Two seemingly unrelated developments are worrying officials in the South Caucasus, Russia and the West. On the one hand, tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the opening of a transit corridor between Azerbaijan and its non-contiguous Nakhchivan autonomy are growing, the result of Armenia’s failure to agree to reopen it after the 44-day Second Karabakh War in 2020. And on the other hand, Russians are increasingly concerned that Moscow’s dominance of the Caspian Sea is being called into question. That heretofore primacy is being eroded by the expansion of the navies of the other littoral states; but at the same time, the failure of Iran to ratify the 2018 delimitation convention legally leaves open the possibility that outside powers—Turkey in particular—could insert their own forces there in the interim. Such a development could dramatically change the already gradually shifting military balance in the region as well as make a new war more likely, with its outcomes less easy to predict.
The recent exchange of declarations by Baku and Yerevan over the so-called Zangezur land corridor between Azerbaijan proper and the Nakhchivan exclave, via southern Armenia, has led some Russian analysts to conclude that a new outbreak of hostilities between the two South Caucasus countries may occur sooner rather than later (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, December 8). And the slowly worsening naval situation Russia finds itself in on the Caspian has led others to suggest that Moscow may not be able to count on what has long been its trump card in the region in the event of such a conflict. This could open the way to a fundamental reordering of power relations in the South Caucasus and, thus, more generally (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, December 9). Consequently, there is every indication that these two issues, as distant from each other as they may appear at first glance, could be coming together, at least in Moscow’s thinking.
Azerbaijan has always wanted a land corridor between mainland Azerbaijan and Nakhchivan, viewing the separation imposed by Joseph Stalin not only as an insult to its national dignity—Azerbaijanis who want to travel from one to the other must go through Iran—but also as a limitation on its ability to work with Turkey. This corridor was and is so important to Baku that in the past some even talked about a land swap between Azerbaijan and Armenia, with Baku giving up Karabakh and Yerevan giving up the corridor in exchange. (That idea, christened “the Goble Plan” on the basis of an article by this author in 1992, found some support in Azerbaijan and Turkey but is opposed by Armenia, Russia and Iran and also by the West, which generally opposes any territorial changes (Paul Goble, “Coping With the Nagorno-Karabakh Crisis,” Fletcher Forum, 16:2, 1992; Reliefweb.int, June 9, 2000).
With its victory in the 2020 war, however, Baku believed it did not have to give up anything to open a corridor for travel between Azerbaijan proper and its large exclave. Not only did its military triumph give it the possibility of holding all of Karabakh and the adjoining territories (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, October 8, 2020), but both the November 2020 and January 2021 tripartite declarations (involving Moscow, Yerevan and Baku) promised to reopen transportation corridors as part of the post-war settlement between Azerbaijan and Armenia (see EDM, January 25, 2021). Armenia, which cannot afford to reopen its transport corridors without outside help, has dragged its feet, fearful that Azerbaijan, which can afford to do so, will move quickly to open what Baku refers to as the Zangezur corridor. If, as a result, Yerevan lost de facto control over this area to Baku, it would leave Armenia without access to Iran and confronted by a united Azerbaijani-Turkish front to its south and east. Actions by Baku and Ankara to prepare for such a reopening have only fanned these Armenian fears (see EDM, April 21, August 10, November 4).
With each passing month, Baku has become angrier that Armenia and its supporters in Moscow are not fulfilling their promises about land transport routes, including Zangezur. President Ilham Aliyev has now reportedly said he is “ready to use force against Armenia if it does not fulfill its agreements […] and demanded that Yerevan provide a precise date for the opening of the Zangezur corridor.” If Armenia does so, he has declared, all will be well and peace will be maintained. If it does not, Baku will be forced to use other means to open this corridor, a threat Armenia believes is an ultimatum that could lead to war (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, December 8). Such exchanges make Nakhchivan and especially Zangezur the site of a broader and more dangerous competition (see EDM, June 12, 2018).
To prevent such fighting or to bring it to a rapid conclusion, Moscow would likely rely on the presence of its military forces in the region, including but not limited to the base it has in Armenia, its “peacekeepers” in Karabakh, and its Caspian Flotilla. The latter is the largest of these and certainly the most heavily armed. But some in the Russian capital are now worried that the rapid development of naval power by other littoral states, most recently Turkmenistan but also Azerbaijan, mean that Moscow is no longer “master” on the Caspian (see EDM, June 24; Nezavisimaya Gazeta, December 9). The existence of these rival forces means that, at a minimum, Russia cannot intimidate others in the same way it did in the past and any real contest would involve losses that the Russian population would find difficult to accept.
That reality certainly enters into both Russian and Azerbaijani calculations. But even more important for both is the fact that the 2018 convention, which divides the Caspian among the five littoral states and rejects the presence of any foreign-flagged naval vessels in the basin, has still not gone into effect. Despite pressure from Moscow, Iran has yet to ratify that accord (see EDM, June 3), and so other non-Caspian countries, including Turkey, are still free to insert ships there if other littoral states agree (Kaspiyskiy Vestnik, October 26). As such, Azerbaijan might decide to take military action on the Zangezur corridor in the near term and leave Russia with far fewer options in response. All this makes new fighting in the South Caucasus more likely than those who celebrated the earlier post-war declarations might have assumed.