Moscow, Tehran, and the West are eager for Armenia and Azerbaijan to find a lasting peace. But Ankara and Baku still want a land-bridge between mainland Azerbaijan’s Caspian coast and its inland exclave of Nakhchivan.
On October 15, less than a month after Azerbaijan’s 24-hour lightning operation on September 19 and 20 that brought long-disputed Nagorno-Karabakh under Baku’s control after three decades of de facto independence as the Armenian separatist Republic of Artsakh, Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev visited the region’s former-capital of Stepanakert to raise the Azerbaijani flag.
Besides Aliyev, the city—called Khankendi by Azerbaijanis—was deserted as almost all of the region’s 120,000 ethnic Armenians have fled in what human rights defenders have called ethnic cleansing.
Azerbaijan—and its closest ally, Turkey—also covet a land bridge dubbed the ‘Zangezur corridor’ to connect Azerbaijan’s landlocked exclave of Nakhchivan to the rest of the country. Trade between the Turkey and the Central Asian members of the Organisation of Turkic States must currently pass through either Georgia or Iran, but the Zangezur corridor would provide Ankara unimpeded access to the Caspian Sea.
On September 25, just days after Baku used military force to seize Karabakh, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan met Aliyev in Nakhchivan and gave Baku an apparent blank check to secure a Zangezur corridor by whatever means necessary.
“I’m very pleased to be with all of you as we connect Nakhchivan with the Turkish world,” said Erdoğan.
According to Politico, United States Secretary of State Anthony Blinken told US lawmakers in an October 3 phone call that the State Department is not planning to renew a long-standing waiver that allows the US to provide military assistance to Baku and that there is a possibility Azerbaijan will invade southern Armenia in the coming weeks.
That same day, in an apparent effort to deter an Azerbaijani invasion, French foreign minister Catherine Colonna visited Yerevan and announced France would agree to deliver military equipment to Armenia—an extraordinary action considering French membership in the NATO member and Armenia’s nominal membership in the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO).
Armenian defence spending
On October 23, Armenia signed contracts with French entities for air defence systems, radars, binoculars, and sensors. The French government will also send a French military official to serve as a defence consultant for the Armenian executive branch on armed forces training, and France will help Yerevan audit Armenia’s air defence to identify blind spots.
“The fact Armenia is investing so much of the budget into defense and defense procurement shows how seriously it’s taking the threats — over a year it has virtually doubled,” said Leonid Nersisyan, a defence analyst with Armenia’s Applied Policy Research Institute.
“In 2022, the spending was around 700 to 800 million US dollars, and now in 2024 it’s going to be 1.4 or 1.5 billion US dollars. There’s already a billion dollars of defence contracts with India, and there could be hundreds of millions of dollars with France too.”
However, besides the French provision of defensive assistance for Armenia, there has been minimal international accountability for Azerbaijan’s months-long blockade and displacement of Karabakh’s Armenians. If Azerbaijan moves to seize the territory of Armenia-proper, it risks sanctions.
An opportunity for peace
The same day Armenia signed its French defense contracts, Azerbaijan and Turkey held their first joint military drills since Baku’s seizure of Karabakh and a summit—attended by the foreign ministers of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Iran, Russia, and Turkey—convened in Tehran.
Russian and Iranian diplomats—both of which have historically favoured political relations with Armenia but look to maintain friendly economic relations with Baku—indicated they hoped the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict had concluded with Baku’s seizure of Karabakh.
“The conflict has, on the whole, been settled,” said Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov at the Tehran meeting. “Both sides agree that Karabakh belongs to Azerbaijan and that was the main issue to be settled.”
“Of course, practical steps remain for a full normalisation of relations, particularly preparations for a peace treaty, the demarcation of borders and the establishment of economic transport links without impediment,” Lavrov hedged.
“The war in South Caucasus has ended, and it is time for peace and cooperation,” said the Iranian foreign minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian. “The presence of outsiders in the region will not only not solve any problems but will also complicate the situation further,” he added, seemingly in reference to American and European efforts to mediate a peace settlement.
After several years of escalating tensions between Baku and Tehran, the dust seems to be settling. The Iranian government announced Azerbaijan’s embassy in Tehran would soon resume its work as normal and representatives of both governments attended the groundbreaking ceremony of a transit corridor to connect Nakhchivan to the rest of Azerbaijan through Iranian territory.
Speaking to Politico, Hikmet Hajiyev, the top foreign policy aide to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, downplayed Baku’s ambitions in southern Armenia, saying the Zangezur corridor “has lost its attractiveness for us—we can do this with Iran instead.”
On October 24, Azerbaijani foreign minister Jeyhun Bayramov said, “There are real chances for the conclusion of a peace treaty between Azerbaijan and Armenia within a short period of time.”
While these statements from Azerbaijan’s top diplomats are encouraging, just months ago, it had been assumed that such a peace treaty would be signed at the European Political Community summit in Granada on October 5. Aliyev, however, skipped that meeting altogether.