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A weaker Russia provides a vacuum for the EU to exploit in Eurasia

Russia’s increasing isolation on the global stage is creating opportunities for the EU across Eurasia. This is most clear in the South Caucasus, where frustration over Moscow’s actions may allow Brussels to play a key stabilising role.

April 29, 2022 - Taras Kuzio - Articles and Commentary

The President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev, with the President of European Council Charles Michel and the Prime Minister of Armenia Nikol Pashinyan following a working dinner in Brussels in April 2022. Photo: Presidential Administration of Azerbaijan

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24th has resulted in ramifications at various levels. The country’s inability to quickly defeat Ukraine, as President Vladimir Putin expected, has damaged Moscow’s international image of a great power and military force in its Eurasian backyard, as well as vis-à-vis China and NATO.

Russian military weakness is becoming a major factor in the realignment of regional and international attitudes and policies. The Russian army has demonstrably shown weakness in a large number of areas that includes logistics, poor quality technology (such as drones), command and control, corruption, discipline, looting, criminal behaviour and low morale. Russia’s weakness in manpower has perhaps been the most noticeable problem. High numbers of Russian casualties in the war in Ukraine, particularly of elite formations, has led to the recruitment of mercenaries in Syria, South Ossetia, Transnistria and Karabakh. Russia’s peacekeeping contingent in Karabakh has been reduced in size, with some of its troops redeploying to Russian bases in Armenia and subsequently to Ukraine.

Four key changes in attitude

There have been several key changes in regional outlooks in recent months. The first shift can be seen in the EU’s addition of a security dimension to its Eastern Partnership programme, which was created in 2010 for former Soviet states. In November 2021, the European Council on Foreign Relations called for the EU “to be more geopolitically influential in its own neighbourhood” by “developing strategic security partnerships with key neighbours to the east and the south”. This would be done by “creating a security compact for the Eastern Partnership, comprising targeted support for intelligence services, cyber security institutions, and armed forces”.

The EU is becoming a security actor in the Eastern Partnership countries in two ways. Firstly, by brokering peace negotiations in the South Caucasus and, secondly, supplying arms to Ukraine.
In July 2021, EU Council President Charles Michel undertook a three-day visit to the South Caucasus, where he met with the leaders of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. The diplomatic visit offered an opportunity to increase cooperation between the EU and these three countries and to prepare the agenda for the upcoming Eastern Partnership Summit in December.

In the last four months, the EU has brokered three meetings between Armenia and Azerbaijan in December, February and April. These have produced a breakthrough on border delimitation and demarcation and a peace treaty for a three decade-long conflict between these countries.

Following Russia’s invasion, the EU became a major provider of arms to Ukraine. The EU initially provided 500 million euros, and then another 500 million from the European Peace Facility, “to fund and coordinate EU military assistance and to deliver military (including lethal) equipment to Ukraine”. This is the first time in history that the EU has taken such a step.

The second change involves the Kremlin’s allies in the CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organisation) and EAEU (Eurasian Economic Union). With the sole exception of Belarus, they have deserted Russia. At numerous UN votes denouncing the invasion of Ukraine, only Minsk has supported Russia. Meanwhile, the other CSTO and EAEU members have abstained. For example, Armenia had always supported Russia on UN votes over Crimea but ultimately chose to abstain over the invasion. Particularly surprising is Kazakhstan, which has refused to support the invasion or recognise the DNR (Donetsk People’s Republic) and LNR (Luhansk People’s Republic). This is despite the fact that Russia led a CSTO “peacekeeping” mission to rescue the regime from a popular uprising. Kazakhstan is sensitive over Russian nationalist demands to what they call “Southern Siberia” (in reality Northern Kazakhstan).

The third change is that countries with frozen conflicts are becoming more willing to make demands towards Russia and assert their independence. For instance, Moldova has called for an end to three decades of “Russian occupation” of Transnistria. With the EU brokering peace talks, Armenia and Azerbaijan are moving ahead to negotiate a peace treaty without Russia’s input.

The fourth and final change is Georgia and Moldova have followed Ukraine in officially applying for membership of the EU. While Russia has always been most virulent in its opposition to NATO enlargement, the Kremlin additionally sought to derail the EU’s Eastern Partnership after Putin was re-elected in 2012. Russian pressure on former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych to not sign an Association Agreement between Kyiv and the EU led to the Euromaidan Revolution and the 2014 crisis.

Regional competition

In the last few years, the EU has begun to develop a security dimension to its Eastern Partnership. In principle, Russia should not be opposed to the EU’s greater involvement in the South Caucasus if this brings stability and prosperity for all sides. In practice, however, Russia is opposed to this change. Russia has reportedly demanded Pashinyan halt further contacts with Brussels and Baku, independent of Russia. Russia does not differentiate between integration, which is on offer under the Eastern Partnership, and membership of the EU. This is because the Kremlin negatively views all forms of intervention by western organisations in its self-declared, exclusive sphere of influence in Eurasia.

The Kremlin also ignores the different approaches of the three South Caucasian states to the EU. While Georgia has applied for EU membership, Armenia is a member of the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union. Azerbaijan does not support EU membership but does back integration. It is not surprising that countries with frozen conflicts do not see Russia as having a good record on peacekeeping operations in Eurasia, as the Kremlin has never attempted to resolve them. Moscow’s preference has always been to freeze conflicts rather than resolve them because this permits Russian forces to maintain a long-term presence. The Kremlin always viewed its so-called peacekeeping forces as forward military bases.

It is therefore little wonder Russia is unhappy when other powers, such as the EU, step in to act as real peacemakers. On April 8th, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the US and France avoided interaction with Russia on Karabakh questions within the OSCE Minsk Group. In contrast, Fariz Ismailzade, vice rector of Azerbaijan’s ADA State University, said that “What Charles Michel achieves is what OSCE Minsk group failed to achieve in 30 years.”

The OSCE Minsk Group was defunct for many years prior to the Second Karabakh War in 2020. Russia used the passivity of the US and France to become the broker in the 2020 war. The lack of diplomatic progress under the Minsk OSCE process led to military clashes in 2016 and summer 2020 that eventually spilled over into a full-scale, 44-day war. In the end, Azerbaijan defeated Armenia and re-took most of the Azerbaijani lands occupied for nearly three decades.

The EU’s increased involvement in the South Caucasus is good news for both sides. EU-brokered negotiations ignore the defunct OSCE Minsk Group process that the Kremlin wanted to continue to lead. The EU’s support for a bilateral negotiating format throws into doubt Russia’s attempt to increase its influence through its proposed “3+3 Format“. This group would involve Iran, Russia, Turkey and the three regional states. In addition, EU involvement will be balanced in its approach to Azerbaijan and Armenia unlike that of France which, possessing Europe’s largest Armenian diaspora, was often preferential to Yerevan.

Positive change

Michel’s 2021 visit to the South Caucasus came at the same time that Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan was becoming more amenable to negotiations over the future of Karabakh. Pashinyan also defended his willingness to accept Azerbaijani sovereignty over seven surrounding districts occupied by Armenia that had never been part of Karabakh.

Following a second meeting with the EU Council’s President Michel and Pashinyan, Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev said, “After the war, our contacts with the European Union became more intense. The EU has also accepted the realities of the post-conflict period.” The EU-brokered meetings led to the adoption of a five-point plan that Azerbaijan had proposed, and Armenia had accepted.

The key areas of progress involve the formation of a bilateral commission for the delimitation and demarcation of the border, including adjusting territories where villages (seven Azerbaijani and one Armenian) were occupied by each side. This would ultimately “establish a stable security situation”.

Both countries’ foreign ministries have been instructed to work on preparing a future peace treaty “which would address all necessary issues”. The peace treaty would include mutual recognition of territorial integrity and inviolability of internationally recognised borders, mutual confirmation of the absence of territorial claims against each other, and legally binding clauses not to raise territorial claims in the future. In accepting Karabakh is a part of Azerbaijan, Yerevan is calling for “guarantees” for the region’s Armenian minority.

Azerbaijan and Armenia both became frustrated with Russia’s approach to the South Caucasus, thereby opening up the possibility for the EU’s involvement. Azerbaijan was disappointed by Russia’s lack of desire to implement a ceasefire agreement. According to Article Four of the Trilateral (Ceasefire) Declaration signed at the end of the Second Karabakh War, Russian peacekeeping units would be deployed to Karabakh in parallel with the withdrawal of all Armenian military, including local “self-defence” forces. Moscow never attempted to make this a reality. Moreover, Russia has provided logistical support to Armenian local units in Karabakh. This is illegal under the ceasefire agreement.

Relations with Moscow soured further when a Russian deputy called for Azerbaijan to be nuked. The outrageous comment by Mikhail Delyagin was typical of the xenophobic rhetoric used on Russian television. In a similar fashion to how Ukraine is frequently described, he called Azerbaijan a Turkish and US “puppet” state.

Deliberate instability

Russia’s anger at being side-lined by the EU is translating into Kremlin-backed destabilisation of the political and security situation in Karabakh. This month, Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of the Kremlin’s propaganda channel RT, called for Russia to annex Karabakh. Her viewpoint is backed by Armenian leaders in Karabakh, who are adamantly opposed to any peace treaty that leaves the region inside Azerbaijan.

Russia’s approach increasingly resembles its earlier support for the creation of fake “people’s republics” controlled by Russian proxies in Georgia’s South Ossetia and the Ukrainian region of the Donbas. In Karabakh, pro-Moscow groups are using the protection of the Russian military to attack Azerbaijani military positions and civilian construction workers operating in the disputed area and the surrounding regions.

Reports in the Russian media directly claim that the goal is to apply the Donbas model to Karabakh. This would involve the distribution of Russian passports to Armenians in Karabakh and its eventual annexation by Russia. If implemented, Russia would officially signal its movement from supporting frozen conflicts to the direct annexation of these disputed territories.

The rights of Armenians in Karabakh can only be addressed within the context of the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan, not as a part of Russia or Armenia. In the same manner that the West would not accept Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and attempted annexation of its territories, so too would it not accept violations of international law in the South Caucasus. The “self-determination” of Karabakh would be as illegal as the “self-determination” of Crimea in 2014, as neither Crimea or Kosovo are precedents when it comes to Karabakh.

The West’s reaction to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has strongly demonstrated that the principle of state territorial integrity is still sacrosanct in international law. Putin’s dismissal of this principle has led Russia to international isolation, decoupled from globalisation and exposed to the biggest set of sanctions the world has seen.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has reduced its influence not only globally but also within Eurasia, where its only loyal ally is Belarus. The vacuum generated by the decline of Russian influence is an opportunity for the EU to play an active role in building a security dimension to the Eastern Partnership in regions such as the South Caucasus. Unlike Russia, which has never intended to resolve conflicts, the EU is committed to ending three decades of bitter relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Of course, this should be welcomed by all involved in the region.

Taras Kuzio is a Research Fellow at the Henry Jackson Society think tank in London and Professor in the Department of Political Science, National University of Kyiv Mohyla Academy. He is the author of the recently published book Russian Nationalism and the Russian-Ukrainian War.

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