Dr. Benyamin Poghosyan

A Realistic Way to Mitigate Nagorno Karabakh’s Humanitarian Catastrophe

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As the humanitarian crisis deepens in Nagorno Karabakh with no light at the end of the tunnel, discussions are underway on how to solve this emergency. Russia, the US, and the EU are all making diplomatic efforts to find a solution.

Russia offered to start supplies via the Aghdam – Stepanakert road and then, within 24 hours, to restore supplies via the Lachin corridor. The US pushes forward the idea of simultaneously opening both roads while the EU explores all options and is ready to support any solution the sides can accept. Azerbaijan agreed to the Russian and the US offers, but with a caveat that the Lachin corridor can be used only through the full implementation of Azerbaijani legislation, including customs and other requirements. If this happens, it will permanently cancel the corridor status of the Lachin road, making it just another internal highway inside Azerbaijan.

Armenia insists on restoring the Lachin corridor in accordance with the November 10, 2020, statement, which automatically rejects the Azerbaijani vision. Meanwhile, at least publicly, the Armenian government refuses to discuss any issues about the launch of supplies from Aghdam. The authorities of the unrecognized Nagorno Karabakh Republic reject any possibility of receiving supplies via Aghdam, pointing out that it will become the first step towards the integration of Nagorno Karabakh into Azerbaijan, a prospect which the absolute majority of Armenians living in Nagorno Karabakh rejects vehemently. They argue that if Nagorno Karabakh is put under Azerbaijani jurisdiction, it will result in quick de-armenization of the region, as Armenians cannot live in Azerbaijan as Azerbaijani citizens given the anti-Armenian policy of Azerbaijan in the last 35 years, the anti-Armenian propaganda, and the level of hatred towards Armenians in Azerbaijan.

The political changes in the Nagorno Karabakh Republic and the election of Samvel Shahramanyan as the president of the Nagorno Karabakh Republic on September 9, 2023, will most probably further strengthen this vision among Karabakh leadership, according to which currently there are zero possibilities even to discuss the integration of Nagorno Karabakh into Azerbaijan.

In its turn, in the last days, Azerbaijan concentrated significant troops along Armenia – Azerbaijan borders and the Azerbaijan – Nagorno Karabakh line of contact. The Armenian government delivered its concerns about possible large-scale attacks against Armenia and/or Nagorno Karabakh by Azerbaijan, while expressing its readiness to start discussions with Azerbaijan to diffuse tensions. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan discussed these issues in his September 9 phone conversations with French and German leaders.

The unprecedented tensions in Armenia–Russia relations made the situation more complicated. In his September 8, 2023, statement, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs argued that the leadership of Armenia had taken a series of unfriendly steps in recent days, including the launch of the process of ratification of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, the trip of the Armenian prime minister’s wife to Kyiv with the transfer of humanitarian aid to Ukraine, and the holding of military exercises on Armenian territory with the participation of the United States. On September 8, the ambassador of Armenia to Russia was summoned to the Russian Foreign Ministry, and a note of protest was delivered to the ambassador.

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The overt preparations of Azerbaijan to launch a new large-scale attack against Armenia or/and Nagorno Karabakh, the rising tensions in Armenia – Russia relations, indirect signals from Iran that it will not tolerate an Azerbaijani attack against Armenia which may jeopardize Armenia – Iran land connections, the US efforts to decrease Russian influence in the South Caucasus, and the change of leadership in Nagorno Karabakh Republic have created a very complex and complicated geopolitical equilibrium in the region, making any short term solution to the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in Nagorno Karabakh even less likely.

In the current situation, many argue that the only way to prevent starvation and mass deaths in Nagorno Karabakh is to provide minimal food and other necessary products through an airlift or airdrop. Different options are being discussed, such as using the Stepanakert airport and sending humanitarian cargo by plane, even if Azerbaijan does not provide air passage through its territory, or using cargo drones that may fly from the Syunik region of Armenia and land in Stepanakert.

All options should be discussed, but while speaking about delivering humanitarian aid via air, one should not forget that there is a functioning air bridge between Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh, and that air bridge is organized by the Russian peacekeepers. Russian military helicopters are flying from Armenia and landing in Stepanakert almost daily. Azerbaijan has a right to check the cargo of these helicopters. However, it cannot cancel these flights and is not in a position to shoot down Russian military helicopters and kill Russian soldiers.

The population in Nagorno Karabakh is starving, and soon tens, if not a hundred, people may die from hunger daily. The region’s complex geopolitics does not allow for an easy solution to restore supplies of goods to Nagorno Karabakh by land routes. In the current situation, perhaps the only realistic solution is to increase the number of Russian helicopter flights from Armenia to Stepanakert to prevent deaths by hunger. The international community, individual countries, heads of regions, and mayors who are concerned by the growing humanitarian catastrophe in Nagorno Karabakh should apply to Russia, asking Russians to transport their humanitarian assistance to Stepanakert by Russian helicopters, offering any assistance Russians need to do that. The same applies to the authorities of Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh Republic.

It is impossible to bring life back to normalcy by delivering a few tons of goods to Stepanakert by helicopter, as before December 2022, 400 tons of goods entered Nagorno Karabakh daily. Nevertheless, by increasing the number of Russian helicopter flights to Stepanakert, one may prevent mass deaths while politicians are trying to find a long–term solution to the current crisis and the more significant issue of the future of Nagorno Karabakh.

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