Moscow’s involvement in Ukraine allows the EU to accredit itself as a mediator between Armenia and Azerbaijan

The European Union Parliament in Strasbourg (Credit: Diliff, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Geopolitical Report ISSN 2785-2598 Volume 25 Issue 3
Author: Luca Urciuolo

After almost three decades on the sidelines of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict negotiation process, the European Union (EU) has now stepped in, positioning itself as a mediator in the Armenian-Azerbaijani conciliation process.

Armenia and Azerbaijan fought two wars over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh in the 1990s and 2020. However, the last six months have been marked by recurrent outbreaks of hostilities between the two South Caucasian republics interspersed with stuttering efforts at peace talks.

After fighting broke out in March, the EU stepped in to mediate, and the parties agreed to negotiations in April. Tensions rose again over the summer, turning into deadly clashes in early August before a Brussels summit between Armenian and Azerbaijani officials and mediated by the EU at the end of the same month.

It represented a growing European involvement in resolving the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict, particularly against an apparent declining Russian role. Indeed, while Russia is seen as the traditional powerbroker in the region and the guarantor of Armenia’s security, it is busy taking care of its “special operation” in Ukraine, leaving the space open for the EU to undertake the moderator role actively.

The newest proactive European approach has gained more vigour after deadly clashes in September at the Armenian-Azerbaijan border that raised fears of a new all-out conflict in the region. This led to high-level four-way mediation talks in Prague on October 6th, 2022, where the European Council President Charles Michel and French President Emmanuel Macron met the Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and the Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. Considering what has happened in recent months, the EU’s engagement has been more sustained, robust, and assertive than before. The fact that diplomatic talks resulted in concrete decisions represented a rarity in previous cases of EU involvement in the region.

Can the EU displace Russia as a mediator in the conflict?

In the early hours of September 13th, 2022, fighting broke out along the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan, killing at least 207 Armenian and 80 Azerbaijani soldiers. This escalation was the deadliest between the two countries since their six-week war in 2020. It erupted at several spots along Armenia’s eastern border with Azerbaijan, spilling into key towns inside Armenia. Azerbaijani forces drove deep into Armenia with artillery, mortar, and drone attacks along a 200km border. The following 48 hours of hostilities covered a much more significant swathe of territory than in previous years when fighting was confined to areas in or around the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave.

The EU monitoring mission to the Armenian side of the border with Azerbaijan represents the first international presence initiated by Brussels since the beginning of the conflict in 1988. On October 17th, 2022, the EU Council decided to deploy up to 40 experts along the Armenian side of the international border with Azerbaijan with “the objective of monitoring, analyzing, and reporting on the situation in the region.”. The decision was announced following the quadrilateral meeting in Prague.

The mission, as the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell, stated, “will aim to build confidence in the unstable situation that is putting lives at risk and jeopardizes the conflict resolution process.”. The mission has been started on October 20th, 2022 and will last for a maximum of two months. European observers are expected to assist in border delimitation between countries not only in conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh but have also yet to clarify their post-Soviet administrative borders.

The risk of the new escalation along the Armenian-Azerbaijani border remains high after heavy clashes last month. Dissatisfied with the passive response of the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), to which Yerevan appealed while hostilities were still ongoing, the Armenian authorities turned to the EU.

Despite its complex, multi-level bureaucracy, the EU responded surprisingly quickly to this request. It deployed a technical mission to clarify European monitors’ potential functions and powers, hold meetings with the foreign and defence ministries and visit borderline settlements. As an urgent measure, it was decided that the monitoring experts would be temporarily deployed from the European Union Monitoring Mission in Georgia (EUMM Georgia), which has been there since 2008.

Armenia hopes that the deployment of the EU observers will serve as a deterrent to Azerbaijan. Analyst Boris Navasardyan, chairman of the Yerevan Press Club, described the EU initiative as very positive. “Firstly, the presence of about 40 EU monitors will ensure that no more incidents happen at the border at all, or they will not be of that scale as in September. Secondly, given that we expect the intensification of the negotiation process in different directions [peace treaty, communications, and border delimitation], the peace on the border will contribute to a more constructive negotiation process than it is now when Armenia is constantly under pressure.”

Moreover, Azerbaijan also agreed to the EU mission given that it takes place in Armenian territory, not its own, said Zaur Shiriyev, a Baku-based analyst at the International Crisis Group. “The language of the agreement in Prague is very vague, and the mission is directly on the territory of Armenia.”

Russia seems to be the only country displeased with the European initiative. Although Russia is focused on the war in Ukraine, Moscow still sees its role as an exclusive mediator in the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict and considers the EU peacekeeping efforts as an attempt to seize the initiative. The idea of sending a civilian EU mission to the Armenian-Azerbaijani border is considered in Russia as another attempt by the EU to intervene by any means in the normalisation process and oust Moscow’s mediation efforts, Russian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova said during a briefing on October 11th, 2022.

At a diplomatic summit in Astana on October 12th, 2022, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov offered Yerevan to convene the CSTO security council to send its monitors to Armenia. Indeed, Yerevan would like a political assessment from its CSTO allies regarding the situation on the border with Azerbaijan, but no statement has yet been delivered.

First of all, we need to understand to what extent the organisation acknowledges the existing situation, i.e., aggression against the republic of Armenia and invasion into its sovereign territory,” the Armenian Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan said during a joint press conference with his Norwegian counterpart Anniken Huitfeldt on October 18th, 2022, in Yerevan. According to political analyst Tigran Grigoryan, it is in the interests of Armenia to have international monitors along its border with Azerbaijan since security guarantees associated with Russia have proved unsuccessful. “The Russian border guards, to put it mildly, acted very passively during the September aggression of Azerbaijan,” he said. “And in this regard, it is unclear how the CSTO monitors will be different.”.

What should we expect in the future?

Being aware of Moscow’s unfavourable position in the global arena, the European Union is attempting to position itself as a new mediator in the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute. The EU has brought the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders together four times since the November 2020 ceasefire and shows every sign of continuing its efforts. Already, it has called for all forces to return to positions held before the escalation of September 13th, 2022, and European Council President Michel has promised that the European Union is committed to its role as “an honest broker.”

This role is increasingly taking on greater weight in the peace processes between the two Caucasus republics under Armenia’s and Azerbaijan’s border commissions, established on May 23rd, 2022, and meeting for the third time in Brussels on November 3rd, 2022. Therefore, the EU seems to be the most proactive, once again coming to fill the geopolitical vacuum of the region, while the Russian-led CSTO’s reaction was lukewarm at best.

As in the case of the Russian-Georgian war, where France played the crucial role of mediator, the Armenian-Azerbaijani conciliation process is also led by France under the direct supervision of President Macron. Though the deployment of the EU’s mission is late, it is still critical from the perspective of having objective and versatile information which could serve as a more credible source for the international society.

Nevertheless, Russia will not sit idly by. Russian President Vladimir Putin showed that Russia still intended to count in the Caucasus and influence his traditional zone of influence by receiving Aliyev and Pashinyan in Sochi on October 31st, 2022. Indeed, Russia remains the guarantor of the 2020 ceasefire and has nearly 2,000 peacekeepers stationed in Nagorno-Karabakh.

On the one hand, Putin has insisted that despite the war it is waging against its neighbour, Russia still has the resources necessary to mediate in the South Caucasus conflict. On the other hand, Moscow is trying to be incredibly strategic about its relations with regional powers because of the conflict with Ukraine.

It signed an agreement with Baku deepening bilateral military and diplomatic cooperation ahead of its assault on Ukraine in February 2022. It is eager to stay on good terms with Türkiye, Azerbaijan’s closest ally. Indeed, Armenian officials report that, for several months, Moscow has stressed the importance of its relationship with Ankara – which has played a crucial mediating role in Ukraine and refused to join Western sanctions on Russia – in asking Armenia to be more flexible to Azerbaijan’s demands.

Moscow will almost certainly attempt to preserve Yerevan and Baku in its sphere of influence, while these last will undoubtedly seek to increase their cooperation with the European Union. Nevertheless, the most promising path forward involves all primary mediators – Russia, the EU, France, and the U.S. – finding a way to continue pulling in the same direction as they did in the immediate aftermath of the mid-month escalation. Only sustained attention by international actors with influence in Baku and Yerevan has a hope of curtailing further violence.

Moscow and its Western counterparts will need to take pains to compartmentalise their historically high tensions over the war in Ukraine, coordinating their efforts quietly or indirectly to the extent possible and avoiding actions that one or the other might find threatening.

On September 14th, 2022, Moscow’s apparent nervousness about Western involvement emerged when a senior diplomat accused the EU of trying to oust Russia from the region. All these outside actors should bear in mind that the interests of Russia and the West in the Armenia-Azerbaijan dispute largely coincide: Russia does not want any escalation that would require its response, and the West does not want an escalation that would lead Russia to beef up its military presence in the region, which has already grown since 2020.

As for what the mediators tell Baku and Yerevan, the core message has not changed: efforts to resolve the parties’ long-running dispute militarily are likely to produce nothing better than a brittle, unsustainable peace. The frequency of fighting throughout 2022 is cause for alarm. Although Armenia and Azerbaijan may now be edging closer to a peace agreement, the negotiations remain fraught. Without significant external pressure, the 30-year conflict could too easily flare up anew, especially as September’s fighting stokes fresh anger in a region still raw from the 2020 war.


Disclaimer. The views and opinions expressed in this report are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of SpecialEurasia. For further information and analyses about the Republic of Armenia and the Republic of Artsakh/Nagorno-Karabakh, please visit our special section, “Discovering & Analysing Armenia,” and feel free to contact us at info@specialeurasia.com.