Blockade in the Southern Caucasus "There Is Every Reason to Expect More Violence This Year"
It looks as if Azerbaijan's autocrat Ilham Aliyev wants to drive the de facto state of Nagorno-Karabakh and its Armenian inhabitants from his country's territory for good. For more than a month, Aliyev has been blocking the Lachin corridor, the only road connecting the internationally unrecognized entity of Nagorno-Karabakh with neighboring Armenia.
At least 100,000 ethnic Armenian residents of Nagorno-Karabakh, which has called itself the "Republic of Artsakh" since 2017, rely on humanitarian aid shipments from the International Committee of the Red Cross. As recently as 2020, Azerbaijan and Armenia fought a second, bloody war over the region, with Baku making significant territorial gains. Vladimir Putin brokered a ceasefire agreement and deployed nearly 2,000 Russian peacekeepers.
Azerbaijani soldiers in the Lachin corridor in late December.Foto: Tofik Babayev / AFP
But after Russia invaded Ukraine last year, Moscow's peacekeeping mission was not able to deter Azerbaijan from attacking and advancing further into Nagorno-Karabakh. Peace negotiations mediated by the European Union have been at an impasse since Baku also attacked territory in the Republic of Armenia in September 2022. Aliyev is apparently seeking to use Moscow's current weakness in the region to his advantage. But in the South Caucasus, things are always more complicated than they seem at first glance, as Laurence Broers, one of the most knowledgeable experts on the region, well knows.
DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Broers, what is Baku seeking to achieve by blocking the Lachin corridor?
Broers: There are multiple objectives here. The first is to remind the Armenian population in Nagorno-Karabakh of their enclave geography, which makes separation from Azerbaijan unviable. Karabakh Armenians fear that Baku's intention is to make life so unbearable there, that people just move out in a form of "soft” ethnic cleansing. Second, Ilham Aliyev is exerting pressure on Armenia to make concessions on the transit route across southern Armenia, which Azerbaijan refers to as the Zangezur corridor. This corridor is supposed to connect Azerbaijan with its exclave of Nakhchivan, and Baku defines it as a virtually extraterritorial transportation route through Armenian territory. Azerbaijan cites the 2020 ceasefire agreement as the basis for this corridor, although this is a maximalist interpretation of the agreement text, which only refers to Armenian guarantees for secure Azerbaijani transit. The third objective is to discredit the Russian peacekeeping mission. Baku is trying to show that the Russians are unable to fulfill their mandate and are basically framing the peacekeepers as an occupying force that is denying Azerbaijan access to Nagorno-Karabakh.
DER SPIEGEL: Why is this happening right now?
Broers: The fact that this blockade is taking place now might have to do with the leadership change in Nagorno-Karabakh itself, in particular with Ruben Vardanyan taking office as minister of state of the de-facto republic in November. This Russian-Armenian businessman appears to be close to the power elite in Russia. In the fall, Vardanjan made a surprise announcement that he was giving up his Russian citizenship and moving to Nagorno-Karabakh. Many in Azerbaijan see him as a Russian puppet, someone who intends to advance the transformation of Nagorno-Karabakh into a Russian protectorate along the lines of South Ossetia and, in the longer term, possibly also challenge the current leadership in Armenia.
DER SPIEGEL: South Ossetia is a breakaway region of Georgia that is completely dependent on Russia. Moscow defended South Ossetia in a brief war against Georgia in 2008 and went on to permanently station soldiers there. South Ossetia's 30,000 residents hold Russian passports. Do you think it is possible that Putin is planning something similar in Nagorno-Karabakh?
Broers: The issue here is that Nagorno-Karabakh has lost its previous security patron – the Republic of Armenia – as a result of the defeat in the 2020 war. The only remaining security patron is Russia, and there have been indications of greater Russian influence, such as the introduction of Russian as a second official language at the beginning of 2021. Rising Russian influence is inevitable as no one else has any access to the territory. Azerbaijan’s unease with this situation reflects both the growing parallels with South Ossetia in particular, but also Baku’s frustration with how the war ended in 2020.
DER SPIEGEL: But Azerbaijan emerged as the winner of the war. It took control of seven provinces around Nagorno-Karabakh, which had been controlled by Armenia for almost 30 years.
Broers: I would call it a truncated victory. Azerbaijan was in a position to completely extinguish the secessionist effort in 2020 and had to hold back from doing so, presumably because of influence or levers that Russia applied at that time. Instead, Azerbaijan ended up with Russian peacekeepers on its soil, an outcome which previous Azerbaijani presidents fought tooth and nail to avoid. Plus, the ceasefire agreement mandates Russian control of these two crucial transit routes or corridors, across Lachin between Armenia and Karabakh, and across southern Armenia between Azerbaijan and Nakhchivan. If that happens, it would be a path back into the region for Russia, since it would then control two of the most sensitive highways in the South Caucasus.
Russian troops moving through the Lachin corridor in December.Foto: Tofik Babayev / AFP
DER SPIEGEL: Now, though, with Putin weakened by his war against Ukraine, do you believe Aliyev will seek to take what he wants by force?
Broers: Russia’s standing – and, in particular, the reputation of its security guarantees and power to deter violence – have been greatly diminished by the Ukraine war. That has given Azerbaijan an opportunity to challenge the Russian peace. Ultimately, regime security is the highest value in Azerbaijan, and Aliyev's strategy depends on what is best for the security of his regime. Two years on from the November ceasefire, we see that the primary benefits for Azerbaijan to compensate for the Russian deployment of peacekeepers – namely the transit route across Armenia – has not taken place. This may result in Baku feeling that it needs to scale up the pressure on Armenia, and that means there is every reason to expect more violence, more turmoil this year. I don't necessarily expect a full-scale interstate war, but escalations that fall short of war are a very likely outcome.
DER SPIEGEL: Russia is not exactly acting as a staunch protective power to Karabakh Armenians and to Armenia. Does that have to do with the fact that Moscow needs Azerbaijan and its ally Turkey more than ever?
Broers: Yes, Russia is hardly in a position to be able to influence developments in and around Nagorno-Karabakh in the same way as in South Ossetia or Abkhazia – for geographic, logistical and political reasons, to say nothing of more contingent reasons relating to the Ukraine situation. Russia needs Azerbaijan at the moment, partly because of its relations with Turkey, but also because of its new need for north-south links, relations with Iran, access to the Gulf, to India and so on. Russia is simply not in a position right now to irritate Azerbaijan too much, and Azerbaijan knows that.
DER SPIEGEL: In today's situation, Karabakh Armenians and Armenia appear to be the victims of superior Baku. But that is not how the roles in this conflict were always distributed.
Broers: This conflict presents us with the rather remarkable result of diametrically opposed outcomes of two wars within a 30-year period. In 1994, Armenia won a decisive military victory but was not able to consolidate that into a favorable peace. In 2020 Azerbaijan won a decisive military victory and we are today witness to its efforts to consolidate that victory into a favorable peace. Each side in the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict can legitimately point to episodes and situations in which it was the victim of violence and ethnic cleansing. There have been times when it is Azerbaijanis who suffered more and times when it has been Armenians. But at the moment, it is the Armenians who are much more vulnerable. The question is whether this cycle can end, or whether it will repeat.
DER SPIEGEL: What are the roots of the dispute over this mountainous piece of land?
Broers: This conflict is not ancient, but began, at the earliest, in the early years of the 20th century when nationalism and the idea of national homelands emerged in parts of the declining Russian Empire. There was a lot of violence over this issue during the very short period of the independence for the Armenian and Azerbaijani Republics between 1918 and 1920. And then the Soviets came in and ostensibly solved the conflict by incorporating the previously contested territory of Nagorno-Karabakh as an autonomous region within the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic. Unlike other minorities in autonomous regions in the Soviet Union, Karabakh-Armenians were in the rather unusual situation of being an autonomous region right next door to a Union Republic of the same nationality. So they were looking to Armenia in terms of the kinds of rights and freedoms that they were aspiring to, and this drove a strong sense of being discriminated against for Armenians living in Soviet Azerbaijan. Karabakh Armenians repeatedly called for unification with Armenia whenever the Soviet Union went through more liberal periods, and they did when Mikhail Gorbachev declared his policy of perestroika.
DER SPIEGEL: After the breakup of the Soviet Union, as you mentioned, a bloody war ensued between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, with an estimated 25,000 dead.
Broers: In this war between 1992 and 1994, Armenians won the decisive victory, taking control of almost all of Nagorno-Karabakh and most of the seven surrounding districts of Azerbaijani territory. At that time, a large number of ethnic Azerbaijanis, about 600,000 people, were displaced from the seven regions around Nagorno-Karabakh and from Nagorno-Karabakh itself, in addition to some 200,000 Azerbaijani refugees from Armenia. Armenians suffered a similar fate, with 360,000 Armenians displaced from other parts of Azerbaijan outside of Karabakh itself.
DER SPIEGEL: Why has it never been possible to permanently resolve the conflict and find a mutually acceptable status for Nagorno-Karabakh?
Broers: That is a huge question. The Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe (OSCE), the regional security organization set up after the end of the Cold War, tried to mediate the conflict for 28 years. There are many reasons why that effort failed, but the bottom line was that none of the parties were willing to make politically painful compromises and always saw alternatives to a negotiated peace. On the Armenian side, that alternative was the consolidation of an unrecognized state and an occupation regime in Nagorno-Karabakh, underwritten by Armenia’s ever-deepening relationship with, and security reliance on, Russia. On the Azerbaijani side, the alternative was rearming and waiting for an opportune moment to launch a new war, a moment that finally arrived in the final weeks of Donald Trump’s presidency in September 2020. To put it very crudely, Azerbaijan’s alternative won out.
DER SPIEGEL: Earlier Armenian governments saw the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh as part of their nation. Azerbaijan has developed a similar narrative, even claiming that the Republic of Armenia is in fact located on Azerbaijani land.
Broers: Indeed, Azerbaijan has been promoting for some time the narrative that the Republic of Armenia is located on ancient Azerbaijani land, and this trend is accelerating. Just recently, Aliyev announced the opening of a research institute for Western Azerbaijan, and when he says Western Azerbaijan, he means the Republic of Armenia. We can see parallels between the Russian discourse about Ukraine as an artificial, fake nation, and the Azerbaijani discourse about Armenia, likewise claiming it has a fake history. This elevates the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict to an existential level, where it is the historical authenticity of the conflict parties that is at stake. That makes it extremely hard to talk about the kind of transactional trade-offs on which peace agreements are made.
DER SPIEGEL: What can the European Union do? Last year, it seemed as if EU-led negotiations on a peace agreement were making progress.
Broers: We have to be very careful about expectations for the EU-led negotiation process, and indeed for any process. Over the past year, there have been two different draft peace frameworks that have been discussed, one by Russia and one that the parties to the conflict are developing with the EU. However, both efforts are fraught with tension. In the Russian draft treaty, discussion of Karabakh's status would reportedly be postponed to a date in the distant future. The EU variant as I understand it, works within a framework of territorial integrity, but is based on providing guarantees for Karabakh Armenians and for a mechanism for dialogue between Baku and Stepanakert (the capital of the "Republic of Artsakh"). Baku, however, opposes any internationalized mechanism for dialogue with Karabakh Armenians, whom it sees as its own citizens. Unfortunately, however, the current civilian blockade has made any kind of dialogue even more challenging than ever before.