Armenia’s existential moment

  • Themes: Geopolitics

Armenia is facing its most precarious moment in three decades. The loss of Karabakh, a region with a centuries-old history of Armenian habitation and heritage, will reverberate for generations.

Ethnic Armenians flee from Nagorny Karabakh.
Ethnic Armenians flee from Nagorny Karabakh. Credit: Sipa US / Alamy Stock Photo

Many people in the West are looking out on the global landscape with a grim sensation that the international order has broken down, conflicts are flaring up unchecked and we have arrived in a multi-polar world of a brutal kind.

In the South Caucasus many would say that this is the world they live in already. When the Soviet Union came to an end in 1992, a post-Cold War peace never properly arrived in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. The region was torn apart by three ethno-territorial conflicts. In 2020 the biggest dispute of the three, the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over Nagorny Karabakh, resumed after a 26-year pause, with Azerbaijan winning a military victory.

On 19 September Azerbaijan launched a new lightning operation to seize the Armenian-run region of Nagorny Karabakh, which it last administered in the late Soviet era. The entire Armenian population — more than 100,000 people — fled their homes. On 15 October, Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev, delivered a victory speech, dressed in camouflage fatigues, in an empty city, Karabakh’s local capital, Stepanakert, renamed Khankendi by Azerbaijan. ‘Today, all the people of Azerbaijan are genuinely rejoicing. All the people of Azerbaijan are praising Allah,’ said Aliyev, belying by omission the prospect that Karabakh Christian Armenians could be citizens of Azerbaijan.

Aliyev’s speech was one of personal redemption, made on the 20th anniversary of his first inauguration as president in 2003. The whole visit to the deserted city was a one-man show, with the president filmed alone, walking around the empty office of the Karabakh Armenian administration and, like a triumphant Roman victor, trampling over their flag.

The symbolism was all about national rebirth and revanchism. Aliyev’s speech was made in the same square in which Armenian prime minister Nikol Pashinyan had told crowds in August 2019, ‘Artsakh [the Armenian name for Nagorny Karabakh] is Armenia, full stop.’ Aliyev’s main reference point was to 1994, the year when Azerbaijan suffered a bitter defeat in the first Karabakh war of the 1990s, the culmination of many rounds of ethnic cleansing and mass displacement by both Armenians and Azerbaijanis, in which Azerbaijan ultimately paid the heaviest price. Years of humiliation, both personal and national, were being expunged.

The Azerbaijani leader was actually reaching further back, to the 1920s. Having once promised the Karabakh Armenians high levels of territorial autonomy, he has now declared ‘Nagorny (Mountainous) Karabakh’ abolished as both a name and as an Armenian-led autonomous region. He has thereby cancelled an arrangement first created by the Bolsheviks in 1921, and declared it an act of sabotage against Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan is busy rewriting a whole century-old script.

The years 1917-21 were the formative era for the South Caucasus, in which the modern political contours of the region were first drawn, and it was a theatre of inter-ethnic and proxy conflict. Much of what happened then – and seemed to be settled – is being revisited again.

The lessons of that era are set out in the classic history The Struggle for Transcaucasia, written by Firuz Kazemzadeh and published in 1951. His story begins in 1917, at a moment that rhymes with the present: Russian power collapsed in the Caucasus along with the end of the tsarist empire, allowing Armenians, Azerbaijanis and Georgians to declare independence. It ends in 1920-1 with a turn of events which is much less likely: a Russian reconquest at the hands of the Bolshevik 11th Army, which overturned the newly independent republics of Azerbaijan, then Armenia and finally Georgia in less than a year.

The story in between is of almost uninterrupted conflict across the entire region. Feckless local leaders won pieces of territory but weakened their new national projects in the process. The Bolsheviks’ eventual appeal to the population, such as it was, was as a strongman arbiter, who pacified the region and ended these fratricidal conflicts.

The Western powers promised more than they delivered. The European powers recognised the independence of the three Caucasus states only when it was too late. The British made empty reassurances that border disputes would be settled at the Paris Peace Conference, only to pull out of the region in 1921 with a few statements of regret. ‘British policy toward the new states lacked consistency, and was determined by the exigencies of the moment rather than any long-term plans,’ writes Kazemzadeh.

It is also a tale of collusion between the two former imperial powers in the region,Russia and Turkey, who both dared to put troops on the ground. Mustafa Kemal’s nascent Turkish Republic helped facilitate the Bolshevik takeover. Kemal’s actions sold out the young Turkic kin-state of Azerbaijan, fatally weakened Armenia and adopted ‘benevolent neutrality’, which allowed the Red Army to capture independent Georgia. In return, Turkey got to sign an agreement with Russia, the Treaty of Kars, in October 1921, which allowed it to keep the territorial conquests it had taken from Armenia.

Aliyev’s military operation in September in Karabakh was something right out of The Struggle for Transcaucasia. He seized the moment to achieve something Azerbaijan had tried and failed to do in 1918-20 and 1991-2: drive out the Armenians and make Karabakh a fully Azerbaijani territory.

The calculation was that Russia and Turkey are still the key outside powers and you get things done by cutting deals with them. Despite their overt rivalry, Russia and Turkey have shared interests in the South Caucasus. Seçkin Köstem (before the latest developments) called the relationship one of ‘managed regional rivalry’. As Vladimir Lenin and Mustafa Kemal before them, Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan disagree on much, but both feel a resentment towards Western hegemony, which positions them as what Fiona Hill and Omer Taspinar have called the ‘axis of the excluded’.

The war in Ukraine has strengthened Turkey’s bargaining power. Turkey is playing different sides, giving military support to Kyiv,  throwing an economic lifeline to Moscow and making its case as the indispensable East-West hub. For its part, Russia is weakened by its war to the point where it decided to abandon its traditional role as the main arbiter of the Karabakh conflict as leverage over Armenia and Azerbaijan. In September 2023, for the first time in its post-Soviet history, it stood down the peacekeeping force it had sent to Karabakh in 2020, and allowed the Azerbaijani military to attack, unimpeded. Those who celebrate this as a defeat for Russia in the Caucasus are probably getting ahead of themselves. Laurence Broers calls Moscow’s pivot to Azerbaijan and abandonment of Karabakh and Armenia ‘managed decline’, in which it is redefining its goals in the region in order to stay in the game.

Azerbaijan’s bet was also that, as in 1920, the West is a paper tiger, when the soldiers start marching. Since the end of 2021 Azerbaijan and Armenia have been engaged in a diplomatic process, led first by the European Union and then jointly by Brussels and Washington, to finalise a ‘peace agreement,’ a bilateral treaty normalising their relations, demarcating the border and opening closed road and rail routes. A lot of progress was made, but the future of Armenian-populated Karabakh inevitably hung over the whole process. The Armenian government recognised that Karabakh would be part of Azerbaijan so long as the ‘rights and security’ of its Armenian residents would be respected. As Azerbaijan tightened its grip on the enclave, the European and US mediators, urged restraint and tried to facilitate direct talks between the Karabakh Armenian leaders and Baku.

We will probably never know how serious Aliyev was about this Western diplomatic track, or whether he was just keeping his options open until he was able to cut a better deal with the Russians. In any case, he launched his blitzkrieg in September, after reportedly making many reassurances to senior Western officials, such as EU Council President Charles Michel that he would not resort to force. (The Azerbaijanis arrested six of the local Armenians leaders they were supposed to be talking to. They are now in jail in Baku.)

Negotiations over a ‘peace agreement’ between Baku and Yerevan continue even though the Western-mediated process has not yet resumed. The Azerbaijanis pulled out of scheduled talks in Washington, alleging that the US is biased against them. Azerbaijan says there should just be a bilateral agreement without outside mediators; the Armenians say they are not against this but, in circumstances where they are much weaker, they want international guarantees on its implementation.

The cooling towards the West is also about the contrast between Armenia’s (imperfect) democracy, now turning West for support, and Azerbaijan’s Russia-style single-party autocracy. Aliyev’s regime is becoming even more repressive. It has arrested several dissident voices and journalists, and accused the US embassy of recruiting American-educated Azerbaijanis as spies.

In a vacuum that opens up if Western diplomacy stalls, several candidates are keen to step in. Iran, the third big regional neighbour, is trying to assert a role it has lacked in the South Caucasus since the end of the Soviet Union. The Iranians are talking up a so-called ‘3+3 format’, a mechanism devised by the three big neighbours to discuss the future of the region.

In substance, 3 + 3 is more accurately a 3 + 2. Georgia refuses to participate in a format that includes Russia. Armenia is very lukewarm, leaving Azerbaijan as the only one of the regional three to express any enthusiasm, talking of ‘regional solutions to regional problems’.

On 23 October, the Iranians hosted a meeting of five foreign ministers of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Iran, Russia and Turkey in Tehran. The shared agenda was explicit. The format was supposed to supersede now-moribund engagement by multilateral organisations, such as the OSCE and UN and in particular by the West. Iranian Foreign Minister Hosein Amir Abdolahian said, ‘The presence of outsiders in the region will not only not solve any problems but will also complicate the situation further.’ Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stressed Russia’s special role and disparaged Western mediation efforts. ‘Let them try their luck,’ was his summation of European Union diplomacy on demarcation of the Armenia-Azerbaijan border. The most authoritative maps of the border were Soviet-era ones, he said, in the hands of the Russians.

How far can we push the 1920s analogy? It has some limits.

For one thing the European Union is now present in the South Caucasus, if not as a strongman, as a regional power that offers ordinary citizens much that neither Iran, Russia or Turkey can: a path to democracy and potential economic integration, investment in technology and infrastructure and visa-free travel. On 8 November – the same day as Azerbaijan’s militarist parade in Karabakh – the European Commission recommended that, with many conditions attached – Georgia should have EU candidate status and a path to accession. The way forward for Georgia under the increasingly illiberal Georgian Dream government is very uncertain but the EU is an absolutely key player there.

Thankfully, also, no one is challenging the independence of the three Caucasus nation-states – or not directly. After what it has done in Ukraine, Russia is capable of anything, but Russia’s failures in Ukraine have weakened it to the point that no one is anticipating a Bolshevik-style invasion of the South Caucasus any time soon.

The violent seizure of Nagorny Karabakh does, however, refocus attention on the two other protracted unresolved conflicts in the region, in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Like Karabakh, they fought ‘wars of the Soviet succession’ 30 years ago, with help from Russians, and de facto seceded from Georgia. Unlike Nagorny Karabakh, they were recognised as independent by Russia in 2008, which has effectively made them (whether they like it or not) into Russian protectorates.

The way the Karabakh conflict ended sets a precedent for the unfreezing of these two conflicts in the future. The key variables here are what happens with Russia’s war in Ukraine and the international choices Georgia makes. If Russia is more successful in its aggression against Ukraine and Georgia turns more to the West, a full-scale Russian annexation of the two territories is conceivable. If Russia gets weaker, there is the possibility of a Georgian revanchist attempt to take them by force.

A a third scenario – one that Abkhaz and Ossetians fear – would have been unthinkable only a year ago but is worth considering. This is one of collusion between Moscow and Tbilisi in which, as in Karabakh, Russian forces stand aside and the Georgian military ‘liberates’ the two territories it last controlled in Soviet times. Russia would have to get something substantial in return, presumably Georgia renouncing its Euro-Atlantic ambitions and re-aligning with Russia.

Far-fetched? Yes, but parts of the Georgian public might go for it. In a survey commissioned by Carnegie Europe in 2020, Georgians were asked, ‘If you had to choose between regaining control over Abkhazia and South Ossetia or membership in NATO and the EU, which would you choose?’ A big majority, 78 per cent, chose regaining control over Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and only 13 per cent preferred membership of NATO and the EU. Despite the country’s European aspirations, ethno-nationalism is still a potent force in Georgia that should not be discounted.

Armenia is the country that has most reason to be afraid and remember the 1920s. The country is facing its most precarious moment in three decades. The loss of Karabakh, a region with a centuries-old history of Armenian habitation and heritage, will reverberate for generations and is the biggest trauma for Armenians since the fall of Kars to the Turks in 1920.

Moscow’s failure to protect the Karabakh Armenians dramatically speeded up a process which was already underway: a breakdown in relations between Armenia and Russia, its supposed main ally and security patron. In recent months, the ties that held the two countries together have started to unravel.

Armenian prime minister Nikol Pashinyan now publicly questions the utility of the Russian alliance. He has declared the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the Russian-led security pact of which Armenia is a member, to be unfit for purpose. He is going against the international grain and declaring that he wants to enlist in the the Euro-Atlantic liberal order. Armenia has now acceded to the Rome Statute and joined the International Criminal Court (meaning that Vladimir Putin could technically be arrested if he sets foot on Armenian soil). Pashinyan sent his wife to a meeting in Kyiv and publicly met Ukrainian president, Volodomyr Zelensky, at a European summit in Spain.

The Russians have drawn their own conclusions, condemning Pashinyan as reckless and ungrateful. Armenia faces a difficult winter. It gets more than 80 per cent of its gas and 90 per cent of its wheat from Russia and still has thousands of Russian troops and border guards stationed on its territory. Russia will try to mobilise discontent from many constituencies who blame Pashinyan for having surrendered Karabakh to Azerbaijan. What insulates the prime minister and his government from popular anger – though not something more sudden and violent – is that Russia and its allies in Armenia are even more unpopular with the Armenian public than he is.

Russia’s South Caucasus pivot away from Armenia to Azerbaijan is part of a big structural re-invention of its foreign relations. Encircled by the West’s economic war against it, Russia is shifting its trade and energy policy from the west to the south and east. That makes Georgia more important to the Russian economy but Azerbaijan even more so. It is the only country in the South Caucasus to which Russia is connected by rail and a link to Russia’s big Middle Eastern ally, Iran, as well as Turkey, the Middle East and the Persian Gulf. Cargo freight volumes on Russia’s railway to Azerbaijan doubled and the land customs point started operating on a 24-hour basis in 2023.

This is where 21st-century global trade meets regional power politics and the political geography drawn in haste by the Bolsheviks in 1921. In the early 20th century three provinces with a mixed population were disputed by force between Armenians and Azerbaijanis. Karabakh, which kept its mixed population throughout the 20th century, was the only one whose status was still contested.

The other two provinces, Nakhchivan and Zangezur, also had mixed Armenian-Azerbaijani populations and were fought over in the early 20th century. Fighting in 1918-20 brought Nakhchivan under Azerbaijani control while the Armenians took possession of Zangezur. In 1921 the Bolsheviks ratified these conquests. Nakhchivan was allocated to Soviet Azerbaijan but as an exclave, without a land border to the rest of Azerbaijan, while also receiving, thanks to Turkish intercessions, a 17-km border with Turkey. Zangezur, bordering Iran, was confirmed as part of Soviet Armenia, thus becoming a territory that bordered (or divided) Azerbaijani territory on two sides. By late Soviet times the two regions had become fully Azerbaijani and Armenian and effectively ‘ethnically cleansed’ of the other nationality.

In the Soviet Union there was at least free communication between all these regions, but from 1990, the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict closed borders and shut down roads and railway lines. Nakhchivan was isolated from the rest of Azerbaijan and southern Armenia lost its railway connections beyond its borders.

In November 2020 the Russian-mediated ceasefire statement that ended the ’44-Day’ Armenian-Azerbaijani war declared that all transport routes would be re-opened and named in particular the restoration of a road and rail link across southern Armenia (Syunik/ Zangezur) to Nakhchivan.

Restoring and rehabilitating these routes and turning them into international connections should have been a win-win. Instead, ‘connectivity’ fell hostage first to enduring Armenian-Azerbaijani rivalry, then to the new Great Power politics accompanying the Ukraine war.

At issue is a 43-km stretch of disused railway across Armenia that connects Nakhchivan with the rest of Azerbaijan. Armenia says it would be happy to see this route re-opened for Azerbaijani traffic so long as it retains sovereign control of the route, and as part of a bigger scheme it calls the ‘Crossroads of Peace’, in which all transport routes across Armenia are re-opened. Azerbaijan and Turkey focussed on the Nakhchivan route to the exclusion of all others and pressed for minimal Armenian control of traffic across it.

President Aliyev named the route the ‘Zangezur Corridor’ and linked it provocatively to Azerbaijanis’ former historic presence in the region. This rhetorical escalation continued with the creation of a so-called ‘West Azerbaijani’ community, who demanded the right of return to Armenia. In April 2021 Aliyev said, ‘We are implementing the Zangazur [sic] corridor, whether Armenia likes it or not. If they do, it will be easier for us to implement, if not, we will enforce it… Thus, the Azerbaijani people will return to Zangazur, which was taken away from us 101 years ago.’

Since the Ukraine war began this little stretch of railway has become the focus of two competing visions of international connectivity.

The war has revived Western interest in the so-called ‘Middle Corridor’ as an alternative East-West rail route for freight traffic between China and Turkey via Central Asia and the South Caucasus, bypassing Russia and its ‘Northern Route’ across Siberia. Freight volumes have already increased substantially (from a low base) and could be tripled by 2030 if trends continue.

The corridor already runs via Georgia but a new route across Armenia would be very attractive. Both Armenia and eastern Turkey would stand to benefit from it if it continued and crossed the (now closed) Armenia-Turkey border.

Western actors thus aspire to an old-fashioned liberal outcome, in which Armenia is de-isolated along with Nakhchivan and trade promotes peace, regional security and East-West connectivity. This is also the one area where the West, allied with major funding institutions such as the World Bank, has leverage. It can promise money and expertise to make it happen. Indeed in Brussels they already thought they had a deal: EU negotiators believed they had designed a compromise deal as early as last summer, which involved electronic checks, speedy transit and Western funding. But the documents they thought they had agreed in Brussels got queried in Moscow.

Russia views it differently. For Moscow the ‘Zangezur Corridor’ is part of its escape route to the south. The railway junction at Julfa in Nakhchivan was once the major crossing-point between the Soviet Union and Iran, but has stood idle for 30 years since the Armenian-Azerbaijan conflict began; revive it and Moscow and Tehran are linked by rail again. One Russian Caucasus commentator wrote in 2022, ‘As for the role of the Zangezur Corridor in the development of the North-South international transport artery, then it very much resembles the role of transit to Iran for the Soviet Union in the years of the Second World War.’

A corollary of this is that Russia wants to be the one to guard the route across southern Armenia. The November 2020 statement stipulates that it will be done by Russian FSB border-guards, a condition that Azerbaijan still insists on but Armenia rejects.

The worry in Western capitals is that Azerbaijan now aligns itself with the Russian agenda and will support a Russian security presence to the exclusion of Armenia. The regional plot thickens further with Turkey, which currently supports Azerbaijan’s view but is suspicious of Iran, and Iran which has its own even more complex agenda. The Iranian Supreme Leader has warned against a corridor that seals off its northern border with Armenia – and onward connections to the Black Sea and Russia. Yet Iran is also dead set against a Western-run corridor there as well.

So Zangezur is back and Great Power politics has suddenly made Armenia’s sleepy and sparsely population Syunik region a geopolitical location once again. In early 2023 the European Union deployed a civilian monitoring mission there, EUMA, after Azerbaijani incursions across the border. The little town of Kapan (population 40,000) now has the flags of Russia, the EU and Iran (which has opened a consulate there) fluttering through it.

Threatening statements by Azerbaijani officials, the ‘West Azerbaijan’ discourse and the shared Russian-Azerbaijani-Turkey interest in the ‘Zangezur Corridor’ have convinced Armenians – and not only them – that Azerbaijan’s next move will be to seize a land bridge in southern Armenia and impose its Zangezur Corridor by force. Talk to almost any ordinary Armenian nowadays and they will tell you that they expect that Azerbaijan, with the tacit support of Russia and Turkey,  will invade tomorrow. Azerbaijani officials play all this down, saying that they merely expect Armenia to do what is required and agree to the corridor.

Azerbaijan certainly knows what a risky step this would be. A big military operation to seize sovereign Armenian territory would be a huge escalation that would put Azerbaijan in Armenia in the same category of aggressor as Russia in Ukraine. Besides, it is hard to plan construction of a major international railway route on territory that you occupy by force. For those reasons, it is more likely that Azerbaijan will use all coercive tactics it can short of outright military intervention in order to get Armenia to agree to its plans. It is hard to blame the Armenians for being nervous. In the new-old world of South Caucasus contestation, more volatile than at any time in the last century, the wisest bet at the moment is to prepare for worst-case scenarios.


Thomas de Waal