Зіма будзе доўгая, але можна не даць адзін аднаму змерзнуць4 October 2023
The 44-days war in Nagorno-Karabakh didn’t put an end to the hostility of Armenian-Azerbaijani relations. The war not only failed to bring any real solutions to the existing issues between the conflicting parties, but also created new ones. One of the key issues is the “Zangezur” corridor, which is a challenging problem both for the Armenian-Azerbaijani agenda and the regional and geopolitical stakeholders – Russia, the United States, Turkey, Iran, etc. What is the “Zangezur” corridor: an opportunity, a trap, or a deadlock?
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The night of November 9, 2020, will be an indelible memory for many years for both Armenians and Azerbaijanis. The 44-day Armenian-Azerbaijani war, which started on September 27, de facto ended with Russia's victory. None of the parties, neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan, attained their strategic and political goals. As a result, the only winner and beneficiary was Russia, which deployed its peacekeeping contingent in Nagorno-Karabakh, practically freezing the conflict, establishing its sole moderation over the parties, and reaffirming its positions as the guarantor of peace and war in the region.
With the 44-day war of 2020, Azerbaijan aimed to liberate its internationally recognized territories, which had come under the control of Armenian forces after the First Artsakh War. On the one hand, Azerbaijan aimed to capture the entire Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region, thereby ending the Nagorno-Karabakh issue and forcing the local Armenians to either submit to it or withdraw from Nagorno Karabakh. On the other hand, the leadership of the self-proclaimed republic of Nagorno-Karabakh aimed to maintain the 30-year ceasefire at all costs, striving to perpetuate the issue and preserve the status quo. However, as a result of the war, Nagorno-Karabakh lost not only the 5 regions under the control of the Armenian forces but also the cities of Hadrut and Shushi, which are part of the NKAR and were part of Soviet Azerbaijan under the principle of autonomy, directly governed by the metropolis, Moscow, in Soviet times, never having been under the direct control of Azerbaijan, both de jure and de facto.
With the trilateral statement of November 9, between Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia, the 44-day war was stopped and a subsequent ceasefire was established, the 3rd clause of which stated that “Peacekeeping contingent of the Russian Federation shall be deployed along the line of contact in Nagorno Karabakh and along the Lachin corridor,” and 4th clause stipulated that “The peacekeeping contingent of the Russian Federation shall stay for 5 years, with further automatic 5-year extensions, where 6 months before the expiry of the time period none of the Parties declares of its intention to terminate the application of the provision.”
This was surely not the worst option for ending the war, establishing Russian mediation and signing a ceasefire between the parties, especially given the irreconcilable rhetoric of the parties and the maximalist approach adopted by Azerbaijan under Turkey’s patronage and Russia’s connivance as a regional moderator. What we are interested in this context is the road connecting the eastern part of Azerbaijan with the western part of it, the Nakhichevan Autonomous Region, which Azerbaijan and Turkey started to call the “Zangezur Corridor.” Its regional and geopolitical significance, the parties' interpretation of the parameters of the corridor, and the current situation of Armenian-Azerbaijani relations resulting from it can best be characterized by the formula “neither war nor peace.”
The trilateral statement of November 9, with its 9th clause, in particular, confirming the cessation of the 44-day war refers to the unblocking of communications in the region. In addition, according to the 6th clause of the statement, “The Republic of Azerbaijan shall guarantee safe movement of citizens, vehicles and cargo in both directions along the Lachin corridor.” In other words, the Republic of Armenia and the Armenian residents of Nagorno-Karabakh, which are not under the control of Azerbaijan, establish a land connection with Armenia. And that connective route, the Lachin Corridor, is controlled by Russian peacekeepers. Drawing parallels to the statement and reinforced by the victorious outcome of the war, Azerbaijan was able to leverage the 9th clause of the November 9 statement. According to the latter, “The Republic of Armenia shall guarantee the safety of transport communication between the western regions of the Republic of Azerbaijan and the Nakhichevan Autonomous Republic in view to organize the unimpeded movement of citizens, vehicles and cargo in both directions. Control over transport communication shall be exercised by the Border Guard Service bodies of the FSS of Russia.” Based upon this statement, Azerbaijan demands a “corridor” equivalent to the Lachin one, passing through the narrowest section of the RA border, Meghri, by rail and road, and most importantly, without the jurisdiction of the RA and the guarantee and control of the RF border guards.
Not even a month had passed after the war when on December 12, 2020, President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev delivered a speech to the people of Azerbaijan. In his speech, Aliyev particularly stated: “... Here (in the statement of November 9, G.M.) it is specifically stated that a corridor is to be created between the Nakhichevan Autonomous Republic and the main part of Azerbaijan, and the security of the corridor is not provided by Armenia, but by the Border Service of the Federal Security Service of the RF. That is to say, this corridor will be absolutely safe.”
In that speech, Aliyev openly talked about both the territorial claims from Armenia and the “corridor” connecting Azerbaijan to Nakhichevan. All this was also discussed further at the Pashinyan-Aliev-Putin Moscow meeting on January 11, 2021, where the importance of unblocking communications was reaffirmed in the form of a statement and even the deadlines and authorities of the working groups of the unblocking commissions were specified. According to the 2nd clause of that statement, “... The Working Group will hold its first meeting by 30 January, 2021, according to the results of which it will draw up a list of the main directions of activities arising from the implementation of the aforementioned paragraph 9 of the Statement, setting rail and road communication as a priority.”
The wording of the statement of November 9, “unimpeded movement in both directions,” “hides” the key to the actions of Azerbaijan, its bellicose statements, claims to the sovereign territory of the Republic of Armenia, and encroachments against them. Taking into account the post-war status quo, Ilham Aliyev's Azerbaijan put forward maximum and minimum goals. The maximum goal is the closure of the NK issue and the annexation of NK to Azerbaijan, with or without Armenians. The minimum goal is to obtain a corridor, equivalent to the Lachin corridor, in the Syunik Region of the RA to unimpededly connect with its exclave Nakhichevan, a connective route that will not be controlled and regulated by the Republic of Armenia. And most importantly, Azerbaijan demands that the “corridor” should be in the south of Armenia, on the border with Iran, near the city of Meghri. There was a road and a railway in the Soviet period, connecting Soviet Azerbaijan with Soviet Armenia, which was abandoned, looted and closed after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In other words, only along the border of Iran, only with its preferred map, directions and without the RA control. The importance of Iran's border for Azerbaijan, Armenia and other regional players is discussed further.
In an attempt to fulfill his demands, trying to create a propaganda base for future aggression, Aliyev started talking about “Western Zangezur” (RA, Syunik and Vayots Dzor regions, Lake Sevan, Yerevan) as allegedly belonging to Azerbaijan on an almost weekly basis, claiming that Azeris had lived for centuries in those territories and then were expelled from there. Obviously, his goal is to legitimize future aggression against the territories of Armenia. Similar statements were made on December 10, 2020, in Baku, as well, during the celebration of Azerbaijan's victory, where its ally and the other patron of the 44-day war, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was also present.
Aliyev announced the same to the international community in the heart of European politics, Brussels, two weeks after the Baku military parade, during the press conference following the meeting with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. Aliyev, speaking again about the unblocking of communications in the region, peaceful settlement, and the post-war period, announced, “Today, there are no customs in the Lachin corridor. Therefore, there should be no customs in the Zangezur corridor. If Armenia insists on using customs facilities to control cargos and people, then we will insist on the same in the Lachin corridor. This is logical. And the decision is to be made by Armenia. We are ready for both options: We agree on both versions: either there should be no customs in any of the corridors, or there should be customs in both corridors.”
These statements summarize Azerbaijan's political and territorial demands against Armenia, combined with constant military threats against RA. All subsequent steps of Azerbaijan – military aggression against RA, occupation of RA's sovereign territories, demand for demarcation and delimitation – are directly derived from serving the “corridor” agenda and are aimed at obtaining strong trump cards for the future game, which can be bargained and exchanged with RA.
In January 2021, Ilham Aliyev made territorial claims against Armenia, declaring the capital Yerevan, Zangezur (Syunik) and Sevan (Gegharkunik) to be the “historic lands” of Azerbaijan. After that, Azerbaijan began to use micro-wars in order to force Armenia to make concessions, give the “corridor” and fulfill its demands. Thus, on May 12 and November 16, 2021, Azerbaijani armed groups invaded the Gegharkunik Region of RA near the Kelbajar Region of Azerbaijan, the Vardenis Region and Sev Lake region of RA near the Zangilan Region of Syunik Region, going deeper to 3 kilometers and occupying strategically important positions. Following the aggression, at the session of the RA Security Council, Pashinyan announced that since May 12, the enemy has occupied 41 square km of the sovereign territory of the RA.
The Republic of Armenia, represented by Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, Secretary of the Security Council Armen Grigoryan, and other high-ranking officials, has repeatedly stated that the so-called “Zangezur Corridor” is a red line for Armenia. “… The wording and the narrative about the so-called corridor are unacceptable for us, it is a red line for us, because in our region, according to the trilateral statement I mentioned at the beginning of our conversation, we have one corridor, it is the Lachin corridor that connects Nagorno Karabakh to Armenia. But we have another provision in our trilateral statement, which is about opening communications. I mean railways, roads, and we are ready, in fact, we are already discussing the issue of opening regional communications based on the principle of mutual respect for sovereignty and the inviolability of borders,” announced the RA Prime Minister in an interview with Al-Jazeera on June 14, 2021. Numerous similar statements were made both in the RA Parliament and in government sessions and by many officials. Any violation of the sovereignty of the RA Syunik Region and any talk about the “corridor” is unacceptable to the RA and are not subject to negotiation – this is the official position of the RA authorities. Instead, Armenia, not opposing the measures resulting from the announcement of November 9 at all, proposes its own “interpretation” of the unblocking of communications in the region, the demarcation, and the delimitation process between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
In that context, on August 18, 2022, the National Security Service of Armenia put a project into circulation that proposes to create checkpoints in some parts of the Armenian-Azerbaijani border. The result expected is the creation of new state border checkpoints in Armenia to organize and implement the passage of persons, goods and vehicles across the state border. New checkpoints are planned to be created in the Gegharkunik, Ararat, and Syunik Regions in the direction of the Armenian-Azerbaijani border. Evidently, Azerbaijan could never agree to Armenia’s proposal, where the route connecting Nakhichevan should be controlled by the border guard service of Armenia, not Russia, and would try to bring about a new situation in the region through war. Thus, it was in this context that the micro-war of September 13-14 of this year broke out, during which Azerbaijan occupied important strategic positions of the eastern border of the RA territory, even reaching the resort town of Jermuk, targeting at the major cities of Syunik Region: Sisian, Goris, and Kapan. As a result of the latest aggression, Azerbaijan was able to approach the narrowest parts connecting the Syunik Region of Armenia with the rest of the regions, about 30-40 km in a straight line, and hang over the Syunik Region like the sword of Damocles.
The first beneficiary of the opening and unblocking of communications and creating the corridor in the region is the Russian Federation. It is Russia, the third party of the November 9 Agreement, the moderator, that talks about the unblocking of communications and the fulfillment of the terms of the agreement. It was Russia's ambassador to the UN Nebeznya who spoke at the UN Security Council session (dedicated to Azerbaijan's aggression against Armenia) about the RA Syunik Region and communications. And this is despite the fact that the November 9 Agreement does not mention any specific RA region but discusses a route connecting Azerbaijan to Nakhichevan, without further specification. It is Russia that does not recognize Azerbaijan's aggression towards the sovereign territories of the RA, referring to the lack of demarcation and delimitation as its reason, even though the three countries of the South Caucasus – Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan – do not have demarcated and delimited borders and this does not prevent them from living in peace with each other. It is Russia emphasizing that both Azerbaijan and Armenia are its allies and that it should remain neutral, but it constantly mentions the clauses to be implemented from the statements of November 9, 2020, and January 11, 2021. Moreover, by controlling the “corridor” connecting Azerbaijan to Nakhichevan, Russia will be in control of both the border of Armenia and Iran, as well as the important strategic hub connecting Azerbaijan to Turkey. From that point of view, Russia is the primary and most important beneficiary of creating the corridor.
Through the corridor, Turkey will be able to connect to Azerbaijan unhindered, because at the present moment Azerbaijan is connected to Nakhichevan through the territory of Iran and is controlled by the latter. Turkey also aims to deepen economic and political relations with Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan through the Caspian Sea. Thus Azerbaijan and the “Zangezur Corridor” are of strategic importance for Turkey. This country is also interested in using the territory of Armenia for unimpededly joining Azerbaijan through Nakhichevan and for ensuring its military and political presence on Iran's border, thereby trying to prevent the possible future transit of gas and oil through the territory of Armenia.
Azerbaijan hopes that the corridor will give an unhindered connection with its exclave Nakhichevan so that the country continues building its oil and gas pipelines to Turkey and from there to Eastern and Southern Europe. The corridor will enable Azerbaijan to get rid of Iran’s “guardianship” by having an alternative route compared to the present one passing through the territory of Iran: it will be shorter, and safer, and Armenia, unlike Iran, will be much “softer.” From an economic point of view, given the Russia-Iran-India north-south and east-south economic routes, this corridor can become an important hub in the development of new economic routes.
The implementation of the “Zangezur Corridor” Azerbaijan-Turkey-Russia project and the possible control of the Armenian-Iranian border cannot help but worry Iran. From this point of view, Iran has repeatedly emphasized at the highest level the inviolability and immutability of the borders of neighboring Armenia. Furthermore, the supreme spiritual and de jure leader of the country, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, stated this to both Turkish President Recep Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin in their tête-à-tête meetings.
“In this regard, Iran supports the sovereignty of Armenia over all territories and roads passing through the country,” declared Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi during a telephone conversation with RA Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan.
The risks associated with the “Zangezur Corridor” are extremely worrying for Iran for the following reasons:
● Iran will lose its alternative route to Europe through Armenia and will become dependent on Azerbaijan and Turkey, while Armenia is a reliable route for Iran.
● Iran will lose its transit importance for Turkey and Azerbaijan and will be deprived of its logistics monopoly connecting Azerbaijan to Nakhichevan and, hence, of its weighty levers of influence over those countries.
● An anti-Iranian and pan-Turkish axis will be formed in the north of Iran, which will not be under the subordination and control of either Armenia or Iran.
● In the north of Iran, the Azeri ethnic element is of Turkish origin and is subject to potential separatism and unrest, especially if the Turkish-Azerbaijani presence in the north of the country increases. Let us remember that Azerbaijan is also in an undeclared military-political alliance with Iran's arch-enemy, Israel.
In conclusion, we can say that the main players in the region, except for Iran, are in favor of the “corridor.” All of them benefit from the opening of that communication route, except for Armenia and Iran. Armenia gets an important strategic and economic artery passing through its territory which is not controlled by it anyway and can be used against it at any time, cutting its border with Iran and hanging over its territorial integrity and sovereignty like the sword of Damocles. That is why Armenia and, in this matter, its natural ally, Iran, are categorically against the corridor. And recently India, Pakistan's (an ally of Turkey and Azerbaijan) opponent, has also become a natural ally for Yerevan and Tehran. As for the EU and USA, things are a bit more complicated. The EU and the US, at least at the level of statements, do not speak about the corridor, although they emphasize the importance of a peaceful settlement, the conclusion of a peace treaty and direct negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
As a result, at the present moment, Azerbaijan and its patron Turkey have not given up their “corridor” and other territorial claims against Armenia; instead, they are constantly taking new high grounds and positions through border escalations and micro-wars, thus trying to force Armenia to fulfill their demands. The situation, in this case, is a stalemate, a stalemate for Armenia and Azerbaijan, where none of the sides takes a step back and every day seems pre-war, where all interested parties understand that at any moment a new escalation, a new invasion of the territory of Armenia can break out and Azerbaijan can occupy the desirable “corridor” guaranteed by its patrons, using military force. And Armenia has to be ready at any moment for a new war and disruption of the “corridor” at any cost.
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