European politics has been convulsed in the past 18 months by the Ukraine conflict. Yet, there are concerns of a second war in the EU’s “backyard” after Azerbaijan launched a new military offensive on Tuesday against Armenian positions in Nagorno-Karabakh.
While a shaky ceasefire was agreed the following day, the continued possibility of a new war in the Caucasus is a significant blow for the 27 EU member states, not least for their energy security policy after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Just over a year ago, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen traveled to mineral-rich Azerbaijan to sign a memorandum of understanding on gas supplies with President Ilham Aliyev.
It is estimated that around two-thirds of Azerbaijan is rich in oil and natural gas. The country also produces a range of metals and industrial minerals, including aluminum, lead, iron and zinc.
Von der Leyen even asserted Azerbaijan to be a “reliable, trustworthy partner,” despite some critics asserting she was trading one energy autocracy for another.
European Council President Charles Michel, who has helped drive conciliation discussions between Armenia and Azerbaijan in recent weeks, said on Tuesday that the latest developments are “devastating.” This assessment was shared by Toivo Klaar, the EU’s special representative for the South Caucasus, who cautioned that “(Azerbaijan) military action will only worsen the situation.”
Perhaps the big unknown factor in the latest flare-up is what role, if any, Russia is playing. Moscow is the region’s traditional power broker, but some interpret Tuesday’s actions as a further indication that Russian President Vladimir Putin is losing influence in the wake of the Ukraine war.’
However, others point to the possibility that Putin may well have encouraged these latest developments, possibly to force a change of policy, or regime, in longstanding ally Armenia, which has significantly developed its ties with the West recently.
Nikol Pashinyan, who led the anti-government protests in 2018 and became Armenia’s prime minister, has asserted that his nation’s historical reliance on Russia as its single source of security was a “strategic error.” Armenia is still a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, an alliance of former Soviet Union countries mirroring NATO, but has annoyed Moscow recently on several counts.
First, it has recently undertaken joint military exercises with US troops. Second, Armenia has transitioned toward ratifying the Rome Convention establishing the International Criminal Court, which recently indicted Putin because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
A second related uncertainty is whether the offensive on Tuesday is really the start of a new war, or merely a more limited operation, possibly to try to encourage Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh to flee to Armenia. Before Wednesday’s uncertain ceasefire, Hikmet Hajiyev, a senior presidential aide, said Azerbaijan had already hit its main targets and the operations will now continue in a “more limited format.”
The backstory to the latest developments is the long, bloody tensions between the Azerbaijan and Armenian peoples going back more than 100 years. Nagorno-Karabakh — at the south of the Karabakh mountains — is widely recognized as part of Azerbaijan. Nagorno-Karabakh’s 120,000 inhabitants are predominantly ethnic Armenians and Christian.
The possibility of a new war in the Caucasus is a significant blow for the 27 EU member states.
The latter populace has its own separatist government, which, while close to Armenia, is not officially recognized by it or, indeed, any other nation. Armenians assert longstanding ties with the region, while Azerbaijan, whose people are mainly Turkic Muslims, also claims deep relations to the area.
Nagorno-Karabakh assumed the status of an autonomous region within the republic of Azerbaijan under the Soviet Union. The First Karabakh War lasted from 1988-1994. Around 30,000 people are estimated to have been killed and perhaps more than a million driven from their homes. Most of the latter were Azeris displaced when Armenia assumed control of Nagorno-Karabakh.
The second war in 2020 culminated in a huge loss for the separatist Nagorno-Karabakh state backed by Armenia. In just over a month, Azerbaijan won back large areas of land it had lost in the 1990s. Russia helped negotiate a ceasefire, including about 2,000 peacekeepers to guard the so-called Lachin corridor, the only road connecting Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia.
In recent months, tensions have intensified around the region, including after Azerbaijani troops blockaded the Lachin corridor, preventing the import of food and medicines to its roughly 120,000 inhabitants.
The offensive on Tuesday also comes after weeks of negotiations brokered by the EU, US and Russia to try to avoid a repeat of the 2020 war and end the worsening famine. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has called for the UN Security Council to take “clear and unambiguous steps to end Azerbaijani aggression.”
Earlier this month, there were hopes that tensions might ease when aid trucks operated by the International Committee of the Red Cross were allowed into Nagorno-Karabakh through the Lachin corridor and, separately, the Aghdam Road from Azerbaijan. However, that optimism may have faded.
Taken together, the Azerbaijan offensive has broader, regional implications beyond Nagorno-Karabakh. Europe and the wider West will want to see the situation stabilized in the coming days. But that scenario is by no means certain, especially if Russia has decided it wants to try to upend the regional status quo.