Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan questioned Russia’s military presence in Armenia during a January 10 press conference, the latest sign of a growing rift between Armenia and Russia.
During his first in-person press briefing since the 2020 Artsakh War, Pashinyan said that Azerbaijan justifies its aggression against Armenians, including its ongoing blockade of Artsakh, by pointing to Armenia’s close relations with Russia. Azerbaijan has been warning its Western partners that Armenia and Russia could jointly launch military aggression against Azerbaijan, according to Pashinyan.
The prime minister called these claims “absurd” yet said they could “attract interest” among Western officials in light of the ongoing war in Ukraine.
“We bring our Russian partners’ attention to this fact, noting that their lack of response means that Russia’s military presence in Armenia not only does not guarantee Armenia’s security but, on the contrary, creates threats to Armenia’s security,” Pashinyan said.
The Armenian prime minister has criticized the Russian peacekeeping force in Artsakh for failing to end the blockade. He called the mission a “silent witness to the depopulation of the Nagorno-Karabakh region, which is becoming more and more visible.”
During the January 10 briefing, Pashinyan also criticized inaction by the Collective Security Treaty Organization in response to Azerbaijani aggression. He said that Armenia will not host the CSTO military exercises in 2023, despite an announcement to the contrary by Russia a week earlier.
The Russian Defense Ministry had announced that the CSTO, a Russian-led military bloc, would hold its annual peacekeeping training in Armenia this year. Pashinyan said that Armenia had informed the joint staff of the CSTO that it had rejected the drills.
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said that Russia had not been informed of Armenia’s decision before Pashinyan’s press conference.
“In any case, Armenia is our very close ally, and we will continue the dialogue, including the issues that are very complicated at the moment,” Peskov told Russian media.
Pashinyan said that conducting the exercises in Armenia would be “inappropriate.” He criticized the CSTO for failing to provide Armenia with military assistance.
“We demand that they specify the zone of CSTO responsibility,” Pashinyan said. “The absence of their response presents a fundamental problem for us.”
Article 4 of the CSTO charter stipulates that an attack on one member will be treated as an attack on all. Armenia appealed to the CSTO following Azerbaijan’s border attacks in September. In November, the CSTO offered what Secretary General Stanislav Zas called “measures to assist Armenia in this difficult situation.” Pashinyan rejected the offer since it did not include an explicit statement condemning Azerbaijani aggression. Zas later said that the measures had included “military-technical assistance,” without specifying what that entailed.
Artsakh has been under blockade by Azerbaijan since December 12. Government-sponsored Azerbaijani protesters posing as environmental activists have closed down the Lachin Corridor, the sole route connecting Artsakh with Armenia and the outside world. Artsakh now faces a humanitarian crisis amid severe shortages of food, medicine and other basic necessities.
The Lachin Corridor is normally used to transport 400 tons of food and medicine from Armenia to Artsakh every day. The government has tapped into its strategic food reserves since grocery stores have run out of food. According to the Artsakh government, the transfer of 12,000 tons of basic goods to Artsakh has been prevented by the blockade.
Artsakh authorities have instituted a food rationing system to preserve food supplies. Families will receive coupons to purchase limited quantities of food from state reserves. Starting on January 20, residents will be able to purchase one kilogram of pasta, buckwheat, rice and sugar and one liter of cooking oil per month using the coupons.
Primary schools and kindergartens have closed as of January 9 due to insufficient food supplies.
Artsakh’s electricity supply has also been disrupted. On January 9, an accident took place on the high-voltage power line that provides Artsakh’s electricity supply from Armenia, according to the Artsakh government. The accident occurred near the town of Lachin, which came under Azerbaijan’s control last summer.
I just don’t want to be tested like an animal on how strong Artsakh is. Rally unbearable. A day with regular power outages. Eventually, we need to work…
— Marut Vanyan (@marutvanian) January 9, 2023
Artsakh authorities say that Azerbaijan prevents specialists from visiting the site of the accident and conducting emergency restoration work. A “rolling blackout” has been implemented, under which families will not have electricity for two hours each day. Limited electricity will be supplied through local generating stations.
“Azerbaijan is not only not letting us bring in food and medication but also preventing our specialists from visiting the site of the accident to restore electricity supplies,” Artsakh State Minister Ruben Vardanyan said on January 11.
Scheduled medical procedures have also been temporarily suspended in Artsakh. Since the start of the blockade, 16 patients have been transferred to medical centers in Armenia from Artsakh, with the support of the International Committee of the Red Cross. Nine patients are in intensive care in Artsakh, four of whom are in critical condition.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev addressed the closure of the Lachin Corridor for the first time during a January 10 press briefing. Aliyev denied that the road has been closed and called claims to the contrary “another anti-Azerbaijani show.”
The Azerbaijani president praised the protesters blocking the Lachin Corridor as a “source of our pride.”
“They are there day and night in frosty and snowy weather, demanding their rights and once again showing the whole world how high the qualities of Azerbaijani youth are,” Aliyev said.
Aliyev said that residents of Artsakh who do not want to become citizens of Azerbaijan can leave Artsakh via the Lachin Corridor.
“The road is not closed,” Aliyev said. “It is open. They can leave. They can go by themselves. No one will hinder them. They can go under the awning of peacekeepers’ trucks, or they can go by bus.”
The president also threatened to force Armenia to sign a peace treaty by military coercion. He said that Azerbaijani soldiers control key heights in both Armenia and Artsakh that offer them a strategic advantage. These heights were captured during Azerbaijani border attacks in March and September of 2022.
“Visual observation already allows us the opportunity to see any danger from the very beginning and prevent it,” Aliyev said. “I do hope that Armenia, which has already suffered such military and political failures three times, will understand that a peace agreement is inevitable.”
The Artsakh Security Council said that Aliyev’s comments prove that the blockade is “nothing but an obvious manifestation of the threat of using force by the Azerbaijani authorities in the process of the Karabakh settlement problem.”
“We are aware of all the consequences that follow the political line we have embarked on, and reaffirm our position that the sovereignty of Artsakh and the right to live freely and independently in the historical homeland are absolute values,” the January 11 statement reads. “No coercion or threat can deter us from our decision to continue the struggle.”