COMMENT: Aliyev could still lose in the Great Game he started

Nov 1 2023

By Robert Ananyan in Yerevan November 1, 2023

The Great Game in the South Caucasus continues despite the de facto dissolution of Nagorno-Karabakh. Russia and the West are in fierce competition to reconcile Armenia and Azerbaijan, which would also confirm one of them as the prime mover in the South Caucasus.

After its new attack on Karabakh on September 19,  relations between the West and Azerbaijan have become complicated. 

Azerbaijan, which is in alliance with Turkey and Russia to remove the West from the region, recently refused to negotiate with Armenia through the mediation of European Council President Charles Michel in Brussels. The USA and the EU had strongly pressured Aliyev, who broke his promise not to start a war against Nagorno-Karabakh, according to German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock.

In order not to suffer political losses from the occupation of Karabakh, Aliyev first refused to go to Granada to participate in the meeting with Michel, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, and then also cancelled the meeting in Brussels. Afterwards he announced in Bishkek that his preferred format is with Russian mediation. He invited the Armenian premier to both Moscow and Tbilisi. This is Aliyev's blackmail against the West to block any pressure on Baku.

In Granada, Armenia received the support of Germany, France, and the European Union (EU), which in a sense is a kind of security guarantee. In the agreed statement, what happened in Nagorno-Karabakh was described as a mass displacement, and there was unwavering support for Armenia's sovereignty, territorial integrity, and inviolability of borders. It was also mentioned that borders should be drawn according to the last map of the USSR.

The European Parliament, in a resolution adopted on October 5, condemned Azerbaijan's military aggression against Nagorno-Karabakh and called on the EU leadership to impose sanctions on Azerbaijani officials who are responsible for the ceasefire violation in Nagorno-Karabakh and numerous abuses of human rights. The European Commission was urged to refuse the purchase of gas from Azerbaijan if it takes military steps against Armenia. Parliaments of individual European countries also adopted resolutions condemning Azerbaijan.

The US State Department announced on October 15, that it strongly supports Armenia's sovereignty and territorial integrity. "We emphasised that any violation of that sovereignty and territorial integrity will lead to serious consequences," it said. In short, the West drew a red line before Aliyev, forbidding any military aggression against Armenia. 

Avoidance strategy

These developments made Aliyev realise that he would not succeed in Brussels, but on the contrary, would be told to recognise the territorial integrity of Armenia with an area of 29,800 square kilometers.

This would deprive Baku of the chance to create a narrative to carry out new military attacks against Armenia, using as an excuse, for example, the eight villages under Armenian occupation. The West has forbidden Azerbaijan to attack Armenia and re-occupy the "eight villages or three enclaves".

Aliyev avoided meeting the European interlocutors. Furthermore, he exploited the fact that Armenia had recognised Nagorno-Karabakh as a territory of Azerbaijan in the previous negotiations under the EU format. He declared that this is a basis for extending his sovereignty over Karabakh through a military operation. He no longer has anything to gain from the Western format, and is therefore boycotting it.

Why is the Russian format preferable for Azerbaijan? Azerbaijan cannot demand in Brussels that Armenia provide it and Russia with the "Zangezur Corridor" through Armenian territory to its exclave of Nakhitchevan, but it can do this in Moscow.

At the meeting held in Brussels on May 14, Azerbaijan had agreed that Armenia and Azerbaijan should seek the help of the World Customs Organisation to restore railway and transport connections. This implies the approval of Armenia's sovereignty and jurisdiction over roads in its territory. The West considers the topic of the Zangezur Corridor closed.

Meanwhile, Russia is interested in creating a Zangezur Corridor outside of Armenia's customs, border, and security controls, which it will control with Russian Security Forces.

Unlike the United States and the European Union, Moscow also turns a blind eye to Aliyev carrying out military attacks against Armenia. During the Azerbaijani attacks, Russia refused to fulfill its security obligations towards Armenia, causing a security vacuum. This is a lever of pressure against the Armenian government so that it is forced to cede the Zangezur Corridor to Baku and Moscow. This scheme has been used for three years now.

Another military aggression of Azerbaijan against Armenia would be an excellent opportunity for Russia to finally deploy Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) peacekeepers on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border. The Kremlin announced the plan to deploy the CSTO in Armenia in autumn 2022, when Yerevan decided to deploy an EU observation mission on its territory.

Therefore Putin and Aliyev invited Pashinyan to Moscow to negotiate. It is unlikely that Yerevan will accept this offer. Yerevan realises that Russia is not a mediator, but a party to the conflict. Russia does not want to establish real peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan, unlike the US and the EU. If Armenians and Azerbaijanis stop killing each other, who would the Russians "save"? Russian troups would be removed from the South Caucasus.

Georgia could be an interesting option, but Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili can at most offer Aliyev and Pashinyan a good hotel, delicious food, and a sincere wish not to go to war and reconcile. Georgia cannot present a political plan to resolve the 35-year-old Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict. Georgia has no leverage on the parties for the implementation of the agreement. If the Tbilisi meeting takes place, it will actually be an Armenian-Azerbaijani bilateral format.

Position of strength

Azerbaijan offers the formats of Moscow and Tbilisi to Armenia in order to exclude the US and the EU from the negotiation process. The absence of the West would be dangerous for Armenia, because Azerbaijan will continue to speak from a position of strength. Armenia has not yet managed to restore the military balance.

It will not sign a bilateral peace agreement with Azerbaijan in Georgia and participate in the Russian-Turkish-Azerbaijani plan to push the US and the EU out of the region. If it did, Yerevan will lose the support of the West.

Yet Aliyev could still lose in the "Great Game" he started. Despite the support of Turkey and Russia, Azerbaijan is a weak link for the US and the EU. The West can apply sanctions against Azerbaijan, imposing embargoes on the sale of Azerbaijani oil and gas, and the purchase of arms.

France, one of the leading states of Nato, will start supplying weapons to Armenia and will support the reforms of its armed forces. America's ally India is preparing to deliver a new batch of weapons to Armenia. Armenia has security cooperation with three other Western countries.

If Azerbaijan continues to boycott Western formats, the West can strengthen Armenia's defence capabilities, forcing Aliyev to forget about the new war and return to constructive negotiations. Azerbaijan could even be forced to accept back the 150,000 Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh under the international mandate of the United Nations.

Aliyev's next step will be decided by Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Putin, who held a meeting in Sochi 15 days before Azerbaijan's September 19 attack on Karabakh.

It is still the case that Azerbaijan may not sign a peace treaty with Armenia and could prefer the logic of the "Cold War". There is a possibility that Azerbaijan will wait until a suitable window for new military aggression is created. Elections are coming soon in the US and the EU.

But if the US and the EU increase the pressure against Azerbaijan now, a new date for the meeting between Aliyev and Pashinyan could be announced in the near future under the Western format.

Robert Ananyan is a journalist based in Yerevan, Armenia, who focuses on the political, and security problems of the South Caucasus.