Azerbaijan Establishes Border Checkpoint Along Lachin Road
Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 20 Issue: 78
On April 23, Azerbaijan’s installation of a checkpoint along the Lachin road—the so-called “Miatsum road” (“unification road”)—can be considered the most significant tactical achievement for Baku since the end of the Second Karabakh War in 2020. Overall, the purpose of this checkpoint is to grant Azerbaijan complete control over the military and transit activities between Karabakh and Armenia. On April 30, the first images of Armenian cars passing through the checkpoint were released by the Azerbaijani media (Caliber.az, April 30). However, installation of the checkpoint seemed to be one of the primary reasons for the recent outbreak in fighting between the Azerbaijani and Armenian sides, which has threatened to derail recent European Union–mediated peace talks between Yerevan and Baku (Al Jazeera, May 12).
In March 2023, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev noted that, prior to the war in 2020, each settlement proposal from the former Minsk Group co-chairs (France, Russia and the United States) had approached Lachin differently, with Armenia considering the return of Lachin to Azerbaijan to be wholly unacceptable (President.az, March 28). This differed from Yerevan’s take on the five other formerly occupied districts adjoining the former “Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast” (Top-center.org, May 18, 2022).
However, on December 1, 2020, after suffering defeat in the 44-Day war, Armenia had no choice but to return the Lachin district, with 98.9 percent of residents being Azerbaijani, to Azerbaijan as laid out in the tripartite agreement (with Russia) of November 9, 2020. And indeed the territory was returned, save for control over the 5-kilometer-wide Lachin Corridor, which was transferred to the purview of the Russian peacekeeping forces (Commonspace.eu, November 10, 2020). Afterward, three articles from the tripartite statement became the main issues of ambiguity and disagreement among the parties. Two articles concerned the “road regime” for the region: Article 6 regarding the Lachin Corridor, which is the only passage that connects the Armenian-controlled section of Karabakh to Armenia and the outside world and where the Russian peacekeeping contingent is temporarily deployed, as well as Article 9 regarding the Zangezur Corridor, which passes through Armenian territory and is meant to connect Azerbaijan’s Nakhchivan exclave with Azerbaijan proper (see EDM, March 7). However, the tripartite document did not elaborate on the details of how these two roads should operate.
For its part, Azerbaijan offered to operate these “corridors” along the lines of two main principles. The first principle states that these corridors must not be used for military purposes or destabilization in the region. Article 4 of the tripartite agreement holds that the Russian peacekeeping forces shall be deployed concurrently with the withdrawal of Armenian troops from the area. According to Baku, not only has Armenia failed to withdraw all its troops from Karabakh, but Yerevan has also continued to supply personnel and military equipment to its remaining forces in Karabakh via the Lachin Corridor. Last year, the International Crisis Group released a report alleging that 12,000 soldiers were still serving in Karabakh (Crisisgroup.org, April 22, 2022; Report.az, March 13). In July 2022, Armenia had assured Azerbaijan that it would complete the full withdrawal of military forces from the region by September (Eurasianet, July 20, 2022).
Regarding the second principle, Azerbaijan is adamant regarding the need for reciprocity in administering the Lachin and Zangezur corridors. In fact, the reciprocity principle was first suggested by European Council President Charles Michel on December 14, 2021 (Europa.eu, December 14, 2021). This principle holds that, if a checkpoint is established in the Zangezur Corridor, then one must also be established along the Lachin road too. In turn, if extraterritorial control is cemented over Lachin, then the same must be true for Zangezur as well.
Michel also emphasized the importance of respecting the sovereignty of all countries when looking at transport and communications considerations for both roads (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, August 21, 2022). It seems that, for the European Council president, maintaining the sovereignty of all countries involved according to international law is the only way to overcome the myriad of ambiguities in the tripartite agreement and end the Russian monopoly over mediating control of these corridors in the future. In fact, the period set aside for the Russian peacemaking forces in Karabakh, including along the Lachin road, expires in 2025 according to the tripartite document, which means that Azerbaijan would have inevitably established a checkpoint there sometime in 2025.
Yet, the same document does not present an end date for the Russian Border Guard Service personnel on Armenian soil, who would be responsible for policing the Zangezur Corridor. Thus, Michel’s suggestion about the mutual respect for sovereignty over transport and communications considerations would represent one way for Armenia to remove Russian control over Zangezur. In this, Aliyev supported Michel’s initiative by inviting Armenia to install border checkpoints during a trilateral meeting with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan in Munich on February 18 (Aa.com.tr, February 19).
However, Armenia has rejected this approach, continuing to stick with the Russian-initiated agenda and interpreting the “corridor” as an extraterritorial regime on Azerbaijan’s sovereign territory (Azernews.az, February 23). Therefore, as can be expected, Yerevan has resisted and forcefully objected to Azerbaijan’s checkpoint on the Lachin road. The Armenian government argues that the tripartite document does not explicitly provide for the installation of such a checkpoint. Baku counters that, since no legal document has established a clear administration regime for neither the Lachin nor Zangezur corridors, then the checkpoint is not explicitly prohibited by the tripartite document. As a result, there are no legal means to stop Azerbaijan from installing the checkpoint unilaterally and restoring its sovereignty over the Lachin road.
Furthermore, Armenia has objected to providing extraterritorial control for Azerbaijan regarding the Zangezur Corridor and demands that border checkpoints be erected along this passage (News.am, October 27, 2022). Although the road to Nakhchivan is not explicitly referred as “a corridor,” unlike the Lachin Corridor, the tripartite document obliges Armenia to arrange the “unobstructed or unimpeded movement” of persons, vehicles and cargo in both directions (Eurasianet, January 20).
Even before the eruption of protests by eco-activists on the Lachin road on December 12, 2022, Azerbaijan had been voicing its objection to the violation of the non-military use of the corridor—more precisely, the reported transfer of landmines, military personnel and munitions to the region via the Lachin road shortly after the end of the Second Karabakh War (see EDM, January 19). As protests carried on for a number of months, the Azerbaijani Ministry of Defense regularly broadcasted videos that allegedly showed Armenian military supplies moving through Lachin accompanied by a Russian convoy. Furthermore, it seems that, based on Russian efforts to involve international actors in the dispute, including French politicians, such as Valérie Pécresse (Armlife.am, December 23, 2021); an Iranian sabotage group (Qafqazinfo.az, December 5, 2022); and, more recently, Russian oligarch Ruben Vardanyan (Meduza, February 7), Baku felt that installing a border checkpoint along the Lachin road was a necessity for countering such actions. As Article 6 of the tripartite document stipulates, the security provider of the Lachin Corridor is Azerbaijan. Thus, for its part, Baku contends that this checkpoint provides for the security and reinstitution of Azerbaijan’s sovereignty over its internationally recognized territory.