Baku’s offensive underlines Yerevan’s isolation

Armenia cannot count on its traditional supporters when confronting the key gas producer that Azerbaijan has become since the Ukraine war.

Baku’s offensive underlines Yerevan’s isolation

Armenians demonstrate in Yerevan on September 19 to demand that their government respond to Azerbaijan’s military offensive on Nagorno-Karabakh. (Credit: Karen Minasyan/AFP)

While the international reaction to Baku’s “anti-terrorist operation” in Nagorno-Karabakh was strong Tuesday, condemnation remained mild.

This is because, on one hand, the operation was carried out by a natural gas producer that is an ally of Turkey and Israel, towards which Russia has now pivoted.

On the other hand, there is a small country neglected by the Kremlin whose only regional support is a pariah state, the Islamic Republic of Iran.

A traditional mediator in the conflict, Moscow was able to conclude a ceasefire agreement between Baku and the separatist authorities in the predominantly Armenian enclave less than 24 hours after hostilities began.

While the violence seems to have calmed, it has turned the spotlight on Armenia’s diplomatic isolation on a changing geopolitical landscape.

A corridor in the making?

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan expressed support for the military operation from New York, where he was attending the annual UN General Assembly, noting that “as everyone now accepts, Karabakh is Azerbaijani territory.”

While there has been no official comment on the matter, Turkey was reportedly warned of the Azerbaijani attack in advance.

“Baku does not need a green light from Turkey,” said Eleonora Tafuro Ambrosetti, a researcher at the Russia, Caucasus and Central Asia Centre at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI). “It is strong enough militarily to carry out such an operation, and its foreign policy is relatively independent.”

A major ally of Baku, which it supplies with drones — a decisive factor in the second Nagorno-Karabakh war in 2020 — Turkey sees its neighbor as a part of a common Turkish-speaking nation, seeking to capitalize on any convergence of interests.

Endorsed by the ceasefire in November 2020, Azerbaijan’s strategic objective is to establish the “Zangezur corridor” through southern Armenia, which is supposed to link Baku to Europe.

“Azerbaijan is particularly interested in becoming a transit route in the region, especially at a time when new trade routes are being created against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine and sanctions against Russia,” said Ekaterina Zolotova, an analyst for Geopolitical Futures.

This prospect does not displease Turkey, through which the “Zangezur corridor” would pass, which dreams of becoming a main hub for access to Europe.

This project is strongly opposed by Iran, which, in lieu of passage through Armenia, has been Baku’s only way to reach its autonomous Nakhichevan republic; the Azeri corridor west would cut off Tehran’s only route north that is not under Turkish influence.

The heavily sanctioned Islamic Republic would find itself even more isolated if the corridor went ahead. All the more so as Azerbaijan is a major partner of Israel, from which it buys much of its arsenal in exchange for oil and access to its neighbor, Iran.

In the weeks leading up to Azerbaijan’s Tuesday attack, flights increased between Baku and the Zionist state’s only military air base in the south of the country. This is a harbinger of preparations for an offensive, as is the military exercise announced on Sept. 13 to test Israel’s Barak-8 ER air defense system.

For Israel, this could serve as a message to Tehran, while the nuclear issue remains unresolved despite the US-Iran prisoners swap deal agreed on Monday.

Tuesday, the day Baku launched its Nagorno-Karabakh operation, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu officially met the Turkish president for the first time on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, amid a rapprochement between the two countries. Although the issue did not seem to have been mentioned, the meeting fueled speculations.

Russian green light?

“It is obvious that the Azerbaijanis would not have taken any action without a green light, if not an orange one, from Russia, which sees Armenia as an adjustment variable rather than an ally,” said Tigrane Yégavian, a researcher at the Institut chrétien d’Orient and author of Géopolitique de l'Arménie ( Bibliomonde, 2022).

“Moscow did not interfere or comment on the deployment of Azerbaijani military forces, which lasted for days,” added Zolotova. “This is not a green light, but it suggests that Moscow was prepared for a potential escalation of the situation.”

Since the invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin has abandoned its Armenian partner in favor of Azerbaijan, a major producer of natural gas. Having signed an agreement with the European Union in July 2022 to double its gas exports by 2027 to 20 billion cubic meters, Baku has been buying Russian natural gas for its national consumption since November 2022, ignoring Western sanctions.

This Russian pivot irritated Yerevan, which in return tried to draw closer to the West without it really being making a difference. The Azerbaijani attack on Nagorno-Karabakh came on the penultimate day of Eagle Partner, a joint military exercise between Yerevan and Washington. Although this exercise irritated Moscow, its main aim was to train Armenian soldiers to take part in its peacekeeping missions.

“For different reasons from Moscow, the West is also prepared to sacrifice Nagorno-Karabakh,” said Yégavian. “They want there to be no more Russians in Azerbaijan, and to do that, there has to be no pretext, in other words no more Armenians to defend.”

After Baku’s latest offensive, Yerevan finds itself even more isolated than before, with little room for negotiation, while the separatists have agreed to lay down their arms and negotiate the reintegration of the enclave into Azerbaijan.

As analyst Dmitri Alperovitch summed up matters on his X account, Armenia’s predicament reflects the “grim reality of being a small state of little strategic geopolitical interest to the big powers, unlike your neighbor.”

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pachinian said he had not been involved in drafting Wednesday’s ceasefire announcement.

“The agreement reached is good news, but at the same time it is very fragile and Baku will not stop until it obtains what it wants, i.e. complete sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh and potentially fewer Armenian residents to manage there,” said Tafuro Ambrosetti.

The Armenian prime minister is facing a potential internal crisis. Already on Wednesday, demonstrations took place in Yerevan to criticize the authorities’ handling of the dossier. In recent months, European, American and Russian-mediated negotiations have revolved less around the sovereignty of Nagorno-Karabakh than around the protection of the Armenians who live there.

“Armenia has accepted what the international community has accepted from the start, namely that Karabakh is part of Azerbaijan,” a Western diplomat familiar with the negotiations told Eurasianet in May.

Is it a gateway for Yerevan to break its dependence on Russia? “If Azerbaijan regains full sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia accepts the situation, Russia will lose an important lever in its relationship with Yerevan,” Tafuro Ambrosetti warned.

Speaking with Politico, Nikol Pachinian said a week ago that he can no longer rely on Moscow as a guarantor of his security.

This story first ran in French in L’Orient-Le Jour, translated by Joelle Khoury. 

While the international reaction to Baku’s “anti-terrorist operation” in Nagorno-Karabakh was strong Tuesday, condemnation remained mild.This is because, on one hand, the operation was carried out by a natural gas producer that is an ally of Turkey and Israel, towards which Russia has now pivoted. On the other hand, there is a small country neglected by the Kremlin whose only regional...