Is Azerbaijan planning a long-term presence in Armenia?

Azerbaijan’s recent attack seeks to enforce terms in negotiations with Armenia, but also shows a wider aim for a more permanent presence.

Expert comment Published 26 September 2022 3 minute READ

The recent large-scale cross-border attacks inside Armenia by Azerbaijan, with reports estimating at least 286 people killed from both sides and hundreds more wounded, highlights the wider picture of a collapsing Russian-led security order in Eurasia.

Coming on 12 September, the attacks coincided with Ukraine’s successful counter-offensive in Kharkiv and fresh fighting between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. And Armenian appeals to Russia and its allies in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) for support met with muted responses, resulting only in the mobilization of a fact-finding mission.

Several key actors in Eurasia now see Azerbaijan as a critical – or at least important – partner in solving new problems flowing from the war in Ukraine. For the Kremlin, Azerbaijan is a pivotal link for a more isolated Russia seeking new routes to Iran and Asia.

The European Union (EU) is also looking to Azerbaijan, for an alternative to Russian gas. It signed an agreement with Baku in July aimed at doubling its Azerbaijani gas supply by 2027 – although the total contribution to the EU gas deficit remains small. The EU has also staked considerable capital on a mediation initiative between Azerbaijan and Armenia, hosting four meetings between President Ilham Aliyev and Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan since December 2021.

Azerbaijan continues to enjoy solid support, including military, from its close ally Turkey, and only Iran has signalled concern over the possibility of risks to its border with Armenia.

And filtering events in the Caucasus through a Ukrainian lens allows for analogies which resonate with international audiences. By targeting Armenia, a formal Russian ally, Azerbaijan can be seen to be indirectly weakening Russia’s hold in the South Caucasus – an analysis which is popular in more hawkish American circles in particular.

Using a coercive bargaining strategy

But although the wider, enabling context of Russia’s war in Ukraine is important, the drivers behind Azerbaijan’s military strategy are closer to home, as escalations along the Armenian-Azerbaijani border long preceded Russia’s invasion, beginning in May 2021.

Azerbaijan continues to enjoy solid support, including military, from its close ally Turkey, and only Iran has signalled concern over the possibility of risks to its border with Armenia

These escalations are a coercive bargaining strategy, aimed at forcing Armenia to agreement on the two key blockages seemingly delaying progress in the negotiations.

The first is the legacy issue of the rights and security of the Karabakh Armenian population – the issue still widely seen as being at the core of the conflict. Azerbaijan has defined its negotiating agenda with Armenia as encompassing the regulation of inter-state issues only, with no mention of rights or security guarantees for Armenians in Karabakh.

Armenia has indicated it agrees on moving forward with the inter-state agenda, but wants to see a process providing security guarantees for the Karabakh Armenian population. The Armenian leadership has distanced itself from previous irredentist language, claiming its concerns are not about territory but the basic security of the Armenian population.

But Azerbaijan rejects this as a continuation of Armenian irredentism that it sees as the conflict’s true cause. For Baku, what happens in Karabakh is exclusively its internal affair – even if, in reality, it is now a matter of negotiation with Russia.

A second, new theatre of conflict relates to the understanding of Article 9 of the ceasefire agreement, which stipulates the opening of all economic and transport connections, with Armenian guarantees of secure Azerbaijani transit between mainland Azerbaijan and its exclave Nakhchivan.

What is at stake here is whether secure Azerbaijani transit can be satisfied by access to Armenia’s existing road system under Armenian sovereignty, or whether secure Azerbaijani transit implies a corridor without customs and regulatory checks – a corridor with elements of extra-territoriality diminishing Armenian sovereignty over it.

Several key actors in Eurasia now see Azerbaijan as a critical – or at least important – partner in solving new problems flowing from the war in Ukraine

Since 2020 the latter understanding, framed as the ‘Zangezur corridor’ which revives a historical placename, has gained traction in Azerbaijan. This is based on the proposition that a corridor connecting Armenia to Karabakh across the Lachin region – the so-called ‘Lachin corridor’ – was conceded in the 2020 ceasefire agreement and therefore Armenia should cede one in return.

Since Russia is mandated under that agreement to control both routes, it too has an interest in seeing a ‘Zangezur corridor’ come into being. Russian and Azerbaijani interests align here.

Armenia says the ‘Zangezur’ and Lachin routes cannot be pegged to one another because the functions of the two corridors are different – transit versus humanitarian respectively – and that Azerbaijani transit needs can be served by Armenia’s existing road system.

Azerbaijan is now seeking to resolve these issues by force. At least 50 square kilometres of Armenian territory are now reported as occupied by Azerbaijani forces. Azerbaijan’s attack demonstrated the potential for Armenia to be cut in two, given it is a mere 40 kilometres across at its narrowest point.

Return of the ‘buffer zone’ idea

Simultaneous to the cross-border attacks on Armenia, several Azerbaijani governmental media accounts and a ruling party MP floated the idea of establishing a buffer zone in Armenian territory along the border with Azerbaijan.

This idea shows how the ‘Zangezur’ concept is rapidly transforming into a new and unstable territorial ‘brand’ promoted by government officials, activists, intellectuals, and social media users, much like Russia’s ‘Novorossiya’ project.

The proposition of a buffer zone adds a more expansionary context to existing desires for a corridor because, although such zones are usually justified as security measures, they are notoriously sticky entanglements in which military and infrastructural installations are followed by symbolic attachments to ‘liberated territories’.

This is precisely what happened when Armenian forces occupied the seven districts around Nagorny Karabakh for almost three decades.

Is Azerbaijan planning a long-term presence in Armenia?

Initially justified as a security measure, the terminology and meaning of the territories metastasized from being a buffer zone and ‘security belt’ to becoming ‘liberated territories’ as historical Armenian lands – an evolution which failed to take into account the fate of more than 500,000 ethnic Azerbaijanis expelled from those territories.

And everything is already in place for a similar evolution to happen to any further territories in Armenia occupied by Azerbaijan, should Aliyev act on his threat to make a Zangezur corridor a reality by force.

An Azerbaijani historiographic tradition suggesting Armenians arrived in the Caucasus only in the 19th century, specifically onto ‘Azerbaijani lands’, has been gathering pace in school curricula, maps, and official speeches for at least a decade, and has become mainstream over the last two years.

Coercive tactics are bringing Azerbaijan and Armenia to the brink of inter-state war. Renewed international focus on this conflict is urgently needed before more violence locks the two countries into a new cycle of a decades-long rivalry.