Navigating the Lachin Road: Renewed Tensions Call for Armenia and Azerbaijan to Resume Negotiations
Despite mediation efforts undertaken by the European Union (EU), the United States, the United Nations, and Russia, Baku and Yerevan have been unable to achieve a durable peace agreement. Progress has been delayed as several obstacles have led to a political deadlock, including the current situation along the Lachin Corridor and the politicization of disputed issues. But tensions are reaching a boiling point as the number of skirmishes, ceasefire violations, and military provocations along the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan have begun to increase. These recent developments undermine past progress reached between Baku and Yerevan, jeopardizing what many had hoped would lead to a peaceful reconciliation and raising the risk of another full-scale armed conflict.
The Lachin Corridor, the route connecting Armenia directly to Karabakh, has been monitored primarily by Russian peacekeepers since the 2020 trilateral ceasefire agreement. This meant that entry into the Armenian-populated region of Karabakh was effectively at the discretion of the peacekeepers, raising security concerns for Azerbaijan. The controversy surrounding the corridor stemmed from Azerbaijan’s decision to establish a State Border Service checkpoint in April 2023. According to the Azerbaijani Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the establishment of a border checkpoint by Azerbaijan in its internationally recognized territories was in line with “all principles and norms of international law,” as well as with the obligations of the trilateral ceasefire signed after the Second Karabakh War. The establishment of the checkpoint was necessary due to what the Azerbaijani government described as Armenia's use of the road to transport weapons, including land mines. In fact, the continued illegal presence of Armenian military units in Karabakh has been among the key issues impeding the peace process.
According to the fourth article of the trilateral ceasefire agreement, Russian peacekeepers were intended to be deployed to Karabakh concurrently with the withdrawal of Armenian troops from the region. However, the circulation of videos showing Armenian armed groups carrying supplies to their combat positions in Karabakh, accompanied by Russian peacekeepers, has further heightened the concerns for Azerbaijan. The International Crisis Group (ICG) estimates 12,000 Armenian military personnel still remain in Azerbaijan’s Karabakh region after the 2020 war. Due to these reasons, since early December 2022, the Lachin Corridor has limited passage, with only the Russian peacekeepers’ and the International Red Cross’s vehicles having used the route to transport people and supplies to Karabakh and vice versa.
In response to the establishment of the checkpoint, the Armenian government criticized Azerbaijan for “the blockade of the Lachin Corridor and a humanitarian crisis for the Armenians living in Karabakh.” At the request of the Armenian Permanent Representative to the United Nations, on August 16 the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) held a hearing on the latest situation regarding the Lachin Corridor. During the introductory briefing, the Director of Operations and Advocacy for the Humanitarian Affairs Coordination Office (OCHA), made clear that the UN was unable to independently verify information on the movement of people and goods along the corridor “or on the well-being of civilians in the areas where Russian peacekeepers have been deployed.” During the hearing, speakers called on both Armenia and Azerbaijan to refrain from the politicization of humanitarian aid to meet the civilian population’s needs and to normalize relations for a future peace treaty. Armenian Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan condemned Azerbaijani officials for “the starvation of civilians as a method of warfare” and “ethnic cleansing” of the people of Karabakh, accusing the government of a “deliberately engineered crime driven by a genocidal intent.” In this line, such a hyperbolized description of the situation has been a central part of the Armenian rhetoric in trying to raise more global awareness about the Lachin Corridor and the ethnic Armenian population of Karabakh. However, representatives from Azerbaijan and elsewhere have stressed that loaded words such as “genocide” and “ethnic cleansing” carry enormous weight and have mischaracterized the conflict at hand. Indeed, rhetoric such as this can be used to incite further alarm and mistrust between Azerbaijanis and Armenians.
Regarding the actual humanitarian situation on the ground, both sides have attempted to send aid to Khankendi (Stepanakert), the Armenian-populated capital of Karabakh where Russian peacekeepers are deployed. Since July 26, what was described as a truck convoy sent from Armenia to take humanitarian cargo to the Armenian population of Karabakh has been waiting at a mountain pass opposite the Lachin checkpoint, on the state border with Azerbaijan. Similarly, on August 30, several French politicians, including the Mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, joined a 10-truck humanitarian convoy, financed by French local councils, that was sent to reach the ethnic Armenians residing in Khankendi (Stepanakert). However, the convoy did not attempt to cross the bridge onto Azerbaijani soil (where the border checkpoint is located), and the cargo was returned to be stored in the Armenian city of Gorus.
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 and France to create the appearance of a “tense humanitarian situation” in Karabakh. Azerbaijan went further by accusing Armenia and France of violating Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity by meddling in its internal affairs.
In an attempt to provide a solution for an alternate route to the Lachin road, Azerbaijan has offered the use of the Aghdam-Khankendi road to send humanitarian aid to the residents of Khankendi. On August 29, under the supervision of the Red Crescent Society of Azerbaijan, a humanitarian convoy with 40 tons of flour was sent from Baku to Khankendi via the Aghdam-Khankendi road in order to meet the needs of residents of Armenian origin living in the Karabakh economic region of Azerbaijan. Armenian residents of Karabakh blocked the road was blocked, while the unrecognized de facto leadership of Armenians in Karabakh rejected the offer as a “ploy designed to deflect international attention from the blockade and a serious humanitarian crisis caused by it.” Although Armenian leadership does not find the alternative transport route attractive or suitable, the status quo is unsustainable for the Armenians living in Karabakh.
The politicization of the current situation in Karabakh poses a major threat to the peacebuilding efforts between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Specifically, hawkish rhetoric by the Armenian Prime Minister, Nikol Pashinyan, and the de facto leaders of the Armenians residing in Karabakh have only further contributed to the population’s isolated status. With the Armenian residents of Karabakh refusing to accept any humanitarian aid from Baku, it can be argued that the so-called “blockade” has been self-imposed to a certain extent.
In response to the requests made by Armenia to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the ICJ adopted its provisional measure order, rejecting the concept of a “blockade,” and instead labeling it as an “interruption of movement” along the Lachin Corridor as the basis of its analysis. The ICJ ruled that Azerbaijan should “take all measures at its disposal to ensure unimpeded movement of persons, vehicles, and cargo along the Lachin Corridor in both directions.” In this line, Hikmet Hajiyev, Azerbaijani Presidential Aide and the Head of the Foreign Policy Department of the Presidential Administration, said on August 31 that Azerbaijan is willing to open the Lachin road within 24 hours after the opening of the Aghdam road.
The European Union, being one of the most active external mediators, has tried to bring Azerbaijan and Armenia back to the negotiating table regarding the use of the two roads. The latest round of peace talks between Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev and Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, which took place on July 15 in Brussels with the mediation of European Commission’s President Charles Michel, covered the potential use of the Aghdam Road and the reopening of the Lachin Corridor. Following the recent rise in tensions, Michel announced on September 1 that the EU has proposed “a step-by-step approach which would reflect a sequencing in the full-fledged operation of the Lachin Corridor and the opening of the Aghdam route.” It was also noted that the Aghdam Road can also be part of a “concrete and sustainable solution to the provision of urgent and daily basic needs” of the Armenians residing in Karabakh. The re-intensification of Brussels’ diplomatic engagement can potentially de-escalate the situation on the ground, urging the two sides to come to a comprehensive peace agreement that involves respect for each other’s territorial sovereignty.
Looking at the recent developments, the Caspian Policy Center’s (CPC) Advisory Board Member and former U.S. Co-Chair of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group, Ambassador Richard Hoagland, noted: “The Armenians in Karabakh, backed by the leadership in Yerevan, are refusing food, medicine, and other humanitarian supplies from Azerbaijan via the Aghdam-Khakendi Road and are insisting that these things must come directly from Armenia via the Lachin Corridor Road. Why? Accepting these essential supplies from Azerbaijan would de facto mean that they accept the sovereignty of Azerbaijan in Karabakh. The Armenian government, so far, is backing up the Karabakhi Armenians because it faces strong political opposition from the dashnaks [radically proKarabakh activists] who insist that Karabakh (or what they still have of it) will forever be Armenia and never ruled by Azerbaijan.”
Speaking on Russia’s role in the conflict, Hoagland argued: “I firmly believe Moscow does not want the Karabakh issue resolved once and for all. Moscow wants Karabakh to continue as one of the post-Soviet “prolonged conflicts” so that neither Yerevan nor Baku will have full freedom to choose their own international partners. Putin wants the South Caucasus to stay firmly within the Kremlin’s “sphere of influence.”
Despite heightened tension between Azerbaijan and Armenia, it is imperative that the two countries maintain a dialogue. The two countries are forever linked to one another by geography and history, and it is up to them to foster trust and an eventual working relationship side by side. Outside parties who seek to prolong a wedge between the two nations ultimately hurt both sides, because it is the Armenian and Azerbaijani people who both suffer as this conflict continues. As noted by the Acting Assistant Secretary of the U.S. State Department’s European and Eurasian Affairs Yuri Kim during her phone conversations with the Foreign Ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan, the sides should work together to “immediately and simultaneously open Lachin and other routes” in order to get humanitarian supplies to Karabakh.