On July 15, with the mediation of European Council President Charles Michel, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev met his Armenian counterpart Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan to negotiate a resolution to the ongoing issues related to the Nagorno-Karabakh region. The meeting reportedly led to an agreement to resolve issues confronting the regulation of relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan. While the talks were “frank, honest, and substantive”, according to the official statement of the European Council, real progress will “depend on the next steps that need to be taken in the near future”. The month of July marks almost two-and-a-half years since Armenia and Azerbaijan, with the involvement of other international actors, first engaged in negotiations on establishing peace. However, the possibility of achieving an effective peace deal between the two countries has so far been elusive. Unresolved issues, such as border demarcation and delimitation, unblocking transport and economic connections, largely hinder the process of reaching an agreement vital for long-lasting peace. At the same time, Russia, the major broker of peace talks, has been trying to maintain the status quo between Armenia and Azerbaijan to guarantee the relevance of its military presence in the region.
Demarcating “never-existing” borders
In the aftermath of the Second Karabakh War, Azerbaijan restored control over its inter-state border with Armenia, which had been uncontrolled for almost 30 years of Armenian occupation. One of the points in the Trilateral Statement signed by the leaders of Azerbaijan, Armenia and Russia in November 2021 pertained to the issue of border demarcation. An Armenia–Azerbaijan joint commission on the delimitation and demarcation of borders was set up with Russian facilitation to undertake a delicate process of border demarcation, using Soviet-era maps and GPS technology.
The Soviet-era borders, which were not designed as international borderlines, were never properly demarcated. Hence, Armenia and Azerbaijan, for their entire history as independent states, were never fully able to come to terms with the borders between them. In the absence of any official border agreement, the best reference data for the border working group has come from Soviet topographical maps, whose major purpose is to show landscapes and administrative boundaries. At the same time, over the past 30 years, optimal geographic positions taken by both sides have essentially been ‘borderised’ through the construction of defensive infrastructure and fortifications.
Map 1. This is a fragment of a 1974 Soviet topographic map, where the border (in red) between Armenia and Azerbaijan is interrupted by roads without a clear delineation (Source: Eurasianet)
While both Baku and Yerevan agree that the demarcation of borders is essential for consequent peace, they are not on the same page when it comes to technicalities. To address this issue, Baku and Yerevan agreed at the 6 April 2022 summit in Brussels to create a Joint Border Commission to delimit the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan and ensure a stable security situation along and in the vicinity of the borderline. Navigating through dated maps would constitute a challenge even for states friendly with each other. Despite some tangible results, disputes between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the border have not yet been resolved.
Beneficial yet troublesome corridors
Unblocking and restoring transport connections, specifically a route from Azerbaijan to Nakhchivan via Armenia, has also been deemed as one of the most important issues for fostering peace. As outlined in the November 2020 Trilateral Statement, restoring connections in the region would provide both Azerbaijan and Armenia with economic and trade opportunities. In January 2021, Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev and Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan agreed on establishing a tripartite working group to oversee the “unblocking of all economic and transport links” in the region. Nevertheless, the work of the group so far has been intangible, as there have been fears in Yerevan that by opening a ‘corridor,’ the country would lose its jurisdiction over its southern border, its only outlet to friendly Iran. The idea of the Zangezur Corridor also alarmed Iran, which appears to fear the cutoff of its border with Armenia, which plays an essential role in Tehran’s economy, providing it with a transport corridor to the Black Sea and on to Europe. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has criticized the plan, potentially giving Armenia more confidence to push back against the Corridor.
Map 2. The proposed Zangezur Corridor that would connect Azerbaijan to its exclave Nakhchivan via Armenia and the Lachin Corridor (The Cradle)
In 2022, Armenia’s Prime Minister, Nikol Pashinyan, announced that Armenia is ready to provide a road to Azerbaijan. The Armenian National Security Service proposed three new potential crossings. All the proposed passages are longer than those that Azerbaijan proposed (the 45-km long passage in the south, along the Armenia–Iran border), and there have been disagreements about their viability.
Russia – the main game spoiler
Talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan regarding establishing sustainable peace have been ongoing ever since the end of the Second Karabakh War. Under the mediation of Russian President Vladimir Putin, initially, the two countries created a working group to focus on establishing transport and economic links connecting Azerbaijan and Armenia and the delimitation of the state border between Armenia and Azerbaijan. However, the question of signing a comprehensive peace treaty was somewhat set aside.
The West tried to step into the process after Russia started its invasion of Ukraine last year, aiming to facilitate the two countries signing an agreement. In response to the increasing involvement of the EU and the US in the reconciliation processes between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Russia – the principal mediator of the original conflict – signalled its annoyance. Russian President Vladimir Putin even proposed his version of a peace treaty, one which left the issue of the future of Karabakh aside – a crucial part of the peace agreement. For Russia, a peace treaty and Azerbaijan’s de facto sovereignty over the Karabakh region would make Moscow’s peacekeeping mission, a guarantee of Russian leverage in the region, irrelevant and would consequently see the end of the mandate of the Russian peacekeepers beyond the initial five-year term ending in November 2025. Russia fears that the peace treaty might lead to the withdrawal of its troops from the Karabakh region and even its military base and border troops from Armenia itself, especially in the case of the normalisation of relations between Armenia and Türkiye. Türkiye’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has signalled readiness to normalise relations with Armenia immediately after the conclusion of a peace treaty between Baku and Yerevan.
Moreover, both Baku and Yerevan have become wary of Russian engagement in the peace negotiations. Some Armenian political forces and civil activists have demanded the withdrawal of the Russian military base from Armenia. They have also demanded Yerevan’s withdrawal from the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), especially after clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan in May 2022, when the organisation refused to defend Armenia in what Yerevan claims were a series of incursions by Azerbaijan. At the same time, Azerbaijan has also expressed discontent with Russia’s peacekeeping mission in Karabakh.
Even though Armenia is ready to recognise the Karabakh region as part of Azerbaijan under certain circumstances, Russia is using its leverage to keep the issue of the Karabakh status in limbo, that is, leaving it as a de jure part of Azerbaijan but with the Russian peacekeeping contingent remaining therein. The best-case scenario for Russia is to extend this situation until 2025, ensuring the extension of the deployment of Russian peacekeepers for at least another five years. However, despite Moscow’s disapproval, the West remains actively involved in the peace negotiations between Baku and Yerevan. The readiness of Pashinyan to recognise the Karabakh region as part of Azerbaijan, under certain conditions of guaranteeing the rights and security of ethnic Armenians living in that region, sets a positive tone for a potential peace deal. The ongoing efforts mediated by the West signal that the differences between Armenia and Azerbaijan may be getting narrower, which is crucial for concluding a final agreement. What is needed is time and strong willingness and understanding from both sides that signing a peace deal will be a win-win scenario for both.