The European Union civilian monitoring mission on the Armenian side of the Armenia-Azerbaijan border is finishing its work on December 19. For two months, the mission has been observing the two countries’ adherence to the ceasefire agreement concluded in September 2022 after the latest escalation of violence between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The deployment of the EU monitors in the region is unprecedented in terms of how quickly the EU responded to the escalation of the conflict, and also in the form of its response: a physical presence on the ground in addition to the usual statements made from a safe distance from the EU headquarters in Brussels.
“The European Union moved at an incredibly rapid, fast pace, in terms of a rapid reaction in immediate political decision to deploy and second, in even faster deployment itself,” comments Richard Giragosian, the director of Yerevan-based independent think-tank Regional Studies Center. “It was a direct reaction to an unprovoked attack on Armenia by Azerbaijan on September 13th, which represented a serious escalation in terms of interstate war, where an attack from Azerbaijan on Armenia proper had nothing to do with the Nagorno Karabakh conflict, and required an EU response.”
The French Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs, Catherine Colonna, stated on December 6th that the mission needs to be extended, as the “tension between the two countries has not eased, both on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border and in Nagorno-Karabakh,” and “it shows the lack of trust and security guarantees that Russia claimed to provide in this region.”
The European Union, however, decided not to extend the mandate of the mission, and rather focus on the possibility of a new mission to be deployed in the region next year. “To maintain our credibility as a facilitator of the dialogue between Armenia and Azerbaijan, a team will be deployed to Armenia to plan a possible civilian mission to be launched, in case of agreement, for next year,” said Joseph Borell, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, during a press briefing on December 12.
An EU diplomatic source confirmed to Epress.am that “the EU intends to deploy a team of experts to Armenia, to look at the possibility of a new civilian CSDP (Common security and defense policy) presence aimed at reinforcing confidence-building and facilitating the Armenia-Azerbaijan peace process,” and that “the EU and its Member States – in consultation with local partners – are currently reviewing how they can best continue to contribute to the objective of a sustainable peace through engagement on the ground.”
IS RUSSIA LOSING ITS EXCLUSIVE POSITION IN THE REGION?
Commenting on the intention to extend the mission, Maria Zakharova, the Spokesperson of Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, stated that “Brussels has aspirations to interfere in the process of normalization of relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan by all means,” and that the EU wants to “consolidate its presence on the ground and eventually squeeze Russia out of the region, this is their dream.”
Her comment raises the question of whether resolving the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan is in line with Russian interests, or whether Russia’s primary interest is rather maintaining its exclusive influence and presence in the region.
Richard Giragosian comments: “If we look at the recent hosting of meetings between Armenia and Azerbaijan in Brussels by Charles Michel, this also reflects Russia’s rather defensive reaction, when Russia is no longer as confident enjoying diplomatic monopoly on the issue. Despite having 2000 Russian peacekeepers in Nagorno Karabakh, this new bilateral conflict, a center of diplomacy between Armenia and Azerbaijan, is much more effectively handled by the European Union. Because the European Union is not seeking to mediate – it’s seeking to facilitate, to provide a platform for the Armenians and Azerbaijanis themselves to reach an agreement. But I do think that Russia does have a position of strength in terms of what was a unilateral deployment of Russian peacekeepers and Russia still maintains control over the projects of regional restoration of trade and transport.”
For Armenia, the Russian Federation has been the closest ally in the conflict with Azerbaijan since the beginning of the conflict in 1988. At the same time, Yerevan is increasingly disappointed with the Russian responses to the recent cases of Azerbaijani aggression. In May 2021, Azerbaijani forces captured more than 40 square kilometers of Armenian territory after launching attacks on the territory of Gegharkunik and Syunik regions. After the latest September attacks, another 10 square kilometers of Armenian territory stayed under Azerbaijani control. Hosting the annual summit of the Moscow-led CSTO alliance, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan criticized the alliance for its inability to “make a decision regarding the CSTO’s response to Azerbaijan’s aggression against Armenia.”
Furthermore, despite the presence of Russian peacekeepers in Nagorno Karabakh, Azerbaijani forces have blocked the strategically important Lachin corridor, connecting Armenia to Nagorno Karabakh’s de facto capital Stepanakert, already for the second time in December. The latest blockade of the corridor left more than 120 000 people cut off the only road out of Nagorno Karabakh, more than 1000 people, including 270 children unable to return home and prevented seriously ill patients from being transported to Yerevan for necessary treatment. The pipeline supplying natural gas from Armenia through Azerbaijani-controlled territory to Nagorno Karabakh, has been shut off as well – an event which could easily escalate the situation even further.
“As we’ve seen, Russia is noticeably absent after September 13th attacks and with Azerbaijan recently blocking the Lachin corridor, mainly you can say that their absence is due to their invasion of Ukraine,” comments Emily Babakanian Fraizer from the Regional Studies Center. “And as Russian influence is waning in the region, you can see the EU more, you can see the US coming in a bit more, and so it absolutely leaves room for others to come in. But I think there will be a time, when Russia does pay attention again to what’s going on here, which will be coming probably sooner than later.”
“The Russians are busy. And the center of their attention is not Nagorno Karabakh or South Caucasus.” comments Alexander Iskandaryan, political scientist and the director of Yerevan-based Caucasus Institute. “Putin doesn’t wake up in the morning to look at the map of Nagorno Karabakh. So I don’t think that Russians can change the situation dramatically. And Aliyev understands this better than me: the Russians are busy, and for Azerbaijan now there is a brilliant time to take what they can. In political science, we call it the salami tactic – when you take slice by slice, because you cannot eat it all.”
Iskandaryan believes that despite its lack of capacities or willingness to effectively guarantee the security on the ground, the Russian Federation’s position in the region is irreplaceable. “The European Union is not a security organization – its security is guaranteed by NATO. And in our region – the NATO is Turkey, that’s it,” he says. “You cannot replace Russians with Europeans, I cannot imagine that – to have a European military base on the territory? To have European bodyguards? The EU just cannot do it. They can propose a monitoring group, format for negotiations, technical support, expert support, financial support, such kinds of things. And for Armenia, I would say, that is important, even if just symbolically. If you don’t want to become Belarus, you should have any other format apart from the Russian one. Not because the Russians are good or bad – you simply need to have something else, to have another possibility, another place to work with others.”
FUTURE ESCALATION LIKELY IN NAGORNO KARABAKH
The Russian peacekeepers deployed to Nagorno Karabakh after the 2020 war operate under a 5-year-long mandate. After this term is over in 2025, both Armenia and Azerbaijan have to agree with their further presence in order for them to stay on the ground. With the situation being far from stable, it is important to think about the possible near-future scenarios.
“For the first time in history, Russia has imposed a deadline on itself. Of five years. And has imposed a requirement on itself that any extension will require everyone to agree,” says Giragosian. “This was the only way Russia could get Azerbaijan and Turkey to agree to the deployment, but it’s very important in terms of predictive analysis, that I do think Russia will provoke a situation to force a one time extension. I do think there is a very real danger of the Russian peacekeepers becoming targeted or becoming victims in the recent pattern of escalation and attacks by the Azerbaijanis, so a pretext of justification would be death or killing of Russian peacekeepers as a way for Russia to once again ignore its agreement, like the invasion of Ukraine, and justify a violation of their pledge.”
“I think if the conflict does escalate, it will be in Nagorno Karabakh rather than Armenia proper, that’s at the end of the day where Azerbaijan’s main and true objective lies, is to retake Nagorno Karabakh,” comments Emily Babakanian Fraizer.
“I am convinced of the danger of escalation,” adds Giragosian. “And the reason is also because for domestic reasons within Azerbaijan, the Azerbaijani government, the father-to-son dynasty, needs the conflict to distract from the absence of democracy and from family corruption. I do think, however, that the real security of Nagorno Karabakh now depends on Russia, not Armenia. Armenia seems quite incapable to do much more to defend Nagorno Karabakh.”
“It is not about the five years, not about what was signed and what was not, you have many things that were signed, but we see it is not usually workable format,” comments Alexander Iskandaryan. “It is all about the Ukrainian war. It is about how the Ukrainian war will stop or not stop or transform in the coming months and years. We are inside of an ongoing process which has not finished yet, and the role of Russia in post-Soviet space and in the South Caucasus depends on that.”