What the Fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan Is Really About and Why It’s Likely to Get Worse

By Conor Gallagher

Ever since the breakup of the USSR, Azerbaijan and Armenia have been locked in a dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh, an enclave recognized as Azerbaijani territory by the international community but mostly populated by ethnic Armenians.

They fought a war there two years ago when Azerbaijan grabbed land in a six-week conflict that led to roughly 7,000 deaths.

The current fighting has little to do with Nagorno-Karabakh, however. These most recent Azerbaijani attacks were not in the contested region, but were directed primarily at the southern part Armenia, likely a first attempt to connect the isolated Nakhchivan exclave to the rest of Azerbaijan.

Part of the 2020 peace agreement called for an economic corridor between Azerbaijan and Nakhchivan wedged between Armenia, Turkey, and Iran.

Location of South Caucasus Pipeline” via Wikimedia (Charles) Licensed CC BY 4.0

The route connecting the two parts of Azerbaijan was to run along the borders of Armenia and Iran in the Zangezur Corridor. Such a set-up would be a boon to Turkey but a major blow to Iran, as it would sever its connection to Armenia. Tehran therefore opposes it, which is why Israel supports it.

The situation is a headache for Russia, which maintains good ties with both Armenia and Azerbaijan, has 2,000 peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh, and brokered the 2020 peace. The US would love for the conflict to ignite to put more pressure on Russia.

Armenia is yet to grant approval for the economic corridor project– likely due to a hard no from  Russia and Iran – and is facing the prospect of an attempted color revolution.

Azerbaijan and Turkey have grown impatient with Armenia dragging its feet and are likely looking to take advantage of Russia’s focus on Ukraine. Ankara and Baku will almost certainly continue to push until Moscow says enough. The question then becomes whether they would cross Russia’s red line.

With so many outside players shoveling money, mercenaries, and weapons into the cauldron, the situation is unlikely to calm down anytime soon.

While both Armenia and Azerbaijan receive aid from the US and Russia, Baku also draws in help from Israel and an enormous amount of support from Turkey. Armenia has the backing of Iran.

Who would benefit from economic corridors between Azerbaijan and Nakhchivan?

  • Turkey, which would elevate its status in the region in terms of pipelines, trade, and transportation routes should it have a more direct route to Azerbaijan.
  • The EU, which could increase gas flows from Azerbaijan at a cheaper price.
  • Israel because it harms Iran.
  • The US because any upheaval there is a headache for Russia.

Russia and Iran would like to maintain the status quo. Russia has peacekeeping forces in Nagorno-Karabakh, a military base in Armenia, and tries to maintain good ties with both Armenia and Azerbaijan. Iran benefits economically from the current arrangement.

Let’s dive deeper into the interests and activities from the outside actors as they’re likely to have the largest roles in whether the fragile peace holds or the situation continues to deteriorate.

Russia

As stated above, Moscow would like to maintain peace in the region and would like to avoid choosing a side. Current transit routes through the region south to Iran and to the Caspian region are crucial for Russia, and any disruption would be a major blow.

Armenia is a member of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization, but Moscow tries to placate both sides during conflicts and chooses mediation efforts over any military response.

Russia needs Turkey to help it bypass western sanctions, and Moscow also has deep economic interests in the Azerbaijani oil and gas industry.

Armenia, which is almost completely dependent on Russia, unfortunately ends up as the regional punching bag.

Russia’s military base in northwestern Armenia hosts roughly 3,000 troops and is considered a vital interest. All signs are Russia would be forced to act should Yerevan come under serious threat.

It’s highly doubtful Azerbaijan and Turkey would push that far, jeopardizing their economic interests with Moscow and face a military response from the superior Russian side.

The larger threat to Russia that would require more investment would be political upheaval in Armenia. Azerbaijani attacks are helping to set the stage for efforts at just that.

Opposition parties, which attack the government for being weak on national security, have been pushing for regime change for months. The number of protestors is debatable – Turkish and western media claim numbers in the thousands while media in Armenia say the opposition is struggling to gain traction.

Nevertheless, the opposition is determined. Artur Vanetsian, who headed Armenia’s National Security Service from 2018-2019, leads one of the opposition parties. He has insisted this is just the beginning:

“Every day you will witness such actions across the country,” he said. “I’m sure that they will be coordinated and will eventually develop into a powerful movement.”

Ironically the ongoing protests have actually improved public opinion of the current government. The opposition positions itself as the national security faction (as opposed to democracy) that has been advanced since the end of the 2020 war, but thus far Armenians are refusing to equatine less democracy with more security.

The US

Washington would love nothing more than to force Russia to put out another flame at its borders.

U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi “spontaneously” went to Armenia on September 17. While announcing the plan she added that members of Congress “don’t like to be a target” when they travel.

She presumably meant targeted by Russia as this seems to be her new raison d’être of parachuting into the backyards of Russia and China to help with destabilization efforts.

Pelosi met with Armenian leaders and condemned the Azerbaijani attacks. He visit comes at a time when many Armenians are frustrated that Moscow isn’t doing more to back Armenia, which is a member of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization.

Following Pelosi’s visit, Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement that “unilateral steps and groundless statements serve not to strengthen the fragile peace in the region, but, rather to escalate tension.”

Protests against Armenia’s weakness in the face of Azerbaijani attacks have been going on in Armenia for months, but seem to be growing in intensity. If the current government looks like it’s going to be toppled, Russia would have a choice to either intervene or risk the conflict getting out of hand. The Middle East Institute:

The Republic of Azerbaijan, Turkey, and Russia are all well aware that the fall of the Pashinyan government might bring to power someone, like former President Kocharyan, who strongly opposes the Nagorno-Karabakh cease-fire agreement, peace talks between Armenia and the Republic of Azerbaijan, and normalization of relations between Armenia and Turkey.

The US would love nothing more than forcing Russia to get involved. Neocon think tanks in Washington like the RAND Corporation suggest doing exactly that.

While Pelosi waxes on the US commitment to Armenia and need for peace with Azerbaijan, the US State Department and Department of Defense continue to send Azerbaijan military aid. They do so while ignoring a 1992 law that prohibits assistance, other than specified support for nonproliferation and disarmament, to Baku.

There are exemptions that require Congressional approval, but since 2014, the law has simply been ignored. According to the Government Accountability Office the requirements for exemption haven’t been met and aid continues to flow regardless. The GAO report reads: “the agencies did not document how they determined that their programs would not be used for offensive purposes against Armenia.”

Turkey

The upper hand that Azerbaijan enjoys against Armenia comes largely from extensive training, planning, and weapons from Turkey, which remains mortal enemies with Armenia due largely to the legacy of the Armenian genocide.

There are also allegations that Ankara has moved jihadist mercenaries from Syria and Libya to Azerbaijan and employed its F-16s against Armenia. Turkey denies both, though admits its F-16s are sometimes kept in Azerbaijan as a deterrent.

A direct connection with Azerbaijan would be a game changer for Ankara increasing its standing in the region immensely. Turkey and Azerbaijan are already working on an offshoot of the Trans-Anatolian Pipeline to Nakhchivan from the eastern Turkish province of Igdir, essentially routing the gas hundreds of miles around Armenia. After the conclusion of the 2020 Armenia-Azerbaijan war, Turkey was ecstatic about all the benefits it could reap, including:

  • A gas pipeline from Baku to Turkey through the corridor
  • Increased leverage in negotiating gas prices with Iran
  • Resurrecting the Trans-Caspian pipeline and transporting that gas through Turkey to Europe
  • A logistics corridor stretching to China
  • A railroad line from Turkey to Nakhchivan could make Turkey a regional transit hub.

Turkey’s ambitious gains would be Iran’s loss as it would be eliminated as a middleman needed to bypass Armenia. From Al Monitor:

Iran earns a 15% commission from Azerbaijan’s gas supplies to Nakhchivan. It serves also as a route for Turkish exports to Central Asia. An average of about 12,000 Turkish trucks use the route monthly, with Iran charging passage fees of up to $800 for their 1,800-kilometer (1,120-mile) journey to the Turkmenistan border.

Naturally, Israel, which also relies on Azerbaijani oil,  is a fan. From 2016 to 2020 Tel Aviv accounted for 69 percent of Azerbaijan’s major arms imports, including loitering munitions (they have been likened to missiles that can hunt for a target while directed from a control station).  The weapons gained notoriety in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War.

Iran and Russia have shown no inclination to go along with Turkish and Azerbaijani plans for the corridor, however. Additionally Turkey’s triumphant plans after the 2020 war ignored the fact that most Caspian states had little need to send gas west through Turkey; they were looking East to China and already used Russian pipelines to send marginal amounts of gas to Europe whose needs were almost entirely met by Russia anyways. Of course, that’s no longer the case.

The EU

French President Emmanuel Macron stood behind the podium at the Brussels Summit and condemned Azerbaijan for its attacks against Armenia and Turkey for sending jihadist fighters to join the war. That was back in 2020.

On September 12, Azerbaijan announced it would increase natural gas exports to Europe this year by 30 percent.

The next day, Azerbaijan launched an attack on Armenia. It’s been crickets from European leaders during the most recent outbreak of violence.

The shift comes as energy-starved Europe turns to Baku for additional supplies. Azerbaijan has promised to up supplies to a total of 12 billion cubic meters this year – a woefully inadequate total as Russian supplies totaled 155 bcm in 2021.

Any heavy fighting in the region could put the EU’s energy security further in peril. During the 2020 war, Armenia allegedly attempted to attack part of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline in Azerbaijan that carries oil to Europe.

A pipeline through a Nakhchivan corridor could help boost supplies to Europe to upwards of 31 bcm, although that would be years away.

Ironically, due to its heavy investments in the Azerbaijani oil and gas sector, one of the bigger beneficiaries of any Brussels-Baku deals would be Russia.

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15 comments

  1. KD

    Missing is any discussion of China, who recently announced support for Azerbaijan:

    https://en.trend.az/azerbaijan/politics/3645225.html

    . . . and what their long-term game is. They probably want a corridor to Turkey and the EU, and have had historically good ties with Israel (at least, Israeli weapons manufacturers), on top of being frenemies with the US.

    If history is any judge, the Turks will probably screw over the Armenians one more time.

    Reply
  2. David in Santa Cruz

    Thanks for this update. Without the Red Army to keep the peace this long-contested region was bound to fall back into the ancient power struggle between Persian, Turkish, and Russian cultures. The ready availability of sophisticated weaponry is a bad match for the historic grudges held by the peoples who inhabit a region whose 20th century borders were set by outsiders. I’ve long feared that this region was rife for the proxy wars so beloved by modern politicians.

    Reply
  3. russell1200

    My only issue is the idea that Russia views Azerbaijani oil as a good thing. To my understanding, they are rather ambivalent: regardless of their involvement. Clearly Azerbaijani is in competition with Russia to supply oil to Europe.

    There has been extensive “discussion” about a southern pipeline route into Europe. The Russians, French and Germans have all been somewhat cool to the idea. This makes a lot of sense if you think about the French-German axis of power within the EU and the routing of the Norstream pipeline.

    If you run your pipeline into the EU via southeastern Europe, you get very different pressure points. Pressure points the French and Germans can do without. Given recent Turkish-Greek saber rattling, there is a certain point to it.

    Helen Thompson has a discussion of this, within a different context, in her recent book Disorder.

    Reply
    1. Dazein

      Iranian gas via Armenia and Georgia and then under the Black Sea is another potential route that this “corridor” would seem to complicate. Iranian oil and gas would compete with Azeri and Russian oil and gas, whether piped via Turkey or via the aforementioned route

      Reply
  4. marcel

    Thank you for this deep dive.
    While it shows the different actors, supporting actors and diverging interests, one should take into account that in other domains Turkey & Russia or Turkey & Iran do have interests that align.

    So I think that the local actors could get their act together, and find some kind of compromise, so all can do business. But the outside agents (Israel, EU, USA) have totally no interest in such an outcome.

    So this is wait and see, while the storm brews.

    Reply
  5. Patrick Donnelly

    The analysis, that outside interests want Azeri supremacy, shows why the Rus feel so strongly about the Ukraine.

    Is the USA fighting WWII again, piecemeal? That cost the British and Germans their warfare ability and enable total US domination. The seal on the deal will be banking control of Russia and China, with repatriation of Plutonium from Japan. Could take decades.

    Reply
  6. Steve

    There are several errors and misleading statements in this article. There is no mention of an economic corridor in the ceasefire agreement. The agreement was that both countries would open communications and borders to promote economic development.

    The problem is that Azerbaijan is unsatisfied with the ceasefire agreement and is now using military force to coerce Armenia to also give them an extraterritorial corridor within the sovereign territory of Armenia. This also means that Azerbaijan, a petro-dictatorship which is openly racist against Armenians, can transport weapons along this so called corridor without checks.

    The author also misleads readers regarding the relationship between Armenia (a democracy) and Russia. Russia is the security guarantor of Armenia, a holdover from Soviet times. Armenia is surrounded on two sides by Turkey and Azerbaijan, which are openly hostile to it and Armenia needs security guarantees. Unfortunately Russia has proven to be an unreliable guarantor that plays both side, hence Armenia is more akin to a hostage of Russia rather than an ally. The recent inaction by Russia to Azerbaijan’s invasion has further inflamed anti-Russian opinion in Armenia.

    This author does not emphasize the fact that Azerbaijan invaded the sovereign territory of Armenia, a complete and undeniable violation of Armenia’s territorial integrity, just as Russia is invading Ukraine. Armenia is not dragging its feet; it cannot accept any type of unchecked corridor within the sovereign territory of Armenia.

    Azerbaijan’s invasion is illegal and should be condemned and sanctioned, just as the West condemns and sanctions Russia for it invasion of Ukraine.

    Reply
    1. Dazein

      I like how the post’s author mocks the “crickets” in Europe’s response, while expressing confidence that any day now there will be constructive intervention from the formal guarantor of Armenia’s security.

      I think the author does correctly make clear that Azerbaijan and Turkey are the aggressors in the conflict.

      Reply
  7. JBird4049

    Reminds me of the Congo where foreign powers keep stirring up wars, atrocities, supporting warlords and anything that will prevent the Republic of the Congo from not being a failed state; the country is a major source of important minerals, which are often mined using semi slave labor with nothing monetarily going to the central government.

    Even if Azerbaijan “wins” it will then be targeted by outsiders hoping to keep it weak and exploitable.

    Reply
  8. orlbucfan

    Well, one thing is certain: the neocon/neoliberal craporate American PTBs will gain nothing either way. They’re too stupid and greedy to get it.

    Reply
    1. Dazein

      One thing is certain: no matter who is dying, or how many people are dying, or where they’re dying, I will attribute the problems to the same old bad guys that drive the Search Engine Optimization.

      Reply
  9. hoki haya

    all i know, sadly, living here in Yerevan, is that i would not be surprised if Armenia is wiped off the map in half a century or less. it has everything to offer culturally, and little to offer materially. i’d rather sink with this ship than be shipped back to america, this much i can say as well.

    Reply

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