As Moscow seems increasingly unable to maintain the status quo in the Caucasus, Brussels is testing its diplomatic clout to try to broker a peace deal between Armenia and Azerbaijan, writes Gabriel Gavin.
Gabriel Gavin is a British journalist covering Eurasian politics and society
When the first Russian troops arrived in Nagorno-Karabakh, they were welcomed with open arms. As a convoy of armored vehicles meandered towards the front lines, Tigran, a 32-year-old Armenian conscript, shattered by weeks of bloody firefights, rushed to greet them.
“We couldn’t believe they were here – it meant the war was over,” he says, flipping through pictures of himself smiling next to the new arrivals on his phone.
The ceasefire agreement, signed between Yerevan and Baku, was brokered by Moscow in November 2020.
According to its terms, a contingent of nearly 2,000 Russian military personnel has been deployed to the mountainous region to maintain peace. Within the internationally recognized borders of Azerbaijan, Nagorno-Karabakh and much of the surrounding region have been ruled by separatists loyal to Armenia since the fall of the Soviet Union.
The brief but brutal war saw the breakaway “Republic of Artsakh” lose swaths of territory to Baku forces, until Russia intervened. Now, however, the question of the region’s future arises again.
For decades, Kremlin policy has been to maintain the status quo in the Caucasus. The collapse of the USSR sparked the First Nagorno-Karabakh War, leaving separatists to control almost a sixth of the territory of newly independent Azerbaijan, displacing up to 600,000 Azerbaijanis.
A truce brokered by then Russian President Boris Yeltsin in 1994 froze the conflict, forcing Baku to accept the outcome.
A quarter of a century later however, Azerbaijan has boomed on its oil and gas exports, building one of the most modern armies in the region and calling in advanced attack drones from its close ally, Turkey.
When hostilities resumed in September 2020, his troops quickly recaptured nearly all of the land lost a quarter of a century earlier. Only the narrow Lachin corridor still connects the secessionist region to Armenia, bypassing the Azerbaijani border posts and patrolled by Russian troops.
Now it seems the Kremlin has overestimated its ability to police its former hinterland.
Distracted by his disastrous invasion of Ukraine, the once fearsome reputation of his armed forces shattered, many on both sides doubt that President Vladimir Putin has the inclination or ability to hold the line.
High in their mountain outposts, peacekeepers have been blamed for failing to prevent Azerbaijani troops from entering a number of villages in the ceasefire zone, while drone strikes reportedly killed in least one Armenian soldier. Baku denies the claims it settles on, but continues to assert its right to secure its borders, as calls for a political solution grow.
Yerevan fears that the Russians have become an increasingly unreliable guarantor of its de facto control over Karabakh, and Azerbaijan increasingly despises their presence. Given that Moscow presided over a deal that saw its citizens displaced and left the nation divided not on paper but in practice, resentment over its role there runs deep.
As these decades-old tensions flare up again, the European Union is asserting itself in the conflict.
France, along with Russia and the United States, is co-chair of the Minsk group created by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in 1992 to negotiate a peaceful solution in Nagorno-Karabakh, but the bloc as the set has remained largely on the sidelines so far.
At a meeting in Brussels in May, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev met to discuss a lasting settlement to the conflict, agreeing in principle to work together bilaterally on the issue.
Just two days later, a joint commission met to discuss border demarcation, while European Council President Charles Michel urged both sides to make progress to “advance discussions on the future peace treaty and address the root causes of the conflict”.
Russia initially welcomed the news, with Kremlin press secretary Dmitry Peskov saying the developments were “very positive” although it “is clear that the process will take a long time”.
In principle, Brussels and Moscow share the same interests in avoiding a resumption of fighting, restoring transport links between Armenia and Azerbaijan and finding a lasting solution to humanitarian problems.
However, it is clearly uncomfortable for Russia to see the EU assert itself in its backyard, given the tensions with the West following the invasion of Ukraine.
Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova has since denounced the developments, saying “we see persistent attempts by the EU to intervene in the process of trilateral agreements at the highest level”, urging the bloc not to play “geopolitical games” in what he sees as his sphere of influence.
And yet, Brussels has a strong hand to play. Unlike Moscow, he is untainted in Azerbaijan for presiding over the two previous ceasefires that created the very conditions that Baku considers unacceptable – being unable to control its borders and perpetuating the political divide indefinitely.
As the country exports more gas to the EU following Russian fossil fuel sanctions, Aliyev also knows he is in a stronger negotiating position than ever.
Armenians also tend to have a positive impression of the EU.
Nagorno-Karabakh’s leaders have long accused any change from the status quo would mean ‘genocide’ at the hands of the Azerbaijani government, and Brussels is seen as a mediator who could help avert a humanitarian catastrophe if the separatists are to make political concessions in Baku.
Any project that would see the region accept Baku’s sovereignty would likely need to be underwritten by an external mediator to be accepted by local leaders.
Even then, a deal would be a tough sell in Yerevan, which has seen hundreds arrested in street protests over allegations that Pashinyan may officially recognize Nagorno-Karabakh as Azerbaijani territory following talks in Brussels. .
For now though, the standoff continues much as it has for decades. But there is a growing sense in the Caucasus and far beyond that something could soon change. If and when it does, it seems increasingly unlikely that Russia can do much about it.