Armenia and Azerbaijan are Finally Talking Directly. Is Peace Next?

Armenia and Azerbaijan are Finally Talking Directly. Is Peace Next?

Armenia and Azerbaijan's willingness to engage directly may suggest that the region is finally on the cusp of being ready for geopolitical prime time.


Earlier this week, Azerbaijan was elected unanimously by UN member states to serve as the host country for COP29—the world’s premier climate change summit or “conference of the parties”—which will take place in late 2024. This makes Azerbaijan the first former Soviet republic and only the second state belonging to the Eastern European Group (one of five UN “regional groups” that rotate the distribution of various top posts and the chairmanship of various bodies within the UN system) to be granted this responsibility.

Of even greater significance is the fact that this unexpected outcome was one of two concrete results of the first-ever, directly negotiated written agreement between Baku and Yerevan, not only regarding each other’s leadership in interstate bodies and organizations but also on the ongoing peace process that began in the wake of the Second Karabakh War (September 27, 2020–December 10, 2020).


The December 7, 2023, joint statement announcing this breakthrough consists of two basic elements. The first declared the withdrawal of Armenia’s candidacy to host COP29 and its unconditional support of Azerbaijan’s bid, while also calling on other countries to support the latter. In return, Azerbaijan agreed to support Armenia’s bid to become one of eleven members of the COP Bureau—a subsidiary body that mainly assists the COP presidency in process management matters. The background here is that Yerevan had sought to host COP29 once it became clear that Russia would break the necessary consensus on any EU or NATO member state belonging to the UN’s Eastern European Group to host the world’s annual climate summit (in this case, Bulgaria) due to diplomatic tensions with the West arising from the conflict over Ukraine. Yerevan’s candidacy—announced last year—had prompted Baku to do the same this past summer, which had further complicated matters.

Azerbaijan’s successful election to host COP29 reinforces my contention that Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev teaches a longstanding masterclass in statecraft and that his classroom is located in one of the world’s toughest, most unforgiving neighborhoods. It also lends further credence to my argument that Azerbaijan has become an indispensable country for the advancement of Western and Turkish strategic connectivity (and energy security) ambitions in Eurasia, or what I have argued should better be described as the “Silk Road region.”

My assessment of the growing importance of Azerbaijan builds on one of the most striking judgments made by Zbigniew Brzezinski in his 1997 book, The Grand Chessboard, in which he called Azerbaijan the “cork in the bottle containing the riches of the Caspian Sea basin and Central Asia.” Two recent underappreciated events speak to the growing salience of this point: the first-ever participation of Azerbaijan’s president in the September 2023 Dushanbe summit of the Central Asian heads of state and the first-ever summit of the heads of state of countries belonging to something called the UN Special Program for the Economies of Central Asia (SPECA). The latter was held in Baku, where Aliyev stated that “Azerbaijan and Central Asia represent a single historical, cultural and geopolitical space, with increasing strategic significance.” A few days later, at a major conference attended by sixty think-tank experts from thirty countries organized by ADA University and the Center of Analysis of International Relations (AIR Center), Aliyev had added that “now, with this [high-level] political interaction and concrete projects, we can create a synergy. We are doing that, and we talk about the political interaction.”

Indeed, the scale and scope of the plans now being laid (largely away from public view) may call to mind some of the initial arrangements that had been undertaken in other geographies in decades past, including the Association of Southeastern Asian Nations, the Nordic Council, the Gulf Cooperation Council, and, going back much further in time, the Hanseatic League. One of many recent pieces of evidence in this regard is the June 2023 agreement between Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Kazakhstan that should amount to a logistics and regulatory compact. In this context, it may be useful to recall that the focus of the original European Economic Community was on fostering economic interdependence—without sacrificing political sovereignty—through a reduction of trade barriers, the establishment of an embryonic customs union, and common arrangements regarding agriculture, transport, and the like.

This strategic possibility should not be as surprising as it may appear at first blush. Together with Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan belongs to the troika of the Silk Road region’s middle powers or “keystone states” (the term was coined by Nikolas Gvosdev in 2015 and refined in 2020). The next logical step would be trilateral summits between the heads of state of those three countries, building on the achievements of the inaugural trilateral meeting held between the ministers of economy and energy of those same three states in Baku on November 14, 2023. Should peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan be reached, this critical region would find itself one step closer to becoming—in the next decade or so—an autonomous subject of international order rather than remaining an object of major power rivalry.

To make this case properly is beyond the scope of this essay, but it is sufficient for present purposes to note that, for the first time in centuries, the strategic reality of the Silk Road region is one of “geopolitical heterogeneity,” as Vasif Huseynov put it in mid-2020. This, in turn, suggests that outside power agenda-setting in the Silk Road region may be on the way out—with implications for the future course of somewhat competing flagship projects like the EU’s Middle Corridor and Global Gateway, on the one hand, and the China-led Belt and Road Initiative, on the other.

The key here is to take seriously the qualitative distinction between a transport corridor and an economic corridor: the former conception relegates the Silk Road region to the status of a multimodal thoroughfare while the latter envisions the region as contributing substantially to the value chain of goods and services that would thus not merely traverse from east to west and vice versa, but also be produced or assembled in part in the region itself. There is obviously much work to be done in this context, but a recent World Bank report—which had been preceded by one issued by the EBRD—suggests recognition by major political and financial players that the latter option is the one now in play. The fulfillment of the potential of unique bodies like the Alat Free Economic Zone and the Astana International Financial Centre would also advance this proposition.

All this indicates that something of truly geostrategic importance is taking place in the Silk Road region. The cumulation of these and other developments, which are unlikely to bear fruit in the short term, may very well require the major outside powers—Western and non-Western alike—to no longer harbor aspirations of domination, primacy, sphere of interest, or anything similar. What I wrote in these pages in May 2023 still may be true today: “the South Caucasus [is] the sole geopolitical theater in which the White House and the Kremlin are presently not in overt opposition, which suggests a tacit realization by each that their respective interests in this part of the world are not entirely incompatible.” The fact that an “off-diary meeting” between U.S., EU, and Russian envoys to the Armenia-Azerbaijan peace process took place in Istanbul on September 17, 2023 speaks to this point, even if its outcome was reported to be unsuccessful.

That is the strategic context within which we can now turn to the second element of the December 7, 2023, joint Armenian-Azerbaijani statement, which speaks directly to the peace process itself. I refer to a very concrete confidence-building step, namely the exchange of military servicemen by the two sides (thirty-two Armenians for two Azerbaijanis). The text implies that this prisoner release on December 13, 2023, is but the first of “tangible steps towards building confidence between two countries,” including future meetings, with concrete results, of two “state commissions” (one on the delimitation of the state border and another on border security). There also could be talks on unblocking road and rail links between the countries, including what Baku calls the “Zangezur corridor,” while stating explicitly that Armenia and Azerbaijan “will continue their discussions regarding the implementation of more confidence-building measures, effective in the near future, and call on the international community to support their efforts that will contribute to building mutual trust between two countries and will positively impact the entire South Caucasus region.”

This last passage can be interpreted to mean that Baku and Yerevan now see an advantage to continuing peace talks directly, without foreign intermediaries—that is to say, without Russia as a “mediator,” the EU as a “facilitator,” and the United States as a “supporter,” as they style themselves, respectively.

I believe this is due at least in part to Yerevan coming to terms with the deleterious consequences of the West’s (and particularly France’s) rather quixotic flirtation with Armenia—a country that remains locked in an unhappy marriage with Russia with no short-term perspective whatsoever for separation, much less divorce, given the country’s geopolitical and geoeconomics realities. Azerbaijan is unwilling to participate in a negotiating process involving third parties it sees as violating the basic precondition of an intermediary, i.e., neutrality (Aliyev rather directly articulated this position during the aforementioned ADA University-AIRCenter conference, a full transcript of which is available here). The same passage from the December 7, 2023, joint statement may also suggest that Armenia and Azerbaijan recognize both the political and practical limits of the 2+3 format for talks (the 3 here are Iran, Russia, and Turkey), which was made manifest most recently on October 23, 2023 at a meeting hosted by Iran.