With one war over, the South Caucasus girds for the next

The Arab Weekly
Sept 26 2023
A carved-out corridor in Armenia’s south would have serious implications for the region, rewriting the geopolitical map for Iran, Russia, Turkey and potentially even Israel.
Tuesday 26/09/2023

After its rapid military advance last week, Azerbaijan is set to establish full sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh, the country’s contested mountainous enclave that has been under ethnic Armenian control for three decades.

With that dispute nearing a conclusion, Azerbaijan may now move to resolve its next point of contention with Armenia: the completion of the so-called Nakhchivan (or Zangezur) corridor. But unlike Nagorno-Karabakh, a carved-out corridor in Armenia’s south would have serious implications for the region, rewriting the geopolitical map for Iran, Russia, Turkey and potentially even Israel.

In 2020, a Moscow-brokered ceasefire agreement ending the 44-day war between Armenia and Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh guaranteed “the safety of transport links between the western regions of the Republic of Azerbaijan and the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic.” Control over the land link would be managed by Armenian security forces as well as “the bodies of the Border Guard Service of the FSB of Russia.”

Because the proposed corridor slices across Syunik Province, the only portion of Armenia that borders Iran, Armenia could see its access to the Iranian market jeopardised. Azerbaijan, on the other hand, would gain a direct route not only to Nakhchivan, but also to NATO member Turkey, while Iran would see its north semi-encircled by Turkic states.

Iran considers the project a Turkish-led conspiracy to create a corridor linking NATO to the Turan steppe, the original home of the Turkic people. Bringing NATO to its northern border would weaken Tehran’s position in the South Caucasus, and pose an existential threat to Iran. That is why Iranian authorities have repeatedly said they will not tolerate changes to regional borders, calling the issue Iran’s “red line.”

Iran also worries that Israel could use recent developments to strengthen its position in the strategically important region. Between 2016 and 2020, 69 percent of Azerbaijan’s major arms imports were from the Jewish state, and rumours have long surfaced that Israel might use air bases in Azerbaijan to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities. Indeed, Iran knows that if the Nakhchivan corridor is built, Tehran will become the second biggest loser of the Karabakh conflict (behind Armenia).

Russia, meanwhile, is licking its own wounds from Nagorno-Karabakh. Despite the presence of Russian peacekeepers in the enclave, deployed to the region as part of the 2020 ceasefire, Moscow was unable to stop Azerbaijan’s advance or to prevent Armenian forces from disarming and integrating into Azerbaijan.

In truth, Moscow’s commitment to Armenia has long been suspect. Following Armenia’s defeat to Azerbaijan in 2020, it became clear that the Kremlin would not defend Yerevan’s interests in Nagorno-Karabakh if it meant jeopardising Russia’s lucrative energy ties with Baku.

Consider the evidence. On September 20, several Russian troops, including a senior commander, were killed during an Azerbaijani “anti-terrorist operation” in Nagorno-Karabakh. The Kremlin said nothing. Three years earlier, during the second Karabakh war, the Azerbaijani army shot down a Russian Mi-24 military helicopter over Armenia, killing two crew members. Again, Moscow stayed silent.

Armenia, aware that it cannot count on Moscow’s support, has sought to distance itself from Russia and normalise relations not only with its arch-enemy, Azerbaijan, but also with Turkey.

Additionally, Armenia is working to establish political, economic, and military ties with the United States, hoping that doing so will strengthen its position in the region. The two sides recently held a joint military exercise, further evidence that the Kremlin will have difficulty keeping Armenia within its sphere of influence.

Thus, as a result of Azerbaijan’s recent victory in Nagorno-Karabakh, the West and Turkey could eventually crowd Russia out of the South Caucasus, making the Kremlin the third-biggest loser. Bogged down in Ukraine, Moscow seems unable to preserve its hold on Armenia, a former Soviet state whose people are in desperate need of outside support.

The end of the Karabakh conflict will be the start of a new turbulent era in the South Caucasus. Azerbaijan will almost certainly continue to develop close defence cooperation with Israel and Turkey, while Armenia may attempt to diversify its arms imports, end its dependence on Moscow, and bolster military ties with the US, Iran and perhaps even India.

In other words, while one conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia may soon be settled, a far more consequential one, the fight over the Nakhchivan  corridor, is just getting started.