The Geopolitical Background of Azerbaijan’s Aggression on Armenia

Last week’s aggression by Azerbaijan on Armenia should be viewed from a regional lens, as the conflict imposes a new geopolitical reality not only on Armenia, but also Iran and the wider South Caucasus.

On September 10, 2022, the Defense Minister of Azerbaijan instructed his army to maintain combat readiness to “suppress any Armenian provocations.” Not surprisingly, three days later, Baku launched a full-scale aggression on Armenia’s eastern border, concentrating on Jermuk and using special forces, Israeli and Turkish-made drones and artillery strikes against military and civilian targets. Consequently, Azerbaijan occupied strategic positions near the border, exerting pressure on Armenia’s narrow southern region. The aim of this military operation was to enter Jermuk and force the authorities of Yerevan into another “capitulation.” Azerbaijani artillery strikes also targeted Russian border guards and their posts in the region of Gegharkunik. Interestingly, the Russian personnel didn’t respond militarily and were urgently forced to leave the place of deployment as their military equipment and facilities came under intense fire.

The village of Sotk in the Armenian region of Gegharkunik came under heavy fire during Azerbaijan’s attacks on Armenia, September 2022 (Photo: Arman Tatoyan/Facebook)

Azerbaijan justified its aggression by accusing Yerevan of refusing to sign a peace treaty that would recognize its “territorial integrity” (that is, recognizing the territories of Nagorno-Karabakh where Russian peacekeepers are currently deployed as part of Azerbaijan) and provide a “corridor” in the south connecting Azerbaijan to its exclave Nakhichevan. As a result of the escalation, Armenia’s Security Council announced on September 19 that a total of 207 soldiers and civilians were killed or went missing— including three killed and two missing civilians.

The escalation was necessary for the US to come back to the region and exert its soft power on the Armenians and Azerbaijanis to sign a peace treaty, while pushing out Russia and containing Iran in the South Caucasus. The recent aggression should not solely be viewed as a local dispute between two rival states. The conflict also has a regional dimension shaped by current events in Ukraine and around Iran. 

Geopolitical Shifts and New Regional Order

This month, Russia has started facing military setbacks in Ukraine, as NATO member countries began sending heavy arms and supplies to Ukrainian forces. As Ukraine targeted the bridges in Russian-held zones and blocked supply routes, Russian forces were forced to withdraw to avoid encirclement. The West and the Ukrainian government welcomed the subsequent capture of key strategic towns by the Ukrainian forces as a tactical victory over Russia. Though such small military operations may not decide the outcome of the war, Russia is currently stuck in the “Ukrainian mud,” and with winter looming, neither side will be able to engage in counter-offensive and major operations, guaranteeing that the war of attrition will continue.

Taking advantage of Russia’s setbacks in Ukraine and the EU’s need for alternative gas supplies bypassing Russia, Azerbaijan engaged in a gas deal with the EU, while continuing to send arms to Ukraine and opening negotiations with Russia to gain an “observer status” in the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union. Shifts in Russian-Turkish “co-opetition” are also giving Azerbaijan a “free hand” to exert additional pressure on Armenia. While this asymmetric relationship was once in favor of Moscow, it is tipping toward Ankara as a result of the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, Turkey’s increasing tension with the US and the diversification of its energy supplies. Since Turkey perceives itself as an equal partner in arranging regional affairs in Syria, Libya and the South Caucasus, Moscow’s political dependence on Ankara would boost Turkey’s regional position, giving the latter a free hand to test Russia’s “red lines.” Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin is eager to maintain Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s power in Ankara, fearing that the opposition may succeed in ousting him in the 2023 elections and hence torpedoing current regional arrangements between Turkey and Russia.

Turkey’s power relative to Russia is one of the main factors that has handicapped the latter from assisting its only ally in the South Caucasus. Armenia, a member of the Russian-led CSTO alliance, is unable to counter Azerbaijani provocations after its defeat in the second Nagorno-Karabakh War and is under constant fire and pressure from Baku and Ankara.

Moreover, Russia distrusts Armenian authorities. Some Russian experts argue that Yerevan is engaging with the West to sign a “peace treaty” with Azerbaijan that would push Baku to demand the withdrawal of Russian peacekeepers from Nagorno-Karabakh. Yerevan denies such accusations, and many government officials feel neglected by Russia, facing the Turkish-Azerbaijani axis alone. 

Iran is being encircled. Will it act?

Iran has occasionally warned Azerbaijan that its border with Armenia is a red line. Tehran has both geopolitical and geo-economic concerns that the loss of its geographical border with Armenia may not only deprive Iran of its transit role connecting Turkey or Nakhichevan to Azerbaijan, but also pave the way for pan-Turkic aspirations and NATO’s expansion in the region.

For this reason, Tehran cannot remain neutral as it sees its northern neighbor crumbling and squeezed between Turkey and Azerbaijan. The loss of Armenia as a deterrent buffer state against the Pan-Turkic project will create tensions in Iran’s northern provinces. From Iran’s perspective, it is no coincidence that the developments in Armenia came after the clashes in Iraq. The Iranians viewed the inter-Shia clashes in Baghdad between Shia cleric and politician Muqtada al-Sadr’s supporters and pro-Iranian factions as an “American conspiracy” to trap Iran. Amid the failure of negotiations on a nuclear deal, there is a clear intention to isolate Iran and push it out of the Middle East. Iran’s silence in the South Caucasus will be translated as a sign of weakness and may have a domino effect on the Middle East.

As the escalation continued, Iran deployed troops and heavy weaponry to its borders with Azerbaijan and Armenia. The Iranian President called Armenia’s PM and reiterated that “Iran’s connection with Armenia should not be endangered, and the communication channels should be under the sovereignty of the states.” After a few days, the head of the National Security and Foreign Policy Committee in the Islamic Consultative Assembly (parliament) Vahid Jalalzadeh warned that “Iran will turn the dream of changing the borders of the region into a nightmare.”

Iran demonstrated a passive view regarding US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Yerevan. However, Moscow’s passive stance towards Yerevan and distrust of Armenia’s “pro-Western” government have led some Iranian newspapers to criticize Russia, arguing that such behavior would lead to the loss of Armenian statehood. It is not surprising that anti-Russian sentiments are rising high in Yerevan, and many are questioning the effectiveness of the Russian-led CSTO military alliance, which has refused to assist Armenia in times of need.

Meanwhile, the United States, taking advantage of this atmosphere, praised “Armenia’s democracy” and sent Pelosi to Armenia in a show of “support for the country.” The US is eager for a diplomatic solution to the crisis, but not necessarily in support of Yerevan. Rather, US officials want to convince Yerevan and Baku to sign a “peace treaty” aiming to push the Russians out of the region. Many experts argue that the US will push for a peace deal between Armenians and Azerbaijanis before 2025, when Azerbaijan will have the chance to ask for Russian withdrawal from Nagorno-Karabakh. The golden question is whether President Aliyev would risk taking such a step.

Assessment and Reflection

Remarkably, some Azerbaijani MPs, such as Ziyafat Asgarov and Elman Mammadov, speaking through unofficial channels, as well as Azerbaijani media outlets have called for the establishment of “security zones” and “buffer zones” within Armenian territory. Such remarks should not be missed. The main objective behind this narrative is to disarm the Armenian army and facilitate the establishment of a “corridor” in Syunik.

Azerbaijan is pushing to isolate Armenia and enforce a humiliating treaty. In addition to military operations, Baku is also engaging in psychological and political pressure. On September 19, a group of Azerbaijani politicians and “intellectuals” in Ankara announced the creation of a new “Goycha-Zangezur Turkish Republic.” A representative office has already been opened in Ankara, and a flag has also been presented. The so-called “Goycha-Zangezour” Turkish Republic covers the Southern and Eastern parts of Armenia.



Armenia needs a vision for its survival. It has to seek military support to strengthen its deterrent capabilities, rather than moral support and empty promises. The recent anti-CSTO protests in Armenia are very concerning. Russia should not underestimate them, in order to prevent turning Armenia into another Ukraine. Here, Iran has a crucial role to play in convincing Russia that supporting Armenia is important irrespective of the “provocative” tendencies of Yerevan toward Moscow.

Armenia is once again at the crossroads of great power competition, the only natural wall against the pan-Turkic project. If Aliyev’s and Erdogan’s regional ambitions are not halted now, the fireball will expand in the future to neighboring countries. 

Yeghia Tashjian

Yeghia Tashjian

Yeghia Tashjian is a regional analyst and researcher. He has graduated from the American University of Beirut in Public Policy and International Affairs. He pursued his BA at Haigazian University in political science in 2013. In 2010, he founded the New Eastern Politics forum/blog. He was a research assistant at the Armenian Diaspora Research Center at Haigazian University. Currently, he is the regional officer of Women in War, a gender-based think tank. He has participated in international conferences in Frankfurt, Vienna, Uppsala, New Delhi and Yerevan. He has presented various topics from minority rights to regional security issues. His thesis topic was on China’s geopolitical and energy security interests in Iran and the Persian Gulf. He is a contributor to various local and regional newspapers and a presenter of the “Turkey Today” program for Radio Voice of Van. Recently he has been appointed as associate fellow at the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut and Middle East-South Caucasus expert in the European Geopolitical Forum.
Yeghia Tashjian

@yeghig

Regional analyst & researcher. PPIA graduate @AUB_lebanon. Associate Fellow @IFI_AUB co @ArmenianWeekly, Instructor IA @aust_lebanon #MiddleEast #SouthCaucasus
Dear friends below is my reflection on the #India-#Armenia arms deal and my analysis of its regional implications… https://t.co/gnbEwNO6h4 - 2 hours ago

6 Comments

  1. On the second paragraph, it stated, “On December 10, 2022, the Defense Minister of Azerbaijan instructed his army to maintain combat readiness to “suppress any Armenian provocations.”

    Don’t you mean on September 10th, 2022?

  2. Nikol dreamed of abandoning Artsakh and unconditionally opening up Armenia to Turks and Azeris his entire adult life. He even wrote about it as far back as the early 2000s. During the Color Revolution attempt in 2008, during which the “Karabakh Clan” slur was coined, Nikol was Levon Petrosyan’s right-hand man. Nikol’s anti-Artsakh and anti-Russia pedigree is why Western and Turkish money brought him to power in 2018. Nikol therefore had a task to perform for his Western and Turkish benefactors, and Russia, true to its nature, would not allow such a crisis to go to waste.
    It was therefore obvious back in 2018 that Armenia would suffer a defeat in Artsakh. Had it not been for Russia’s last minute military intervention on November 9, 2020, all of Artsakh would have fallen to the Azeris and a genocide of Armenians there would have taken place.

    Fast forward to last week. The recent border fighting erupted as soon as Russia suffered a serious setback in Ukraine. Baku and Ankara are growing restless because Nikol is refusing to deliver on what he promised back in 2020. They are therefore seeking ways to put pressure on Nikol’s regime. One such way is to carry-out these cross border attacks. Nevertheless, Nikol’s regime was aware that an attack would take place an entire week before it happened. It was even discussed in the parliament. However, nothing tangible was done about it. And when the attack began, instead of mobilizing Armenia’s armed forces, he publicly called on Russia to save Armenia. Nikol and his Western and Turkish benefactors understood that Russia is in no shape or mood to start a war with Azerbaijan – especially for a Western and Turkish financed regime in Armenia, especially over a border matter connected to Nikol’s promises. Everyone, including Nikol, knew there was not going to be an invasion of Armenia. Nikol knew that Armenia’s armed forces could easily handle the military task on the border without any outside help. Official Yerevan’s desperate appeal to the CSTO was therefore made to excuse itself from any wrongdoing; make Moscow look bad; foment anti-Russian hysteria in Armenian society; and open the door for Pelosi’s visit to Armenia.

    Pelosi’s visit was primarily meant to further muddy the waters, further disorient Armenian society and drive a wedge between Russia, Iran and Armenia.

    Nikol’s regime is as treasonous as it is incompetent. Nikol’s regime, which still enjoys significant popularity, is deliberately allowing Western and Turkish interests to draw Armenia into a very dangerous and very convoluted game against Russia and Iran. Nikol’s primary intent at this point is simply to preserve his regime, and thus his life, at all costs.

    Both Russians and Iranians are disgusted with what is happening in Armenia. If this nonsense continues, Armenians will face another major massacre in the foreseeable future. But, despite what many think, Armenia itself, including Zangezur, are not in danger. Russia and Iran will simply not allow it.

    Because Moscow is quite busy in eastern Europe, and therefore needs to maintain good working relations with Baku and Ankara, I suspect it has given Tehran the green-light to flex some muscle on Armenia’s borders.

  3. Can someone explain reasonably, why AZ is committed to provide a corridor inside his own territory from Artsakh to Armenia, but Armenia must not give AZ any corridor inside his own territory from AZ to Nakhchivan?
    Do we have differrent standards?

  4. You present very clearly the complex chess board on which Armenia appears to be but a mere pawn, at the mercy of Azerbaijan, Turkey and Russia. Based on what you write, it seems that the current trajectory of Armenia may be to become a buffer vassal state answerable to Moscow and Ankara; this would not be a good outcome. Azerbaijan is the blunt weapon being wielded by those two against Armenia. You imply that the entrance of the US into the South Caucasus could also be negative, because its main goal is to evict Russia and encircle Iran. One element left out of the article is that of the role of India. If Armenia can rearm itself with Indian help, then it can also keep Iran on its side. A US- Armenia relationship could be very problematical for Iran, just like the current Russia-Turkey -Azerbaijan combo is also a threat to Iran. An Armenia-Iran-India axes may make more sense since they are closer to each other geographically and culturally. The West may be simply too far away, even though Armenians have been fantasizing about getting military help for the past 150 years.

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