Why the West Should Care about Nagorno Karabakh and Act
WASHINGTON—The conflict in Ukraine and the massive influx of refugees from the Middle East and beyond have shown that the European Union is only as secure as its neighborhood. As long as the EU is surrounded by so-called “frozen conflicts,” its interests may be compromised.
In the region the EU calls its “Eastern neighborhood,” there are currently five frozen conflicts involving five out of six countries in the EU’s Eastern Partnership: Donbas between Ukraine and Russia, Transnistria between Moldova and Russia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia between Georgia and Russia, and the most volatile in Nagorno Karabakh (NK) between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
The bloodiest fighting in NK since the ceasefire of 1994 broke out on the night of April 2. Representing Karabakhi authorities in international negotiations, Armenia invokes the region’s right to self-determination, while Azerbaijan insists on its own right to territorial sovereignty. The uncompromising rhetoric of Baku and Yerevan stands as one of the main obstacles to successfully resolving the conflict, especially when local leadership also uses the conflict to justify their own domestically unpopular actions.
Once again, each side blamed the other for the violation of the ceasefire. Reportedly, several dozens of people died in the fighting, including troops, civilians, and children. Since the April 5 ceasefire the current wave of hostilities seems to have stopped.
However, this was not the first violation of the ceasefire — and it is unlikely to be the last. A longer-lasting outbreak of fighting in NK has the potential to undermine regional stability and broader European interests.
First, there is the matter of pipelines. For over a decade, the EU has hoped to diversify its gas supplies via Caspian Sea energy to reduce its dependence on Russia. While Russia often worked to undermine the EU’s efforts, an escalation of the NK conflict could further complicate EU plans. Two pipelines carry oil and gas from Azerbaijan westward, both passing near NK. Escalation of the conflict to wider-ranging military activities could easily endanger the viability of these pipelines and halt the building of new ones.
Second, unlike the other mentioned frozen conflicts, greater regional powers may possibly get directly involved if they act on their rhetoric. Of course, there is always a temptation to blame the bigger players. Some observers even conjectured that Russia or Turkey may have instigated the recent fighting; however, at this point no clear evidence backs these assertions.
Nevertheless, Turkey’s President Recep Tayip Erdoğan publicly promised to support Azerbaijan “till the end,” essentially backing a military solution to the conflict. This may not be an empty pledge, as in 2010 the two signed an Agreement on Strategic Partnership and Mutual Support. The agreement promises support in case either party faces military aggression. Moreover, while Turkey has no diplomatic relations with Armenia due to the genocide issue, it considers Azerbaijan within its “sphere of influence.”
In relation to spheres of influence, the South Caucasus has long been considered by many to be within Russia’s orbit. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin did not make the same kind of far-reaching statements as Erdoğan. Yet, much like NATO, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) mandates members defend one another if they come under attack. Both Armenia and Russia are CSTO members, while Azerbaijan is not. Armenia also hosts a permanent Russian military base on its territory. While there were reports of shelling of Armenian territory outside of the de facto independent NK, official Armenian sources refrained from a confirmation.
Of course, rational thinking would dictate that given their already strenuous domestic expenses, neither Moscow nor Ankara would get involved and instead would try to deescalate the situation. Yet, given recent animosity due to Turkey’s shooting down of a Russian plane in November, acting out of spite cannot be ruled out.
All of this points to the volatility of frozen conflicts and the possibility that “freezing” conflicts is not a viable strategy, as they can heat up at any time.
Hence, for the transatlantic partners, waiting to act on such conflicts until matters go south is not smart—in terms of both strategic and hard security. Meaningful and consistent Western involvement in resolving the NK conflict, bringing together the United States and the EU or its interested members, is essential. Irregular talks for ceasefires may temporarily stop bloodshed, but only a multinational peacekeeping operation working on an existent, yet overlooked, peace plan could end the conflict. Like it or not, this will also require Russia to be onboard. The West needs to acknowledge that and involve Moscow in negotiations and plans guaranteeing peace.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.