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As Russia falters in Ukraine, the EU moves in to help in a region where Moscow once called the shots.
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YEREVAN, Armenia — For weeks, there’s been a new sight on Armenia’s dusty mountain roads. Among the ageing Russian Ladas and imported German cars, you’ll spot a fleet of shiny SUVs with the blue and gold-starred flag of the European Union mounted on the front. Peer through the tinted glass and you’ll see half a dozen sets of body armor and helmets piled in the back.
In September, towns and villages in the former Soviet Republic came under fire from neighboring Azerbaijan, while Azerbaijani troops pushed across the border to capture strategic heights. The hostilities, known to many Armenians as the Two Day War, concluded with a Western-backed ceasefire, but claimed the lives of hundreds of soldiers on both sides.
The bloody episode was the most serious escalation since 2020, when the two countries fought a brutal war over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, inside Azerbaijan’s internationally-recognized borders but controlled by its ethnic-Armenian majority since the fall of the USSR.
Just weeks after the clashes, the first of about 40 EU civilian monitors began arriving in the region, driving out daily to inspect the tense demarcation line that divides the two South Caucasus nations, amid constant reports of shelling, gunfire and ceasefire breaches. Almost 1,000 kilometers away from the bloc’s easternmost member state and three time zones ahead of Brussels, the group from France, Germany, Poland, Greece, Italy and other European nations are a long way from home.
Armenia is, on paper at least, one of Russia’s closest allies and a member of the Kremlin-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Under the terms of the mutual defense pact, thousands of Moscow’s troops have been deployed to permanent bases in the country, close to the frontiers with Turkey, Georgia and Iran. The Russian FSB security agency oversees the border, and the country’s state firms operate its railways and a number of other strategic sectors.
However, as the shells rained down in September, calls from Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan for the CSTO to intervene fell on deaf ears, with the bloc eventually only agreeing to dispatch a toothless ‘fact-finding’ mission. “We have more friends in the CSTO than Armenia does,” Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev said in November, despite his own country having withdrawn from the alliance in 1999. Meanwhile, Alexander Lukashenko, the strongman leader of member state Belarus, described Aliyev as “our man” and backed Baku’s military campaign in Nagorno-Karabakh two years ago.
At the same time, for more than a month now, the areas of the breakaway region still under Armenian control have been under effective blockade by self-described Azerbaijani eco-activists, with supplies of food and medicine running low. The only road in or out of Nagorno-Karabakh, known as the Lachin Corridor, had been overseen by Russian peacekeepers as part of a peace deal that ended the 2020 war. Yerevan alleges the row, ostensibly over the impact of illegal gold mining, is really a pretext for “ethnic cleansing,” and Moscow’s forces appear unwilling or unable to end the sit-in.
With anger growing towards Russia as the humanitarian situation worsens, a series of unprecedented protests have been held in Armenia and in Nagorno-Karabakh, demanding a withdrawal from the CSTO and support from the West instead. Along with the U.S., U.K. and a number of other European nations, Brussels has voiced its concern over the situation. “The EU calls on the Azerbaijani authorities to ensure freedom and security of movement along the corridor,” read a statement in December. “Restrictions to such freedom of movement cause significant distress to the local population and create humanitarian concerns.”
On Thursday, the European Parliament will vote on a motion that “strongly condemns the latest military aggression by Azerbaijan in September,” and “underlines the EU’s readiness to be more actively involved in settling the region’s protracted conflicts.”
A number of members of the assembly have urged Brussels to offer Armenia more than just warm words. Nathalie Loiseau, a French MEP and chair of the Subcommittee on Security and Defense, said earlier this month that Russia is “not a reliable actor in the region anymore,” with Moscow’s influence waning since its catastrophic invasion of Ukraine, adding that the bloc should step in to “defend universal values.”
Now though, it appears there are plans to play a more assertive role in the region. On Wednesday, a person following the case inside the EU’s External Action Service confirmed to POLITICO that plans are being finalized to extend and expand the monitoring mission along Armenia’s borders after its mandate ended in December.
“There was a mutual understanding with authorities in Yerevan that there is a need for a renewed presence, but the previous one was too small. Up to 100 monitors will now be deployed to the region as part of a fully-fledged Common Security and Defense Policy mission.” According to the insider, “there are several steps that still need to be cleared before their deployment, and it will now go to the Political and Security Committee in Brussels, seeking a two-year mandate.”
However, the official emphasized that tense relations with Russia will have to be navigated given its presence in the region. “The FSB is everywhere in Armenia. We have had a few cases where our monitors were turned back by Russian border guards, even though they were accompanied by Armenian Defense Ministry personnel, which was concerning given this is Armenian territory.”
Last summer, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen flew to Baku to sign a deal with President Aliyev that will see Azerbaijan step up its energy exports to member countries and provide an annual 20 billion cubic meters of natural gas by 2027 (from an expected 12 billion cubic meters in 2023), helping develop alternatives to Russian supplies.
Having described the country as a “reliable partner” in the region, the move came under fire from analysts and policymakers who feared it would compromise Europe’s ability to conduct peace negotiations in the battle-scarred region.
Azerbaijan has since refused to grant permission for a cross-border mission, with Aliyev stating in early January that talk of a major EU presence was “very unpleasant” and would “not increase security, but undermine negotiations.”
Despite that, Rusif Huseynov, director of Baku’s Topchubashov Center think tank, says that while Azerbaijan is reluctant to “internationalize” the crisis in Nagorno-Karabakh, Brussels is seen as having a role to play in preventing hostilities between his country and Armenia. “The EU has been seen as a positive actor in Azerbaijan for many years, and is a major economic partner,” he explained, “and it’s seen as a better mediator than the other ones available.”
Reacting to talk of the potential monitoring delegation, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on Wednesday that Moscow would be ready to send a mission of its own, if only it had been asked. “Despite the fact we are allies, the Armenian side prefers to negotiate with the EU,” he fumed.
“It’s important the EU plays a role even on the edges of Europe,” Henri Duquenne, the spokesman for Brussels’ special representative in the South Caucasus, said. “Different member states have different interests, but as a whole this is a priority region for us.”
While Russia goes all-in on its efforts to conquer Ukraine, Moscow seems unable to say the same.
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