Berg-Karabach – Zweiter Akt – folgt das Finale?

The second part of the recapture of Nagorno-Karabakh lasted only 24 hours. Fortunately. According to Armenian reports, around 200 people died until the forces of the self-declared republic surrendered on September 20. The official Armenian army did not intervene in the fighting, as it did in the autumn of 2020, and Azerbaijan also showed no interest in expansion.

More than half of the residents have now fled to Armenia; it was announced today that the „Republic of Artsakh“ (Nagorno-Karabakh) will dissolve itself on January 1, 2024. After over 30 years, this chapter of Armenian history comes to an end, which was once intended to be the first step towards the restoration of ancient „Greater Armenia.“

Looking at it objectively, it was only a matter of time until Baku would also take control of the rest of the autonomous region. The ceasefire negotiated in November 2020 ended the fighting, but led to a fragile situation that was not sustainable in the long run. Which state would tolerate the existence of a second military force on its territory? Legally, the evaluation is undisputed, as reluctantly admitted in media reports – and officially confirmed by Yerevan in October 2022.

Die endgültige “Wiedereingliederung” war absehbar

The agreed-upon „two-corridor solution“ was never implemented: While Azerbaijan allowed for the connection of Karabakh through the Lachin Corridor, discussions about opening a transport corridor through southern Armenia to the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhchivan yielded no results. As a result, Baku decided to block the Lachin connection in December 2022, leading to supply shortages in Karabakh.

Many are now complaining that Armenia’s traditional ally, Russia, did nothing to protect the Armenians in Karabakh. However, considering the inaction of the Armenian army and the international legal situation, it is unclear what Moscow should have done – and with what legitimacy: obligations of assistance within bilateral agreements or the CSTO only apply to the territory of Armenia. Since autumn 2020, the Iranian army has marched several times along the border to make it clear that Tehran would not tolerate an Azerbaijani invasion. Baku understood this message very well.

From the western side, only lukewarm criticism of Azerbaijan’s actions can be heard. This is not only because it is legally difficult to object to. More importantly, the violent „reintegration“ of Karabakh is actually convenient for the West: In Armenia, dissatisfaction with Russia as the „protecting power“ is growing, which could potentially lead to an alignment or even NATO membership in the medium term.

The differences between Moscow and Ankara are deepening at the same time. Consequently, the conflict receives broad attention in local media and the exodus of Karabakh Armenians is lamented (without mentioning the ethnic cleansing of the 1990s, of course) – but there is no sign of practical support.

Peace – or calm before the (big) storm?

With the „Republic of Artsakh,“ Yerevan loses a practical extension of its own sphere of influence and therefore strategic depth. On the other hand, Baku strengthens its territorial integrity but loses an important leverage in future negotiations. The decades-long territorial dispute is resolved, albeit through military means. International law is thus satisfied. In theory, Armenia and Azerbaijan could now hope for calmer times.

Unfortunately, it cannot be reworded.

The „Zangezur Corridor“ sought by Baku aims to connect the exclave of Nakhchivan, located southwest of Armenia, with the rest of Azerbaijan. During Soviet times, a railway line ran through this area, linking Yerevan to the rail network and holding significant strategic importance due to its proximity to the Iran border.

The restoration of this route would not only be significant for the economic development of the enclave, but it would also create a land connection from Azerbaijan to its major ally, Turkey. This could potentially establish a Turkish-controlled barrier from the Mediterranean Sea to the Caspian Sea, greatly enhancing Ankara’s geostrategic position.

Syunik als geopolitischer Knotenpunkt

Jerevan agreed to open the corridor in November 2020. However, it does not want to completely give up control over it, presumably due to potential military transports. Any checkpoints would not only cause delays but also give Armenia the opportunity to close the route again at any time due to actual or alleged violations. Given the ongoing tense relations, this is likely to happen sooner rather than later.

To be able to permanently and reliably utilize the „Zangezur Corridor“ (including militarily), Azerbaijan would need to have control over the region itself. Similarly to the situation in Karabakh, there are maps circulating that are supposed to demonstrate the historical Azerbaijani ownership of the region at some point. Such propaganda may not hold much political or legal significance, but it often suffices to convince a population with a tendency towards nationalism.

Hier liegt der Kern des Konflikts, der sich nicht einvernehmlich lösen lässt. Die Region Syunik kann geostrategisch entweder Teil einer russisch-iranischen Nord-Süd-Achse sein – oder einer türkischen West-Ost-Achse. Beides gleichzeitig ist, spätestens in Krisenzeiten oder wenn es um militärische Belange geht, nicht möglich. Dass Moskau und Teheran die territoriale Integrität Armeniens garantieren, ist wesentlich ihrem Interesse an einer Landverbindung geschuldet, die nicht von Ankara kontrolliert wird.

A war in Syunik is therefore entirely possible. It would be the final third act in the fight for regional reordering; the Armenian army would be at a disadvantage. At least on its own. But who would come to its aid? NATO countries would shed crocodile tears but secretly rejoice over this „wedge“ between Russia and Iran. Tehran could intervene, but what if Yerevan did not ask for support in the event of an Azerbaijani invasion? Armenia’s Prime Minister Pashinyan has long sought to detach from Russia and turn towards NATO. It is quite conceivable for him to do so.