The Nagorniy Karabakh Conflict: A Simmering War on the European Periphery

Dr. Gayane Novikova
October 21, 2017

Shaping the European Security System

The European security is under siege. Several factors are making it more vulnerable in the face of correlated and co-dependent internal and external threats. The reaction of European societies to major internal threats has been manifest in Brexit, in the German elections, in the referendum on independence in Catalonia and the response of the Spanish government, in the Visegrad Four’s approach to several core issues, in Turkey’s foreign and domestic policies, — and last but not least — in home-grown terrorism. Therefore, while a prevention of uncontrolled migration is a priority and it shapes an internal line of division in many European societies, the vulnerability along the EU’s external borders is a source of growing concern, that has united them.

These developments strongly demand a re-evaluation of the  scale of (in)security and threats for each European state and for the European Union in general, especially against the background on the one hand of growing nationalism and, on the other hand, of both  an unpredictable U.S. foreign policy and a prolonged standoff with Russia. The EU has become increasingly nervous regarding the U.S. — Russia confrontation that almost completely follows the patterns of the Cold War. In the context of the  new Cold War the wars in the immediate (Ukraine) and distant (South Caucasus, Middle East) neighborhoods — where Russia’s direct involvement is evident — demand more attention. A new strategy toward the still unresolved conflicts in the European periphery should be designed based upon an acknowledgement that the security of Europe in broader terms depends in many ways upon the security in its neighborhoods

On April 2, 2016, a small war involving the direct participation of two independent South Caucasus states — Armenia and Azerbaijan — resumed on the European periphery. It made only a few headlines in the world’s leading mass media. The escalation of military clashes in the area of the Nagorniy Karabakh (NK) conflict and along the Line of Contact (LoC) between Azerbaijan and the unrecognized Republic of Artsakh, as well as Azerbaijani artillery attacks on Armenia proper, confirmed once again that a) this conflict never was “frozen;” b) an increasing danger of its transformation into a full-fledge war exists. Recent developments have indicated that even minor — at first glance — “turbulence” can have a broad negative impact not only upon the three direct parties to the conflict, but also upon their neighboring states: Georgia, Turkey, Iran, and Russia. This article discusses the question of whether the unresolved Nagorniy Karabakh conflict influences the European security system. If so, to what extent?

To Be or Not to Be Involved?

The NK conflict is the oldest among the conflicts that erupted on the eve of, or immediately after, the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Its internal logic is defined by the completely different narratives of the direct parties to the conflict — Armenia, Azerbaijan, and the unrecognized Republic of Artsakh (until February 2017, the Nagorno Karabakh Republic). In the course of more than 25 years, the dynamic and character of this conflict has changed. Beginning as a confrontation between the Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Region and the central government of Soviet Azerbaijan in 1988, it quickly escalated into an ethno-political internal conflict that — after proclamations of independence by the Nagorno Karabakh Republic, Armenia, and Azerbaijan in 1991and a three-year war (1991-1994) — transformed into the international Nagorniy Karabakh conflict.

The approach of the European Union and its constituent states also was changing in the course of more than 25 years. First, the NK conflict that erupted in the then territory of the Soviet Union  naturally was considered as an  internal issue. The West in general had no intention to intervene.

Second, the beginning of the 1990s was one of the most painful periods in European post-WW2 history. The pacification of the Balkans in the mid-1990s required significant political, diplomatic, economic, and military efforts; and membership of the Balkan states in NATO and the EU has been considered as the most important mechanism for the  achievement of peace and stability in Europe. With all its “small” wars the South Caucasus was beyond the  range and mainly out of the interest of European policy- and decision-makers.

Therefore, the West took very cautious steps toward the integration of Armenia and Azerbaijan into some European institutions, and avoided any promises regarding their membership in NATO and the EU. The European states, above and beyond developing bilateral relations with these two South Caucasus states, were acting within the framework of “soft power”: They viewed their own mission as one of stimulating democratic structures and institutions, enhancing the good governance and rule of law; and promoting and improving human rights in Armenia and Azerbaijan (via their membership in the Council of Europe (CoE), OSCE, and several EU programs). It was comforting to believe that democratization of these South Caucasus states would reduce political-military tensions and gradually create peace in this region. The dominant vision among the EU and CoE member states was to approach Armenia and Azerbaijan simultaneously and to offer the same initiatives and programs.

A slightly differentiated approach — with moderate recognition of differences between Armenia and Azerbaijan and of unique aspects  of each of them  — was introduced through the EU Eastern Partnership program. The EU was very clear about its main priority areas in cooperation with these states. None of these initiatives was and is still related directly to the resolution of the Nagorniy Karabakh conflict. The unrecognized Republic of Artsakh is not included in any of EU programs.

In the “Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement between the European Union and the Republic of Armenia” (to be signed at the Brussels’ EP Summit in November 2017) the parties to the Agreement have recognized “the need to achieve that [the NK conflict -G.N.] settlement on the basis of the purposes and principles enshrined in the UN Charter and the OSCE Helsinki Final Act, in particular those related to refraining from the threat or use of force, the territorial integrity of States, and the equal rights and self-determination of peoples and reflected in all declarations issued within the framework of the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairmanship.” Supposedly, the same text will be included in the EU-Azerbaijan Agreement which is still under negotiation.

As a leading political-military organization in Europe, NATO attempts to provide (in addition to bilateral programs) a platform for cooperation between Armenia and Azerbaijan through its PfP program. It does not have any intention to be involved in the NK conflict. Furthermore, this unresolved conflict, with its potential to transform again into full-scale military clashes, on the one hand has been determining NATO’s interaction with two states. On the other hand, Azerbaijan does not want to become a member of any military bloc and Armenia is a founder state of the Russia-led CSTO. These two South Caucasus states are rendering their participation, in particular, in the joint NATO military exercises dependent  upon participation of the adversary. A recent example is the bizarre (non)participation of Armenia and Azerbaijan in the Noble Partner exercise in Georgia (the first large-scale practical NATO initiative gathering Georgian, Armenian, and Azerbaijani troops to perform a common task) in  September, 2017 (

The only European organization directly dealing with the NK conflict is the OSCE and its  Minsk Group (MG, operating under the co-chairmanship of France, Russia, and the U.S.). Several objective obstacles reduce the effectiveness of the MG. Among them was a clear intention to balance the OSCE approach to the parties to the conflict: The wording of its resolutions was quite cautious and as neutral as possible; both Armenia and Azerbaijan had reasons (although different) to blame the MG for not being precise. After the April, 2016, war, the MG slightly reviewed its approach, trying to introduce a more realistic evaluation of the situation in the area of the conflict: “There is no military solution to this conflict and no justification for the death and injury of civilians. We are also aware of allegations of atrocities committed on the field of battle in April, which we condemn in the strongest terms.[…] We urge the parties to remove all remaining obstacles to expanding the mission of the Personal Representative of the OSCE Chairperson-in-Office and to make progress on a proposal to establish an OSCE investigative mechanism” (The Joint Statement by the Heads of Delegation of the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chair on December 8, 2016).

In spite of criticism (more broadly from Azerbaijan and more specifically from Armenia), as for now the OSCE MG is:  a) the main and single platform for the Armenian-Azerbaijani dialogue that is conducted on the level of the Presidents with indirect involvement of the Republic of Artsakh; b) the only platform for French-Russian-American cooperation in the conflict resolution field.


Against the background of European relative passivity, a trend exists toward a visible domination of Russia in respect to developments around Nagorniy Karabakh.

Russia is gradually becoming a main external actor, using its political and military (in the case of Armenia, also economic) leverage to prevent a worst-case scenario in close proximity to its southern borders. Owing to its strategic interaction (that includes also a strong military component) with two parties to the NK conflict, Russia is not ready to choose sides; rather it is interested in preserving the status quo — at least in the mid-term perspective. There is a noteworthy nuance: If Armenia proper is attacked by Azerbaijan, a new war can be easily transformed into a large war  with Russia’s involvement. This transformation can happen in accordance with several bilateral Armenian-Russian military agreements. On October 5, 2017, the Armenian Parliament ratified an agreement on establishing a joint Russian-Armenian military unit, that includes troops of the 102nd Russian military base stationed in Gyumri and the 4thCorps of the Armenian Army. In peacetime, this unit will be subordinated to Armenian military structures, while Russia’s Southern Military District will take command in war periods.

This step is a logical extension of the Armenian government’s efforts to make Russia’s military presence in Armenia more strong and to secure the latter’s role as its important security guarantor. The apologists of this agreement argue that it will restrict Azerbaijan (and Turkey) from military actions against Armenia. I would argue that this agreement would not prevent Azerbaijani attacks against the unrecognized Republic of Artsakh. Furthermore, in the course of the April war in 2016, when Azerbaijani artillery was bombarding Armenia’s territory, Azerbaijan received signals that Russia, as well as other members of the CSTO (Collective  Security Treaty Organization), will be reluctant to support Armenia in its overt conflict with Azerbaijan around Nagorniy Karabakh.

Russia’s growing influence upon the parties to the conflict is a source of concern for the EU. As a Head of the European Commission office in Yerevan mentioned, “[The EU] cannot accept the reality in which some part of this region becomes the territory of someone’s absolute influence. We don’t want to return to the zero point [in the relationships – G.N.] with our partners. We don’t want to play geopolitical games.” (Świtalski: We don’t want to play geopolitical games., Sept 26, 2017).  However, the EU does not have a  modus operandi vis-à-vis Russia in dealing with conflicts in those areas Russia views as  crucial for its own security.

The NK Conflict and the European Security System

There is no likelihood of reducing tension between the parties to the NK conflict or any possibility of progress at the negotiation table in the foreseeable future. Both sides are firm in their approaches, and both have their own reservations, fears, and mistrust. Under these circumstances a small local war (although very damaging for its immediate participants) cannot be excluded. The question involves to what extent it will affect the European security system in general.

The European institutions dealing with political-military security issues have their motives for avoiding any direct involvement in the unresolved conflicts of the South Caucasus. The annexation of Crimea and the small-scale war in Eastern Ukraine forced the Trans-Atlantic partners to take actions not only because of a rough violation of an international border and the sovereignty of Ukraine, but also because Ukraine, with its immediate proximity to the EU borders, is a “buffer zone” between the EU and Russia.

In comparison to the Ukrainian situation, the simmering war in the South Caucasus is not viewed as a direct threat to the European security system. A cool-headed approach can be explained by several factors, which reduce EU strategic interests in this region:

– There is a very low-level probability that military actions will spread across  the internationally recognized borders of Armenia and Azerbaijan. The NK conflict will remain a local war with its internal logic; it will reach its peaks when the parties to the conflict need to reduce possible tension(s) in their respective societies.

– As long as a balance of forces is preserved in the South Caucasus, Russia, Turkey or Iran will not participate in military clashes in the area of the NK conflict. Their involvement will be limited by statements encouraging the parties to the conflict to resume negotiations.

– The economic attractiveness of the region for the EU in general is quite low not only because of the small scale of the local economies, but also because of a high level of corruption (according to Transparency International, in 2016, Armenia and Azerbaijan were ranked 113 and 123, respectively); a possible flow of migrants — as a consequence of an overt war — from the area of the conflict will not pose threat to the European job market.

– However, the South European energy market can be destabilized if a full-fledged conflict erupts in the South Caucasus threatening the security of Azerbaijan’s oil and gas pipelines.

The Nagorniy Karabakh conflict does not pose a direct threat to the European security system. Meanwhile, it is an irritating factor in bilateral relations of the European states and pan-European organizations with Armenia and Azerbaijan. It constitutes  also a leverage utilized by Russia to reduce the maneuverability of these two states and to limit their cooperation with the EU and NATO. Although the myth that this conflict is “frozen” has been dispelled, European institutions will nevertheless remain mainly external observers owing to several reasons: the parties to the conflict in general do not trust Europeans and do not wish  their involvement in the conflict settlement, and  the EU states, some of which are dealing with secessionist movements, view involvement in this conflict as very complicated and even dangerous. The European (and Russian) approach to the NK conflict will be unchanged as long as it simmers within Azerbaijan’s internationally recognized borders.