Image courtesy of Eric Grigorian

The future of the EU’s security lies in the trenches of Nagorno Karabakh

How did the conflict between Armenia and Azerbijan break out, and what does it mean for Europe? Anna Barseghyan discusses in this blog post.

The Eastern Partnership is criticising the creation of a severe security deficit on the borders of the European Union. 27 September became a decisive day for the region as Azerbaijan unleashed a full-scale war against Artsakh (Nagorno Karabakh) and Armenia.  From the first hours of military action, it was evident that this was not just an ordinary ceasefire violation, but rather an undeclared war. Although a ceasefire was agreed to October 11, recent reports indicate that hostilities have broken out again. The main peculiarity of the war its large-scale geography, including entire borders of Artsakh and Armenia.

A security crisis emerges

Since 27 September, Azerbaijan has been using cluster munitions to target cities in Artsakh. Following the use of LAR-160 and Smerch cluster-warhead missiles against the city of Hadrut Azerbaijan once again deployed Smerch cluster-warhead missiles against the capital city of Stepanakert and Smerch cluster missiles against the nearby village of Shosh. Azerbaijan conducted 2 precision strikes against the H​oly Savior “Ghazanchetsots” Cathedral of Shushi — the central religious site of Artsakh, used exclusively as a place of worship and a shelter for civilians. The Cathedral stands far from any other buildings and military objectives, and the precision of the strikes makes them evidently deliberate.

Amnesty International and large foreign media sites, including  The Telegraph and Daily Mail, have showcased evidence of Azerbaijan dropping cluster bombs on the civilian population, which is a breach of international humanitarian law. However, the most alarming fact for the international community is Turkey’s direct involvement in the conflict. On September 29, a Turkish F-16 shot an Armenian SU-25 in the Armenian airspace near the city of Vardenis, situated near Lake Sevan in Armenia. Moreover, the international community and three OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs France, Russia and the US are alarmed about Turkey’s deployment of Syrian mercenaries, who were transferred from Syria to Azerbaijan, to combat the Artsakh defense army. Therefore, the Artsakh conflict gained global recognition as a critical geopolitical situation.

First and foremost, the Artsakh conflict has created security challenges near the immediate border of the EU. As the European Global Strategy states “To the east, the European security order has been violated, while terrorism and violence plague North Africa and the Middle East, as well as Europe itself.”

Four years ago, it was hard to imagine that extremist groups would be transferred to the Eastern Partnership region. However, the ramifications of Turkey’s involvement in Iraq, Syria, and Libya will also be felt in Artsakh if the international community doesn’t immediately undertake decisive and targeted measures. Considering that Turkey has ambitions in the Eastern Mediterranean and the ongoing tensions between Greece and Cyprus, the success in Artsakh and Armenia can stimulate Turkey to use the same methods of extremist mercenaries and tactics in dealing with the EU member states. Artsakh is a litmus test for Turkey to understand its potential for success in Europe.

Rising confrontation

After the failed “zero problems with neighbours,” agenda, Turkey’s foreign policy became more aggressive and expansionist. The former architect of Turkish foreign policy Ahmet Davutoğlu, suggested taking a more liberal approach, such as using soft power to gain influence throughout the former Ottoman Empire. However, it’s quite clear that Erdogan is in favour of hard power and direct military involvement, even supporting violations of humanitarian law.

Even in 1992-1993, when the Armenian forces had unprecedented victories in the Artsakh war presented in EVN Report, Turkey acted cautiously and thus didn’t dare to directly hit or interfere with Armenia. Although there was public discourse and pressure from Turkish nationalists, war with Armenia was avoided. Previously, there were several deterrents which forced Turkey to avoid direct military intervention against Armenia.

First, the approach of the Turkish leaders was different. President Turgut Ozal and Prime Minister Suleyman Demirel held the opinion that, since Azerbaijan was an independent state, it must overcome its problems on its own. Turkey must not directly intervene in a conflict with another independent state. On the contrary, Erdogan stated several times that Turkey is ready to support Azerbaijan if they ask for help.

The Alliance with the West was also important. Turkey is a member of NATO and therefore held a certain responsibility as a member of the union. Engaging in a new conflict could lead to wider global consequences. Furthermore, Turkey was uncertain it would receive the support of fellow NATO member states. Moreover, since May 15, Armenia was a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which included its own mutual defence clause [Article 4]. However, currently Turkey has a conflict even with NATO states and this is no longer an issue for the nation.

The Kurdish issue was also a factor. The U.S. had provided significant assistance to Turkey in its fight against the Marxist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Turkey feared that this support could be withheld if it became more involved in the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict. Now Turkey does not depend on foreign assistance and therefore is less hesitant to engage in a new war.

In the past, Turkey feared that direct involvement in the war could derail its European aspirations. In 1987, Turkey submitted its application for full membership, wishing to get the status of a candidate country without any delay. Turkey’s actions would be described as aggression, “in the long run, closing the doors of the EU to Turkey.” After the Turkish coup d’état in 2016 and the massive human rights violations, Turkey has almost no chance to join the European family, which is no longer a valid reason to restrict Turkey.

Turkey also had ambitions to achieve regional dominance, but in the first years after the collapse of the USSR, it was less assertive. The reason was not only political, but also economic. The huge Russian market had just opened up attractive prospects for Turkey, which could only be tapped into if relations did not become strained. In 1992, Russia’s trade with Turkey was five times greater than that with Azerbaijan and the Central Asian republics.

Therefore, Turkey gave preference to pragmatic cooperation. Moreover, Turkey was interested in Russian weapons, which could be used to fight Kurdish militants, since Western allies refused to assist. In this context, the decision of the US Congress in 1994 to reduce military aid to Turkey by 10% should be considered. Furthermore, Russia was the flagship of the CIS and CSTO. Any actions against Armenia would be considered as actions against the CSTO and Russia itself, which was one of the pivotal reasons stopping Turkey. Now Turkey and Russia have many ongoing battlefields and one more on top of that is not a game changer.

Another obstacle for Turkey was the international reaction to the 1974 occupation of Northern Cyprus. Less than 20 years had passed since the Turkish invasion. Starting a second bloody conflict would carry international repercussions. Currently Turkey has an ongoing conflict with Cyprus over the resources of the Eastern Mediterranean.

What it means for Europe

Thus, we can see the geopolitical landscape of the region has completely changed and there are fewer restraints holding Turkey back from engaging in a new war in Artsakh and Armenia in order to regain total control over the South Caucasus. Moreover, Turkey could add one more playing card to its hand for the purpose of pressuring the EU. What can the EU do to counter this?

On October 7 in the European Parliament had a debate over Turkish-Azerbaijani aggression against Artsakh. The overwhelming majority of the members of the European parliament (60speakers out of 65) from the all political groups showed their unconditional support to Armenia and Artsakh, suggest to sanction Turkey and Azerbaijan or to recognize Artsakh. However, it should be noted that the European Parliament has limited competences to undertake measures that can actually prevent Azerbaijani’s and Turkish aggression. The decisive steps from the European institutions could have a positive influence to prevent humanitarian and security catastrophe in the wider region.

First and foremost all, European institutions should be straightforward as to who is the aggressor is and the cause of the breaches of international humanitarian law. The EU should follow the example of Canada and impose an embargo on Turkey and Azerbaijan. Additionally, the European Union should impose economic sanctions on Turkey and Azerbaijan. Finally The European member states should follow the Geneva city council’s decision to freeze the assets of Aliyev’s family.

In this complicated era of geopolitical transformation, the EU must decide whether security is the top priority or will the Union. Will it allow Turkey to continue to attempt at expansion, spreading its agenda through Europe as well? Currently, Armenia and Artsakh are essentially resolving the future of Europe’s security at its borders. Armenia is fighting against terrorist groups and it shouldn’t be left alone in its struggle to secure and ensure the continuation of pan-European security.

Anna Barseghyan is a political analyst, focusing on the European Neighbourhood Policy.

The opinions expressed in this blog contribution are entirely those of the author and do not represent the positions of the Dahrendorf Forum or its hosts Hertie School and London School of Economics or its funder Stiftung Mercator.