The violence in the Middle East has overshadowed the rise of a potentially explosive hot spot in the South Caucasus following Azerbaijan’s re-assertion of control over the Karabakh region. That is the Zangezur Corridor, a narrow strip of land inside Armenia (known as the Syunik Oblast) between metropolitan Azerbaijan and Azerbaijan’s non-contiguous autonomy of Nakhchevan. The region has become so explosive due to the developments over the past few weeks that it now threatens to trigger a much broader conflict. One Russian commentator, Vladimir Prokhvatilov, even compared the situation to the Danzig corridor crisis, which contributed to the outbreak of World War II when Hitler demanded that Poland yield the territory to Berlin (Vpoanalytics.com, September 27). Whether that comparison will hold remains to be seen. That fact that it can be made at all highlights just how dangerous the situation in the region may become.
With the departure of the Armenian community from Karabakh, the situation is now fraught with danger. Prokhvatilov says, “It cannot be completely ruled out that Azerbaijan will occupy the current Syunik Oblast of Armenia by force, as the Third Reich ‘solved the question’ of the Danzig corridor in their own time.” The Russian commentator stresses that he is not comparing the current leaders of Turkey and Azerbaijan to Hitler. He explains, “At the same time, the road through Zangezur to Turkey is like air to both countries; and for the achievement of their goals, they can apply a classical operation under a false flag or by force, of which” Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has reportedly spoken on.
Current movements indicate that the situation may be rapidly moving in the direction of force. Aliyev and Turkish President Tayyip Recep Erdogan met in Nakhchivan on September 25. There, they discussed plans to press for expanded links between both countries and the exclave. The two leaders talked about opening connections to the region and between themselves as well as creating a transit corridor through Iran if Armenia opposed having one run through Syunik-Zangezur. However, Iran would be unlikely to agree, and both Azerbaijan and Turkey would be skeptical of Tehran’s reliability in keeping it open (Trend.az, September 26; Vestikavkaza.ru, September 26; Trtrussian.com, September 28; Report.az, September 29; Sovsekretno.ru, October 3; Vpoanalytics.com, October 5; Ritmeurasia.ru, October 7).
Today’s Zangezur problem arose a century ago when Stalin drew borders in the South Caucasus, but it has been exacerbated in recent weeks. This is due to Azerbaijan eliminating the balancing arrangement Stalin put in place: the de facto Armenian exclave of “Nagorno-Karabakh” inside Azerbaijan. Stalin imposed this asymmetrical geography to ensure several situations. First, so that tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan would remain high, allowing Moscow to use its time-tested approach of divide and rule. Second, this arrangement would deprive Turkey of a direct land bridge to Azerbaijan and Turkic Central Asia while giving Armenia an external Soviet border to Iran. Turkey did gain a 13-kilometer connection with Nakhchivan but could reach Azerbaijan only by passing through Armenian or Iranian territory (see EDM, June 12, 2018).
Before this asymmetrical situation was ended last month by Azerbaijan’s recovery of Karabakh, some analysts, including this author, had earlier proposed swapping the two, with Karabakh (Artsakh) going to Armenia and Zangezur going to Azerbaijan (Goble, 1992; Rferl.org, June 8, 2000). Azerbaijan and Turkey were interested, but Armenia, Russia and Iran were opposed. Thus, nothing came of it. Now, Armenia has lost Karabakh and may be threatened in Zangezur with the two Turkic countries in a position to potentially sweep the board.
The Zangezur Corridor had been growing prominence on the agendas of Azerbaijan and Turkey even before Baku’s recent “anti-terrorist” operation. After the Second Karabakh War in 2020, Armenia agreed to reopen transit across the region, including between Azerbaijan and Nakhchivan. Yerevan feared that its control over Syunik-Zangezur was its advantage in a situation where neither Moscow, Tehran, nor anyone else would do much to interfere. Thus, the Armenian side, supported at least publicly by Russia and Iran, dragged its feet, infuriating Baku and Ankara. This caused the two powers to talk ever-more openly about the need to push through a corridor, with or without Armenia’s agreement (see EDM April 21, 2021, August 10, 2021, and May 5, 2022; Ng.ru, December 8, 2021; Windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com, January 28, 2022). In the wake of the successful use of force in Karabakh and at a time when Moscow is distracted by its aggression in Ukraine, some in Baku and Ankara are clearly thinking about using force to take Zangezur.
Armenia and Russia are rather concerned with the prospect of fighting over Zangezur (Windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com, June 28, 2022; Vpoanalytics.com, October 10). However, they are far from the only countries that have an interest in what happens in the region and who may be dragged into any future conflict. Iran is the country most obviously worried, as this would expand Turkish influence across its northern border and reduce its ability to influence the South Caucasus. In recent months, it has shown its willingness to deploy its forces near the Azerbaijani border to underscore these concerns (see EDM November 1, 2022, February 10, and March 30). Georgia is also worried, as any change in the status of Zangezur would have implications for its links to the outside world (see EDM, January 25, 2021). At the same time, the countries of Central Asia would become more closely integrated with Ankara if Zangezur passed over to Azerbaijani control, boosting the importance of the Turkic world as Erdogan has promoted (EDM, September 19).
As a shift in the control of Zangezur would affect the wider geopolitics of Central Asia and the South Caucasus, it would also have an impact on the regional influences of China, the European Union, and the West. China would face a much stronger Turkey, limiting its expansion of influence into these regions. The European Union would be troubled by how such a change would threaten Armenia’s security. And the United States, while undoubtedly welcoming the decline in Russian and Iranian influence of Iran and Russia, would be compelled to think about protecting Armenia from any further Turkic advances. Consequently, even if a Turkish military move is not as imminent as some fear, the Zangezur Corridor is becoming a hotspot that all major powers must closely watch.