As discussed in a previous issue of the Eurasia Daily Monitor, the protestors demand access to the mineral deposits that are being illegally exploited in the part of Karabakh that is temporarily under the control of the Russian peacekeeping mission (see EDM, December 19, 2022). Amid these protests, in late December 2022, Switzerland-based mining company Base Metals, which was involved in the extraction of ore and gold in the region, announced a temporary shutdown without providing detailed estimates regarding the resumption of its activities (Interfax.az, December 28, 2022).
According to Farid Shafiyev—former Azerbaijani ambassador to Canada and current chairman of the Center for Analysis of International Relations, a Baku-based, government-funded think tank—besides the illegal exploitation of Azerbaijan’s natural resources, the crisis is linked with Armenia’s use of the Lachin road to transport military supplies to the separatist regime in Karabakh. In addition, Yerevan’s refusal to open transportation links through its territory in accordance with the trilateral statement of November 10, 2020, continues to fuel tensions (Aze.media, December 16, 2022).
Both issues, but primarily the militarization of the Karabakh region by Armenia, are critical to Azerbaijan’s national security. Baku began to voice its objection to the transfer of landmines, military personnel and munitions to the region via the Lachin road shortly after the Second Karabakh War of 2020 (see EDM, March 17, 2021). This threat gained another dimension in early December 2022, when Azerbaijani media reported that 14 people from Iran entered the Karabakh region through the Lachin road “to conduct sabotage and terrorist exercises for armed Armenian gangs who are still present in the Azerbaijani territories temporarily monitored by the Russian peacekeepers” (Qafqazinfo.az, December 1, 2022). This, coupled with Iran’s military supplies to Armenia (AzerNews, December 7, 2022), has alarmed Baku, as the threat is growing that Armenia and Iran may combine forces against Azerbaijan and seek to instrumentalize the Karabakh region for this purpose (Moderndiplomacy.eu, December 11, 2022).
As mentioned, disagreements over transportation links form another element of the Lachin crisis. Armenia’s refusal to provide a land connection via its territory (i.e., the Zangezur Corridor) between the western part of mainland Azerbaijan and its Nakhchivan exclave as well as its insistence on a border and customs regime along this corridor are unacceptable for Baku. According to Azerbaijan’s position, articulated by President Ilham Aliyev on December 14, 2021, before the first summit of Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders in Brussels, such restrictive regulations could be applied to the Zangezur Corridor only if they are also applied to the Lachin road. “In [the] trilateral statement [dated November 10, 2020] it clearly says that Azerbaijan provides security and unimpeded access for [the] connection between Karabakh and Armenia, and Armenia should provide the same unimpeded access and security for connections between Azerbaijan and [the] Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic,” Aliyev declared, only a few hours before his meeting with Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan (Trend.az, December 14, 2021).
The present tensions between the two sides are likely to remain so long as Yerevan and Baku fail to agree on lasting resolutions for these key issues. However, the partial closure of the Lachin Corridor after the launch of protests does not represent a total blockade of the region as presented by some observers (Armenpress.am, December 19, 2022). Over the past month, more than 400 vehicles, including ambulances, from the Russian peacekeeping mission and International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) have passed through the Lachin road.
Likewise, Ruben Vardanyan, a Russian tycoon of Armenian origin, who, according to Baku, was dispatched to Karabakh by Moscow to sabotage the peace process, admitted that both the peacekeeping mission and the ICRC have been able to provide food to the local Armenian population (Aze.media, November 17, 2022). In a live broadcast on Facebook, Vardanyan also revealed the existence of an “alternative,” but apparently non-functioning, route from Karabakh to Armenia, through which local Armenians receive fuel, food and medicine from Yerevan (Haqqin.az, January 11). He added that some of his compatriots use this road for personal interests, selling fuel and products imported into occupied Karabakh at speculative prices.
Against this backdrop, Armenia has been avoiding negotiating with Azerbaijan over the situation along the Lachin road, as the Armenia authorities fear that this will result in Yerevan making commitments to provide a similar corridor (i.e., the Zangezur Corridor) through its territory (Armenpress.am, January 12). Hence, the Armenian government expects the separatist regime in Karabakh, together with the Russian peacekeeping mission, to hold talks with Baku. Meanwhile, Yerevan openly complains about the failure of the Russian peacekeeping mission to ensure the free movement of people and goods along the Lachin Corridor (Radar.am, December 22, 2022).
On December 27, 2022, Pashinyan, prior to his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg on the sidelines of the informal meeting of the Commonwealth of Independent States, reminded the Russian leader of Moscow’s obligations under the trilateral statement of November 10, 2020. The Armenian leader further lamented, “Now it turns out that the Lachin Corridor is not under the control of the Russian peacekeepers” (Armenpress.am, December 27, 2022).
This spat between Armenia and Russia grew in the following days as Pashinyan announced on January 10 that his country would opt out of hosting peacekeeping exercises of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization, citing an inexpediency to hold such exercises on Armenian territory under the existing circumstances (Armenpress.com, January 10). In another remark that outraged the Kremlin, the Armenian premier voiced his feelings that the Russian military presence on Armenian territory poses a threat to his country (Mediamax.am, January 12).
In truth, much to the disappointment of the Armenian side, Russia, Yerevan’s traditional and historical ally, is not in a position to force Azerbaijan to step back from its security demands. Here, three major factors are behind Russia’s reluctance and inability to pressure Azerbaijan. First, Moscow’s hands are tied with its war against Ukraine. Second, in terms of bilateral relations, Russia and Azerbaijan, apart from the Armenian context, have no significant disputes between themselves. Third, Turkey’s heightened security cooperation with Azerbaijan, including the recently signed military alliance agreement, involves Ankara helping Baku preserve its sovereignty and territorial integrity, further complicating Russia’s role in the region. As a result, Moscow has little room to operate when it comes to Karabakh and the crisis along the Lachin Corridor, which may underline why it has been slow to act.