India’s Stake in the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict 

Recent Features

Flashpoints | Security | South Asia

India’s Stake in the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict 

Armenia is a crucial player in the planned International North-South Transportation Corridor. Its defeat will require India to adjust its strategy for the South Caucasus.

India’s Stake in the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict 

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (right) meets Nikol Pashinyan, prime minister of Armenia, on the sidelines of 74th session of UNGA in New York, Sep. 25, 2019.

Credit: Indian Ministry of External Affairs

When it comes to Armenia and its ethnic exclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, India has staked out a fairly defined position over the last few years, from arms sales to transcontinental rail lines to condemnations of Azerbaijan’s aggression in the region. Certainly, this was not without reason. For one, Azerbaijan’s long-time association with Pakistan had turned the conflict into one of the world’s more obscure proxy wars. Additionally, the South Caucasus region has become key for India’s ambitions to build a transportation corridor linking it to Europe through the Iranian plateau (called the International North-South Transportation Corridor, or INSTC), a plan Armenia was all too eager to support

All of this might suggest that in light of the collapse of Armenian lines in Nagorno-Karabakh last week, and the separatist government’s surrender this week, India would be quick to emphasize its interests in the region. Yet the silence from the External Affairs Ministry speaks volumes about India’s estimation of the future of the South Caucasus.

India’s involvement as late as this summer in Armenian affairs was, if anything, progressing toward greater support for Armenia. India sold arms to Armenia, including rocket launchers, artillery, and radar systems, despite loud resistance by Azerbaijan. India also sought to continue a years-long process of developing business ties with Armenia by signing several new MOUs with Armenia on digital infrastructure, in anticipation of the increased commercial connection between the two countries via the INSTC. In this regard, India actually appeared to be doubling down on developing parts of the transport corridor, with increased investments being made and new contracts being drawn up over the summer for Iran’s Chabahar port, an important piece of the INSTC. Certainly, none of this was particularly groundbreaking, but neither was it out of character with the course that Armenia-India bilateral relations have taken in the last few years. In other words, there was little evidence of India getting cold feet prior to last week’s military operation by Azerbaijan.

Yet India has done little in the last week to indicate support for Armenia, or even condemnation for Azerbaijan’s actions. This is quite strange, considering that India had previously at least expressed hope for a mediated settlement between the two sides. Yet, with the exception of a meeting at the U.N. General Assembly on Sunday, little in the way of substantive action has been taken on the part of India to express its position in the shift in power in the Caucasus.

It would be hard to say India faces outside pressure to remain silent for fear of alienation: Countries as disparate as France, Iran, and the United States all expressed varying degrees of support for Armenia, or at the least concern for ethnic Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh, all with little incident. This would, on its face, suggest that something internal is driving India’s public response to the crisis, perhaps a realization that a partnership with Armenia is simply too risky given the stakes.

For its own part, Armenia has seemingly realized that some change is afoot, sending a new ambassador last week to New Delhi despite the ongoing chaos in the capital and Nagorno-Karabakh. The ambassador’s credentials, as both an Iran expert and as a regional diplomat in the South Caucasus, suggests the particular direction that Armenia wants to take bilateral relations with India: Namely, emphasizing India’s link to the problems of the South Caucasus via its relationship with Iran. 

If India’s assessment is that relying on Armenia as a key economic partner in the region is becoming too risky, they could be forgiven for thinking so, especially with regard to its interest in completing the INSTC. In order to do so, India needs a rail link to go from northwestern Iran across the southern Caucasus to either Russia or the Black Sea. In this regard, India (and Iran) have two options: one via Armenia’s southern Syunik province, and the other via the Caspian coast through Azerbaijan. India has clearly chosen the former, at least up until this point. 

Yet the developments in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict threaten the viability of this rail line, as the link crosses the Zangezur corridor, an important hypothetical corridor linking Azerbaijan to its exclave, Nakhchivan. Although only previously proposed, recent comments by Ilham Aliyev, the president of Azerbaijan, as well as Turkish President Erdogan’s speech at the UNGA, would suggest that the territorial viability of this corridor might be in question. This does not seem to be an idle threat, either; at least some powers, like Iran, seem to take the threat to Syunik seriously enough to both reiterate Armenia’s control over the province (a fact that is already internationally recognized) and muster troops to its northwestern border in response to the recent fighting. 

Regardless of whether conflict actually breaks out over the corridor, the fact remains that building a railway through a region that is the possible site of conflict between Iran and Turkey, two of the largest militaries in the region, is not a recipe for political stability in the long term. India almost certainly needs to find another route.

At first glance, the recent developments in Nagorno-Karabakh would seem to be quite the blow to India, while providing a boon to Pakistan and indirectly benefiting India’s other main rival in Asia, China. After all, a key advantage of the INSTC is that it would allow India to effectively outflank Pakistan and access overland routes to Europe and Central Asia otherwise blocked by Islamabad. It would also provide India a means by which to peel Iran out of China’s orbit, and potentially outflank Beijing’s own infrastructure projects in the region. In supporting Azerbaijan militarily and diplomatically in the lead-up to the most recent outbreak in fighting, Pakistan has, intentionally or otherwise, played a decisive role in the stymying of India’s particular ambitions in the South Caucasus. 

However, Pakistan’s strategy has drawbacks. Newly emboldened, Azerbaijan’s aggressive actions have drawn international condemnation. Any further support could put Pakistan in the position of aiding a controversial power that provides Islamabad with very few direct, tangible benefits (unlike Pakistan’s support for the Taliban, another controversial partner). 

Moreover, it is not as if India lacks alternative options. Although switching the INSTC to the Caspian Sea route would be diplomatically arduous, there is still room for progress. Despite clashes at the Azeri embassy in Tehran earlier this year, along with Azerbaijan’s continuing ties with Iran’s archenemy, Israel, the two countries were still able to agree on a tentative proposal to restart construction on the rail link between the two countries. Even in the face of disagreements, the INSTC issue appears to be potent enough for Baku to put aside its differences with outside powers for the sake of cooperation. Thus, although Azerbaijan has been keen to condemn India’s arms sales to Armenia, it is very unlikely that such friction will limit future cooperation on the INSTC if India is really serious about pursuing it. The effort will almost certainly require some smoothing over of the relationship, but India still has many options to execute its INSTC strategy, if it so chooses.

India’s recent silence in the South Caucasus might not be without cost. If India continues to remain silent on Armenia’s defeat, it might be a negative symbol to other countries seeking India’s military, diplomatic, and economic support. But that being said, neither is the recent defeat of Armenia in Nagorno-Karabakh a complete rout of India’s ambitions within the South Caucasus. As India refigures its foreign policy to a region now changed by the defeat in Nagorno-Karabakh, it almost certainly will have to seek out other, more stable avenues for its infrastructure ties; given the potential of the INSTC project, it will not be hard to attract potential suitors. 

For their part, India’s economic and political rivals will have to come up with new strategies to prevent the execution of India’s strategy in Iran and the Caucasus. The success or failure of either side will depend on how quickly they adapt to the changed reality in the Caucasus.