Armenia Under the Gun

Azerbaijan’s Territorial Ambitions Extend Beyond Nagorno-Karabakh

In late September, one of the most shocking human upheavals since the century began took place in the former Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, a small, hilly patch of territory nestled within Azerbaijan. After three decades of tensions and conflict, it took just one day in September for Azerbaijan to seize the disputed enclave. Armenia stood largely on the sidelines, not strong enough to intervene, causing Nagorno-Karabakh’s population of some 120,000 ethnic Armenians to flee en masse in one of the starkest examples of forced displacement in the twenty-first century. And yet international attention soon drifted away from the South Caucasus. Azerbaijan has faced no international consequences for its actions, a fact made all the more striking by the possibility of a new war in the region.

The fall of Nagorno-Karabakh did not resolve all the problems between Armenia and Azerbaijan. These two neighbors have never established diplomatic ties and do not engage in trade, and their citizens cannot freely visit one another. Both countries have now raised three generations of people who view the other side as the enemy. Their shared borders are lined with miles of military positions, and their border skirmishes just in the past three years have resulted in more casualties than the fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh over the same period.

Much is at stake. After more than a decade of rearmament and arms deals with Israel, Turkey, and other countries, Azerbaijan’s military is far more powerful than Armenia’s; it could within a matter of hours take control of swaths of Armenian territory. Its forces have already occupied a series of positions in southern Armenia. Observers fear that Azerbaijan might be preparing another offensive, with the goal of securing a route to its own exclave of Nakhichevan—a region of around 100,000 people that is separated from Azerbaijan by a sliver of Armenian territory. An aggressive Azerbaijani military action to establish this corridor could lead to the partition of Armenia, creating hundreds of thousands of new refugees in the process. With outside powers, including Armenia’s erstwhile ally Russia, preoccupied by conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East, Armenia cannot count on external support.

The best way to avert another war is for international powers, including the United States and its Western allies, to pressure Armenia and Azerbaijan to return to the table and urgently resume peace talks, which last happened during the summer and have not occurred again owing to Azerbaijan’s refusal to attend new meetings. Issues concerning Nagorno-Karabakh—such as the return of its former residents—must be set aside in favor of settling several abiding disputes, notably over borders and the corridor linking Azerbaijan to Nakhichevan. Western powers have tried to put pressure on Azerbaijan by signaling that its reluctance to return to talks may cost it bilateral trade deals and other planned projects. But it could simply decide that the battlefield is once again preferable to the negotiating table, flexing its superior military muscle in pursuit of its growing ambitions.

The conflict over the status of Nagorno-Karabakh has flared periodically for around a century, but it became deadlier in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, when Armenia and Azerbaijan reemerged as independent states. Competing territorial claims and interethnic tensions led to the first Nagorno-Karabakh war in the early 1990s, which the Armenian side won decisively. Armenian troops took over not only Nagorno-Karabakh but also seven adjacent Azerbaijani regions. An uneasy truce held for a quarter of a century until 2020, when a six-week Azerbaijani offensive—known as the second Nagorno-Karabakh war—upended the status quo in the region. Aided by powerful new drones and artillery, Azerbaijan routed Armenian forces and retook most of the territories it had lost in the 1990s, although it stopped short of seizing all of Nagorno-Karabakh itself. Fighting ended after Russia brokered a cease-fire deal and sent peacekeepers to Nagorno-Karabakh, which remained home to around 120,000 ethnic Armenians. Moscow also sent military and security personnel to patrol the Armenian border with Azerbaijan.

But this arrangement was never stable. Soon after the cease-fire was reached, soldiers on both sides started establishing new military positions along the new line of contact and digging trenches. Azerbaijan, whose military decimated the Armenian army in 2020, poured further resources into its armed forces and provided its troops with more training and modern technology. Unlike Armenia, Azerbaijan had the advantage of lucrative oil and gas resources. It also benefited from its deepening ties with Turkey and Israel, both of which provided training and weapons to the Azerbaijani army. Armenia could not match these efforts. It was unable to replenish the weaponry and ammunition stocks it depleted in 2020 or to boost the morale of its beleaguered soldiers.

Azerbaijan’s military operation in September was swift and devastating.
Initially, Russia exerted some measure of control in the region through regular diplomatic contact with leaders in both countries. That changed in February 2022, when Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine and shifted its attention away from the South Caucasus. Azerbaijan quickly grasped that Moscow could no longer play a dominant role in the region. Over the course of several months in 2022, Azerbaijani troops took over territory not only inside Nagorno-Karabakh but also on the Armenian side of the border with Azerbaijan. In December 2022, Azerbaijani forces started blocking the 40-mile Lachin corridor, the only road connecting Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh. Without reliable access to food, medicine, and other goods, its population descended into humanitarian crisis, with some residents of the enclave succumbing to malnutrition. Entangled in Ukraine and eager to stay on good terms with Azerbaijan and its close partner Turkey, Russia did little to deter Azerbaijan’s aggression.

Since the spring and summer of 2022, the United States and the European Union have attempted to step into the breach. They had for decades cooperated with Russia to keep the situation in the South Caucasus stable, but relations between the Kremlin and the West broke down amid the Ukraine war. The West tried to facilitate talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan to head off further escalation, and the EU deployed a small civilian mission to patrol the frontline on the Armenian side of the formal border between these two countries in February 2023. This angered Moscow, which spoiled the Western-led efforts to arrange talks between Azerbaijani officials and the de facto local Armenian leadership of Nagorno-Karabakh. By stymying these talks, Moscow may have inadvertently facilitated the seizure of the enclave; Azerbaijan decided that arms, not talks, would change the facts on the ground.

Azerbaijan’s military operation in September in Nagorno-Karabakh was swift and devastating. Within a matter of hours, Azerbaijani soldiers had taken control of the main roads in the enclave and surrounded its capital, Stepanakert. Once local authorities had surrendered and a cease-fire was in place, rivers of cars filled with Armenians streamed out of the enclave on the single road toward Armenia. Over the following week, the entire population left, and Nagorno-Karabakh’s local leadership formally dissolved the self-proclaimed republic.

Tens of thousands of displaced people have spent the last two months in search of new homes in Armenia. Few of these refugees believe that the war is over. During my travels to these border areas in recent weeks, almost everyone I spoke with feared the breakout of a fresh war.

Armenia has every reason to be worried. A new conflict over the southern part of the country would in military terms closely resemble the recent Nagorno-Karabakh operation, but on a bigger scale and with the added significance of occurring on what is indisputably the sovereign territory of another state. It would take mere hours for Azerbaijani troops to seize much of Armenia’s critical infrastructure, particularly in the country’s southern regions, leading to the major displacement of civilians. Armenia could well have no alternative but to surrender and accept any terms proposed by Azerbaijan.

One area where Armenia is particularly vulnerable is near Jermuk, a once popular mountain spa resort. In September 2022, Azerbaijan made incursions along 120 miles of its border with Armenia, leaving its troops deep inside the neighboring country, including near Jermuk. Azerbaijani troops there have fortified their positions on the mountains overlooking an uninhabited gorge through which a road passes to Azerbaijan’s exclave of Nakhichevan. Military experts say that Azerbaijani troops would likely require just two days to traverse the gorge, a feat that could effectively sever the southern region of Armenia, known as Syunik, from the rest of the country.

Armenia fears this sword of Damocles dangling over its head. Since fighting flared last year, Armenia has been calling for the withdrawal of Azerbaijani troops from its territory and has advanced specific proposals to limit weaponry and increase the physical separation between armed forces stationed along the border. Armenia insisted that these measures would prevent the kinds of minor skirmishes that could quickly escalate into a full-blown war. But Azerbaijan, in a position of enormous relative strength, has not agreed to these sorts of measures. For over two years, the two countries have tried to discuss the demarcation of their joint border, both bilaterally and with the participation of Western officials. An agreement on the course of the border could in theory facilitate a withdrawal of Azerbaijani forces from Armenian territory. But this ongoing process shows little promise of success. In late November, Armenian and Azerbaijani senior officials met again at their joint border. They discussed only the agenda and format of potential future talks, not the substance of the problem itself.

The peculiar geography of South Caucasus fuels these tensions. Azerbaijan’s exclave of Nakhichevan is separated from Azerbaijan by a narrow strip of southern Armenia. Azerbaijan has long demanded the creation of a special route through this territory to connect Azerbaijan with its exclave. It has advocated a route, which it calls the Zangezur corridor, that would run through Armenian territory near the border with Iran. Ultimately, that corridor would also give Azerbaijan greater access to Turkey, which borders Nakhichevan. The proposed route would go through about 25 miles of Armenian territory. In the final article of the Russian-brokered cease-fire deal in 2020, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Russia committed to establishing special controls along this route exercised by the Russian border guards. Armenia is now willing to allow unimpeded movement for Azerbaijani cargo and citizens, but it still is not ready to cede complete control of the route to Russia. For its part, Azerbaijan claims it is willing to discuss Armenian participation in passport and customs controls but still insists on special security protections, which in its view, has thus far been offered only by Russia.

Since the deal was first brokered, both local and foreign diplomats have considered this topic “low-hanging fruit” because the warring countries had an interest in making the agreement happen. Azerbaijan seeks an additional route through Nakhichevan to Turkey. This would help funnel economic support that could be used to reconstruct the regions near Nagorno-Karabakh that had been destroyed during three decades of Armenian control. For Armenia, the corridor can help end what it considers a blockade by Azerbaijan and Turkey, both of which have kept their borders with Armenia closed because of the conflict. Russia and Turkey also have a stake in the project. Moscow wants an additional overland route to Turkey, a major trade partner—and one that has not joined Western sanctions during the Ukraine war. And in a speech at the UN General Assembly in September, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called for the opening of this corridor, which in theory would provide Turkey an additional trade connection to Central Asia and then China.

In the last three years, both Russia and the West have been attempting to proactively mediate talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan to reach a deal regarding the corridor. The parties came up with smart solutions for arranging joint passport and customs controls, and the EU even offered to invest in constructing a new railroad that would run through the Armenian section of the route. Azerbaijan remains concerned, however, about which entity, if not Russia, would guarantee the security of the route. After Russia failed to head off Azerbaijani attacks in September, Armenia distrusts Russia and does not want it to have any involvement in the operation of the corridor. Instead, Armenia now promotes a project that it calls a “Crossroad of Peace,” which promises a more peaceful and prosperous region if Azerbaijan drops its remaining demands and agrees to open its borders with Armenia.

Such posturing aside, an agreement regarding the corridor could be within reach because many of the technical issues appear to have been mostly resolved. But to make progress, both countries need to resume talks. Otherwise, the dispute will drag on, deepening frustration in Azerbaijan, as well as in Russia and Turkey, and potentially contributing to more tensions and even a new war.

If Armenia and Azerbaijan do not return to the negotiating table, a war grows ever more likely. Over more than 30 years of their conflict, these two countries have been close to sealing a deal many times. They failed on every occasion, leading to greater militarization of the region, increased tensions, new wars, and more circumscribed prospects for peace and development. The recent events in Nagorno-Karabakh and the exodus of the entire Armenian population from the enclave are tragic. But in the absence of a diplomatic solution to the remaining issues relating to border demarcation and the corridor, a new war could carve up Armenia.

Restarting talks will not be easy. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has already skipped two planned meetings with Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan organized by the EU in October. The United States has recently put pressure on Azerbaijan to head back to the negotiating table, engaging more directly with Azerbaijani leaders and also signaling that Azerbaijan’s refusal to return to talks might have costs that Western states have previously refrained from imposing, including pausing bilateral cooperation projects or even placing travel bans on some Azerbaijani officials. So far, this approach has not yielded results. In late November, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken had to call Aliyev to get his country to agree to the visits of U.S. envoys to the region. At the same time, Azerbaijani officials have advocated for talks with a different format and agenda purely on their country’s terms.

Even as the West remained at loggerheads with Russia over the war in Ukraine, Russian officials agreed to reopen lines of communication relating to the South Caucasus shortly before the September war in Nagorno-Karabakh, meeting with Western counterparts several times. These channels will not fundamentally change Russia’s confrontational attitude toward the West, but they could, at the very least, promote better mutual understanding and create some opportunities for risk management. Western officials should work to keep these channels open.

Despite their failure to prevent the recent war in Nagorno-Karabakh, the United States and the EU are still the only powers both willing and able to push negotiations forward. Their readiness to continue shuttle diplomacy between Armenia and Azerbaijan is helpful, and the West should continue to try to bring Azerbaijan back to the negotiating table. The prospects for success in the Western-led process may now look small, but if Azerbaijan does not see any reason to return to the table, it may seek to advance its interests on the battlefield instead.

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