February 23, 2024

IntelBrief: Border Skirmish between Armenia and Azerbaijan Reignites Dispute Over Zangezur Corridor

AP Photo/Sergei Grits

Bottom Line Up Front

  • Just last week, four Armenian soldiers were killed in the first violent incident with Azerbaijan since its mid-September takeover of Nagorno-Karabakh, prompting concerns from Armenia’s government of potential Azerbaijani war plans centered around the Zangezur Corridor.
  • Armenia and Iran each have territory within the proposed corridor and strongly oppose its construction without strong guarantees of territorial integrity, making the potential for a future regional conflict a significant concern.
  • The potential for escalation is also exacerbated by Armenia and Azerbaijan’s respective internal political challenges, where nationalist rhetoric and irredentism act as strong political drivers.
  • As the South Caucasus remains a crucial corridor for oil and gas pipelines supplying Europe, an escalation in the region would pose a significant risk to energy routes, likely impacting global markets.

On February 13, four Armenian soldiers were killed by Azerbaijani fire in the first violent incident between the two sides since September 19, the date of Azerbaijan’s self-proclaimed anti-terrorist campaign, which saw the country capture the long-disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, displacing one hundred thousand ethnic Armenians. The recent aggressive moves by Azerbaijan, coinciding with President Ilham Aliyev's re-election to a fifth presidential term, have raised fears of an intensifying conflict with Armenia. In response to the violence, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan cautioned his government two days later, suggesting that Azerbaijan is preparing for a full-scale war. On February 17, both leaders engaged with mediators in Munich to de-escalate the situation and expressed satisfaction with the discussions. Despite this, many experts remain skeptical and fear the conflict may still intensify at any slight provocation.

Central to this issue is the Zangezur Corridor project, which aims to connect Azerbaijan with its territorial exclave, Nakhchivan, by passing through Armenian territory – specifically the Syunik province. This corridor has been a source of contention for Armenia, which has expressed concerns surrounding territorial integrity. On the other hand, Azerbaijan has frequently expressed its willingness to build the pathway by force if necessary. These recent attacks could be a harbinger of things to come, as Azerbaijani soldiers fired across the border into the same province where the proposed corridor is planned. Baku asserts that its actions were in response to a separate border incident days earlier that injured an Azerbaijani soldier, a claim Yerevan has denied.

The Zangezur Corridor would be explicitly designed to bypass existing Armenian checkpoints as it traverses Armenian territory near the border with Iran. The corridor is part of a larger initiative that aims to connect Europe with Central Asia and China via a route through Azerbaijan and Türkiye. However, both Armenia and Iran strongly oppose building such pathways without strong guarantees of territorial integrity, something Azerbaijan has been unwilling to agree to. Armenians fear the implications of a militarized corridor running through its territory that would not include Armenian checkpoints. Armenia believes it would violate the country’s territorial integrity while also facilitating a direct link between its neighboring enemies. At the same time, Iran is concerned that its construction would not only block its access to Armenia, an ally of Tehran, but it would also allow Israel, Türkiye, and Azerbaijan to destabilize its northern regions. Although Iran is currently preoccupied with the ongoing conflict in Gaza, an Azerbaijani incursion into Armenian territory could potentially divert Tehran’s attention and sap already occupied bandwidth.

A conflict in the South Caucasus could potentially entangle other regional powers, such as Türkiye and Russia. Russia's restrained response to the September 19 violence reflects its strategy of managed decline, a deliberate reduction in its regional engagement, with intentions to maintain its regional influence. Armenia’s distancing from its former ally and its attempts to exclude Moscow from peace agreements with Azerbaijan further incentivizes Moscow’s impartiality but endangers its influence. However, Russia is still treaty-bound to protect Armenia amidst a potential military invasion of its territory, placing Moscow in a difficult position since it remains dependent on Azerbaijani oil and stands to gain significantly from the construction of the Zangezur Corridor. Russia may perceive additional conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia as beneficial to its interests, potentially becoming an obstacle in future peace efforts. Similarly, Azerbaijan’s closest ally, Türkiye, maintains a vested interest in the proposed pathway and has its own contentious history with Armenia to consider. Any move by Azerbaijan would very likely have Ankara’s support, just as it did in September, with Türkiye supplying the bulk of the military equipment that was instrumental in Azerbaijan’s capture of Nagorno-Karabakh. In the past, Türkiye has consistently reaffirmed its commitment to supporting Azerbaijan’s “territorial integrity,” a phrase also used to defend Azerbaijan’s claim to the Syunik province.

Beyond the strategic importance of the Zangezur Corridor, the conflict’s potential for escalation is exacerbated by Armenia and Azerbaijan’s respective internal political challenges. In Armenia, Prime Minister Pashinyan's waning domestic support, attributed to his perceived mishandling of Nagorno-Karabakh and the resulting refugee crisis, has caused strong domestic unrest. Pashinyan’s past conciliatory approach toward peace talks with Azerbaijan has further galvanized Armenian voters against him, many of whom feel that his strategy is one of appeasement. Further aggressive actions from Azerbaijan will place the prime minister in a precarious position with Armenian voters. At the same time, Azerbaijan President Aliyev’s nationalistic rhetoric has been instrumental in escalating ethnic tensions and consolidating his political base. Recently, the president referred to Armenia as “West Azerbaijan” and announced the formation of a "West Azerbaijani community." He has advocated that this community should return to their ancestral homelands in the southern province of Syunik (Zangezur) in Armenia. While Aliyev asserts that this return would occur peacefully, recent events and the Azerbaijani president’s past irredentist remarks raise questions about the credibility of such assurances.

A potential escalation in the conflict could pose a significant risk to the region's energy routes, potentially disrupting global energy markets and impacting economic stability. The South Caucasus is a crucial corridor for oil and gas pipelines supplying Europe. In September, the short-lived conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh resulted in prolonged shortages of medication, food, and fuel in the area, complicating efforts to evacuate wounded refugees. If further violence were to occur, there is a considerable risk of these disruptions developing beyond the local level, cascading into larger interruptions to global supply chains. Despite the clear danger of war between the two countries, efforts to deter Azerbaijani aggression have fallen short. Western responses, including the suspension of military assistance by the United States, have not significantly impacted or deterred Azerbaijan's strategies in the past, and this trend may persist. The potential for the dispute between Azerbaijan and Armenia to develop into a broader conflagration remains a real concern, especially without a concerted effort from a distracted international community to deter further escalation.