BACKGROUND: On September 19, 2023, Azerbaijan launched a military offensive in the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh. Baku’s offensive came three years after the 44-day War in 2020, when Azerbaijani forces recaptured Armenian-occupied territories surrounding the enclave which is internationally recognized to be part of Azerbaijan, as well as the citadel of Shusha. Within 24 hours, the separatist ethnic Armenian forces surrendered and agreed to a Russian proposal for a ceasefire.
While the enclave’s Armenian population estimated to be around 120,000 started an exodus towards Armenia, on September 28, the breakaway administration in Nagorno-Karabakh announced that it would dissolve itself and that the self-declared “Republic of Artsakh” would cease to exist by January 1, 2024. By the end of September nearly the whole of the Armenian population had left Nagorno-Karabakh.
Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia has been Armenia’s main security guarantor. Russia has a military base in the country and the Russian border force guards Armenia’s frontiers with Turkey and Iran. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan came to power after leading a civil disobedience campaign against the previous government named “Velvet Revolution.” Traditionally sensitive to “color revolutions”, the Kremlin did not trust Pashinyan as it suspected him to be pro-Western. Pashinyan in turn felt abandoned by Russia when Moscow remained passive as Baku succeeded in recapturing Armenian-occupied territories in 2020. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has further deepened the rift between Moscow and Yerevan.
Turkish officials and experts believed that Russia’s passivity during the 44-day war was aimed at unseating Pashinyan; the Kremlin, they thought, expected Pashinyan would not be able to stay in power after the Armenian military defeat. Yet Pashinyan held on to power, and was reelected the following year. Ankara, while fully supportive of Baku, saw an opportunity for a comprehensive peace settlement in the Caucasus in the wake of the 44 day-War and extended an olive branch to Pashinyan. Pashinyan was forthcoming and Turkey and Armenia appointed special envoys to set the road map for the normalization of relations after Pashinyans reelection 2021. However, Azerbaijan remained disapproving and Turkey abstained from pursuing the path toward a settlement with Armenia.
Nonetheless, while Ankara’s backing of Baku remains unwavering, it wants to weigh in for a settlement that would open the way for the realization of a multifold transportation project that would turn Turkey into a Eurasian strategic node. The Middle Corridor, a project that was launched by Ankara in 2009, aims at connecting the Far East to Europe via Central Asia, Caucasus and Turkey has the potential to be a game-changer. Its realization, though, depends on a peace deal being reached between Azerbaijan and Armenia that un-blocs the projected Corridor in the Caucasus.
IMPLICATIONS: The recent, lightning-fast developments in the Caucasus come at a time when Russia’s war in Ukraine and the US-China rivalry have focused the attention of Western policy makers on the future trajectory of the trade routes between China and Europe. The traditional Northern Corridor, which is largely under Russian influence, has become unattractive from a Western point of view, as there is no prospect of any normalization between Russia and Western powers for the foreseeable future. Turkey, on the other hand, fears being sidestepped as the Western powers explore the possibility of a Southern Corridor. The desire to exclude Turkey was manifested when an agreement was reached during the G20 summit in India in September 2023 to go ahead with an India-Middle East-Europe corridor. This agreement has given an added urgency for Ankara to bring about a comprehensive settlement in the Caucasus. Now that full Azerbaijani control over Nagorno-Karabakh has been established, building transport links stands as the most challenging issue in Armenian-Azerbaijani talks.
Opening the Zangezur Corridor – which crosses the southernmost province of Armenia, parallel to the country’s border with Iran, linking Azerbaijan to its exclave of Nakhchivan, which borders Turkey – is the key for the realization of the Middle Corridor. The transport arteries to Georgia which mainly consist of the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway remain insufficient, and as shorter land routes are preferred for lorry traffic, Turkey's main trade route to the East continues to be via Iran. The belief in Ankara is that Georgian infrastructure, even after new investments in it, will be sufficient when trade volumes grow. And while the Georgian route remains important as the northern artery of the Middle Corridor, Turkey nonetheless wants not only to shorten the route – and decrease Iran’s importance – but also to include Armenia in the equation. Decision makers in Ankara believe that greater stability can be achieved if Armenia has a stake in the Middle Corridor.
But the success of peace talks with Armenia also depends on the role that other regional as well as extra-regional powers will play. Iran in particular has openly voiced its objection to the opening of the Zangezur Corridor. This is unsurprising. The Islamic Republic is a long-standing backer of Armenia and antagonistic toward Azerbaijan. Tehran fears the attraction that a strong Azerbaijan could potentially wield among its own ethnic Azeri citizens who are estimated to make up 15 percent of the Iranian population. Meanwhile, Tehran’s antagonism toward Baku is further aggravated by Israel’s support to Azerbaijan.
The Middle Corridor would not only redirect trade from Iranian territory, diminishing Iran’s strategic importance, but even more importantly provide a powerful engine for the ongoing development of the cooperation between the Turkic states. Teheran realizes that the Turkic cooperation has the potential of creating a regional bloc stretching from Central Asia to Anatolia that would box in Iran. Accordingly, Ali-Akbar Ahmadian, the secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council (NSC), reportedly warned an envoy of Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev that the creation of the Zangezur Corridor will create grounds for the intervention of extra-regional military forces and cause new crises in this strategic region. Ahmadian was also reported to have intoned that Iran is categorically opposed to any plan that will lead to a change in the geopolitics of the region.
The European capitals, whose interest in the Caucasus and Central Asia has intensified following the war in Ukraine, missed the opportunity to play a constructive role in the region. French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna’s visit to Yerevan, during which she pledged that France will deliver weapons to Armenia, was particularly counter-productive. The fact that Colonna also posted a photo of Mount Ararat on X (formerly Twitter), which is an Armenian national symbol but is within Turkish borders, further underlined the extent of France’s identification with Armenian aspirations against its NATO ally Turkey. Obviously, this did not go unnoticed in Ankara.
President Aliyev and Prime Minister Pashinyan were scheduled to meet during the European Political Community Summit in Granada on October 5, but Aliyev understandably saw no point in pursuing the meeting after several EU governments expressed criticism against Baku’s use of force in Nagorno-Karabakh. Also, Aliyev made clear that the exclusion of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan from the planned talks about the Caucasus rendered the EU’s exercise meaningless.
Not only has the EU’s disproportionate diplomatic backing of Armenia against the Ankara-Baku axis revealed a deficit of broader geopolitical thinking and undermined European pretentions to engage more actively in the Caucasus, it has in fact also harmed the interests of those – the Armenian government and the Armenian refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh – that the EU purports to care about. Prime Minister Pashinyan, who is facing severe domestic criticism after the Armenian debacle in Nagorno-Karabakh, certainly needs the EU’s support, above all to be able to address the pressing needs of the tens of thousands of Armenian refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh. Western support is also needed to help Pashinyan in his efforts to move Armenia out of the Russian orbit, but such support will have to be well-calibrated, not going as far as encouraging Yerevan to make moves that unduly provoke Moscow.
Some officials and experts in Turkey believe that Pashinyan represents a real chance for peace. Indeed, the Armenian prime minister does appear to have concluded that Nagorno-Karabakh and its extreme nationalists stood in the way of a more prosperous future for Armenia. “Armenia needs to be free of conflict for the sake of its independence”, Pashinyan commented after the fall of the enclave. He has taken a bold stance in order to mend fences with Ankara as well. Pashinyan attended Erdoğan’s inauguration after his reelection in May and he has called the presence of Mount Ararat on Armenia’s Coat of Arms into question. He has questioned the Armenian 1991 Declaration of Independence which called for the “international recognition of the 1915 genocide of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey and Western Armenia.” Pashinyan has pointed out that the declaration fomented the subsequent conflicts with Azerbaijan and Turkey and is now at odds with his “peace agenda.” Yet, Pashinyan’s overtures to Turkey have not been reciprocated by Ankara. Not even the simple decision taken by Ankara and Yerevan to open the land border for the citizens of third countries has been put in force as Ankara ultimately chose not to cross Baku that objected to the move.
CONCLUSIONS: Turkey, whose military backing has been decisive in Azerbaijan’s victories in Nagorno-Karabakh, needs to convince its close ally that it’s in their common interest that Armenia is rewarded for its policies, and that inaction could prove costly for regional peace and pan-Turkic ambitions should it precipitate Pashinyan’s fall from power. Meanwhile, the Erdoğan-Aliyev duo need to avoid maximalist requests in the thorny negotiations for the opening of the Zangezur corridor. Not only do they have to be careful about Pashinyan’s domestic challenges, but they should also factor in Russia and Iran’s position. The latter can prove to be a real game spoiler.
As to Russia, officials and experts in Turkey do not jump to the conclusion that Moscow’s role is waning in the region. The experience of having dealt with Persia/Iran and Russia for centuries renders Turkish diplomacy cautious. For sure, Russia no longer enjoys its former weight in the Caucasus, and the Turkic Central Asian republics are distancing themselves as well from Moscow, hoping to forge closer ties with the West and building a close cooperation with Turkey. Nonetheless, Turkey remains wary of Russia’s regional influence, especially since Moscow maintains the mechanisms to make and unmake governments in Armenia.
A peace settlement in the Caucasus provides a huge window of opportunity for the realization of the Middle Corridor. Turkey needs to strike the right balance in its relations with Armenia and Azerbaijan while neutralizing the disruptive influence of Iran and Russia.
Barçın Yinanç is a foreign policy commentator at the Turkish news site t24.