zerbaijan has brilliantly completed in one single day its military campaign to restore the country’s full control over Karabakh, thus effectively ending 30 years of separatism there. The region was home to approximately 100,000 ethnic Armenians, who refused to disarm after the “44-day war” back in 2020. This latest “one-day” conflict could initiate challenging peace negotiations for Armenia with Azerbaijan.
Another option though, if Armenia further fails an agreement to provide Zangezur pass for Azerbaijan to its exclave Nakhichevan (please see map) – then this might trigger another military escalation between the two countries, which considering the on-going war in Ukraine will be hard to be stopped either by the EU, US, or Russia (the latter has its military base in Armenia). Another geopolitical outcome could be that final resolution of separatism in Caucasus could trigger cascading resolution of several other frozen conflicts in Georgia and Moldova, instigated with the Russian involvement from the 1990s to 2008.
On Sept. 20, 2023, after massive shelling of separatist military targets, more than 200 Armenian separatists were killed and 400 to 700 wounded, air defense and other military facilities were destroyed in the first few hours according to Azerbaijani sources. Azerbaijan has lost 191 soldiers and militias. Further resistance was recognized as futile, and the Armenian separatists agreed to an unconditional ceasefire and disarmament. The parties started negotiations, and a humanitarian corridor was opened for civilians wishing to leave the war zone, which according to the latest data provided by Armenia has already been used by 100 thousand people, or almost all Armenian population in Karabakh. According to UN observers, there were no cases of ethnic cleansing registered. The Russian peacekeeping contingent in Karabakh was asked not to leave the places of permanent deployment during the hostilities in order to avoid casualties, which they took advantage of and their further peace-keeping mission in Azerbaijan hardly makes any sense.
As Azerbaijani media later reported, the parties agreed on “70% of the issues” during the negotiations, and we could assume that the remaining 30% is the disagreement on the Zangezur corridor from Azerbaijan to the Nakhchivan region.
The vital for Azerbaijan Zangezur pass was part of the agreements achieved following the 2020 year’s 44-day war. However, Armenia now again seems unwilling to give in, which is indirectly confirmed by Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s statement that Armenia is not a party to the conflict between the Karabakh separatists and Baku. However, opening this corridor to Nakhichevan is a key condition for Azerbaijan to normalize relations between the two countries and, if unresolved, inexorably threatens a new round of hostilities between the two countries, the readiness for which Azerbaijani President Aliyev has already spoken about in recent speeches.
The Zangezur transportation route existed in the Soviet era in the form of a railroad and highway route but was dismantled by Armenia in the 1990s after the First Nagorno-Nagorno-Karabakh War, disrupting logistics and communications between Azerbaijan and its exclave. Following the first hostilities in the 1980’s over 300.000 Azeries left Armenia, and almost 500.00 from Karabakh captured by Armenian forces and separatisits, thus turning themselves into fugitives, they had to flee to safety in Azerbaijan, with many registered cases of mass killings by Armenian militia registered at this time, over 2.000 still missing. Today Azerbaijan wants to fully restore the corridor in Zangezur region, which was previously inhabited by Azeries and this would also provide it the shortest route to Turkey.
The restoration of the corridor, although it would have positive economic benefits to land-locked Armenia itself, was strongly opposed by Iran, declaring it would intervene in case of military action by Azerbaijan. However, after Turkey and, unexpectedly for many analysts, Pakistan, stated that Iran should not interfere in the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict, Iran walked back its rhetoric
One key roadblock to Azerbaijan restoring the corridor militarily is that it is located within Armenia’s internationally recognized borders. If Baku was to send troops, it should formally trigger common defense treaty between Armenia and Russia. However, the 5,000-strong Russian contingent in Armenia is insufficient to confront Azerbaijan’s 60,000-strong force, which has significantly improved its combat capability over the past three years, while the Armenian forces have not recovered. Last week’s results showed that both these factors make it impossible to confront Azerbaijani forces, and there is no hope for effective help from the West, which is busy with the war in Ukraine.
Again, there is an active position of Turkey in this issue on the side of Azerbaijan, and the West itself is likely to be interested in squeezing Russia and its base from the South Caucasus. In fact, popular resentment by Armenians at Kremlin’s non-involvement in the last war and loss of Karabakh, will most probably instigate Armenia leaving its military alliance with Russia.
In fact, Armenia now finds itself in a geopolitical stalemate and strategic dead end. Turkish President Erdogan visited Baku recently and possibly discussed a formal meeting of the leaders of Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia, which should resolve the issue of the Zangezur corridor. Otherwise, if such resolution fails then another military escalation between Armenia and Azerbaijan will be almost imminent. Aliyev has already demonstrated twice successful utilization of a unique historical opportunity (the 44-day war broke out amid the pandemic lockdown) and he is unlikely to miss Armenia’s current isolation and weakness this time either.
Another important geopolitical consequence of successfully ending Karabakh separatism by Azerbaijan, could be unfreezing of other similar problems, namely in neighboring Georgia and Moldova. Their situations though differ from each other and have their own peculiarities. Georgia’s military capabilities are disproportionately lower than Azerbaijan, which spent almost $3 billion per annum on military build-up over the last ten years, or almost 5% of its GDP, while Georgia spends only $0.5 billion, or less than 2% of its GDP and has to face Russian forces, which on the other hand are much weaker due to war in Ukraine. Another point to consider is that the current Georgian government does not appear to be ready to escalate tensions with Russia in order to restore its territorial integrity over its break-away separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
The situation in Moldova is no radically different in terms of its military capabilities, but Russia’s weakening leaves their 2.000 strong contingent in Dniestr without any back-up and there is no doubt that the West is likely to provide all the necessary military assistance to Moldova to eliminate the last hotbed of Trans-Dniestr separatism in Eastern Europe.
[Photo by government.ru, via Wikimedia Commons]
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
The author is the Director at the Center for Central Asia Studies “C5+” and a former career diplomat at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Kazakhstan. His diplomatic postings included Kazakh embassies in Seoul, New Delhi and London.