With supplies of food and medicine in the blockaded region running low, the EU, Turkey, Russia, and Iran are deadlocked on what to do next.
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.