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Nakhchivan: A Potential Flashpoint in the Caucasus

In the wake of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict that roiled the South Caucasus region, another potential crisis looms over the horizon—Nakhchivan. This Azerbaijani exclave, located southwest of Armenia, could be the next focal point of tension between Azerbaijan and Armenia.

Nakhchivan, an isolated piece of Azerbaijani territory, constitutes approximately 6% of Azerbaijan’s landmass. Situated about 25 miles away from Azerbaijan proper, it is wedged beside Armenia and shares borders with Turkey and Iran. The population of Nakhchivan is roughly 460,000, primarily Azeris, alongside a minority of ethnic Russians.

During the Soviet era, Nakhchivan was seamlessly connected to Azerbaijan through road and rail networks. However, these links fell into disuse following the brutal war between Azerbaijan and Armenia in the 1990s concerning Nagorno-Karabakh, leaving the exclave isolated from the mainland. Air routes remained the sole means of connectivity.

According to a eurasianet article published in 2021, "Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev laid the foundation for a new 100-kilometer stretch of railroad across southern Azerbaijan, along the Iranian border, in territory that Azerbaijan took back from Armenia after the war last year[2020]. 'This railroad has enormous strategic significance,'he said."

Recent developments indicate a concerted effort by Azerbaijan, Russia, and Turkey to establish a road and rail route from Nakhchivan across Armenian territory, with minimal Armenian oversight, to bolster connectivity and trade. This venture is set to be guarded by Russian border forces.

Thomas de Waal, a senior fellow with Carnegie Europe, specializing in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus said in an interview with Carnegie Middle East Center:

“The next issue is Armenia itself. The Russians are pretty much openly calling for the removal of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan for being too pro-Western. Azerbaijan, Russia, and Turkey seem to have a joint agenda of forcing Armenia to accept their terms for a road and rail route across Armenian territory to the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhchivan, with minimal controls from the Armenian side and guarded by Russian border guards. There will be veiled threats of the use of force if Armenia does not agree to this. This is the next potential frontier of conflict with which Western governments need to deal. Suddenly, it is falling on the West to be the last defender of Armenia—with Iran ironically the back-up player.” 

Notably, Russian authorities have been explicit in their calls for the removal of Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, citing his perceived pro-Western leanings. This, coupled with the joint endeavors of Azerbaijan, Russia, and Turkey regarding Nakhchivan, amplifies concerns about Armenia's geopolitical standing and the challenges it faces.

Against this backdrop, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan convened in Nakhichevan, reaffirming their intentions to pursue a land connection between Nakhchivan and the rest of Azerbaijan. This meeting underscores the strategic significance of Nakhichevan and the growing momentum behind efforts to integrate the exclave with the Azerbaijani mainland.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan (right) with Azerbeijian President Ilham Aliyev in Nakhichevan

For Western governments, this emerging scenario poses a critical challenge. The need to navigate delicate geopolitical dynamics and potentially safeguard Armenia’s interests in the face of assertive regional players, notably Russia, Turkey, and Azerbaijan, adds a new layer of complexity to an already intricate geopolitical landscape. As the world watches, the fate of Nakhchivan remains uncertain, and its trajectory could significantly shape the region's stability and peace.

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