The EU is flexing its muscles in Ukraine and the South Caucasus. It was about time

The EU’s concept of a ‘greater European neighbourhood’ has finally emerged, and it encompasses most of the former USSR.

In 2014 the European Union was naïve in its policies towards Russia, surprised by the Kremlin’s anger at Ukraine planning to sign an Association Agreement with the bloc.

In 2010, in response to the EU’s launch of an Eastern Partnership for post-Soviet states, Russia began to view the EU in a similar manner as it had traditionally viewed NATO: as a threat to its self-declared Eurasian sphere of influence. The Kremlin views Eurasia in zero sum geopolitical terms and the EU as an appendage of the US and NATO. President Vladimir Putin also has a long-term obsession with subduing Ukraine.

Nearly a decade later, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the EU has matured into a security actor no longer meekly defending its interests in Ukraine and the South Caucasus. The EU’s concept of a ‘greater European neighbourhood’ has finally emerged, and it encompasses most of the former USSR with the exclusion of Central Asia which is drifting into China’s sphere of influence.

The EU is dealing with an aggressive Russia in both Ukraine and in the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict.

In Ukraine, Russian imperialism seeks to subjugate the country while in the latter, Russia seeks to continue using a frozen conflict to maintain its self-declared Eurasian sphere of influence, a demand that stretches back to the early 1990s. Frozen conflicts in Moldova, Georgia, and Azerbaijan all took place, after all, on Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s watch.

The choice for Armenia and Azerbaijan is straight forward. If Russia ‘mediates’ the three-decade long conflict it will be as worthless as the presence of Russia’s so-called ‘peacekeepers’ who satisfy the national interests of neither Yerevan nor Baku.

Russia has no interest in conflict resolution and every interest in the conflict remaining unresolved, leading to Armenia remaining insecure, hosting three Russian military bases and Russian ‘peacekeepers’ remaining in place.

If Armenia and Azerbaijan were to sign a peace treaty that recognised the former Soviet republican boundary as an international frontier there would be no longer any need for Russian ‘peacekeepers’ and Turkish-Armenian relations would dramatically improve.  Armenia, feeling more secure with its two neighbours – Azerbaijan and Turkey – would be able to develop a foreign policy more independent of its current pro-Russian orientation. A March 14 article in The Economist on Russia’s friends included a ‘Putin’s Pals Index’ that ranked Armenia second highest after Belarus.

Weak Russia

In 2022, the EU successfully brokered a peace treaty between Armenia and Azerbaijan which Russia derailed towards the end of the year. Russia views the EU through a geopolitical lens as seeking to banish its influence from the South Caucasus. Russia claims it is the main ‘guarantor of security’ in the South Caucasus, a rather odd self-declared title in the light of the Kremlin’s inability to prevent a defeat of its Armenian ally in the second Karabakh war.

The Kremlin sent oligarch Ruben Vardanyan, who became a billionaire in Russia, to the South Caucasus as its agent of influence. Vardanyan established his seat of power in Karabakh to oppose pro-Western Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s overtures towards the EU. Pashinyan won a  three-month conflict with Vardanyan, who resigned from his position as State Minister of Karabakh on February 23.

Pashinyan had been concerned at Vardanyan’s two goals. The first was derailing the EU brokered peace treaty between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The second was to use Karabakh as a base to take power in Yerevan. Three of the five presidents of Armenia since 1991 (Levon Ter-Petrosyan, Robert Kocharyan, and Serzh Sargsyan) came to power through the Karabakh irredentist movement to unite with Armenia.

The removal of Vardanyan could bode well for the EU’s peace initiatives in the South Caucasus. Russia is the weakest it has been since 1991 because of its military defeats in Ukraine and no longer has the capacity to be the gendarme of Eurasia. It is estimated that over 90 per cent of Russia’s army is engaged in Ukraine which has led to thinned out military baes and reduced in size ‘peacekeeping’ units.

Armenia wrote to the EU on December 27 of last year requesting it to send a mission. On February 20, the EU’s CSDP (Common Security and Defence Policy) deployed a civilian, unarmed mission at the invitation of the Armenian government, after it was approved by the EU Council on January 23. 100 unarmed personnel will be based on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border for two years, meaning the expiry of their mission will take place at the same time as the five-year Russian ‘peacekeeping’ mandate ends.

Russia does not want a resolution

Azerbaijan initially criticised the EU’s mission believing it to biased in favour of Armenia. Baku’s position drew on decades of French bias towards Armenia in the OSCE Minsk Group and the December 2020 votes by both houses of the French parliament supporting the ‘recognition’ of Karabakh as an independent republic.

The EU mission is supposed to contribute to the ‘normalisation’ of Armenian-Azerbaijani relations. This though will be impossible unless Pashinyan has the courage to overcome internal opposition from nationalist hardliners who have been unable to accept the consequences of military defeat in the 2020 second Karabakh war. 

This anti-peace, pro-Russian constituency would prefer to accept the Russian proposal to postpone a decision on Karabakh until the distant future. It is obvious why Russia would prefer an unresolved Karabakh question as this would mean a forever frozen conflict.

Pashinyan’s interest in increasing the EU’s presence is to provide him with backing to take on the aggressive pro-Russian and anti-Turkic constituency in Armenia which is backed by the Armenian nationalist diaspora. Pashinyan, and many Armenians, are also frustrated by the ineptitude of Russian ‘peacekeepers’ and the unwillingness of the CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organisation) to intervene in the second Karabakh war and since then during border clashes.

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The EU, Azerbaijan and Armenia need each other

The EU’s launch of a Political and Security Dialogue with Armenia is a step too far despite High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell describing this as a ‘new phase of EU engagement in the South Caucasus’.

Armenia is a member of the CSTO and the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU); it joined the latter after withdrawing from the EU-Armenian Association Agreement in 2013 following intense Russian pressure. Russian pressure also forced Ukraine to withdraw from the EU-Ukrainian Association Agreement, but the Euromaidan Revolution led to the removal of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych which thwarted the Kremlin’s plan for Ukraine’s membership of the EEU.

The EU is therefore enticing Armenia to again becoming interested in an Association Agreement without realising that Russia would never permit any member state to exit the EEU. As for the CSTO, Armenia’s membership is de facto frozen after it refused to permit annual military exercises to take place this year.

Russia’s military and political weakness stemming from its inept and criminal invasion of Ukraine provides an opening for the EU which has become more self-confident and assertive as a foreign policy actor.

In the 2014 crisis, the EU was caught off guard by Russia’s military response to Ukrainian support for an Association Agreement in the Euromaidan Revolution whereas since 2022 the EU has become a major supplier of military equipment to Ukraine and a backer of tough sanctions against Russia.

The reality is that the EU, Azerbaijan and Armenia need each other. After becoming energy independent of Russia, the EU needs alternative sources of energy, one of which is Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan understands the EU, but not Russia, could bring about a resolution to the three-decade long conflict with Armenia.  

Meanwhile, Pashinyan understands that a peace treaty would bring Armenia greater flexibility in its foreign policy, reduce its dependency upon Russia and open economic opportunities.

This is a win-win situation for everybody, except Russia.

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About the author

Taras Kuzio

Taras Kuzio

Dr Taras Kuzio is a professor of political science at the National University of Kyiv Mohyla Academy and author of the book Genocide and Fascism: Russia’s War Against Ukrainians.

1 Comment

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  • Why should it matter to Kuzio that there are Armenians who dare question the intention of Turkey and Azerbaijan — especially the latter having officially claimed all of southern Armenia and its capital, Yerevan.

    Kuzio refers to such Armenians (as do genocidal Turks and revanchist Baku) as “nationalist hardliners,” yet Kuzio has long supported the ultranationalist Stepan Banderas of WWII infamy. Today its manifestation is Ukrainian soldiers with Nazi symbols tattooed on their bodies. If Armenian “nationalist hardlines” were vehemently anti-Russian, Kuzio would be delighted!

    The EU is not screaming about Azerbaijani soldiers occupying well over forty sq. km of Armenian territory recognized as sovereign by the EU. The EU’s current interest in Armenia or Georgia is to promote another anti-Russian bridgehead. There are violent protests in Georgia between those who want to open up another front against Russia and those with brains in their heads.

    Kuzio’s bias manifests in his neglect to mention the Russian-Azerbaijani strategic and economic agreements signed two days before Russian actions in Ukraine. This agreement is entitled “Declaration on allied interaction between the Republic of Azerbaijan and the Russian Federation” https://president.az/en/articles/view/55498. Since the CSTO is garbage, this Moscow-Baku Allied Declaration is a cardinal agreement. A case in point; the wonderland of Azerbaijan is currently re-exporting evil Russian gas to the EU, another item that Kuzio missed!

    Yerevan, Armenia