On June 28, four soldiers of the Armenian-backed but internationally unrecognized government of Nagorno-Karabakh – the Artsakh Republic – were killed by Azeri strikes along the “contact line”, apparently carried out in response to an alleged shooting at Azeri troops in the local mountains a day earlier. Whether or not the accident was real or used a pretext by the Azeri military to trigger an escalation, tempers are reaching a boiling point once again in the absence of workable peace solutions, notwithstanding the ongoing efforts made by the international community to secure a lasting peace deal to the century-old conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed enclave internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan but with an ethnic Armenian majority.
The territorial conflict rages over sovereignty of the Nagorno-Karabakh Azeri enclave since 1988, when the Soviet government of the then autonomous Armenian Oblast within the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic passed a resolution declaring its intention to join the Armenian Republic upon the official dissolution of the USSR and eventually declared independence in 1991, sparking a war causing some 30,000 casualties and 10,000 refugees. By 1993, Armenia, backed by the Russian Federation, had won that war, and gained control over the disputed region and some seven Azeri districts, that is around 14 percent of Azeri territory, displacing 618,000 Azerbaijanis.
In 1994, thanks to Russian mediation, a lasting ceasefire was agreed on in the Bishkek Protocol by both parties, recognizing Nagorno-Karabakh as a fully-independent region within the Azeri State, though de facto making arrangements with and heavily relying on the Armenian government.
The Russian-brokered ceasefire fell apart in September 2020, when heavy fighting, lasting 44 days and causing the death of some 7,000 victims between soldiers and civilians and some 2,700 Armenian refugees, broke out unexpectedly after cross-border attacks initiated by Azeri troops willing to regain the territory lost 26 years earlier and enjoying military assistance from both Türkiye and Israel.
With Türkiye, Azerbaijan signed a strategic partnership and mutual support agreement, including a clause on common defense in the event of an armed attack or military infringement against either of the countries and regularly conducts joint military drills since 2010; with Tel Aviv, diplomatic ties were officially launched in 1993 with the opening of the Israeli embassy in Baku but upgraded in March 2022 with the opening of the Azerbaijani embassy in Israel: in fact, Baku aims at taking advantage of Israel to improve its standing in Washington and counter the strong US Armenian lobby, but also as sees it as a provider of military assistance, supplying cutting-edge weapons such as UAVs, long-range surface-to-surface precision missiles and loitering weapon systems.
The Russian Federation again intervened to broker a new ceasefire in November 2020 sending peacekeepers to monitor movements of troops in the region in an attempt to draw a new “contact line”, taking stock of the different situation on the ground established in the Artsakh Republic after the Azerbaijani victory. Given the recapture of the Nagorno-Karabakh autonomous region by Azeri forces, the Lachin Corridor was opened as the single passage connecting the Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan to the Armenian mainland under the auspices of Russian peacekeepers in charge of controls on both people and goods till 2025, with automatic extensions for a subsequent 5 years “unless one of the parties objects”. The agreement even addressed the sensitive issue of the Azeri exclave of Nakhchivan, due to be reconnected to the Azeri mainland by a new network of transport and infrastructure, bypassing the existing route running between Iran and Armenia on their shared border.
Emboldened by is success, Baku formally invited Yerevan to enter negotiations pushing forward a five-point proposal based on mutual recognition of territorial integrity in exchange for full diplomatic relations. Armenia, fearing it would be compelled to make too many uncomfortable concessions, wavered and dragged on the proposal, till violent clashes erupted again in September 2022, with the dispatch of Azerbaijani troops deep into Armenian territory for the first time. The September 2022 flare-up of the war left 300 soldiers dead on both sides, but resulted in a clear Azeri victory, allowing Azerbaijani troops to take control of the ridges and some mountains deep inside Armenia and displacing 7,600 civilians from Armenian provinces. This time, the Pashinyan government came to realize that the new status quo had deeply changed the balance of power heavily in favor of Azerbaijan.
In a rare display of courage, the Armenian prime minister officially acknowledged defeat and Nagorno-Karabakh’s full annexation to Azerbaijan during an address to the Armenian National Assembly on April 18, 2023 as the only way to achieve a stable compromise, in spite of wide domestic criticism, in anticipation of popular backlashes (in February 2021 he had already survived a failed military coup) and regardless of Armenia’s unremitting backing by its traditional allies, such as Russia, France and the United States, all gathered for the 1994 OSCE-sponsored Minsk group.
Immediately after the last military round, US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi went so far as to show her support for Armenia by making a solemn state visit. She became the highest-ranking American official to ever visit Armenia since its independence: an active US display of solidarity, frowned upon by Baku authorities, which did not turn the tide in favor of Armenia but even backfired. In fact, only a few months later (in December 2022), Baku allowed, in retaliation, thousands of “independent” environmental activists from civil society to occupy the Lachin Corridor and block the main highway connecting Nagorno-Karabakh to Amenia, allegedly in protest against illegal mining activities carried out by Armenian businessmen and authorities in the region. So far, the blockade is dramatically affecting the living conditions of the 120,000 Armenians of the enclave, while in addition, Azerbaijani officials declared their intention to settle between 170,000 and 200,000 formerly displaced Azeri people in the regained regions by 2026. Finally, in April 2023, Baku decided escalate the conflict further, setting up a checkpoint on that same highway namely to block the transfer of weapons to Nagorno-Karabakh autonomous authorities from Armenia. In addition it vocally disapproved of the monitoring of Russian peacekeepers as of then and maybe signaled they will no longer be needed as of 2025, set as the expiration date under the November 2020 agreement.
The 2020 military confrontation initiated and won by Baku marked a breakthrough in the 35 years of armed conflict opposing the two countries, but the outbreak of the Ukrainian war on February 24, 2022, further undermined Armenia’s position, affecting the security credentials of the Russian Federation and its credibility within the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) to be able to provide direct military aid, in case of a breach of agreement, to all its allies of the former USSR, thus creating a very dangerous security vacuum for Yerevan.
Against this backdrop, 2023 saw a flurry of diplomatic attempts carried out by all major international actors in random order. The temporary diplomatic vacuum left by Russia due to the Ukrainian war prompted the EU to step up its presence in the region by sending, upon the official request of Armenia, a new EU civilian mission (EUMA) of 100 staff to Armenia under the common security and defense policy (CSDP) in February 2023. Later on, in early May, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev met in Washington for four-day talks headed by US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and it was said they made “tangible progress” toward reaching an agreement, though details have not been disclosed. While in mid-May Pashinyan and Aliyev met in Brussels with President of the Council of Europe Charles Michel, and at the end of the same month both again convened in Moscow for a trilateral meeting with Russia for the same purpose.
All these intense mediation efforts revolve around a plan for a comprehensive peace agreement reinstating the respective commitment to “territorial integrity” while considering both States’ grievances, such as Baku’s request to establish an informal corridor to the Nakhchivan exclave and Yerevan’s appeal for special rights and protection for ethnic Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh, already rejected by Baku by claiming all Azeri citizens, irrespective of their origin, are equally protected. Drawing on the November 2020 agreement, the international community spurs both Armenia and Azerbaijan to renew talks on the reopening of roads and communication channels to reconnect the region, lagging far behind other areas in terms of infrastructure. But Baku and Yerevan understand this point differently, as Baku points on the opening of a new road, the Zangezur corridor, connecting its territory to Nakhchivan, insisting on the fact that Russian, and not Armenian, armed forces would provide security, repeating the arrangement in force for the Lachin corridor, while Yerevan fears the worst from this event.
The European Union experts deem positive Armenia’s shift from territorial claims to guarantees of “security and rights” for the people of Nagorno-Karabakh, considering this stance more conducive to a political settlement. Ahead successive rounds of negotiations scheduled in October 2023 in Granada within the framework of the newly established European Political Community (EPC), the EU is planning an intergovernmental forum for political and strategic discussions about European affairs launched after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In diplomatic terms, though, the EU tries to offset the Azerbaijani victory with Armenian national interest. In a March 15 resolution, the European Parliament strongly condemned the large-scale military aggression by Azerbaijan in September 2022 against multiple targets in the sovereign territory of Armenia as a serious breach of the November 2020 ceasefire, advocating for free movement of people and goods in the Lachin corridor, quoting the ruling of the International Court of Justice of February 22, 2023. However, if Baku would provide enough guarantees to defuse tensions and stamp out the risk of ethnic cleansing, the EU seems confident about negotiations running smoothly.
Despite renewed EU efforts for another round of peace talks, Armenia increasingly feels itself at a dead end, cut off within the region. Partially abandoned by Russia, which in February 2022 went so far as to sign a “declaration on allied interaction” including military cooperation and the possibility of “providing each other with military assistance” with Baku, and confronted with the latter’s increasing military assertiveness, it fears it might lose control of its own territory in the Syunik province linking Nakhichevan to Azerbaijan in a next military operation. In a last ditch-effort to reopen diplomatic channels in the region, Yerevan did its best even reaching out to its former enemy Türkiye, with the aim of restoring diplomatic ties severed since 1993, making some goodwill gestures such as the dispatch of humanitarian aid for earthquake victims in Türkiye and achieving the temporary reopening of the border in February 2023. Nonetheless, appeasement with Ankara shows its limits, as diverging interests and the heavy legacy of the 1915 Armenian genocide still hover on bilateral relations between the two countries, with Ankara contesting the recent inauguration of a monument devoted to the “Avengers of Genocide” in Yerevan, officially demanding Armenia to dismantle the monument and subsequently closing its airspace to Armenian planes in retaliation.
Armenia bears the brunt of its progressive marginalization in economic global networks and, consequently, in international relations. It wishes that direct negotiations with both Türkiye and Azerbaijan could at least lead to the opening of terrestrial routes to both countries, an arrangement badly needed by Yerevan to break its isolation, but no longer trusts Russia and its peacekeepers as honest brokers, thus fearing the possibility of Russian troops overseeing security controls along a future Zangezur corridor. Additionally, it no longer trusts the CSTO as a security community committed to its defense, since Belarus accused Yerevan of dragging unconcernedly the alliance into war with Baku. Yet, renouncing on Russia means giving up on its traditional arms supplier, while its army is still trained only on former Soviet and Russian weapons.
Since the February 2021 military coup, Yerevan is also struggling with turmoil in its upper military ranks, with the General Chief of Staff having been removed by the PM on charges of political treachery and has not been replaced, and poor morale among rank-and-file soldiers. More than anything else, it realizes that being poor on energy resources. It cannot compete with its emboldened neighbor, that is now positioned atop several mountains threatening some 200,000 Armenians living in the underlying valleys and controlling from that position the passage to the Nakhchivan exclave, crossing the southern region of Armenia, Syunik, and likely able through a future military operation to sever it from the rest of the country. Therefore, it strived to reach out to some of Baku’s main EU trade partners, particularly Hungary, Italy and Romania, but with little success so far.
Most of all, Armenia seems increasingly afraid of missing the opportunity of the century, that of tapping into the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), opening an alternative route from China to Europe through the so-called “Middle Corridor” – since 2017 renamed the “Lapis Lazuli Transport Corridor” – crossing Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Afghanistan. Along which the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway runs, playinga crucial role as part of the Europe-Caucasus-Asia Transport Corridor (TRACECA) project: an 838.6 km cargo line taking two weeks from Beijing to Berlin, that cuts the transit time through Russia in half.
All parties involved, and particularly Turkey and Azerbaijan aim at “solving” the Nagorno-Karabakh issue once and for all to prove the feasibility of the Middle Corridor to China, sending a signal to Beijing that the South Caucasus trade route is safe. What better chance to do away with the conflict while Russia has been weakened by Sergei Prigozhin’s coup, the EU is still struggling both with Ukraine and the cost of living crisis, US democratic President Biden’s popularity reached a new low (41% approval rating) in view of 2024 elections, and the traditional fiefdoms of the Armenian lobby – Lebanon, the US, France, Russia and Canada – have to compete at the United Nations Security Council with new rising powers, such as China, where they are traditionally under represented or non-existent. In a 21st century post-liberal international order, non-oil-producing small states with loose ties with their regional allies, such as Armenia, risk a great deal and would do better to show flexibility, compliance with the rule of law and an attachment to democratic values for all, waiting for a reversal of fortunes.
Cover photo: A Russian peacekeeper guards the Lachin corridor, the Armenian-populated breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region’s only land link with Armenia, as Azerbaijani environmental activists protest against what they claim the illegal mining, on December 27, 2022 (photo by Tofik Babayev/AFP.)
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