The Stakes of the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict and the Strategic Alliances Mapping

NESA Center Alumni Publication
Dr. Arslan Chikhaoui (Chairman of NSV Consultancy & Studies Center and Advisory Board Member of the Defense and Security Forum)
21 May 2023

1. The Context

Under the auspices of Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, closed-door discussions were held on 3 May 2023 in Washington, DC between Azerbaijan and Armenia regarding the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave. Indeed, Armenia and Azerbaijan are vying for the sovereignty of the region against a backdrop of medium-intensity tensions between Russia and Turkey. The stakes of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict go beyond the territorial issue since it puts in competition, by interposed alliance, the great powers of the Caucasian region, historically rivals, which are Russia, Turkey, and to some extent Iran.

As Armenia’s traditional ally, Moscow is in a strong position on this issue as it is the main supplier of arms to both parties and it can use the conflict as leverage on the diplomatic scene. However, he fears an overflow of the conflict and a destabilization of the South Caucasus. If President Putin has played, at least in appearance, the appeasement, President Erdogan has taken up the cause of Baku.

Linked to Armenia by means of a collective security treaty, Russia nevertheless manages its relations with Azerbaijan. Moscow thus seems to want to present itself as an intermediary between the two parties. They could even propose the deployment of Russian forces on the ground to ensure peace, which would have the advantage of irritating Ankara to the highest point. If a direct confrontation between the two powers is, for the time being, improbable, the verbal provocations which animate the relations between the two powers make fear the worst. As a member of NATO, Turkey would certainly not receive the automatic support of its allies in the event of a confrontation with Russia in the Caucasus since the situation would not meet the conditions of application of Article 5 of the Washington Treaty.


2. Strategic Crossroads of Areas of Powers’ Influence

Because the geopolitical scene of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is a strategic crossroads between the areas of influence of Ankara, Moscow, and Tehran, in particular, for the transport of hydrocarbons, its resolution can only intervene at the international level. The Minsk Group, co-chaired by France, the United States, and Russia, is responsible for finding a way out of this conflict. But the rampant militarization of Azerbaijan and, above all, the growing involvement of Turkey and Russia, make any medium-term peace solution very unlikely.

However, the 2020 war in Nagorno-Karabakh has highlighted an unapparent alliance that binds Israel and Azerbaijan. Like Turkey, Israel was a key contributor to Baku’s victory in this conflict. Unlike Ankara, Tel Aviv provided its Azerbaijani ally with silent support. This support is a direct continuation of fruitful military-technical cooperation on high-tech equipment exported by Israel, including drones and missiles. Baku has largely structured the Israeli-Azerbaijani partnership over the past thirty years. However, after the military victory in Baku, Israel, and Azerbaijan, it now faces a major challenge of having to revive their alliance.

The war in Nagorno-Karabakh that broke out in the fall of 2020 highlighted Turkey’s role as Baku’s main politico-military support in its re-conquest of this contentious plateau with Armenia. A discreet but active actor alongside Azerbaijan, Israel provided material assistance to the Azerbaijani military forces, which proved decisive in the success of their offensive. Israel’s determined support for Azerbaijan in this conflict reflects a largely regional reading of the security challenges crystallized by the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh: Iran, of course, but also the Eastern Mediterranean and the image of Israel in the Muslim world.


3. Israel’s Stealthy Intrusion into the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict

Although Israel and Azerbaijan established diplomatic relations in April 1992 and opened up an Embassy in Israel in March 2023, it is still not a full active Azerbaijani diplomatic representation. Although the Israelis opened an embassy in Baku as early as 1993, the Azerbaijanis, for their part, repeatedly postponed the opening of their diplomatic representation in Tel Aviv, preferring to stick to the intergovernmental, practical, and informal channel of communication offered by the representative office of the national Azerbaijan Airlines. This rapprochement formalizes an agreement that took shape in the late 1980s, during the first Nagorno-Karabakh war (1988-1994), when the Israelis provided the Azerbaijani forces with Stinger surface-to-air missile launchers. Baku’s refusal to formalize its diplomatic ties with Israel can be interpreted as a form of restraint with regard to its Iranian neighbor. But it also helps maintain the characteristic ambiguity of the Israeli-Azerbaijani partnership. In 2009, President Ilham Aliyev described the bilateral relationship with Israel as “nine-tenths deep.” On a visit to Baku in 2012, Avigdor Lieberman, then Israeli Foreign Minister, described his country’s relationship with Azerbaijan as “more important for Israel than the one with France.”

In addition to the presence in Azerbaijan of an ancient Jewish community (the Tats or Mountain Jews), Azerbaijanis and Israelis have built their relationship around three pillars:

  • Their relationship with Iran;
  • The economy with strategic cooperation in energy and military;
  • The mutual benefits that they consider to derive from their links in terms of image.

In the context of regional geopolitical confrontation between Israel and Iran, its relationship with Azerbaijan offers Israel a strategic depth that fits into its political-security and military-security strategy of the three circles. An Israeli bridgehead in the Caucasus, on Iran’s northern flank, Azerbaijan, has been seen by analysts as a potential platform from which Israel could, in the event of a conflict, undertake operations against Iran. According to observers, this hypothesis seems, however, exaggerated even if the realization of intelligence operations is obviously not to be excluded. For Baku, the Israeli partnership must contribute to keeping the Iranian neighbor at a distance with whom the Azerbaijanis maintain a relationship of mistrust.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dismantling of the Soviet Union, the election to the Azerbaijani presidency of pro-Turkish Abulfaz Elchibei was counter-productive for the relationship with Iran. The new President had campaigned on the idea of a rapprochement of his country with Turkey and Israel and had called on Iranian Azeris to uprising and fight for their independence. It is useful to recall that ethnically, there are more Azeris in Iran than in Azerbaijan (respectively 15 million and 8 million). Considered as a “loyal minority” to the central power to which it provided numerous executives up to the highest level of the Iranian ruler-ship, the Iranian Azeris could be suspected of potentially embodying a “fifth column,” all the more that the Nagorno-Karabakh file has been a challenge for Iran’s foreign policy until now.

On the economic scale, Baku and Tel Aviv have forged a partnership underpinned by exchanges in two strategic areas: military and energy. Israel imports nearly 40% of its oil from Azerbaijan via the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceylon pipeline. Although the volume of trade has been faltering in recent years, its strategic partnership with Israel offers Azerbaijan access to an arsenal of advanced combat systems (ACS). According to the SIPRI report, since 1991, Baku would thus have absorbed nearly 7 billion USD of Israeli military equipment. The volume of bilateral Israeli-Azerbaijani trade in 2020 stood at just over 200 million USD, and Israel exported a total of 8.3 billion USD worth of military equipment in 2020, which is the second-best year after 2017 (9.2 billion USD) for Israeli arms sales abroad. The equipment purchased by Azerbaijan from Israeli arms manufacturers was purchased for the following reasons:

  • Diversify and balance arms contracts with those made with Russia;
  • Acquire and maintain a qualitative superiority over pro-Armenian in Nagorno-Karabakh;
  • Be able to defend offshore energy infrastructures in the Caspian Sea against potential Iranian intimidation, a threat comparable to that posed by Iran against Israel in the Eastern Mediterranean.

According to observers, Israeli-Azerbaijani military cooperation also aims, from Tel Aviv’s point of view, to gain room for maneuver with regard to the Russian military increase in Syria. It also aims to balance the arms transfers made (or that the Russians could make) to Syria and, if necessary, to Iran by supplying advanced equipment to Azerbaijan, the adversary of an ally of Russia, Armenia. A relatively similar approach was implemented in the late 2000s by Israel with Georgia, then led by Mikhail Saakashvili, which in its time had equipped its army with Israeli drones, with all the attendant consequences.


4. The Game of Strategic or Economic Alliances

The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is at the crossroads of the interests of actors with competing regional ambitions. The convergence of views of Turkey and Israel on the Nagorno-Karabakh issue is thus expressed essentially against those of Iran and Russia, who are their geopolitical competitors at various levels in the Middle East. If Iran is considered by Israel as its first existential threat, the arrival of Russia in Syria tends to contain Turkey a little more in the Russian military system, which extends from the Caucasus to the Levant, via the Black Sea. Israel’s freedom of action is also hampered by the eruption of Russia in its immediate neighborhood since September 2015. The military presence of Russia in Syria complicates the task of the Israelis for their strikes against targets designated as Iranian or pro-Iranians on Syrian territory. Israelis and Turks find themselves on opposite sides in the context of the Eastern Mediterranean, against a background of competition for the development of offshore gas resources.

The reactivation of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict appears to be a product of Turkey’s expansionist foreign policy. Israel’s contribution to the Azerbaijani victory, in addition to weakening Teheran’s positions in the South Caucasus by weakening its Armenian partner, also erodes Russian influence insofar as Tel Aviv accompanied the military success leading to the establishment of a Turkish military bridgehead in Azerbaijan, under the watchful eye of Russia. Because the ceasefire agreement, signed under the auspices of Moscow in November 2020, de facto confirms the Turkish military establishment in the Caucasus. According to observers, seen from Tel-Aviv, it is, therefore, a bet which has proved to be a winner and which tends to channel, if not divert them, the Turkish ambitions which are expressed in the Eastern Mediterranean towards regions with Turkish speaking populations of the Caucasus and Central Asia. In sum, there was a goal to steer Ankara’s geopolitics towards areas where Israel’s vital interests are less at stake by facilitating Baku’s victory. Some observers believe that this Turkish presence in the Caucasus helps to mitigate the Turkish landlocked complex, including the so-called “Blue Fatherland” doctrine. The victorious outcome of the Baku military campaign and the establishment on the shores of the Caspian Sea of a platform for the projection of Turkish politico-military influence apply pressure on the Russian and Iranian margins, and thus come to challenge their established influence within a landlocked area; until that war, Azerbaijan relied on an agreement with Iran to gain access to its Nakhchivan enclave through Iranian territory. This is no longer necessary since the November 10, 2020 agreement creates a corridor between Azerbaijan and Nakhchivan, through Nagorno-Karabakh and the part still controlled by the Armenians. Iran is therefore deprived of potential leverage over its neighbor Azerbaijan. Turkey is therefore playing a counterweight role in this crisis for Israel in the face of Russian and Iranian influences which have increased in Syria during the 2010s.


5. The Re-conquest of Nagorno-Karabakh by Azerbaijan

Baku’s military success in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh campaign poses a challenge to the Israeli-Azerbaijani relationship that will have to be revisited. Because the disputed plateau has now almost entirely passed under Azerbaijani control, one of the pillars of the bilateral relationship is weakened. In addition, if Iran is a source of permanent concern for Azerbaijan, the Aktau Convention on the status of the Caspian Sea has, however, reduced its dangerousness. The collapse of the first pillar risks compromising the balance of the second: economic partnership

With Nagorno-Karabakh re-conquered, Baku’s need for the latest technological generation weapons will become less pressing, and arms sales are likely to run out of steam in the medium term, according to the SIPRI report. Baku should, however, seek to maintain its qualitative superiority over the Armenian adversary, especially in view of the expiry of the 10 November 2020, agreement set at five years. In this regard, everything will depend on what Moscow wants to transfer as equipment to Armenia in order to re-equip the forces crushed by the conflict of 2020

The Azerbaijani trade office set in Israel was considered an intermediate step before the opening of an Azerbaijani diplomatic representation in Israel. Finally, in March 2023, Baku opened its embassy in Tel-Aviv. This, therefore, directs us to the third pillar, which is that of issues related to the image of the two countries. The establishment of fruitful relations with Azerbaijan has been all the more profitable for Israel since it is one of the rare Muslim countries with which the Israeli-Palestinian issue does not dominate the bilateral agenda. In other words, the Israeli-Azerbaijani politico-economic relationship remained hermetic to all the crises that affected this matter. According to observers, in the eyes of Tel Aviv, this aspect constituted a real added value of its relationship with Azerbaijan and allowed it to claim to maintain peaceful ties with a Shiite and non-Arab Muslim country. For its part, Baku intended to take advantage of its proximity to Israel in order to improve its reputation in Washington and attenuate the influence of the Armenian lobby there. With the signing of the Abraham Agreement and the ongoing normalization of relations between Israel and the Gulf monarchies, the paradigm of Israeli-Azerbaijani relations is set to change profoundly.


6. Conclusion

In short, the quest to open up Azerbaijan, located at the confluence of the three empires, Persian, Ottoman, and Russian, should, however, continue, and its partnership with Israel will retain its full place. For its part, Israel should continue to include Azerbaijan in its strategy of forging peripheral alliances against Iran.

As a privileged partner of Turkey and Israel, Azerbaijan could try to reconcile the two countries, which ignore each other or clash diplomatically as soon as a crisis arises in the land of Palestine. The Azerbaijani presidency has already declared itself ready, at the end of April 2021, to host a trilateral summit if Ankara and Tel Aviv so wish.

In addition, under the auspices of Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, discussions were held on 3 and 4 May 2023 in Washington, DC between Azerbaijan and Armenia regarding the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. The head of the American diplomacy declared at the close of the bilateral closed doors discussions that: “Both parties have addressed very difficult subjects in recent days, and they have made tangible progress towards a lasting peace agreement.” However, the question remains open on the near future diplomatic role of China in the central Asia region.


The views presented in this article are those of the speaker or author and do not necessarily represent the views of DoD or its components.