Four Scenarios for the Unblocking of Communications in the South Caucasus - Mediamax.am

Four Scenarios for the Unblocking of Communications in the South Caucasus
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Four Scenarios for the Unblocking of Communications in the South Caucasus


One of the pivotal issues on the negotiation agenda between Armenia and Azerbaijan today is the unblocking of communications. This issue, to a significant extent, could serve as a pretext for a subsequent aggression by Azerbaijan against Armenia. Currently, four possible scenarios for the unblocking and operation of communications can be delineated.

The “Zangezur Corridor” Scenario

The goal of the so-called "Zangezur Corridor" is to establish direct communication between Azerbaijan and Turkey. The legal foundation of this corridor is the "Shushi Declaration" signed between Baku and Ankara in 2021, which stipulates that a corridor connecting the main part of Azerbaijan with Nakhichevan should be established, and extended to connect with Turkey. The implementation of this scenario excludes any mutual unblocking of communications.

Based on high-level statements from Ankara and Baku, it becomes clear that the corridor implies the absence of any barriers along the way: no customs and no border checkpoints. In other words, both highway and railway routes would be outside any control from any side.

Iran openly opposes this scenario at all levels. Firstly, Tehran sees it as an opportunity for not only Turkey but also the West to expand their influence; hence Tehran refers to the "Zangezur Corridor" as the "Turan-NATO Corridor". Secondly, Iran risks losing access to the Black Sea through Armenia and Georgia, which could be seen as part of a policy to isolate Tehran. In other words, Iran's primary concern relates to both the loss of Armenian control over part of its territory and the expansion of Turkish and potentially U.S. influence, aimed against Iran's interests. Meanwhile, Russia, through the statements of Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Deputy Prime Minister Alexey Overchuk, Ambassador to Armenia Sergey Kopyrkin, and other diplomats, has stated that “corridor logic” is not considered in the context of unblocking communications. This stance is linked to the fact that in the case of the implementation of the Turkish-Azerbaijani corridor approach, Russia would not have any presence as originally stipulated in the statement from November 10, 2020.

The only possible tool for implementing this scenario would be military intervention by Azerbaijan and Turkey. Two components are crucial in this case. Firstly, the use of force must be large-scale to swiftly take control over the communication routes, nullifying the possibility of a rapid response from Iran or other centers of power. Secondly, initial control might be established over the communication routes rather than populated areas. This approach would reduce negative reactions from external actors, a consideration taken into account during other aggressions (as a result of Azerbaijan's attack on Armenia in 2021-2022, Baku occupies approximately 200 km² of territory without capturing any city or village, which significantly softened the reaction from the international community).

The fact that Iran has conducted military exercises aimed at demonstrating political will to counter such a scenario serves as an indicator that the opening of such communication is a red line for Tehran. Largely, the Iranian factor acts as a deterrent in the context of an Azerbaijani and Turkish attack on Armenia with the initial goal of opening the "Zangezur Corridor". Despite Moscow's similar stance on "corridor logic", Russia has not undertaken similar preventive actions.

The "Article 9" Scenario

Under the second scenario, the unblocking of communications is based on Article 9 of the trilateral Statement from 2020. It is important to thoroughly examine each clause. Firstly, it is stated, "all economic and transport links in the region shall be unblocked." This interpretation suggests the opening of not only communications linking Azerbaijan with Nakhichevan but also other sections of railways and roads: Yerevan-Nakhichevan-Iran and Ijevan-Gandzak. Thus, the opening of communications is presented as a package solution without a selective phased approach.

Secondly, "Armenia shall guarantee the safety of transport communication between the western regions of the Republic of Azerbaijan and the Nakhichevan Autonomous Republic with a view to organize the unimpeded movement of citizens, vehicles and cargo in both directions." Baku interprets "unimpeded movement" as the absence of any border or other controls. To exclude the corridor logic in unblocking communications, Yerevan could insist on the following stance: Armenia cannot guarantee the security of transportation links if it is not physically present on the communications; therefore, for Yerevan to fulfill its obligations according to Article 9, border forces must be stationed on this section.

Thirdly, "the control over transport communication shall be exercised by the Border Guard Service bodies of the FSS of Russia." This interpretation means that any control by Armenia over the communication passing through its territory is excluded. Also, this point conflicts with Azerbaijan's interpretation of "unimpeded access," which means the absence of the very "corridor" logic.

The implementation of this scenario is possible if negotiations are resumed on the Moscow platform, which has been frozen for many months. Considering that Armenia has not officially declared the trilateral Statement invalid following the ethnic cleansing in Nagorno-Karabakh, formally, the set of trilateral statements remains a package of agreements that Moscow and Baku can rely on. For Russia, Article 9 is an important tool that allows it to cling to the post-conflict arrangement of the region and guarantee its presence. For Azerbaijan, this clause is not the most preferred scenario since it excludes the initial "corridor" format. However, this scenario could exclude the presence of the Armenian side on the communications, which also aligns with Baku's interests.

Another possible option that could allow for the partial implementation of this scenario is another aggression by Azerbaijan. If Baku manages to establish control over the communications in the event of an attack and faces serious external pressure, Azerbaijan could agree to a compromise and transfer control to the Russian side according to Article 9. In this case, other communications between Armenia and Azerbaijan would remain closed.

It is important to note that during the negotiations on the Moscow platform, the parties discussed the presence and participation of Armenia in controlling the communications. However, considering the change in the status quo and the logic of the negotiations, returning to this approach could be problematic.

The "Sovereign Control" Scenario

This scenario entails the unblocking of communications based on principles laid out in the "Crossroads of Peace" project, advocating for the preservation of sovereignty and control over communications by the states through whose territory they pass. In other words, any corridor logic and extraterritorial control are excluded. Despite the relatively low likelihood of this scenario's realization, there are already two sides that have declared their support.

Firstly, at the level of the head of the Iranian Foreign Ministry, it was declared that Iran supports the proposed "Crossroads of Peace" concept. Obviously, with such a statement, Tehran further demonstrates its political stance on preserving the status quo in the region.

Secondly, Deputy Prime Minister Alexey Overchuk announced that Russia is financing the construction of the "Crossroads of Peace" project, which was proposed by Nikol Pashinyan as part of the potential opening of communications in the South Caucasus. Such a position could serve as a demonstration of readiness to accept the Armenian proposal for the future architecture of communications, even if they do not align with Article 9 of the trilateral Statement.

However, there are no specific steps directed at Turkey and Azerbaijan to discuss this initiative, even in a regional format. Therefore, the implementation of this scenario remains unlikely.

Conclusion

Other possible scenarios for unblocking communications in the region could be variations of those already considered. For example, opening the road in Syunik under Russian control based on Article 9, while other communications remain closed. Such a scenario is possible in the event of preparations for a military invasion by Azerbaijan, where Armenia would not have reliable guarantees from key powers and would be forced to agree to a Russian mediation offer. At the same time, the preservation of the status quo, according to which all communications in the region remain closed, is not excluded.

Another possible combination could include the "Article 9" and "Sovereign Control" scenario, the essence of which is contained in both the 2020 Statement and the "Crossroads of Peace". It involves opening communication through Syunik under Russian or mixed Russian-Armenian control, alongside the opening of other communications that would be exclusively under Armenian control.

Clearly, there is a distinct polarization regarding the unblocking of communications: Turkey and Azerbaijan are working on the first approach, Russia is more interested in the second than the third, and for Iran, the third is preferable, followed by the second. Meanwhile, both sides are not interested in implementing the first scenario. It is important to note that the political will to use force to achieve their goals is higher with Ankara and Baku. Therefore, the realization of each scenario depends not only on preferences but also on the readiness to support it with force.

Sergei Melkonian, Ph.D., Research Fellow, APRI Armenia.

These views are his own.

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