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What's Next for the Lachin Corridor?

Russia wants to keep its troops in Lachin, despite Azerbaijan’s unofficial hesitance. Let’s discuss the reasons why Lachin is still relevant post-collapse of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic.

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When the tripartite deal was signed between Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Russia in 2020 that secured the ceasefire to the 44 days long Second Nagorno-Karabakh War, a few things had become clear in the new era of the frozen conflict, and one was that Russia was there to stay.

The historically contested region, located in eastern Azerbaijan, saw low-level violence and skirmishes between then Armenian and Azerbaijani Soviet Socialist Republics, that then erupted into full scale warfare following their independence as the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. The First War ended in 1994, with Armenia as the victor, and saw the occupation of several parts of Azerbaijan and the unrecognized independence of Nagorno-Karabakh.

The Second War, fought three years ago, was a reversal, as Azerbaijan forced the removal of Armenian soldiers from its territories, and regained some land back from Nagorno-Karabakh, re-exerting its influence in the region.

Not only in 2020 did Russia sign a deal in the face of the West's failed previous attempts to end the war, it also secured long-term Russian peacekeeping troops on the ground and enabled Moscow to be the linchpin for both sides, via the creation of one of the most geostrategic locations in Nagorno-Karabakh’s history: the Lachin Corridor.

The 2020 Ceasefire granted Moscow's control over the occupied city and surrounding area of Lachin, which up until September of 2023 was situated on the sole road linking Armenia and the internationally unrecognized, but de-facto sovereign Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh (Also known as the Republic of Artsakh). There is no air travel allowed from Armenia to the NKR, so land transport is the sole method of transportation.

This meant that Russian troops were responsible for several aspects of political negotiation between Yerevan and Baku, as well as the ongoing survival of the NKR, as all of its supplies were transported from Armenia through that single road.

Situation to the Present

In 2021, Azerbaijan began to install checkpoints, customs stops, and video surveillance in areas near the Lachin Corridor. Baku attempted to restrict the transfer of supplies from they identified as Iranian vehicles, which they petitioned to Russia to deny access through the Lachin Corridor, as foreign vehicles violated the tripartite agreement. At this point, Moscow stayed neutral when considering Baku’s requests and continued business as usual.

In the Fall of 2022, the Azerbaijani-Armenian peace deal progressed and the city of Lachin was ceded to Azerbaijan in August. In September, the Lachin Corridor itself was altered to fit a new road linking Armenia to the NKR, this being built by Azerbaijan.

But the situation escalated on December 12th of 2022, when self-described Azerbaijani eco-activists allegedly concerned about mining issues in the NKR, began to protest at the Lachin Corridor. This effectively blocked the transfer of almost all supplies and commerce from Armenia to the NKR. Russian peacekeepers did not stop the protests.

Eventually, only vehicles from Russian officials and the International Red Cross were allowed through, causing critical food and supply shortages in the NKR. Rations were later mandated by the unrecognized republic. The blockade was condemned by groups like Amnesty International and bodies like the International Court of Justice.

The blockade continued for 137 days, ending on April 28th, 2023. At this point in April, Azerbaijan had increased its presence in the region as it installed a military checkpoint near the Corridor, despite Armenia’s warnings that doing so would further escalate the conflict. Azerbaijan, more or less at this point, had de-facto control over Lachin despite the tacit presence of the Russians, and would often arrest Armenians crossing the Corridor.

Despite both Armenia and Azerbaijan agreeing on September 9th to open up roads in Lachin, just 10 days later the Azerbaijani military would cross the border with the NKR and begin a siege that would last about 48 hours.

NKR officials agreed to a ceasefire brokered by Russian peacekeepers to lay down their weapons and relinquish their sovereignty. Baku has since fully moved into the territory as a mass exodus of ethnic Armenians continues to flee to the Armenian border through the Lachin Corridor.

Azerbaijan in Control

Since gaining control of Lachin, the Azerbaijani MOD has been using the Corridor to their advantage and have arrested several former NKR officials attempting to escape to Armenia. One of Karabakh’s top officials, Ruben Vardanyan, was detained in late September.

Other former top separatist leaders, namely Arayik Harutyunyan, Arkadi Gakusian, and Bako Sahakyan, were arrested in Lachin during the past two weeks. The leader of NKR defense, Levon Mnatsakanyan, was also jailed and brought back to Baku, as well as the former Foreign Affairs minister. Separately, Azerbaijan announced that amnesty would be granted for all NKR soldiers, barring any war crimes committed in the First Nagorno-Karabakh War (1988-1994).

Controlling chokeholds like the Lachin Corridor are crucial for Azerbaijan’s transition to next-step irredentist ambitions like the establishment of a “Western Zangezur Corridor”, and the “liberation” of internationally-recognized Armenian territory that Azerbaijan wishes to cede for itself. This will occur if the recently proposed “Eastern Zangezur Corridor” with Iran falls through.

Keep in mind that a considerable amount of Armenian territory continues to be occupied by Azerbaijan, some since 2021. Funneling military vehicles and troops to invade Armenia’s Syunik province as to enlarge these holds embolden the claim that Lachin’s significance remains pivotal for the Caucuses.

Russian Troops in Limbo

Azerbaijan has already begun questioning the role of Russian peacekeeping troops in Lachin and beyond, but has yet to release an official stance on the matter. Since the ceasefire, Russian troops have remained in the area and, according to Armenian sources, built an additional 25 military posts around the former NKR. TASS officials report the opposite, that the peacekeeping mission has in fact dismantled several former outposts. Video of an abandoned Russian outpost in Suşa shows many of them vacant.

On October 9th, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Galuzin criticized an earlier TASS report that said that Moscow was considering removing the peacekeeping troops from Lachin in a meeting with Armenia. He went on to say that now that a ceasefire has been reached, Russian peacekeeping troops have new reasons to remain in Nagorno-Karabakh.

The specifics he cited were that Russian troops should guarantee the protection of any refugees who fled to Armenia who wish to return to Nagorno-Karabakh, which a similar statement was released by the Russian MFA last week. Galuzin also cited the fact that Moscow was working with Yerevan and Baku to delimit the Armenian-Azerbaijani border and to open it for trade and cargo shipments, which the Lachin Corridor would remain critical for implementation.

This part of the statement is interesting, as Russia is thinking of next steps for how it can stay in the region. This follows multiple accusations that its supposed influence as a mediating power failed to prevent a conflict in the Caucuses, a region already occupied by various large players in the global arena that have been seeking to oust Russia’s dominance.

The Future of Moscows Role in Question

Many hands point to Russian’s difficulty in Ukraine being the reason it was so ineffective in Nagorno-Karabakh, and Moscow understands this as so. From the Russian perspective, it is beneficial to convince Azerbaijan to let their troops stay, as Moscow clearly sees fruit in the peacekeeping force evolving alongside any trade agreements brokered by Yerevan and Baku in the future. As well as monitoring the border and future infrastructure projects Azerbaijan will begin to implement in the NKR, much like Baku did with the town of Suşa that it gained control over in 2020.

While Azerbaijan will likely build several roads in the future in the former NKR area, the Lachin Corridor will continue to be the primary point of contact between any budding economic exchange between Yerevan and Baku-controlled Nagorno-Karabakh. If the Russian MOD can strike a deal where its role remains as a primary and neutral player in the oversight of these developments, its aspiring influence over both sides stays in place, albeit in a different, more economic context.

The Lachin Corridor allowed for Russia to remain an officially neutral power that both Armenia and Azerbaijan sought to influence. Moscow enjoyed this position until September of this year, and Lachin is likely something that Russia seeks to reproduce. Azerbaijan with the support of Türkiye, continues to pressure Armenia to agree to a cession of their territory to create the proposed Western Zangezur Corridor. If Armenia, whether voluntarily or involuntarily, agrees to this proposal, Russia may see fruit in convincing Baku to allow a recreation of the rules in Lachin to apply to similar establishments in Zangezur. However, if the Eastern Zangezur Corridor with Iran is reached, Russian peacekeeping troops would largely be seen as pointless.

If Azerbaijan launches a military attack on Armenian territory with the aim of forcibly establishing the Zangezur Corridor, one of the conditions of a ceasefire could be a Russian controlled procedure that allows transport and commerce to flow through a demilitarized zone, much like the 2020 Tripartite agreement’s rules for Lachin.

However, this situation requires Armenia to perceive the Zangezur Corridor as an inevitable policy and capitulate their own territory. The President of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, has recently gone on record to say that either Armenia agrees to the Corridor, or “remain outside” of the economic benefits via the alternative route in Iran. In whatever regard, Russia’s current role remains in flux.

Concluding Thoughts

The pro-Armenian bias that many Azerbaijanis suspect of Moscow’s peacekeepers puts doubt into Baku accepting a continued Russian presence in Lachin and most other situations. One could argue that the last thing Azerbaijan wants in its reclaimed territories–that it has yet to control since the collapse of the Soviet Union–is the remainder of Moscow in their backyard. Armenians for their part will also decry any further Russian involvement in negotiations, as they believe that Russia failed them on all fronts during the collapse of the NKR in September.

On the other hand, perhaps Azerbaijan will allow the troops to stay, in a show of good faith that further antagonization of Armenia is less likely than Yerevan fears, and perhaps more easily convince ethnic Armenians wishing to return to Nagorno-Karabakh through the Lachin Corridor that it is still safe to do so.

For Transatlantic purposes, a Russia that remains powerful in the Caucuses, a region it considers under its sphere of influence, hinders NATO and EU efforts to provide effective and mediating response for both Armenia and Azerbaijan. Russian troops remaining in Lachin and Azerbaijan at-large complicates the extensive relations between Baku and Türkiye, a NATO member, as well as the ongoing oil and energy negotiations between Azerbaijan and certain EU member states. 

The events of October may have driven Armenia closer to the West, but Moscow remaining as the in-between for peace and a possible Azerbaijani invasion into Armenian territory, means Armenia still has to keep Russia close. This issue is an obstacle for Yerevan to further pivot towards the Transatlantic, as it wishes to do.

Legitimately countering Russia means targeting the areas where it holds political capital, and Lachin certainly is one of those areas. Perhaps the EU can convince Azerbaijan that a contingent force is beneficial for both them and Armenia, but that Russia is the wrong party to use. However, the ambiguity of Moscow’s troops enforcement allows Azerbaijan to make the military maneuvers like last month and is likely to use in the future.

Concessions would have to be made by the West to not only convince Baku to allow for a continued “occupation” of their affairs via another country, but to replace the ones they already have now for those with more rigid rules of engagement.

Lachin remains politically and militarily strategic under Azerbaijani control as to punish former NKR officials, increasing their hold in the region, and as a launch point in potential future conflicts with Armenia. For Russia, Lachin’s rules and procedures are crucial in convincing Baku that any future “Corridors” should be mediated and monitored by Russia, as Lachin was for the three years of its existence in the Nagorno-Karabakh crisis.

About the Author

Dominic Brunaccioni (‘23) is an alumni of American University, who holds an undergraduate degree in International Studies with a regional focus of Middle East & North Africa. Dominic specializes in the studies of the greater Turkic world, as well as Kurdish affairs. Dominic spent six months studying in Azerbaijan in the year of 2022. Dominic publishes a weekly article on the greater Turkic world found here.

During their time at American University, Dominic founded Ask a Diplomat under AMIRS, which is a prospering organization that fosters webinars and events with AU students and embassies in Washington, D.C. Dominic also worked on executive boards in AU’s Residential Hall Association, AUSG, and playwriting.