Azerbaijani armed forces advance to close off Armenia-Karabakh road
Armenians had been using the road to bypass a blockade on the main road, the Lachin Corridor. The move drew a rare rebuke from the Russian peacekeepers.
Azerbaijan’s armed forces have cut off a road that Armenians had been using to circumvent a blockade of Nagorno-Karabakh, further tightening the screws on the territory’s population.
Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry announced on March 25 that its units had taken “necessary local control measures” to cut off a rough dirt road that passed slightly to the north of the main road connecting Karabakh to Armenia, known as the Lachin Corridor. The move was confirmed by the local authorities in Karabakh as well as by the Russian peacekeeping mission, which is supposed to provide security for the corridor.
The Azerbaijani advance, which seems to have taken place without any shots being fired, even prompted a rare criticism from the peacekeepers, who said that they had asked the Azerbaijanis to withdraw from the new positions they had taken.
This alternative road had been used as a means of bypassing the section of the Lachin Corridor, near the city of Shusha, that has been blocked by Azerbaijani government-backed environmental protesters since early December.
The Azerbaijani government had been calling attention to the bypass road in recent weeks, claiming that Armenians had been using it to transport weapons from Armenia to Karabakh in contravention of the ceasefire agreement that ended the 2020 war between the two sides.
Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry said that “over the past few days” it had observed the “intensification” of work on the road.
Officials in the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic denied that the road was being used to transport weapons. "The Azerbaijani side is trying to justify its illegal actions and provocations with fabricated statements that have nothing to do with reality," the territory's de facto foreign ministry said in a statement.
Officials said that the road was being improved in order to provide some access to the outside world, as well as to a handful of villages in Karabakh that had also been cut off as a result of the blockade.
“They want to block this road, too, in order to tighten the blockade and exclude any kind of communication with our stuck villages and outside world,” Artak Beglaryan, an adviser to the state minister in the de facto government, told Eurasianet. “We even tried to make some minor improvements on certain parts of the road to make it more accessible, but they several times threatened to attack the engineering machines working there.”
A statement from Russia’s Defense Ministry said that Azerbaijani units had “crossed the line of contact in the Shusha region, occupying a height marked at 2,054 meters altitude 2.9 kilometers northeast of Saribaba mountain and started engineering work on a post” there.
The Russian statement said Azerbaijan’s troop movement amounted to a “violation” of the first point of the 2020 ceasefire agreement, under which the two conflicting sides agreed to “stop in their current positions.” The Russian statement also called on Azerbaijan to “cease the engineering work and to withdraw their forces to their previous positions.”
Later, the de facto authorities reported that Russian peacekeepers had “positioned themselves” on the same height that the Azerbaijani forces had taken. They said the Russians were “controlling” the height and “negotiating with the Azerbaijani side to ensure their retreat.” There was no confirmation of that from either the Russian or Azerbaijani side.
"We expect that the Russian peacekeeping forces will take practical steps to eliminate the consequences of Azerbaijan's repeated violation of" the ceasefire, "as well as to prevent any new possible violations," the Karabakh foreign ministry statement said.
The bypass road starts in Stepanakert and joins the main Lachin Corridor roughly in the middle, at the village of Lisagor, which Azerbaijanis call Turşsu. It had been rarely used before the launch of the blockade; it is mountainous and in rough condition, passable only by four-wheel-drive vehicles. It more than triples the travel time, Beglaryan said.
“Traffic was quite limited, only a few cars per day,” he said. “However, even in that case that road is quite vital for us to use in case of urgent necessity.”
Beglaryan, who recently announced that he was able to return home after being caught in Armenia when the blockade was launched, declined to say if this was the route he was able to take home. He said he was able to make it back via “the ordinary mechanisms of family reunification.”
Azerbaijan has been building the case for weeks that the Armenians’ use of the road would necessitate some kind of action on its part. This appears only to have been a first step, however, as officials reiterated their demand that they be allowed to set up a checkpoint on the Lachin Corridor.
“The recent provocations by Armenia demonstrate that in order to prevent illegal activities in the sovereign territories of Azerbaijan, it is necessary to establish a border control checkpoint between Azerbaijan and Armenia at the end point of the Lachin road,” Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement following the taking of the height on the road.
While this will restrict traffic between Armenia and Karabakh, it won’t shut it down completely. The Russian peacekeepers have been running what appears to be a large-scale blockade-busting operation, according to a remarkable report in the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta.
According to the newspaper, Russian peacekeepers stationed in the Armenian city of Goris, near the start of the Lachin Corridor, can arrange passage to civilians through the blockade for prices up to $1,000 a person.
Food, too, is getting through, also thanks to the Russian peacekeepers. The Novaya Gazeta report cited several sources matter-of-factly speaking about the scheme.
“Food is being delivered, more or less,” one resident told the newspaper. “It’s just that the prices have skyrocketed because it’s very expensive to deliver stuff here. They have to pay several thousand dollars for every vehicle. Then suddenly something new arrives in the shops and we find out that the Russian peacekeepers are responsible for the delivery. They’re allowed to cross over, the “ecologists” let them through. So [the Russian peacekeepers] deliver food here in their cars. You know, those white trucks. Humanitarian aid? They probably do give out something for free as humanitarian aid, but most of it goes to the shops. Ask any vendor why it’s so expensive, all of them will explain — because the peacekeepers ask for several thousand dollars for every vehicle.”
The Turkey factor
The action happened to take place just as Armenia and Turkey, which are in the process of normalizing relations, were making steps toward improving relations. On March 24, Armenian Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan announced that the land border with Turkey would be open to diplomats and third-country nationals “by the beginning of tourism season.” That plan has long been in the works, but was derailed by the spike in Armenia-Azerbaijan tensions following last September’s Azerbaijani offensive against Armenia.
Azerbaijan has long sought to link the Turkey-Armenia normalization process with its own efforts to sign a peace deal with Armenia that would cement Baku’s control over Karabakh. Armenia, conversely, has tried to decouple the processes. Turkey’s position has been more ambiguous, but advances in Turkey-Armenia relations have in the past been met with Azerbaijani pushback. When Armenia and Turkey announced last summer that they were planning to open their border, Azerbaijan announced the same day that it was closing its land border with Turkey. It cited Covid as the reason, which few took at face value.
Azerbaijan’s taking of the road also took place a few hours before a European soccer championship qualifying match between Turkey and Armenia in Yerevan. The last match between the two countries was in World Cup qualifying in 2008, when Yerevan and Ankara were also trying to normalize relations; that effort ultimately was scuttled by Azerbaijan.
In this year’s match, Armenia scored first. The website Caliber.az, associated with Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry, wrote on its Telegram channel: “The Armenian team opened the scoring in the match with Turkey. The ancient and wise people in their moment of joy forgot about what was happening in Karabakh. If our brother Turks let in one more goal, then we can take Khankendi,” the Azerbaijani name for Stepanakert. Turkey eventually came back, winning 2:1.
Joshua Kucera, a senior correspondent, is Eurasianet's former Turkey/Caucasus editor and has written for the site since 2007.