Geopolitics Strategic Thinking

Azerbaijan occupies Nagorno-Karabakh. How will the geopolitical situation in the Caucasus and the Middle East develop in the future?

Pavol Beblavý

On 19 September 2023, the Azerbaijani armed forces launched an offensive into Nagorno-Karabakh. Within 24 hours, Azerbaijan was able to encircle the capital city of Stepanakert and force the local Armenian Republic of Artsakh to capitulate. Baku thus definitively gained complete control of the region.

The expected end of the region’s independence and unconfirmed reports of crimes committed by the Azerbaijani armed forces caused an exodus of the Armenian population. Therefore, Azerbaijan opened its borders unilaterally and allowed the local Armenian population to move into Armenia. Over 100,000 civilians, roughly 80% of the region’s population, decided to leave Nagorno-Karabakh. At the same time, the government of the Republic of Artsakh reached an agreement with the Azerbaijani government whereby the Republic will cease to exist on 1 January 2024, and the region will be fully integrated into Azerbaijan.

The fall of Karabakh came after Azerbaijan began an economic blockade of Nagorno-Karabakh in December 2022. This was in direct violation of the terms of the ceasefire that ended the Armenian-Azerbaijani war in 2020. The blockade has almost completely cut Nagorno-Karabakh off from the rest of the world, and the region has suffered acute shortages of food and other basic necessities of life. The blockade has greatly weakened Artsakh’s readiness and will to resist.

Azerbaijan’s victory in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict will have far-reaching consequences for the entire region. Through economic blockade, psychological operations and brute force, Baku has forced the local population to leave the area on its own. This will make it unnecessary to forcibly ethnically cleanse Karabakh, which would be diplomatically complicated and would constitute a catastrophic human rights violation. It is likely that when Nagorno-Karabakh is fully integrated into Azerbaijan on 1 January 2024, no significant Armenian population will remain in the area. Azerbaijan is expected to populate the region with ethnic Azeris, as the region will only become politically reliable when it has a population loyal to Baku. It is highly unlikely that Armenia will be able to influence the development of the situation significantly. The Armenian army cannot compete with the better-equipped Azerbaijani army, and the Armenian government does not have the political will to retake control of the region. There is, therefore, no reason to assume that the situation will change significantly in Armenia’s favour in the near future. The long-standing dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh is thus de facto over.

However, a new conflict may arise in the region over the so-called Zangezur corridor, which would link the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhichevan with the rest of Azerbaijan.  Nakhichevan is a part of Azerbaijan that is separated from the rest of the country by Armenian territory. In addition to Armenia, Nakhichevan borders Turkey and Iran, making the area a potential vital crossroads between the Caucasus, Turkey and Central Asia. Turkey, which maintains friendly relations with Azerbaijan and supplies it with arms, has long planned to implement a transit corridor through Nakhichevan and Armenia to Azerbaijan. This would have an economic and potentially military function. It would allow Turkey to move goods, weapons and armed forces easily to the borders with Russia and Iran while linking Ankara to markets in the Central Asian Turkic republics. If Azerbaijan and Turkey together continue to put pressure on Armenia, which has weakened armed forces and has also lost Moscow’s support, Yerevan may eventually be forced to agree to the proposal to implement the Zangezur corridor, especially if it wants to avoid the risk of further armed conflict. Indirectly, the implementation of the corridor would probably also be welcomed by the European Union, as it needs to open up the Caucasus Route to gain access to natural gas from Central Asia.

Thus, a strong Turkic bloc of Azerbaijan and Turkey is emerging in the Lower Caucasus, with a weakened Armenia between them, following the retreat of Russian influence. On the other hand, however, Turkey’s old rival in the region is also becoming active: Iran. Iran has long had tense relations with Turkey and Azerbaijan. Azerbaijani nationalists claim the northern regions of Iran, which are inhabited by Azeris, and Baku is also a long-standing ally of Israel, Tehran’s arch-enemy. The implementation of the Zangezur corridor would definitively confirm Turkish dominance in the South Caucasus and, at the same time, fundamentally strengthen Azerbaijan. This development would have the potential to significantly deepen the long-standing interest of ethnic Azeris living in Iran in unification with Azerbaijan. Moreover, Baku, no longer preoccupied with trying to control Nagorno-Karabakh and linked directly to Turkey, could venture to support local separatists financially and militarily, thus drastically destabilising northwestern Iran. In order to avoid this scenario for Iran, it is increasingly actively supporting Armenia politically and with arms supplies and is preventing the implementation of the Zangezur corridor.

Thus, the future of the situation in the Caucasus is still unclear. However, the fact is that the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute has ended, not least because of the departure of the Armenian population from the region. However, the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict is probably not over, and the result will be the beginning of a proxy conflict that will decide which power, Turkey or Iran, will be the hegemon of the South Caucasus. The Cold War in the Middle East, which until recently was fought by Saudi Arabia and Iran, could turn into a duel between an expansionist Turkey and Iran. As mentioned, the EU would support Turkey in such a scenario, not least because of the importance of Azeri gas and the potential access to gas from Central Asian countries that the implementation of the Zangezur Corridor would facilitate. On the other hand, Iran’s side would probably still be Russia, which is trying to minimise the Western influence in the Caucasus. Such a rivalry, especially if it were to escalate further, has the potential to significantly destabilise not only the South Caucasus but also the Middle East and the world.

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