Azerbaijan sets up checkpoint on road connecting Armenia and Karabakh


Armenians have appealed for international help – above all from Russia – after Azerbaijan set up a checkpoint on the only road connecting Armenia with the Armenian-populated territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Azerbaijan has been demanding for months to establish a checkpoint on the road, known as the Lachin corridor, but doing so seemingly risked a confrontation with the Russian peacekeepers who are supposed to be the sole providers of security on the road. When Azerbaijani forces finally managed to install the checkpoint on April 23, though, they did so with no apparent confrontation with the Russians.

Announcing the creation of the checkpoint, Azerbaijan’s State Border Service noted that the Russian peacekeeping contingent “was informed” about the move. Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry said that the checkpoint “shall be implemented in interaction with the Russian peacekeeping force.”

The Russian peacekeepers were in close proximity to the place on the road where the Azerbaijanis set up their checkpoint, at the Hakari bridge, reported Karabakh Armenian analyst Tigran Grigoryan. “Azerbaijani forces were utilizing the road passing under the bridge, and the bridge itself was being used by the peacekeepers, the Armenian sides, and the International Committee of the Red Cross,” Grigoryan wrote on the news website Civilnet. “It remains unclear how the peacekeepers, who have fortified positions near the bridge, allowed Azerbaijani forces to carry out this operation.”

The checkpoint will have little immediate impact on the ground: The road had already been effectively blocked since December by a group of Azerbaijani government-sponsored activists. It prevented Armenians (at least those unable to pay black-market smuggling prices) from traveling in or out of the territory.

But the checkpoint represents another tightening of the noose around Karabakh, and the appeals to intervention from abroad underscored how little Armenians themselves are able to do in the face of Azerbaijan’s resolve to reestablish full control over its territory and the tens of thousands of Armenians living in Karabakh.

For nearly 24 hours there was no comment from Moscow, and the peacekeepers’ most recent daily bulletin, released several hours after news broke about the checkpoint, did not mention it at all. In the afternoon of April 24 the Russian foreign ministry issued a statement in which it didn't mention the checkpoint directly or the peacekeepers' actions vis-a-vis its establishment. The statement suggested both sides were to blame, criticizing "unagreed changes in the functioning regime of the Lachin corridor or attempts to use it for aims inconsistent with a peaceful agenda."

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov had recently poured cold water on the idea of an Azerbaijani checkpoint. “The creation of some sort of checkpoints there [on the Lachin corridor] is not envisaged,” he said during a late February visit to Baku.

Following the signing of the ceasefire agreement that ended the 2020 Second Karabakh War, a 2,000-strong Russian peacekeeping contingent deployed to the parts of Karabakh still remaining under de facto Armenian control. Under that agreement the Lachin road was to be “under the control” of the peacekeepers, who were charged with “guaranteeing the security” of traffic along it.

Armenians have accused the Russians of shirking their duties since the beginning of the blockade, and those reproaches got sharper following the establishment of the checkpoint.

Following an emergency session, the Security Council of the de facto authorities in Karabakh issued a rare rebuke of the Russian peacekeepers. In a statement, the council noted that “the entire population trusted” the Russian security guarantees made in the ceasefire agreement. The council appealed “to all parties of the agreement, especially to Russia, to immediately begin discussions on lifting the blockade of Artsakh [an alternate Armenian name for the territory], preventing the establishment of an Azerbaijani checkpoint and providing real security guarantees for the people of Artsakh.”

The government of Armenia, which has been less shy in calling out Russian inaction than have the Karabakh authorities, in a statement from the foreign ministry called on Russia “to finally fulfill the obligation” to provide security on the road.

Azerbaijan argued that there should be no international involvement in the issue, given that it is all taking place on territory internationally recognized as Azerbaijani.

Azerbaijan’s foreign ministry, in a second statement responding to their counterparts in Yerevan, noted that Armenia has itself recently acknowledged that Karabakh is internationally recognized as Azerbaijani territory. “Deriving from this, Armenia must accept and respect the right of Azerbaijan to ensure control over the entry to and exit from its territory,” the ministry said in a statement.

The MFA statement delicately elided the Russian question, noting that under the ceasefire agreement Armenia is not mentioned as having anything to do with the Lachin corridor: “Against this background, it is illogical and contrary to the stated position that the Foreign Ministry of Armenia, as a party to the Trilateral Statement, calls the step taken by Azerbaijan unacceptable.” The statement does not mention Russia at all.

While there was no comment from Russia, the United States and France quickly issued statements criticizing the move.

But it’s not clear what any foreign country will be willing to do other than issue statements. Following the criticism from Washington, Caliber, a website associated with Azerbaijan’s defense ministry, issued a defiant response. “It’s nothing new, all according to the script,” Caliber wrote on its Telegram channel. “The Americans and Europeans will be concerned, some of them will express open dissatisfaction. The MFA of France, probably, will call for the ‘immediate removal of the checkpoint’ and the withdrawal of the [Azerbaijani] border guards from the ‘Lachin corridor.’ [Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria] Zakharova will drily call on the sides to strictly observe the provisions of the trilateral agreement. … But the Azerbaijani soldier will remain standing, as always, in defense of our sovereignty.”

The erection of the checkpoint followed a well established pattern from Baku: citing undocumented and impossible-to-verify “provocations” from the Armenian side in order to justify an action that the Azerbaijani government had long wanted to take.

In the days leading up to this, Azerbaijan had issued new accusations that Armenia had been continuing to use the road to ship in military materiel, including land mines that wounded three Azerbaijani soldiers.

In recent days, Yerevan also has given increasingly clear signals that it does not intend to contest Azerbaijan’s sovereignty over Karabakh. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan reiterated in an April 18 speech to parliament that Armenia recognized Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity, and that previous Armenian refusals to acknowledge that Karabakh was internationally recognized as Azerbaijani territory meant "we have deceived ourselves, the people of Armenia and the people of Nagorno-Karabakh."

Opposition politician Hrant Bagratyan said that it was a “mockery” to appeal to Russia to intervene following Pashinyan’s statement that Karabakh was Azerbaijani territory.

While Azerbaijan has repeatedly vowed that the rights of its Armenian citizens in Karabakh would be respected, few take Baku’s promises at face value following decades of deep mutual hatred, and Armenians are very unlikely to accept living under direct Azerbaijani rule. It has raised the specter of an indirect form of ethnic cleansing in which Baku could intimidate Karabakh’s population into leaving without the direct violence that usually accompanies such campaigns (including in Armenia’s victory in the first war between the two sides in the 1990s, when over 600,000 ethnic Azerbaijanis were forced to flee the territories that Armenians took over).

The Karabakh security council ended its statement by saying that “We expect in the very short term decisive steps toward resolving the security and humanitarian problems of the people of Artsakh, the absence of which will allow the people and authorities of Artsakh to take further steps.”

Grigoryan, in his analysis, interpreted that statement as meaning that Stepanakert could be considering a mass exodus: “a hard decision might be made to evacuate the population from their besieged homeland.”

This piece has been updated with comments from the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Joshua Kucera, a senior correspondent, is Eurasianet's former Turkey/Caucasus editor and has written for the site since 2007.