Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan during a meeting at the Kremlin in 2021. Photo: Mikhail Klimentyev / Sputnik

Arrangements have been agreed for another meeting between the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan, in Brussels on Wednesday, through the good offices of Charles Michel, the president of the European Council.

This meeting could be a make-or-break encounter for the long-run future of Russian influence in the South Caucasus and, by extension, the Caspian Sea region as a whole and, by further extension, Central Asia.

That is because Russian diplomacy has fallen by the wayside in the South Caucasus peace process since last December, when Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev first met in Brussels.

Whereas Russia had monopolized the mediation of contacts between the two South Caucasus states for a year after the November 2020 conclusion of the Second Karabakh War (also called “the 44-day War” in Azerbaijan), this year the initiatives taken by the European Union have the momentum.

The development follows the bankruptcy of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE’s) Minsk Group after nearly 30 years of failure to resolve the conflict.

The two countries’ deputy prime ministers were to meet in Moscow the day before, on Tuesday, to discuss further progress in the delimitation of their common border. (This is “delimitation” and not “demarcation” because the latter term refers to the actual physical emplacement of markers, and typically takes years after a delimitation agreement.)

A further demonstration that Russia still holds significant influence in the region depends also on Russia’s ability to persuade Pashinyan to announce unambiguously the timing for finishing the construction of the highway (and rail connection) running across southern Armenia between the main body of Azerbaijan and its exclave Nakhchivan – called the Zangezur Corridor – and a definitive date for its opening.

According to an Armenian government statement, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Pashinyan agreed in May that it was necessary to accelerate the activity of the Russian-Armenian-Azerbaijani expert-level commission, co-chaired at the inter-ministerial level, that has responsibility to implement the transport links between the two countries. The problem is that this sort of declaration has been made before.

It is reported that Aliyev will insist on a definitive clarification of the timetable for construction of the transport links (highway and railroad) through the Zangezur Corridor. Zangezur is the historical Azeri name for the region that Armenia calls “Syunik” in the south of the country.

Armenia committed itself to the construction of this corridor in the November 2020 ceasefire agreement. The bilateral expert commission with Azerbaijan, tasked with seeing this through to completion, met in Moscow at the beginning of June for the first time in six months.

An Iranian-Azerbaijani agreement shocked official Yerevan this year by putting Armenia on notice that Azerbaijan is prepared to proceed with such a corridor through Iran, parallel to the Armenian border, instead of waiting for the Zangezur Corridor to be finished.

Indeed, Baku could still proceed with the route through Iran even if the one through Armenia is completed. Then, Baku could not be squeezed or pressured by any threatened close of the Zangezur route, whether by Yerevan or by Moscow.

The Border Guard Service of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) is tasked with overseeing the security of the transport connections, according to the 2020 ceasefire agreement.

Yet the Zangezur Corridor is also in Russia’s interest. It would provide a rail link between Armenia and Russia through Azerbaijan (there is no such link through Georgia), as well as between Iran and Russia (a link that existed in Soviet times). At the same time, Armenia and Iran would get a rail link through Julfa (in Nakhchevan), which likewise existed during the Soviet era.

As Russia’s war against Ukraine leads Western strategists more and more to consider the feasibility of the “Intermarium” security strategy running from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea, from the standpoint of Western strategy, the Zangezur Corridor would likewise strengthen a security zone between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea.

That is why Russia, while constrained to favor the rail link through the Zangezur Corridor, has evinced (like Iran) a relative lack of enthusiasm for the Kars-Tbilis-Baku railway. Yet Russia’s war against Ukraine has internationally isolated Moscow, making East-West transit links circumventing Russia more necessary.

There is still broader geo-economic significance to the Zangezur Corridor. Just a few days ago, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, visiting Baku, signed a series of documents the included agreement on intensifying bilateral relations, in particular through increased use of the Trans-Caspian International Trade Corridor (TITR).

Yet Russia is in an uncomfortable situation here. While it is in Moscow’s interest that the Zangezur Corridor is constructed, for the reasons stated, the route will also augment Turkey’s logistical reach into Central Asia via Azerbaijan and the TITR (also called the “Middle Corridor”). It will likewise augment Central Asia’s reach into Europe via the South Caucasus.

Not just Turkey but also the European Union is already looking to Azerbaijan with a view toward enhancing its logistical connections with Central Asia. This perspective is justified by the intensified bilateral and multilateral cooperation of the member-states of the Organization of Turkic States (OTS), which comprises Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkey and Uzbekistan.

That cooperation is set within the “Turkic World Vision 2040” programmatic document, adopted at a recent OTS summit meeting. Indeed, just a few days ago, Tokayev completed his first diplomatic visit to Baku. With Aliyev, he signed a declaration on “strengthening strategic relations” and “deepening allied interaction.”

This strategy seeks to gain, for the countries concerned, increased freedom to maneuver between the encroaching influences of China and Russia.

Robert M Cutler

Robert M Cutler is a Fellow of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. Follow him on Twitter @RobertMCutler.