Commentary: War between Armenia and Azerbaijan in 2023 is unlikely, but peace remains elusive

This is a commentary prepared by the editorial team of It was first published in the electronic newsletter Karabakh Concise on 5 January 2023.

For Armenia and Azerbaijan 2023 has started pretty much as 2022 ended. The two countries remain at odds with each other, and a peace process between them appears stalled. On the ground the continued stand-off on the Lachin corridor, where Azerbaijani activists block the free flow of traffic between Armenians in Karabakh and Armenia, shows no sign of easing.

It started on 12 December when Azerbaijani environmental activists appeared on the road, which is the only land connection between the Armenian populated parts of Karabakh and Armenia. The road is on Azerbaijani territory, but according to the 10 November 2020 trilateral declaration between Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia that ended the 2020 Karabakh War, Russian troops are supposed to ensure the safety and security of “the corridor”.

Whilst in the early days of the protest there was no movement at all on the road, the protestors subsequently started allowing vehicles of the Russian forces, and of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), to move freely. The ICRC for example has moved some patients from hospitals in Stepanakert to Yerevan. But for most of the population in Nagorno-Karabakh the situation feels very much like a blockade. There are reports of food shortages, and some people ended up in the wrong place when the protests started, and have not been able to get home.

The Azerbaijanis connect the protest to the exploitation of the natural resources of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is legally recognised as being Azerbaijani territory. But no-one really believes this is the only reason for the Azerbaijani action. It is likely that the Azerbaijani action was determined as a response to the arrival in Nagorno-Karabakh of the Russian-Armenian business tycoon, Ruben Vardanyan, who in September renounced his Russian citizenship and has now been installed as prime minister of the Armenian populated territory. Vardanyan’s arrival is quite a controversial development even within Armenian circles, and there is no clarity yet what his agenda is, and if he was, as the Azerbaijanis insist, sent by Moscow to serve their interests in the region. Whilst the stand-off continues the Russians have been playing by and large a passive role, not trying to move the protestors.

Armenia has been trying desperately to mobilise the support of international public opinion, claiming that Azerbaijan was in practice pursuing a policy of ethnic cleansing since the Armenian population of Karabakh cannot survive unless it is regularly supplied from Armenia. France, which maintains close ties with Armenia, convened the UN Security Council in December, but the Council failed to come to any conclusion. 

The extent to which the ongoing situation in Nagorno-Karabakh is a humanitarian crisis is not altogether clear. But for sure, the disruption of the only supply route for nearly a month would create a serious situation even in the most sophisticated societies. The flow of goods and people across the corridor therefore needs to be restored immediately. There should be more vocal demands for this from the international community. There is of course a legitimate Azerbaijani concern that what was supposed to be a humanitarian corridor may have been used to transport military equipment from Armenia into Karabakh, and natural resources, from Karabakh to Armenia. Monitoring the movement will be challenging and full of political pitfalls since the discussion will immediately impact the issue of the status of Nagorno-Karabakh, but some temporary solution should be found.

By bringing in the Russians as “peacekeepers” in 2020, Armenia and Azerbaijan added a new layer of complication to a situation that was already complex enough. The ambivalent role that the Russians have been playing in the ongoing stand-off in Lachin leaves many doubts about their end-game. One thing is clear, the Russians are in Karabakh for only one reason: to protect Russian interests.

The current stand-off in Lachin once more exposes the vulnerability of the Armenian position resulting from the military defeat in 2020, and the subsequent arrangements agreed with the Russians. The Armenian leadership is well aware of these vulnerabilities and has been trying, even heroically one can say, to manoeuvre around them. But within Armenia and in Nagorno-Karabakh there are some who appear to be completely oblivious to the new reality, and who continue speaking exactly the same language of pre-2020, achieving little else than hardening the Azerbaijani position.

In this situation some are predicting a new war in 2023, either triggered by the Azerbaijanis in an attempt to assert full control of what is left of the Armenian controlled territories of Karabakh; or by Armenia, wanting to unblock the Lachin corridor and regain some of the ground lost in 2020 and since. Both scenarios are unlikely. Whilst the possibility of a new war – as distinct from isolated bursts of violence – cannot be excluded at the moment, no-one wants it, and neither side can afford it.

Armenia is in no shape to fight a war, and runs the risk of losing even more ground if it starts one. But Azerbaijan also does not want another full-scale war. The whole Azerbaijani strategy towards the newly regained territories, including in Shusha, is predicated on peace. Billions of euros are being poured into developing these areas from the neglect and destruction of the previous three decades. Displaced populations are being prepared to return. Another war will seriously jeopardise these efforts.

Thus, as 2023 starts, the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaderships are back to where they were one year ago: needing as a necessity to consider the options for peace. Looking back at 2022 one can see the moments when prospects for peace looked good, and when they faltered. One does not need to be an astute political analyst to understand what caused the surges forward in the quest for peace, and what caused the setbacks. Mistakes were made by all – including the international community that has been trying to mediate. The Russian role has been far from constructive. Armenia and Azerbaijan have shown lack of sensitivity to each other’s red lines.

Lessons need to be learned from these mistakes. One also should not be overly pessimistic. Very useful work was done in 2022. And this can – and needs – to be the basis for going forward. Also, the idea of a peace treaty by the end of 2022 was always considered a rather naïve one by experienced observers, so the failure to achieve that goal should not be overdramatised.

In his final words in his address for New Year, Armenian prime minister Nikol Pashinyan said, “we will bring our ship, the Republic of Armenia, to a peaceful harbour in the stormy ocean”.  

Peace has so far proven elusive for Armenia and Azerbaijan, but it should be the main objective on which both sides need to focus in 2023.

This is a commentary prepared by the editorial team of It was first published in the electronic newsletter Karabakh Concise on 5 January 2023.