Frozen conflicts can only be understood through history. That is why the ‘erasure’ of Nagorno-Karabakh from the map by Azerbaijan is an incredibly tumultuous development for Transcaucasia and its surrounding regions.
The backdrop is the breakup of the Soviet Union, which left us with a rather odd map. Consequently, conflicts in Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Moldova, Ukraine and others left us with de facto boundaries that are unrecognised in law. There is an imperative need for a peace treaty that reflects the new facts on the ground.
At issue is the status of Nakhchivan, which still remains the landlocked exclave of Azerbaijan located near the Turkish border. Azerbaijan, emboldened by its annexation of Nagorno-Karabakh last month, is on the lookout for a direct land link to Nakhchivan, which Baku regards as unfinished business.
To attain this audacious objective, Azerbaijan — once again, with Turkey’s support — hopes to seize control of a hefty slice of Armenia’s territory, which is also that country’s borderland with Iran to the south. Unsurprisingly, both Yerevan and Tehran oppose any such move, which would otherwise mean that Armenia and Iran cease to be neighbours and get encircled by the Azeri-Turkish strategic axis.
Through dialogue and negotiations a mutually acceptable formula must be found for any land link — known as “Zangezur Corridor” — guaranteed under international law, which preserves Armenia’s territorial integrity and its border with Iran, even while providing Baku with free access to Nakhchivan.
What complicates matters is the geopolitics, involving the 3 immediate stakeholders — Armenia, Azerbaijan and Iran — and two other regional states — Russia, Turkey — as well as certain intrusive extra-regional powers and entities — the United States, European Union and NATO.
While Russia and Iran are also stakeholders, the same cannot be said for the extra-regional powers and entities who are meddling in a highly competitive regional environment. The “butterfly effect” of the Zangezur Corridor will be profoundly consequential to the Black Sea and Caspian regions and could impact the Middle East and Central Asia as well.
Among the regional states, Iran stands out for its anti-revisionist approach. During separate meetings last Wednesday in Tehran with visiting Armenian and Azerbaijani officials, Iranian President Ebrahim Raeisi reiterated amid persisting tensions over the Karabakh region Iran’s opposition to the opening of the Zangezur Corridor, saying Tehran is against geopolitical changes in the region.
Raesi reportedly stated that the Zangezur corridor would be “a NATO foothold, a national security threat for countries, and is thus resolutely opposed by Iran,” as his political chief of staff Mohammad Jamshidi put it. Tehran cannot but factor in that Israel has a strong intelligence presence in Azerbaijan.
Speculation is rife that Azerbaijan might use force to open the Zangezur Corridor, Iran’s opposition notwithstanding. Turkey, the region’s number one revisionist power is a mentor and ally of Azerbaijan with whom it claims ethnic affinities. Turkey harbours grand visions of expanding its economic reach and political influence through a land route that extends from its European border in Eastern Thrace to the Caspian Sea and over to its ancestral lands of Central Asia that border China.
Suffice to say, the Zangezur Corridor will make Turkey a strategic hub in the geopolitics of the region if the Silk Road to Europe passes through its territory and the Soviet era land route to Russia reopens. Russia has separately promised to make Turkey an energy hub for export of its gas as well.
Much to Iran’s discomfiture, Turkey is exploiting Moscow’s dependence on Ankara in the conditions under western sanctions and the Ukraine conflict — Turkey controls the straits leading to the Black Sea from the Mediterranean— to muscle its way into the Caucasus and the Caspian, which has been traditionally Russia’s sphere of influence.
Meanwhile, Russia’s influence in the Caucasus suffered a setback as Armenia’s gradual drift toward Western benefactors following the colour revolution and regime change in Yerevan in 2018 has dramatically accelerated lately and taken an overt form. The Western powers are encouraging Armenia’s current leadership to leave the CSTO and seek the closure of the Russian bases on its soil where 5000 troops are garrisoned.
However, Armenia cannot do without Russia’s help. And Russia has strategic reserves to play itself back into the centre stage of the Caucasian chessboard. Of course, an optimal Russian comeback in the Caucasus will have to wait for its victory over the US and NATO in Ukraine, possibly by next year. Thus, Moscow seems confident that its pre-eminence in the Caucasus is a given.
Russia’s trump card, ultimately, is that much as the US and/or EU may try to get a toehold in the Caucasus, they are faraway powers and pretty much exhausted today with economic anxieties and growing war fatigue in Ukraine, amidst signs of disunity within the EU itself.
Indeed, a summit gathering close to 50 European leaders, dozens of aides and legions of journalists in Grenada, Spain, on October 5, which was billed as an opportunity to broker peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan, ended as a damp squib when Azerbaijan’s Ilham Aliyev and Turkey’s Tayyip Erdogan decided to skip the gathering and Azerbaijan accused France of bias in negotiations.
The bottom line is that in the power dynamic in the Caucasus, Iran is Russia’s natural ally and the two regional powers can be a factor of regional security and stability. This is important, since all sorts of dangers are lurking in the shade in the geopolitics of the Black Sea and Eastern mediterranean and Central Asia, and the darkening horizon presages storms ahead.
To flag a few ominous signs, the US has seized Israel’s escalating confrontation with Hamas and Hezbollah to resort to a major show of force in the Eastern Mediterranean — as if it is preordained. Such force projection cannot be an end in itself. Can it be coincidental that US-trained jihadi groups are also stirring up the Syrian pot lately?
Again, last week, a series of Ukrainian attacks in the Black Sea with Western-supplied cruise missiles forced Russian vessels to relocate from their main base in Sevastopol to the port of Novorossiisk 300 km to the east. British Defence Minister James Heappey promptly called it the “functional defeat of the Black Sea Fleet.”
Moscow is now reportedly planning to build a permanent naval base on the Black Sea coast in the breakaway Georgian region of Abkhazia.
Only a week ago, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov warned that Moscow is alarmed by “the attempts of extra-regional players to become more active in the Afghan direction.”
Make no mistake, the US has not reconciled to the ascendance of Russian and Chinese influence in the Middle East or the Iran-Saudi rapprochement that led to an overall easing of tensions, especially Syria’s normalisation with its Arab neighbours, all of which which has drained America’s regional influence and weakened Israel.
Equally, with the spectre of a humiliating defeat in Ukraine haunting the Biden Administration, the temptation must be there to assert American hegemony. A confrontation with Iran is just what may suit Washington as ramp to cover its retreat from Ukraine’s battlefields.
Fundamentally, the US strategy is to get Russia bogged down on multiple fronts and prevent it from advancing Syria’s stabilisation optimally or consolidate its alliances with North African states — Egypt, Libya and Algeria — and expand its presence in the Sahel region which effectively thwarts NATO’s expansion plans in Africa.
Similarly, Iran’s surge as regional power has been to the detriment of Israel’s regional supremacy. Success of the US-Israeli strategy depends on piling pressure on Iran and Hezbollah, who were game changers in the Syrian conflict, and eroding the Russian-Iranian axis in West Asia, the Caucasus and the Caspian.
Armenia’s defection from the Russian orbit and the conflict situation currently developing in Gaza (and Lebanon) provide a window of opportunity to challenge Russia and Iran in the Levant. A vast armada of US warships is approaching the Eastern Mediterranean to intimidate Iran.
Meanwhile, the US hopes to undermine Saudi Arabia’s normalisation process with Iran and create contradictions within BRICS and OPEC Plus.
In sum, like in the famous play by the German modernist playwright Bertolt Brecht, The Caucasian Chalk Circle, we are currently witnessing a play within a play in the great game in Transcaucasia — an extraordinary blend of high theatricality, folk storytelling, music and even dialectical inquiry.