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Reading Between the Lines of the Armenia & Azerbaijan Crisis
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Ryan Dulaney

Feb 03, 2024

Underneath the regional conflict are two competing sets of alliances. The revelations of this conflict reveal current geopolitical realities, which will also directly shape the regional outcome. The opinions in this piece are those of the individual author.

While the world is focused on rising tensions in the Middle East and on the ongoing war in Ukraine, war quietly simmers in the Caucasus. Underneath the surface of the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict are two opposing sets of alliances. Armenia, weakly backed by Russia and the CSTO, versus Azerbaijan, vehemently backed by Turkey, Israel and tacitly by NATO. One of these alliances however is not like the other.

Armenia has been a Russian ally since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Both are members of the CSTO, a security alliance that has clauses similar to NATO Article 5 encouraging mutual defense. However, Russia finds itself currently occupied in Ukraine and unable to offer military aid. This leaves Armenia virtually alone and vulnerable to Azerbaijan's whims.

Conversely, the nations that back Azerbaijan are active and highly motivated to pursue their own interest in the region. Turkey is the central ally of Azerbaijan. They share ethnic and cultural ties, as well as a mutual defense pact. Turkey also provides substantial quantities of military hardware to the Azeris. An unlikely ally, Israel provides the Azeris with weapons in return for access to airfields. This seemingly odd alliance stems from a shared distrust of the Iranian regime to the south. Seeing as Azerbaijan has an urge to acquire modern weapons and Israel possesses a lust for proximity to its greatest enemy, the trade is quite solid and complementary.

After a nine-day war in 2020–eventually frozen by Russian peacekeepers–and a 24-hour offensive in 2023, Azerbaijan fully reversed its humiliation of the first war of the 1990s. In 30 years Armenia has been outpaced in military capacity, GDP, population and has no reliable allies. This being the case, peace talks have been in the works since the dissolution of the Artsakh Republic.

Currently, these talks between the nations are failing and Armenia remains in a desperate situation. The impotence of diplomacy is a result of the Azeris having greater ambitions than simply reclaiming Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan is looking to create what it calls the Zangezur corridor. A means of accessing the Nakhchivan Republic–an autonomous landlocked Azeri exclave–and connecting greater Azerbaijan to Turkey. Turkey and Azerbaijan have both long eyed the establishment of the corridor and it would be seen as a great victory.

Armenia is certainly opposed to this, as it currently has control of Azeri access to both Nakhchivan and Turkey via security checkpoints. Although it seems Armenian leverage to bargain is dwindling. Russia is nowhere to be found, and Armenia’s military would likely be crushed in an all-out Azeri invasion. There is however one last obstacle for the Azeris which Armenia is likely banking on. That obstacle is Iran.

There are several reasons Iran opposes the establishment of this corridor. Firstly, Iran fears Azerbaijan–there is a massive minority of Azeris within a politically unstable Iran. In the past Azeri nationalists have called for a secession of these groups from Iran, creating an obvious fear. Secondly, while the corridor would include railways that would economically benefit Iran, the distrust of the Azeris and the Turks outweighs those potential benefits. Thirdly, Iran has ties with the CSTO and with Russia and so would not easily allow Turkey–a NATO member–to achieve its interest with impunity. 

Beyond the three central Iranian oppositions, the Azeri provisions to the Israeli Air Force are a hard no-go for the regime. If a strike were to be carried out by Israel in Iran, it would almost certainly come from those bases.

The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan has come down to the complex political realities of the region and the connections to NATO and the CTSO. If Russia and Iran were not interested in protecting Armenia, then Azerbaijan would likely have already gone on the offensive. However the reality is while Russia is absent, Iran will intervene if Armenia is encroached upon by the Israeli and NATO backed Azeri-Turk interests. Azerbaijan may be able to take on Armenia, but Iran is a very different story.

Hopefully, the conflict will be resolved through diplomacy. Armenia is unwilling to allow for the Zangezur corridor to be established, while Azerbaijan is determined otherwise. With Turkish and Russian mediation a solution could possibly be achieved. There are three conclusions to this situation, the state of diplomatic limbo will continue, a deal will be struck regarding the corridor, or the Azeris will gamble an offensive in Armenia. Which is most likely? Only time will tell.

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