Staunton, October 8 – Azerbaijan’s primary goal in the current fighting is to retake Karabakh, but it is also deploying its forces in a way that show that Baku wants, with the support of Turkey, to unite Azerbaijan with its Nakhchivan exclave by seizing the Armenian territory between them, Yury Netkachev says.
Netkachev, a retired lieutenant general who in the 1990s was the deputy commander of the Group of Russian Forces in the Trans-Caucasus, says that Azerbaijani forces have moved in a classic pincers movement to the north and south of Armenian-occupied areas so as to be in a position to drive out Armenian forces (ng.ru/armies/2020-10-08/2_7985_aliev.html).
Baku’s moves in the north are obvious to all: it is seeking to cut the northern routes between Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, and Armenia, the general says. (Others have argued Baku also wants to take control of waterways to restore flows to its own population (windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2020/10/water-may-explain-why-armenia-and.html).)
But the situation in the south is “most interesting,” Netkachev says. There, Azerbaijani forces are moving along the Arax River which forms the border between Azerbaijan and Iran in the east, between Armenia and Iran in the middle and between the Azerbaijani exclave Nakhchivan and Iran in the West.
Baku’s immediate goal, the general argues, is to “cut off Karabakh from being supplied not only by Armenia but also by Iran.” That expands the conflict because Iran doesn’t want an Azerbaijani victory to lead to a rising by its own ethnic Azeris, who form a quarter of Iran’s population, and fears that overt support for Yerevan would lead to an Israeli action against Iran.
Baku’s unspoken and larger goal is to seize the land bridge – called Megri by Azerbaijan and Zengezur by Armenians -- between Azerbaijan proper and Nakhchivan, something Turkey would also like to see happen as that would given Ankara a direct land route from Turkey to Azerbaijan and thence, across the Caspian, into Turkic Central Asia.
Achieving this would require not only the occupation of Armenian territory but taking control of the Russian-Armenian border post at Megri, Netkachev says. There is no way around that. Moscow certainly would respond in some way, and that makes such a broader war a political and not just a military question.
Many who focus on the Karabakh situation ignore Nakchivan, but the two are closely related in their origin, significant in their impact on the politics of both Armenia and Azerbaijan since then, and national goals, realized and unrealized, in the two capitals.
When Stalin drew the borders in the Trans-Caucasus, he created an asymmetrical situation with Azerbaijan being split in two between Azerbaijan proper and Nakhchivan, which is part of Azerbaijan, while Armenia was created as a union republic, but an ethnically Armenian area, Nagorno-Karabakh, was set up as autonomous republic within Azerbaijan.
That imbalance ensured that a conflict between Yerevan and Baku would break out as soon as Moscow’s control ebbed. When that happened in the late 1980s, the Karabakh crisis began and continues to this day. But Nakhchivan and its isolation from Azerbaijan as a concern didn’t disappear, especially as Azerbaijanis must go via Iran to get from one to the other on land.
This asymmetry also had another consequence that many ignore: Karabakh has been the homeland of most of the leaders of Armenia for much of the last three decades, and the Aliyev family which comes from Nakhchivan has dominated Azerbaijan for even longer. Because they come from border areas, they are more nationalist than those who come from central areas.
Indeed, it is entirely possible that the relationship between the two countries cannot be overcome unless the two issues – Karabakh and Nakchivan -- are addressed. Until they both are and not just one, these places will be focal points of politics in both the Armenian and the Azerbaijani capitals.
The author of these lines has a particular interest in this subject because 30 years ago, he suggested a possible solution for the Karabakh dispute was for Baku and Yerevan to swap territories, with Karabakh being transferred from Azerbaijan to Armenia and Zengezur, the land bridge between Azerbaijan and its exclave Nakchivan, going from Armenia to Azerbaijan.
(For the original discussion of this idea, which became notorious as “the Goble Plan,” see “Coping with the Karabakh Crisis,” Fletcher Forum, 16:2 (1992) at dl.tufts.edu/catalog/tufts:UP149.001.00032.00004. For a discussion of the fate of this idea, see reliefweb.int/report/armenia/how-goble-plan-was-born-and-how-it-remains-political-factor.)