News Article

Simmering border dispute in Eurasia tests limits of Western and Russian influence
November 14, 2023


By: Cristina Maza

With a bitter war in Ukraine soon to hit its second anniversary and a new war between Israel and Hamas entering its second month, diplomats are working furiously to prevent yet another conflict on the global stage.

The animosities between Armenia and its neighbor Azerbaijan have erupted on and off for decades, ever since both countries gained independence from the Soviet Union. But tensions spilled over after Azerbaijan last month seized control of Nagorno-Karabakh , a tiny separatist region that was populated by ethnic Armenians . The move forced the indigenous Armenian population to flee into Armenia proper, and diplomats warned the relationship between the two countries could go in one of two very different directions: a full-fledged conflict or a final peace agreement.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Ben Cardin said the U.S. is worried Azerbaijan soon might launch another military incursion into Armenia.

“There is concern about what Azerbaijan might be doing. I know that the administration has been in conversations. We’re watching what’s happening,” Cardin told National Journal. “We are certainly disappointed by the way the Nagorno-Karabakh population was handled. We know that there is some concern about whether Azerbaijan will continue on its path.”

Nagorno-Karabakh’s future and the relationship between Armenia and Azerbaijan will come under congressional scrutiny Wednesday when State Department officials testify before the House Foreign Affairs Committee .

After Azerbaijan’s military moved into Nagorno-Karabakh and sent refugees flooding into Armenia, some analysts announced it was time to hammer out the details of a final settlement on border demarcation and respect for territorial integrity between Baku and Yerevan, issues that have persisted since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Azerbaijan has expressed interest in controlling a strip of Armenian land that separates Azerbaijan proper from its exclave, Nakhchivan. The so-called Zangezur corridor, a proposed transportation route that would give Azerbaijan unimpeded access to Nakhchivan, would be one of the main topics of negotiations if the two countries are at the table.

Paruyr Hovhannisyan, Armenia’s deputy foreign minister, told National Journal that Armenia is open to facilitating transportation links between Azerbaijan and its exclave. But granting Baku complete control of the corridor is out of the question.

“What we hear from Azerbaijan is a clear demand for an extraterritorial corridor, which is, of course, unacceptable for us,” Hovhannisyan said. “That’s why the risks of escalation are still quite high.”

Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to requests for comment.

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The simmering conflict has pitted the West, which is trying to broker peace between the two neighbors, against Russia’s attempt to maintain its traditionally influential role in the South Caucasus region. The U.S. and the European Union have offered to mediate between Armenia and Azerbaijan, though Russia would like to be the overseer of the region’s security.

Hovhannisyan said Washington has been pushing especially hard for negotiations since September 2022, when Azerbaijan launched an invasion of Armenia, hitting positions along the border between the two countries and seizing more than 90 square miles of Armenian territory.

Then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi traveled to Armenia at the time and criticized Azerbaijan’s unprovoked attack.

Edmon Marukyan, Armenia’s ambassador-at-large, said Armenia is open to discussing various issues with Azerbaijani authorities during U.S.- and EU-led mediations. First, Armenia would like Azerbaijan to accept borders based on a 1975 map .

“At this point, about 150 kilometers of Armenia’s sovereign territory is occupied by Azerbaijan,” Marukyan told National Journal. “Prisoners of war and other Armenian civilians are in Azerbaijani prisons. [Azerbaijani President] Ilham Aliyev committed several times to release them. He didn’t keep his word, and they are still there. Elected representatives of Nagorno-Karabakh are now detained in Azerbaijan, and there are false allegations against them.

“The hope is that the peace process and negotiations will be continued in good faith,” Marukyan added.

However, Baku has recently refused to come to the negotiating table, skipping a meeting the EU planned in Granada, Spain, last month. Azerbaijan’s government also began issuing ultimatums and demanding control of eight separate villages within Armenia’s internationally recognized borders. Those villages are all located close to the country’s main highways.

Meanwhile, Baku also wants Russia to lead the talks with Armenia instead of Washington or Brussels. Moscow has traditionally played a role in brokering peace between the two countries and has around 2,000 peacekeeping troops in Nagorno-Karabakh.

But Russia’s inability—or unwillingness—over the last year to prevent Azerbaijan from kicking ethnic Armenians out of Nagorno-Karabakh and its timid response to Baku’s incursions into Armenian territory have caused Yerevan to try to forge closer ties with the West.

“It’s part of the story of Russia’s decline since its invasion of Ukraine,” said Olesya Vartanyan, the Crisis Group’s senior analyst for the South Caucasus region. “Since the Russians started this war, it has been using all its resources in Ukraine, not only to continue fighting there but also not dispersing proper resources to continue mediating between Armenia and Azerbaijan to prevent any new escalations.”

Vartanyan noted that Azerbaijan has escalated tensions with Armenia three times since February 2022, when Russia invaded Ukraine. In all three cases, Russia failed to deter Baku or resolve the situation adequately.

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Some in Armenia believe Russia is too distracted by its invasion of Ukraine to defend Yerevan’s interests. But others argue that Russian President Vladimir Putin distrusts Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and his Western leanings, and wants to undermine him by green-lighting Azerbaijan’s provocations.

This led the government in Yerevan to consider leaving the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization, a Eurasian military alliance that is Moscow’s response to NATO.

But sources close to the Armenian government said Washington cautioned Yerevan against leaving the CSTO because such a move could provoke Russia. Some people close to Armenia’s prime minister are confused by what they see as Washington’s timidity, arguing that the Biden administration appears nervous about Armenia’s desire to shift to the West.

Tigran Grigoryan, an expert at Armenia’s Regional Center for Democracy and Security, said Washington advised Yerevan not to leave the CSTO because the U.S. could not provide reliable security guarantees or alternatives.

“The U.S. basically was saying, ‘We’re not ready to offer you something significant if you do that,’” Grigoryan told National Journal.

“It was obvious even back then that it would be very hard to [leave the CSTO] because Armenia’s structural dependence on Russia is still quite significant,” Grigoryan added. “So when the message came from D.C. that there were no viable alternatives, it became clear that the option of leaving or withdrawing from the CSTO was not there.”

Instead, the Pashinyan government has been trying to freeze its membership in the organization. Armenia refused to hold CSTO military drills in the country, and the prime minister declined to sign the final CSTO declaration after a summit held in Yerevan last year.

A State Department spokesman, speaking on background, said Armenia “has the right to pursue its foreign relations and security policy as it chooses.”

“Russia has used deployments to and basing in CSTO member states, including Armenia, in an effort to create a false perception of Russia being a good-faith mediator to conflicts in the former USSR,” the spokesperson added. “We have seen nothing to indicate that Russia’s military presence contributes to a more peaceful and stable South Caucasus region, and the events in Nagorno-Karabakh support this view. Russia is not a trustworthy ally or partner.”

The Pashinyan government has also moved to form closer ties to the European Union, delivering a speech in Brussels last month and agreeing to provide humanitarian assistance to Ukraine, a move that irked Moscow.

“There is a corner of Armenian politics, which is now very popular, and now is also represented by the government of Armenia, that has always had a preference to closer ties to the West and distancing the country from Russia,” said Arman Grigoryan, an analyst at Lehigh University. “These conversations have become even bolder and more audacious in the last couple of years.”

Calls for greater cooperation with the West grew especially loud in 2020 after a short-lived war in Nagorno-Karabakh . People in Armenia were disappointed that Russia didn’t lend Armenians unconditional support. Those feelings have only compounded in the years since.

“To their credit, I think the West, NATO, and the United States have been quite honest with Armenians about the limits of Western support. I don’t think they’ve encouraged it too much,” Grigoryan said.

But the potential for escalation lingers if the West cannot use its leverage to get Azerbaijan to the negotiating table.

“These countries, their borders are front lines full of military positions,” said Vartanyan of the Crisis Group. “If the talks either fail or don’t resume altogether, it’s an incentive for more instability.”