Irredentism Under the Guise of Humanitarian Aid: An Armenian and Russian Ploy

A convoy of Armenian trucks allegedly carrying “humanitarian aid” destined for the Armenian minority living in Azerbaijan’s Karabakh region is lined up at Armenia’s border with Azerbaijan. Armenia wants to send the trucks to the Karabakh region via a road through Azerbaijan’s Lachin District. The convoy appeared right after the sixth trilateral meeting of the heads of state of Armenia and Azerbaijan and the EU’s Charles Michel in Brussels on 15th July. At this meeting Charles Michel mentioned Azerbaijan’s willingness to deliver aid via its recently restored Agdam to Khankendi road and in a statement backed Azerbaijan’s proposal to facilitate the supply of aid via the Agdam road. So the convoy’s real purpose is not to avert a “grave humanitarian catastrophe” for the ethnic Armenians in Karabakh, but to impede the use of the Agdam road and any subsequent integration into Azerbaijan. It is a tool for Yerevan and those foreign actors interested in continuing conflict management as a geopolitical mechanism in the South Caucasus region.

The Lachin road, previously known as the Lachin corridor connecting the Armenian minority living in Azerbaijan to Armenia, functioned as an uncontrolled belt under Russian supervision for more than 28 months. Its use was intended to be solely for humanitarian purposes, but during this period, the Lachin road was misused and abused by both Russia and Armenia in order to strengthen the Armenian Armed Forces illegally stationed inside Azerbaijan and other illegal armed groups. The road was used to supply landmines and other weapons to the Armenians inside Azerbaijan and to rotate Armenian soldiers. Multiple warnings by Azerbaijan were ignored by Russia, Armenia, the EU and US. Landmines produced following the 2020 war and brought into Azerbaijan via the Lachin road have been discovered and put on public display. The Russian peacekeeping contingent has been filmed on many occasions escorting the delivery of weapons to the illegally stationed Armenian forces within the Karabakh region of Azerbaijan via the Lachin road, despite being warned that this action goes against the joint declaration of November 2020 which stopped the Second Karabakh War.

Since the signing of the trilateral declaration of November 2020, both Armenia and Russia have violated three key provisions of the declaration: provision four, which demands the immediate withdrawal of the Armenian forces from Azerbaijan in parallel with the deployment of Russian peacekeepers; provision seven, which requires the return of the refugees and IDP’s to their homes; and provision nine, which requires Armenia to ensure the unimpeded movement of citizens, goods and vehicles from mainland Azerbaijan to its exclave region of Nakchivan via a safe route. Both Russia and Armenia have violated all these provisions as Armenian forces remain on Azerbaijani land, Azerbaijani IDP’s and refugees are not allowed to return to their homes in Khojaly, Khankendi and hundreds of other villages in the areas of Azerbaijan controlled by Russia and Armenia, and Armenia refuses to provide a land link to Nakhchivan. Despite this, Armenia continues to insist on an extraterritorial land bridge between itself and the Armenian minority in Azerbaijan in order to continue its irredentist aspirations of annexing Azerbaijani lands. This meets Vladimir Putin’s geopolitical interests and is part of his policy to keep Russian troops in the region indefinitely.

Armenia’s new irredentism policy 

After losing the 44-day Karabakh War in autumn 2020 and subsequent diplomatic negotiations in three different channels – Brussels, Washington and Moscow – Armenia is continuing its irredentist claims against Azerbaijan. This policy is part of Prime Minister Pashinyan’s plan for so-called “remedial secession” which was outlined ahead of the 2021 elections. Azerbaijan’s peace formula is based on international law and in particular the principles of mutual recognition of territorial integrity and non-interference in others’ domestic affairs and has been welcomed by the international community and mediators. Armenia, though, continues to hinder the process, wanting to impose a condition concerning the so-called “rights and security” of the Karabakh Armenians under an international mechanism, which is a reworking of the central Armenian irredentist term of “status”. What Armenia is trying to do meets Russia’s goal of forming a mechanism, possibly under Russian supervision, involving “talks” between Azerbaijan and Karabakh Armenian irredentists (who receive their salaries from the Armenian budget). This would internationalise Azerbaijan’s domestic affairs in order to pave the way for the “remedial secession” scenario. Obviously, this is not going to be accepted by Azerbaijan.

Baku is offering reintegration and is ready to ensure the rights and security of the Armenian minority on a par with the many ethnic minorities living in Azerbaijan. It’s worth pointing out that Armenians live as ethnic minorities under far more restrictive regimes in, for example, Iran, Syria and Russia. Their reintegration into Azerbaijan will be ensured within the framework of Baku’s international obligations. Azerbaijan will develop the poverty stricken region, raising the living standards of the Armenians in Karabakh even higher than those of Armenians in Armenia.

Despite publicly recognizing Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity and that Karabakh is part of Azerbaijan, Armenian PM Nikol Pashinyan keeps avoiding signing a peace deal based on the five principles of international law. He is pushing his destructive condition of internationalising the talks between Azerbaijan and its potential citizens of Armenian origin in Karabakh with the aim of facilitating a remedial secession scenario as in Kosovo. The so-called “blockade” and “humanitarian catastrophe” stories are created in order to mislead the international community as part of that scenario. The social media accounts of Armenians living in Karabakh are full of pictures of food. Restaurants are open daily and accept reservations. Strangely enough, nobody talks about the Russian soldiers in Karabakh “starving”. The Lachin road is open and people pass through the border crossing checkpoint every day, so it can hardly be called a “blockade”. Azerbaijan is exercising its right as a sovereign nation to protect its borders.

Ironically, Russian oligarch Ruben Vardanyan with Russian peacekeepers’ help installed barriers – a blockade in other words – on the Agdam-Khankendi road and rejected any aid delivery from Azerbaijan. Vardanyan was sent by Vladimir Putin to hinder any possible talks and communications between Azerbaijan’s central authorities and Karabakh’s Armenians. The intention is clearly to prevent the reintegration of the region into Azerbaijan. The insistence on having an extraterritorial land corridor linking Karabakh to Armenia is part of the irredentist aspirations against Azerbaijan. In other words, Armenia and its proxies in Karabakh as well as Russia are against reintegration and are united in continuing the Armenian irredentist policies in the region for geopolitical reasons.

Russia’s goal? A mandate

Russia’s geopolitical goal is to use Armenian irredentist claims to continue its presence in the region. Russia wants to stay in Karabakh for decades, though the joint 2020 declaration puts a timeframe of five years on Russian peacekeepers’ deployment. Clearly, Azerbaijan is not going to extend Russia’s military presence in Karabakh beyond 2025. All the actions taken by Azerbaijan, such as the establishment of the border crossing point, its peace proposal, building a railway connection from Agdam to Khankendi where ethnic Armenians reside, and now demanding that supplies for the Russian contingent should be delivered via Agdam not via Armenia are all necessary steps to facilitate the withdrawal of the Russian contingent in 2025. That is why Russia is refusing the Agdam route and was against the Azerbaijani checkpoint on the Lachin road.

For Russia to stay in the region indefinitely it needs the continuation of the illegally installed Armenian irredentist entity in Karabakh. This means obstructing the reintegration process, which is the main reason for planting Russian oligarch Ruben Vardanyan in Karabakh. It also means not meeting obligations in the trilateral declarations to withdraw the remnants of the Armenian armed forces from Karabakh, and having an extraterritorial land bridge to Armenia.

Russia is also against the signing of a peace deal between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Vladimir Putin publicly blackmailed Armenians at the Valdai Forum in 2022, describing the Washington process as all about recognition of Karabakh as Azerbaijani territory. Right after Putin’s remarks Nikol Pashinyan sided wholly with the Russian proposal. The proposal envisages a status for Armenians in the future, and staying in Karabakh for decades until that future status is in place. This was rejected by Azerbaijan. Interestingly enough Pashinyan announced his readiness to sign a long-term mandate for Russian troops which also showed his support for Putin’s proposal. Pashinyan later revealed that Russia and Armenia had signed a mandate for Russian peacekeepers in 2020 which was rejected by Azerbaijan. This also shows that despite his supposed pro-Western image Pashinyan is desperately trying to facilitate Russia’s presence in the region indefinitely. Azerbaijan’s condemnation of the illegal activities of the Russian peacekeepers and Turkish President Erdogan’s remarks following NATO’s Vilnius Summit that he hopes Russia will fulfill its obligation and withdraw from Karabakh in 2025 are evidence that Azerbaijan is actively working to facilitate Russia’s departure.

No doubt Russia is also behind the Armenian aid convoy stunt as it strikingly resembles the Russian humanitarian aid incursion into Ukraine in 2014. The West condemned this as a violation of Ukrainian territorial integrity, although now it supports the joint Armenian-Russian incursion into Azerbaijan under the pretext of delivering humanitarian aid without Azerbaijan’s consent. As Armenian PM Pashinyan and Russia realise that Azerbaijan is not going to give Russia a long-term mandate to stay in Karabakh, Armenia and Russia are playing the so-called blockade and worsening humanitarian situation card in order to whip up media hysteria and get a UN mandate. This is the policy carried out by Armenia and Russia, and the West is falling for it.

[Photo by Kremlin.ru, via Wikimedia Commons]

Rufat Ahmadzada is a graduate of City, University of London. His research area covers the South Caucasus and Iran. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect TGP’s editorial stance.

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