Special Note: At the time of the writing of this article, the Lachin corridor was still closed due to self-described Azerbaijani environmental protestors.
In the morning of Dec. 12, the vital Lachin corridor, which is currently the only land route connecting the Armenian-controlled part of Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia and hence the outside world, was closed once again by civilian-dressed Azerbaijanis who claim to be environmental protesters.
While it is unclear what exactly are the demands of these activists, whose actions raise serious questions about the validity of the protests, the closure of this crucial road is already creating a disastrous humanitarian crisis and grounds for the total ethnic cleansing of the Armenian population of the region.
First, it is important to understand that the artificially orchestrated actions of civilian Azerbaijanis in the corridor are not legitimate environmental protests. In a country that ranks 154 out of 180 countries on the Press Freedom Index of Reporters Without Borders and where Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s dictatorial regime, which has been in power for two decades, allows no dissent or freedom of association, it is clear that such actions not only have the official approval of the highest levels of government in Baku, but are also directly organized by the regime.
The only mass protests that have been allowed in the country over the last few years have, in fact, been belligerent, pro-war rallies with protesters chanting Armenophobic slogans or protests against Russia and Iran which serve as a weapon in Aliyev’s foreign policy toolkit.
In the territories of Nagorno-Karabakh now under Azerbaijani control, from where thousands of civilians Armenians were displaced and where the cultural destruction of Armenian heritage has been underway for two years now, life is yet to return to normal. The Azerbaijanis who are now blocking the lifeline of Nagorno-Karabakh’s Armenian population are neither residents who live or have settled in the region, nor are they protesting for legitimate reasons.
In fact, the media has identified some of those so-called protesters as former Azerbaijani military officers or members of special forces. For instance, Telman Gasimov, who was filmed speaking fluent Armenian, was revealed to have participated in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war and has been an active serviceman in the Azerbaijani military.
Sabotaging the land route that connects Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia, exercising psychological pressure against the Armenian population still living in the region after the devastating 2020 war and routinely threatening ethnic cleansing have been consistent government policy in Aliyev’s Azerbaijan.
What is striking, however, is that this latest escalation jeopardizes the fragile Armenian-Azerbaijani peace negotiations and increases the risk of yet another war. This marks the second closure of the corridor, which Azerbaijan is legally bound to guarantee the security of, in the last ten days.
Careful enough to not use directly government-affiliated resources to block the road, as that would directly bring Azerbaijan into conflict with Russia whose peacekeeping forces are stationed in and around the Armenian-controlled part of Nagorno-Karabakh, Aliyev is orchestrating artificial protests using saboteurs, special forces and activists under the guise of civilian environmental protesters to achieve its political and diplomatic goals.
The blockade of the corridor is part of a larger campaign of exerting terror and pressure on the roughly 120,000 Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh who refuse to accept the forcefully imposed Azerbaijani control. Moreover, it is clearly aimed at pushing Azerbaijan’s maximalist agenda in the diplomatic process.
The closure of the corridor is not only a blatant violation of Azerbaijan’s international obligations under the November 9 ceasefire deal that ended the 2020 war, but also part of the post-war strategy of Aliyev’s regime to achieve total control of Nagorno-Karabakh. His ethnic cleansing strategy encompasses a state-sanctioned campaign to make the normal life of Armenian civilians of the region impossible, leaving no choice but to leave their homes behind and seek refuge in Armenia and elsewhere.
Refusing to even discuss any rights or protections for the indigenous Armenian people of Nagorno-Karabakh, Aliyev, backed by Turkey’s unconditional support, is challenging Armenia, Russia, the West and the other involved international actors that have continuously voiced the need to reach a sustainable and long-term solution to the conflict.
To understand the extent of this campaign of state-sponsored sabotage and terror of peaceful civilians in a war-torn region, it is enough to look at the consequences and the humanitarian cost of this effective blockade. The lives of several Armenian patients in urgent care facilities in Nagorno Karabakh are currently at risk as the flow of medical and other important supplies has been stopped for more than 40 hours. In addition, panic is settling in among the local population, as the Russian peacekeepers have so far been unsuccessful in negotiating with the Azerbaijanis to reopen the corridor.
Further evidencing its genocidal intent to artificially create a humanitarian crisis in Nagorno-Karabakh, Aliyev’s regime cut off the supply of natural gas to the region on Dec. 13, leaving tens of thousands of civilians without a basic necessity during a harsh winter. Already, the State Minister of Nagorno Karabakh has announced that schools will be shut off indefinitely, as most of the schools of the region rely on natural gas for heating.
The impending humanitarian catastrophe underscores the need for urgent action. Emboldened by the impunity afforded by the international community and disregarding the November 9 trilateral agreement with Russia and Armenia and its obligations under international law, Azerbaijan’s illegal blockade of Nagorno-Karabakh necessitates a strong international reaction.
Beyond diplomatic statements and calls to reopen the Lachin corridor, international organizations, the United States and its allies, as well as Russia, which acts as the primary mediator with on-the-ground presence, should come together to impose tangible, real costs. Despite the geopolitical role of Azerbaijan’s oil and gas industry, international actors must enforce targeted sanctions on Aliyev and the Azerbaijani government for subjecting the entire population of Nagorno-Karabakh to an illegal, detrimental blockade.
Unless international actors take decisive steps to hold the Azerbaijani government accountable and force concessions to guarantee the security of the vital Lachin corridor, the situation has the potential to create a diplomatic deadlock between Armenia and Azerbaijan, with its impending disastrous consequences, further destabilize the region, and in the worst case scenario, result in a brutal ethnic cleansing of the Armenian population.
Martin Makaryan is the Vice Chair of All-Armenian Student Association and a recent UCLA graduate holding a B.A. in Political Science and Global Studies. His areas of interest are U.S. foreign policy, European security, post-Soviet conflicts and geopolitics.