Aid and Supplies – What’s Really Happening in Karabakh?
Reports from some Armenian and European commentators suggest that an Azerbaijani stranglehold over supplies is causing a humanitarian catastrophe in rump-Nagorno Karabakh. But when Baku set up a new aid route via Agdam, Armenians blocked that. What’s the geopolitical game?
Image: Ani Avetisyan/OC Media
For the Armenians of Karabakh, the no-war, no-peace situation of political limbo means worries about how to organize food and other shipments to Khankendi/Stepanakert. Such supplies have become a geopolitical chess game. From Baku’s viewpoint, there has been frustration that the main Lachin Road supply route appeared to have been allowing in arms and allowing out unregulated minerals mined in the region. This led to a much tighter control on the border, which Armenians have characterized as a blockade. This month, Azerbaijan essentially closed the Lachin road altogether in the wake of a military altercation and has now proposed an apparently sensible alternative route for ICRC aid and supplies to be routed from the east via Agdam.
That has an obvious logic from a purely logistical point of view, and if all trade flowed that way, it’s likely that prices for goods would be far lower in rump-NK than they are at present. However, for merchants in Khankendi/Stepanakert, this would mean developing a whole new series of business connections with the previous ‘enemy’ and that Baku would have a much closer level of control over what could be sourced. So, in what appeared to be a strange turn of events, Karabakh Armenians set up concrete bollards and blocked the Agdam-Askeran road to prevent supplies being from delivered to them even while decrying a humanitarian disaster due to the blocking of the Lachin road.
It’s worth backtracking a little to recap the background of what’s been happening over the sweep of the last couple of years.
Following the November 9th tri-partite statement that ended the 2020 Second Karabakh War, Karabakh officially reverted to Azerbaijan—but the section of rump-Nagorno Karabakh around Khankendi/Stepanakert (where the population is Armenian) has remained in an administrative state of limbo while the politicians of Azerbaijan and Armenia struggle to find a formula for a definitive peace treaty. During this time, a de facto line of control has existed around that area, guarded by Russian peacekeepers and Azerbaijani troops. For most of the period since November 2020, the only practicable supply route for provisions has been the so-called Lachin Road— “so called” because the actual road was rerouted in the summer of 2022 to avoid the city of Lachin itself such that the return of Azerbaijani IDPs could get underway.
At the end of the 2020 war, part of the November 9th agreement stated that all “economic and transport connections in the region shall be unblocked.” However, the devil’s always in the detail, and disagreements emerged over how Armenia would open the route between the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhchivan and the rest of Azerbaijan—and whether such a route would be granted ‘corridor’ status as was initially given to the Lachin Road.
With no progress on the development of a new, frictionless Nakhchivan-Baku transport route and with the suspicion that rump-NK was receiving military supplies through the Lachin Road, Baku decided to install border controls on the Lachin Road in April 2023. The degree to which Karabakh Armenians have been allowed to pass through this checkpoint has been strongly contested, and the backdrop to the issue has been what Yerevan calls a “blockade” against the Karabakh Armenians but which Baku styles as an “ecological protest” by Azerbaijani NGOs concerned about illegal mining and its effects.
In mid-July, Baku proposed that ICRC aid should be routed from ICRC in Azerbaijan using the relatively direct route via Agdam. However, Armenians reacted angrily to this proposal setting up concrete blocks and a demonstration on the Agdam-Askeran road.
On July 26, a 400-ton supply convoy from Armenia was sent as far as the then-closed border on the Lachin Road to test international reactions and Azerbaijani resolve. The move was described as a “provocation” by Azerbaijan, with Baku reiterating on July 28 that the Agdam-Khankendi route is “fully operational for cargo transport to Karabakh Armenians.” Meanwhile, Armenia upped the ante, largely ignoring the Agdam option and instead bringing Yerevan-based diplomats from over a dozen countries to the Lachin Road border point to see the 400-ton convoy sitting at the closed checkpoint.
On social media, senior Baku officials have called upon the international community to understand their point of view and to encourage the switch of supplies to the Agdam Route. An EU statement meanwhile “took note of the expressed readiness of the Azerbaijani authorities” to supply goods via Agdam but insisted that this “should not be seen as an alternative to the reopening of the Lachin corridor.”
According to some sources, a “humanitarian crisis” is developing in Khankendi, with food and energy supplies dwindling catastrophically. In Yerevan, food has been piled in front of the UN office to draw attention to the issue. Some social media posts appear to show supermarkets virtually empty. However, others—widely shared by Azerbaijanis—appear to show Karabakh Armenians enjoying everyday evenings at local restaurants. And at night, Azerbaijanis in Shusha can see the merrily twinkling lights in nearby Khankendi, which doesn’t suggest any kind of power blackout.
The media war and political impasse continue.