As two nations pushing to withstand Western sanctions, Russia and Iran have more and more invested in a workaround rail route working from Moscow to Mumbai. But a burgeoning disaster within the Caucasus area on the coronary heart of the challenge is threatening to imperil this financial lifeline.
Armenia and Azerbaijan, two rival post-Soviet republics on the crossroads of Europe and Asia, have been locked in a decades-long battle over a 1,700-square-mile stretch of land referred to as Nagorno-Karabakh. Located totally throughout the internationally acknowledged territory of Azerbaijan, the disputed area was the venue for a conflict waged all through the autumn of the Soviet Union, throughout which the ethnic Armenian-led Artsakh Republic was declared within the early Nineties.
But that declaration did not finish the battle, and practically three a long time later, a second all-out conflict erupted in 2020, leading to Turkey-backed Azerbaijan capturing a major quantity of the contested territory. Russia, a Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) ally of Armenia, mediated a ceasefire enforced with the deployment of some 2,000 Russian peacekeeping troops. Yet clashes have continued, and now a greater than month-long Azerbaijani blockade of ethnic Armenian-controlled territory has as soon as once more raised tensions between the 2 rivals to a probably harmful degree.
Should hostilities once more attain the purpose of battle, Silvia Boltuc, Rome-based managing director of the Special Eurasia geopolitical evaluation platform, informed Newsweek that “this can, of course, dramatically threaten” the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC), a 4,500-mile-long, partially operational community of land and sea routes promising a serious increase to Russia-Iran commerce.
“We have repeatedly experienced how Tehran underlines the need to stabilize the region to permit expanding trade,” Boltuc stated. “Afghanistan was, for example, part of the Iranian Chabahar Port project to connect Indian markets to Russia and Central Asia through Iran and Afghanistan. But soon after the trilateral agreement was signed, the Taliban took control of the country, which was no longer a reliable partner.”
And whereas she argued that “Iran is more exposed to the consequences of a new crisis in the South Caucasus than Russia,” given the potential for Tehran to be lower off from European land commerce and the emergence of rising safety ties between Azerbaijan and Iran’s prime foe, Israel, a fraught geopolitical setting has diminished Moscow’s willingness and functionality to intervene in a area wherein it has historically performed a serious function.
“I think Russia is in a very difficult situation, and Moscow is now very dissatisfied with the actions of both Baku [capital of Azerbaijan] and Yerevan [capital of Armenia],” Oleg Ignatov, senior Russia analyst on the International Crisis Group in Brussels, informed Newsweek.
“From the very beginning it was very difficult for Moscow to mediate a peace process,” Ignatov stated. “This can be explained by the fact that the conflict is ethnic, by Moscow’s specific understanding of its role, as well as by the fact that, on the one hand, Armenia is an important ally of Russia, but on the other hand, from the beginning, Russia was more interested in developing economic and political ties with Azerbaijan.”
Ignatov argues that Moscow considered the presence of its peacekeepers alongside the disputed Lachin hall, which is now the topic of a blockade by Azerbaijani environmental activists accusing Nagorno-Karabakh residents of unlawful mining, as a long-term challenge extending previous the 2025 deadline outlined within the 2020 ceasefire.
But he stated that “Azerbaijan had a different point of view here,” that means “Moscow has to play both sides” and “has to take steps both ways, rather than managing the conflict and preventing incidents, and not to name the guilty and responsible in any case.”
“Armenia increasingly believes that Moscow cannot be a guarantor of security,” Ignatov stated, “and Azerbaijan sees Russia as an obstacle to ending the conflict as soon as possible on its own terms.”
The battle in Ukraine has put additional pressure on Russia’s maneuverability within the occasion that Caucasus tensions explode once more, particularly given Turkey’s rising involvement within the area. Despite its army help to Kyiv within the practically year-long conflict ravaging Ukraine, Ankara, which has cast shut ties with Baku, has confirmed a important associate for Moscow in navigating diplomacy, establishing a gasoline hub and circumventing sanctions put in place towards Russia by different members of NATO.
As a end result, Yerevan-based Center for Political and Economic Strategic Studies Director Benyamin Poghosyan additionally argues that “Russia faces an impasse.”
“Lack of action in the case of new Azerbaijani attacks against Armenia or Nagorno Karabakh will further tarnish Russia’s image in Armenia,” Poghosyan informed Newsweek, “while any action may trigger a crisis in Russia-Turkey relations with far-reaching implications.”
As for Iran, its warning was rooted not solely in issues over safety, but additionally in geography and demographics. Specifically, Tehran frightened in regards to the potential for Azerbaijan to grab components of Armenia’s Syunik and Vayor Datz areas in a bid to ascertain the “Zangezur corridor” connecting Azerbaijan’s mainland territory to its Nakhichvan exclave province bordering Armenia, Iran and Turkey.
“If Azerbaijan takes Syunik and/or Vayots Dzor, it will not only cut Iran from Armenia but also encircle northern parts of Iran by Turkey and Azerbaijan,” Poghosyan stated. “Given the existence of an up to 25 million Azeri-speaking population in Northern Iran and growing pan-Turkic tendencies after the establishment of the Organization of Turkic states in November 2021, Iran views these developments as a potential threat to its vital national security interests.”
He stated that such a transfer would additionally “jeopardize” the institution of one other potential International North-South Transport Corridor path that will hyperlink the Black Sea to the Persian Gulf.
In truth, Vali Kaleji, a Tehran-based knowledgeable in Caucasian, Central Asia and regional research, stated that if the “Zangezur corridor” is realized, “Iran will also lose one of its most crucial transit routes to the Caucasus, as the land route through Iran and Armenia that reaches Georgia is a main part of the Persian Gulf–Black Sea Corridor.”
That scenario can be significantly damaging, as prospects for the lifting of U.S. sanctions in step with the 2015 multilateral nuclear deal referred to as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action seem more and more distant as a consequence of heightened tensions between Tehran and Washington, pushed partly by Iran’s supplying of drones to Russia in its conflict with Ukraine.
Kaleji additionally identified how Iran responded to the 2020 battle throughout its border with huge army workout routines within the northwest, which he stated “clearly shows Tehran’s sensitivity to this issue as a ‘red line.'”
“Therefore, if the war between Armenia and the Republic of Azerbaijan takes place near the borders of Iran and its result led to threat or blockage of the Iran-Armenia border,” he added, “there is a possibility of Iran’s military reaction that can make the conditions of the region more complicated than the current situation.”
Though the important thing, remaining rail connection between the cities of Rasht and Astara in Iran has but to be accomplished, Iranian officers have repeatedly vowed to ramp up efforts to complete development. Moscow and Tehran have additionally pursued talks as not too long ago as this month to spend money on accelerating the event of the lacking hyperlink.
“Russia has paid great attention to this corridor to expand transit under western comprehensive sanctions,” Kaleji stated. “And in this regard, Moscow has announced its readiness to invest and build the 164-kilometer section of the Rasht-Astara railway
—the only remaining railway section in the North-South corridor between Iran-Azerbaijan-Russia.”
First agreed upon some 23 years in the past by India, Iran and Russia, the INSTC has since expanded right into a sprawling community of land and sea routes, solely a few of which have really been put to make use of.
“The INSTC was partially devised to encourage improved freight transportation between Russia and India via Iran,” Chris Devonshire Ellis, chairman of the Dezan Shira & Associates enterprise agency devoted to doing enterprise throughout Asia, informed Newsweek. “It has since expanded to include multi-modal routes to Central Asia, the Caucasus, the Middle East and East Africa.”
Devonshire Ellis stated the completion of the challenge is a excessive precedence for the Kremlin.
“As Russia is interested in developing supply chains in all of these regions,” he added, “its success is important for Moscow.”
This significance has elevated drastically with the onset of an unprecedented coalition of sanctions Russia was going through.
“Because of Western sanctions, Russia is losing its markets in the U.S., EU, South Korea, Japan and other states,” Mher Sahakyan, founder and director of the China-Eurasia Council for Political and Strategic Research in Armenia, informed Newsweek. “For this reason, Russia needs to strengthen its economic and trade relations and connectivity with Iran, India and rising southern markets.”
“For reaching out to them,” he added, “the main conduit is INSTC.”
But as a result of the stakes are so excessive, he argued that even the opportunity of conflict was unlikely to intervene with the push to maximise the advantages of the important hall that would offer Moscow and Tehran connectivity to at least one one other and different main commerce hubs.
“For now, autocratic Azerbaijan has more developed relations with Russia and Iran than democratic Armenia,” Sahakyan stated. “It is worth mentioning that only two days before the Ukraine war, Azerbaijan signed the agreement of alignment with Russia.”
And Azerbaijan is conscious of its influential place, in addition to the predicaments wherein its northern and southern neighbors discover themselves.
Zaur Shiriyev, the International Crisis Group’s Baku-based analyst for the South Caucasus area, outlined how Azerbaijan’s “main interest is the revival of the Middle Corridor project, which is an alternative to transport corridors that are led by or involve Russia.”
The Middle Corridor runs East-West, connecting Eastern Europe to Central Asia by means of the Black Sea and Caspian Sea, with Azerbaijan as soon as once more on the middle of the route, solely on this occasion bypassing Russia and Iran altogether.
Shiriyev stated that, for the reason that outbreak of conflict in Ukraine, “regional transport stakeholders have gradually realized that strong coordination and joint implementation in different corridor segments could make the Middle Corridor sustainable and more efficient in the medium term,” and that “there is an expectation that about 10% of cargo will go through the corridor because of disruption in the Northern Corridor,” which runs by Russia.
“Russia needs the North-South transport corridor more than Azerbaijan does,” he added. “Baku, of course, takes advantage of this situation to appear as an equal partner in front of officials in Moscow, and this, of course, affects the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh.”
The scenario, he argued, “gives officials in Baku leverage in negotiating the withdrawal of Russian troops from Karabakh,” in addition to “more leverage with Russia due to its dependence on Azerbaijan, including with regard to the transport corridor.”
Farid Shafiyev, a former senior Azerbaijani diplomat who now serves as chair of the Center of Analysis of International Relations in Baku, stated the Nagorno-Karabakh remained a possible catalyst for escalation between Azerbaijan and Russia, particularly as Baku considered securing management of the Lachin hall the place Russian troops stay deployed as to stopping future assaults by Armenia.
But whereas he stated that “the overall geopolitical situation remains fragile and tense,” he was skeptical Moscow would “challenge Azerbaijan’s sovereignty for two reasons: 1) Azerbaijan maintain balanced policy with Russia; and 2) Azerbaijan has the full support of Turkey.”
Iran too, he argued, “cannot ignore the Turkish support,” nor the truth that as much as thrice as many Azeris reside within the Islamic Republic, which is already going through an nationwide uptick in unrest, compared to Azerbaijan itself.
Altogether, the scenario would depart Armenia and its self-declared Artsakh Republic ally with out worldwide help at a time after they have warned of a rising humanitarian disaster ensuing from the Azerbaijani blockade.
“Armenia has no military power,” Shafiyev stated. “In its irredentist adventure, Armenia always relied on Russian support, which is not coming this time.”