The long-standing conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh has come to an end, and it appears that the European Union has not been successful in its handling of the situation. This perception arises from the recent escalation of tensions caused by Azerbaijan, which conducted a blitzkrieg in the disputed region in September 2023. This event led to a mass exodus of over 100,000 ethnic Armenians who sought refuge in Armenia. Throughout this conflict, the EU has done little more than express condemnation of Azerbaijan’s military actions, but it has failed to act decisively. However, does the EU have the means to act in the South Caucasus, and has it not betrayed its principle of upholding human rights at the expense of Azerbaijan’s gas supplies?
The longest-lasting conflict since the end of the bipolar world appears to be concluding. At least one significant chapter in the protracted dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh, a contested territory between Armenia and Azerbaijan, has come to a close following the recent aggression in September 2023. On September 19th, Azerbaijan initiated another assault on the territory and its population. Through a swift offensive, Azerbaijan gained control of what was legally its territory, even though it was predominantly inhabited by ethnic Armenians. Following this offensive, a massive exodus of Armenians began, characterised by some analysts as ethnic cleansing by the Azerbaijani regime, with over 100,000 residents of the region fleeing to Armenia. With Azerbaijan having achieved complete control over the region and the majority of the population having evacuated, Nagorno-Karabakh will cease to exist by January 1, 2024, ultimately bringing the decades-long conflict to a close. This protracted conflict spanned over thirty years and can be traced back to the formation of the Soviet Union and the conclusion of World War I.
The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has served as an arena for the power interests of both world and regional powers. Not only Armenia and Azerbaijan had their interests on stage, but also Russia, which brokered peace negotiations after the 40-day war in 2020 and was the main guarantor of the fragile ceasefire in the region. Furthermore, one side or the other has been supported by either Turkey or Iran, and the European Union was expected to have its own interests in the region. However, the Union has failed to react in any significant manner or exert influence on events in the South Caucasus. Recent statements merely echo the familiar responses of European leaders expressing ‘deep concern’ or ‘condemnation of the military escalation and regret for the casualties,’ as articulated by the European External Action Service (EEAS). However, a historical perspective suggests that even when the EU has tried to manage the conflict actively, it has not succeeded. The EU’s most significant efforts came in the first decade of this century when it appointed a Special Representative for the South Caucasus, a positive signal for a possible peaceful solution to the conflict. The subsequent conclusion of action plans with both countries showed an ambiguous perception of the final settlement and the recognition of sovereign borders, which particularly frustrated Azerbaijan. After many European countries recognised Kosovo’s independence, Azerbaijan definitively gave up the possibility of resolving the conflict through European structures.
The criticism of a weak response and further evidence of the EU’s incompetence as an actor in the international arena raises the question of what the EU could do and what tools it has to deal with such a conflict. As a civilian power without an army and with unanimous decision-making in foreign policy, the Union has only limited options. It has deployed a civilian EUMA mission in Armenia, focusing on observation and human security-enhancing activities. European Council President Charles Michel has been actively involved in negotiations on peace and ceasefire in the region and planned to meet both Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev at the European Political Community (EPC) meeting in Granada, Spain, on 5 October. However, before the EPC, Azerbaijan decided to resolve the situation militarily, and Aliyev did not even attend the meeting. Negotiations between France, Germany, Armenia and the President of the European Council eventually took place, with France proposing to include Armenia in the European Peace Facility (EPF) scheme. However, it should be added that the EPC is not an institutional part of the EU and serves as an informal discussion forum for European leaders, including EU representatives.
The connection between the EU and the conflict in the South Caucasus carries a significant variable in Ursula von der Leyen’s signing of an energy agreement with Baku in the summer of 2022 following Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. This agreement encompasses the delivery of 20 billion cubic meters of natural gas by 2027 through the Southern Gas Corridor, which constitutes roughly 18% of Europe’s natural gas consumption. This agreement is the apparent cause of the EU’s lack of action toward Azerbaijan, given that the nation located on the Caspian Sea plays a substantial role in ensuring the EU’s energy security.
However, should the EU have forsaken Armenia and refrained from imposing sanctions on Azerbaijan due to its natural gas supplies? Did the EU strategically and pragmatically prioritise natural gas over peace and the preservation of human rights? The European Parliament has addressed these rhetorical questions in this text by urging the EU Council to implement sanctions against Azerbaijan. The number of countries supporting these sanctions is still under consideration. Nevertheless, countries such as France, Poland, and the Baltic nations back this initiative. Members of the European Parliament are advocating for the suspension of the energy agreement and a comprehensive re-evaluation of relations with a country that blatantly breaches the ceasefire and human rights. The Member States have requested the European External Action Service (EEAS) to conduct a more thorough examination of the EU’s available options. However, time is not on the side of the EU.
The way Azerbaijan managed to win the conflict with Armenia and its consequences on the local population show that military power is still absolutely crucial in international relations and that diplomatic, let alone rhetorical, support does not have a comparable impact. However, the EU can now show its potential and influence in humanitarian aid and civilian missions, the areas where it has the greatest potential in its current institutional and power set-up. The EU has already announced EUR 5 million in humanitarian aid for people fleeing to Armenia. It is also highly likely that the debate on further action against Azerbaijan will have tangible results. Unfortunately for the EU, those will be delayed, undermining its credibility as a global and regional actor. The imposition of sanctions is a possible but drastic solution for the time being, as it would likely be directed at Azerbaijan’s top officials. A more viable solution seems to be to stop any progress in negotiating a new framework partnership between the two actors, which started in 2016 and was also mentioned when the energy agreement was signed in the summer of 2022. However, Azerbaijan is aware of its leverage over the EU and its limited options in the South Caucasus. The regaining of territory seems to be a priority from Baku’s point of view, even at the risk of sanctions or a breakdown in negotiating an agreement with the EU. However, from the activities the Union has undertaken in recent years, it is clear that it has left what is happening in the South Caucasus to other actors and will now have to deal with a new reality.
This brief is supported by
NATO’s Public Diplomacy Division