The blockade in Nagorno Karabakh and the two Armenian foreign policies

By Ilya Roubanis

There are two interrelated but distinct Armenian foreign policies that evolve against different time constraints, security limitations, and diplomatic opportunities. From an Armenian perspective this tallies with two Armenian states, one of them is the Armenian state run from Yerevan and the other run by the self-proclaimed Republic of Artsakh and run from Stepanakert. From an international perspective there has only been one Armenian foreign policy and substantive differentiation was treated at best as functional compartmentalisation. The two diplomatic narratives were as indistinguishable, largely because of the political weight of the political and military elite of Nagorno-Karabakh in Armenia, which dominated pan-Armenian politics for the first generation of post-Soviet independence. Until the Second Karabakh war of 2020, the social and economic integration between the self-proclaimed Republic and the state of Armenia made the distinction between foreign policy narratives redundant. That is no longer the case.  

Nagorno Karabakh’s (NK) blockade has received plenty of media coverage, even as the press in Europe and the United States tends to view political developments in the Caucasus through the distorted prism of “Russia versus the West.” Identifying how the disruption of food, energy, medicine, and the economy of NK relates to the evolution of Europe’s security landscape is not a straightforward proposition. Russia’s assertiveness is measurable, whereas it is unclear what a Russian power vacuum would look like. To gain an understanding, look no further than Nagorno Karabakh.  Pursuing the question of how the distance between Yerevan and Stepanakert in Nagorno-Karabakh is growing, as well as how it is related to unfolding events in Ukraine, this paper is founded on sixteen interviews with diplomats, political leaders, activists, academics, and journalists in Stepanakert (Az: Khankendi), Yerevan, Baku, Paris, London, and Washington.

Karabakh, Armenia & the Russian Security Vacuum

On December 12, 2022, Azerbaijani protestors blocked the Lachin Corridor, a 70km long and five-kilometre-wide strip of land linking the self-proclaimed Republic of Artsakh with Armenia. They were protesting mining practices in the Armenian enclave although the Armenian press was not convinced the blockade was related to environmental concerns.[1] Τhe Armenian American journalist Eric Hacopian referred to them as Azerbaijani’s “secret service assets” and Area Studies specialist Thomas de Waal called them out as Baku’s version of “Little Green men.”[2]

For the Armenians of NK, the blockade brought deterioration of public health conditions, disruptions in the supply of food and medicine, electricity blackouts, natural gas disruptions, business closures, and school shutdowns. Baku played down the impact of the blockade, pointing to the facilitation of emergency transit by the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Russian peacekeeping forces. Stepanakert counters that the need for the interception of the ICRC underscores the humanitarian cost of the blockade.[3] Azerbaijan will not formally address these concerns, as the self-proclaimed Republic of Artsakh is considered a breakaway republic rather than a legitimate counterpart. In sum, this is a domestic affair.

The disruptive blockade was not entirely unexpected either in Yerevan or Stepanakert. Azerbaijani troops gained control over a key crossroad of the Lachin corridor in August 2022,[4] presenting Russian peacekeepers with a litmus test as to their resolve to maintain the status quo. Unless they reacted, the possibility that Azerbaijan would disrupt the flow of goods and people from Yerevan to Stepanakert was the security equivalent of Chekhov’s gun. For Baku there is a diplomatic prize: with control over Lachin, Azerbaijan can apply pressure on NK, set the diplomatic framework, and then release or mount pressure on the Armenian population without the need for full-scale mobilisation and diplomatic complications. As people experience war conditions, there is no need for a war.  

When the Lachin Corridor was blocked in December 2022 the question was whether the Russian peacekeepers would take a more assertive position. They did not and Armenian commentators have in fact argued that Russia pre-approved the Azerbaijani advancement. Russia’s modest peacekeeping force consists of 1,960 servicemen deployed in checkpoints along the line of contact between Azerbaijani forces and the ethnic Armenian population. Their mandate is founded on Article 6 of the November 2020 Russian-mediated Ceasefire Agreement,[5] which explicitly stipulates Russian control over the Lachin Corridor. Following the blockade, Baku has made clear that Russian troops stand in the middle but that is not the same as keeping the enclave secure.

An equivalent security vacuum has been experienced in the Republic of Armenia. On September 13, 2022, Azerbaijani troops advanced in positions in southeast Armenia, within reach of Kapan, Goris, Vardenis, and Jermuk in the southeast. At the time, Yerevan sought the intervention of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), whose article 4 commits member-states to the defence of each members’ sovereignty. Importantly, similar incursions have been ongoing since May 2021 and Armenia has seen little to no reaction from Russia or other allied states. Calls for suspension of membership are common,[6] although Russia still has strong sympathies in certain political circles. But the idea of Russia as an elder brother has been eroding.   

Azerbaijan’s “corridor for corridor” diplomacy

The relationship between Russia, Armenia, and the self-proclaimed Republic of Artsakh is rapidly evolving. An International Crisis Group report in May 2022 suggested there were seasonal gaps in the Russian peacekeeping force in Karabakh.[7] In an interview with an official from Stepanakert, I was told that Russian troop numbers remain constant, but soldiers are sent on six rather than three months rotations. There are no substantive gaps over a prolonged period of time. However, although the war in Ukraine is not affecting numbers it is clearly transforming the scope of the Russian mission. It has been clear for months that Russian forces will not maintain the status quo by taking an assertive posture vis-à-vis Azerbaijan.[8] This particular conflict can no longer be regarded as frozen.

Three independent sources with intimate knowledge of the diplomatic and national security landscape confirm that Armenia is for the moment focusing its efforts on status quo maintenance. The military balance limits all other options.[9] This posture entails the disruption of further Azerbaijani military encroachment in Southern Armenia and support for Karabakh Armenians to remain in place. Meanwhile, Azerbaijan is advancing a language of diplomatic equivalence between the security situation in Southern Armenia and the security situation in Karabakh.  

In July 2021 Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev formulated a territorial claim.[10] The point of departure was the provision of Article 9 of the November 2020 ceasefire agreement, stipulating that Armenia must ensure “security of transport connections between the western regions of the Republic of Azerbaijan and the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic.” In securing a connection between Azerbaijan and its exclave, Azerbaijan claims the right to an equivalent “corridor,” a term with connotations of an extraterritorial status. The claim over the strip of land in Southern Armenia was branded the “Zangezour Corridor” and was articulating in terms of a historical link between “Western Zangezour,” referring to Armenia’s Syunik region, and “East Zangezour,” in Azerbaijan.

One of the primary objectives of the recent blockade of the self-proclaimed Republic of Artsakh appears to be an Azerbaijani demand for checkpoints along the Lachin Corridor, equivalent to the ones Armenia would want to position along the Corridor that Azerbaijan is demanding across the Armenian south. In the words of an advisor to the President of the self-proclaimed Republic of Artsakh, Arayik Harutyunyan, Azerbaijan pursues a “corridor for corridor” agenda. The Azerbaijani argument is that the Lachin Corridor should be the normative yardstick for the so called Zangezour Corridor: no customs checks in Lachin should mean no customs checks in the Armenian south; Armenian customs checks along the Armenian south should mean Azerbaijani checkpoints along the Lachin Corridor. “It is our right,” President Aliyev has said, because “this is our territory, recognised by the international community.”[11]

Neither Yerevan nor Baku are entirely satisfied to follow through with the logical conclusion of extraterritoriality. Yerevan has already authorised the presence of Russian troops, with little added value to national security, and the setting up of checkpoints would only consolidate the extraterritoriality of a communication artery Armenia does not want to see branded as “a Corridor.” Naturally, Russian checkpoints are better than Azerbaijani. Similarly, Azerbaijan does not want the renewal of the Russian peacekeeping mandate in NK beyond 2025 as this would prolong the internationalisation of the enclave’s status as opposed to the consolidation of sovereign control.

To deter and contain Azerbaijan’s deployment in South Armenia, Yerevan has concluded a series of military procurement deals with India,[12] invited[13] an EU monitoring mission, and reached a new understanding with Iran. This multi-vector policy is effective in Armenia but less effective in Nagorno Karabakh. There, the Russian vacuum poses existential challenges.

The EU mission in Southern Armenia was conceived at the European Community Summit in Prague in October 2022.[14] The mission’s two-month mandate envisioned the deployment of unarmed EU officials along the Armenia-Azerbaijan border to monitor and report on the security situation; the mission’s mandate was renewed for a two-year period in February 2023. In the words of an Armenian diplomat, “as long as EU observers are deployed, shelling and full-scale mobilisation will be impractical” {for Azerbaijan}. An Azerbaijani diplomatic source told me that not only Baku is not happy with the EU mission, but it is also displeasing to the Russians, and the commitment of both to stay on in the region is mutually reinforcing.  

Additional deterrence is provided by Iran,[15] which opened a consulate in Kapan, South Armenia, affirming Tehran’s resolve to retain control over this key transit route. That resolve has been underscored by large-scale Islamic Revolutionary Guard exercises along the border with Armenia. In the words of an Iranian source with intimate knowledge of Tehran’s diplomatic posture in the region, “Iran has red lines and military drills are not just posturing; it’s for real.”

In sum, to maintain the status quo, Armenia needs to foster new alliances. To safeguard its sovereignty, Armenia pursues a multi-vector policy that no longer relies exclusively on Russia,  because it has proved unreliable. But when it comes to the status quo in Karabakh, Russia is the only security guarantor. This became a matter of public record in March 2022, when the Armenian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ararat Mirzoyan, suggested that Karabakh was a matter of “rights, not sovereignty,”[16] a position that was interpreted as an indirect recognition of Azerbaijan’s sovereignty within its internationally recognised borders, consistent with the November 2020 ceasefire agreement. De facto, this creates a rupture between Yerevan and Stepanakert.

One nation, two foreign policies

Armenian diplomats, political analysts, and journalists suggest that the government of Nikol Pashinyan has resolved that the struggle for the recognition of the self-proclaimed Republic of Artsakh is now unrealistic. Instead, his administration is trying to elicit from Azerbaijan the recognition of a special status for the Armenian population of NK and in any event gain time.[17] As Armenian diplomats argue, from 1994 to 2020 the Armenian military was the ultimate guarantor of the security of the Armenian population of Karabakh. Therefore, the lack of recognition for the self-proclaimed Republic of Artsakh was largely inconsequential. Following the November 2020 ceasefire agreement, the sole guarantor of Armenian security is the Russian peacekeeping force whose strategic posture is determined in Moscow rather than Yerevan. What is rarely said but often implied by Armenian diplomats, analysts, and journalists is that Yerevan is gradually abandoning a position of “constructive ambiguity” over the status of NK, as Yerevan commits to the inviolability of sovereign territory and, therefore, uti possidetis. In other words, Armenia is investing in “rights in Karabakh” to entrench support for the inviolability of sovereignty in Armenia.[18]

Since September 2021, Azerbaijan’s corridor-for-corridor policy has made the compartmentalisation of these two distinct diplomatic principles less tenable by putting troops in southern Armenia. Yerevan can claim that the “rights not sovereignty” line is yielding some results, pointing to the recent ruling by the International Court of Justice (ICJ), submitted by Armenia, which calls on Azerbaijan to guarantee free movement along the Lachin Corridor.[19] According to international law, this decision is binding, but is not enforceable as no one is about to send troops to Azerbaijan to push back Azerbaijani protestors. Diplomats will ultimately argue that Armenian security cannot be reduced to the security of Nagorno-Karabakh and there are wider considerations. Yerevan will do what Yerevan can do but there are two sets of priorities in Yerevan and Stepanakert that are not strictly aligned.  

In truth, the “rights versus sovereignty” position builds on a deeper polarisation in Armenian politics. Historically, Karabakh was a laboratory for Armenian politics, as leaders demonstrating competence in Stepanakert went on to play a prominent role in Yerevan politics: Levon Ter Petrosyan (1991-1998), Robert Kocharyan and Serzh Sargsyan (1998-2018) made their mark in Stepanakert before dominating politics in Yerevan for the first 20 years of the country’s independence. Nikol Pashinayn was a prominent member of the opposition for over a decade before coming to office in 2018. While in opposition, Pashinyan was promising a lustration campaign against the Karabakh clique,[20] oligarchs, as well as promising to leave Russia’s orbit, foster closer ties with the EU,[21] and conclude a land-for-peace deal with Azerbaijan,[22] The closer he came to power, the more this message was tamed and diluted.

 Upon coming to office in 2018, Pashinyan’s revolution was branded “velvet” rather than “colour,” specifically to gain some compatibility with Russian interests.[23] Pashinyan gradually left behind his opposition persona, keen to become the leader of all Armenians, reconnect with estranged movements in the Diaspora, and built bridges with Stepanakert. Some argue he “overcompensated.” Pashinyan visited Stepanakert in 2019 to lead the crowds in chants calling for the unification of Armenia and NK, thereby undermining the traditional diplomatic position of “strategic ambiguity,” in which Yerevan promoted close integration that fell short of annexation or recognition of sovereignty.[24]  

Following the Second Karabakh War, Pashinyan gradually shifted towards a “rights not sovereignty” position that seemed consistent with his ambitions as an opposition leader but not his track record in power. The pushback was considerable: a former member of parliament from the Prime Minister’s bloc, Tatev Hayrapetyan, talked to me about her resignation from Pashinyan’s ruling Civic Contract bloc as being linked to appeasement politics. As one would expect, the government does have a strong support base who see in Pashinyan a realist that accommodates to changing circumstances. Indisputably, Yerevan shoulders the cost of running a government in Stepanakert to the tune of $300 million a year. However, the exclusive dependence of the self-proclaimed Republic of Artsakh on Russian troops contrasts with Yerevan’s multi-vector diplomacy. Yerevan now needs to politically manage the strategic rupture that this reframed ambiguity implies.  

The Rise and Fall of Ruben Vardanyan

This  delicate political balance was made harder by the coming to office of Ruben Vardanyan. Vardanyan is an Armenian-born investment-banker who launched a business empire from Moscow that stretched worldwide. Unusually for oligarchs, there is little evidence to suggest he was involved in politics to guarantee his personal safety – perhaps, quite the opposite – and came to the scene with a track record in charity, particularly in education. Furthermore, he came into politics with his own media assets, economic resources, and political levers and could not be easily pigeonholed as pro-government or opposition, either in Yerevan or in Stepanakert. The dramatic renunciation of his Russian citizenship in September 2022 and his move to Stepanakert signalled the possibility of repeating the historical pattern of making a name in Karabakh before moving to the central political scene in Yerevan. In November 2022 Vardanyan was appointed State Minister in NK and faced the enclave’s biggest social and security crisis since the Second Karabakh War. The blockade could make or break his political legacy; it appears it broke it.

Vardanyan’s political dowry was international media attention. His business clout in Moscow, London, and the United States has been supercharging media engagement with Karabakh.  Reuters, The Economist, LA Times, and Axios – to name but a few – have been covering unfolding events and fuelling political attention. At the peak of his media campaign, Vardanyan was interviewed by the BBC[25] putting on a face of defiance and promising that the self-proclaimed Republic of Artsakh would hold out. On February 23, 2023, he was dismissed by the President of Nagorno-Karabakh, Arayik Harutyunyan.[26] The dismissal did not bring on a political standoff; instead Vardanyan committed to remaining in Stepanakert and thanked Harutyunyan for the cooperation. There is speculation the two men remain political allies and, for the moment, Vardanyan remains in Stepanakert.  

Sources in Stepanakert with intimate knowledge of the unfolding situation suggest Baku and Stepanakert opened discussions as soon as Vardanyan left office. The blockade remains in place and tension does not appear to be easing off.[27] Nonetheless, Baku has apparently been promised remote access to check points via scanners that will inspect transit cars for weapons. A source in Baku echoes this information. Following Vardanyan’s departure the blockade remains in place. Baku continues to frame the negotiation as a “reintegration agenda” with its own citizens, a position not entirely popular in Stepanakert or in Yerevan. An Armenian diplomatic source confirms that Yerevan is not involved in these talks. For the self-proclaimed Republic of Artsakh this is a discussion between two sovereign entities but for Baku this is nothing but a domestic affair. What its abundantly clear is that Yerevan cannot guarantee NK security and Russia is not committed to doing so. In this scheme, there are broadly two narratives accounting for the rise and fall of Ruben Vardanyan.

The first account begins with the Munich Security Conference, when three South Caucasus leaders shared a common panel with the Secretary General of the OSCE.[28] There, President Aliyev of Azerbaijan made clear that he is willing to engage with Karabakh Armenians but not with Ruben Vardanyan. About a week later Vardanyan was dismissed. The opposition sees this as part of a narrative of appeasement and in effect “President asks, President gets.” A second account suggests that the decisive factor in Vardanyan’s dismissal was not Yerevan but Moscow. In the beginning of January there were rumours that first Harutyunyan and then Vardanyan travelled to Moscow,[29] not together but successively. Two sources with intimate knowledge of diplomatic and national security developments suggest that Vardanyan was told that lifting the blockade required his departure. In sum, the President asked, but his question was directed to Moscow.

There are of course journalists and diplomats arguing that the truth is somewhere in the middle. Azerbaijan did lobby Moscow to oust Vardanyan but neither Yerevan nor Stepanakert put up much of a fight to keep him put. Having left office, Vardanyan can no longer act as a spokesperson of the self-proclaimed Republic of Artsakh, attract global attention, and create problems Baku does not want and Yerevan cannot address. Nor did the Armenian opposition rally behind him, as Vardanyan is perceived as seating on fence on key issues, such as the defeat in the Second Karabakh War, alienating Russia, or the perceived policy of appeasement.

Baku no longer deals with someone that has access to global airwaves. The blockade of Karabakh continues but negotiations are ongoing and Yerevan is gaining time even if Stepanakert’s population is under pressure. Vardanyan’s removal appears to reflect simultaneously a desire from Yerevan to gain time, Stepanakert to ease pressure, Baku to frame the diplomatic narrative, and Moscow’s desire to manage the status quo while Ukraine remains the overarching priority. This point of convergence should not be mistaken for a balance. Yerevan is looking elsewhere for diplomatic protection and Vardanyan’s assertive posture in Stepanakert undermined status quo maintenance. Stepanakert seeks to ease pressure in a security vacuum, with imperfect support from either Yerevan or Moscow. The status quo is a blockade with humanitarian implications. Clearly, the course of the war in Ukraine will determine how big a rift there is between Yerevan and Stepanakert. As Armenia accommodates to the evolving security landscape, divergence of priorities between Yerevan and Stepanakert are inescapable. Yerevan tries to create choices, as Russia withdraws, while Stepanakert needs to ease the pressure now. This is no longer a single foreign policy as it evolves with different security constrains, parallel diplomatic processes, and not entirely aligned interests.

Ilya Roubanis (PhD, EUI, Florence) is a geopolitical analyst specialising on the Caucasus and the Western Balkans.

To quote this article, please use the following reference: Ilya Roubanis (2023), “The blockade in Nagorno Karabakh and the two Armenian foreign policies,”

The OCC publishes a wide range of opinions that are meant to help our readers think of International Relations. This publication reflects the views only of the author, and neither the OCC nor Saint Louis University can be held responsible for any use which may be made of the opinion of the author and/or the information contained therein.

[1] “The Azerbaijani Government’s Eco-Activist” agents who blockaded the only road of life coonecting Artsakh to Armenia and the Outside Work,” Centre for Law and Justice, Tatoyan Foundation, Human Rights Ombudsman for Artsakh, February 2023,

Arshaluys Barseghyan, “Azerbaijan has Issued mining Licenses in NKR for year,” January 29, 2021,, 


[3] “Comment on the Statements Made by the President of Azerbaijan during the Munich Security Conference,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of {The Self-Proclaimed} Republic of Artsakh, 22/02/2023,

[4] Azerbaijani Forces Take Over Strategic Town Linking Armenia with Nagorno-Karabakh, RFL/RL, August 26, 2022,

Ulkar Natiqqizi, Lilit Shahverdyan, “Azerbaijan retakes control of three Karabakh settlements, Eurasianet, August 26, 2022,

[5] Statement by the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan, the Prime Minister of Armenia, and President of the Russian Federation, November 10, 2020,

[6] “Armenians tend not to trust CSTO – poll,” Interfax, November 29, 2022, and

Ani Mejlumyan,“For Armenians, CSTO is missing in action,” eurasianet, September 2022,

[7] “New Opportunities for Crisis Mediation in Nagorno-Karabakh,” International Crisis Group, May 2022,

[8] Roubanis, Ilya, “Armenia’s Karabakh Dilemmas and the Quest for a Golden Bridge,” Foreign Policy Centre, July 1, 2022,

[9] Thomas de Waal, “The Nagorny Karabakh Conflict in its Fourth Decade, CEPS Working Document, September 2021, file:///Users/administrator/Downloads/WD2021-02_The-Nagorny-Karabakh-Conflict-in-its-Fourth-Decade.pdf

[10] Joshua Kucera, “What’s the future of Azerbaijan’s ‘ancestral lands; in Armenia, eurasianet, July 16, 2021,

Laurence Broers, “Augmented Azerbaijan? The return of Azerbaijani irredentism,” eurasianet, August 5, 2021,

[11] “The Armenians of Naghorno-Karabakh have been blockaded by Azerbaijan,” The Economist, January 12, 2023,

[12] Ilya Roubanis, “Old Enemies Make New Friends: Caucasus and India-Pakistan Rivalry,” Foreign Policy Centre, February 23, 2023,

[13] EU Mission in Armenia, February 28 2023,

[14] “Hello, we are from Brussels! The EU has become very active in the Transcaucasasus,” News.Ru, October 9, 2022,

[15] Maziar Motamedi, “Iran opens consulate in Armenia’s Kapan as it expands ties,” Al-Jazeera, October 22, 2022,

and “New Chapter: Iran inaugurates consulate in Kapan, Armenia,” Tehran Times, October 22, 2022,

[16] “Armenia FM: ‘For us, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is not a territorial issue, but a matter of rights,” Armenpress, March 15, 2022,

[17] “Hikmat Hajiyev: Armenia doesn’t want to sign peace treaty, trying to gain time,”, March 13, 2023,

[18] Joshua Kucera, “Armenia signals willingness to cede control over Karabakh,” Eurasianet, April 1, 2022,

[19] Bart Meijer, David Ljunggren, “World Court orders Azerbaijan to ensure free movement to Nagorni Karabakh,” Reuters, February 22, 2023,


[21] Alexander Iskandaryan, “The Velvet Revolution in Armenia: How to Lose Power in Two Weeks, Demokratizatsia: The Journal of Post-Soviet Democratisation, Volume 26, Number 4, Fall 2018,

[22] Nikol Pashinyan, “The Other Side of the Earth,” Antares, January 1, 2018,

[23] Iskandaryan A., “The Velvet Revolution in Armenia: how to lose power in two weeks, Journal of Post-Soviet Democratisation, Volume 26, Number 4, 2018, file:///Users/administrator/Downloads/The_Velvet_Revolution_in_Armenia_How_to.pdf

[24] Joshua Kucera, “Pashinyan calls for unification between Armenia and Karabakh,” Eurasianet, August 6, 2019,

[25] Hard Talk, “Ruben Vardanyan with Stephen Sackur,” BBC, January 23, 2023, BBC



[28] Munich Security Conference, March 18, 2023,

[29] Susan Badalian, “Karabakh Leaders Said to Visit Moscow,”, January 9, 2023,