Frozen conflicts sometimes rekindle but rarely melt away entirely.
Azerbaijan may have just achieved that, retaking the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh from Armenia. Defeat for Russia’s position in the Caucasus and a success for Turkey reconfigures power in this critical region of energy transit.
Nagorno-Karabakh, the “mountainous black garden”, was transferred to the Soviet republic of Azerbaijan by Joseph Stalin in 1923 despite its majority Armenian population.
After the collapse of the USSR, Armenia seized control of the territory and the interposed areas of Azerbaijan, with Russian support, in a protracted war from 1991 to 1993. Oddly, Iran also backed Yerevan, possibly fearing ethnic separatism among its large Azeri population. Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is himself half-Azeri.
The self-proclaimed Republic of Artsakh became one of several disputed lands around the former Soviet bloc, including South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia and Transnistria in Moldova. This Russian playbook was then revived in its seizure in 2014 of Crimea and parts of Donetsk and Luhansk.
But landlocked Armenia, with its population of under 3 million, was always going to struggle to hold on against Azerbaijan, with more than 10 million people and strong oil and gas revenue. It missed the chance for a favourable diplomatic solution. In 2020, Azerbaijan waged a short war. It recaptured areas and reopened the Zangezur Corridor to its exclave of Nakhchivan.
At last September’s Shanghai Co-operation Organisation meeting in the Uzbek city of Samarkand, Central Asia leaders showed a marked lack of respect for Vladimir Putin. Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev even felt able to meet Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelenskyy in June.
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan also expressed support for Ukraine following the Russian invasion. Although he offered major diplomatic concessions to Azerbaijan, with Russian forces floundering in their war, Moscow needing to keep Azerbaijan friendly to safeguard its route from Iran, and Turkey in a strong diplomatic position, Baku decided it was time to strike again.
It appears to have regained control over all of Karabakh. Most of the population have fled and Artsakh’s government said it would dissolve itself. Russian “peacekeepers” remain, but their purpose now is unclear. As Nakhichivan adjoins Turkey, there is now a land bridge from Istanbul to Baku, and, across the Caspian, a route to the Turkic states of Central Asia.
Key oil and gas pipelines run from Azerbaijan through Georgia to Turkey and on to world markets.
Kazakhstan is seeking to expand its exports of oil via the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline to diminish its reliance on the Caspian pipeline to Russia’s Black Sea port of Novorossiysk, worryingly close to the fighting in Ukraine, which suffered a shutdown last July allegedly for storm damage.
The Trans-Anatolian Pipeline (Tanap) opened in 2018, connecting to the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline which in 2020 began supplying Greece, Albania and Italy.
In January 2021, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan finally resolved to develop the cross-border Dostluk (Friendship) oil and gasfield in the middle of the Caspian Sea.
That could, in turn, pave the way for the long-awaited Trans-Caspian pipeline to bring some of Turkmenistan’s gas resources westward.
Russian oil major Lukoil, which seemed likely to lead the development of Dostluk, may now be pushed out.
In July 2022, the European Commission signed a declaration with Baku to “aspire” to increase gas imports to at least 20 billion cubic metres per year by 2027, with current capacity at half that. In August, Adnoc agreed to buy a stake in the Absheron gasfield in the Caspian, operated by France’s TotalEnergies, which will feed an expansion of Tanap.
Turkey, which for long had minimal hydrocarbon resources, is now developing two sizeable fields in the Black Sea, and its state gas company Botaş just agreed to supply Romania.
Azerbaijan is also looking into green hydrogen production from wind and solar power, in co-operation with Masdar.
This is all very welcome to Europe as it seeks to replace Russian gas. But it means Brussels has limited diplomatic leverage over issues such as the rights of Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh.
It has now exchanged reliance on Russia with a troubling need for Turkey as a transit state. Though a Nato member, Turkey under President Erdogan has not shied away from controversies.
Last Monday, Mr Erdogan and Mr Aliyev attended the groundbreaking for a new pipeline to supply Nakhchivan. That the two presidents would appear for the opening of what in itself is a small project signals Turkey’s aim to develop itself into a gas corridor, and its alignment in that with Baku. Mr Erdogan was explicit: “I’m very pleased to be with all of you as we connect Nakhchivan with the Turkish world.”
Gas from Iraq’s Kurdistan region would have to pass through Turkey, which is also a possible route for the bounty of the eastern Mediterranean. The shutdown of the Iraq-Turkey oil pipeline since March after an unfavourable arbitration ruling against Ankara is another reminder of its willingness to play tough.
As a transit state, Turkey has arguably even more leverage than a supplier such as Russia, since its direct earnings are relatively small, and it can therefore be more willing to lose them.
This realignment in the Caucasus also worries Iran, particularly given Azerbaijan’s links with Israel. While the EU is indecisive, America is focused elsewhere, Russia is struggling to cling on in Ukraine and Iran remains economically isolated, Turkey has seized its opportunity. Iran previously supplied some gas to Nakhichivan and Armenia, while Turkey is its most important export market. That is now all under threat.
Now, will Azerbaijan’s victory finally bring peace to the South Caucasus? Will parties to any of the other frozen conflicts take advantage of Moscow’s weakness, and reheat them? Will Turkey finally manage what it could not from the early 1990s, and build real physical links to the Central Asian states? And will Europe manage to integrate these changes into its energy security strategy, without compromising its ethical or environmental principles? This short war raises more difficult questions than it answers.
Robin M. Mills is chief executive of Qamar Energy and author of The Myth of the Oil Crisis