Over 50,000 Armenians have already fled Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia following Azerbaijan's recent military offensive. Despite ongoing negotiations, further escalations could follow. What options do Germany and the EU have?
“Peace without freedom is oppression. Peace without justice is a diktat” – said Federal Chancellor Olaf Scholz in his speech to the UN General Assembly on September 19. Scholz spoke about Ukraine and stressed the need for a just peace that respects the principles of the UN Charter.
There are few similarities between Russia's war of aggression against Ukraine and the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. However, in both conflicts, the same principle applies: There can be no peace without freedom and justice. For almost three decades after the Armenian victory in the first Karabakh war in 1992-1994, Armenians - in Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia - initially opposed a negotiated solution for which they would have had to relinquish the hitherto advantageous status quo and recognize Nagorno-Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan. However, with the help of its increasing revenues from oil and gas, Azerbaijan enhanced its military capabilities, and since the Nagorno-Karabakh War in 2020, it has become clear that Azerbaijan is willing and able to reestablish control over the region militarily. Azerbaijan's latest offensive against Nagorno-Karabakh on September 19 has now created facts on the ground and has forced the Armenian de facto government of Nagorno-Karabakh to surrender. Now it is Azerbaijan that dictates peace terms without regard for freedom and justice for the other side. What was feared is now reality: a large part of the population of Nagorno-Karabakh is fleeing to Armenia.
Long history of conflict
The massive attack by Azerbaijani army units on the ethnic Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh on September 19 is another dramatic chapter of military escalation in the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, which increasingly escalated during the late 1980s. At its core, this conflict was and is about the question of the territorial integrity of the nation-state of Azerbaijan, which emerged from the Soviet Union, versus the right to national self-determination of the majority Armenian population of the former Soviet Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region, established by Stalin as an enclave within Azerbaijan. However, the conflict initially dates back to the early 20th century. It escalated after the collapse of the Russian Empire and was suppressed by Stalin's nationality policy, so that a comparatively peaceful coexistence followed. Nonetheless, the conflict broke out again during perestroika and, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, escalated into a full-scale war that claimed around 40,000 victims.
After the de facto military victory of the Armenian side, Nagorno-Karabakh and seven Azerbaijani territories surrounding the region remained under de facto Armenian control for 26 years. A total of over one million Azerbaijanis and Armenians were expelled or were forced to leave their homes, over two thirds of whom were Azerbaijanis. During this long period, the OSCE's “Minsk Group” failed to persuade both sides to give up their maximalist positions and reach a peace agreement based on compromise. In practice, however, Western actors had more or less “outsourced” the conflict management to Russia. They imposed a non-binding OSCE arms embargo and tried to convince the conflict parties to reach a negotiated solution primarily through “persuasion”, which obviously failed.
In the long history of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, there are both perpetrators and victims on all sides. The three parties to the conflict – if Nagorno-Karabakh is recognized as an independent faction – have had grounds for legitimate claims during the course of the conflict, just as they were responsible for violence and war crimes.
The return of military “solutions”
Strengthened by arms deliveries from Turkey and Russia and encouraged by the fragile geopolitical situation, Azerbaijan resorted to violence in 2020 and recaptured the seven Armenian-occupied territories bordering Karabakh in a six-week war. It also secured control over approximately a third of the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. The Russian-brokered ceasefire agreement concluded on November 9, 2020, provided for the return of all territories previously occupied by Armenia, the stationing of Russian peacekeepers until 2025, security guarantees for the population of Nagorno-Karabakh, a transport connection between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia secured by the peacekeepers (Lachin Corridor) as well as a transport connection between Azerbaijan and its exclave Nakhichevan through Armenia.
As has become apparent, not least since Azerbaijan’s blockade of the Lachin corridor starting December 2022, Azerbaijan’s President Aliyev decided to breach the 2020 ceasefire agreement in order to fix the “Armenian problem”. In other words, the objective was to permanently solve the issue of the Karabakh Armenians’ claims for autonomy from a position from a position of maximum strength, using military force. Statements in the West that attribute responsibility for the current violence to “both sides” are therefore wrong and misleading.
Armenian Prime Minister Pashinyan – twice democratically elected in 2018 and 2021 – was under immense domestic and foreign policy pressure after the serious military defeat in the 2020. In May 2023, he relinquished his support for Nagorno-Karabakh's independence efforts and recognized Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity including Nagorno-Karabakh. However, since then Armenia has justifiably insisted on guarantees for the security and rights of the region’s Armenian population. In view of the hostilities that have existed for over three decades and the hatred against everything Armenian that has grown to extremes in recent years, it had to be expected that displacement and excessive violence against both military personnel and the civilian population of Nagorno-Karabakh could occur as soon as Azerbaijan took full control of the region. This is exactly the situation we see right now: tens of thousands of Armenians are fleeing Nagorno-Karabakh because they fear for their lives and existence and cannot imagine a future under Azerbaijani control.
Is Armenia itself safe?
However, Armenians are under threat not only in Nagorno-Karabakh, but also in internationally recognized Armenia. Azerbaijani politicians and state media continue to speculate about possible scenarios for the violent enforcement of a corridor from Azerbaijan to the Nakhichevan enclave and Turkey via Armenian territory (the so-called Zangezur corridor). Since Azerbaijan's first attacks on Armenian territory in the spring and autumn of 2022 and a sharp increase in revisionist rhetoric from Baku, fears have been growing in Armenia that, in the worst case, this could mean an occupation of the southern Armenian province of Syunik. The Azerbaijani Parliament recently held a public hearing on “Western Azerbaijan” – a concept that clearly refers to the territory of modern-day Armenia.
Turkey: firmly on Azerbaijan's side
Here, as in the 2020 war and subsequent offensives, Turkey plays an important role. Not only has it supplied Azerbaijan with weapons, the Turkish government has also provided Aliyev with political backing. On September 24, 2023, Turkish President Erdogan visited Nakhichevan for the first time. Although Erdogan mentioned that the “corridor” between Azerbaijan and Turkey could also be created via Iran, should Armenia continue to block a route via its territory, the visit could have been perceived as another threat to Armenia. In the Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia-Azerbaijan conflicts it becomes clear once again: Turkey’s current foreign policy is not based on the search for long-term stability and balance of interests, but on the “law of the strongest” and, in the case of relations with Azerbaijan, a pan-Turkic “brotherhood” ideology.
Russia: from security guarantor to threat
Russia's role in the current escalation is dubious: politically and militarily weakened by its war of aggression against Ukraine, Russia would hardly have been able to effectively counter the Azerbaijani troops with the approximately 2,000 Russian “peacekeepers” on the contact line around Nagorno-Karabakh. However, there were not even any attempts to fulfill its role as a security guarantor. Apparently, there is no political will in the Kremlin to support the Armenian side any more than is necessary. While the autocrats Putin and Aliyev have become increasingly closer politically, economically, and militarily in recent years, the alienation between the Kremlin and the society and political leadership of Armenia after the “Velvet Revolution” in 2018 and Russia’s refusal of support in the 2020 war is remarkable. However, Moscow clearly has the upper hand over the Armenian government: a large part of Armenia's energy, transport and communications infrastructure is owned by Russian companies, the security of Armenia’s borders is guarded by Russian troops, and connections between the respective intelligence agencies are close. Hence, there are strict constraints to the Armenian government's attempts to reduce dependency vis-à-vis Moscow and to create new opportunities for Armenian foreign policy through stronger ties to the EU and the USA. The Kremlin is also actively interfering in Armenian domestic politics, thereby contributing to destabilization. Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of RT and the Kremlin's chief propagandist, used strong rhetoric on her Telegram channel to call for people to take part in the largely nationalist protests currently taking place in Armenia. These protests are coordinated by former President Robert Kocharyan, who boasts of his close ties to Moscow and is standing trial in Armenia for corruption.
Germany, the EU and the USA are “concerned”
For the USA and the EU, Azerbaijan's latest offensive against Nagorno-Karabakh marks a clear failure of their diplomatic mediation attempts of the last few months. There was too much trust that talks alone could ensure security for the people in Nagorno-Karabakh. Even if a peace treaty between Armenia and Azerbaijan is not yet completely off the table – a meeting between Aliyev and Pashinyan is scheduled to take place on October 5 within the framework of the European Political Community, with the participation of German Chancellor Scholz, French President Macron and EU Council President Michel – a just, liberal peace has become even more unlikely after Azerbaijan's latest offensive and the persistent threat to the Armenian heartland. Once again, military strength has triumphed in the South Caucasus. The European Observation Mission in Armenia (EUMA) has little power here. This also increases the Armenians' frustration with their Western partners, who are increasingly expressing solidarity with Armenia but do not have much to offer if worse comes to worst.
Policy options for Germany and the EU
What would be particularly important is that Germany and the EU no longer just cozy up to Azerbaijan, but rather prepare sanctions, for example in the energy sector, in the event of further aggression. In addition, the German Government, through the United Nations (UN) and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), should push for international monitoring of the security and humanitarian situation of the civilian population potentially remaining in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Overall, Germany and the EU should expand their presence in Armenia. They should provide not only acute but also long-term support for the care and social integration of people fleeing Nagorno-Karabakh. They should continue to deepen their cooperation with Armenia in the area of democratic and economic development, even if quick results are unlikely given the acute military threat and crisis. In this way, they can help to counteract, at least in the medium term, the narrative propagated by Russia and pro-Russian forces that the democratic revolution has only brought harm to Armenia.
In addition, Germany and the EU should consider further offers to Armenia – an important, symbolic step would be the establishment of visa-free travel for Armenians for short-term stays. Another option would be to support Armenia for the first time through the European Peace Facility, initially limited to non-lethal equipment and exchange of defense expertise.
Germany and the EU should also persuade Turkey not to further block the normalization process with Armenia and to work towards a peaceful future in the South Caucasus. This should also be in Turkey’s economic interest.
The chances for a just, liberal peace in the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict are currently slim. Just like Azerbaijanis during and after the first Nagorno-Karabakh war, Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians are now forced to give up their homeland. Azerbaijan continues to threaten the use of force to assert its interests on Armenian territory. It took the EU and Germany a long time to find clear language. Even if their influence may be limited, they should now finally develop a clear strategy to prevent even worse scenarios.