Fears of an Azerbaijani invasion of Armenia persist as senior officials from Azerbaijan, Turkey, and Russia have renewed their calls and demands for a Russian-controlled corridor through Armenia that would connect Azerbaijan with its Nakhichevan exclave and, thus, Turkey.
In a recent interview, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev reiterated explicitly that Armenia has a “responsibility” to give Azerbaijan an “unimpeded passage” via Meghri according to a provision of the November 2020 trilateral statement. He said the term “corridor” does not question Armenia’s sovereignty, but insisted that cargo, vehicles, and people should pass “freely without undergoing any inspection and customs clearance.” He said as per the trilateral statement, Russian border guards “would provide security and control” in the area and “this obligation must be fulfilled” by Armenia. Aliyev went on to dismiss the accusations of a prospective Azerbaijani attack on Armenia as “absurd” and “cheap rumors”. He said “no preparations are being made” for an invasion and insisted that military buildup would be “impossible to hide”.
Earlier, in November 2023, the Russian Foreign Ministry reminded Armenia that “control over the transport link” between Azerbaijan and Nakhichevan “is supposed to be exercised” by Russian FSB Border Guards. Armenian officials have argued that the 2020 trilateral statement allows Russian guards to “monitor” the commercial traffic, rather than be involved in border control. In mid-December 2023, Russia accused Armenia of having, for many months, blocked the “commencement of work to restore railway communication between Azerbaijan and Armenia” and thus, “refusing to comply” with the 2020 statement. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan responded by accusing Russia of not having fulfilled its own obligations. “Does anything written [in the 2020 trilateral statement] exist in reality today?” he asked rhetorically.
Some analysts have argued that, instead of a large-scale invasion, Azerbaijan is “more likely to conduct comparatively smaller territorial incursions and cross-border shelling to pressure Armenia into an agreement.” However, given that Armenia’s military capabilities are not a match for Azerbaijan, there is little deterrence besides Western diplomatic intervention. The upcoming presidential election in the U.S. and elections to the European Parliament this year pose additional challenges to sustaining Western pressure on Azerbaijan.
EU: An Orban Scenario
Charles Michel, the EU Council President, who has mediated talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan at the leader’s level since December 2021, recently announced that he will step down from his post earlier than his mandate ends to run for the European Parliament’s June elections. The EU Council President is elected by the leaders of EU’s 27 member states. If a successor is not agreed upon, Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary might temporarily hold the presidency at a potentially fateful time for Armenia. It has become a real prospect because Hungary will hold the rotating presidency of the EU Council from June to December.
Admittedly, Michel, who claimed to have been shocked by Azerbaijan’s decision to use military force in Nagorno-Karabakh in September 2023, that led to the ethnic cleansing of the entire Armenian population, has not lived up to Armenian expectations. In an apparent criticism of Michel, Pashinyan told the European Parliament that he does not “accept the surprised faces of some international officials.” After the Azerbaijani blitz in Karabakh, the EU condemned and warned, in case of forced displacement, of a “strong response”, which never came. Instead, Michel asked Aliyev to finally state publicly that Azerbaijan has no territorial claims on Armenia. In an October 5 joint statement, just days after the forced displacement of Karabakh Armenians had effectively been completed, Michel, French President Emmanuel Macron, and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz “underlined their unwavering support to the independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity and inviolability of the borders of Armenia.” As one diplomat told Reuters, this reflected a compromise of different positions of member states, with some, notably Orban’s Hungary, opposing any “tough measures” against Azerbaijan.
Orban repeatedly backed Aliyev within the EU and elsewhere. On September 21, 2023, Hungary reportedly blocked an EU-27 statement on Nagorno-Karabakh and did not join a widely approved French-proposed statement at the UN Human Rights Council on October 11. Hungary was widely expected to block any potential talks of EU-wide sanctions for the ethnic cleansing.
More than a decade earlier, in 2012 the Orban government infamously extradited axe murderer Ramil Safarov to Azerbaijan, which is hard to interpret “as anything else but an attempt to strike a political deal with a resource-rich country sitting on a big stack of monetary reserves.” Orban’s Hungary was the only EU member to explicitly back Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity during the 2020 war instead of calls for a negotiated settlement. Under his leadership, Hungary has become an observer in the Turkic Council, which unites Turkey, Azerbaijan and the Turkic-speaking Central Asian countries.
It is not hard to see how challenging even a brief EU Council presidency of Orban, a friend of autocrats, could be for Armenia, especially coupled with the U.S. presidential election in November.
Nevertheless, Armenia has attempted to build rapport with Hungary. In December 2022, the two countries agreed to restore diplomatic ties, which had been severed by Armenia after the Safarov debacle, and the two countries appointed non-resident ambassadors. This followed two “goodwill” moves by Hungary a year earlier, including sending 100,000 COVID vaccines to Armenia and facilitating the repatriation of five Armenian prisoners of war from Azerbaijan.
Security expert and EVN Report contributor Nerses Kopalyan argues that although there is a space for concern, a potential Orban leadership would not cause “substantive policy shifts” as he will not be able to disregard the EU’s “complex institutional safeguards.” Orban may employ rhetorical bias, but “nothing substantive” against Armenia. Kopalyan argues that Armenia can “robustly mitigate” the possible challenges of a Hungarian presidency with the aid of France, Germany, the Benelux and Nordic countries, and Greece.
U.S. Presidential Election
On the other side of the Atlantic, the U.S. will hold a presidential election on November 5, 2024. The debates are scheduled between September 16 and October 9. There are two major concerns associated with this election. The first is the intense pre-election campaign, debates, and the media circus that consumes nearly all of the world’s sole superpower’s attention for months.
We saw this quite clearly during the 2020 war in Nagorno-Karabakh. Then, Election Day was on November 3, just a week before the war ended, but early voting had started on September 4. The first debate was on September 29, two days after the war broke out. The timing must have been taken into account by Azerbaijan and Turkey, which launched a pre-planned attack on Nagorno-Karabakh as the world was distracted with COVID and the U.S. with its election.
The fall of 2024, especially September, may prove fateful for Armenia according to pessimistic projections. In the past four years, September was the month Azerbaijan chose to launch major attacks, twice on Nagorno-Karabakh (Sept. 27, 2020 and Sept. 19, 2023), and once on Armenia’s border areas, especially Jermuk (Sept. 13, 2022).
Will Azerbaijan again attack Armenia in September to extract an unobstructed connection to its Nakhichevan exclave and Turkey? In 2022, Armenian officials credited the U.S. (or alternatively the “international community” or Iran) with halting the Azerbaijani invasion.
In September and October 2023, following Azerbaijan’s “final solution” to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and the looming threat of an Azerbaijani attack on Armenia, State Secretary Antony Blinken and European leaders offered words of support for Armenia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Blinken is well aware of the threat, but walked back when it was reported in the press. The State Department instead repeated words of support for Armenia and warned that “any infringement of [Armenia’s] sovereignty and territorial integrity would bring serious consequences.”
But in September 2024, the U.S. may be too preoccupied to take substantive action. Ultimately, the U.S. has no military presence in the region and its influence is primarily confined to diplomatic channels. A strategic calculation by Aliyev, aligned with Erdoğan and Putin, may deem September 2024 as the favorable moment to attack Armenia with minimal consequences from the West.
A Trump Scenario
The second risk or challenge coming from the U.S., though less immediate, is a potential Trump return to the White House. Examining how the Trump administration handled the 2020 war provides some insight into what might be on the horizon. His administration essentially assumed the role of a bystander. In retrospect, not significantly different from how the Biden administration responded to the ethnic cleansing in Nagorno-Karabakh. Optimists, however, may contend that the U.S. maintains a more principled stance concerning Armenia’s borders than toward Karabakh Armenians.
During the 2020 war, Trump’s Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo told a radio show: “We’re hopeful that the Armenians will be able to defend against what the Azerbaijanis are doing.” Such a line would be expected more from a celebrity or activist than from the highest-ranking diplomat of a superpower. Trump himself was even more incoherent. In his first remarks, almost a month into the war, he said the U.S. was “working with Armenia” and that it has a “very good relationship with Armenia.” He noted that there are many Armenians in the U.S. and called them “very good people”, “so dedicated”, “incredible people, and we’ll see what happens.”
The U.S. made perhaps its most significant diplomatic intervention in late October. Trump’s national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, separately met with Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers. He pressed the latter for an “immediate ceasefire” and a return to negotiations. O’Brien initially revealed that Armenia had accepted a ceasefire, while Azerbaijan had not. The sides ultimately reached a humanitarian ceasefire in a meeting with Deputy Secretary of State Stephen E. Biegun. The next day Trump claimed that the ceasefire was holding, but conceded the next day that the ceasefire had, in fact, collapsed. “That’s what happens when you have countries that have been going at it for a long time. It’ll get back together,” he added.
Aliyev welcomed Trump’s approach. “We fully support his position, his personal comments on that. And we see that the position of the U.S. is balanced and as it should be,” Aliyev told Fox News.
In 2020, Biden had called on Trump to “directly engage” with leaders to “stop the advance of Azerbaijani troops into Nagorno-Karabakh,” something he ironically failed to do in 2023. Acting Assistant Secretary of State Yuri Kim infamously told Senators five days before the Azerbaijani offensive in September 2023 that the U.S. “will not tolerate” any military action or attack on Nagorno-Karabakh.
Kopalyan, believes U.S. support will not wane in the event of a Trump victory, “but the level of U.S. active engagement and the scope and breath of pressure that the U.S. has applied on Azerbaijan will, to some extent, subside.” He argues that there has been a strong institutional shift within the American foreign policy establishment from being tacitly pro-Azerbaijan to being tacitly pro-Armenia. “While the Trump Administration may, at worst, due to lack of engagement, trigger a slight shift from tacitly anti-Azerbaijani to neutral, it will not, by any means, assume the pro-Azerbaijani posture prior to 2020 and especially prior to September of 2022,” he said.
Kopalyan believes that the enhanced American role in Armenia’s defense, energy and technology sectors, which represents the highest level of engagement in Armenia’s history, “indicates a degree of investment that the U.S. has and is making: even with a Trump administration, these investments are not going to be neglected, for that would harm American interests.” He instead suggests that the question is about sustaining U.S. pressure on Azerbaijan. “One serious possibility is that the US will increase support for Armenia (economic, security, etc), but refrain from aggressively pressuring Baku, thus having a selective engagement approach. But collectively, there will not be a return to the US policies akin to what we had prior to 2020,” he concluded.
The geopolitical landscape in the region remains precarious. The persistent calls for a Russian-controlled corridor and the potential changes in the EU and U.S. leadership pose additional challenges for Armenia. Amid these uncertainties, Armenia’s diplomatic efforts become increasingly important and serve as a test of its resilience.
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