Russian ‘peacekeeping’ is an oxymoron while it is at war
Russia, Britain, the US, France and China have the power to stop a hostile second-rate authoritarian nation – Azerbaijan – blockading a country in order to starve its 120,000 occupants. The blockade constitutes a crime against humanity, and is contrary to a
number of treaties, but the Azeris have gotten away with it for two months and counting.
The location of the dispute is a corridor that extends from landlocked Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia, via the town of Lachin, surrounded by Azerbaijani territory. It is a vital link for 400 tonnes of essential goods conveyed each day to the Karabakh Armenians, as well as permitting the movement of citizens, schoolchildren, and ambulances. It would of course be faster by air, but the Azerbaijan government has threatened to shoot down any passenger or transport plane that tries to land at Stepanakert, the Karabakh capital.
The country is a prisoner of Azerbaijan, and of history. It originally belonged to Armenia, and has always been populated mainly by Armenians, renowned for their early Christian churches and unique carpets.
In the 19th century it was occupied by Russia, and in 1921 Stalin arbitrarily and wrongly included this Christian enclave as an independent oblast within Muslim Azerbaijan. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, its people demanded independence and fought a war to achieve it.
The Azeri siege of Stepanakert was Guernica writ small, as Azeri shells and gunfire targeted hospitals and schools and killed several thousand civilians. The open road through Lachin saved the city – it became a humanitarian corridor, protected as such in international law as a lifeline for people fighting for their lives.
The Armenians won in 1994, and enjoyed comparative peace until 2020, when Azerbaijan attacked and left 7,000 dead before a peace agreement could be reached. The agreement was guaranteed by Russia, which allocated 2,000 “peacekeepers” to patrol the corridor, but they have proved unable – or perhaps unwilling – to disperse self-styled environmental activists who have blocked the highway since 14 December, cheered on by a government that generally bans demonstrations and jails political protesters.
The UN Security Council could at least replace the powerless Russians with UN Blue Helmets tasked with clearing the corridor
The “environmentalists” are of course nothing of the sort. Initially they fooled television crews (including the BBC), but soon they were identified as government servants and exsoldiers, with some students who are given credits for protesting instead of attending lectures. They claim to be opposed to goldmining in Karabakh; their objective, however, is not to close the mines but to transfer them to Azeri control.
Many of the protesters bear tattoos that stamp them as members of the “grey wolves” – a neo-fascist Azeri youth movement (the wolf is a Nazi mascot as well). These protesters are encouraged by the local dictator, Ilham Aliyev, who salutes them as “the best of our youth” and urges them to stand fast against the Russians, who show no interest in dispersing them.
The UN Security Council met on 20 December, and members demanded that Russia should direct its troops to clear the corridor, and that Azerbaijan should call off its fake environmentalists. However, nothing happened until 18 January, when the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, belatedly contacted his Azeri counterpart and asked him to disband the demonstration.
He was told, in effect, to mind his own business – a startling indication of how much clout Russia has lost since invading Ukraine. Armenia, too, has woken up to the danger of Kremlin “support”: it has condemned the gumptionless Russian peacekeepers and is considering pulling out of a mutual defence pact with Russia.
These developments do nothing to help the hungry citizens of Karabakh. Aliyev has thus far avoided sanctions, despite strong commercial ties with Western corporations; the UK and the US in particular could exert pressure by this means. As for the UN Security Council, which shows signs of wanting to act over this dispute to make up for its inability to act over Ukraine, it could at least replace the powerless Russians with UN Blue Helmets tasked with clearing the corridor. It is somewhat absurd to ask Russia to keep the peace at a time when it is destroying the peace elsewhere.
Geoffrey Robertson KC is author of ‘An Inconvenient Genocide: Who Now Remembers the Armenians?’
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