The Kremlin has been using frozen conflicts on the fringes of the Russian empire for decades, thawing and refreezing them to suit its immediate objectives: we’ve seen enough of this tactic in Donbass, Transnistria, and South Ossetia. In the same vein, the conflict in Karabakh is Russia’s key to the Southern Caucasus and – indirectly – to Europe. That is why the US and the EU must join forces to broker a lasting peace in the region and not allow Putin to play his old tricks. But unfortunately, so far Russia has had a field day in Karabakh.
Karabakh is internationally recognised Azerbaijani territory with a separatist enclave, populated by Armenians. This area is controlled by the Russian military contingent operating under the guise of peacekeepers, and there are no Azerbaijanis living there – they were all forcefully expelled 30 years ago. Armenia does not recognise the enclave as a part of its territory and has no territorial claims against Azerbaijan in this area.
One of the most recent developments in the Karabakh crisis concerns humanitarian corridors to supply food and necessities to the people of the enclave. On 15 July, Charles Michel, the president of the European Council, announced Baku’s plans to establish a new route to deliver humanitarian supplies to Karabakh through the Azerbaijani city of Aghdam. Why? — Well, since December 2022 the separatist leadership of the enclave has been claiming that “Artsakh” (the Armenian name for Karabakh) suffers from total hunger and humanitarian disaster.
Currently, the only road linking the enclave to Armenia is the Lachin road, controlled by the Russian military. This road allows free movement of transport and humanitarian goods, and separatists apparently have an interest in ensuring that this corridor continues to link the enclave’s capital, Khankendi (called Stepanakert in Armenian), with Armenia. It is clear why; as Baku has repeatedly stated, the Lachin corridor is used for the transfer of military equipment and troops. It is not used for humanitarian goods to alleviate alleged “hunger”.
The plans to open an alternative route that would be controlled by the Azerbaijani authorities threatens the “status quo”. That is why on 18 July, representatives of the pro-Russian movement the “Front for Security and Development of Artsakh” blocked the road through Aghdam to Khankendi with concrete blocks.
Whatever satisfies hunger is good food, according to an old Chinese proverb. Perhaps we should qualify this by adding that whatever road brings food is a good road, provided that it is alleviating real hunger.
An investigation by Ukrainian MP Volodymyr Kreidenko casts doubt on this narrative. He ordered the delivery of meat and fish dishes, cheeses, desserts and other delicacies for several corporate parties in Khankendi – and did not receive a single refusal. All of this was for consumption in the “starving” enclave. Simultaneously, the social networks of the residents of Karabakh were full of photos of feasts and check-ins from restaurants, and the people in these photos did not look as if they were under-nourished either.
On 27 June this was also acknowledged by Shirak Torosyan, an MP from the ruling party of Armenia: “There is no hunger in Artsakh, there is no need to thicken the colours.” This statement is in line with the position of Yerevan and the majority of the Armenian population, who are tired of the conflict with Azerbaijan and the dependence on Russia that it brings.
It is in Armenia’s interest to change its course to a pro-Western one not in words but in deeds. This is also good for Azerbaijan, creating prerequisites for mutually beneficial co-operation and laying the groundwork for economic growth. The only power for which the end of the conflict means defeat and loss of leverage in the region is the Russian Federation.
The blocking of the Aghdam-Khankendi road was organised by the “Front for Security and Development of Artsakh”, created by Putin’s emissary, ex-head of “Artsakh” Ruben Vardanyan. This only goes to show that the Kremlin is determined to destabilise the region – despite the fact that the other two parties actually seek peace. Putin is using the same playbook in Karabakh as he did in Ukraine, South Ossetia and Transnistria before. Russia’s policy has led Armenian separatists in Karabakh to favour the indefinite stay of the Russian military contingent and a referendum on joining the Russian Federation. This all sounds very familiar, doesn’t it?
You may wonder how these developments in the South Caucasus concern Europe and why the EU should pay attention to them in an energy crisis exacerbated by a cost of living crisis. The simple answer is that lasting peace in the region means opening new transport corridors for energy supplies from Azerbaijan and the movement of goods from China and other Asian countries, bypassing Russia. This would put an end to Russia’s energy blackmail and make it cheaper to import goods to Europe.
The active participation of the European Union and the United States in the negotiation process between Baku and Yerevan and the stabilisation of the situation in the region will deprive Putin of his position in the South Caucasus. This will also contribute to the final re-orientation of Armenia, freed from the bullying of its “big brother”, towards the West.
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