Russia’s indecision: Armenia and Azerbaijan return to violence
Moscow has declined to choose between its old friend Armenia and newer friend Azerbaijan. But the EU still has some way to go to make a difference through diplomacy.
Just two weeks before violence broke out once more between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the leaders of both countries had been in Brussels for talks described by European Council president Charles Michel as “open and productive”. Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev, declared his hope for a peace treaty signed within months; his country released five Armenian prisoners on 8 September.
Yet on 12 September, a series of clashes along the countries’ border resulted in dozens of casualties on both sides, giving rise to fears large-scale hostilities could resume. Despite a Russian-brokered ceasefire in November 2020, violence continued to bubble up periodically. But the latest incidents are of a different degree, and took place far from the Nagorno-Karabakh region, which has long been at the heart of the dispute between the two states.
So why would Armenia and Azerbaijan resume hostilities? On the face of it, the incentives to keep them in the talks should be strong. For Armenia, a peace deal with Azerbaijan would allow it to normalise its relations with Turkey. This would help diversify its trade routes and foster foreign investment in the country, while at the same time reducing its long-standing dependence on Moscow as a guarantor of its security. For Azerbaijan, the ceasefire agreement of November 2020 allowed it to take back control of its territories around Nagorno-Karabakh as well as a significant portion of this region – but it had to accept the permanent presence of thousands of Russian peacekeepers on these regained territories, at least until 2025. Many Azerbaijanis, both politicians and citizens, view this arrangement as a significant infringement of their sovereignty. A peace deal could help bring this peacekeeping mission to an end.
Despite this shared interest in concluding an agreement, Armenia and Azerbaijan are still far from settling their conflict. The core issue is the status of the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh, as indeed it has been for the last 30 years. The question remains unresolved and the two sides still have diametrically opposed views on how to address it.
The Armenian prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan, has signalled his willingness to discuss the issue in terms of rights and guarantees for the Armenian people living in the region. This is a significant turn from his country’s traditional position, which formerly would underline the status of the territory itself. This shift means that Pashinyan appears to be ready to recognise Azerbaijan’s sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh, provided an agreement to secure specific guarantees for the Armenian population of the region. Meanwhile, Azerbaijan wants Armenia to recognise the interstate border, including Azerbaijan’s sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh. It would then prefer to discuss the status of this region and the rights of its inhabitants at a second stage, and for it to be accepted as an internal Azerbaijani issue – i.e. with no involvement from Armenia. Azerbaijan is also pushing for the creation of new “corridors” linking Armenia to Karabakh without passing through the Azerbaijani-controlled city of Shusha, but even more importantly – as seen from Baku – linking Azerbaijan to its exclave of Nakhichevan , which is separated by Armenian territory.
So far Moscow has been reluctant to engage on this issue. Armenia was traditionally one of its closest allies, has hosted a Russian military base since 1991, and is part of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (Azerbaijan is not a member.) Its landlocked situation means that Armenia has become increasingly dependent on Russia’s security support. At the same time, in recent years Russia’s relations with Azerbaijan have grown much closer. Since the 2020 war, Turkey has openly provided support to Azerbaijan’s military, while Baku has successfully hedged its relations with Ankara and Moscow. Besides, Vladimir Putin does not conceal his sympathy for Aliyev over Pashinyan, who came to power through a popular uprising in 2018. But Russia is now faced with a difficult dilemma: letting Armenia down would corrode its already-tarnished image as a security provider and destroy the CSTO’s credibility (Armenia has invoked article 4 of the treaty, which is similar to NATO’s article 5, but has not received the support it had hoped for); supporting Armenia would mean alienating Azerbaijan, with no strategic benefit except to maintain an already dubious reputation on security.
Azerbaijan’s calculus for now seems to be: exert maximum pressure on the interstate border (where the Russian peacekeeping contingent is not present) and on Armenia’s territory (including shelling it) to force Yerevan into committing to Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity, including Nagorno-Karabakh. In choosing this course, it is assuming that Russia will remain neutral until it can sponsor an agreement along these lines.
Faced with this situation, and confronted with domestic protests, Pashinyan has publicly reiterated his commitment to a peace agreement, even at the price of his own political future: “The people may even decide to remove us from power. But we will be grateful if as a result of this Armenia receives lasting peace and security on an area of 29,800 square kilometres [the size of the official territory of Armenia in its current borders]”. The message to Azerbaijan was transparent: pushing too hard may threaten his position as prime minister, and therefore jeopardise the best chance Azerbaijan has ever had to reach an agreement that recognises its sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh. Just hours after Pashinyan’s declaration, a ceasefire was agreed.
However, a peace agreement is still a distant prospect. If the EU intends to continue its mediation – which Moscow has harshly criticised in a way that suggests it is rattled by the EU’s involvement – it needs to step up its diplomatic engagement with both sides. In particular, it should aim to put forward concrete and thought-through proposals regarding the security and the rights of the Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh, to ensure that this issue is dealt with sooner rather than later.
So long as Russia declines to choose between Armenia and Azerbaijan, there could be an opening for EU actors to assist. The participants in the talks likely view the bloc as more neutral than Russia, but less decisive. An EU effort that helped resolved this long-standing issue would be a significant diplomatic achievement that demonstrated its geopolitical coming of age.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.