By Conor Gallagher
Following Azerbaijan’s attacks on Armenia in recent months and Russia’s preoccupation with Ukraine, the situation in the South Caucuses risks spiraling out of control. In an escalation of words Moscow is now accusing the west of using an Ukraine-style strategy in the region.
In a statement on Telegram on Oct. 24 Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said:
We cannot but be concerned about the alarming trends that are gaining momentum in the South Caucasus, where the West is clearly trying to transfer the confrontation schemes worked out in Ukraine. We can see what unprecedented pressure from the outside is being exerted on brotherly Armenia. Steps are taken to discredit Russia’s policy in the region in an attempt to damage centuries-old ties between our countries and peoples. Numerous foundations, NGOs and media outlets from Washington and Brussels have been redoubling their efforts to sow anti-Russian sentiments in society.
A brief recap: In the early 1990s, the OSCE Minsk Group assumed the role of mediator in the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan after the dissolution of the USSR. In April, Washington and Paris refused to continue cooperation with Moscow within the “troika” format due to the invasion of Ukraine. Russia and the West are now pursuing competing peace plans in the region.
Azerbaijan and Armenia fought a war there two years ago when Azerbaijan grabbed land in a six-week conflict that led to roughly 7,000 deaths. The peace was brokered by Russia which has 2,000 peacekeepers in the region. The ninth clause of the 2020 Karabakh ceasefire agreement includes granting Azerbaijan communication access to its Nakhchivan exclave. Ankara and Baku tried to interpret this as an economic corridor and attempted in September to use force as a negotiating tactic to make it a reality.
Azerbaijan owns a military advantage over Armenia due to support from Türkiye and Israel and wants to use it to extract more concessions from Armenia. In particular, Ankara and Baku want an economic corridor between Azerbaijan and its Nakhchivan exclave which is wedged between Armenia, Türkiye, and Iran.
Russia acts as the security guarantor of Armenia, which is wedged between Türkiye and Azerbaijan, two countries that are openly hostile to Yerevan. Yet Moscow has refused to offer a strong defense of Armenia, allowing Azerbaijan (with Türkiye’s backing) to chip away at Armenian territory. The war in Ukraine has further complicated the situation for Moscow as it needs Türkiye’s help in bypassing sanctions and keeping NATO out of the Black Sea but is also facing heavy criticism from Armenians for not doing more to protect the country from Azerbaijani attacks. Yerevan has begun seeking out other security guarantees in response.
The EU deployed a 40-person monitoring mission to Armenia two weeks ago, and there have been talks about a more permanent force.
The EU observers’ are tasked with monitoring and sending reports to Brussels, which will reportedly not trigger any tangible responses from the EU, such as sanctions, should Azerbaijan launch more attacks.
The move 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. But 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.
At stake in the conflict isn’t just Russian influence in the Caucuses and natural gas for the EU, but key north-south and east-west trade routes that affect countries such as Iran, India, and China. While Moscow is preoccupied with Ukraine, its allies are coming to the defense of Armenia.
Iran recently opened a new consulate in southern Armenia and conducted military drills on its border with Azerbaijan. From Eurasianet:
Iran’s military is conducting large-scale military drills on its border with Azerbaijan, including practicing crossings of the Aras River, which defines a large part of the border between the two states…
The drills come as Iran has been stepping up its diplomatic warnings to Baku about Azerbaijan’s intentions for a new transport link connecting Azerbaijan’s exclave of Nakhchivan with the Azerbaijani mainland, a route that Baku calls the “Zangezur corridor.” The route would pass along Armenia’s border with Iran, with uncertain consequences for Armenia-Iran commerce.
“Iran will not permit the blockage of its connection route with Armenia, and in order to secure that objective the Islamic Republic of Iran also launched a wargame in that region,” Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said in an October 19 interview with the IRNA news agency.
The exercises come amid reports that Armenia is seeking to buy Iranian drones. If Azerbaijan and Türkiye have a continuous land border – with no Armenian territory in between – this will further weaken the hand of Iran. Iran hopes to maintain the Iran-Armenia-Georgia trade corridor parallel to the North-South Iran-Azerbaijan-Russia one.
Iran sees the creation of the Zangezur corridor as a matter beyond the access of the Republic of Azerbaijan to Nakhchivan exclave and believes that this corridor will provide direct military access for Türkiye as a NATO member in the Caucasus and west of the Caspian Sea. Indeed, a significant number of Iranian elites and experts believe that the expansion of Türkiye’s presence in the South Caucasus, especially through the Zangezur corridor, will strengthen pan-Turkism in the region, which is a direct threat to the Azeri regions of north-western Iran.
In addition, Iran is deeply concerned about Israel’s presence near its north-western border, given the close ties between Israel and the Republic of Azerbaijan, which developed greatly during the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War.
New Delhi is also worried about its vision to connect Europe and Russia to its Indian ports through the International North-South Transport Corridor. Both India and Iran want to maintain close ties with Armenia and have it play a key role in connecting the Persian Gulf to the Black Sea and keep Türkiye from accumulating too much power in the region.
India is now stepping up its arm trade with Armenia. From The Cradle:
Since June 2022, rumors had swirled that Armenia was quietly negotiating the purchase of Indian drones, anti-drone air defense systems, and rocket launchers. The speculation was confirmed in late September when Indian media reported that New Delhi will be exporting missiles, rockets, ammunition, anti-tank missiles (ATGM), and the indigenous Pinaka multi-barrel rocket launcher (MBRL) system to Armenia.
Military experts, though, explain that this is insufficient to alter the balance of power between Armenia and Türkiye-Azerbaijan.
India is worried about a Türkiye-Azerbaijan-Pakistan axis gaining power, as well as China increasingly becoming a player as it attempts to advance its Middle Corridor connecting China with Central Asia and then onto Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Türkiye, before heading to Europe.
Both India and Iran are worried that their north-south trade routes would be severed should Türkiye and Azerbaijan enact their dream of the Zangezur Corridor.
During a September meeting between the President of the Republic of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Chinese President Xi Jinping, Xi emphasized how Azerbaijan plays an important role in the transport process between China and Europe, and the transport and logistics capabilities of the country are of great importance in international cargo transportation. From Silk Road Briefing:
Bilateral and transit trade between the two countries can be expected to increase as Baku is a strategic Caspian Port link for the Southern Belt and Road between China and the EU, with onward rail connectivity to Black Sea Ports in Georgia and Türkiye, and ultimately to the southern EU ports in Bulgaria and Romania.
Just where is Washington in all this? State Department spokesperson Ned Price of course denied all Russian allegations that Washington wanted to turn Armenia into another Ukraine, saying:
Our only goal here is to see and to help these countries work together to bring about a comprehensive and lasting peace, and ultimately to save lives. I don’t know what about that can be construed as self-promotional…
Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia and its ongoing brutal invasion of Ukraine suggests that Moscow has little respect for its neighbors’ sovereignty and is hardly a reliable, long-term partner.
That’s a bit rich coming from the US, as it would almost certainly watch both Armenia and Azerbaijan reduced to ruins if it meant advancing its goals against Russia, Iran, or helps apply pressure on Türkiye. decades-old hostilities over The US, along with Brussels, are pitching their own plan to deal with the border disputes – primarily control of the Nagorno-Karabakh region, internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan, but until 2020 largely controlled by the majority ethnic Armenian population.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with the Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers in September on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, but it’s unclear exactly what peace plan the Americans are pushing.
Armenia, condemned by fate to be at the crossroads of so many intersecting interests, is stuck either relying on Russia for its security or inviting more visitors to the party. But it will be a delicate balancing act not to create the impression that Armenia-Azerbaijan is an extension of the battle between the West and Moscow. According to the Armenian Mirror-Spectator:
If this perception prevails in Russia, Iran, or the West, it may have catastrophic implications for Armenia. Azerbaijan will do everything possible to depict Armenia as a traitor in the eyes of Russia, which invited Russia’s enemies into the Kremlin’s backyard while rejecting CSTO’s offer to deploy its monitors. Iran always opposes any foreign presence in the South Caucasus, while Tehran does not view the Russian military as a foreign force. In this context, the deployment of Western observers in Armenia may also negatively impact Armenia–Iran relations. The Iranian foreign minister recently visited Armenia to open a consulate general in Kapan. During his meetings with Armenian officials, he delivered two direct messages: Iran would not allow Azerbaijani and Turkish control over Syunik, and Iran was against any international presence in the region.