Tigrane Yégavian is a journalist and researcher at the French Intelligence Research Centre (Centre Francais e Recherche sur le Renseignement). Yégvian has published several books, including “Armenia in the Shadow of the Holy Mountain”, “Mission”, “Eastern Minorities, Forgotten by History” and “Geopolitics of Armenia”. He spoke with us about the war in Armenia and Russia and Turkey’s involvement in the war.
The day before the outbreak of the 2020 war, in which Azerbaijan seized part of the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh from Armenia, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev met with Minister Lavrov in Moscow. Don’t you think that the outcome of this war was agreed a priori between Russia, Azerbaijan, and Turkey?
Russia and Azerbaijan have a very close partnership. On the eve of the invasion of Ukraine, Aliyev signed an agreement with Putin in Moscow for the export of Russian gas through Azerbaijani territory, which represented a deepening of the strategic relationship between the two countries. The point is that this conflict cannot be seen on a local scale, because Turkey also plays a very important role in the region and is directly and indirectly involved.
The Turkish army has forces in Azerbaijan, the army command is mixed and its units act jointly. Russia cannot avoid Turkey because it is an essential partner in avoiding sanctions against Russia and is a key exporter of oil and grain. Armenia is a victim of the geopolitics of empires. Russia and Turkey act like empires and divide their spheres of influence and, as we know, empires do not have borders: they have fronts. Now, Russia is weakened and this is very dangerous for Armenia, because Armenia lacks the resources to make an alternative to the alliance with Russia.
And what is Azerbaijan seeking with this new military aggression?
Turks and Azeris, who are Pan-Turks, consider Armenia a weakened country and have two objectives. The first is to take over Artaj, the republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, which represents a terrible threat to the Armenians of that territory because they could be ethnically cleansed once again. The second Turkish objective is a strategic corridor, the so-called “Zangezur” corridor in southern Armenia to the Azeri province of Nakhichevan. This corridor would allow communication between Azerbaijan and Turkey, along its small border of 13 kilometers (about 8 miles), and is much more globally important because it is the only road between Russia and Europe.
The Euro-Atlantic axis is also very interested in this route because it can further weaken Russia’s role in the region. Armenia cannot stand alone against the Pan-Turkish axis, and the relationship with Russia is very weakened because there is no more mutual trust. Armenians complain a lot, and rightly so, because the Russians do not protect them and do not act as allies.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan refers to his alliance with Azerbaijan with the slogan, “Two States, One Nation”
Yes, it is classic rhetoric. There is a more complex relationship, but there is great interdependence between them. Azerbaijan has a lot of investments in Turkey and its army would never have started a war in 2020, and more recently past September, without Turkey’s technical, logistical, and diplomatic support. Moreover, Turkey is a major player in NATO, and neither Europe nor the United States dare to condemn Erdogan’s policies.
For me, the main problem is of an ethical nature. We are dealing with countries like Turkey and Azerbaijan which are authoritarian regimes and carry out crimes against humanity. Turkey committed a genocide that went unrecognized and unpunished. And Azerbaijan also commits war crimes, such as the use in 2020 of banned weapons, and uses “Armenophobia” –hatred of Armenians– as a way to mobilize its society and foster nationalism. And nobody condemns this hatred. And the crimes committed by Azerbaijan are a consequence of this hatred.
You refer to the video of the execution of Armenian prisoners by Azeri soldiers
Yes, and cases like the Armenian soldier who was raped and dismembered. And all this goes on without Europeans or NGOs expressing outrage at these crimes. This creates a sense of impunity for the Azerbaijani government.
In July, Ursula von der Leyen signed an agreement to buy gas from Azerbaijan, isn’t that the reason for European indifference?
Yes, but the gas that Azerbaijan is going to supply to Europe represents only 3 percent of consumption, and it is gas that partly comes from Russia. There is a certain hypocrisy on the part of the Brussels elites, who on the one hand call Putin a criminal, but on the other legitimize Aliyev, who is also a dictator. It is difficult for Armenians to understand Europe’s double standards. While Ukraine benefits from enormous media coverage, Armenia suffers from absolute indifference in the face of an existential threat.
The Azeris are not only seeking to take over Karabakh and the south of the country, but also Armenia’s total capitulation and are claiming new territories, including the capital Yerevan. It is difficult for Armenia to find allies, but in my opinion, this support is not to be found in Europe but in Asia, such as India, with which it shares strategic interests, or Arab countries like Iran.
Iran does seem to be willing to help Armenia. What is Iran’s stance?
Iran has a large Azeri community in the north of its territory, more than twenty million, i.e., there are more Azeris in Iran than in Azerbaijan. During the first Nagorno-Karabakh war in the 1990s, Iran was very concerned about the possible emergence of Azeri separatist movements and, for that reason, maintained a positive neutrality towards Armenians.
Now, Iran is concerned for two reasons. On the one hand, the spread of pan-Turkism in the north of the country and the possible loss of its border with Armenia, which would damage its economy, exports, and strategic interests. On the other hand, because of Israel, which is a strategic and economic partner of Azerbaijan, and even uses it as a base for its operations against Iran. Israel imports oil from Azerbaijan and exports technological weaponry such as drones, which played a very important role during the war. This explains Iran’s stance in the conflict.
The Collective Security Treaty Organization, Russia’s “NATO”, has been exposed in this conflict. The Armenian government has complained that it paid 600 million dollars to Russia and has not received the promised weapons. Do you think that the bloodshed in Ukraine prevents Russia from helping Armenia?
I think Russia is weakened, but it does have the capacity to assert itself against Azerbaijan. The problem is that it has too many interests there. Russia maintains two bases in Armenia: one in the north of the country and an air base near the capital, and there are also Russian soldiers on the border with Turkey. Armenia’s problem is that it is very dependent energetically and strategically on Russia, and Westerners do not offer a possible alternative to this alliance.
In recent months, even years, there has been a growing sense of rejection of Russia among the Armenian population, which feels betrayed. In addition, part of the Armenian opposition believes that their country cannot be independent and that the only way to keep the territory is to join Russia.
This has led to a polarization of society into two positions: sovereignty and national independence or security under Russia’s mantle. It was this aspiration for sovereignty that brought Nikol Pashinian to power in 2018, a revolution that not only sought independence from Russia but also from the oligarchs, most of whom are linked to the Kremlin.
Like in Ukraine?
Russia, through these oligarchs and politicians of the old regime, still has a lot of power in Armenia. For its part, the Armenian government is trying to buy time because it does not have the resources to protect Karabakh, but the Azeris do not want to wait and are conquering territories to increase pressure on Armenia to cede the territory. Armenia’s dilemma can be summed up as a choice between sovereignty and security. But you cannot have security without sovereignty, nor sovereignty without the security guaranteed by the Russians. This is what is at stake in Armenia today.
But can Russia guarantee security in light of its actions in Ukraine?
The truth is that Russian behavior is highly irrational and its casualties are too high. If Russia wins the conflict, which is increasingly unlikely, Armenia will lose its sovereignty, and if Russia is defeated, Armenia will lose its security and Azerbaijan will take advantage of this weakness to conquer new territories.
Does Armenia have any options if it cannot count on Russia?
One important option is for the US, which pushed for a ceasefire in September, and to impose sanctions on Azerbaijan if it continues its bellicose policy. Sanctions are therefore the first priority. The second priority is security, which is why Armenia is looking for new sources of arms.
In this regard, India signed a military supply contract with Armenia last week. Iran also guarantees diplomatic and political support, and last Friday opened a consulate in the strategic city of Kapan, where Azerbaijan intends to establish its “Zangezur” corridor. This is a way of sending a signal that they are present and will not allow it.
Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that Azerbaijan will abandon its aggressive policy, i.e., that it will forcibly pursue its corridor in southern Armenia and the conquest of Karabakh, which will most likely lead to a new ethnic cleansing.
Álvaro Peñas is a political analyst specializing in Eastern European countries. He writes for El Correo de España and several European digital outlets. He is deputy director of two programs on Decisión Radio and a regular contributor to the television channel 7NN.