On Sunday, the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan signed on to a U.S. State Department-brokered humanitarian ceasefire that took effect at 8 a.m. local time this Monday.
In theory, the ceasefire should bring a temporary halt to nearly a month of fighting over control of the mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh region that Russian President Putin claims has already cost over 5,000 lives.
An hour later, Armenia reported shelling by Azerbaijani forces. There have since been more reports on major fighting in multiple sectors and military aviation activity near the Armenia/Azerbaijan border.
Azerbaijan’s Pres. Ilham Aliyev also gave a speech today objecting to international interference in the conflict, asserting that “in the current situation, we see there is a military solution.” He also warned in the speech that Turkish F-16 fighters based in Azerbaijan would be used to retaliate in the event of foreign intervention, likely referring to Russia in particular.
Given that two prior ceasefires almost immediately fell apart, the odds of the current one lasting are tenuous unless the belligerents are genuinely willing to make a serious and sustained diplomatic effort. A meeting involving the Minsk Group (France, Russia and the United States) is set to convene on Thursday.
Without diplomatic progress, the ceasefire may merely give both sides a brief breather as they prepare for an even more intense round of fighting focusing on the so-called Lachin Corridor.
That’s because the corridor contains the only major highway connecting the de-facto Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (also called Artsakh) to the country of Armenia.
The Lachin corridor refers to the loan road running through Lachin that connects Stepanakert, … [+]
Author, using Google Maps Imagery
After capturing most of the southern border with Iran, on October 22, Azerbaijani forces appeared to turn northwest. A cellphone video posted on the internet showed an Azerbaijani mechanized column temporarily delayed by a vehicle immobilized by a mine.
If Lachin were seized by Azerbaijani forces, not only would it cut of the NKR capital of Stepanakert from receiving fuel, ammunitions and reinforcements; it would also cut off the only the route by which refugees in Nagorno-Karabakh could flee to Armenia.
Last Saturday, Armenian forces apparently mounted a counterattack against the forward Azerbaijani elements. An NKR official claimed in a recorded briefing that it had repelled these forces southward down the highway.
Armenian and Azerbaijani authorities have frequently released contradictory claims as to territorial control. But a conservative interpretation suggest that the advance in this sector was at least temporarily stalled short of the coveted corridor.
Armenian forces also began a counter-offensive near the far southwestern border of Armenia and Azerbaijan. Possibly staged from Armenian territory, the offensive may be aimed at diverting pressure away from Lachin. An Armenian video showing seven captured Azerbaijani BTR-70 armored personnel carriers has been geolocated to that sector.
The Pass Running Through Decades of War
Lachin, which means “hawk” in Azerbaijani, is itself is emblematic of the contradictions that have made the war so bitter. It is one of seven rayons (districts) outside of Nagorno-Karabakh occupied by Artsakh, which are a particular source of grievance to Azerbaijanis.
A truck drives on the so-called Lanchin corridor in 2007 in Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan. The Lachin … [+]
Soviet-era survey show that Armenians were generally the majority population of the Nagorno-Karabakh autonomous region. But surveys also showed the Lachin rayon, situated in between Nagorno-Karabakh and the Soviet republic of Armenia, as being 80% to 94% Azerbaijani.
Nonetheless, when Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh fought to secede from Azerbaijan in 1992, they seized Lachin to create a land corridor between Armenia and the NKR. Most of Lachin’s Azerbaijani population were forced to flee, becoming refugees in their own country.
Azerbaijan. Nagorno-Karabakh, Lachin City was captured by Armenian military units. Photo ITAR-TASS / … [+]
TASS via Getty Images
The NKR renamed Lachin town by the Armenian name of Berdzor. Later, as civil war ravaged Syria, Syrian Armenians fled to Armenia and were resettled in this sector of the NKR.
Azerbaijan. Lachin is captured by Armenian military units. Photo ITAR-TASS / Andrei Solovyov; … [+]
TASS via Getty Images
The NKR’s occupation of Lachin was premised on strategic reasons: if Azerbaijani forces succeed in closing the corridor, they could completely isolate the NKR from external support. If the logistical link is severed, NKR forces would be cut off from the flow of fuel, munitions and reinforcements.
The town of Lachin/Berdzor in 2010 and the critical road running through it.
User Lyonking, released for public use under CC3.0 BY-SA license.
Even seizing terrain affording a good view of the road could render daytime transit on it impossible as convoys would be exposed to observed indirect fire from mortars and artillery, or even direct-fire from armored vehicles and anti-tank guided missiles. Even night travel would be perilous due to the prevalence of infrared sensors on armored vehicles and drones.
With supply lines severed, civilians in Nagorno-Karabakh could be cut off from food, running water and heat during the forthcoming Caucus winter. Furthermore, they may be denied a route by which to flee to Armenia. The result could be a humanitarian disaster in which casualties of trapped civilians spike due to lack of food and medical supplies, exposure to cold, and non-stop artillery bombardment.
A medical worker talks to a sick woman in a bomb shelter in Stepanakert, the separatist region of … [+]
The extent of Azerbaijani President Aliyev’s objectives in the current conflict remain unclear. If he hopes to recapture all or most of Nagorno-Karabakh, he might see isolating it to be a means to weaken its heavily fortified defenders. However, the humanitarian disaster that could ensue would cause international pressure to mount on Baku, and increase pressure on Russia to intervene.
Azerbaijan might instead see capture of the highway as a way to gain leverage when seeking to secure less absolute objectives, notably regaining control of the Azerbaijani rayons outside of Nagorno-Karabakh held by Armenian forces.
GORIS, ARMENIA – OCTOBER 24: Refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh board a coach as they flee to safety in … [+]
However, Lachin’s pivotal geographic position as one of those rayons underscores why Armenians fear compromise could render Nagorno-Karabakh difficult to defend in future conflicts.
For example, Aliyev has identified regaining control of the NKR-controlled town of Shusha/Shushi as a priority. Formerly a mixed-ethnicity community of cultural and religious importance to both Armenians and Azerbaijanis, its Armenian population was driven out in a pogrom in 1920; Azerbaijanis were forced out in May 1992. That town is not only situated a short distance away from the capital of Stepanakert, but lies in between it and Armenia.
View from a broken window of a building near the Shushi cathedral, Ghazanchetsots Cathedral, after … [+]
NurPhoto via Getty Images
Border War Risks
Prior to the ceasefire, Armenian troops appear to have been committed to containing the Azerbaijani advance towards Lachin. Because the Azerbaijani advance units approaching Lachin themselves likely depended on narrow, extended lines of communication, they too may have been vulnerable to having their supply lines cutoff.
Observers have also noticed a trend in recent combat footage suggesting that Armenian troops may have fallen back from fortifications on relatively open ground to forested positions.
Not only would forested terrain inhibit observation and attack from drones, but the short lines of sight on the ground limit their exposure to observed artillery fire and make it easier to ambush enemy forces piecemeal.
However, forces confined to the woods may be less effective in interdicting the movement of Azerbaijani forces beyond, which could pose problems when it comes to defending Lachin.
Furthermore, a battle for Lachin would intrinsically take place next to the border with Armenia and Armenian town of Goris. And that carries significant risks for both sides.
Both Yerevan and Baku lean on Artsakh’s status as a de facto secessionist republic in what is internationally recognized as Azerbaijani territory to manage escalation risks. Officially, Armenia is not at war with Azerbaijan and vice versa, and the fighting is ostensibly between Azerbaijan and the NKR.
This dubious technicality provides a legal rationale for both sides to avoid waging more unrestricted warfare. While some cross-border attacks appear to have been mounted, they have been limited in scale and cloaked in ambiguity.
For example, there appear to have been some limited missile and/or drone attacks on targets in Armenia which Azerbaijan has not taken credit for. Armenian troops have launched Scud and Tochka ballistic missiles at Azerbaijani cities—but truthfully or not, Yerevan denies they were fired from inside the country of Armenia.
One risk for Baku is that an attack on target in Armenia could inadvertently strike, or come close to hitting, Russian military units in Armenia. That could compel Moscow to intervene in the war. If inclined, Putin might also position Russian units in the country to shield Armenian formations. Indeed, Russian formations reportedly have been stationed directly adjacent to Lachin.
In an intense fight for Lachin, Armenian commanders may be tempted to provide artillery support from across the border. But doing so too extensively might incite Azerbaijani escalation, or upset Moscow if it feels that Yerevan is trying to exploit its alliance.
Ultimately, the Lachin corridor seems destined to become a major flashpoint unless diplomatic efforts can capitalize on the ceasefire to explore a new status quo for the region. That might require finding ways to decouple the role that military force wielded by both sides has historically played in determining which ethnicity is permitted to dwell within a community, and which are compelled to flee.
Updated 10:45 a.m. EST with details on the fraying of the ceasefire, new comments made by Pres. Ilham Aliyev, and mention of Russian deployment near Lachin.