Crisis in Lachin Corridor Risks Triggering Broader War in South Caucasus
Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 20 Issue: 24
As the standoff in the Lachin Corridor—the primary land route into and out of the Armenian-controlled areas of Azerbaijan’s Karabakh region—enters its third month, the humanitarian situation there is rapidly deteriorating, prompting ever-more ethnic Armenians in the region to consider leaving while simultaneously attracting more and potentially dangerous international attention to the problem (see EDM, January 19; Eurasianet, February 3; Kavkaz-uzel.eu, February 9). As a result, tensions are escalating, not only between Armenia and Azerbaijan but also between those countries that generally support Yerevan and others that generally support Baku. This latter division raises the possibility that any outbreak in violence between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Lachin might drag others into a broader war in the South Caucasus (JAM-news, January 6; see EDM, January 24).
Russia, Iran and Turkey are the three countries most immediately involved, with France, the European Union and the United States increasingly focused on the issue of Lachin and how the standoff there could lead to renewed violence between Armenia and Azerbaijan, possibly involving other countries as well. Russia’s position is by far the most complicated. On the one hand, it has troops on the ground, based in Armenia as well as the “peacekeepers” in Karabakh. The latter, numbering approximately 2,500, arrived following the 44-Day War between Armenia and Azerbaijan in 2020 for a five-year term. This force has been criticized both by Azerbaijan for violating Azerbaijani sovereignty and by Armenia for failing to protect Armenians. And some in both countries have called for the Russian forces to be withdrawn and replaced by truly international and hence genuine peacekeeping missions from other countries (Realtribune.ru, January 24).
But on the other hand, while the Russian government hopes to maintain good relations with both Armenia and Azerbaijan, Moscow is now focused on ensuring that it can expand its trade and military ties with Iran and thus sees Azerbaijan as a greater problem than Armenia (Armenia Sputnik, January 31). One result of this is that ever-more voices in the Russian capital are urging a tougher stance against Baku, with one analyst from the Moscow State Institute of International Relations even encouraging Russia to bomb Azerbaijan, forcing Baku to defer to Moscow’s interests and its links with Iran (Censoru.net, December 19, 2022). The true level of support in the Russian capital for this idea remains unclear, but the fact that such analysis was written by someone in the Russian Foreign Ministry’s own training academy is telling.
The two other countries most directly involved, Turkey and Iran, are far less ambiguous in their commitments, with Ankara solidly in Azerbaijan’s corner as far as this and all other disputes are concerned and Tehran backing Armenia against Azerbaijan across the board. If the Turkish position is well-known, Iran’s is less so, even though relations between Iran and Azerbaijan have deteriorated in recent months due to Iran’s military maneuvers on the border and the attack on the Azerbaijani embassy in Tehran—an attack that Russian sources, perhaps significantly, have taken Iran’s side on (see EDM, January 31). That Iran may have adopted the position of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” and come out in support of Armenia is not that surprising, but just how far Tehran may be willing to go is disturbing.
At the official level, Tehran has been discussing with Yerevan the options for providing humanitarian assistance to the Armenian community in Karabakh (Armenia Sputnik, January 27). But some in the Iranian capital are talking about taking more far-reaching moves, some of which could lead to war. For example, one recent article in an Iranian paper directed at Armenians and highlighted by Russian commentators calls for Tehran to take actions that Baku would certainly view as unfriendly and possibly downright hostile (Casp-geo.ru, February 3).
Among other things, the article calls for Iran to step up its support for ethnic minorities in Azerbaijan, such as the Talysh and Lezgins, and to support the Movement of Islamic Resistance in Azerbaijan, an Azerbaijani group that promotes an Islamist vision of the country in opposition to the secularism of the Ilham Aliyev regime. It further calls for the immediate opening of an Iranian consulate in Armenia’s Syunik region—precisely where the Zangezur Corridor between Azerbaijan proper and its non-contiguous, autonomous republic Nakhichevan is supposed to pass by—as well as for expanding relations with the Republic of Georgia. And it urges that Tehran increase its public campaign against any expansion in Azerbaijani ties with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and Israel.
Again, it is uncertain how widespread such views are, but Iran is notorious for its aggressiveness and may now think that it has Moscow’s blessing to take more action in the Caucasus than ever before. This greater involvement could potentially include the dispatch of irregular units northward if the situation in Lachin deteriorates (see EDM, November 1, 2022).
The West has also been drawn into this situation diplomatically and, with no military presence in the region, is thus unlikely to be drawn into direct fighting in any regional conflict. In recent weeks, Western countries have been pressing Baku to lift the blockade on the road lest food, power and other shortages lead to a humanitarian disaster there and the massive outflow of ethnic Armenians from Karabakh (Eurasianet, February 3). But the West’s position could have the unintended result of allowing some in Moscow and Tehran to assume they can act more aggressively, perhaps believing that the West would not take any serious actions to oppose them on Lachin.
Baku thus is under pressure to lift the blockade of the Lachin Corridor. In truth, Azerbaijan certainly does not want to lose its standing in the West or become involved in a broader war. But at the same time, some Azerbaijanis undoubtedly would be happy to see ethnic Armenians now living in Karabakh depart the region and thus will favor continuing with the blockade. Even so, those who take that position should remember that Aliyev won praise for ending the 44-Day War rather than allowing Azerbaijani forces to occupy all of Karabakh as he certainly could have. His decision then prevented disaster; a different decision now could have a vastly disparate and even more unfortunate outcome.