Armenian PM Pashinyan Meets with Western Leaders in Brussels

Politics - April 12, 2024


It is not very often that we hear about the embattled region of the Caucasus in the media, with the spotlight currently centered on Ukraine and Israel. The truth is, however, that the Caucasus has been embroiled in armed conflict and instability since the three countries in this region (Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia) gained their independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

One of the nations that has been most affected, especially in recent years, is the ancient nation of Armenia, a tiny nation but one that is a bastion of Christianity in the Caucasus, one of the first Christian nations in the world, and one that, despite only having a population of 2.8 million people within its borders, has a diaspora of over 7 million people around the world. Nonetheless, it has also suffered the brutal consequences of being in a region that has been the centre-stage of clashes and rivalry between empires, like the Russian, Ottoman and Persian Empires, who, for centuries, competed for hegemony in the region.

Armenians lost their nationhood in the 14th Century, and only briefly regained it in 1918 only to be absorbed into the USSR in 1920. During this period of the early 20th Century, Armenians also lived one of the most traumatic events in their history, namely the Armenian Genocide perpetrated by the Muslim-dominated Ottoman Empire between 1915-1917, and which may have claimed as many as 1.5 million lives.

Another major challenge that Armenians have had to contend with is their neighbour Azerbaijan, a much larger, more populous and resource-rich Muslim state, but that lacks the national and cultural antiquity that Armenia has. Azerbaijan’s territorial expansionism has led to intense ethnic conflict that peaked in the early 1900s when Armenia and Azerbaijan first gained independence, again in the 1990s when the USSR collapsed and both states regained independence, and then sporadically in the 2000s, with notable peaks in the 2020s.

Much of the conflict has centered on Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh in Armenian), a small mountainous region that is an ethnically-Armenian enclave that is completely surrounded by Azerbaijan and is internationally recognised as part of the Azeri state’s sovereign international borders. The Soviet Union, which was an expert at ‘divide and conquer’ and cynically manipulating ethnic borders, decided in 1921 to make Nagorno-Karabakh an autonomous region within the Azeri Soviet Socialist Republic, a situation that was strongly opposed by the region’s ethnically-Armenian population and which led to heavy discrimination and repression against Armenians and their culture under the Soviet period.

Although full-scale ethnic conflict was kept at bay during the Soviet period, the collapse of the USSR in the 1990s and the ensuing power-vacuum led to an explosion of ethnic conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Specifically, the First Nagorno-Karabakh War (1988-1994) broke out during the collapse of the USSR, when, as Azerbaijan moved towards declaring independence, Nagorno-Karabakh attempted to secede from Azerbaijan and join with Armenia. A ceasefire was signed in 1994, which resulted in de facto independence for Nagorno-Karabakh as the Republic of Artsakh, though with close links to Armenia. The Second Nagorno-Karabakh War broke out in 2020 when Azerbaijan invaded Artsakh. This time, however, the balance of power between Armenia and Azerbaijan had shifted substantially, and the war resulted in Azerbaijan taking control of much of Artsakh’s lands. The ceasefire signed in 2020 did not lead to enduring peace, with Azerbaijan imposing a blockade on Armenia in 2022, and launching another invasion in 2023.

This third war ended with the Azeri occupation of Artsakh, the dissolution of this statelet, and a mass exodus of Armenians from their historic homeland. Furthermore, there have been border clashes between Azerbaijan and Armenia proper, and Azerbaijan has occupied numerous Armenian border villages. Furthermore, there are fears that Azerbaijan may have its eyes set on the territory of Armenia proper. Part of it responds to internal matters as well as Azeri and Pan-Turkik nationalism, as Azeri strongman nationalist dictator Aliyev may be seeking to create a land corridor between Azerbaijan’s mainland and the Azeri exclave of Nakhchivan, that is cut off from the rest of Azerbaijan by the Armenian province of Syunik. This, in turn, would enable the creation of a Pan-Turkik corridor, fulfilling the Pan-Turkik nationalist ambitions of Azerbaijan’s leader Aliyev and his Turkish ally Erdogan, by linking up Azerbaijan (and the other Central Asian Turkik states) with Turkey.

Another important reason for Azerbaijan’s belligerance is the volatile geopolitical context and the complex mesh of economic and political interests in the Caucasus. Firstly, Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine has destabilised the Caucasus, distracting Russia’s attention from what was historically its backyard, and creating a favourable window of opportunity for aspiring regional hegemons like Turkey, who has backed its Azeri allies territorial ambitions to create a ‘Greater Azerbaijan’, while itself seeking to build a sort of ‘Turkik Empire’. Ultimately, Russia’s imperialist endeavour in Ukraine has emboldened other imperialists and territorial revisionists like Azerbaijan’s Aliyev.

Simultaneously, the burden imposed on Russia by the Ukraine war has precluded Russia from fulfilling its commitment to its traditional ally Armenia.  Armenia had been closely allied to Russia since the collapse of the USSR, and was a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), which was, so to speak, NATO’s counterpart in the post-Soviet space. Armenia-Russia relations deteriorated, however, after the conflict with Azerbaijan, as the embattled nation of Armenia blamed Russia for failing to defend its territory from Azerbaijan’s claws. In this context, Armenia has frozen its participation in CSTO and instead pivoted to the West in search of allies against Azerbaijan’s.

Assistance from the West to this fellow Christian nation has, however, not been forthcoming, due to the complex geopolitical complex. There has been a rhetorical commitment from the West to defend Armenian sovereignty and territorial integrity. Just last week, President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell, and US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, met in Brussels with Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. Von der Leyen reiterated her “promise to stand shoulder to shoulder with Armenia”, stated that “the EU and Armenia are increasingly aligned in values and interests”, and that the next step is “a new and ambitious Partnership Agenda between the European Union and Armenia”. The EU chief also made a reference to “the plight of the displaced Karabakh Armenians”. For their part, the US held joint military exercises in Armenia in September as a show of force.

Nonetheless, the reality is that the West is actually constrained and arguably held hostage by Azerbaijan due to economic interests. Although Armenia is a culturally-rich Christian nation that, in terms of values, is part of the Western family, it is scarce in resources and comparatively weaker. On the contrary, Azerbaijan is resource-rich and has a strong military backed by Turkey and Israel. This is particularly consequential because the EU has become ever-increasingly gas-dependent on Azerbaijan, particularly since the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the cutting-off of imports from Russia.

Indeed, Azerbaijan’s gas exports to the EU increased in 2022, from 19 billion cubic meters in 2021 to 22.3 billion in 2022 (indeed, the EU and Azerbaijan signed a preliminary agreement in 2022 to double gas flows by 2027). This has profound geopolitical implications for Europe, as this energy dependency constrains the EU’s foreign policy autonomy and makes it a hostage of Azerbaijan. Therefore, it is imperative for the EU to rethink its geopolitical strategy, and weigh up whether it is willing to abandon a fellow Christian nation to Azerbaijan’s imperialist expansionism, not only because of what this would entail in moral terms, but also because it would create yet another precedent of territorial revisionism going unchecked, and what this could mean for other nations that are threatened by expansionist neighbours (e.g. Moldova, Poland, Georgia and the Baltic States in Europe).