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NAGORNO-KARABAKH — A group of Armenian soldiers in heavy winter jackets stand idly around the first checkpoint on the road into Nagorno-Karabakh, some smoking, some eyeing the mountains behind them where they say Azerbaijani troops have set up firing positions.
For three decades, this highway has been the only route in or out of the breakaway region — inside Azerbaijan’s internationally recognized borders but held since the fall of the Soviet Union by its ethnic Armenian majority.
But now, the regular traffic of cargo supply trucks, buses and banged-up old Ladas laden down with luggage has ground to a halt, and the guards on duty watch on as convoy after convoy of Russian peacekeepers and the occasional Red Cross mission rumble past.
For the past month, the so-called Lachin corridor that links Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia has been closed off, leaving as many as 100,000 people living there under effective blockade, with supplies of food, medicines and other essentials running low.
“Over the last two days, I’ve barely been able to find anything to eat in the shops,” said Marut Vanyan, a 39-year-old blogger living in the region’s de facto capital, Stepanakert.
“First it was vegetables and fresh fruit that disappeared. Now, there’s only alcohol left on the shelves and not much else. In the mornings, some milk and yogurt comes in from local farms, but it goes very fast,” he told POLITICO.
“Online, all anybody is talking about is where to buy medicine or a sack of potatoes. In the countryside, people have cows and chickens — but half of the population lives in the capital city, and things are very hard here.”
This isn’t the first conflict to play out over Nagorno-Karabakh, a region of the South Caucasus long mired in an ethnic and territorial dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
In the 1990s as the USSR collapsed, Armenian forces moved to take control of areas inhabited by ethnic Armenians in the neighboring Soviet Republic, fighting bloody battles with Azerbaijani troops over land that both sides consider their ancestral soil.
Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Azeris who lived alongside them were displaced or killed, and the region was governed for nearly 30 years as the unrecognized Republic of Artsakh, sealed off behind defensive lines and accessible through only one mountain road from Armenia.
That all changed in 2020, when Azerbaijani tanks and soldiers rolled across the mine-strewn frontier, taking back swathes of territory and leaving the Karabakh Armenians in control of only Stepanakert along with some surrounding towns and villages.
Buoyed by massive oil and gas revenues and supplied with advanced hardware from its ally Turkey, forces in the Azerbaijan capital Baku quickly overwhelmed Armenia’s poorly equipped conscripts.
A Kremlin-brokered cease-fire saw 1,500 Russian peacekeepers deployed to act as a buffer and oversee the Lachin corridor, now a vital lifeline for the Karabakh Armenians flanked on both sides by Azerbaijani-held positions.
But now, it seems the Russian peacekeepers are unable or unwilling to keep the corridor open. On December 12, a group of self-described Azerbaijani environmental protesters, most with no apparent record of eco-activism, pushed past the wire fencing and set up camp on the highway as Moscow’s military contingent watched on.
According to Tom de Waal, a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe and author of several books on the conflict, the demonstrators had “evidently been sent there by the government in Baku,” likening them to the “little green men” Russia dispatched to occupy Crimea in 2014, all the while denying it had invaded.
Azerbaijan maintains that the protests are not hampering the use of the road, with officials claiming that talk of a blockade is “fake news.” Government spokespeople and state media have variously claimed the Lachin corridor is open for traffic, was closed by the Russians or is being blocked by Karabakh Armenians themselves.
Yet simultaneously, they accuse the Armenian side of transporting gold from illegal mines that pollute the environment in Nagorno-Karabakh over the highway for export, as well as using it to bring in military hardware such as landmines.
“We will be here for as long as it takes until our demands are met,” said Adnan Huseyn, one of those participating in the eco-protest blocking the corridor. He insisted that his group is moving aside for the Russian peacekeepers and for humanitarian relief provided by the Red Cross.
Officials in Stepanakert, however, point out that 400 tons of food and medicine used to arrive in Artsakh from Armenia every day. “It is unreasonable to think that one or two cars of medicine can solve the problem of the humanitarian crisis.”
What is clear from on the ground at the Tegh checkpoint in Armenia is that most supplies simply aren’t getting through, and Armenia’s Foreign Ministry is warning that the risk of famine in the thinly populated mountainous region is now “tangible.”
With the humanitarian situation deteriorating rapidly, a group of more than a dozen nongovernmental organizations, including Genocide Watch, have issued a warning that all conditions for ethnic cleansing are now in place.
“The present blockade is designed to, in the words of the Genocide Convention, deliberately inflict conditions of life calculated to bring about the end of a national, ethnical, racial or religious group in whole or in part,” the group said in a statement.
With Russia preoccupied with its war, other global players are running into the power vacuum.
Turkey has offered full-throated support for its ally, Azerbaijan; meanwhile, Iran has backed its close partner Armenia and fears any change in its immediate neighborhood.
In the final days of 2022, the U.N. Security Council was reportedly considering a joint statement on the crisis, with permanent member France pushing for condemnation of Azerbaijan. Statements from both Armenia and Azerbaijan have since implied that Russia, another of the five permanent members, effectively blocked the move.
Politicians in the Armenian capital Yerevan have hit out at what they see as inaction from Moscow, with Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan accusing the Russian troops stationed in the area of “becoming a silent witness to the depopulation of the Nagorno-Karabakh region.” Armenia is calling for a multinational peacekeeping force or fact-finding mission in an apparent snub to the Kremlin, which sees the South Caucasus as well inside its sphere of influence.
In a statement to POLITICO, Armenian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Vahan Hunanyan wrote that “concrete pressure” on Azerbaijan is needed from international partners. “The message from the U.S. and EU should be clear — new Azerbaijani aggression is unequivocally unacceptable and will not be tolerated, and any violation of standing agreements will be met with political and economic consequences.”
Baku, however, has consistently rejected the prospect of intervention or influence from abroad. “The territories of Azerbaijan have been under military occupation by Armenia for almost 30 years,” said Aykhan Hajizade, the country’s Foreign Ministry spokesman.
“Throughout this period, Azerbaijan had been calling upon international organizations to dispatch fact-finding missions to these territories. This was persistently opposed by Armenia.” He added that any international organization operating inside Azerbaijan would need the consent of Baku and to “respect its sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
Kicking the EU into action
Against the background of Russian inaction, several Western nations have stepped up to seek an end to the blockade.
“We call on the government of Azerbaijan to restore free movement through the corridor,” United States State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in December. “The way forward is through negotiations.”
The U.K. and a handful of other European countries have since echoed those comments, while EU External Affairs Service spokesperson Peter Stano said Brussels would press Azerbaijan to “ensure freedom and security of movement.”
However, some believe Brussels is not doing enough over humanitarian concerns. Nathalie Loiseau, a French MEP and chair of the European Parliament’s Subcommittee on Security and Defense, told POLITICO that the blockade is “illegal, cruel and contradictory with Baku’s claims that the territory belongs to Azerbaijan.”
“Which country would intentionally prevent its own people from receiving food or medicine?”
“Now a humanitarian disaster is nearing, what do Russian ‘peacekeepers’ in the Lachin corridor do? Nothing,” Loiseau said. “The international community must realize that Russia has not been a peace-maker but has prolonged the conflict in South Caucasus and is not a reliable actor anymore.”
She also pointed out that the EU is a major buyer of energy coming from Azerbaijan. “It makes our voice important. We mustn’t shy away from defending universal values. If we don’t do it, who will act?”
Markéta Gregorová, an MEP from the Greens/EFA grouping and a member of both the parliamentary delegation to Armenia and the EU-Azerbaijan Cooperation Council, went further, telling POLITICO: “We could play a bigger role when we are helping negotiate.”
“Given we have a lot of economic and other relations with both countries, there are ways in which we can persuade them — but we aren’t using these.”
She added that there is a common understanding in the European Parliament that more needs to be done. “But we’re a little bit dependent on what the Commission and Council decide to do.”
According to Gregorová, an agreement signed between Brussels and Baku last summer to step up the import of natural gas in an effort to replace sanctioned Russian supplies has undermined the EU’s ability to apply pressure. “Given the memorandum of understanding on gas from Azerbaijan, it’s clear that has an impact, and the reaction has been much weaker and slower.”
While regional powers decide what to do next, for those trapped in the breakaway region, the specter of an existential threat is growing.
“We are flesh and blood. We want to eat, we want to live normal lives,” said Vanyan, the Stepanakert-based blogger. “But at the same time, everyone knows we have nowhere else to go. It’s not a question of food, it’s a question of Karabakh: to be, or not to be.”