Nakhichevan: Corridor to the Next Round of Nagorno-Karabakh Combat

Ever since the "end" of the latest forty-four day war between Turkish and Israeli-backed – and American-enabled – Azerbaijan and (at best vaguely) Russian-aligned Armenia, there’ve been a slew of policy-wonkish laments about the resultant "illiberal peace." That’s mainly a function of the Russia- and China-hysteria that passes for sound strategic judgment in the Emerald City on the Potomac, and Washington’s sour grapes that the (semi-) ceasefire was Moscow-brokered. Leaving aside for a moment the glaring hypocrisy – one needn’t wonders whether the US would’ve insisted on mediating combat raging 110 miles from its border (i.e. in Quebec, Canada or Monterey, Mexico) – the truth is the non-settlement of this latest Nagorno-Karabakh war hasn’t and won’t bring peace. Neither side is satisfied. The shooting never stopped – it still hasn’t, and is only likely to escalate.

This is a pause, a (not quite) lull, before the next round of fighting. Only, if I were a betting man, I’d say that the last round’s Azeri victors – far more wealthy and powerful, and with way more friends – are gonna go for a knockout blow when the bell next rings. When the punching starts, look for a reboot of the last bout’s crowd behavior: with Washington and Europe watching from the cheap seats, the Russian referee struggling to separate the low-blow-landing pugilists, and America’s ostensible allies – Turkey and Israel – acting as Azeri hype-men whilst weighting Baku’s gloves in the cheating corner. Then, when Yerevan gets knocked down again, American think-tankers and talking heads will again judge Moscow’s futile attempts to simultaneously shove Azerbaijan back in its corner, and offer Armenia a much-needed standing eight count.

Self-righteous American analysts may call that illiberal peace in a (sigh) increasingly multipolar world – but it’s’s really a reflection of the world as it’s long been, and of a situation Washington partly produced.

The Azeris have loads of natural gas – the Armenians none. Baku pretended to play nice in the global war on terror – so Washington ignored its authoritarian state-terrorism at home. Azerbaijan is geographically, but oddly (since ethnic Azeris live in both countries and they’re both rare Shia-majority states) not diplomatically close to Iran – so America unbridled an unhinged Israel to arm, supply, and support the aggressive Azeris. Armenia is, largely out of desperation, technically allied with Russia – so Washington looked the other way as an off-the-rails Turkey cheered and accelerated the whole damn bloodbath. Shoot, madcap Erdogan not only sent Baku the battlefield’s decisive drones but shoveled Syrian Islamist rebel mercenaries into the mix as cannon-fodder for the Azeri invasion. And America has the audacity to act an innocent? Believe that and I’ve got a sweetheart of a deal on offer for the Brooklyn Bridge.

Scoring the Next Round

Troublingly, the bout of bloodshed is likely to transcend the decades-long jostling over the Armenian-majority – but "officially" Azerbaijan-owned – Nagorno-Karabakh region. It will be fueled by Azeri ethnic-chauvinism, bolstered by bigotry, becoming an irredentist and revanchist fight for transit routes and expanded corridors – like the Zangezur (potentially connecting Baku with the isolated Azeri enclave of Nakhichevan), and Lachin (tenuously linking Armenia-proper to Nagorno-Karabakh).

Here’s the problem: though the Moscow-brokered ceasefire deal calls for the unblocking of long-blocked travel and trade routes between the key countries and enclaves – theoretically guaranteed by Russian peacekeepers – the Azeri autocrat ain’t sounding too satisfied. Not by a long shot. Look Ilham Aliyev is the sort of "mini-Stalin” who likes his face plastered on big Baku billboards, and expect him to go big rather than go home. As talks floundered on opening the route to Nakhichevan, he told Azerbaijani Public TV that "If Armenia wants to, we will solve this issue more easily, if it does not, we will solve it by force." Now that may seem a one-off or empty threat, except that the lunatic’s been babbling about reconquest, and rewriting history, ever since the last war (sort of) ended.

There have been, in fact, a whole host of worrisome chauvinistic signs emanating from Baku and baby-Aliyev – who’s nothing if not his father’s dictatorial son. Both his words and deeds are dangerous as ever, and portend perhaps six (or sixty) more years of conflict. Aliyev’s been making outright "historical claims” to Armenian territory, not just in Nagorno-Karabakh, but around capital of Yerevan, and – here’s the key – to the entire section of southeastern Armenia dividing Azerbaijan-proper from its Nakhichevan enclave. On the symbolic but instructive side, Baku has started using Azerbaijani names for cities and landmarks inside Armenia, according to its pro-government media.

Moreover, just months after the armistice, President Aliyev unveiled a victory trophy park, replete with displays of helmets of dead Armenian soldiers, along with their life-size wax mannequins with (gulp!) exaggerated racialized features – "huge noses, fearsome eyebrows and bad teeth," per a descriptive New York Times report.  Some commentators have noted the disturbing parallels between these trophy park exhibits and Saddam Hussein’s displays of Iranian helmets after the brutal 1980s Iran-Iraq war.

In practical terms – in the (sometimes literal) trenches, so to speak – the Azeris have captured some 200 Armenian soldiers and civilians since signing the ceasefire agreement. Just last week, Baku sentenced 13 Armenian military members to six years in prison on charges of "illegally crossing the border," "weapons possession" (don’t soldiers tend to carry those?), and – here’s the kicker term they no doubt learned from the American best – "terrorism offenses." Furthermore, a Human Rights Watch report concluded that Armenian prisoners of war have been abused in custody.

As far back as May, Azeri forces again attacked and advanced some 3.5 kilometers further into Armenian territory. What’s unique this time around, is that fighting has shifted south and west of the traditional heartland of Nagorno-Karabakh, with some of the most serious fighting occurring some 75 miles away along the northern border of the Azeri Nakhichevan enclave. Then, just yesterday, Azeri forces apparently attempted another assault, killing three and wounding four Armenian troops, in the deadliest combat since the November ceasefire.

Illiberal America

The thing is, Aliyev – like most strongmen – needs the conflict to continue, to foreground war fever for the sake of further entrenching his archaic authoritarianism. On the other hand, Yerevan’s humiliation in the last round of combat detracts from its recently real democratic prospects after the 2018 "Velvet Revolution." Ironically, that popular uprising, and its somewhat liberalizing electoral outcomes, actually distanced Armenia from its longtime Russian patrons. Yerevan’s recent defeat, on the other hand – despite Russia’s remarkable restraint in not backing its (technical) treaty ally – may only drive Armenia back into Moscow’s (however unreliable) embrace. In other words, here’s yet another instance when the U.S. tacitly or overtly backs the less democratic party to a conflict.

And, when combat kicks off again in a big way over Nakhichevan – don’t expect any big changes in Washington’s complicit posture. Instead, tune in for "illiberal" enabling from an America than only plays a liberal on TV.

Danny Sjursen is a retired U.S. Army officer, the director of the Eisenhower Media Network (EMN), a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy (CIP), contributing editor at, and co-hosts the podcast “Fortress on a Hill.” His work has appeared in the NY Times, LA Times, The Nation, The Hill, Salon, The American Conservative, and Mother Jones, among other publications. He served combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and taught history at West Point. He is the author of three books, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge, Patriotic Dissent: America in the Age of Endless War, and most recently A True History of the United States. Follow him on Twitter @SkepticalVet.

Copyright 2021 Danny Sjursen