Sidelined in Nagorno-Karabakh: EU Suffered Major Strategic Loss in South Caucasus

Written by | Friday, November 27th, 2020

Azerbaijani troops have moved into the Kalbacar district after it was handed over by Armenia as part of a deal that ended six weeks of fighting over the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region. As the second of three districts are about to be handed back under the Russian-brokered deal signed this month between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Brussels has been widely blamed for having done little to prevent this outcome, while Moscow scored yet another strategic victory on the European Union’s eastern periphery. The peace deal, which Russian President Vladimir Putin huddled with the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders, is incredibly short, explicit and to the point. Armenia was spared a total defeat. Azerbaijan did well. And Russia won.
Armenia agreed to a full retreat after its forces were losing multiple villages a day and were pushed out of Shusha, a strategic town along the corridor connecting Stepanakert, the Nagorno-Karabakh capital, to Armenia. Less obvious are Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s calculations. Backed by Turkey, and on good terms with Moscow, Azerbaijan’s army was advancing fast. Aliyev played his cards well, and pushed with his military to the limit without collapsing the strategic regional equilibrium. Baku demonstrated its military superiority to Yerevan and scored victories which came as a vindication of sorts for the brutal defeat Azerbaijan suffered at the hands of Armenian forces in the 1992-1994 war when it lost Nagorno-Karabakh. And it also managed to make its close ally, Turkey, a party to any future final settlement.
Having helplessly looked on as Russia invaded Georgia in 2008 and diced up Ukraine in 2014, the EU once again sat on the sidelines, as Putin scored yet another geostrategic victory in the region. With Russian troops now in Nagorno-Karabakh, Putin has made himself the de-facto custodian of the South Caucasus corridor, which links Europe to Central Asia and Iran and is an important transit point for Caspian oil and gas to European and world markets. The corridor has always been a relevant trading throughway for goods coming and going between Europe and Asia. Both Alexander the Great and the Ottomans understood this very well. Putin took note of history and played his cards well.
With its troops stationed in all three countries in the South Caucasus – Georgia (20% of its sovereign territory is occupied since 2008), Armenia (in bases left over from the collapse of the Soviet Union), and, now, in Azerbaijan, Moscow has, though the latest peace deal, ushered the EU into an era of great-power competition. The United States is a co-chair of Minsk Group, together with France and Russia – an offshoot of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Diplomats have worked hard in the Minsk Group to resolve the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh since 1993, but the governments of the US and France, together with the rest of Europe, were ‘missing in action’ in recent weeks. The EU and US have yielded the initiative to the Kremlin and so today they are on the sidelines, merely observing the dire result. Ultimately, by having long neglected the wider South Caucasus, the EU has conveyed to a potential adversary that it is not even willing to defend its strategic interest.

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