Russia brokered a cease-fire agreement in 2020 between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The two were engaged in a bloody six-week war, the deadliest in the region in decades. Conflict between the two countries has recently escalated again. Azerbaijan set up a blockade of the contested Nagorno-Karabakh region, causing a shortage in food, medicine, and energy. The roughly 120,000 people who live there are at increasing risk of famine. To break down the situation, Ryan Grim is joined by freelance journalists Joshua Kucera, Lilit Shahverdyan, and Alison Tahmizian who cover the area.

[Deconstructed theme music.]

Ryan Grim: Hi, I’m Ryan Grim. Welcome to Deconstructed.

Today, we’re talking about the ongoing conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Just two years ago, the countries were engaged in a 44-day war, which sort of ended in 2020 after the Russians brokered a deal between them.

France 24 English: A breakthrough on the breakaway regions’ conflict. After 10 hours of talks in Moscow, the Russian Foreign Minister announced that Armenia and Azerbaijan had agreed to halt fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Al Jazeera English: The deal comes after six weeks of relentless fighting. It was first announced in a Facebook post by Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. Within minutes, confirmation came from Azerbaijan and Moscow.

RG: But the struggle between the two countries is heating up again and it reached a new stage on December 12, when there was news of a blockade of a major highway. The road connects Armenia with the contested region of Nagorno-Karabakh. The blockade was purportedly being organized by environmental activists opposing mining projects in the region. 

Now that blockade is still going on today, and more than 100,000 people are cut off from the rest of the world living in a desperate situation that is getting almost no attention. 

And if you think it’s a little odd that Azerbaijan, an oil-rich autocracy, is somehow allowing its own version of the Sunrise Movement to blockade a city indefinitely — well, your skepticism is well placed. They’re not environmentalists.

We’ll untangle this mystery with two freelance journalists who cover the area: Joshua Kucera, who’s based in Georgia, and also Lilit Shahverdyan, who was from the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, which is known in Armenian as Artsakh. 

Joshua, welcome to Deconstructed.

Joshua Kucera: Thanks for having me.

RG: And Lilit, thank you for joining. I really appreciate it. 

Lilit Shahverdyan: Thank you for inviting me, too.

RG: And so Josh, let me start with you. First of all, ecoactivists? Azerbaijan is a pretty authoritarian country, it’s not the kind of place where I think of [laughs] civil disobedience just popping off and activists being allowed to blockade highways against the interests of the state for an indefinite amount of time.

JK: Yeah, this is not a claim that should be taken at all seriously. There have been good investigations done about the fact that these are not legitimate environmental activists. It’s a pretty clearly government-organized thing. The government has been officially giving them support, providing tents, and food, and so on. And so it’s a very clearly government-sponsored effort.

RG: And so why would they block this highway? Like, why would the government want this highway blocked? 

JK: Well, I think this has to be seen in the context of the ongoing efforts by the Azerbaijani government to get more concessions out of Armenia. 

After the war in 2020 between the two sides, which Azerbaijan won, they signed a ceasefire agreement, and then ever since that point they’ve been talking about signing a peace agreement that would provide some more-or-less final resolution to the conflict. And since Azerbaijan won that war, they’ve had every advantage — and you see them pushing in a lot of different directions. There have been small military offensives and incursions, both in the territory that they don’t yet control in Karabakh and in Armenia itself. They’ve been kind of rhetorical offensives. They’ve been talking about the history of Armenia, and that it was historic Azerbaijani lands and so on. And so this is a multi-pronged offensive aimed at getting more concessions from the Armenians. And I think this is an escalation of that tactic, and probably the most serious one so far, given that it has this strong impact on the civilians inside of Karabakh.

RG: And Lilit, you’ve been speaking with a lot of people in there. What is it like living for more than a month just cut off from the rest of the world? What are conditions like inside this area?

LS: The main issue people are facing is the humanitarian crisis because, obviously, there is no import of goods. Before the blockade around 12,000 tons of vital supplies and necessities were being imported to Karabakh from Armenia and now any kinds of imports are stopped. Only the ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross] and the Russian peacekeepers have mandates to enter the territory, so they bring some food — fruits, vegetables for pregnant women, for example. The ICRC brings medication, but obviously, it’s not enough for a population of over 100,000 people. So, the government introduced the coupon system to the population and they are getting coupons to purchase very basic necessities like buckwheat, rice, eggs — only if they have coupons. 

There is a lack of medication in pharmacies; a lack of food in supermarkets, obviously. Also, there are shortages of electricity, because the electricity cable has been cut off on the territory that’s now controlled by Azerbaijan. So people have rolling blackouts. They do not have electricity for four hours every day. And people say that the timing will increase as the supplies in the local power plants will be over. And probably it’s possible that sometime later if the blockade continues, people will have no electricity at all. 

Also, there was a gas shortage from the very beginning of the blockade, though it was prevented due to international pressure for up to three days. But two days ago Azerbaijan, again, cut off the gas supply. So people now have no gas and they have no electricity for four hours every day. 

RG: What’s the weather like now? It’s the dead of winter. How brutal is it?

LS: Well, at the beginning there was snowing; it was colder than now. Now, fortunately, it’s getting warmer, because winter is not very cold in Karabakh. So the cold is not [a] very big issue, but the weather can change [at] any time because it already snowed a few days ago. So, yeah. And also, water is being heated with gas. So as long as people do not have gas, they won’t also have hot water.

RG: And in order to kind of set the context for some of this conflict, I wanted to read the top of a Washington Post article that ran back in October of 1998, which came in the period after the collapse of the Soviet Union, after the first war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, but before a lot of the oil development kind of took off, and so it’s this fascinating scene. It’s basically in the White House. 

The article begins:

The message that Amoco Corp.’s T. Don Stacy took to a small political gathering on the morning of Aug. 6, 1996, seemed hopelessly obscure compared with the usual concerns of the lobbyists and business tycoons assembled at the White House.

Stacy, who directed Eurasian operations for the Chicago-based oil company, was incensed at what he considered misguided U.S. policies toward a remote Central Asian country on the western shore of the Caspian Sea – hardly a preoccupation of, for example, New York Yankees’ owner George Steinbrenner, one of those on hand.

But as Stacy pressed his points on the strategic importance of Azerbaijan’s oil deposits, one listener was riveted. Without waiting for Stacy to finish, President Clinton jumped in to clarify several geopolitical points, then strode to a blackboard and drew a remarkably accurate map of the Caspian region.

Before the meeting ended, Amoco – the largest U.S. investor in Azerbaijan’s oil boom – had what it wanted: a promise from Clinton to invite the Azerbaijani president to Washington. Six months later the company, which traditionally donated heavily to the Republicans, contributed $50,000 to the Democratic Party. In August 1997, Clinton received President Heydar Aliyev with full honors, witnessed the signing of a new Amoco oil exploration deal and promised to lobby Congress to lift U.S. economic sanctions on Azerbaijan.

And later in the article, his son, Ilham Aliyev comes up in the article — at the time, vice president of Azerbaijan’s state oil company. And his quote in the article is: “We used oil for our major goal … to become a real country.” 

So you’ve got Azerbaijan, at this point, trying to break away from the orbit of Russia. And in order to do so, trying to link up with the West so that it would have some geopolitical independence; United States policymakers weren’t interested. So they went through U.S. oil companies to try to make them their friends and their allies in Washington, which seems to have worked. But over the last 25 years, how has this unfolded? Has Azerbaijan successfully allied itself with the United States? And how does that play into this current conflict, Josh?

JK: Well, I’d say over the last 25 years, it’s been a little bit of an up-and-down relationship between Azerbaijan and the West, especially vis-a-vis energy. I think there were — in the ’90s, in the early 2000s — there were huge expectations from the West about how much energy there might be in the Caspian Sea, and I don’t have it off the top of my head, but there’s a famous quote from Dick Cheney about the vast potential of the Caspian oil and gas. 

Then, in the years after that, new estimates came out, and it’s not a game changer really to anybody. They do —

RG: Yeah, the Post article mentioned that there was a vocal minority saying that these are wild overestimates — be careful.

JK: Right. Well, that vocal minority turned out to be right. 

RG: Right. [Laughs.] Yes.

JK: But then now what you see, the situation has changed, actually, this year or last year, as a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and sanctions on Russia; Russia cutting off gas to Europe in response. And so Europe is a bit desperate for substitutes, they were quite dependent on Russian natural gas, and so in the efforts to try to find substitutes for that, they’ve come across Azerbaijan. 

And the amount that they’re getting extra from Azerbaijan is really negligible. I mean, compared to what they lost from Russia — I don’t have the numbers in front of me, but you can find them — it’s really a very small thing, a drop in the bucket. But it’s something. And so last summer, the EU and Azerbaijan signed a deal to increase European purchases of Azerbaijani gas. And I do think that that has some effect on the European policy vis-a-vis this part of the world. 

In general, though, I’d say that, for one, the oil and gas expectations that we had 20-25 years ago have not been borne out. Secondly, Azerbaijan has been pretty skillful at balancing its geopolitical interests in the West and in Russia. And they’re constantly going back and forth on this kind of balancing act which, for the most part, they’ve been good at. In the post-Soviet world, there’s a handful of states and mainly oil- and gas-rich states that have been able to manage this balancing act. And you can kind of see that they turned out somewhat better than the countries that either stick with Russia fully or go to the West fully. And so I think that’s kind of the geopolitical story of Azerbaijan, is that they’ve been balancing this and even now, they’re important to Europe as a gas supplier. They still maintain more or less good relations with Russia as well.

RG: And so toward the end of 2020, a new war is launched that lasted, I think, 44 days in which Azerbaijan — well, you tell me: So what happened in 2020? How did we get into another war that the world mostly ignored? Like, I think if you did a survey of the American public and asked them if there had been a war in 2020 between Azerbaijan and Armenia, I think people would just have to just wildly guess at that answer.

LS: Well, I think before the war, there were military clashes at the border with Armenia. And before that, Aliyev’s reputation started dropping, so the most popular interpretation of why the war started was that Aliyev needed to save his reputation, and the Azerbaijani public needed to see the territories back. That’s why possibly Azerbaijan launched the war, to save his [Aliyev’s] reputation and maybe stay in power.

RG: Mhmm. What was the effect on the ground? 

LS: Well, we had a lot of losses, not only territorial. Armenians lost more than 5,000 lives. And many people were displaced — officially over 40,000 from Nagorno-Karabakh. Some of them stayed in Karabakh, in other territories that are now controlled by Armenians; some moved to Armenia and others moved abroad, mostly to Russia, because it’s the easiest option. 

We had some casualties. We had civilian losses. But everything has been restored shortly after the war. But what Armenians suffered the most from human lives and the military — the army is now basically destroyed. There’s no army in Karabakh anymore. We have a very weak army in Karabakh, which will be unable to protect itself in case Azerbaijan attacks again. And in case of people, after the war some people also left the territory — those who still had their homes, they left — and now they have less and less motivation to stay in their homes because Azerbaijan is depriving them of very basic human conditions like having warm water or having electricity. 

So yeah, people are suffering a lot.

RG: What’s the relationship between that and this ongoing blockade?

LS: Well, I think people are expecting that the situation will escalate again, because, after the war, Ilham Aliyev started claiming that they will take the territories back, they will take control of the corridor. And if they control the corridor, it means that Armenians will have to leave the territory very quickly, because nobody will tolerate Azerbaijanis standing on the road and checking their documents and controlling who enters Karabakh or leaves Karabakh. 

So I think it was expected, especially after the first blockade. It happened a few days before the second blockade. The environmentalists, again, blocked the corridor for a few hours, and it was pretty obvious that it will be continued and it will happen again.

RG: So Josh, how is this connected to the first Armenian-Azerbaijani war back in the early ’90s, and the fallout there?

JK: Well, so the first war ended in 1994 with an Armenian victory, so Armenia controlled both Nagorno-Karabakh and a lot of territory surrounding Karabakh as well. And as a result, 600,000 Azerbaijanis were displaced from that. 

Azerbaijan has one of the highest — if not the highest — population of IDPs, internally displaced people per capita. Almost 10 percent of the population was displaced as a result of that war. 

RG: Are they trying to move some of those back in, is that part of the — ?

JK: In theory, yeah, that’s part of the idea. I mean, it’s going quite slowly. It’s hard to tell why: partially, it’s because there turns out to be a lot of landmines on this territory, partially, perhaps, because of bureaucratic slowness, or whatever. But yes, that’s certainly the goal is to allow these people to move back to their homes. 

So after 1994, you had kind of peace talks that started out somewhat promisingly and that, over the years, stagnated and Azerbaijan felt there was very little chance to regain the territory that it lost in that first war through peaceful means, through diplomatic means. 

In 2018, you had the arrival of a new government in Armenia, led by Nikol Pashinyan, who was — he wasn’t pro-Western exactly, but he looked like somebody who could be pro-Western, and he had like a little bit of a more liberal outlook than the previous government had. He was not connected to the war, like the previous Armenian leadership was, and I think this raised expectations that maybe this is the guy who could make a deal with Azerbaijan. 

But then, over time, those hopes were dashed as well. I think Lilit is right as well. There was a great public kind of dissatisfaction over 25 years: Why are we still displaced from our territory; why do we still not have control over our territory? 

There was a huge protest, you mentioned protests, and you’re right, that they are not typically allowed in Azerbaijan. There was a huge protest in July, I believe, the summer before the big 2020 war, for people basically demanding that they take back this territory. So I think there are a lot of different elements that went into this.

RG: And Lilit, how do Armenians think about their place in the world right now, when they look around? Who do they see as their allies? Who are they hoping are going to help? What is Russia’s role here? What is the United States’ role here? What is Iran’s role? Or is Armenia just kind of stuck in the middle of this?

LS: Well, the role of Russia has changed since the Ukraine war started, because Armenians are seeing that Russia and its CSTO is not helping Armenia at all. And after Pashinyan came to power, as Joshua already mentioned, people changed their political views. And now, we are having more hopes with the West, with Europe, with the U.S., and even with Iran, rather than Russia. 

And also there were huge protests in Yerevan to get out of the CSTO, the Russia-led security block. So especially after the blockade started, Russia’s role is dropping again, because the only country that has a physical presence in the region is Russia, not only in Karabakh but also in Armenia. But Russia couldn’t prevent the continuation of the blockade. And it didn’t intervene in the clashes that happened on the border of Armenia and Azerbaijan in September. So people are prone to be allied with the West, with Europe, with the U.S., rather than Russia. 

But, obviously, Russia is not going to leave the region yet. Armenia is still very much dependent on Russia because Russia has a military base in Armenia and a peacekeeping contingent in Karabakh. So it’s not easy yet, but people are changing their political perspectives and they’re seeing that Russia is actually not helping Armenia at all.

RG: What are you hearing from your friends and family who are behind the blockade? What’s their sense of how or when this ever ends? Or do they feel like there’s no going back to before?

LS: Well, many people are accusing Russia now, because, again, Russia is physically present in the territory. So the only country that can stop the blockade and make Azeris go back to their territories from the road is Russia, but Russia is not doing that. So they think that maybe this blockade is agreed [upon] between Russia and Azerbaijan. 

And, again, even in Karabakh, people are dissatisfied with Russia. They see that the blockade seems to be continuing, and it won’t end very soon. But there’s some more international pressure from the European Union, from America. So they are having some hopes with the West rather than with Russia.

RG: And, Josh, what’s your sense of the geopolitics here? Why is Russia allowing this to go on?

JK: Well, because of Ukraine. They just don’t have the kind of bandwidth at this point to manage this crisis in the Caucasus at the same time. I think that they — 

RG: But how hard would it be to sweep 100 people off of a highway?

JK: Yeah, I mean, I think — exactly. I think that’s a big question. I think that they are afraid that this is being filmed 24/7 by Azerbaijani TV channels; that, obviously, Russian security forces aren’t averse to [laughs] —

RG: Right. Not known for their tact. 

JK: — breaking up protests. But still, it’s like super, super, super sensitive in the Caucasus, if you have Russian soldiers kind of manhandling in any way these Azerbaijani figures. It’s a mysterious question — or it’s a mystery. I think it’s not that the peacekeepers themselves are incapable, it’s that somehow — I don’t know. I’m honestly at a loss. It’s one of the big questions about all of this.

RG: Right. Well, what’s Russia getting out of siding with Azerbaijan in this situation?

JK: Well, I also think they’re not siding with Azerbaijan. They’re not happy with what’s going on. I think that they have been proven really impotent. You know, A), they have been proven pretty impotent in Ukraine. But then this is only adding to that, this is a much simpler task, as you pointed out, and they are not managing to deal with it. And you can see in the Azerbaijani media coverage, they love poking at Russia, and anything they do that humiliates Russia, they’re enjoying it. So they are definitely not getting anything out of this. 

I think they seem like maybe they’re hoping the problem goes away, or they’re sticking their head in the sand, or they’re just kind of washing their hands of the situation, and deciding that they have enough other problems in the world that maybe they’re not going to prioritize the Caucasus.

RG: And Lilit, are there any ongoing actually effective relief efforts that are able to get in — like if people are listening and want to do anything — is there anything to be done? Or is this just the people have to just work out the geopolitics of this and resolve the crisis?

LS: There are negotiations going on between the authorities of Karabakh and Azerbaijan, informal negotiations. But yesterday or the day before it was announced that the negotiations didn’t bring any results. And also, Azerbaijan refuses to have negotiations with international representatives and with Karabakh authorities, and the only thing that Karabakh people could do is open the roads through negotiations. But obviously, Azerbaijan is objecting to it, and they would not agree on it.

RG: Right. Well, thank you, guys, so much for joining me. I really appreciate it.

JK: Sure. Thanks for having us. 

LS: Thank you, too.

[Musical interlude.]

RG: And now we’re joined by Alison Tahmizian, who’s an Armenian-American activist and journalist who has previously worked in war zones in Syria and elsewhere, and is based in Armenia. 

Alison, thanks for being here.

Alison Tahmizian: Thank you for having me.

RG: You were telling me that you are almost caught inside the city. Can you tell us: How did this blockade kick-off and where were you when it started?

AT: So I was actually in the capital, Stepanakert, driving to Yerevan. Suddenly, there was a roadblock, or there was just a line of cars, when we were driving under the city of Shushi, which is occupied by Azerbaijan and Turkey. And we were kept back and I walked up to see what was going on. And there was a group of men wearing civilian clothing. But for the audience who have never been there, it’s a military zone. Today, the areas that have been seized in 2020 are military zones. No one moves there. I mean, Azerbaijan is a tightly controlled dictatorship run by a family, and nothing moves in those areas that have been seized without official permission. 

So behind these guys, you see special forces. Basically, they put civilians out in front, and now they have civilians posing — or not civilians, actually, a lot of them have been identified as Azeri military, they’re posing as activists. But this is in order to be able to do a blockade without any intervention because the peacekeeping force does not have the mandate to use force. If they use force against quote-unquote demonstrators, we all know what the headlines will be, especially that the peacekeeping force is Russian. 

So it’s very clever. So I was caught behind that roadblock. That was about three hours.

RG: And I saw — they’re claiming to be eco-activists or something.

AT: The idea that this country, which has sold itself to BP, and which is a tightly controlled autocracy, where you do not have any protests without official permission, the idea that they suddenly have an eco-activist movement is funny. They are a veneer so that once this story gets picked up, the headline says “eco-activists,” so that the Russian peacekeepers cannot remove them by force, because they do not have that mandate.

RG: And so, you have 120,000 or so people who are kind of cut off from the outside world. What is it like in there? I’ve seen posts on social media saying that insulin is running low, that food is now getting rationed, [and] that energy is touch and go. So what happens if a delivery of insulin tries to get into the city — the alleged eco-activists are kind of in the street and blocking it? How is this actually playing out on the ground?

AT: This blockade is on the road which connects Armenia to Artsakh. So basically, it was a corridor that was agreed [upon] when the ceasefire announcement was done in November of 2020. So this is a very vulnerable road, and it’s protected only by Russian peacekeepers. But there are points where you have the Azeri forces, sometimes you see the Turkish flag on the high ground, so it’s extremely vulnerable. And this is one of those points where the Azeris are on the high ground. And basically, they can send trucks of forces to be hovering right over the road on which Armenians pass and the Russian peacekeepers are tasked with guarding. 

For example, if they wanted to bring in insulin today, it will come through the Red Cross. The Red Cross is the only international organization, to my knowledge, that is working in Stepanakert, in Artsakh. 

But, I mean, that just shows how dire the situation is. I mean, I covered the sieges in Syria for years. I know what it means when the Red Cross has to get involved and be transporting POWs and medicine. I mean, this is dire. This is war.

RG: So what is the goal here? And how does this end? Is there some type of capitulation that Azerbaijan is hoping Armenia will make, at which point the eco-activists move away? Or is this just kind of the new status quo, that they’re just going to strangle the area? I am genuinely trying to figure out what the play is here.

AT: So I hope we can stop calling them eco-activists. I think “Azeri forces” is perfectly fine. 

Well, the goal here is to not only make life unviable in Artsakh, but the next step of the program is to take southern Armenia, an area that Azeri President Aliyev and Erdo?an of Turkey refer to as Zangezur. I mean, after the war in 2020, they claimed Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. They are calling it their historic lands. 

The big picture is Aliyev has openly said that Armenia is not worthy of being a colony. They do not want a sovereign Armenia. They have demanded the demilitarization of Armenia. So this doesn’t end here. Artsakh is always called the shield of Armenia, because it’s been shielding Armenia from what’s coming next, what they would like to implement next, which is to seize southern Armenia, which would grant a corridor between Turkey to Azerbaijan to Central Asia, and all of these republics that Turkey would like to have more influence over than, say, Russia, or any other regional power. 

And the reason why I would say Western governments are complicit — are not pushing back against this — is because this would also cut off Iran. This would cut Iran from Armenia and hence, to the Black Sea and their most secure connection to Russia and Europe. 

So there are a lot of parties — not to say everyone is interested in Armenians being ethnically cleansed from the area, but they’re not going to get in the way. That would also include Israel, which is very heavily involved in Azerbaijan’s military, you can say. They provided drones during the war. If they’re going to actually do a major attack on the Iranian nuclear program, it’s expected, I believe, according to a Reuters report from a decade ago, they would at least refuel in Azerbaijan.

RG: Well, Alison, thanks so much for joining me. I really appreciate it.

AT: Thank you so much for covering it. 

[End credits music]

RG: Deconstructed is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Our producer is José Olivares. Laura Flynn is our supervising producer. The show was mixed by William Stanton. Our theme music was composed by Bart Warshaw. Roger Hodge is The Intercept’s editor in chief.

And I’m Ryan Grim, D.C. bureau chief of The Intercept. To support this podcast, and the rest of the work of The Intercept, go to theintercept.com/give — your donation, no matter what the amount, makes a real difference.

And if you haven’t already, please subscribe to the show so you can hear it every week. And please go and leave us a rating or a review — it helps people find the show. If you want to give us additional feedback, email us at [email protected] Thanks so much!

And see you soon.