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19 September 2023

Renewed Fighting Overshadows Humanitarian Aid Reaching Karabakh via Lachin and Aghdam 

On 19 September, Azerbaijan has enacted counter-terrorism measures in response to alleged terror attacks in the former NKAO. Onnik James Krikorian analyzes the recent developments

Renewed Fighting Overshadows Humanitarian Aid Reaching Karabakh via Lachin and Aghdam 

Image: MOD Azerbaijan

In what was termed a ‘counterterrorism operation’ by the Azerbaijani Ministry of Defence, fighting again resumed with ethnic Armenian forces entrenched in the former Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO). This followed earlier reports of seven deaths caused by landmines allegedly laid by Armenian sabotage groups on territory under Baku’s control. The Azerbaijani MoD said it responded by launching surgical strikes against military targets within Karabakh.

Ever since the November 2020 trilateral ceasefire statement, Azerbaijan has accused Karabakh of hosting forces from the Republic of Armenia, a claim Yerevan denies. Nonetheless, the military action followed clear signs that parallel peace processes could be close to collapse, with issues such as the disarming and transformation of the Karabakh military still remaining unresolved. Further, attempts to organize talks between representatives of the Karabakh Armenians and Baku continue to falter.  

Though military action had been expected, it nonetheless came as a surprise to many, given recent developments that had offered at least a glimmer of hope. 

Following the 12 September delivery of humanitarian assistance by the Russian Red Cross Society via Aghdam into territory temporarily under the control of the Russian peacekeeping contingent inhabited mainly by ethnic Armenians, another two trucks delivered more just five days later. This time, however, the vehicles were those from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and passed simultaneously via both the Lachin and Aghdam roads.

Consisting of one truck each from both directions, the ICRC vehicles carried flour of local production from Armenia and Russian and Swiss-made medicines and hygienic items via Azerbaijan. Their payloads are of significant importance given the situation the ethnic Armenian population in Karabakh now finds itself in.

Since significant restrictions were further strengthened at the Azerbaijani checkpoint installed earlier this year at the start of the strategic highway through Lachin that connects Armenia to Karabakh, certain goods have become increasingly scarce. Poor weather, the apparent storage of wheat by local farmers, and a shortage of fuel to deliver wheat to bakeries have led to long queues for bread in recent weeks.

Meanwhile, supplies of items not produced inside Karabakh, such as medicines and hygienic items imported from elsewhere, are close to exhaustion. Though Karabakh is relatively self-sustainable in terms of many food items, albeit now also facing problems in terms of delivery because of reported fuel shortages, these imported goods were the most sought after by the besieged population. 

However, delays in supplying the assistance are believed to be down to how and through which route they would be delivered by. Baku has insisted on supply via both Lachin and Aghdam, while the de facto Karabakh authorities rejected this, demanding that they be delivered from Armenia via Lachin only, concerned that to do so otherwise would be a step towards eventual integration into Azerbaijan.

But citing the “ongoing security and deepening disaster,” the de facto Karabakh authorities “decided to accept the proposal of ICRC and the commander of the Russian peacekeeping contingent,” they said in a statement issued the same day as the deliveries took place. They also announced that work is underway to organize a meeting between Karabakh representatives and official Baku.   

European Council President Charles Michel welcomed the deliveries, noting that both routes should now be ‘regularized.’ He also again urged Baku and the Karabakh Armenians to launch talks, which the European Union would be ready to support.

Image: aztv.az

"I hope that this consensus allows for our strictly humanitarian convoys to resume not just today but in the weeks to come so that we can regularly get aid to those who need it," Ariane Bauer, ICRC regional director for Europe and Central Asia, said in a statement. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken echoed that sentiment, calling it an “important step forward.”

In the preceding days, U.S. Senior Advisor for Caucasus Negotiations Louis Bono made surprise visits to both Yerevan and Baku, though it remains unknown whether this was connected.  

For the de facto Karabakh authorities, however, and assuming such deliveries continue via both Lachin and Aghdam, there still remains the issue of regular, uninterrupted supplies of gas and electricity from Armenia, especially before winter sets in, and that of the transportation of commercial goods. For Baku, it seems, that could be possible if such deliveries complied with the its customs regime.

Meanwhile, some political figures in both Armenia and Karabakh reacted angrily towards the acceptance of humanitarian aid via Aghdam even if other supplies came through Lachin. In Armenia, opposition MP Tigran Abrahamyan claimed that such a step will now only lead to the “movement of supplies” solely through Aghdam. Others might simply have scratched their heads. 

On 1 September, the same day the agreement to open both Lachin and Aghdam was announced, then de facto president Arayik Harutyunyan resigned precisely because of the emerging situation. Others, such as Anti-Crisis Centre head Tigran Petrosyan, were more blunt. "Step by step they are following integration,” he wrote on Facebook following the Aghdam delivery, labelling Harutyunyan, his two predecessors, and his replacement, Samvel Shahramanyan, ‘collaborators.’

Yet, for the de facto Karabakh authorities, it is most likely that they had no choice. Even Lachin, albeit ostensibly and temporarily under the control of the Russian peacekeeping contingent, is internationally recognized as Azerbaijani territory, leaving Karabakh totally isolated. It remains to be seen when meetings between the Karabakh and Azerbaijani sides will finally resume—and where. 

Following the 19 September military operation, the answer to that might come sooner rather than later. The de facto Karabakh authorities have already appealed to Baku to stop its operation while indicating their readiness to talk. In response, at the time of writing, Baku has said that it is prepared for such a meeting in the Azerbaijani city of Yevlakh, but only if Karabakh’s military surrenders and is disarmed and the de facto authorities dissolve themselves.