbaijan once again has invited the Turkish F-16 fighters. This is a clear message to Yerevan and Moscow that Baku is ready for the escalation. Hence, Baku is pressuring Moscow to renegotiate the terms of the November 10, 2020 trilateral statement. Meanwhile, Turkey is also sending a signal to Moscow via Baku that Azerbaijan is a “red line” for Turkey, and Ankara will protect its interests in the South Caucasus as it did in 2020.
So what is Baku looking to achieve by closing the Lachin Corridor? Most of the Azerbaijani experts I have met or interviewed agree that there is a high risk of new and quick military operations if Baku’s demands are not fulfilled by Yerevan and Moscow. These demands are:
1) The termination of the “exploitation of the natural resources” by the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh in the areas currently under the Russian peacekeeping administration. This would deprive the region of economic investment and development and later depopulate Nagorno-Karabakh of the Armenians.
2) Free access for monitoring in these territories, where Azerbaijani officials and monitoring teams can freely access the mining location in these areas. This can be seen as a future pretext to interfere in Nagorno-Karabakh’s domestic affairs.
3) Partial control over the Lachin Corridor with the Russian peacekeeping forces. This is a clear violation of the November 10, 2020 trilateral statement, which states that only Russian peacekeepers are responsible for controlling the Lachin Corridor, while in the past few weeks, Azerbaijan started accusing the Armenian side of illegally transferring arms to Nagorno-Karabakh without showing any proof, aiming to violate the status of the corridor and exert pressure on Yerevan.
4) The dismissal of the Armenian armed groups from Nagorno-Karabakh. Despite the fact that the Armenian army withdrew from the region after the trilateral statement was signed, Baku is demanding the dissolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh defense army in order to isolate the defenseless people against future incursion.
5) Finally, Baku is asking the Russians to ensure the opening of the “Zangezur corridor” and is linking the blockade of the Lachin Corridor to the opening of a corridor linking Azerbaijan directly to Nakhichevan and Turkey through southern Armenia.