The recent outbreak of open warfare over Nagorno-Karabakh contains a real risk of conflict spillover triggering Russian, Turkish or even Iranian intervention. What are the implications for the Eastern Partnership?
For the European Union, the past several years have been marked by a series of unexpected challenges in the security sector. On the whole, the sheer size and depth of the EU have greatly hindered its capacity for either rapid reaction or robust response to these security challenges.
As many of these emerging challenges graduated into an evolving crisis, the institutional momentum has been slow and lumbering. These inherent limitations in EU security response and crisis management have largely been obscured by the absence of American engagement or commitment, however.
Against that backdrop, despite a deepening of diplomatic experience and an expanding exercise of engagement in recent years, the security challenges to the EU have neither waned nor abated. Rather, the challenge only worsened and accelerated in 2020, as the rush of three consecutive security crises threatened to overwhelm any effective response.
This ‘triad of threats’ comprises a daunting and diverse set of challenges, including the sudden and startling onset of the global COVID-19 pandemic, an unexpected yet positive ‘national awakening’ of activism in Belarus struggling for democratic change, and more recently, the outbreak of open warfare over Nagorno-Karabakh, with a real risk of conflict spillover triggering Russian, Turkish or even Iranian intervention.
It is this latter danger of wider escalation that elevates the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict to the forefront, as an urgent and immediate crisis.
Eastern Partnership: diminishing dividends
After several years of beleaguered EU diplomacy focused on Russia’s self-declared “sphere of influence or so-called ‘near abroad’, the policy framework of the Eastern Partnership (EaP) seemed in danger of collapse.
Now at its tenth anniversary, the past decade of diplomatic achievement and geopolitical gain by the Eastern Partnership programme has been obscured by several serious setbacks.
For example, Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 to its annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its continuing aggression in eastern Ukraine, have diminished the dividends of EaP engagement.
And more recently, Belarus emerged as the obvious focal point for European engagement and diplomatic efforts, offering an opportunity for a ‘zero-sum’ calculus of either an outright victory of democracy over authoritarian rule or an absolute defeat of ‘people power’ at the hands of one of the more resolute and repressive regimes.
Karabakh: A ‘kinetic conflict’
With the launch of a sudden and sweeping military offensive by Azerbaijan early 27 September, the unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh conflict emerged as the more pressing and most urgent crisis for European diplomacy.
For many astute observers, this conflict has been a constant distraction, with sporadic clashes between Karabakh Armenians and Azerbaijan often enough to merit overt concern but not serious enough to mandate outright action.
This recent Azerbaijani offensive has altered that analytical framework, however, with Nagorno-Karabakh now seen as a ‘kinetic crisis’ rather than as a frozen conflict.
From this perspective, there are three relevant scenarios for the Nagorno-Karabakh crisis, ranked in an order of decreasing likelihood and impact, with each scenario presenting distinct challenges to European security:
Scenario one: De-escalation and disengagement, with war deferred
In the context of this first, best-case scenario, after four-five days of fighting and combat operations, both sides are stalemated in a military standoff that finally leads to a negotiated de-escalation and disengagement of forces.
The driver for this scenario is the military situation, and although neither side can claim victory or contest defeat, war is averted but only deferred, with a real risk of renewed hostilities in early 2021.
Scenario two: Sustained and ongoing warfare, but localised and limited
In this second, worst-case scenario, fighting and combat operations continue, with military attacks and counter-attacks contributing to a sustained cycle of ongoing warfare.
Although localised and limited, the driver for this scenario of continued fighting is political, as Azerbaijan becomes a prisoner of its political weakness.
After investing all of its political capital and standing on the risky gambit of warfare, the Azerbaijani leadership is pressured by public expectations to keep fighting and the democratic Armenian government is compelled to keep pace to defend Nagorno-Karabakh.
Scenario three: Total war and regional expansion
The third, worst-case scenario involves a less likely, but a possible situation where the Azerbaijani offensive escalates and expands as Turkey and Russia are each compelled to directly intervene in support of the rival sides.
The driver for this scenario is rooted in geopolitics, as Russian and Turkish interests diverge into a contest and confrontation of interests, with Iran then sensing a necessity to engage.
In this context, the South Caucasus devolves into an arena for the direct competition and contest between the three larger regional powers and adding a destructive element of ‘proxy war’ in the region.
Read scenarios for the Eastern Partnership 2030 recently developed by Visegrad Insight. This article is part of a project co-financed by the International Visegrad Fund and the German Marshall Fund of the U.S.