by George Meneshian*
In 1992, images of emaciated Bosnian men and boys in a Bosnian-Serb concentration camp shocked the world. Yet, three decades on, starvation is once again being wielded as a weapon in a bitter European territorial dispute which is being shamefully overlooked by most world leaders.
For almost nine months, Azerbaijan has imposed a blockade on the Lachin Corridor, the only land route into the ethnic-Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh – also known as Artsakh – which is effectively under siege.
Supermarket shelves lie empty, vital medicines for serious health conditions are in desperately short supply, miscarriages are on the rise and a severe lack of fuel has led to rolling blackouts across the capital, Stepanakert. Civilians are starving, while farmers do not have enough fuel to harvest crops. Last month the first prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Luis Moreno Ocampo, warned that a ‘genocide’ was brewing.
Azerbaijan is hoping that its man-made famine will eventually strangle the enclave into submission, forcing the Artsakh authorities to dissolve their republic and allow Azerbaijan to take control. This would be the final move in a 30-year campaign for Azerbaijani dominance in the region.
Perpetual war footing
Ever since the Soviet Union broke apart in the early 1990s, war has threatened the Caucasus. In 1991-4, conflict erupted between now-independent Armenia and Azerbaijan, which both laid claim to Nagorno-Karabakh. Tens of thousands died and even more were displaced. Armenia emerged the victor and the Republic of Artsakh secured its independence, which had been formally declared in 1991 yet never recognised internationally.
Despite the ceasefire, both sides remained on a perpetual war footing, with sporadic clashes until September 2020 when Azerbaijan launched a full-scale offensive against Armenian forces in Artsakh. This time it held the advantage, having used its vast fossil-fuel wealth to purchase an array of Turkish drones and Israeli loitering munitions, which provided vital air supremacy in the battlefield.
The superior military technology, and cover from Turkey, allowed Azerbaijan to force Armenia swiftly onto the back foot, its military ally—Russia—failing to come to its aid. After two months of bitter fighting and Azerbaijani territorial gains, Russia brokered a ceasefire, deploying its own peacekeepers to keep the Lachin corridor open.
Russia’s reluctance to stand up to Azerbaijan highlights its waning influence in the Caucasus—a reality exacerbated by its reckless decision to invade Ukraine in February 2022. Yet Russia’s disastrous military gambit is one of the key factors distracting the West from the boiling tensions in the Caucasus.
The European Union, as with the United States, has thrown enormous financial, political, and military resources into Ukraine’s defence. This commitment has provided unwitting cover for the EU’s slow response to the actions meanwhile by Baku.
After the invasion, the EU tried to halt oil and gas imports from Russia, seeking supplies elsewhere. The Gulf States, Algeria, Israel, and Egypt helped to fill the void—but so did Azerbaijan, putting the EU in an awkward position regarding any negotiations over the Armenian-Azerbaijan conflict and the blockade of the Lachin Corridor.
Although France is supposedly preparing a resolution to submit to the United Nations Security Council, and the president of the European Council, Charles Michel, has encouraged a step-by-step approach, other diplomatic efforts by the EU, the US and even Russia to end the blockade have failed. Desperate pleas by the Armenian government to the UN and the International Court of Justice have seemingly fallen on deaf ears, leaving those trapped in Artsakh—but also those making the decisions in Azerbaijan—to believe Western leaders have all but turned their backs on the crisis.
The situation in the Caucasus—as in Ukraine—highlights how unresolved territorial disputes can open the door to future conflicts, as well as undermining key relationships in geopolitical hotspots. This is no more apparent than in the Far East, where regional disputes are affecting the outcome of conflicts in the South China Sea.
Just consider the longstanding Filipino claim to the Sabah region of Malaysian Borneo. For decades this dispute had largely been ignored, until militants—linked to an illegitimate heir of the defunct Sultanate of Sulu—landed on the coast of Sabah in 2013 and clashed with Malaysian security forces. Though Muedzul Lail Tan Kiram, head of the Sulu household, condemned the incursion, the violence left dozens dead and strained relations between Malaysia and the Philippines—two regional partners that remain key to repelling Chinese aggression in the South China Sea.
The clash still reverberates. Last year, the heirs of the sultanate were awarded $15 billion in a controversial arbitration case against Malaysia for non-payment of a colonial-era land-lease fee. The award was a serious blow to Malaysian public finances and once again raised tensions between Malaysia and the Philippines, which despite distancing itself from the case still officially lays claim to Sabah.
Fortunately, on appeal the award was annulled—the Spanish arbitrator behind the original case even faces criminal prosecution for contempt of court. However, the dispute eroded the credibility of international arbitration mechanisms, which remain a profoundly important instrument for the peaceful resolution of intricate and tense territorial disputes among sovereign nations.
Returning to the Caucasus, a failure of diplomacy now could have consequences for decades. To avoid the situation in Artsakh spiralling into genocide, more must be done by major powers to bring the countries in dispute to the negotiating table.
World leaders and the UN must step up their diplomatic efforts to end the blockade of the corridor, by undermining Azerbaijan’s strong negotiating position. If they succeed, this could even become a pivotal moment for Western powers offering a critical counterbalance to Russia’s waning influence in the region.
This begins with the realisation that energy security cannot trump human rights. The EU must step up investment in renewable energy production to wean itself off fossil fuels controlled by autocratic powers—a move long overdue.
But the union must also use every tool at its disposal. For example, Azerbaijan enjoys firm support from Turkey for its policy towards Armenia and Artsakh. Tthe EU must use its strong, if complex, ties to Turkey to press Azerbaijan to lift the blockade. Without Turkey’s unequivocal support, Azerbaijan would find itself very isolated in the region.
Flouting international norms
Time is of the essence. And dialogue—on which the European Council wishes to rely—can only go so far. If diplomatic negotiations do not progress, the UN must send human-rights investigators to assess Azerbaijan’s forced starvation of Artsakh. This could even entail slapping sanctions on Azerbaijan to help it understand it cannot act with impunity and flout international norms.
Without action, thousands of civilians in Artsakh—including children and newborn babies—are at risk of starvation and death. If Azerbaijan’s oil and gas wealth were to allow it to withstand meek diplomatic efforts to end the blockade, not only would the EU and others be complicit in an ever more serious humanitarian crisis, but genocide could once again darken the skies of Europe—emboldening autocrats and dictators around the world.
*International Relations and security expert specialising in the Middle East and the Caucasus, researcher at the Washington Institute for Defence and Security and the Institute of International Relations (IDIS) in Athens