As a symbol of peace, President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin gifted Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev statues of olive branches after their trilateral meeting in Sochi on November 26, 2021. “I hope that today's agreements will be fulfilled and will create conditions for the next steps in the normalization of relations in the South Caucasus,” said Putin, summarizing the results of three hours of negotiations, which took place about a year after the trilateral ceasefire statement of November 9, 2020, which ended the 44-day 2020 Artsakh War. "It was a meeting where we openly discussed all issues," Pashinyan said during the joint press conference of the three leaders, “and it turned out that, on many issues, we do not have any discrepancies, as it would seem before this meeting.” However, the Russian Kommersant news agency commented that new disagreements are likely to arise after the meeting.
The Sochi meeting took place 10 days after another provocation from Baku, as Azerbaijani forces once again crossed into the borders of the Republic of Armenia in the southern Syunik region on November 16, 2021, leading to the heaviest fighting since the ceasefire agreement was reached in November 2020. After seemingly regular provocations began on May 12, Azerbaijan tried to take advantage of the situation once more, before the start of the negotiations on border demarcation and delimitation. According to Pashinyan, “non-precise information shows that 32 Armenian PoWs have been taken after November 16” as a result of the recent fighting. The Armenian Defense Ministry also reported six killed soldiers. The Azerbaijani side announced seven killed soldiers. Obviously, a year after the end of the war in Artsakh, Armenia and Azerbaijan are quite far from a sustainable peace. We are once again back to a “no war, no peace” situation.
About four hours after the trilateral statement in Sochi, the Azerbaijani MFA welcomed it and announced that it fully reflects Azerbaijani positions. In comparison, the Armenian MFA office tackled the topic only four days later, highlighting that “the Sochi Statement of November 26 Sochi once again reiterates the provision of unblocking all transport and economic infrastructures in the region enshrined in the Statement of January 11, and once again refutes the propaganda theses on so - called ‘corridor’ or the corridor logic.”
During and after the Sochi meeting, the 15th Summit of the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO) kicked off in the capital of Turkmenistan, Ashgabat, from November 26 to 28, which the leaders and the Foreign Affairs Ministers of Turkey and Azerbaijan took part in as well. During his speech at that summit, Aliyev stated: “Today I can say that the Zangezur corridor becomes a reality. This new transport infrastructure will be an important part of the East-West and North-South corridors. I am confident that ECO Member States will benefit from this corridor.” Interestingly, the same topic was also tackled by the Foreign Affairs Minister of Turkey, Mevlut Cavusoglu, who announced that ECO should be a bridge between Asia and Europe, that the Islamabad-Tehran-Istanbul Road Corridor was a good example in this regard, and that the Zangezur corridor would also contribute to the economic integration of the region. So while the Armenian Government keeps declaring that “corridor logic” is unacceptable, Azerbaijan and Turkey continue talking about it as a “done deal”. This again proves that, at least based on public statements, the parties are far from real agreements.
While in Ashgabat Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Iran reached a gas trade deal, which was presented by both Baku and Tehran as proof that their recent political crisis had been overcome. Unsurprisingly, Azerbaijan wants to show that Iran has also agreed on the “corridor” issue. The reality is that, during the meeting with Aliyev, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi said that Iran will not allow any insecurity or foreign interference in the region. Moreover, according to the Iranian IRNA news agency, during the bilateral meeting with Ilham Aliyev, the President of Iran stressed that “the U.S. and the Zionist regime are seeking to disrupt relations between Iran and the Republic of Azerbaijan, the Iranian President noted that foreign interference will harm the interests of regional countries so they need to be vigilant against their conspiracy.” Iran’s position toward the so-called “corridor” issue was openly expressed many times. “Iran will not tolerate any geopolitical change and change of the map in the Caucasus,” Iran’s Foreign Affairs Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said at a joint press conference with Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergey Lavrov in Moscow. That was back in October, when relations between Iran and Azerbaijan were quite tense. Back then, after a few provocative statements by Ilham Aliyev, Azerbaijan changed its language toward Iran. Obviously, both official Ankara and Baku started intensive diplomatic work with Tehran.
In mid-November, Turkish Foreign Affairs Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu visited Iran. He met with his Iranian counterpart as well as the President of Iran. Speaking at a joint press conference in Tehran with his Turkish counterpart, Iranian Foreign Affairs Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian mentioned that Erdogan’s upcoming visit can finalize a long-term cooperation roadmap. He also expressed the hope that economic obstacles would be lifted as soon as possible, because the two countries are determined to apply joint mechanisms to bolster trade ties. The dates of Erdogan’s visit have not yet been set.
A few days after Cavusoglu, the Azerbaijani delegation headed by Deputy Prime Minister Shahin Mustafaev came to Tehran to initiate a negotiation process on several topics. Mustafaev met with a number of Iranian officials, including Foreign Affairs Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian. “The visit of the Deputy Prime Minister of Azerbaijan was a remarkable and constructive one, and he had very intensive meetings with cabinet members and a detailed meeting with Amir Abdollahian,” the spokesperson of Iran’s MFA office Saeed Khatibzadeh stated. He added that “many projects were discussed, and the relations, God willing, are designed to enter a new phase after the unwanted and unnecessary media tension that we passed through with the tact of both sides. This trip was in the same direction.”
Assumingly, the gas deal that was later signed between Iran, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan in Ashgabat was also part of those discussions. The deal was presented by both Baku and Tehran as proof that their recent political crisis had been overcome.
Consistent diplomatic work resulted in decreasing the tension between Iran and Azerbaijan; however, Iran maintains its position on the issue of territorial integrity and is intolerant toward any geopolitical change in the South Caucasus. During the recent escalation between Azerbaijan and Armenia on November 16, a telephone conversation took place between the presidents of Iran and Russia. According to the Kremlin, apart from other issues, “the situation around Nagorno-Karabakh was also discussed. Vladimir Putin informed about the measures taken by the Russian side to ensure the ceasefire, unblock economic and transport ties, and establish peaceful life in the region.” It was not a coincidence that, after this conversation, Russia openly announced that it would undertake measures to stop the hostilities. The Russian Ministry of Defense reported, “the Russian Minister of Defense, Army General Sergey Shoygu held telephone talks with the Defense Ministers of the Republic of Azerbaijan, Colonel General Zakir Hasanov and the Republic of Armenia Suren Papikyan. Shoygu called on both sides to stop actions provoking an escalation of the situation.” Obviously, Russia again played an important role to stop the fighting; however, undoubtedly, Iran also had its part in this mission. Iran’s interest to prevent further escalation was connected with the geography of the recent escalation.
Seemingly, the Armenian positions attacked by Azerbaijan would provide it a strategic advantage for a potential occupation of the “North-South Corridor” which could, in the future, connect Iran with the Black Sea. Tehran's interest in the corridor also stems from potential cooperation with the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). In this sense, the signing in May 2018 of an agreement on the creation of a free trade zone by Iran and the EAEU is noteworthy. In general, this is not only an economic but also a geopolitical project. The functioning of this corridor is important for India as well, to expand its strategic presence in neighboring regions. In particular, it would allow Delhi to enter the Russian market, and also establish communications with Central Asia and some parts of Europe. Back on September 16, when Foreign Affairs Minister of India Subrahmanyam Jaishankar paid a historical first visit to Armenia, the “North-South” international transport corridor was also part of the discussions with his Armenian partner. Not coincidentally, a few days later, this was also a topic of discussion during the meeting between the MFA heads of Armenia and Iran during the 76th Session of the UN General Assembly in New York. As for Russia, through the North-South corridor, Moscow will have the opportunity to reach the Indian Ocean, bypassing the Turkish Straits of the Black Sea and the Suez Canal.
An Asia Times article entitled “New Great Game in the Caucasus and Central Asia” points out that “the key development is that New Delhi and Tehran have decided that the INSTC will go through Armenia—and not Azerbaijan—all the way to Russia. That’s terrible news for Ankara—a wound that even an expanded Turkic Council would not heal. Baku, for its part, may have to deal with the unpleasant consequences of being regarded by top Eurasian players as an unreliable partner.”
Apparently, Baku and Ankara are undertaking steps to change that. The reality is that, while unblocking roads and opening transportation is on Moscow’s agenda, Azerbaijan is using the process to blockade Armenia even more, depriving it from the opportunities. The threat of the use of force and actual incursions are among the measures for reaching that aim. In order to prevent this dangerous scenario, Armenia should become very active in diplomacy, working with Moscow, Tehran and New Delhi simultaneously and jointly. At the same time, precise measures should be taken to enhance the military capabilities of the army, which is the main guarantor of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Republic of Armenia.
The main assumption is that an olive branch accompanied by Russia’s mediation work can hardly bring peace to the South Caucasus, not only because Azerbaijan and Turkey aim to isolate Armenia further and get control over the sovereign territory of the country, but also because of ethnic hatred propaganda of the Azerbaijani state and leadership. On December 3, Seyran Sargsyan, born in 1956, a resident of Chartar village of the Martuni district of the Republic of Artsakh, got lost and then was captured and killed by Azerbaijani military units. This was already the third case where a citizen was killed by the Azerbaijani side after the ceasefire statement. It’s not a statistic, it’s part of an organized and systematic anti-Armenian policy, implemented by the Azerbaijani state. The aim is to make Armenians leave their homes and take total control over the land. In order to have real regional peace, we need to close the page of xenophobic policy and hatred propaganda, which actually is the main base for Ilham Aliyev’s rule and authoritarian regime.