Stoking fears of an all-out Azeri incursion ‘within weeks’ is a self-fulfilling prophecy which could ultimately see Yerevan left in the lurch it sleepwalks into a conflict it can only lose.
The European Political Community (EPC) summitin Granada last week turned out to be yet another grandstanding get-together of do-nothing ideologues from across the continent with no clear deliverables or concrete plan of action going forward.
High on the agenda, alongside Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, heightened Serbia-Kosovo tensions and tackling a fresh wave of illegal migration, was Azerbaijan’s corrosive antics in Nagorno-Karabakh, even though its strongman leader Ilham Aliyev was missing in action during the two-day event.
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Having cited France’s partisanship vis-à-vis Armenia and Turkey’s omission as grounds for Baku opting out at the last minute, this EU-led initiative was starkly reminiscent of the Jeddah peace talks four months ago which fruitlessly sought to lower the temperature between Moscow and Kyiv in the aggressor’s absence.
Besides dismissing ethnic cleansing allegations as a red herring, it was French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna’s trip to Yerevan on October 3 which really infuriated Aliyev and could end up being a potential “Boris Johnson moment” which raises the stakes in the South Caucasus’ edition of the Russo-Ukrainian war.
Paris’ pledge to provide Armenia with interoperable military gear as well as 12.5 billion euros worth of humanitarian aid was perceived as a casus belliby Baku and risks ratcheting up bilateral tensions at a time when Europe has enough on its plate in the way of territorial disputes.
Despite throwing their weight behind Armenia and pressing for a sanctions crusade against Azerbaijan’s top brass, the European Parliament has few sticks at its disposal to neuter the latter. Unlike their Georgian counterparts who are on a tight leash and regard EU accession as the be-all and end-all, the Azeris remain visibly apathetic towards securing candidate status or even Schengen visa-free travel for that matter.
France’s President Emmanuel Macron recently conceded that although, “Azerbaijan seems to have a problem with international law”, boycotting the petrostate will ultimately prove “insignificant”.
Baku’s importance for the EU
As far as energy needs are concerned, Europe’s leaders have wised up to the sobering reality that they cannot have their cake and eat it too. Gone are the days of Western powers attempting to transform the resource-rich, developing nations they procure hydrocarbons from into Jeffersonian democracies and vanguards of human rights.
When it comes to former Warsaw Pact states queuing up for membership, there is an increasingly blurry line between being a bona fide strategic partner and a mere vassal of the European Union. The Aliyev regime, for its part, read the tea leaves early on and has since pursued a multi-vector foreign policy as opposed to binding their future to a crisis-ridden bloc which last expanded in 2013. That said, Azerbaijan is a member of the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP), the Eastern Partnership (EaP) and hosted the inaugural European Games in 2015.
With the ink barely dry on last year’s joint MoU to double gas imports from Azerbaijan to 20 billion cubic metres a year by 2027 and expand the 3500km-long Southern Gas Corridor (SGC), outspoken MEPs are unlikely to renege or backpedal given the dearth of alternative fossil fuel suppliers whose morals correspond with the EU’s set of values.
As Brussels moves to diversify away from Russian crude and LNG purchases, Baku had come to be seen as the lesser of two evils up until its so-called “lightning offensive” on September 19 which set the stage for a mass exodus of roughly 120,000 Karabakh Armenians.
It is worth recalling that European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen used the terms “reliable” and “trustworthy” in reference to the family dictatorship during her 2022 state visit. From her standpoint, the lack of civil liberties and press freedom in Azerbaijan is more than offset by its refreshingly secular and egalitarian society for a Muslim-majority jurisdiction.
Considering the Caspian nation’s growing geostrategic importance to the EU, realpolitikis bound to kick in sooner or later and take precedence over airy-fairy Western platitudes about defending democracy and standing up for rule of law. As such, Armenia would do well to take these overcooked narratives with a boulder of salt and not count on external intervention or support from its like-minded allies to fend off further Azeri irredentism.
Arguably, a blessing in disguise to have emerged from Yerevan and Baku upping the ante is that their sporadic clashes have shed light on Russia’s waning influence across the post-Soviet space. The Armenian Parliament’s recent vote to join the International Criminal Court (ICC) just months after Vladimir Putin’s arrest warrant was a major gut punch to the Kremlin, as was Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s decision to skip the CIS conference in Bishkek and his refusal to host Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) military drills earlier this year.
Rather than instilling the fear of God in erstwhile USSR colonies who fail to toe the line, Putin’s barbarism in Ukraine has incidentally galvanised their westward pivot.
One notable exception, however, is Georgia. The country’s ruling elite has run roughshod over its Europhile citizenry and essentially sold them down the river by kowtowing to Moscow. Whereas Azerbaijan wasted no time in endorsing Georgian Vice Parliament Speaker Gia Volski’s call for Tbilisi to serve as an interlocutor, the jury is still out on Armenia’s receptivity to this proposal.
One might argue that its mediation offer is nothing more that a symbolic gesture intended to help Georgia get back in the EU’s good graces. The fact that Azeri natural gas constitutes approximately 80 per cent of its total imports casts serious doubt on the ruling Georgian Dream party’s impartiality were they to engage in peacemaking efforts, not to mention the exorbitant transit revenues they accrue from the South Caucasus Pipeline (SCP) that connects Azerbaijan to Turkey.
At the same time, Georgia has become something of a pressure cooker which can barely get its own domestic affairs in order, let alone those of third parties.
With petty government infighting, incarcerated ex-president Mikheil Saakashvili reportedly at death’s door, an inflationary cycle spiralling out of control, social decay emanating from the massive influx of Russian draft dodgers and the Kremlin’s plans to establish a permanent naval base in annexed Abkhazia, it is only a matter of time before a popular uprising erupts in Georgia.
Even if a colour revolution were to be miraculously averted, authoritarian buccaneering by Prime Minister Irakli Garbishvili and party chairman Irakli Kobakhidze means that prospective Georgian-led negotiations are likely to be skewed heavily in favour of an ideologically-aligned Baku.
To make matters worse for Armenia, Iran and Azerbaijan have taken active steps towards reconciliation after years of animosity and mutual distrust. This includes agreeing on the construction of a new road from the semi-autonomous Nakhchivan exclave to Azerbaijan proper via northwestern Iran and the possible reopening of the Azeri embassy in Tehran following an armed attack last January.
Armenia risks overplaying its hand
Finally, Turkey’s vested interest in driving a greater wedge between both warring sides cannot go unnoticed.
Azerbaijan’s triumph in the Second Karabakh War three years ago was largely down the lethal cocktail of Turkish Bayraktar TB2combat UAVs and sophisticated Israeli defensive technology it had been equipped with at the time.
Ankara’s subsequent ‘drone diplomacy’ has proven somewhat conducive to normalising ties with the Gulf Arab monarchies weaning themselves off excessive reliance on US-manufactured arms.
Azerbaijan is also a critical artery in President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ‘pan-Turkism’ agenda as he seeks to expand Turkey’s economic and political clout throughout Central Asia at the expense of Russia and China.
Encircled by bad faith actors, Armenia must accept that a cut and dried lasting solution is unlikely to be brokered by outside forces. Unless Pashinyan bites the bullet and engages directly with his opposite number in Baku to establish a negotiated settlement—even if doing so entails making minor concessions such as opening the Zangezur corridor—Armenia looks set to reap the whirlwind of overplaying its hand.
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