Armenia’s Lingering Fears: The Threat of Azerbaijani Invasion

Armenia’s ambassador to the European Union, Tigran Balayan, has expressed concerns about Azerbaijan’s preparations for an invasion within weeks, while Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has stated that the risk is “extremely low” and there is no military buildup on either side of the border. The mixed messaging from Yerevan suggests that Balayan is trying to create a sense of urgency while Pashinyan aims to reduce tensions.

The concern is around Azerbaijan’s “Zangezur Corridor” project, which aims to gain land access to its exclave Nakhchivan through Armenian territory. Thomas de Waal, a renowned Caucasus researcher, has described the corridor as the “next big issue” and suggests that Russia, Azerbaijan, and Turkey all have their own interests in its creation and that it may be taken by force. Armenia agreed to facilitate movement between mainland Azerbaijan and Nakhchivan when it signed the Russia-brokered ceasefire that ended the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War in November 2020.

Azerbaijan initially sought a seamless corridor through Armenia’s southern Syunik Region, but this was later softened by President Ilham Aliyev’s proposal to establish Armenian checkpoints on either end of the Zangezur Corridor. This was seen as a move towards establishing full control over Karabakh. Azerbaijan unilaterally set up a checkpoint at Lachin, formalizing the blockade of Nagorno-Karabakh. Last month, Baku’s lightning offensive to retake Nagorno-Karabakh led to the emptying of the region’s 100,000-some Armenian population.

Now, the priority of the Zangezur corridor for Azerbaijan is not an immediate concern. The country is pursuing an alternate corridor through Iran, whose territory traditionally forms the main overland route from Azerbaijan to Nakhchivan. The new route will be considerably shorter, starting near the Armenian border in Zangilan, a territory Azerbaijan recaptured in 2020. Iran has always opposed the Zangezur Corridor idea, warning against changes to regional borders or the establishment of a “pan-Turkic” or “NATO” corridor along its northern frontier.

Azerbaijani analyst Fuad Shahbazov asserts that there has been a significant policy shift from Baku. The Zangezur Corridor project, a new transit route between Azerbaijan and Iran, is expected to be implemented without Armenia’s Syunik province, according to a source. This comes amid concerns that Azerbaijan respects Armenia’s territorial integrity and does not plan to invade.

Some argue that an Armenian invasion could threaten Baku’s West-West relations, as the EU and U.S. have not prevented Azerbaijan from recapturing Karabakh. Armenian security analyst Nerses Kopalyan believes that the visit to Armenia by USAID head Samantha Power was to ensure that Azerbaijan does not attack Armenia properly. However, many in Armenia remain apprehensive, as Azerbaijan has made several incursions into Armenian territory since the 2020 war, holding an estimated 215 square kilometres of its territory.

Baku is discussing the concept of “Western Azerbaijan,” which suggests that some of Armenia’s territory is actually Azerbaijani. Turkey, Azerbaijan’s strategic ally, has also been seen as trying to tie the Armenia-Turkey normalization process to the opening of the Zangezur corridor. However, Ankara’s exact position and understanding of the corridor are hard to discern.

Armenian President Pashinyan has expressed his readiness to open “roads for Azerbaijan and Turkey,” but he insists on maintaining Armenia’s sovereignty and preventing any third power from controlling its territory. Russia disagrees, stating that Armenia should follow the terms of the 2020 trilateral agreement, which states border troops will oversee transport connections. Azerbaijani side believes that ambiguity in the text does not change the fundamental nature of the provision in the 2020 agreement.

Poghosyan speculates that a new conflict could occur if Azerbaijan initiates a conflict and Russia intervenes. This could lead to an ambiguous situation, with some arguing that Russia pushed Armenia to provide a corridor, while others argue that there was no mention of a corridor in the November 2020 document.

Aliyev may claim that Azerbaijan forced Armenia to provide a corridor, but Pashinyan could argue that this is not a corridor, as it will be under Armenian control. Pashinyan could also argue that Russia, Turkey, and Azerbaijan jointly forced Armenia to provide a corridor, proving that Russia is not an ally of Armenia and is Armenia’s adversary.

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