The South Caucasus exhibits an alarming volatility, with the military machinations of both Armenia and Azerbaijan inducing greater consternation than the preceding year. Armenia proclaims readiness to engage in international peacekeeping endeavors, simultaneously conducting bilateral military drills with the United States, under the banner ‘Eagle Partner 2023.’ Simultaneously, the Azerbaijani military has augmented provocative maneuvers alongside their shared borders with Armenia, the contentious region of Nagorno-Karabakh, and Iran.
Moreover, an extraordinary altercation of words has transpired amidst Armenian and Russian officials. The Armenian Prime Minister, Nikol Pashinyan, in an interview with an Italian publication, laid accusations at Russia’s door of passive conduct toward Azerbaijan, alongside a lack of fidelity in upholding security assurances to Armenia. Pashinyan referred to the strategic reliance on Russia for ensuring Armenia’s security, as a ‘strategic mistake.’ This sentiment has been echoed by a number of Armenian officials.
Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in response, summoned the Armenian ambassador in Moscow. Highlighting their dissent toward these proclamations from Yerevan authorities, they cautioned against joint military exercises between Armenia and American forces. Russia maintains that it is vigilantly monitoring the situation. Following the 2020 ceasefire arranged between Yerevan and Baku, presided over by Russian mediators, Russian peacekeepers, numbering between 3 to 6 thousand, have been stationed in Nagorno-Karabakh to certify security. However, this truce has been persistently flouted by both Armenian and Azerbaijani factions within the year.
Intermittent cross-border skirmishes between Armenia and Azerbaijan persist, with Armenian sources reporting the military deportment of Azerbaijan. Observers postulate that Azerbaijan, with the backing of Turkey and Israel, and propelled by grand geopolitical objectives, has been tactically eyeing the assault on Syunik for more than a year and remains poised to alight the flames of war at any opportune moment.
Iranian circles have been significantly stirred by the turbulent occurrences in the Caucasus, sparking enquiries about Iran’s potential policy towards Armenia and Azerbaijan. Questions arise regarding the influence of joint military exercises between Armenia and the United States, and the amelioration of Yerevan’s political relations with the West on the regional interactions between Iran and Armenia. Discourse on what stance Iran might adopt in the event of a military invasion by Azerbaijan on the disputed territories with Armenia are rife.
Underpinnings of the war of words between Moscow and Yerevan
Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Armenia has cultivated political, economic, and security alliances with the United States and Europe, while simultaneously upholding a strategic relationship with Russia. The country has been an affiliate of NATO’s Partnership for Peace (PfP) initiative since 1994. An active Armenian lobby exists within American and European institutions, and Armenia’s economic development schemes lean heavily on Western aid. The European Union, in fact, is Armenia’s paramount development partner.
Yet, Western-centric initiatives within Armenian society are met with lukewarm reception, attributed to traditional national-state dependency on Russia, alongside geographical and demographic challenges, paralleling societies in Ukraine and Georgia. The symbiotic relationship with Russia is an integral part of Armenia’s international relations. Bereft of Russian support, Armenia, in its geographical seclusion, becomes perilously vulnerable to bickering with formidable neighbors and prospective warfare.
Commensurate with the anniversary of Azerbaijan’s military invasion on territories controlled by Armenia within Nagorno-Karabakh, Yerevan harbors apprehensions of a recurrent attack. Concurrently, the balancing diplomatic policy of Iran and Russia between Yerevan and Baku has spurred Armenia to intensify the balance of threat with Azerbaijan via Western alliances. Paradoxically, Yerevan’s quest is not to incite tensions with Moscow but to galvanize superior assistance from Russia through a Western orientation and verbal disputes with Moscow. In essence, Armenia’s recent pivot toward the West needs to be interpreted in the context of Yerevan’s pressing foreign policy requirements and an active defensive diplomacy in opposition to Azerbaijan.
Western conundrum in the Caucasus
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States and Europe embarked on a conspicuous endeavor to escalate their influence and extend NATO into the South Caucasus region. However, Russia’s military rebuttal in Georgia in 2008 and the de facto annexation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia signified a notable strategic modification in the Caucasus approach of both Washington and Brussels. The analysis of Western policy in the South Caucasus suggests that while the United States and Europe persist in their attempts to aggrandize their sway within the region through various political and economic levers, they remain innately cognizant of the strategic limitations therein. The pronounced maneuvers of both the United States and Europe within the South Caucasus ought to be viewed as a tactical ploy, influenced by the unfolding conflict in Ukraine and its nuanced implications.
There may be a propensity to hypothesize that one of the Western aims is to destabilize the South Caucasus to Russia’s detriment and transmit insecurity to its borders. Notwithstanding, the South Caucasus situation transcends this simplistic assumption. The ongoing power struggles and clashing geostrategic priorities have transformed the power play in various regions, inclusive of the South Caucasus, into a complex game of geopolitical chess.
Various Western experts assume that Armenia possesses an intrinsic alacrity to qualify as an organic ally for the West. Nevertheless, the policies of Washington and Brussels within the South Caucasus indicate an evident reluctance to select a specific ally within the region, thus, preserving balanced relationships with all parties to preserve all options.
Indeed, the United States and Europe display an interest in sustaining the power dynamics within the South Caucasus. However, this does not infer a concerted effort to instigate regional warfare at the current stage. Of course, a clear distinction is requisite between the short-term tactical interests and the long-term strategic ambitions of the West in the Caucasus.
Currently, the South Caucasus is one conduit for Europe’s energy supply, with the past year rendering the region one of the principal hubs for Europe’s energy resources. During this period, energy export from the Caucasus to Europe has doubled. Consequently, given the ongoing conflict in Ukraine and the amplifying gas tensions between Russia and Europe on the brink of winter, it appears that the West has little to gain from instability and tensions in the South Caucasus.
Tehran’s pick: Yerevan or Baku?
Any form of instability or conflict within the South Caucasus directly impacts Iran’s geopolitical perspective and its strategic and essential interests. The Iranian Foreign Minister, Hossein Amirabdollahian, in discussions with his Turkish counterpart, Hakan Fidan, issued a stark warning against any policies and plans culminating in the closure of the Iran-Armenian border and potential geopolitical shifts within the Caucasus.
Iran scrutinizes all emerging developments in the South Caucasus, assessing both tactical and strategic angles. Under the dawn of new circumstances, it appears that, to a certain extent, Iran’s tactical objectives in the South Caucasus coincide with the West’s tactical pursuits in some arenas. However, this does not subtract from Tehran’s vigilance toward the strategic aims of the West within this area. In effect, just as Azerbaijan’s immersion into Israel’s strategy against Iran has borne heavily upon the relations between Tehran and Baku, similarly, Armenia’s navigational error toward the West could precipitate a reassessment of Tehran-Yerevan relations.
In the South Caucasus, Iran’s policy is straightforward and lucid. The region witnesses Iran’s pursuit of a policy aimed at preserving the status quo. As part of its neighborhood strategy, Iran adopts an approach advocating for peace amongst its two northern neighbors. In alignment with this principle, it cautions Baku against embarking on any potentially contentious movement, whilst concurrently with the announcement of the US-Armenia joint military drill, holds a joint commission for military cooperation between Iran and the Republic of Azerbaijan in Baku.