Tension between Azerbaijan and Armenia has increased because they have failed to negotiate the outstanding differences between them, and they may unwittingly rush into a new war that may force Iran and Turkey into an armed clash.
On September 7, 2023, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan denounced in a government meeting what he described as the escalating Azerbaijani military buildup on the borders in contact with the Nagorno-Karabakh region and with Armenia. The Armenian government soon published pictures of these crowds, showing extended columns of Azerbaijani military vehicles and equipment, without specifying their location. Within hours, Azerbaijani sources in Baku denied Pashinyan’s claims and said: Armenia’s actions and positions are what are driving the escalation of tension in relations between the two countries.
What is clear, whether reports of the Azerbaijani military buildup are true or not, is that things in the South Caucasus are tense, and that the harbingers of war have once again loomed over the front lines between Baku and Yerevan.
The last round of war between the two neighbors officially stopped in November 2020, but they did not sign a peace treaty that would put an end to the ongoing conflict since the beginning of the 1990s. Until such a treaty is signed, it seems that the disputes over the status of the Armenian-majority Karabakh region, and the Lachin Corridor, which connects Karabakh and Armenia, in addition to the more acute disagreement over the Zangzur Corridor, which is supposed to connect Azerbaijan and the Nakhchivan region, will take the two countries to… The edge of military conflict.
What makes the situation more complicated is that the Azerbaijani-Armenian crisis, with its multi-faceted disputes, is being drawn in by a number of regional and international powers, including Russia, Turkey, Iran, the European Union, and the United States of America. Each of these powers has its own perception of its interests in the relationship with Azerbaijan and Armenia, and the potential consequences of igniting war between the two countries, or resolving the outstanding issues of dispute peacefully.
War did not solve all dilemmas
The complexity resulting from the overlapping borders between Azerbaijan and Armenia dates back to the 1930s of the Soviet era, and to a set of measures followed by the Stalinist regime with the aim of resolving the national issue in the republics of the Soviet Union, in one word, or with the aim of weakening those opposed to the communist regime, in another. At the end of the 1980s, when the Soviet Union began to disintegrate, Azerbaijan faced an armed rebellion in the Armenian-majority Karabakh region, supported by Yerevan. As soon as the war over the fate of Karabakh ended in 1994, Armenia, with the support of Russia, tightened its control not only over Karabakh, but also over a wide area of the lands of the Azerbaijani majority, amounting to 20 percent of the area of the Republic of Azerbaijan.
Armenian forces committed heinous crimes during the first years of the confrontation, causing the destruction of entire cities and neighborhoods, and the killing and displacement of hundreds of thousands of Azeris in the areas adjacent to Karabakh. While the war achieved comfortable and safe geographical communication between the Armenians of Karabakh and Armenia, it cut the line of communication between Azerbaijan and the Azerbaijani region of Nakhchivan, located west of Armenia, which opens to Turkey with a border gate no more than eight kilometers away.
The war in the early nineties put the two neighboring countries on a long path of conflict and conflict, which did not subside until it flared up again. In the fall of 2020, after years of preparation, the Azerbaijani Armed Forces rushed to liberate the occupied territories from Armenia. Due to its friendly relations with Israel, it provides Azerbaijan with Israeli armed support. But the decisive factor in the 2020 war was certainly Turkish support, which was represented by qualitative weapons, including drones, training, and military advisors.
After six weeks of war, Azerbaijan inflicted a heavy defeat on Armenia, regained most of its territory occupied in the 1990s, and pushed Armenian forces to the other side of the border. This time, Russia did not intervene in any actual way in the course of the war, despite the presence of two Russian bases in Armenia and Armenia’s reliance on Russian weapons. Armenian intransigence for years, Yerevan’s refusal to settle the conflict through negotiation, the desire to maintain its relations with Azerbaijan, and the Russian leadership’s dissatisfaction with the policies of the Armenian Prime Minister were the main motives behind Moscow’s policy of non-interference in the war.
But this does not mean that Russia did not intervene completely; After all, Armenia is a member of the Collective Security Organization (which includes Russia and five former Soviet countries, but does not include Azerbaijan), which requires Russia to intervene to protect other member states from risks that threaten its security.
The point is that Azerbaijan refrained from attacking Armenia, and rather limited its operations to its occupied territories, so Russian intervention was limited to imposing a ceasefire agreement on the belligerents (signed in November 2020), and sending Russian peace forces that kept the Karabakh region from falling under control. Direct Azeri military. Article 9 of the ceasefire agreement, which was written in general and not detailed language, stipulates that the two warring countries open the crossings (linking Armenia to Karabakh, or linking Azerbaijan to Nakhchivan).
Azerbaijan has already committed to opening the Lachin Corridor, which connects Karabakh with Armenia, but Yerevan has delayed over the past three years in giving its approval to Azerbaijan’s demands to open the Zangzur Corridor and extend a railway linking Baku to Nakhchivan. Also, despite Armenia’s acknowledgment of defeat in the war and Russian sponsorship of the negotiations, the two countries have not yet been able to agree on the status of Karabakh within the Republic of Azerbaijan.
Passages and fate of Karabakh
Yerevan says: Several months ago, Azerbaijan closed the Lachin Corridor, which connects Karabakh to Armenia, and that this closure caused a severe shortage of medicine and food in the region, which is believed to have a population of up to 120,000 Armenians. Armenian government sources confirm that the siege imposed by Azerbaijan on the region is part of Baku’s escalatory approach to ignite war. On the other hand, Baku says that there is no closure or siege. All the Azerbaijani forces did was set up two checkpoints on both sides of the Lachin Corridor, after they noticed the smuggling of weapons and ammunition from Armenia to separatist militants in Karabakh.
The problem, of course, is that the Karabakh region is not just considered an Armenian-majority region in central Azerbaijan. Rather, since 1991, the Armenians of Karabakh have declared independence under the name of the Republic of Artsakh (which is the name of a legendary Armenian king who lived before Christ). The separatist republic took the city of Khankendi as its capital, established a parliament, elected a president, and established an army numbering approximately 20,000 soldiers, more than half of whom are believed to be citizens of the Republic of Armenia. On September 10, 2023, after the resignation of the former president, Artsakh deputies elected a new president of the republic. Meaning, after Armenia’s defeat in the 2020 war, the Armenians of Karabakh still see themselves as an independent entity, and do not recognize Azerbaijan’s sovereignty over the territory of the region.
Baku denounced the process of electing a new president for the region, and considered it a provocative act. The truth is that there is no country in the world that recognizes the separation of Karabakh from Azerbaijan. Even the European Union, which usually takes into account the French position in favor of Armenia, called on the people of Karabakh to be realistic and choose a leadership that would negotiate with Baku and find a peaceful solution for the future of the region.
In general, it is not unlikely that Azerbaijan has used the checkpoints it placed on both sides of the Lachin corridor in the past few months to restrict the movement of buses between Karabakh and Armenia, without distinguishing between the loads of these buses. Perhaps the aim of these measures was to put pressure on Armenia, which has not yet responded to Azerbaijan’s demands to open the Zangzur Corridor, which connects mother Azerbaijan to Nakhchivan Province in the west. What is certain, however, is that the dispute over the Zangzur Corridor is more complex than any of the other issues of dispute.
There was a railway linking Azerbaijan to Nakhchivan during the Soviet era, but this line was cut off and disrupted after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the outbreak of war between Azerbaijan and Armenia in the early 1990s. But Armenia, which does not renounce its obligations in the 2020 ceasefire agreement, says that the agreement did not stipulate the establishment of a railway line between Azerbaijan and Nakhchivian, and that it is ready to open land transport corridors through Armenian territory. It is clear that Yerevan sees the railway line demanded by Baku as a threat to its sovereignty over its territory, and a potential threat to its contact with Iran, which is considered a major ally of Armenia. Allowing the construction of a railway line through the Zangzur Corridor means that Azerbaijan will be given a fixed and permanent route parallel to the line of the only border area between Armenia and Iran.
On June 14, 2023, in an interview with journalists who accompanied him on his return trip from a visit to Azerbaijan, Erdogan criticized Iran and said: Iran’s opposition is the main obstacle to opening the Zangzur Corridor. In early September, when Azerbaijani officials were quoted as confirming that the Zangzur railway line would be ready in 2024, in a subtle allusion to the use of force, Iranian media published news reporting the mobilization of Revolutionary Guard forces on the borders with Azerbaijan and Armenia and Iran’s readiness to intervene to prevent Azerbaijan. Who opened the Zangzur Corridor by force? After the first meeting of Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan with his Iranian counterpart, Hossein Amir Abdullahian, in Tehran, Russian media reported that Fidan warned Abdullahian that any military intervention in the Azerbaijani-Armenian conflict would require equivalent intervention from the Turkish army.
In general, whatever the truth behind these reports, it is clear that the dispute over the Zangzur Corridor reveals only one aspect of the extent of the international debate over the situation in the South Caucasus.
Both international and regional stampede
Opening the Zangzur Corridor in the form of a railway linking Baku, on the Caspian Sea, to Nakhchivan, and then to Kars in northeastern Turkey, will lead to the activation of the so-called Middle Corridor, which was originally proposed as one of the Chinese Belt and Road projects to establish a road. Land-sea linking East Asia and Western Europe, via Central Asia, the Caucasus and Turkey. The corridor will also provide a direct route between Turkey and all Turkish republics, starting from Azerbaijan to Kyrgyzstan, without having to cross from northern Iran.
Turkey attaches great importance to the role it can play in communication routes between East and West, whether they are trade and economic exchange routes or energy transfer routes. Turkey was upset at the recent G20 summit, which was held in the Indian capital, Delhi, when the United States announced that India and Saudi Arabia had agreed to open a sea-land route starting from the Indian coast all the way to the Mediterranean, passing through Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Israel. The Turkish President commented on the India-Saudi Arabia road project by saying: There will be no corridor linking East and West without Turkey.
Meaning that Erdogan sees the Indian-Saudi agreement, despite the doubts surrounding it, as a competitor to the role that Turkey can undertake, especially since all parties to the agreement, including the American sponsor, realize that the discussions between Iraq and Turkey are about a land and railway transport route. Basra’s connection to the Turkish port of Mersin on the Mediterranean coast has come a long way. The Turks believe that the middle road through the Zangzur corridor, and the Basra-Mersin road, come at an opportune time, after the failure of the Iranian-Russian project to establish a land corridor between Bandar Abbas and European Russia due to the Ukrainian war and Russia’s isolation from its European neighborhood, and that geography will soon make Turkey a complex. Central to the communication routes between East and West, competing with the Suez Canal.
Iran, on the other hand, sees the opening of the Zangzur Corridor as a Turkish-Azerbaijani effort to completely remove it from the communication routes between the two most economically vital areas of the world. Rather, granting Azerbaijan and Turkey a line of communication that threatens to separate them from Armenia and the Caucasus, and strengthens the interconnection between Turkey and the Turkic world in the Caucasus and Central Asia. In the end, Turkey, despite its friendly relations with Iran, is a member of NATO and a regional competitor that is difficult to ignore. As for Azerbaijan, which represents the sole expression of Azerbaijani national identity, it represents a political and security threat to Iran: Politically, at least thirty percent of Iran’s population are Turkish Azerbaijanis, and a large sector of them carries warm sympathy and identification with their brothers on the other side of the border. As for security, the increasingly closer relations between Azerbaijan and Israel are a source of great concern to the Iranian leadership.
For the South Caucasus, Russia, the great neighbor to the north and the center of imperial hegemony for centuries, represents the elephant in the living room. Over the past few years, Russia, having lost most of its influence in Georgia, has been paying more attention to Armenia and Azerbaijan. The geopolitical importance of Armenia and Azerbaijan must have become more vital after the Ukrainian war and the Ukrainian move west. This is certainly what prompted Moscow to adopt a more balanced policy in its relations with Baku and Yerevan, and to avoid repeating the mistake committed by the Russian state in the early nineties when it sided entirely with Armenia.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, successive Armenian governments have looked to Russia as their closest ally, protection umbrella, and safe haven. Indeed, the emergence of Armenian nationalism at the end of the nineteenth century was closely linked to Tsarist Russia. Russia provided tangible support to Armenia in its first round of war against Azerbaijan, and established two military bases on Armenian territory. Unlike Azerbaijan, Armenia has joined the Collective Security Treaty, which is based on Russian power.
However, since he assumed the presidency of the government in 2018, the Armenian leader, Pashinyan, has shown a clear desire to establish warmer relations with Western powers, especially the United States and France, likely seeking to strengthen the Armenian economy and find alternatives to Russian hegemony. Pashinyan, like most of his compatriots, must have been surprised by Russia’s neutral stance in the short 2020 war. Despite the major role that Russia played in reaching the ceasefire agreement, and Russia’s provision of protection for the Karabakh region and postponing the resolution of its future until the negotiating consensus between Baku and Yerevan, Armenia could not hide its disappointment in its Russian ally. During the months preceding the escalation of tension between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Pashinyan on more than one occasion criticized Russia and its position on his country, and said frankly: Armenia made a mistake when it placed all its bets in the Russian basket.
On September 7, 2023, Pashinyan’s government surprisingly announced the holding of a joint exercise between Armenian forces and American forces near Yerevan, which will last from September 11 to 20. It is true that the number of forces participating in the joint exercises is less than two hundred soldiers, and that the goal of the exercises, as Yerevan says, is coordination between the forces of the two countries in peacekeeping missions, but what is certain is that such a maneuver is considered an unprecedented step in the history of Armenian-Western relations.
It is not clear what Yerevan is trying to do with this explicit summons to the United States of America. Because geopolitical realities do not allow the Americans to intervene militarily in the South Caucasus, which is closed on land and far from lines of maritime communication. In 2008, the United States was unable to extend a helping hand to Georgia when it was subjected to a sweeping Russian attack, even though Georgia overlooks the Black Sea. The most realistic reading of Pashinyan’s move is that the head of the Armenian government wants by summoning the Americans merely to provoke Moscow, and to suggest to Russia that unless it moves to strengthen his position and support his country, he has Western alternatives.
In general, whatever the truth of Pashinyan’s intentions, the announcement of the joint maneuver with the Americans received nothing but an angry reaction in Moscow. On September 8, the Russian Foreign Ministry summoned the Armenian ambassador to Moscow and informed him that Russia viewed joint exercises with the Americans, and on Armenian soil, as an unfriendly move.
The risk of miscalculations
There is nothing to suggest that either Azerbaijan or Armenia wants the war to reignite. A new war means new destruction and displacement, because the conflict is not taking place on a wide, open land, but rather on a land of villages and cities inhabited by hundreds of thousands, or to which hundreds of thousands have begun to return after the 2020 war created the impression of peace. But the war may break out despite this, not because the leaders of the two countries necessarily want it, but rather because of wrong calculations on the part of one party or that.
In the three years since the end of the last round of war, Pashinyan seems to be suffering from self-division. After the end of the war, despite the movement opposing him in the street, Pashinyan acknowledged the loss, and reversed his political steps in an effort to find negotiated solutions to the remaining outstanding issues with Azerbaijan. Because Pashinyan realizes that Turkey is the actual, but not stipulated, partner in the conflict over the South Caucasus, he took the initiative, in January 2023, to hold the first diplomatic meeting with Turkey since relations between Turkey and Armenia were severed in 1993. Pashinyan’s circles also encouraged expectations that he opened the borders of his country, Turkey, with all the benefits that this would mean for the Armenian economy and for the movement of the people in Armenia.
But at the same time, Pashinyan did not show a willingness to reach a solution for the future of Karabakh, nor did he give explicit approval for the opening of the Zangzur corridor. Indeed, it is certain that he did not stop supplying the separatist forces in Karabakh with ammunition and weapons. There is no doubt that Pashinyan’s attempts to bring France (and the European Union as a whole) into the arena of the struggle for the South Caucasus, his relentless pursuit of new arms supplies from India (via Iran), and his summoning of the Americans for the first time to the region, under the cover of peacekeeping maneuvers, They all lead to escalation.
Azerbaijan, for its part, may reach a turning point in which it loses patience and faith in the usefulness of waiting to reach negotiated solutions to the differences, and the possibility of signing a peace agreement that will restore life to normal in the South Caucasus. Azerbaijan emerged from the 2020 war with a growing sense of self-confidence, and over the past three years it has not stopped strengthening its military capabilities and asserting its superiority in the balance of power. There is an urgent need in Baku, which has made great efforts to reconstruct and secure the return of refugees to the areas occupied by Armenia, to reach a final solution to the status of Karabakh, which preserves the state’s sovereignty over its land, and to establish a stable and secure communication route with the Nakhchivan region (to which the family belongs). Azerbaijani President). Without tangible progress towards resolving the issues of dispute, the hawkish wing in Baku may tip the balance because there is no other option left but to return to arms.
At a moment of tension, Iran may find that there is no solution to the threat posed by the Azerbaijani rise except to use force and teach Baku’s leaders a crucial historical lesson. If Iran intervenes militarily directly, it is difficult to imagine Turkey refraining from intervening. The South Caucasus may become a bitter arena for Turkish-Iranian attrition.
International powers are also likely to make a miscalculation, such as Russia finding that there is no way to get rid of the current Armenian leadership other than encouraging Azerbaijan to inflict a new defeat on Armenia, or the United States finding that the ignition of the conflict in the South Caucasus will constitute an additional pressure factor on Russia, weakening its position in Ukraine.
In general, whatever the motives for aggravating the situation in the South Caucasus, another war will exhaust the two peoples, the Armenian and the Azerbaijani.