George Katcharava - Armenia Azerbaijan Confrontation: War or Peace?

Interpressnews spoke with George Katcharava, an expert in international relations and international security.

- Sir, the situation has been tense for several days now, both along the Armenia-Azerbaijan border and the Lachin corridor, connecting Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, which Azerbaijan has locked up, and as the Armenian side claims, Azerbaijan does not allow humanitarian goods to be transported to Nagorno-Karabakh. The worsening of the situation coincided with the "presidential elections" in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Simultaneously, the situation in the south of Armenia also raises concerns. On the Meghri-Zangezur corridor connecting Armenia and Iran, which Azerbaijan calls to be opened and Russia has long wanted to exercise full control over it.

On the other hand, Iran's Foreign Minister spoke to his Azerbaijani counterpart and expressed concern about the situation. Moreover, he also said that "if continued like this" Iran could not wait to see that control over the corridor between Armenia and Iran would go into the hands of a third country.

In response, Azerbaijani Foreign Minister stated - "If necessary, Azerbaijan will open the Zangezur Corridor without Armenia. "

The fact is that we are witnessing an escalation between the parties that can lead to the armed conflict, as well as possibility of confrontation between Iran and Azerbaijan, and if so, it is clear that Azerbaijan's strategic ally Turkey will not observe the events from afar.

As we can see, there is already a prerequisite for another conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Taking into account that Armenia at least declaratively recognizes the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan, what could be the most real reason for the next escalation between Azerbaijan and Armenia?

- Both sides have their reasons to be unhappy with the current situation. This is primarily due to differing views on how the second Karabakh war ended. On the one hand, both parties agree on the need to implement a trilateral agreement. At the same time, different positions on the corridors, their status, the layout of the border line and who is entitled to what, when and where, creates controversies and hinders the whole process.

As you may know, the EU and the United States, were actively involved in the negotiation process, through which certain outline of the problem-solving formula appeared. However, playing on a separate flank, the Russian Federation has used its tools at hand to slowdown the Western efforts and one can argue went as far as jeopardized wester-led process altogether.

In addition, establishment of Azerbaijani border crossing point on Lachin road to control country's sovereign territory and borders, created new realities on the ground. This certainly hindered the movement between the ethnic Armenian population living in Karabakh and Armenia, which created a kind of crisis in the relations between the two countries.

It is also worth mentioning Armenia's very rigid positions on the non-opening of the Meghri-Zangezur corridor, in the context of the opening of communications between Nakhichevan and the rest of Azerbaijan, in general. This situation has created existing tensions with increasing potential for further escalation. In other words, the desire of the parties not to make concessions, in the light of numerous external factors, coupled with internal considerations, especially in Armenia, lead to rapid deterioration of the situation and increased tensions, that are raising by day.

- After Armenia recognized the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan, diplomatic contacts between Azerbaijan and Armenia have intensified. A number of meetings were held in Europe with the participation of Foreign Ministers of both countries.

The United States was actively involved in the meeting of the Foreign Ministers. The U.S. Secretary of State also hosted high level negotiations in Washington.

We know that before the activation of diplomatic activities, the desires of the parties did not coincide with each other, as they differed dramatically. What to think about - another escalation of the situation between Azerbaijan and Armenia is the result of a failed diplomacy of strong players, or the result of activation of another strong player in the South Caucasus region?

- We have already mentioned that the presence of external players is an important factor in this situation. Both Azerbaijan and Armenia have powerful allies. Armenia's allies are France, partly the US, Iran and India. France, which has tried to provide effective assistance to Armenia at the UN Security Council, is the most prominent of all. India, lately, has been seen as an important supplier of weaponry to Armenia. Whereas Iran as the neighboring country, with its statements and certain actions, expresses its interest especially regarding the development of the Zangezur-Meghri corridor. The US position is mainly stipulated by the existence of the powerful lobbying and influence groups of the Armenian diaspora.

Azerbaijan, in turn, enjoys unconditional military-political support from Turkey, as well as has allied relations with Pakistan and Israel. It should also be noted that Azerbaijan has pragmatic and sectoral relations with the EU and the United States, which gives Azerbaijan the status of an important partner.

The role and interests of Russia in the Armenian-Azerbaijani confrontation is a separate matter. On the one hand, it has been the main broker of the conflict resolution mechanism from the very beginning. On the other hand, unlike other outside players, it is the only one who has a real and feasible influence on the ground, and has been able to dramatically increase it, when needed. Above all, this relates to the military component of its influence. Although it has to be noted that Russia has institutionalized relations with Azerbaijan and Armenia in almost all areas. For example, Armenia is a member of all political, economic and military organizations led by Russia. Azerbaijan also recently signed a partnership agreement with Russia. However, it is also worth mentioning that Azerbaijan has balancing ability having well established close and strategically institutionalized relationship with Turkey, especially in the military sphere. Because of this, the degree of Azerbaijan’s strategic autonomy from Russia is incomparably higher than that of Armenia. Moreover, it can be said that Armenia is largely a satellite state of Russia, although this cannot be translated into a practical dimension in recent years.

- Although Russia has a lot of economic and military-political problems due to the war in Ukraine. The Kremlin's Russian propagandists do not hide their joy over another escalation of the situation between Azerbaijan and Armenia.

According to them, if there is a "big war" between Azerbaijan and Armenia, Russia will inevitably engage in the conflict and this time will not stop in Tbilisi. - "In the burning South Caucasus" Russia will make its way to Iran. And this will be a completely different level of combat.

It is understandable that such assertions is a Kremlin propaganda fantasies, but, unfortunately, such fantasies have often seen as an action plan for Kremlin strategists.

How high is the likelihood that what is now happening between Azerbaijan and Armenia is not happening without Russian participation, especially since, as Yerevan claims, Azerbaijan can be a Moscow’s ally this time?

- I cannot asses fantasies, but of course none of the scenarios can be excluded. Another issue is how realistic or realizable these scenarios are.

As for Russia's participation in the ongoing processes. When discussing this, let's observe the facts trying to find some hints that allow us to analyze the current situation. Let's start with the fact that Russia's participation in the Armenian-Azerbaijani confrontation and its settlement is no surprise to anyone. It is also clear that participation in the resolution of conflicts in the post-Soviet area is one of the most powerful means for Russia to maintain its influence.

Therefore, it is likely that in all, or almost all of the processes that are taking place between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Russia takes an active part and thus has an effective influence on its progress.

Now let's look at the general developments. The West has been actively involved in the negotiations of the peace treaty. On top of EU-led meetings, two rounds were conducted with the American mediation, where according to the expert’s opinions, the parties made significant progress to reconcile the main principles of the potential peace treaty.

After that, Russia steps in, offering its own terms to the parties. With objective assessments, Russia certainly has effective leverage and resources to more or less satisfy both parties.

It is highly likely that Russia does not endorse potential progress of western-led negotiations, because under such circumstances, Russia's role is expected to be diminished sooner rather than later. In doing so, Russia is likely to try increasing its role, given the current circumstances and to use its still existing influence in the region.

At the same time, Yerevan being dissatisfied with the situation begins to activate its pro-Western dimension. The Russian Federation does not hide its discontent with such a move and openly criticizes the steps of Armenian government. According to many observers, such an attempt of a U-turn made by official Yerevan is causing uncertainty, because it directly contradicts the pragmatic assessment of the situation. This is firstly due to the very limited access to Armenia from the side of the West, and secondly, as a matter of fact Yerevan cannot easily escape Russia's orbit with such instant moves. The latest opinion is based on how deep Armenia is integrated into the Russia-led regional institutions. Let's also not forget Russia's military-political and economic influence on Armenia. Under such circumstances, and given the ongoing war in Ukraine, it is likely that offering effective measures to Yerevan in terms of reducing or balancing the influence of the Russian Federation on the ground, for the West will probably appear problematic, beyond its current capabilities in the region.

In addition, the factor of the unfavorable internal situation for the Pashinyan government, where the consequences of the 2020 war have not yet been healed, should definitely be taken into account.

As for Azerbaijan, one can say that it consistently, firmly and with patience follows the country's unification policy. Baku undoubtedly has the strategic advantage on the ground and the needed resources to maintain such an advantage. Therefore, it can be said today that Azerbaijan holds strategic initiative at its hands and somewhat is in the position to determine scenarios of the possible development of events. Of course, Azerbaijan avoids large-scale confrontation, but the tactical moves that enhance its stated advantage are actively used. This, of course, affects the situation as a whole and creates new realities to be dealt with for the opposite side.

- Given the balance of power, what would be the best option for Armenia and what would be the best option for Azerbaijan?

- Due to the consequences of the second Karabakh war and the recent chill in the relations between Armenia and Russia, the balance of power is clearly leaning in favor of Azerbaijan. Therefore, the Azerbaijani side is probably focused on achieving maximum results. This means that it wants to restore its jurisdiction throughout Karabakh, dissolve the so-called government institutions in Karabakh, stop the state funding of Armenia for the Armenian community residing in Karabakh. This should have followed by demarcation and delimitation of the Armenia-Azerbaijan state border, and most importantly the opening of the Meghri-Zangezur transport communications, as provided by the document signed in 2020, as a result of second Karabakh war.

Based on Armenia's positions, it is clear that Yerevan wants to prologue the process, which will allow to have a strategic break and restore some of its strength. It is important to maintain the self-governance institutions of the Armenian community residing in Karabakh, thereby strengthening the conditions of autonomy for Karabakh Armenians. In the view of Yerevan, the security of the mentioned community should be carried out by the peacekeeping forces of the Russian Federation, or in better scenario by the forces with an international mandate. For Armenia is vital to ensure the smooth functioning of the Lachin transport corridor, although with weakened Azerbaijani control. At the same time Yerevan wants to negotiate the alternative route connecting Azerbaijan with its exclave of Nakhichevan, avoiding Meghri-Zangezur corridor, this in turn is meant to push for unsuitable route for Azerbaijan.

If you look at it, both sides have different views on all of the mentioned issues, but both sides understand the need to sign a peace treaty. Such a situation cannot last long. That is why we are witnessing a new and powerful wave of potential escalation.

As for Iran and its vision of the Meghri-Zangezur road. Of course, Iran is closely monitoring the processes in its neighborhood. In this confrontation, Iran is a strong ally of Armenia. Tehran's vision of opening up mentioned transportation lines may be linked to its own problems related to connecting with the outside world. On the one hand, despite multiple offers of financial assistance from Azerbaijan, it has long failed or not decided to build the Rasht-Astara railway line, which should connect the railway systems of Azerbaijan and Iran. As a result of the implementation of this project, the connection of the South-North corridor to the West-East corridor will be assured, which in turn will make Azerbaijan a transport hub. Because of this, Meghri-Zangezur road is in theory viewed by Iran as an alternative road, to connect to the railway network of Armenia avoiding Azerbaijan. That is why with some regularity we hear certain statements from Tehran on the given issue.

At the same time, this matter has another, more practical and realistic dimension. Here we once again refer to the 2020 document depicting results of the second Karabakh war. And in fact, Iran is not part of this agreement. Therefore, the three countries, Russia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, are officially in a position to openly discuss the matter, above all, taking into account their own interests. At the same time, we should not forget the interests of Turkey, because opening Armenia-Azerbaijan communication lines in one way or another automatically means connecting these communications with the railway systems of Turkey and Russia. Under the current circumstances of war in Ukraine and sanctions imposed on Russia, the presence of such an additional communication line in any form, is of great importance for Russia and at the same time for Turkey. The existence and operation of such an infrastructure will help to dramatically increase the cargo turnover between the two countries and provide an additional alternative supply line to Russia.

Given the interests of the aforementioned important players, and real state of affairs on the ground, paying due attention to the regional access and weight of the stakeholders, it is unlikely that Iran will go beyond existing rhetoric.

- Some observers argue that worsening of the situation is in favor to the Armenian Prime Minister Pashinyan, whose foreign policy has recently been clearly pro-Western and anti-Russian.

According to them, in the light of these processes, Armenia can fully refuse the Russian foreign factor, and possibly to even go to Va banque in the current situation.

It is understandable that Yerevan has scarce resources to go to Va banque, but still.

If the situation is aggravated, will external forces - the USA, Europe, France, which traditionally lobby Armenia, participate in this process? Also, what about Russia and Iran?

- To be honest, going Va banque has its calculations, and if a party with scarce resources takes such a step, it usually is relying someone else’s strong backing, or such an action can be considered irrational. So, I think this is the case in given particular situation, too. For Armenia, going to Va banque in the current situation can be associated with existential risks. It is difficult to talk about it so openly, but the seriousness of the situation makes it important for us to face the reality, no matter how harsh it can be.

As for the likelihood to link to Armenia's pro-Western desires and on the expense of ties with Russia. Theoretically all these is possible, although it will take a very long time, and in addition to this, we should consider the serious weakening of Russia as a necessary precondition. Russia at this point, I think, has enough political, economic and military resources in Armenia itself to overcome such sentiments.

It is also quite important how ready is the West to take drastic steps against Russia's interests because of Armenia? At the same time, how much Armenia is able to convince the West of its commitment and sustainability of its pro-Western foreign political vector, especially after such a long and unquestionably pro-Russian policy? These are difficult and multifaceted questions that are unambiguous, and even more so there is no quick answer to them. On the other hand, in real world, the situation on the ground demands quick and instant solutions within limited time-frame. Therefore, for the establishment of a pro-Western foreign policy, Armenia has a very limited window, and presumably this window is not yet widely opened.

- What role Turkey will play, as a strategic partner of Azerbaijan?

- Answering this question, we should recall the declaration signed by Presidents Aliyev and Erdogan in Shusha. This is a military-political union that directly backs Azerbaijan. Therefore, in the face of any aggression against Azerbaijan, Turkey simply cannot stand aside and can engage when and if needed, to a degree needed.

Therefore, Turkey's role in the current processes is hard to underestimate and should always be considered a force backing Azerbaijan. In addition, according to many observers, France's attitude towards the Armenia-Azerbaijan confrontation is also due to the competition between France and Turkey in the international arena.

Do not forget that the South Caucasus is not a distant region for Turkey, and therefore it has strong political and economic interests here. Therefore, Turkey's direct or indirect involvement in the ongoing processes in the region, and its impact is an important factor to be considered for any player.

- It is clear that lighting a "big fire" in the South Caucasus will be a huge problem for the stability of the countries of the region, including Georgia.

No matter how the processes between Azerbaijan and Armenia develop, what will it bring to Georgia and the region?

- The region does not need another armed confrontation of any scale, shape or form. It is clear to all of us, so, there is no need to talk about it. Therefore, we must hope that the parties will be able to reach an agreement based on mutual respect and good neighborliness that will contribute to the establishment of peace in the region. All rational players should be interested in this, both in the West and in the East and in the North as well. Therefore, I think that the peace formula will be generated and another wave of escalation in the region will be avoided.

If this will not be happening, and we will be dealing with an escalation of any possible intensity, it will almost automatically lead to the deterioration of the socio-economic situation across the region. In addition, such an escalation is highly likely to be followed by civil unrest and instability in Armenia. If the escalation occurs in and around Karabakh, the region is likely to face new wave of refugees, which will further aggravate the social conditions, especially in Armenia.

In addition, we also have to say that, in the event of a serious escalation of the situation, the consequences might lead to a longer-term armed confrontation. Under such circumstances, the prospects for the future development of the region will become vague and uncertain. In doing so, I would like to emphasize that the potential confrontation between Armenia and Azerbaijan might actually go beyond the scope of the two countries. Moreover, in the current international situation, any confrontation has the potential to drag other powerful players, which in turn might bring dire consequences for the future of the region. I do hope we’ll be able to avoid worse scenarios.

In the light of this, little but significant hope still appeared. So, late last night a statement was made that the Red Cross vehicles of the Russian Federation will carry humanitarian cargo for the Armenian community residing in Karabakh, through the Agdam road. This is an undeniably positive signal, showing that compromises are possible. This also allows us to express a cautious hope that the parties will be able to find and reconcile mutually acceptable positions. All these will prevent new confrontation and undesirable escalation of the situation, paving the way towards peace treaty ending long lasting confrontation.


Koba Bendeliani

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