Mounting Tensions Between Armenia and Azerbaijan: Threats to the Fragile Peace Negotiations
Author: Toghrul Ali
Aug 17, 2023
Despite several high-level meetings between Azerbaijani and Armenian officials in the last few months, tensions between the two countries remain high. The latest round of peace talks between Azerbaijan’s President, Ilham Aliyev, and Armenia’s Prime Minister, Nikol Pashinyan, took place on July 15 in Brussels, with the mediation of the European Council’s President Charles Michel. While the meeting fell short of bringing about a breakthrough in the negotiations, Michel notedsome important issues on the agenda during a “worrying increase in tensions on the ground.” Noteworthy among these issues are the situation along the Lachin corridor, the presence of Armenian forces in Karabakh and their cooperation with the Russian peacekeepers, and the questions regarding territorial integrity and sovereignty. These factors persist as significant obstacles that impede the progress of the peace negotiation process.
On April 23, Azerbaijani’s State Border Service announcedthat an Azerbaijani checkpoint was established along the Lachin corridor, currently, the only route directly connecting Armenia to Karabakh. According to the Azerbaijani Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the establishment of the checkpoint by Azerbaijan in its sovereign territories was in line with the obligations of the Russia-brokered trilateral ceasefire signed after the 2020 Second Karabakh War. Moreover, the statement claimed that the checkpoint was essential due to what it described as Armenia's use of the road to transport weapons, including mines, into Karabakh. Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry stated that the checkpoint “shall be implemented in interaction with the Russian peacekeeping force.” This move was not welcomed by the Armenian side, with the Armenian Ministry of Foreign Affairs claiming Azerbaijan was blocking the movement across the corridor by installing what they cast as an illegal checkpoint at the Hakari bridge, in the area of responsibility of the Russian peacekeepers. The Armenian government has described this move as "the blockade of the Lachin Corridor.” In return, the Azerbaijani side has denied the allegations of blocking the road, claiming that the access has been uninterrupted for the passage of humanitarian cargo, emergency services, and peacekeepers.
The Lachin corridor has been a topic of controversy since the 2020 trilateral ceasefire agreement was signed by Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Russia. According to the agreement, all economic and transport connections should be opened and ensured, including the Lachin Corridor linking Armenia with Karabakh, as well as the construction of new transport communication lines to connect the Nakhichevan Autonomous Republic with the western regions of Azerbaijan. However, Russia’s inability – or unwillingness – to enforce compliance byboth sides has made it difficult for Azerbaijan and Armenia to reach a comprehensive agreement on unblocking these routes.
Following the July 15 meeting in Brussels, the situation along the Lachin Corridor became even more volatile. SinceJuly 26, what was described as a truck convoy sent from Armenia to transport humanitarian cargo to the Armenian population in the Karabakh region of Azerbaijan has been stationed at a mountain pass opposite the Lachin checkpoint on the state border with Azerbaijan. In a statement, the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry condemned the aid convoy as a “provocation,”arguing that the dispatch of convoys under the disguise of “humanitarian aid” to the sovereign territories of Azerbaijan without prior agreement was a form of political manipulation by Armenia to create the so-called idea of a “tense humanitarian situation” in Karabakh.
On July 29 at the Lachin checkpoint, Azerbaijan’s State Border Service detained Vagif Khachatryan, a 68-year-old Armenian from Karabakh. Khachatryan was among a group of patients being transported to Armenia by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the only major humanitarian organization present in the region since the end of the Second Karabakh War. According to a statement by Azerbaijan's General Prosecutor's Office, Khachatryan was arrested because he was a suspect in war crimes, including genocide, against Azerbaijanis during the massacres committed in the Khojaly district of Karabakh at the time of the First Karabakh War. Khachatryan’s arrest was criticized by Armenian officials, who characterized it as a “gross violation of international law" by Azerbaijan.
While the Armenian concerns have been centered aroundthe rights and security of Armenians living in the Karabakh region, for Azerbaijan, among the key issues impeding the peace process has been the presence of Armenian military units in the internationally recognized territories of Azerbaijan. During his phone call with Secretary of State Antony Blinken on July 29, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev emphasized that the continued illegal presence of the Armenian armed forces in the sovereign territory of Azerbaijan is a “source of military tension in the region.” According to the fourth article of the trilateral ceasefire agreement, Russian peacekeepers were supposed to be deployed to Karabakh concurrently with the withdrawal of Armenian troops from the region. Moreover, videos of Armenian armed groups carrying supplies to their combat positions through the Khankendi-Karkijahan-Khalfali positions, accompanied by Russian peacekeepers, have been circulating in the Azerbaijani media, further heightening the concerns on the Azerbaijani side. The existence of Armenian troops in Karabakh and their protection by the Russian peacekeepers is a direct spoiler of any prospects of a peace agreement becauseAzerbaijan sees this as a direct violation of the trilateral ceasefire agreement.
Despite the mediation efforts by the United States and the European Union (EU), the tensions on the ground are still very much present, and they further accentuate the need for a peaceful resolution between the two sides. Heightening tensions have had a snowball effect regarding the issues discussed during the negotiations process, essentially interlinking them by creating a zero-sum game. Key topics such as unblocking transport and communication links, the rights and security of the Armenian population in Karabakh, as well as the territorial integrity of both countries, have been used by each country against the other to challenge the opposing side’s behavior, which makes it extremely difficult to come to a comprehensive solution. Even when specific alternatives are provided, such as Azerbaijan’s proposal to use the “Aghdam-Khankendi” road instead of the Lachin road, the Armenian side has rejected the offer, citing the safety of Armenians living in Karabakh.
Moving forward, the role of outside actors will continue to be vital for the negotiation process. On August 5, Secretary of State Antony Blinken held a phone conversation with his Turkish counterpart, Hakan Fidan, to “underscore the importance of Armenia-Azerbaijan peace discussions.” Collaboration between the United States and Türkiye on bringing both parties back to the negotiation table could be effective in the near term. However, regional powers such as Russia have historically attempted to be a spoiler in the peace process by hijacking the negotiations format from other mediators such as the United States and the European Union.Thus, it can be argued that any lasting peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan must be achieved through a bilateral agreement, and the mediation efforts undertaken by the outside actors need to be continued.