Azerbaijan launched military operations against the Armenian-populated areas of Nagorno-Karabakh on September 19, saying it planned to “disarm and secure the withdrawal of formations of Armenia’s armed forces.”
It claimed Armenian units had laid land mines and that these had caused deaths and injury to Azeri nationals the previous day. Witnesses in the main city, Stepanakert, said artillery strikes were hitting the area, which is home to around 120,000 Armenians.
Baku also demanded the dissolution of the government of the unrecognized republic. More troubling, perhaps, the Azeri Defense Ministry said civilians could leave Nagorno-Karabakh along approved routes. Armenia has long claimed that Azerbaijan aims to clear the area of its nationals.
At the time of writing, Azeri forces have made major advances toward all big cities in Nagorno-Karabakh. This may signal that the operation, which follows the blockade of the enclave for the past several months, will evolve into a bigger military campaign to retake what was left of the territory following the war in 2020, when Armenia was decisively defeated.
An escalation to another all-out conflict has long been feared. This was firstly because of Russia’s shifting preferences. In terms of simple — and brutal — self-interest, Azerbaijan is now more important to Russia than its long-time ally, Armenia. The change is rooted in the increasingly transactional approach the Kremlin has been using in the South Caucasus. Russia is now heavily reliant on the North-South corridor, which partially runs through Azerbaijan on the route to Iran and the Persian Gulf.
Moreover, Armenia-Russia relations are extremely poor. Armenia has openly challenged what it terms Russia’s failure to make good on security guarantees, both from the Kremlin-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the operations of the Russian peacekeeping force in Nagorno-Karabakh. It has refused to join CSTO exercises, recalled its representative to the body, and announced drills with the US.
Azerbaijan, on the other hand, is both keenly aware of its apparent military primacy following the 2020 war, and of the West’s reliance on it. Growing energy ties with the European Union (EU) — aimed to replace sanctioned Russian supplies — have made Brussels hesitant to overly criticize the Baku government (though on September 19, it called on Azerbaijan to halt its operation.) Turkey, another big regional player, is a long-time ally and military supplier to Azerbaijan, and so is Israel. Armenia’s strongest partner at the moment is France, but Paris is far from the action.
Azerbaijan has even improved its tense relations with Iran in recent months. Both sides agreed to de-escalate their disputes, and that has been evident in the toning down of hostile rhetoric and a series of high-level meetings.
The situation therefore augurs badly for Armenia. The Islamic Republic will likely enter the fray only if the Azeri forces threaten Armenia proper, or aim to open the so-called Zangezur corridor via Armenia’s southernmost Syunik province. Since it is highly likely that Azerbaijan will attempt this, Iran will probably not become engaged.
Nor will Russia act boldly. Its war in Ukraine has sapped its energy and influence, and its South Caucasus garrisons, including in Armenia, have been stripped to the bone. That inaction will only deepen the personal animosity between Putin and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, who was attacked by the Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson on September 19 and was widely abused on Russian social media. Russia’s logic is brutal — it believes Armenia has nowhere else to turn and will one day be forced to re-enter its orbit.
Thus the only impartial stakeholder is the West. The EU and US have sought an expanded presence in the region as a counterbalance to Russia. The situation may therefore provide opportunities if the West can adapt.
But its power is limited given the geographic realities — the only plausible route to the area runs through Turkey, and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has his own agenda.
Emil Avdaliani is a professor at European University and the Director of Middle East Studies at the Georgian think-tank, Geocase.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.