EU Faces Foreign Policy Headache with Armenian Aggression in Nagorno-Karabakh

EU Faces Foreign Policy Headache with Armenian Aggression in Nagorno-Karabakh

The EU is facing challenges on several fronts. Not only is the COVID-19 pandemic’s second wave crashing down on Europe, and the continent’s economy still struggling to recover from its first impact in spring, but the EU faces several foreign policy challenges at the same time. Brexit, the situation in Belarus, the poisoning of Alexei Navalny, and the continuing immigration crisis – these are all keeping EU leaders busy. Now they have to deal with a new foreign policy headache on Europe’s eastern borders that is entirely avoidable and unnecessary: the flare-up of hostilities over Nagorno-Karabakh.

Earlier this week, the EU’s High Representative Josep Borrell joined with MEPs in a debate in the European Parliament in urging a ceasefire and an immediate end to the bloodshed.

Nagorno-Karabakh is an enclave in the Caucasus that is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan. Yet Armenia has occupied this region and seven adjoining districts of Azerbaijan, since the two countries fought a war in the early 1990s during the break-up of the Soviet Union. Armenia has refused to hand back control of Azerbaijan’s territory, despite four United Nations’ resolutions calling for it to withdraw its forces.

This uneasy situation has remained in place for the past three decades, with brief border flare-ups, such as in 2014 and 2016. However, nothing like what we are seeing today: the fighting in the past week has involved heavy artillery, drones and warplanes. Already 27 civilians have been killed in Azerbaijan and 141 injured. Armenia has reported 220 soldiers and at least 21 civilians have died.

Armenia is accused of using the opportunity of a West distracted by COVID-19 to alter the situation on the ground and capture more Azerbaijani territory. As a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a military alliance of ex-Soviet states, Armenia is assured of Russian help if it faces external aggression within its borders. However, under international law no such intervention would be justified in Nagorno-Karabakh and its seven surrounding districts, which are internationally recognised Azerbaijani territories under Armenian occupation for 30 years. Nevertheless, this conflict has been advantageous for Armenia so far, which faced little downside despite its smaller size, economy, population, and military power in comparison to Azerbaijan.

However, this is a big loss for Europe. Not only is there a violent conflict at the southern edges of Europe, but it jeapardises the key pipeline that passes through Azerbaijan and supplies gas to Europe.Azerbaijan has also been a strong partner of the West, with a strong secular polity.

Azerbaijan has responded with restraint to Armenian aggression, attacking only targets inside Nagorno-Karabakh. This is after all Azerbaijani territory. Azerbaijan has been careful this past week to not attack Armenian targets within Armenia itself, which Armenia would almost certainly have used as a pretext to demand Russian military assistance as per the collective defence terms of the CSTO.

Armenia has been trying to force this escalation, by attacking Azerbaijan’s second city Ganja, which is of little military value to Armenia as it lies over 100 km from Nagorno-Karabakh. It has also attacked the towns of Beylagan, Barda and Terter and there are reports that militants from the Kurdistan Workers Party and the group’s Syrian branch, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), who received training in Iraq and Turkey have been transferred to Nagorno-Karabakh to train Armenia forces.

But Azerbaijan’s president Ilham Aliyev has been careful to avoid escalating the conflict.

“Now the target of Armenia, which is bombing Azerbaijan, is involving Russia and the CSTO in this conflict. They want us to hit Armenia too and then they would apply to the CSTO for protection,” Aliyev said in an interview with Turkish TV channel TRT.

Russia, the United States and France have called for a ceasefire, though Russian president Vladimir Putin is the only leader who has the regional clout to end the present conflict. He can tell Armenia to back down if he wishes – Russia is, after all, Armenia’s most important ally. Russia also has good relations with Azerbaijan, which would make it a mediator acceptable to both sides.

President Aliyev gave a positive assessment of Russia’s position on the current hostilities. “In this matter, Russia behaves like a very responsible and large country. Positive signals are coming from Russia and the issue of support for any side is not a subject for discussion,” he pointed out.

The EU needs to work with Russia to bring an immediate end to hostilities. Armenia should stop attacking Azerbaijan’s cities, and start negotiating its withdrawal from Nagorno-Karabakh. This simmering ‘frozen conflict’ will now have to be resolved, or else a wider regional war with Turkey, Iran and Russia cannot be ruled out.

This article originally appeared in eureporter on 9 Oct 2020.