The devilish dilemma of disengagement in Nagorno-Karabakh

The recent flareup of the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh has presented the EU with a devilish dilemma – how to respond to a conflict if it is unclear who is to blame and if there is no readily available “off-the-shelf morality”?

The current escalation of the long-standing conflict, already featuring the collapse of two ceasefires – one brokered by Russia and one by the OSCE-led Minsk group – has seen the gravest violence since the early 1990s, when more than 30,000 people were killed [1]. The ongoing hostilities have witnessed reciprocal accusations of attacks on civilians by both parties, notably including heavy shelling of the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh by Azerbaijan as well as serious attacks on the city of Ganja by Armenia. Moreover, the conflict entails a crucial international dimension, as Azerbaijan has the firm political and military backing of Turkey due to deep ethnic and linguistic ties, whereas Armenia has a formal security alliance with Russia, though it sells arms to both parties in the conflict.

The crisis in Nagorno-Karabakh has placed the West, the Baltic states included, in the unpalatable position of formulating a position regarding a conflict in a strategically pivotal region without an easily available recourse to “moral high ground”. Both Azerbaijan and Armenia have historically engaged in provocative behaviour and adopted maximalist positions, rendering potential conflict resolution increasingly difficult. The enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, which has been disputed since the collapse of the Soviet Union, de jure is part of Azerbaijan, but de facto since 1994 has been under the control of Armenia as the republic of Artsakh. The Republic of Artsakh, which has a predominantly Armenian population, has no international legal recognition (not even from Armenia itself), and there have been four UN Security Council Resolutions calling for the removal of Armenian troops from Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding occupied territories of Azerbaijan [2]. There are still hundreds of thousands of IDPs expelled from these regions now residing in Azerbaijan in dire conditions, regularly resurfacing as a domestic political pressure point for Baku. Azerbaijan, buoyed by vast oil revenue, has pursued an ambitious military modernisation program, thus further opening the window for potential military solutions to recapturing occupied territories.

For its part, Armenia has cast the crisis in Nagorno-Karabakh not as solely a territorial dispute, but an extension of its existential battle for survival amidst a most precarious geopolitical position. Armenian officials have reportedly framed the ongoing conflict as a continuation of the early 20th-century Armenian genocide that resulted in more than 1 million Armenian deaths at the hands of the Ottoman Empire [3]. Considering Turkey’s active military and political assistance to Baku, including through reportedly sending Syrian fighters and providing air support, Armenia feels increasingly threatened by the growing assertiveness of Turkish foreign policy in the region. Yerevan has sought to bring international attention to the alleged resurgence of Turkish neo-imperialism, pointing to Ankara’s projection of force in Libya, Syria, and disputed waters in the Eastern Mediterranean. As implored by Armenian President Armen Sarkissian, “I am ready to tell [Angela] Merkel, that I understand that Europe is busy with other things and everyone is busy with COVID-19 […] but the war of Turkey and Azerbaijan risks creating another Syria. Or making Turkey the creator and the ruler of an energy crisis to Europe” [3]. Recognising its unfavourable position on the ground (with Azerbaijani forced having recaptured several villages) as well as the ambiguity of Moscow’s position in this crisis, Yerevan has actively sought to activate its powerful diaspora in France and the United States in an attempt to galvanise international support.

Faced with this dilemma, the Western reaction and political response would appear to be disengagement. Indeed, a notable feature of the international reaction to the current hostilities in Nagorno-Karabakh has been the absence of the EU and the US. While there have been official calls for de-escalation at the highest political levels of the European Commission, the EEAS, and the European Parliament, there has otherwise been no apparent willingness in Brussels to expend political or diplomatic capital on managing this conflict [4]. As pointedly highlighted by Edward Lucas, the Western response to the conflict has involved “no Western shuttle diplomacy. No emergency summits. No arm-twisting. No threats of sanctions. No offers of peacekeepers. Nothing” [5]. Much of the same can be said for Washington, which is admittedly preoccupied with a presidential election and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. While the Trump administration has achieved commendable diplomatic progress in the Middle East, most recently in the form of normalising Israel-UAE and Israel-Bahrain relations, there has not been a similar interest in the Caucasus [6], despite strategic interests in the energy and transit sectors. The political disengagement of the Euro-Atlantic community in this crisis, even amidst powerful domestic concerns, may potentially come at a cost. It should come as no surprise that Western political absence in the region has been seized upon by Russia, Turkey, and potentially Iran, in an attempt to reshape the geopolitical balance in the region [7]. While the EU has spent time touting its “Eastern Partnership” framework for facilitating economic development, empowering civil society, and addressing security concerns in the Eastern Neighbourhood, its non-engagement in Nagorno-Karabakh has underscored its lack of ability, or interest for that matter, to project power in a stabilising role.

Ultimately, the recent flareup of the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh has served as a potent reminder that the West cannot place “frozen conflicts” in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus on the back-burner. The truths of realpolitik in the case of Nagorno-Karabakh have rendered the challenge of even formulating a coherent position, much less participating in mediation, remarkably difficult, with no political “low-hanging fruit” insight. In terms of charting the path forward, several dynamics must be accounted for:

  • While political leaders around the world are currently preoccupied with mitigating the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic (and understandably so), issues of war and peace will continue to necessitate engagement. The global pandemic, despite its enormous human and economic cost, has not served as a deterrent, nor has it translated into a global ceasefire, and conflict resolution must remain on top of the international political agenda.
  • Political leadership in Europe and the United States must recognise that (un)frozen conflicts will continue to persist and flare up, and demonstrate more willingness to spend political capital and resources on addressing persistent (un)frozen conflicts in Nagorno-Karabakh, Transnistria, the Donbass, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia, among others. For the EU, frozen conflicts in the neighbourhood will continue to generate negative spill-overs, posing a persistent challenge to Brussels’ aspirations for a “geopolitical Europe”.
  • There must be greater urgency in the West to strengthen international arms control and arms trade regimes, particularly with regards to attaching human rights conditionality. As seen in the case of Nagorno-Karabakh, the widespread inflow of arms from Europe, Russia, Turkey, Israel, and Syria has only fuelled the conflict and exacerbated its human cost. The Euro-Atlantic community and its like-minded partners around the world must advance efforts toward expanding the scope and enforcement of international frameworks, such as the Arms Trade Treaty and the Convention on Cluster Munitions, among others.

References:

[1] https://www.politico.eu/article/armenia-azerbaijan-ceasefire-proves-short-lived-again/

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/sep/28/why-are-armenia-and-azerbaijan-fighting-what-are-implications

[3] https://www.politico.eu/article/armenia-president-armen-sarkissian-nato-turkey-involvement-nagorno-karabakh/

[4] https://eeas.europa.eu/headquarters/headquarters-homepage/86498/nagorno-karabakh-remarks-high-representative-vice-president-josep-borrell-ep-plenary-debate_en

[5] https://cepa.org/black-flowers-in-a-black-garden/

[6] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/oct/04/us-armenia-azerbaijan-nagaon-karabakh

[7] https://www.weltwoche.ch/amp/2020-41/weltwoche-international/wi-caucasus-die-weltwoche-ausgabe-41-2020.html

Published 26 October 2020

Author Tomass Pildegovičs