By Fin DePencier
But on October 10 Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan told Armenian Public TV that that risk was “extremely low,” and that there was no military buildup on either side of the border.
The mixed messaging from Yerevan is puzzling, Balayan could be trying to create a sense of urgency, while Pashinyan tries to reduce tensions.
The concern surrounds Azerbaijan’s aim of realizing its “Zangezur Corridor” project to get land access to its exclave Nakhchivan through Armenian territory.
Famed Caucasus researcher Thomas de Waal recently described the corridor as the “next big issue,” saying that Russia, Azerbaijan and Turkey all have their own interests in its creation – and that it may be taken by force.
Armenia agreed to facilitate movement between mainland Azerbaijan and Nakhchivan when it signed the Russia-brokered ceasefire that ended the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War on November 10, 2020, whose ninth point reads:
“All economic and transport connections in the region shall be unblocked. The Republic of Armenia shall guarantee the security of transport connections between the western regions of the Republic of Azerbaijan and the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic in order to arrange unobstructed movement of persons, vehicles and cargo in both directions. The Border Guard Service of the Russian Federal Security Service [FSB] shall be responsible for overseeing the transport connections.”
This language immediately gave rise to differing interpretations. For Armenia, it was a commitment to open up road and rail links. It also had implications for the Lachin corridor that connected Armenia with the then-Armenian-populated Nagorno-Karabakh region.
For Azerbaijan, at least at first, the demand was for a seamless corridor running through Armenia’s southern Syunik Region that was beyond Armenian sovereignty.
But Baku softened its stance this February, when President Ilham Aliyev suggested the establishment of Armenian checkpoints on either end of the would-be Zangezur Corridor, while Azerbaijan would set up a checkpoint on the Lachin road connecting Armenia to Karabakh.
It was widely seen as Azerbaijan deprioritizing the corridor in favor of its real strategic goal of establishing full control over Karabakh.
Two months later, Azerbaijan unilaterally set up a checkpoint at Lachin, effectively formalizing the blockade of Nagorno-Karabakh that government-sponsored activists had been staging since December.
Then, last month, came Baku’s lightning offensive to retake all of Nagorno-Karabakh and the consequent emptying of the region’s 100,000-some Armenian population.
Now that the Karabakh issue is off the table, the question is, how much of a priority is the Zangezur corridor for Azerbaijan, and what is it willing to do to attain that goal?
Recent moves by Azerbaijani leaders suggest it’s not a matter of immediate concern.
Baku is now pursuing an alternate corridor through Iran, whose territory has traditionally formed the main overland route from Azerbaijan to Nakhchivan. Prior to the 2020 war, the route started in eastern Azerbaijan, forcing Azerbaijanis to drive hundreds of kilometers through Iranian territory before reaching Nakhchivan. The new route will be considerably shorter, as it starts near the Armenian border, in Zangilan, a territory Azerbaijan recaptured in 2020.
Tehran has always vociferously opposed the Zangezur Corridor idea, repeatedly warning since the 2020 Karabakh war that it would not tolerate any changes to regional borders or the establishment of a “pan-Turkic” or “NATO” corridor along its northern frontier.
Azerbaijani analyst Fuad Shahbazov believes there has been a genuine policy shift from Baku.
“With the new transit route between Azerbaijan and Iran, the Zangezur Corridor project will shortly be implemented without Armenia’s Syunik province,” he wrote for BNE Intellinews, giving credence to Azerbaijani assurances that it respects Armenia’s territorial integrity and does not plan to invade.
And some believe that, while the EU and U.S. did nothing to stop Azerbaijan from retaking Karabakh, an invasion of Armenia would jeopardize Baku’s relations with the West.
Nerses Kopalyan, an Armenian security analyst, told the EVN report podcast recently that the aim of the visit to Armenia by Samantha Power, the head of USAID, in the wake of Azerbaijan’s takeover of Karabakh was “to make sure that Azerbaijan doesn’t attack Armenia proper. This was the United States signaling to Azerbaijan.”
But many in Armenia remain apprehensive. Azerbaijan made several incursions into Armenian territory since the 2020 war and currently holds an estimated 215 square kilometers of its territory. Azerbaijan has faced no consequences for these incursions, including the largest one, in September last year.
Baku continues to speak with strategic ambiguity about “Western Azerbaijan,” the notion that all or some of the Republic of Armenia’s territory is actually Azerbaijani. Baku has intermittently made explicit territorial claims, and at other times said that Azerbaijanis must be allowed to return to the land, regardless of who rules it.
And Yerevan similarly has reasons not to trust the intentions of two other regional players: its ostensible strategic ally, Russia, and Azerbaijan’s strategic ally, Turkey.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in remarks to his cabinet early this week, said, “If Armenia honors its commitments, specifically the opening of the Zangezur corridor, then Turkey will step-by-step normalize relations.”
That could be seen as an effort to tie the Armenia-Turkey normalization process to the opening of the Zangezur Corridor, but Ankara’s exact position and understanding of the corridor are hard to discern, according to Benyamin Poghosyan, a senior research fellow at Applied Policy Research Institute of Armenia.
In an interview with Eurasianet, Poghosyan also spoke about Armenian-Russian relations in the context of the Zangezur Corridor issue.
He noted that Armenia’s position on the route has also evolved over time, and become less amenable to Russian involvement.
Indeed, in a recent interview, Pashinyan said he was ready to open “roads for Azerbaijan and Turkey,” but that Armenia’s sovereignty should be maintained and that “no third power should have control over any territory of Armenia.”
“We are told that in the tripartite statement it is written that security should be ensured by Russia; I say that such a thing is not written,” Pashinyan said.
Russia disagrees, and says that Armenia should abide by the terms of the trilateral agreement in 2020, which does state its border troops be involved in “overseeing” the transport connections.
For the Azerbaijani side, ambiguity in the text does not change the fundamental nature of that provision in the 2020 agreement. “If Armenia does not want a Russian presence, Azerbaijan views that as an Armenian-Russian problem. But regardless, Armenia promised the establishment of this route,” says Poghosyan.
Poghosyan speculates how a new conflict could theoretically play out: Azerbaijan initiates a conflict, and then Russia puts a stop to it. “And Russia would tell Armenia: if you want us to stop Azerbaijan, simply you should do what you agreed to do in 2020,” he said.
That could then produce an ambiguous situation. “Some people will say that Russia pushed Armenia to provide the corridor, but someone else could say there was no mention of a corridor in the November 2020 document. So if Armenia is simply realizing this November 2020 statement; it isn’t a corridor.”
Aliyev may then say that Azerbaijan forced Armenia to provide a corridor. But Pashinyan could say no: this is not a corridor, because it will be under sovereign Armenian control.
“Or Pashinyan could say that Russia, Turkey and Azerbaijan jointly forced Armenia to provide a corridor, and this is more proof that Russia is not an ally of Armenia, Russia is Armenia’s adversary,” Pogoshyan said.
Fin DePencier is a Canadian freelance journalist and photographer based in Yerevan.