How the End of Nagorno-Karabakh Will Reshape Geopolitics

Foreign Policy 
Oct 26 2023

By Samuel Ramani, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute and the author of Russia in Africa.

On Sept. 19, Azerbaijan launched a large-scale military offensive against the autonomous ethnic Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, known in Armenia as Artsakh. Within 24 hours, Azerbaijan secured effective control over Nagorno-Karabakh, and the Artsakh Defense Army was disbanded. These seismic events ended a three-decade frozen conflict, which included large-scale wars from 1988-1994 and in 2020, and resulted in the exodus of almost all ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia.

Azerbaijan’s dramatic takeover in Nagorno-Karabakh has far-reaching geopolitical implications. Turkey views it as a strategic victory but is wary of Armenia’s resistance to its plans to economically integrate Nagorno-Karabakh with Azerbaijan and Turkey. Iran regards Turkey’s win as its loss, as it fears Azerbaijan’s empowerment and opposes Turkey’s transport corridor projects, which could obstruct Iran’s shared border with Armenia.

While Russia was weakened by its refusal to defend its treaty ally Armenia, it maintains substantial capacity to destabilize and project power in the South Caucasus. Azerbaijan’s takeover of Nagorno-Karabakh could also create new opportunities for China’s Belt and Road Initiative. And Europe and the United States face an uneasy dilemma between providing humanitarian aid to Armenia and maintaining energy supplies from Azerbaijan.

Turkey believes that Azerbaijan’s takeover of Nagorno-Karabakh will enable its Zangezur corridor project. The corridor would facilitate trade between Azerbaijan and the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic, an Azerbaijani exclave located to the southwest of Armenia. This would allow for direct commercial ties between Turkey and Azerbaijan via Nakhchivan and fulfill Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s vision of uniting the Turkic world.

Turkey also supports Azerbaijan’s plan to construct a railway from Horadiz, Azerbaijan, to Kars, Turkey, which would cross through 25 miles of Armenian territory. Due to its infringement on Armenian territory, Armenia and Iran strongly oppose this railway project.

Turkey also sees an opportunity to bolster its energy connectivity with Azerbaijan. On Sept. 25, Erdogan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev attended a ceremony to launch the construction of a Nakhchivan gas pipeline. This pipeline, which was formally proposed in December 2020 and scheduled for completion in 2024, runs 50 miles between Igdir, Turkey, and the Turkey-Azerbaijan border, and a farther 11 miles into Nakhchivan. The pipeline would allow Azerbaijan to provide natural gas to Nakhchivan, which is currently reliant on Iran for supplies, and aid Erdogan and Aliyev’s ambitions of converting the Zangezur corridor into an energy transit route.

The success of Turkey’s connectivity projects hinges on Armenia’s acquiescence. The November 2020 cease-fire required Armenia to allow for unimpeded trade between Azerbaijan and Nakhchivan. Despite this stipulation, both Armenia and Azerbaijan have disagreed on the necessity and location of border checkpoints. Armenia also fiercely opposes Azerbaijan’s plan to create a buffer zone on its territory, as it would result in no Armenian security officers being stationed within 2.5 kilometers (1.5 miles) of an Azerbaijan-run transit corridor.

To break the impasse, Turkey will likely highlight the economic benefits of Armenian participation in its connectivity projects. An Azerbaijan-Turkey pipeline that passes through Armenian territory would help Armenia divest from Russian natural gas giant Gazprom and increase Armenia’s value as an energy transit hub to Europe.

Despite these benefits and the reduction of Turkish-Armenian tensions since December 2021, domestic pressure could prevent Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan from accepting Erdogan’s proposal.

The potential outcomes of Armenia’s rejection of Turkey’s connectivity projects are unclear. Erdogan recently claimed that Iran was open to allowing the Zangezur corridor to pass through its territory rather than Armenia, but Tehran has historically resisted this idea.

If Iran proves uncooperative, then Azerbaijan’s Aliyev could seek to forcefully construct a land bridge between Nakhchivan and Azerbaijan. An Azerbaijani invasion of southern Armenia’s Syunik province would be the most plausible pathway toward achieving this goal. Armenia’s ambassador to the European Union, Tigran Balayan, warned on Aug. 6 that “We are now under imminent threat of invasion into Armenia.” While Azerbaijan may be well-placed militarily to vanquish Armenia, an invasion of Syunik could trigger Western sanctions on Azerbaijan and derail Erdogan’s South Caucasus reconciliation vision.

Iran treaded cautiously in response to Azerbaijan’s takeover of Nagorno-Karabakh. Iranian officials have engaged regularly with their Armenian and Azerbaijani counterparts. After Aliyev advisor Khalaf Khalafov and Armenian national security advisor Armen Grigoryan visited Tehran last week, Iranian officials called for an Armenian-Azerbaijani normalization and the expulsion of foreign forces from the region. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanani voiced support for Nagorno-Karabakh’s integration with Azerbaijan, while the chief of staff of the Iranian Armed Forces, Mohammad Bagheri, demanded equal rights for the few minorities remaining in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Despite its neutral-to-positive reaction to Nagorno-Karabakh’s integration with Azerbaijan, Iran views the new status quo in the South Caucasus with consternation. The empowerment of Azerbaijan is concerning for Iran, as relations between the two countries have deteriorated sharply since Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi took office in 2021.

Israel supplied Azerbaijan with an estimated nearly 70 percent of its arms between 2016 and 2020, which was strikingly higher than Turkey’s 2.9 percent export share from 2011 to 2020. Iranian officials view this close security partnership with deep suspicion. Provocative moves, such as Iran’s holding of large-scale drills near its border with Azerbaijan in October 2021 and Azerbaijan’s periodic arrests of alleged Iranian spies, have escalated tensions. While Raisi told Khalafov that he wanted improved relations with Baku, and Iranian-Azerbaijani relations did flourish from 2014 and 2016, mistrust between the two countries remains high.

Despite Erdogan’s questionable claims of a shift in Tehran’s position, Iran is steadfastly opposed to the Zangezur corridor as it is currently envisioned. In theory, Iran should welcome the corridor’s new road and railway networks. Enhanced regional connectivity would link Iranian exporters to markets in the South Caucasus and reverse the economic damage caused by Iran’s severed access from Soviet railway networks in 1990. Yet even with these commercial interests, which Erdogan has cited in his appeals to Tehran, Iranian officials view the project with deep suspicion. Iran fears that the Zangezur corridor will block its ability to trade across its shared border with Armenia and recently warned Azerbaijani officials against an invasion of Syunik.

The Strategic Council on Foreign Relations in Tehran, which is headed by former Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi, has expressed fears that the corridor could allow Azerbaijan, Israel, and Turkey to foment instability in northern Iran’s Azeri regions. Iranian hard-liners view these destabilizing plans as part of a broader NATO strategy of encircling Iran, China, and Russia.

While the strategic picture is relatively optimistic for Turkey and potentially problematic for Iran, the implications of Azerbaijan’s takeover of Nagorno-Karabakh for Russia are less clear. Russia’s security guarantees, which date back to a 1997 treaty with Armenia, only apply to Armenia’s internationally recognized territory.

Even though Russia’s passive response to Azerbaijan’s May 2021 incursions into Syunik undermined these security guarantees, the security pact categorically does not extend to Nagorno-Karabakh, which is legally part of Azerbaijan. But Pashinyan, the Armenian prime minister, still denounced Moscow’s inaction. Pashinyan publicly criticized Russia’s unreliability as an ally and highlighted the degradation of Russia’s military capabilities in Ukraine. The relationship has continued to decline: After the deaths of five Russian peacekeepers in an accidental clash with the Azerbaijani Armed Forces, Russia dismantled its observation posts in Nagorno-Karabakh on Oct. 5.

Despite these setbacks, Russia is not a spent force in the South Caucasus. As Russian-Armenian relations soured, its partnership with Azerbaijan has strengthened. Russia’s trade with Azerbaijan increased by 55.3 percent during the first quarter of 2023, compared to the previous year. Under a November 2022 agreement, Gazprom agreed to ship up to 1 billion cubic meters of gas to Azerbaijan’s SOCAR, a state-owned oil company, which fueled speculation that Azerbaijan was repackaging Russian gas and selling it to European markets. Leonid Slutsky, the chairman of the Russian State Duma’s Foreign Affairs Committee,  recently described Azerbaijan and Belarus as Russia’s two most reliable partners in the post-Soviet space.

Russia has also expanded its presence in Georgia. While the ruling Georgian Dream Party is not explicitly pro-Russian, as it has spearheaded Georgia’s European Union candidacy and broadly complies with U.S. secondary sanctions on Russia, it maintains a working relationship with the Kremlin. Russia’s naval presence on Georgia’s Black Sea coast is also set to expand, as it constructs a base in the separatist region of Abkhazia.

While its South Caucasus strategy will likely pivot toward Azerbaijan and Georgia, Russia will play the long game to rebuild its alliance with Armenia. Through information campaigns highlighting Pashinyan’s futile forays toward the West and his passivity regarding the plight of ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh, Russia can foment anti-government unrest and boost Kremlin-friendly alternative candidates ahead of Armenia’s 2026 parliamentary elections.

For its part, China has taken an ambiguous stance toward the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. This ambiguity should not be confused with impartiality. Although China has historically exported weapons systems to Armenia, such as 130-km-radius AR1A multiple launch rocket systems, and viewed Pan-Turkism with suspicion due to its fears of Uyghur unrest in Xinjiang, it has strengthened its relationship with Azerbaijan in recent years.

Since 2005, China’s trade with Azerbaijan has increased by a staggering 2,070 percent. This far outstrips the 380 percent increase in Chinese-Armenian trade during the same time horizon. Chinese telecommunications company Huawei has expanded its digital footprint in Azerbaijan, and China has exported weapons systems to the Azerbaijani military, such as Polonez multiple launch rocket systems and Qasirga T-300 missile systems.

Due to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s courtship of Baku, China is well-positioned to benefit from Azerbaijan’s takeover of Nagorno-Karabakh. As the Belt and Road Initiative already has developed a transit route from Georgia to Europe, the Zangezur corridor could give China a second access point from the South Caucasus to European markets. Shortly after the fall 2020 war in Nagorno-Karabakh, Chinese Ambassador to Azerbaijan Guo Min controversially stated that the Zangezur corridor would contribute to China’s “One Belt, One Road” transport project.

Azerbaijan’s aspirations of becoming a trans-Eurasian telecommunications hub also dovetail with China’s so-called Digital Silk Road initiative. The new status quo in the South Caucasus could help Turkey market its “Middle Corridor” project to China. Like Beijing, Erdogan wishes to outflank the proposed India-Middle East-Europe corridor that was announced by multiple nations on Sept. 10 and would pass through the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel, and Greece.

Shifting power balances in the South Caucasus present quandaries for Western powers. Tensions between Armenia and Russia create opportunities for closer Western ties with Yerevan. The European Union Mission in Armenia, which was established in February 2023 without Azerbaijan’s acquiescence, and the U.S. joint military exercises with Armenia reflect Pashinyan’s Western pivot.

While France is poised to send military gear to Armenia, many Western officials acknowledge their inability to rein in Azerbaijan’s alleged ethnic cleansing policy in Nagorno-Karabakh. Hungary vetoed a European Union joint statement condemning Azerbaijan’s conduct, which prevented the bloc from pushing back against Baku’s narrative that it wants Armenians to stay in Nagorno-Karabakh.

And Azerbaijan’s 18 percent increase in gas exports to Europe in 2022, which included a 41.2 percent uptick in sales to Italy, as well as its critical role in the recently completed Greece-Bulgaria natural gas pipeline, limit the West’s ability to influence Baku’s conduct. Aside from providing emergency humanitarian assistance to help Armenia’s resettlement of refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh, the United States and EU will likely be bystanders to Aliyev’s next moves against Armenia.

Despite the mood of euphoria in Baku and despondence in Yerevan, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict’s resolution could benefit faraway powers even more than regional stakeholders. As external powers scramble to capitalize on new transport infrastructure projects and court an empowered Azerbaijan, human rights are likely to be put on the backburner. That is a tragic outcome for the more than 100,000 ethnic Armenians who saw their lives upended by Azerbaijan’s rapid-fire offensive in Nagorno-Karabakh.