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Armenia, Between a Rock and a Hard Place

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With the world’s attention focused on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Azerbaijan attacked Armenia’s sovereign territory on 13 September. Since then, Armenia’s main ally, Russia has offered to mediate and brought the two sides to the negotiating table. Russian mediation has halted the fighting for the time being, but it has not stopped Azerbaijan from cutting off the Lachin corridor linking Nagorno-Karabakh, with Armenia a month ago—a corridor controlled by Russian troops that were handed over to the Azeris on 25 August.

The only vehicles that have been able to pass through the blockade belong to the Red Cross and the situation in hospitals is becoming critical (gas supplies have been cut off in addition to the blockade) and there are fears of a serious humanitarian crisis. On the other hand, Armenia has formalized the purchase of arms from India in view of Russia’s failure to deliver military equipment already paid for by the Armenians.

This complex situation was verbalized on December 26 by Armenia’s Security Council Secretary Armen Grigoryan in an interview with Armenian public television in which he cited the difficult relations with the Russian “ally.”

Grigoryan claimed that Russia exerts strong pressure on Armenia to provide a corridor to Azerbaijan and join the Russia-Belarus Union State and noted that Armenian diplomatic efforts to improve relations with the Kremlin have been in vain: “The Armenian side has always been helpful. Despite being concerned about resolving the crisis over the Azerbaijani blockade of the Lachin corridor, we did not refrain from attending the 23 December meeting with the Russian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers”.

However, the Russian ally has sided with Azerbaijan and wants Armenia to hand over to its rival the so-called Zangezur corridor, a transport corridor that would connect Azerbaijan’s Nakhichevan region with the rest of Azerbaijan via the Armenian province of Syunik. “Armenia continues to resist this,” Grigoryan said.

The Security Council secretary also claimed that Russia is exerting military pressure to force Armenia to join the union state that includes Russia and Belarus, a possibility that the Armenian government rejects out of hand: “A union state completely violates the sovereignty of its constituent states. Armenia has been and will remain a sovereign state”, Grigoryan said, but “when Armenian democracy opposes this, it naturally comes under pressure of a different kind: military”.

On Christmas Day, Belarus’ ambassador to Armenia, Alexander Konyuk, spoke about the Union State, which is formed by Russia and Belarus, and the possibility of incorporating a third country: “I did not say which one, but our Armenian brothers supported us. I did not speak about any particular country, I repeat, but I am sure that the Union State will develop”. Grigoryan noted that the brothers referred to by the Belarusian ambassador “are perhaps among the opposition forces”.

Armenia has repeatedly unsuccessfully sought assistance from the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), and Russia, following Azeri aggression in September 2022. The lack of CSTO support provoked a new confrontation with Russia when Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian refused to sign the final declaration of the CSTO summit held at the end of November.

“Over the past two years, Armenia, a CSTO member country, has been the victim of Azerbaijani aggression on at least three occasions,” Pashinyan recalled, noting that the CSTO did come to Kazakhstan’s aid when Kazakhstan requested its intervention during the violent unrest in January. The CSTO’s excuse in previous clashes was that the conflict was not on the territory of one of its members, but in the separatist Nagorno-Karabakh region, but when Armenian territory has been attacked, the CSTO’s response has been to call for restraint on both sides.

Azerbaijan’s privileged relationship with Russia, now weakened and discredited by the war in Ukraine, and its alliance with Turkey, leave Armenia defenseless in the face of its neighbor’s territorial aspirations. Its president, Ilham Aliyev, claimed that the capital, Yerevan, and other parts of Armenia were historical Azerbaijani lands.

According to Tigrane Yégavian, a journalist and researcher at the French Intelligence Research Centre, the blockade of the Lachin corridor is not only aimed at pressuring Armenia to hand over the Zangezur corridor, but “to provoke the population of Nagorno-Karabakh to leave their homes and go to Armenia. The ultimate goal is ethnic cleansing”. Armenia’s Achilles’ heel is its weak international position.

The EU, which signed an agreement with Azerbaijan in July to double natural gas supplies by 2027, prefers to look the other way. Of course, there have been statements calling for the reopening of the Lachin corridor from the EU, some of its member states (the Spanish Congress voted unanimously for a resolution to this effect), and the U.S., but no condemnation or threat of sanctions. According to Yegavian, only France is showing stronger support for Armenia and even the French Catholic Church has shown its solidarity with the Armenian people while “Pope Francis remains silent in the face of the attacks against the first Christian country in history”.

If the statements of the “international community” do not translate into sanctions against Azerbaijan’s policy of aggression, Armenia will be alone and at the mercy of the interests of Russia and Turkey. Between a rock and a hard place.

Álvaro Peñas is a political analyst specializing in Eastern European countries. He writes for El Correo de España and several European digital outlets. He is deputy director of two programs on Decisión Radio and a regular contributor to the television channel 7NN.

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