Azerbaijan’s Armenian ‘Corridor’ Is a Challenge to the Global Rules-Based Order

Azerbaijani soldiers stand guard as a car passes through the Lachin border station, leaving Karabakh to head into Armenia, on Sept. 26. Emmanuel Dunand/AFP via Getty Images
Azerbaijani soldiers stand guard as a car passes through the Lachin border station, leaving Karabakh to head into Armenia, on Sept. 26. Emmanuel Dunand/AFP via Getty Images

On Oct. 13, Politico reported that U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken had informed a group of lawmakers that the State Department was on the watch for an Azerbaijani invasion of Armenia in the “coming weeks”. A spokesman later tempered the report, describing it as inaccurate while insisting that the United States “strongly supports” Armenia’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.

Nonetheless, the Politico report surprised few in Armenia. Azerbaijan’s use of deadly force and coercive diplomacy against Armenia is hardly breaking news, at least since Baku’s 2020 military successes in the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. From December 2022, Azerbaijan imposed a nearly yearlong humanitarian siege of the Armenian minority in the enclave—a blockade deemed illegal by U.N. courts. Facing no accountability or international pushback, an emboldened Baku broke the 2020 armistice and militarily conquered the region this September, choosing to expel its 120,000 indigenous Armenian inhabitants rather than pursue a European Union-backed deal guaranteeing that group’s civil rights within Azerbaijan.

The next stage of this conflict is imminent. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev may now have his sights set on seizing an extraterritorial corridor through Armenia’s southernmost Syunik province, which he has branded as the so-called Zangezur corridor. This extraterritorial corridor would link mainland Azerbaijan with the small Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhchivan, to Armenia’s west, which borders Turkey and Iran.

An extraterritorial corridor cutting through Armenian territory would, by definition, be militarized: The Armenian government continues to object to the plan as breaching its territorial sovereignty. It also fears the corridor becoming a haven for illicit activity and trade.

The Armenian government has instead offered a vision of broader regional connectivity: opening de jure borders and rebuilding Soviet-era cross-border roads and railways, all operating within the framework of established international law and respecting the full sovereignty of the countries through which they pass. Indeed, opening borders would yield immediate economic dividends to all countries in the South Caucasus.

Such a vision could, of course, only be realized with a peace treaty, which Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan reaffirmed his government’s commitment to signing during his address to the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Oct. 17. This would require acknowledgment of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of both states. Speaking at the fourth Silk Road Forum a few days later, held in Tbilisi, Georgia, Pashinyan unveiled the so-called Crossroads for Peace initiative, which detailed Armenia’s advocacy for rules-based regional connectivity.

The problem for Armenia is thus not the corridor itself, but the coercion surrounding its implementation.

“We will implement the Zangezur corridor, whether Armenia wants it or not”, Aliyev threatened as early as 2021. Increasingly irredentist and expansionist, Baku has already created the physical infrastructure inside Armenia to pull this off. Since 2021, Azerbaijani troops have advanced across Armenia’s eastern sovereign border, a strategy that researchers describe as “creeping annexation”.

In September 2022, when Azerbaijan attacked Armenia’s southeast and targeted civilians inside the country, it was testing the limits of what the world would countenance. In response, the EU deployed unarmed civilian monitors to the Armenian side of the border with Azerbaijan in order to document, if not deter, further attacks.

Outside of Armenian sovereign control, a Zangezur corridor would comprise a much-sought final missing link in a sanctions-proof, extraterritorial nexus connecting Iran and Turkey to Russia via Azerbaijan. Unsurprisingly, Armenia’s rules-based proposal for broad regional connectivity is supported by the EU and the United States, while Azerbaijan’s demands are backed by Russia and Turkey. Iran, for its part, has been looking to leverage all available transport routes that would help it in deepening its commercial and military ties with Russia. Ground has been broken for both rail and road projects that would directly connect Tehran to Moscow through Azerbaijan—while avoiding Western sanctions monitors.

The Zangezur corridor, if realized, would entail a shift in strategic geography in the Eurasian continent, cementing the revanchist policies between two neo-imperial actors, Turkey and Russia. The stakes are high for the region and beyond—this corridor may be as incendiary for Western interests as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s proposed Zaporizhzhia corridor project to link mainland Russia with its illegally annexed positions in Crimea through Ukraine.

Economic sanctions imposed on Russia in response to its invasion of Ukraine are reshaping the geopolitics of connectivity, trade, and transit between China and Europe. Russian transcontinental rail has largely been replaced by seaborne alternatives, but a so-called Middle Corridor concept has been promoted by some, including Russia’s allies and partners to its south. This multimodal patchwork of routes would ostensibly form an overland connection between China and Europe via Central Asia, the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan, and Turkey, with spurs to Russia and Iran, bypassing Armenia.

To Chinese audiences, Aliyev touts the purported importance of the Zangezur corridor as a component of the Middle Corridor. This is belied by the existence of parallel railways in neighboring Georgia, which are owned by Azerbaijan. The more pressing imperatives for Aliyev, as a dynastic post-Soviet ruler of an undiversified petrostate—and one that is entering its 15th consecutive year of declining oil exports—are domestic. The World Bank and others forecast a coming socioeconomic decline that will test the limits of Azerbaijan’s autocracy, making nationalist and militarized projects, such as the Zangezur corridor and additional threats of conquest against alleged “historic Azerbaijani territory” in Armenia, into important levers for regime legitimacy and survival.

Turkey lends extensive political, military, and operational support to Azerbaijan’s preferences in the region, including the Zangezur corridor plan. Already a beneficiary of the current incarnation of the Middle Corridor that uses Georgia to access Russian markets, extralegal and sanctions-proof transit through territory in Armenia’s south would enhance Ankara’s strategic autonomy and provide long-coveted unhindered access to Turkic Central Asia via Azerbaijan.

Turkey’s desire for this connection was cemented in its 2021 Shusha Declaration with Azerbaijan. The declaration elevated the already deep alliance between the two, which now covers wide-ranging issues, including a defense pact and coordination in their state-controlled media platforms, with a specific mention of the Zangezur corridor.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan regularly calls for an “uninterrupted” rail and road corridor “as soon as possible”, through Armenia. He has done it from the highest global podium, that of the United Nations General Assembly this fall, as well as in the Azerbaijani Parliament in 2021 and in his cabinet meetings.

The desire for an uninterrupted corridor also stems from Turkey’s aspirations to become a regional energy hub, thereby increasing its bargaining position relative to the West. Gas coming from Azerbaijan, Iran, and Russia would turn Turkey into a central node of regional geopolitical patronage in the South Caucasus and Central Asia.

Indeed, neo-imperial logic behind the push for the Zangezur corridor was articulated plainly by Erdogan himself when he stated that the post-Ottoman periphery, the South Caucasus in this case, “is not a romantic neo-Ottomanism. It is a real policy based on a new vision of global order”.

For Russia, the dividends of such a corridor extend beyond evading Western sanctions. The diplomatic fig leaf on which Azerbaijan’s Aliyev has relied in demanding the extraterritorial corridor is the 2020 trilateral Nagorno-Karabakh cease-fire agreement, brokered by Russia, between Azerbaijan and Armenia. That agreement envisioned opening transport links and enshrined the security of Nagorno-Karabakh’s Armenian population and the return of Armenian refugees through a Russian peacekeeping mission; it also guaranteed unhindered access between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenia, in turn, committed to reopening and guaranteeing the security of vehicles and cargo traveling through sovereign Armenian territory between Azerbaijan and Nakhchivan, with an oversight role for Russian border services. After failing to prevent the 2023 military assault and the ethnic cleansing in Nagorno-Karabakh, that agreement is now functionally and legally inoperative.

By claiming a lack of border delimitation, Russia tacitly endorses Baku’s attacks on Armenia’s internationally recognized borders. Baku’s forceful conquest of an extraterritorial corridor would create a sustained security risk for the Armenian state. This would provide the Kremlin with significant leverage to continue its pressure on Armenia’s nascent democracy. Russia-Azerbaijan’s strategic alliance was formalized in the Declaration of Allied Interaction between the two countries, signed on Feb. 22, 2022, two days before the start of the full-scale Russian invasion in Ukraine.

In terms of the depth and scope of issues covered, that declaration is similar to the Shushi Declaration that Azerbaijan signed with Turkey in 2021. The alliance formed with Russia, like the one with Turkey, also covers deep cooperation and coordination, impacting military, mass media, and the energy sector. The latter agreement, and subsequent gas deals with Russia, translated into laundering Russian gas, via Azerbaijan, for European markets.

By contrast, the rules-based path toward regional connectivity in the South Caucasus that is advocated by Armenia, with support from the EU and the United States, would further loosen Russian control over the region.

Importantly, a regionally integrated South Caucasus would complement the newly unveiled India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC), Washington’s answer to China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

The Hamas-Israel war has been a tragic reminder that unresolved conflicts can derail the best-laid infrastructure plans. A stable and rules-based regional connectivity in the South Caucasus offers an important path for India-Europe connection. Armenia’s southern Syunik region, and the potential for broad-based regional connectivity that it holds, is especially important for Washington, Brussels, and New Delhi as geopolitical rivalries of the Eurasian continent continue to grow unabated.

A military attack to carve out the Zangezur corridor in Armenia would spark a war between Armenia and Azerbaijan and could produce a partial or full occupation by Baku of Armenia’s southern Syunik region. It would also create a legal black hole, as the Western world would largely not recognize the conquest.

But it would be seen as a strategic win for Russia, Iran, China, and Turkey. An invasion of Armenia would embolden and bind together—through a web of opaque, sanctions-proof territorial corridors and entities—what many analysts have warned is a rising bloc of militaristic and revisionist Eurasian autocracies.

Indeed, some observers have recognized the interlocking authoritarian networks and their coordination on the Eurasian continent as a so-called Fortress Eurasia, referring to the emergence of interdependent strategic partnerships across the Eurasian landmass. Azerbaijan’s comprehensive strategic partnerships both with Russia and Turkey have made Baku the intermediary and conduit of the expansion of the Fortress Eurasia. The durability of Armenia’s southern Syunik region is thus a litmus test for the global rules-based order.

Extraterritorial corridors—whether they are Aliyev’s Zangezur corridor or Putin’s Zaporizhzhia corridor—weaken a century-long global norm against conquest and erode territorial sovereignty. Limited military operations and partial annexations are on the rise worldwide, creating conditions for escalation into full-blown wars.

Such conditions are present today in the nexus of interests knotted in Armenia’s south, and the outcome will have global implications for the shape of Eurasia for decades to come. But the opportunity for regional, rules-based integration in the South Caucasus is also real, and it, too, can be realized, if Armenia’s Syunik region is protected. Connectivity on Western terms in Eurasia is now contingent on Armenia’s territorial integrity.

Anna Ohanyan is the Richard B. Finnegan distinguished professor of political science and international relations at Stonehill College in Massachusetts, and a nonresident senior scholar in the Russia/Eurasia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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