The Baffling Alliances in the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict
By Mritika Senthil | Fall 2023
The US and its allies have disagreed with Russia and Iran almost everywhere. One year after Mahsa (Jina) Amini was killed by the Islamic Republic’s “morality police” for allegedly violating the country’s mandatory hijab laws, the US has slapped sanctions on 40 Iranian officials responsible for the violence against peaceful protestors. After Russia faced backlash from the US and the West for invading Ukraine, Iran rushed to Russia’s defense by supplying it with drones and promising to boost bilateral trade.
But this dynamic fell apart in the Nagorno-Karabakh region—a mountain range spanning southwestern Russia to northern Iran, from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea—where a territorial conflict of four decades has come to a head. In September, Azerbaijan initiated a military offensive against Armenia over the disputed territory. Initially a de facto breakaway state officiated as the Republic of Artsakh, Nagorno-Karabakh is internationally recognized as a part of Azerbaijan. Nevertheless, today Nagorno-Karabakh consists of over 99% ethnic Armenians. It is particularly coveted by its neighbors due to its abundant reserve of precious and semi-precious metals, like gold and copper. Tension intensified after Azerbaijan imposed a blockade over Armenia and the Republic of Artsakh—Azerbaijan’s most aggressive move in the past three decades—which has led to an ongoing humanitarian crisis that includes widespread rationing of essential goods and unemployment. Nevertheless, Azerbaijani troops continued to flank the Armenian border, a formerly demilitarized zone, until the entity of Artsakh was dissolved. A ceasefire was brokered by Russian mediators on September 20, and by early October, 80% of the territory’s population left what is now the Karabakh economic region of Azerbaijan for Armenia.
And it was during these cross-border attacks between the largely Christian Armenia and Turkic Muslim Azerbaijan that an unlikely international order has emerged:
Supporters of Armenia: the US, Islamic Republic of Iran, Russia
Supporters of Azerbaijan: Israel, Turkey
How countries take a stand on the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict defies our understanding of diplomatic alliances today, which are usually based on cold war blocs or formed along ideological lines. In Nagorno-Karabakh, however, old enemies have become allies as their interests converge. Consider Turkey and Israel, which do not always see eye to eye not least because of Israel’s repeated raids in Gaza. Turkey was the first country to recognize Azerbaijan as an independent state in 1991. Today, Azerbaijan is a significant foreign investor in Turkish industries while Turkey has become Azerbaijan’s principal conduit for natural gas exports. As for the alliance between Israel and Azerbaijan, both countries face common security threats, particularly from Iran, the Gulf states, and Palestinian militant group Hamas (which has functioned as a proxy for the Iranian government). Israel has been supplying Azerbaijan with arms and military technologies, and in return, Azerbaijan provides the means for Israel to diversify its energy supply. With this partnership, Israel has consistently recognized Nagorno-Karabakh as an Azerbaijani territory in international forums.
In the opposing camp, Armenia and Iran have maintained cordial relations despite their ideological and religious differences. By backing Armenia, Iran curtails Turkish influence in the Caucasus and positions itself as a transit route for Armenian goods to the Persian Gulf. That Iran and Turkey would vie for influence near the Caspian Sea should surprise no one given their long-running animosity. But Russia’s security guarantee for Armenia—to the dismay of its ally, Turkey—would puzzle many observers. Indeed, Russia and have increasingly cozied up in recent years thanks to their shared political outlooks: authoritarianism, anti-westernism, and an irredentist desire to recover lost empires. But despite these similarities, Russia could not resist the security benefits of allying with Armenia, i.e., a greater presence in the Caucasus. Both Russia and Armenia are members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization. Established in 1992, this supranational body coordinates collective defense efforts among six post-Soviet members in the event of an external aggression, although in this instance Russia has failed to intervene on behalf of Armenia, largely because the war in Ukraine has strained its resources.
Security in the Caucasus also preoccupies the US, so much so that it is willing to go against its all-weather ally, Israel, and support Armenia alongside Russia and Iran. The US worries that a potential Azerbaijani invasion of Armenia would destabilize the Middle East by spurring conflicts between Iran and Turkey. Consequently, the secretary of state condemned Azerbaijan for “worsening an already dire humanitarian situation in Nagorno-Karabakh and undermin[ing] prospects for peace.”
It is tempting to describe tensions in the Caucasus with divisive and reductionist rhetoric—the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan is often misinterpreted as yet another example of the Christian-Muslim divide. But a close examination of the international players involved shows that the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has only persisted for the sake of their geopolitical interests.