Azeri service members take part in a procession marking the anniversary of the end of the 2020 military conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh breakaway region, involving Azerbaijan's troops against ethnic Armenian forces, in Baku, Azerbaijan, November 8, 2021.

Looming Azerbaijan-Armenia War Signals Geopolitical Shifts

Thursday, 09/07/2023

Renewed tensions between Azerbaijan and Armenia portend major geopolitical shifts in the region with the US edging closer to Yerevan as Russia is embroiled in Ukraine. 

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan accused Azerbaijan on Thursday of building up troops along the line of contact in Nagorno-Karabakh disputed region and the Armenian-Azerbaijan border. In the past week, both Yerevan and Baku reported casualties after intense shelling near their common border.

The escalation comes amid a continuing crisis over Nagorno-Karabakh where Yerevan and local ethnic Armenian authorities accuse Baku of continuing its “illegal blockade” of the region, resulting in severe shortages of food, fuel, and medicine as well as a rationing of bread. Azerbaijan has justified its nine-month Azerbaijani blockade of the highway linking Armenia to the enclave -- internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan but populated by around 120,000 ethnic Armenians -- by saying Armenia was using the road to supply weapons to Karabakh, which Armenia denies. The critical Lachin corridor serves as the sole communication route between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh.

Armenia's Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan attends a meeting with Russia's President Vladimir Putin and Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev on the sidelines of the Eurasian Economic Union summit in Moscow, Russia May 25, 2023.

Tensions are simmering as the Armenian Defense Ministry announced earlier in the month that it will hold a joint war game with NATO forces from September 11-20, dubbed Eagle Partner 2023 aimed at increasing the level of interoperability of units participating in international peacekeeping missions. 

Traditionally, Armenia has leaned on Russia and Iran, both nations against any border changes between the two longtime rivals. However, Yerevan seems to have recently distanced itself from Moscow, perhaps because Russia is engrossed in its invasion of Ukraine as well as its warming ties with Turkey and Azerbaijan. 

The joint drill with the United States forces can be construed as Armenia leaning towards the West to secure support in case of a looming military conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. Pashinyan recently said that exclusive dependence on Russia does not serve Armenia's security well anymore, a statement that Moscow described as "public rhetoric bordering on rudeness".

RFE/RL’s Armenian Service reported this week that Armenia is providing humanitarian assistance to Ukraine for the first time since the Russian invasion of the country. Sources told RFE/RL’s Armenian Service that Pashinyan’s wife, Anna Hakobian, will personally hand over aid to the Ukrainian side when she flies to Kyiv to attend the annual Summit of First Ladies and Gentlemen. 

Despite the small scale of the joint military exercise, Russia – which sees itself as the pre-eminent power in the South Caucasus region that was part of the Soviet Union until 1991 -- said it would be watching closely. "Of course, such news causes concern, especially in the current situation. Therefore, we will deeply analyze this news and monitor the situation," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said this week, adding, "In this situation, holding such exercises does not contribute to stabilizing the situation in any case and strengthening the atmosphere of mutual trust in the region." 

Russia maintains a peacekeeping force in the region to uphold an agreement that ended a war between Armenia and Azerbaijan in 2020, the second they have fought since the Soviet collapse. 

Footage on social media in recent days also showed increasing Azerbaijani military movements near the front line between the two countries. According to Crisis Watch – a global conflict tracker, several cargo aircraft have airlifted hundreds of tons of weapons including ballistic missiles from Israel and Turkey to Baku, adding that “Azerbaijan’s Air Force received a new batch of Bayraktar TB2 armed drones from Turkey in order to use them in its incoming invasion of Armenia.”

“Azerbaijan is ready for another invasion of Armenia. They are just waiting for Turkey to get Iran's permission," said military expert and author Babak Taghvaee. Iran has been deeply concerned about Azerbaijani moves to establish a corridor through Armenian territory to a piece of its territory to the west. While an Azerbaijani military threat exists to force such a corridor, Iran will lose its historic land connection with Armenia. Tensions over the transit road have led to military exercises conducted by the Iranian armed forces near the border with Azerbaijan in recent years.

Earlier in September, US Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken also spoke with Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev to express the United States’ concern over the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Nagorno-Karabakh, calling to reopen the Lachin Corridor to humanitarian, commercial, and passenger traffic. He also underscored the need for dialogue and compromise and the importance of building confidence between the parties, and pledged continued US support to the peace process.

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