Russia has strongly criticized the European Union’s announcement of a new monitoring mission to the Armenia-Azerbaijan border, sharpening the geopolitical competition over the efforts to resolve the conflict in the Caucasus.
The EU announced on January 23 that it was deploying a 100-strong mission to Armenia for a two-year term to monitor border areas following a spike in tension there and as international mediators try to broker a peace deal between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Russia had earlier signaled its displeasure with the EU plans, which have been in the works for some weeks. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the EU mission "could only be counterproductive" because Azerbaijan opposed it. On January 26 Moscow formally reacted, via a statement from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The statement pulled no punches. It said the EU had “turned into an appendage of the United States and NATO and is carrying out a confrontational policy only bringing geopolitical competition into the region and exacerbating existing conflicts.”
It called into question the EU’s description of the mission as a “civilian” one. “We shouldn’t be deceived by the declared civilian nature of the EU mission, it is formulated in the framework of the EU’s Common Security and Defense Policy with all the attendant consequences.” And it warned that the 2,000-strong Russian peacekeeping mission in neighboring Karabakh and Russian border guards serving in Armenia “will react to the behavior of the EU observers taking into account the situation on the ground.”
The EU deployment comes amid an unspoken competition between Brussels (backed by Washington) and Moscow over the diplomatic negotiations to settle the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. There are two tracks of negotiations going on, one led by the EU and the other by Russia, and both Armenia and Azerbaijan appear to be more interested in the European mediation. In its announcement, the EU said one goal of the monitoring mission would be “ensuring an environment conducive to normalization efforts.”
This also comes against the backdrop of a growing disillusionment among Armenians about the ability of Russia, Armenia’s treaty ally, to defend them against potential Azerbaijani aggression. The Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), the Russia-led security bloc, failed to respond when Azerbaijan launched an offensive in September inside Armenian territory. And the Russian peacekeepers have proven unable to open the only road to Nagorno-Karabakh since Azerbaijan set up a blockade on it on December 12.
Earlier in January, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan announced that the CSTO would not be holding joint exercises in Armenia this year, contradicting an announcement from Russia’s Ministry of Defense just a week earlier.
The day after the EU announcement the CSTO said it was continuing to work on a proposal to send its own observer mission to Armenia. The plan “is at a high level of readiness but it was not possible to adopt it at the last session of the Collective Security Council of the CSTO,” the organization’s spokesperson, Vladimir Zaynetdinov, told Russian newspaper RBK. At that session, which happened to take place in Yerevan, Pashinyan vetoed a statement on the September flareup because it did not directly condemn the Azerbaijani attacks.
“Work on it [the CSTO mission proposal] continues,” Zaynetdinov said. “Upon completion of the approval procedure, the project will be submitted for consideration by the statutory bodies of the organization.”
If this wasn’t an empty gesture before it certainly appears to be one now, as it’s hard to imagine EU and CSTO observer missions doing what amounts to the same job.
A previous, more limited EU monitoring mission last fall already came up against friction with Russia, which maintains a significant security presence in Armenia, including guards on the border with Turkey and Iran and a large military base in Gyumri, on the Turkish border.
“The FSB [Russia Federal Security Service] is everywhere in Armenia,” an unnamed EU official told Politico. “We have had a few cases where our monitors were turned back by Russian border guards, even though they were accompanied by Armenian Defense Ministry personnel, which was concerning given this is Armenian territory.”
But the Russian MFA statement held out hope for the CSTO monitors: “We note that Yerevan, choosing not to bring the work of the CSTO to its logical conclusion, has opted in favor of the EU. If our Armenian allies retain interest in the potential of the CSTO, its mission can be quickly deployed to Armenia.”
While Moscow’s “emotional” reaction to the EU mission is understandable, the “deployment of ‘missionaries’ to Armenia does not mean the country’s exit from the CSTO or from the Eurasian Economic Union, or sharp turns in Yerevan’s foreign policy,” wrote analyst Sergey Markedonov on his Telegram channel. “Russian peacekeepers are in Karabakh and the 102nd military base remains in Gyumri. And the best prescription against the activity of Washington and Brussels is for them to work effectively,” he wrote.
Markedonov counseled Russians not to give up on the CSTO monitors. “Attempts to deploy the CSTO mission alongside the EU one should not be halted, on the contrary the project should be worked on still more actively. There is no final decision in politics. The choice of an ally, as Ernest Renan says about the nation, is a ‘daily plebiscite.’ The thought should be about how to win it, not to multiply grievances.”
Joshua Kucera, a senior correspondent, is Eurasianet's former Turkey/Caucasus editor and has written for the site since 2007.