The Road That Could Ignite a War in the Caucasus

Azerbaijan has been blockading the lone road that leads to the region of Nagorno-Karabakh for more than seven months. Residents are reportedly running out of fuel and food. 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 three years ago when Azerbaijan grabbed land in a six-week conflict that led to roughly 7,000 deaths. There have been periodic skirmishes ever since. While Nagorno-Karabakh is important to both sides, I don’t believe it is the primary reason Azerbaijan continues the blockade. The real reason is that Baku wants a peace deal that includes the opening of the Zangezur corridor – which would connect Azerbaijan and its Nakhchivan exclave wedged between Armenia, Turkiye, and Iran. The problem for Azerbaijan and Turkiye, which also wants the corridor, is that it risks a wider war. Iran has said such a corridor is a red line. Such a corridor would mean goods and energy could flow freely between Azerbaijan and Turkiye without having to be rerouted through Iran, thereby eliminating the lucrative fees Tehran charges for such transfers. This is part of the reason Iran is so opposed to such a plan and has beefed up its presence along its border with Armenia.

The nine-point ceasefire agreement signed under Russian mediation that ended the 2020 war included a  stipulation that Armenia is responsible for ensuring the security of transport links between the western regions of Azerbaijan and the Nakhichevan Autonomous Republic, facilitating the unhindered movement of citizens, vehicles and cargo in both directions. Azerbaijan and Turkiye have latched onto that point, insisting they have the right to set up transportation links through southern Armenia.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev is demanding that the corridor be opened as part of any lasting peace. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reiterated that point on July 31, according to Hurriyet. Turkiye’s Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan said the same. According to Asbarez:

“The road to regional stability is through a comprehensive peace agreement. For this, the opening of the ‘Zangezur corridor’ is of great importance,” Fidan said.

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has conceded on the issue of Nagorno, accepting that it is part of Azerbaijan. That was more than two months ago, and yet the blockade continues because what Baku really wants is the corridor, and it is willing to starve the people of Nagorno-Karabakh and risk war to get it.

Both Azerbaijan and Turkiye have proceeded since the 2020 war as if the corridor is on the verge of becoming a reality. Both have been working on highways and rail lines where the only missing link is the roughly 10-mile stretch through Armenia. Back in January Aliyev declared that the project “will happen whether Armenia wants it to or not.”

It remains to be seen if he will be so confident going against Iran’s wishes. Tensions have been steadily rising between Tehran and Baku in recent months. Azerbaijan and Israel are now alleging that Armenia is using Iranian Shaheed drones, which would mark a major increase in Tehran’s support for Yerevan and the latest escalation over the Zangezur issue. Armenia has denied using Iranian drones.

Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen announced the creation of a “united front against Iran” during a press conference with his Azerbaijani counterpart Jeyhun Bayramov in Jerusalem for the opening of Azerbaijan’s embassy in Tel Aviv at the end of March. The close ties between the two are nothing new (Azerbaijan is Israel’s largest energy provider and the latter supplies the large majority of weapons to the former), but have ratcheted up in recent months.

In addition to escalating military exercises on their common border, Baku and Tehran are increasingly at odds over a range of other incidents. On Jan. 27, an attack by a gunman carried out at Baku’s embassy in the Iranian capital left the head of the embassy’s security services dead and two security guards injured. Azerbaijan quickly evacuated the diplomatic post.

Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry in late March accused Iran of being behind the shooting attack near Baku that left a member of parliament wounded. Azerbaijani media have speculated that some of the six individuals detained in the shooting lived or traveled to Iran at various times and that the primary attacker received training from Iranian special forces. Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry on April 6 also expelled four Iranian Embassy employees after declaring them persona non grata. Shortly after reports emerged about Azerbaijan arresting hundreds more while the media labeled them Iranian spies. Cohen was recently in Azerbaijan to open Israel’s first embassy in the country, which is located just 12 miles from the Iranian border.

The Zangezur issue is also causing friction between Ankara and Tehran, with Erdogan recently criticizing Iran for its opposition. India, too, is being drawn into the fray. Worried that a Turkiye-Azerbaijan-Pakistan alliance would upset the regional power dynamics and have repercussions for Kashmir, New Delhi is also sending arms to Yerevan.

If all of that doesn’t create enough of a powder keg, there’s also Washington neocons sticking their noses in.

Russia has long been the dominant player in the South Caucasus. Moscow put an end to the 2020 conflict by essentially telling Azerbaijan, which enjoyed an overwhelming advantage thanks to military support from Turkiye and Israel, to knock it off. Moscow mediated a peace and has had peacekeepers in the region, but Russia’s preoccupation with Ukraine and fending off efforts from the West at regime change has created a bit of a power vacuum. The US is now trying to play a central role in finding a solution to the Armenia-Azerbaijan disagreements in an effort to diminish Russian influence in the region (or stir up trouble).

Neocons in Washington have long dreamed of using Azeris to destabilize Iran. There is no indication this would work, nor are the wider repercussions of such an effort clear, but that will not stop the neocons running the US State Department from trying. The Middle East Media Research Institute, which is run by Israeli and American spooks, wrote as recently as November about using Azerbaijanis in Iran to further their goal of regime change:

In order to bring about regime change at home and contain Iranian expansionism abroad, Iran needs to be weakened from within. The international community therefore must engage Iran more effectively inside its borders through pursuing a “periphery strategy,” i.e., supporting the ethnic minorities found in its border regions. This will achieve two goals. First, ethnic minorities would finally enjoy the freedom and human rights they have been deprived of since the early 20th century. Second, this would deprive Iran of human and natural resources it needs to perpetrate its malign expansionism in the Middle East.

An array of democratic ethno-nations in the periphery of Iran would create a “great wall” around the country. This “wall” would stretch from the Kurdish areas of Northern Khurasan to the Persian gulf in the west including Azerbaijan, Kurdistan and Khuzistan as well as Balochistan in the southeast and would limit Iran’s access to the outside world and consequently end its geostrategic importance regionally and internationally.

Eldar Mamedov has written at Responsible Statecraft about what a stupid and reckless idea this is, but again, has that ever stopped the neocons before? For Washington, the Armenia-Azerbaijan tensions are an opportunity to get more of a foothold in the region dominated by Russia. Any conflict would create quite the headache for Moscow as it would be forced to try to balance the interests of not only Armenia and Azerbaijan, but also Iran, Turkiye, Israel and India.

For an inside look at the line of thinking from The Blob we can turn to Michael Doran, director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Peace and Security in the Middle East. In a recent piece for the Wall Street Journal, he weeps for the suffering of the Azeris, and despite Russia previously providing more of a stabilizing force in the region, Doran blames all the South Caucasus problems on Putin. Here’s Doran writing in the Wall Street Journal:

Mr. Putin also has been hosting talks between Azerbaijan and Armenia, apparently playing at peacemaking while keeping the dispute on a low burn. A true resolution of the conflict would obviate the need for Russian forces in Karabakh, one of his two major tools for forcing Baku to respect his will.

Meanwhile, Russia has an unassailable military position in Armenia, home to at least three Russian bases. Russian soldiers patrol key segments of Armenia’s borders, and Russian military officers entirely control Armenian air space.

By contrast, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has been remarkably successful at wiggling free of Moscow’s control—more successful than almost all other leaders of former Soviet republics. While fostering strong economic ties with Europe, to which Azerbaijan supplies oil and gas, Mr. Aliyev has simultaneously developed deep and enduring defense ties with Turkiye and Israel.

The ironic aspect of this argument that Russia is fully behind Armenia and bullying around Azerbaijan is twofold:

1. Azerbaijan has enjoyed the overwhelming military advantage in recent years due to support it receives from Turkiye and Israel. Armenia has not enjoyed similar support from Moscow.

2. Armenians have been furious with Russia for its lack of support and for being too accommodating of Azerbaijan. Essentially, Russia has tried to mediate the conflict as even handedly as possible and is now getting criticized from both sides for it.

Not to worry, though; Doran eventually gets around to the whole point of US involvement in the affair:

Mr. Blinken now recognizes that the American track offers the only viable path to coaxing Armenia to make peace and, thereby, limit the forms of cooperation with the Russian-Iranian alliance that threaten U.S. interests.

Washington is freaking out over the burgeoning sanction-busting Russia-Iran relationship and is struggling to find a way to counter. The neocons at the Heritage Foundation sum it up this way:

Considering their regional and global geopolitical ambitions, the deepening strategic partnership between Iran and Russia poses a rising threat to the U.S., its allies, and partners in Europe, Eurasia, and the Middle East. Failing to quickly address these troubling ties—and the multiple threats that arise from them—will only lead to more international instability, including in the war in Ukraine. Washington and like-minded countries urgently need to take steps now to undermine and counter the anti-American Russo–Iranian axis before additional damage is done.

The Zangezur corridor is indeed one area where Moscow and Iran diverge. While Iran views such an initiative as a major threat, Russia is more concerned with maintaining economic ties and transit options with Azerbaijan and Turkiye. Therefore any conflict in the South Caucasus is a win-win for Washington as it could allow the neocons to try out their theory that such a conflagration would destabilize Iran while also potentially creating a rift between Moscow and Iran if they don’t see eye to eye on the solution.

The RAND Corporation, too, has written about how the Caucasus is but one area on Russia’s periphery where conflict would weaken Moscow. With that in mind, officials in Azerbaijan and Armenia should be very cautious accepting help at finding a peace solution from Blinken and company, as peace is the last thing they’re worried about.

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  1. ambrit

    Good heavens. This sounds a lot like the old Great Game of Empires of years gone by.
    At least in the old days, each side had Dons and Boffins who understood the region and the players. America’s Neo-cons display none of the intellect or expertise needed to play The Game with any degree of mastery. Bungling through seems to be their mantra.
    Stay safe.

  2. vao

    Armenians have been furious with Russia for its lack of support and for being too accommodating of Azerbaijan.

    As soon as he came to power, Pashynian started veering off from Russia towards the USA and France in the hope of finding support against Azerbaijan — which Russia had no reasons to antagonize. He undertook a purge of high ranking officials in the Armenian military and security services, considered by some too close to Russia, and this not long before Azerbaijan launched its offensive in 2020.

    After the defeat against Azerbaijan, he got into a serious dispute with the Armenian military, and recently cancelled military manoeuvres with the CSTO because he is unsatisfied with the role played by the Russian peace-keepers.

    Armenians have not shown sufficient dexterity about playing great powers against each other. I am afraid that while the USA is trying to corner Russia or Iran into a no-win situation, the real loser under every scenario will really be Armenia.

    1. ambrit

      Considering how badly the Armenians have fared versus the Turks over the centuries, the fact that their rivals the Azeris are “in tight” with Ankara should give them pause concerning straining ties with Moscow. A lukewarm friend is better than none at all.

  3. Stephen

    So I guess if Russia now demands a land corridor to Kaliningrad then that would be good with everyone in the collective west.

  4. The Rev Kev

    It occurs to me that if Azerbaijan decides to go to war against Armenia, that perhaps it won’t have such an easy time. A lot of Azerbaijan’s wealth comes from oil, right? So suppose that Armenia, using Iranian drones with a thermobaric warhead, attack Azerbaijan’s oil infrastructure in the same way that the Houthi attacked Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure. In a war, they would be legitimate targets. So would Azerbaijan be willing to risk that?

    1. vao

      If the Armenians did launch such an attack, the fury amongst Azeris risks reaching genocidal frenzy. Not good.

      Then the Turks might view Armenia as a terrorist rogue state and enter the fray. Not good.

      Iran might want to counter Turkey’s moves and join the brawl. Not good.

      Once a member from the Axis of Evil is involved, against a NATO member to boot, the USA will find its contribution indispensible. And we know this is absolutely not good.

      At which point Russia intervenes too, neighbour Georgia — not an exceptionally stable country either — risks being sucked in willy nilly, and then the world will have again sleep-walked into a world war.

      Or am I too pessimistic?

      1. steelhead23

        No. I believe you are voicing the fears implicit in the article. Hopefully Victoria Nuland will be too busy dealing with Niger to get involved here. To be clear, not all neocons are Republicans.

  5. thoughtful person

    There seem to be a number of conflicts simmering which could develop into a wider war – that is beyond Ukraine, which I see as a NATO – Russia proxy war. We have Poland and Belarus, something appears be possibly developing in Lebanon, and we have this longtime conflict zone in the Caucasus. China recently brokered a peace between Iran and Saudi Arabia. I wonder about Azerbaijan and Armenia. Clearly China has been willing to get involved in the Persian Gulf.

    1. ForeverWorried

      Don’t forget about what is happening with Niger and the pan-African band happening. Surely, the French and American spooks aren’t looking for any friendly lower-rungs in the military hierarchy to powder thAt keg…

    2. Maxwell Johnston

      And Syria. In a country roughly the size of North Dakota, there are 5 countries with boots on the ground (Israel, Russia, Syria, Turkey, USA) and with all 5 air forces flying regular armed missions. Of course only Russia and Syria have any right to be there. The situation is very much in flux, with Syria being welcomed back into the Arab League and the possibility of some kind of peace accord between Syria and Turkey. Russia has recently been upping the ante by intercepting USA drones and doing overflights of USA military bases. Neither Israel nor the USA shows any signs of reducing their military activities. I think that if we’re going to do WW3, Syria is an excellent candidate to kick things off.

  6. Candide

    Great review of the opportunities for violence among the riders of the lifeboat, rather than cooperation and survival of even the dominant species on this globe.

  7. Zephyrum

    […] the deepening strategic partnership between Iran and Russia poses a rising threat to the U.S., its allies, and partners in Europe, Eurasia, and the Middle East. […] Washington and like-minded countries urgently need to take steps now to undermine and counter the anti-American Russo–Iranian axis before additional damage is done.

    “Additional damage”. In the US media one regularly reads that Democracy is endangered because this country is working with that country. Russia is cooperating with Iran, China is building infrastructure in Africa, Russia is giving grain to poor countries, and several countries have gathered together for discussions. Terrible threats, all.

    Most of the World fears war. The neocons running the United States fear peace.

    1. britzklieg

      I’d say the neocons/neolibs don’t fear peace as much as they require war. Peace is not even an option to these malign mofos.

      1. Zephyrum

        I believe the neocons are driven by fear. If they were driven by ambition then their behavior would be more rationally self-beneficial.

    2. Kouros

      The threat is building trade routes away from US ability to interfere and therefore blackmail and extract “protection money”… A thug by any other name is still a thug.

  8. Joe Well

    For more than 1200 years, Armenia was basically allowed its independence to serve as a buffer state between the Roman Empire (now Turkey) and the Persians and then the Caliphate (Iran). It’s amazing to see it still being pushed around by mostly the same great powers.

    1. Ramiel

      It wasn’t and it has never been independent state. Don’t distort historical facts. armenians were servants or vassals of Romans, Arabs, Persians, Byzantine, and Turks / Ottomans for the last 1000 years with all they had. In the last 200 years they are and have been servants and vassals of Russians. So armenians learned and used to serve and be vassals, not independent. Pls take a note.

      1. Yves Smith

        So by your logic, American blacks should not vote because they were slaves.

        More specifically, your reasoning also means Jews were always subject people and so the state of Israel should never have been created (mind you, I think the problem with Israel is the choice of real estate; I have had Jewish friends tell me the Jews were offered land in Turkey as the site for an Israel and they think it was a huge mistake to have opted for territory important to too many religions). How about the Vietnamese? Occupied by China for 1000 years, then mainly under the French and Japanese thumb. I’m sure readers can come up with other examples.

        And your statement about Armenia is an exaggeration and also obviously wrong (the Romans were not a power in the last 1000 years). Greater Armenia was independent for a large portion of the Roman Era:

        Roman Armenia refers to the rule of parts of Greater Armenia by the Roman Empire from the 1st century AD to the end of Late Antiquity. While Armenia Minor had become a client state until it was incorporated into the Roman Empire proper during the 1st century AD, Greater Armenia remained an independent kingdom under the Arsacid dynasty. Throughout this period, Armenia remained a bone of contention between Rome and the Parthian Empire, as well as the Sasanian Empire that succeeded the latter, and the casus belli for several of the Roman–Persian Wars. Only in 114 would Emperor Trajan conquer and incorporate it as a short-lived Roman province.

  9. Paul Art

    Which schools in the US hatch these evil neocons who seem to be absolutely good for nothing but war? Fred and Robert Kagan come to mind but an extensive list with names of faculty would be helpful. I suppose the bloated Pentagon budget nourishes war mongering departments in many schools not to mention Think Tanks for jobless neocons. We must do to them what our current Florida Governor keeps promising he would do if he gains power

  10. some guy

    I remember reading somewhere that when Perle and other neocons wrote ” To Secure The Realm”, they shopped it to Netanyahu of Israel who rejected it as too crazy and risky. So they shopped it to the Republican Administration of that time instead.

    I get the feeling that the neocons are in love with their own Innalekshuhl Brill-yunce and mistake clever wordsmithing for intellectualism and mistake intellectualism for intelligence. ( They also mistake strategery for strategy and tacktickery for tactics). They want forever wars and forever-instability so they can keep themselves forever important and forever near the centers of power.

  11. Fazal Majid

    I wouldn’t qualify Azerbaijan’s war as a “land grab”. While I am sympathetic to ethnic Armenians in Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh) and their desire for independence despite the territory being internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, their 1990s victory came at the cost of the ethnic cleansing of 700,000 Azeris and Kurds for the sake of 100,000 Armenians.

    At this point Pashinyan has all but conceded the loss of Artsakh to Azerbaijan as it is not viable without the Lachin corridor Russia has been unable or unwilling to stop Azerbaijan from closing off.

  12. Ramiel

    There many factual mistakes in the article. First of all, Azerbaijan hasn’t grabbed any land from armenia. On the opposite, Azerbaijan has liberated around 16K km2 land from the armenian occupation, the occupation of internationally recognized territories of Azerbaijan I am speaking here. Still, 3K km2 is under the Russian Peacekeeping forces where armenian seperatists continue to live. Second, Azerbaijan hasn’t blockaded anybody. Azerbaijan told and tells now and offer Aghdam – Khankendi road for any transit of civilian cargo or aid to and from and withing its internationally recognized territories. What armenian propagandists are shouting and spreading lie about the blockade of armenians is total misinformation and false. Third armenia wasn’t and has never been an independent state. During all of its existence, armenia existed as the servant and vassal of Persia, Arabs, Romans, Byzantine, for the last 1000 years various Turkic states such as Ottomans, Safavids, Seljuks, etc, and for the last 200 years they have been under Russia. 4) armenia is suppoted by Russia and Iran, which shows the true geopolitical position and aspirations of armenia and the fascist elites who rule armenia.

    1. Conor Gallagher

      Ramiel, I appreciate your zeal for Azerbaijani position. Unfortunately it has blinded you to reality.

      On your first point: you say “liberated”; the other side says “stole.” Either way, Azerbaijan grabbed land in the 2020 war. Not sure how that point is even contentious.

      Point #2: All media outlets outside of Azerbaijan (east, west, left, right, etc.) have described the Azerbaijan policy in the Lachin corridor as a blockade which is causing shortages in Nagorno-Karabakh. I’m going to have to trust that reporting over yours.

      Third, if Armenia really enjoyed the full support of Russia, as you falsely claim, none of this would be an issue because Moscow could easily put Baku in its place.

      Lastly, your diatribe against Armenia’s history and statehood really gives away your bias and weakens your already paper-thin claims. How many other states should we wipe off the map because they were once occupied? Try harder next time.

  13. Alfred (Hurghada)

    The Armenian diaspora in the USA and France have always encouraged closer ties with the West. However, historically, it is only the Iranians and Russians who have permitted the Armenians to survive while surrounded by ethnic Turks. Silly buggers!

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