South Caucasus: A battle of wills and corridors

Yeghia Tashjian, The Cradle, December 30 2022 — Azerbaijan and Turkiye are gunning to establish the “Zangezur corridor,” in direct conflict with Iran and Armenia’s interests as it entails the blockade of the Lachin corridor – a lifeline for the ethnic Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh.

On 12 December, under the pretext of environmentalism, dozens of state-backed “eco-activists” from Azerbaijan blocked the only land corridor connecting Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh.

The blockade created a humanitarian crisis for the 120,000 Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh, cutting them off from the outside world. This is not the first time Baku has taken such a provocative action. Azerbaijan has long been pushing for the creation of the “Zangezur corridor” to connect itself to close ally Turkiye through southern Armenia, thereby cutting off the strategic Armenia-Iran border.

Tehran has opposed this project and has engaged in military exercises on its border with Azerbaijan. In October, the Iranians opened a consulate in the city of Kapan in southern Armenia as a warning to Baku and its regional allies.

Blocking the Lachin corridor

Despite this, Azerbaijan, with the support of Turkiye, has continued to pursue its goal, which has included blocking the road where Russian peacekeepers are stationed in the Lachin corridor connecting Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh.

Map of Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict zones (Photo Credit: The Cradle)
Map of Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict zones (Photo Credit: The Cradle)

In July 2022, Baku amended a contract with British company Anglo Asian Mining PLC, transferring three new mining sites inside Azerbaijan to the firm. One of these areas is located in the eastern part of Nagorno-Karabakh’s Martakert region, an area rich in gold, copper, and silver mines.

Nagorno-Karabakh’s Armenian population refused Azerbaijan’s efforts to send in monitoring groups, believing the move would give Baku control over the region’s economy and eventually lead to its annexation. In retaliation, Baku sent “environmentalists” to block the only corridor connecting Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh.

Social media users have identified Azerbaijani state employees amid some of these “environmentalists” who periodically try to provoke Russian peacekeepers. The blockade has caused a humanitarian disaster in the region, with thousands of civilians unable to access basic necessities like medication and food via the only road connecting them to the outside world.

To compound tensions, Anglo-Asian Mining sent a letter to leading international organizations and states demanding that the “illegal exploitation” of the mines in Nagorno-Karabakh by Armenians be stopped. And yet Moscow continues to take a passive position, despite being a targeted party in the melee.

The Battle of Corridors

The blockade of the Lachin corridor did not come as a surprise, having been openly discussed in Azerbaijani media.

The only surprise was Russia’s inability to resolve the crisis. Earlier this month, Turkiye’s defense minister Hulusi Akar called on Armenia to “grasp the opportunity and respond positively to Turkiye’s and Azerbaijan’s peace calls” during joint military drills with Azerbaijan near the Iranian border.

He also commented on the “Zangezur corridor,” claiming that it was Baku’s “sincerest wish” to re-establish connections in the region and ensure “a comprehensive normalization throughout the region, including the relations between Azerbaijan-Armenia and Turkiye-Armenia.” Akar also vowed that Turkiye would continue to support Azerbaijan’s “righteous cause” against Armenia.

But on the second day of the protests organized by Azerbaijanis and the blockade on Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijani media outlets made their intentions clear.

They called for the replacement of the commander of the Russian peacekeeping mission in Nagorno-Karabakh, Andrey Volkov, and for the control of the Lachin corridor to be transferred to Azerbaijan, along with the “full restoration of Azerbaijani sovereignty in the territories under the control of the peacekeepers.”

Some Azerbaijani activists also called for the removal of Russian forces and their replacement with UN-mandated forces.

Removal of Russian peacekeepers

It is unclear if Baku itself is willing to employ this language and demand the removal and replacement of Russian peacekeeping forces. According to some Azerbaijani experts, Baku is currently against the withdrawal of Russian peacekeepers by force, as this could lead to the annexation of Nagorno-Karabakh and the ethnic cleansing of Armenian Christians, which could tarnish President Ilham Aliyev’s image in the west and potentially result in US-EU economic sanctions.

Instead, Baku prefers to have the Russians stay, but in a restrictive capacity. It is easier for Azerbaijan to deal with a weak Russia, rather than with the Europeans, as they are familiar with the “Russian mentality,” says one expert. This suggests that Azerbaijan may prefer to continue using the Lachin corridor as a tool for negotiating with Moscow, rather than risking the removal of Russian forces.

Another Azerbaijani expert agreed that the current crisis is essentially between Azerbaijan and Russia – that the latter is unable to fulfill its “peacekeeping mission” and prevent the “Armenians of Karabakh from exploiting the natural resources in the region.”

But he also argues that the crisis is less about the mining and exploitation of resources, and more about pressuring the Russians to open the “Zangezur corridor,” which connects Azerbaijan proper to its Nakhichevan exclave, and lies on Iran’s strategic border with Armenia.

According to the expert, “Azerbaijan wants additional guarantees that it will have a safe connection with Turkiye, in exchange for Karabakh’s safe connection to Armenia.”

The story gets more complicated. In December, Azerbaijani media accused Armenians of inviting Iranian military experts to train Nagorno-Karabakh’s self-defense forces. The reports claim Iranians crossed the Lachin corridor and entered the territories controlled by Russian peacekeepers.

Despite Baku’s continuous barbs and provocations, it appears that Azerbaijan’s goal is not to fully remove or replace Russian peacekeepers, but rather to control their mission, monitor transit in the Lachin corridor, and use the corridor as a pressure card on Yerevan to open a “corridor” in Syunik linking Azerbaijan to Turkiye.

Therefore, from Azerbaijan’s perspective, the future of the Lachin corridor is now tied to the fate of the “Zangezur corridor.”

The view from Tehran

According to Dr. Ehsan Movahedian, researcher and instructor at the Allameh Tabataba’i University of Tehran, “the Republic of Azerbaijan is seeking a new adventure in the Caucasus region, and this issue requires diplomatic steps from the Islamic Republic of Iran and should be warning for the military authorities (in Tehran).”

One Iranian media outlet argues that if Stepanagert (the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh) falls:

“Unpleasant scenarios can be imagined for the South Caucasus region and its surrounding areas, including Iran. Removing an obstacle such as Nagorno-Karabakh paves the way for occupying Armenian territory and changing the map of the region, and in the long term for security attacks on the northwestern regions of Iran.”

The analyst, Mohammad Hossein Masumzadeh, says the only solution to halt Azerbaijan’s aggression “is offensive measures instead of the defensive approach governing the country’s regional policy in order to avoid irreparable risks.”

Some Iranian experts and former diplomats believe that the developments in the South Caucasus are related to domestic developments in Iran, where many ethnic Azeris, backed by Ankara and Baku, have called for separatist aspirations to dismantle the state from within.

Iran is concerned that the spread of Turkish influence on its northern border could impact its domestic politics in the future, as Azerbaijan has openly called for the “unification of Southern Azerbaijan (northern Iran) to the Republic of Azerbaijan.”

These do not appear to be empty threats. On 29 November, the “Organization for the Protection of the Rights of South Azerbaijanis” was established in Switzerland, announcing that it will submit documents and information to international organizations, including the UN, regarding the “rights of people in the Azerbaijani Province of Iran”.

On 2 December, the representative of “South Azerbaijan” at the UN, Araz Yurdseven, defended the idea of the independence of “South Azerbaijan” and accused Iran of committing “murders against the Iranian Azeris.”

Is the region heading for a new escalation?

Interestingly, many European and Azerbaijani experts viewed Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s refusal to sign the final document of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO ) as a sign of Russian weakness, calling it “an unprecedented event that had never happened before.”

The CSTO is a Eurasian military alliance consisting of six post-Soviet states, which include Armenia, Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.

There are concerns that the region could be headed towards a new escalation. Azerbaijan has recently invited Turkish F-16 fighter jets to the region, which is being viewed as a preparation for conflict. The last time Baku invited the Turkish jets was in 2020, weeks before its war with Armenia.

Azerbaijan is also pressuring Russia to renegotiate the terms of their 10 November 2020 trilateral statement, which states that only Russian peacekeepers are responsible for controlling the Lachin corridor.

Azerbaijan is linking the blockade of the Lachin corridor to the opening of the Zangezur one. If Russia agrees to these concessions, it could lead to the isolation of Armenia, threaten its territorial integrity, and block an Iranian strategic border.

This would also shift the regional balance of power towards Turkiye, as Iran risks acting alone against Turkish-Azerbaijani pan-Turkic aspirations, which could eventually threaten Iran’s national security interests both regionally and domestically.

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