After finding itself in a significantly weaker position following the 2020 Artsakh War, Armenia is trying to rebuild its positions. This effort requires enumerating and comprehensively assessing the challenges, threats and risks of the security environment. It also requires clarifying a position that reflects state and national interests and appropriate foreign policy processes in the service of these interests.
To date, the task of positioning the Republic of Armenia more favorably is still incomplete and the necessary process of formulating positions that are pro-Armenian, realistic and understandable for the international community is ongoing.
Azerbaijan, through direct support and guidance from Turkey, is consistently trying to capitalize on its military achievement in the political arena. All meetings and negotiations since the end of the war have been driven by the Turkish-Azerbaijani tandem where they hold the monopoly on the threat of the use of force. The positions of these two international actors on resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Armenia-Azerbaijan border issues and the opening of communication routes in the region is reflected in their politics of the use of force in combination with hybrid strategy tools consisting of simultaneously deploying informational-propagandist, military and political instruments. Therefore, the success of the Armenian side depends on the extent to which Armenia can counter Azerbaijan’s anti-Armenian and militaristic politics with a similar hybrid strategy.
The first priority of a hybrid strategy is the simultaneous implementation of a selected toolkit. Accordingly, military, political, diplomatic and international legal processes aimed at serving the national-state interests of Armenia can be effective only if they are implemented simultaneously.
Armenia can negotiate with Azerbaijan and, at the same time, knock on every door of the international community to present Azerbaijan as the aggressor. Armenia can announce to the world its intention to establish an era of peace in the South Caucasus region, if this serves its fight against Azerbaijan’s militaristic politics. Armenia can take a constructive stance on normalizing relations with Azerbaijan, but at the same time make sure that the evidence at the base of and the subsequent ruling of the International Court of Justice in the Armenia v. Azerbaijan case on the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination is part of the discourse on international platforms and during bilateral meetings. And finally, Armenia can continue to strengthen Armenia-Russia allied relations, stay true to the provisions of the Russian-brokered tripartite statements, but at the same time work with regional and Western partners to ensure the implementation of the provisions in these statements that can be of benefit to Armenia.
The November 26, 2021 meeting in Sochi among the leaders of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia was notable in several respects. Russia once again underscored its commitment to maintaining a leading role in regulating post-war Armenia-Azerbaijan relations in the short-, mid- and long-term. It was also noteworthy that President Vladimir Putin had a public and positive response regarding the Pashinyan-Aliyev meeting in Brussels under the auspices of the EU Eastern Partnership Summit and mediated by the President of the European Council Charles Michel. In delivering this message, Putin made it clear that he does not consider the Brussels meeting to be in conflict with Russian mediation efforts, but rather an initiative supporting those efforts. In this context, it is also noteworthy that, according to the statement adopted following the Sochi meeting, it was decided that a bilateral commission will be formed to oversee the delimitation and demarcation process of the Armenian-Azerbaijani border, with Russia taking only an advisory role if asked by the other two parties. Therefore, in the context of the Brussels meeting, Russia has kept communication channels open with the European Union when it comes to discussing the more complicated aspects of Armenia-Azerbaijan relations and offering mediation to the sides.
At first glance, it seems this would not be conducive to Russia’s interests in the region. Everything that happens near Russia’s borders is assessed by Moscow from the point of view of its own “legitimate interests” and any (especially Western) intervention is perceived—at minimum—as a challenge. Meanwhile, it can be suggested that the continuously-deepening tension in the relations between the Russian Federation and the collective West, mainly over Ukraine, prompted Russia to try to establish a positive agenda with the EU to collaborate on the core issues of Armenia-Azerbaijan relations. If, in addition to this, one also takes into account Azerbaijan’s implied disposition to ask Russian peacekeepers to leave after the completion of their first five-year term of deployment in 2025, then it becomes even more evident that Russia is attempting to secure some assurances for the continuation of its peacekeeping mission in the region, through establishing a positive agenda of cooperation with the West around the implementation of the provisions of the trilateral statements.
All of this is undoubtedly in the interest of the Armenian parties, as Armenia’s primary challenge and mission in the post-war region should be to involve as many Western players and institutions in the existing de jure trilateral (Armenia-Russia-Azerbaijan) but de facto quadrilateral (Armenia-Russia-Azerbaijan-Turkey) processes as possible. This is to not only bring an equilibrium to the imbalance of power in the region, but also to deter Azerbaijan from its modus operandi of resorting to force or the threat of the use of force.
The December 14 Pashinyan-Aliyev-Michel meeting in Brussels in the framework of the EU Eastern Partnership Summit can also be viewed in the same context. According to the statement released by President Charles Michel, the EU not only calls on the sides to take concrete steps to reduce tensions in the region, but also stands ready to make available an expert mission to support the border delimitation and demarcation process. The EU’s involvement creates additional guarantees for the Armenian side that the Aliyev administration will refrain from the temptation to resort to the use of military force to gain a more favorable bargaining position in the process of delimitation and demarcation. For the Russian side, sharing mediation, expert and consultative responsibilities with the EU is a safeguard in case of unforeseen developments that inhibit the process from moving forward smoothly.
The EU statement also emphasized the importance of restoring communication infrastructure between Armenia and Azerbaijan in particular, and the South Caucasus more broadly, “while fully respecting the sovereignty of all countries.” This emphasis is a cold shower for President Aliyev who, during a joint press conference with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltengerg, announced, “On the Zangezur corridor, I’d like to say that the proposal of opening of this part of communication in the region is reflected in the trilateral declaration signed on November 10 last year by President of Russia, Prime Minister of Armenia and myself. So it’s a kind of obligation for Armenia… With respect to the legal regime of the Zangezur corridor, it should be exactly the same as the Lachin corridor. Because in the trilateral statement, it clearly says that Azerbaijan provides security and unimpeded access for connection between Karabakh and Armenia. And Armenia should provide the same unimpeded access and security for connections between Azerbaijan and Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic. So today, there are no customs on the Lachin corridor. Therefore, there should be no customs on the Zangezur corridor. If Armenia would insist on using the custom facilities to control the cargoes and people, then we will insist on the same on the Lachin corridor. This is logical.”
The first public announcement drawing parallels between the Lachin corridor and the so-called Zangezur corridor was made back in October 2021 by Azerbaijani Foreign Affairs Minister Jeyhun Bayramov. In an attempt to demonstrate Azerbaijan’s constructive predisposition toward the normalization of relations with Armenia, he said that Azerbaijan has held its end of the bargain and opened up communication with Artsakh. With this announcement, Azerbaijan indicated that it intends to press for a false agenda of equivalence between the Lachin corridor and the so-called Zangezur corridor. If Azerbaijan succeeds in doing so, it will gain additional leverage in the multi-layered negotiations with Armenia. Following Bayramov’s announcement, the Armenian side—at least on the level of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs—should have made a public statement harshly criticizing this characterization and gone to work with its international partners to eliminate the danger. Thus, Aliyev’s speech at NATO headquarters should not have come as a surprise.
At the same time, following the more than four-hour-long negotiations in Brussels, Charles Michel announced that the sides agreed to proceed with the restoration of railway communication, but not automobile transportation which was one of the main contentious issues according to the senior European official. The process will be based on the principle of the proper implementation of border and customs controls and on the principle of reciprocity. The official communique affirmed that the EU is ready to support the development of connectivity links, in line with its Economic and Investment Plan.
Back in Yerevan, during the December 16, 2021 government session, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan announced that the agreement to launch the Yeraskh-Julfa-Ordubad-Meghri-Horadiz railway line, which was reached by the trilateral working group on the opening of regional communication links headed by the Armenian, Azerbaijani and Russian deputy prime ministers and affirmed on November 26 in Sochi, was reaffirmed during the Brussels meeting.
Armenia will gain rail access to Iran and Russia; Azerbaijan will have access to Nakhichevan. Pashinyan also said that, if Armenia succeeds in establishing an effective dialogue with Turkey and reaches an agreement on the opening of borders and communication links, the project will expand in scope. Therefore, the recent announcements of Armenia and Turkey about appointing special envoys for starting dialogue can be viewed in this context, and the opening of the borders and communication links with Turkey can be the item on the otherwise complicated agenda that sets a positive dynamic for the regulation of Armenia-Turkey relations.
At the same time, it is unequivocal that, even though the European Union has expressed its readiness to partake in the resolution of the issues related to the unblocking of regional transportation links, the biggest factor in the success of the process of opening the region, and the efficiency of the EU’s involvement in it, depends on the success of Armenia’s hybrid or multi-tiered strategy. The EU’s possible involvement in developing communication infrastructure and the process of demarcation and delimitation, and Russia’s (as the main mediator and a regional superpower) positive outlook regarding the matter, grants Armenia additional avenues to, through multi-layered diplomacy, reduce the risks of the maximalist aims of the Turkish-Azerbaijani tandem.
Charles Michel’s reassurance that the EU is ready to “work closely with Armenia and Azerbaijan in overcoming conflict, creating cooperation and an atmosphere of trust, with a view to sustainable peace in the region ultimately underpinned by a comprehensive peace agreement” is yet another indication of the EU’s resolve to get on board as a regional player. This announcement is significant as a response to Aliyev’s proclamation after the war that the Nagorno-Karabakh issue had been resolved. According to Aliyev, there is no administrative territorial unit called Nagorno-Karabakh, but the Karabakh economic zone and the Eastern Zangezur economic zone. At the 76th session of the UN General Assembly, the Azerbaijani President even called on the UN Secretariat to refrain from using the term Nagorno-Karabakh.
Moreover, the infiltration of the Azerbaijani Armed Forces into the sovereign territory of the Republic of Armenia in the Syunik and Gegharkunik regions on May 12 was aimed at excluding the issue of the political settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict from the agenda of Armenia and the international community, among others. Meanwhile, no matter how much the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict seems to have been pushed into the background today, there is no doubt that any tangible normalization of Armenia-Azerbaijan relations, any prospect of lasting peace and security in the region, is directly connected to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, namely the realization of the right of the people of Artsakh to self-determination and the legal-international ratification of this right.
The EU, by offering to work toward a “sustainable peace in the region ultimately underpinned by a comprehensive peace agreement,” is implying that the South Caucasus has been deemed a EU strategic interest zone. This opens wide opportunities for the Republic of Armenia to not only overcome the current deadlock but also to effectively advocate for its vital interests through the implementation of a proactive diplomacy and by pursuing hybrid tactics.
The fact of Armenia’s democratization can also be an active component of the hybrid strategy. In putting in place its national security policy, the Republic of Armenia is guided by the principles and values of democracy. Meanwhile, Azerbaijan’s efforts at democratization have been less than sufficient. This is clearly reflected in Armenia’s invitation to participate in the Summit for Democracy under the auspices of U.S. President Joe Biden. Therefore, the resolution of not only the current short- and mid-term Armenia-Azerbaijan issues but also the long-term prospects of the realization of Artsakh’s right to self-determination is also dependant on Armenia’s ability to generate support in the democratic West by successfully making a case for Armenia’s democratization versus Azerbaijan’s state-sponsored anti-Armenian policies, militarized foreign policy and internal authoritarianism.
Formulating such a strategy and putting it into action as part of a proactive foreign policy requires consistent and coordinated work. Finally, hybrid strategy measures must be implemented simultaneously. Otherwise Armenia’s policies against Azerbaijan cannot be effective.