“From Crisis to Catastrophe: Azerbaijan’s Blockade of Nagorno-Karabakh” - Richard Giragosian

Richard Giragosian Azerbaijan

The current situation in Nagorno-Karabakh is desperate and has descended from crisis to catastrophe. Faced with a blockade imposed by Azerbaijan back in December 2022, the Armenian population of Karabakh is forced to endure severe shortages of basic foodstuffs, critical medicine and other needed supplies. With reports of worsening conditions, and the first death directly attributed to starvation and malnutrition, the coming days and weeks will be critical.

Driven by the urgency of this challenging situation, Armenia has focused on diplomacy, forging the intervention of the UN Security Council and a forceful response by the international community.

Yet beyond the severe shortages of food, medicine and other staples of daily life, more recently, the siege has only triggered the dangerous curtailment of local emergency services, such as fire and police response, and an end to trash collection, which prompts concerns over a public health emergency in this hot summer season.

The Azerbaijani Strategy

From a broader perspective, Azerbaijan’s siege of the Armenian population in Karabakh is neither new nor unprecedented.

The Azerbaijani policy to retake Nagorno-Karabakh goes even beyond this weaponisation of food and has also been matched by the sporadic yet effective disruptions of gas supplies, interference with electricity and the enforced closure of the Lachin Corridor, the sole access for the Armenian population in and out of Karabakh.

More specifically, Azerbaijan's reliance on siege warfare is only the latest move in Azerbaijan’s strategy to drive out the Armenian population from the region. This strategy has succeeded mainly due to increasing Azerbaijani strength and Russian weakness.

While around 2000 Russian peacekeepers, deployed in November 2020 as part of the fragile ceasefire that ended the second war for Karabakh, have yet to break the stalemate and enforce the terms of the truce, which promises free and unfettered access through the Lachin Cor

Armenian frustration with Russian inaction has prompted a perception of Russian complicity. This was most recently evident with the display of desperation by local Karabakh Armenians who blocked access to the Russian peacekeeping base. While the weakness of the Russian peacekeepers in the face of Azerbaijani aggression only encouraged escalation by Baku, the peacekeepers’ use of force was limited to dealing with the local Armenian population.

This was the case on 16 August when a Russian armoured personnel carrier was used to remove the protesters forcibly. And this was only the latest affirmation that Russian “peacekeepers” fail to keep any sense of “peace.”

In open defiance of Moscow, Azerbaijan exploits Russia’s inability to act. This weakness, mainly due to Russia being distracted and overwhelmed by its invasion of Ukraine, has triggered a degree of collaboration, with Russian peacekeepers unwilling to challenge the blockade.

Against that backdrop, Russia has become a severe challenge to Armenia as an unreliable security partner and provider. The unwillingness to counter Azerbaijan’s siege of Karabakh has shown Russia’s failure to fulfil even the most fundamental obligation to uphold the ceasefire agreement.

Thus, in diplomatic terms, Azerbaijan has already taken advantage of the situation by increasing pressure on Armenia and Karabakh. Azerbaijan’s strategy consists of more than simply taking advantage of the distraction presented by the war in Ukraine or increasing pressure on Armenia, however. It stands out as a bold defiance of Russia. In this context, Azerbaijan has become quite emboldened to challenge Russia. And bolstered by Turkish support, this Azerbaijani strategy is only likely to continue.

The Outlook for Diplomacy

After a series of concessions and compromises from Armenia, the post-war period has done little to foster security or forge stability. In fact, since the end of the war in November 2020, a dangerous precedent remains. That precedent is rooted in the seeming victory of the authoritarian states of Azerbaijan and Turkey over the struggling democracy of Armenia.

It is further distressing as an apparent validation of the force of arms over diplomacy. Such a “might make right” lesson also undermines European values and, if left unchallenged, legitimises using force as a military solution to an essentially diplomatic dispute.

The blockade of Nagorno-Karabakh also undermines the diplomatic negotiations underway between Armenia and Azerbaijan. These bilateral talks focus on a draft Armenia-Azerbaijan peace treaty.

Yet even with a peace treaty likely to be signed by the end of the year, any such treaty will be limited to bilateral, inter-state relations, with little real bearing on the status and no binding element on the security of Nagorno-Karabakh.

The core question, however, is what kind of peace and on what terms? Any possibility of a punitive peace, based on coercive diplomacy and maximalist posturing by Azerbaijan, does nothing to inspire confidence in future stability.

An additional concern stems from the lack of confidence in Azerbaijan to uphold the terms of such a peace treaty, making the “day after” any peace treaty a particularly significant worry. Instead, there needs to be much more done by the West to ensure a more durable and lasting peace after a treaty is concluded. And there must be a punitive price to pay for any violations of any such peace treaty.

What is Driving Azerbaijan’s Maximalist Posturing?

But the underlying motivation for Azerbaijan’s creation of the humanitarian catastrophe and aggressive threats stems from weakness, not strength, insecurity, and confidence. More specifically, the 2020 war for Karabakh was a dangerously incomplete “victory” for Azerbaijan.

Despite the unprecedented direct support from Turkey, Azerbaijan did not win enough militarily. By failing to retake Nagorno-Karabakh by force, Azerbaijan has relied on a steady escalation designed to threaten Armenia and isolate Karabakh.

An essential domestic political agenda drives Azerbaijan’s escalation and maximalist posturing in this context. This is evident in the very nature of the Azerbaijani regime, where the father-son Aliyev dynasty has ruled the country for over a quarter of a century.

And to distract from the lack of democracy and entrenched family corruption, the Azerbaijani leadership follows a classic authoritarian model of needing an enemy. The apparent lack of legitimacy makes Azerbaijan more dangerous, and its demands for concessions are insatiable, demonstrating that Azerbaijan is the primary obstacle to post-war peace and stability.

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Guest Contributor

This piece was written for Greek City Times by a Guest Contributor

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