After the 4-day war in Nagorno-Karabakh at the beginning of April, we may see changes at the negotiating table, as Berlin has indicated it would like to take a stronger role, Amanda Paul, Senior Policy Analyst at the European Policy Centre (EPC), told euractiv.com in an exclusive interview.
Amanda Paul is a geopolitical and foreign policy analyst and journalist. Her main areas of expertise include the foreign and domestic policy of Turkey and Ukraine, Russian foreign policy, the South Caucasus, Eastern Partnership and European Neighbourhood Policy, and conflict resolution (Cyprus and the former Soviet space).
She spoke to euractiv.com’s Senior Editor, Georgi Gotev.
We are meeting two weeks after an interesting conference EPC organised on Nagorno-Karabakh, hopefully to discuss the issues further. The 4-day war in Nagorno-Karabakh at the beginning of April was called by some the April Fool’s War. But it remains a mystery why it erupted, the day after the President of Azerbaijan met with the Obama administration in Washington.
I think this [war] was in part the result of the stalling of the peace process. No serious meetings between the two presidents have been held for a very long time. It was possibly in part also the consequence of the new strategy announced by Armenia in February – a more deterrence-oriented strategy which was almost certainly viewed negatively by Azerbaijan. I think this was also an opportunity for Azerbaijan to test their new training techniques and some of their new armament procurements. This helped them take back a certain amount of positions, the first such advance since the ceasefire of 1994. Other regional crises (Ukraine, Syria, Russia-Turkey) have also exacerbated tensions in and around the conflict
The fact that this took place after the meetings you mentioned in Washington is also relevant as there has been a great deal of frustration from the Azerbaijani side over the increasingly consolidated status quo and that nothing moves. Baku wants the conflict back on the agenda of the international community. Having a meeting with John Kerry and talking how important it is to have a peace process when there is currently no peace process, then the “4-day day” – would seem to indicate a link: an act aimed at getting the peace process moving again but at the same time putting more pressure on Armenia to be more flexible in the talks by demonstrating Azerbaijan’s military capabilities.
Does this mean that it was Azerbaijan who started this small war?
It would seem that way. What is more important now is how to prevent this happening again. Over the last few days we’ve seen an increase of skirmishes and fighting along the line of contact. However, it doesn’t hit the headlines, because the West seems to take these skirmishes as business as usual. But this is extremely dangerous.
Precisely. Maybe people forget that this conflict could become something much bigger. Armenia is a Christian country and Azerbaijan is Muslim, although more secular than any other Muslim country. There is also a risk of war by proxy, as Russia supports Armenia and Turkey stands by Azerbaijan, given the tensions between Moscow and Ankara. And as it was said at the conference I mentioned, the EU is doing very little. Even Pope Francis is doing more, he is going to visit both countries, while EU leaders have no such plans…
First of all, the [Nagorno-Karabakh] conflict has never been about religion. In terms of the war by proxy it’s true that now we have a very difficult situation between Russia and Turkey which has an impact on the South Caucasus states as they have set of complex relations with both Russia and Turkey . However, at the same time neither Turkey nor Russia want a fully blown conflict, because they are both aware what the possible consequences of that conflict could be in terms of spill-over into the rest of the region. So I don’t think this proxy war is a key element in the recent escalation.
Russia is clearly taking advantage of the security vacuum and the lack of serious engagement from other international actors to further consolidate its position. Russia has been the most active in terms in its diplomatic activity – the recent so-called “Lavrov ideas” for example – although they don’t seem to be very popular with either Armenia or Azerbaijan.
Does it mean that Russia gets the upper hand and the rest of the world sees it as normal?
Russia is already the most influential player in that region. Regarding Armenia, Russia is Armenia’s security guarantor. However, Armenia’s security is not guaranteed at all by the Russians, and this incident has proved that. As we have heard a million times, Russians are selling arms to Azerbaijan, and these arms are used against Armenia, Russia’s strategic ally.
Again, Russia has leverage on Azerbaijan because of the conflict, but also in other areas too; because it has hard and soft tools it can use. The US is preoccupied with the presidential elections and its foreign policy is focused mostly on Syria. The EU adopts the same policy it has followed for years, stating that it supports the efforts of the OSCE Minsk group and the co-chairs. They don’t want to be more deeply involved in this process.
How about the energy aspect? There has always been a competition between Russia and the EU over a pipeline bringing gas to Southern Europe. Vice-President for Energy Union Maroš Šefčovič visited Baku last February, and made optimistic statements about having the Southern Gas Corridor (SGC), which will bring Azeri gas to Europe, completed on time. But business hates the lack of security. Is this a Russian-inspired destabilisation of the SGC?
Obviously, the Russians would be happier without the SGC, but I think the process is already far advanced and it is crucial that it succeeds There is energy infrastructure near to the line of contact –which could be easily targeted and blown up in a war situation. This is another reason why Azerbaijan in particular wouldn’t like to have a full-blown war, because it puts at risk this infrastructure and foreign investment.
Given the downturn in the Azerbaijani economy, because of the fall of the Manat [the local currency] and the fall of the oil price, it seems unlikely that Baku would risk their existing and future energy and transport projects.. A new war would do that, but by trying to maintain stability, they can still try to attract foreign investors.
So why do you believe they started this small war, if it’s not in their interest?
There is a sense of frustration over the stalled peace process and the continued occupation of territory. This military offensive seems to have been aimed at demonstrating Azerbaijan’s military muscle. Its ultimate goal is not a fully blown war, but to push Armenia into being more flexible at the negotiating table.
However, such offensives are very dangerous because they raise the chance of a war by accident. While the recent “4 Day War” was de-escalated by the Russians, I don’t think we can take it for granted that this is always going to be the case. Because despite the influence President Putin has, at the end of the day, he can’t give a watertight guarantee that the Russians can always stop a war if the situation spirals out of control. This is the risk with Karabakh.
This is why it is important to return to the negotiating table as quickly as possible. And we may see some changes here as well. We have seen this first meeting of the full Minsk group. This is something that needs to take place more regularly, to have more creativity, more voices and ideas around the table. Last September, the Germans also came with a sort of peace plan proposal, a 7 point plan I believe, although I’m not sure it has ever made public…
But the Germans are not even co-chairs of the Minsk group…
This is something separate. They came up with some ideas, they indicated they were interested in taking a stronger role. So far this hasn’t been followed up. But I think that the deeper involvement of Germany, the most powerful country in the EU, should be welcomed.
You said SGC is too advanced to suffer a setback. That sounds reassuring, but it contrasts with a letter which became public yesterday. Manfred Weber, president of the EPP group in the European Parliament, wrote to Energy Commissioner Miguel Arias Cañete and to German Vice-Chancellor and Minister of Economy Sigmar Gabriel, warning that SGC may have the same fate as Nabucco, because he said it is unclear to what extent the European Commission is working together with European energy companies towards the realisation of SGC. Do you think the EPP is too alarmist?
Sometimes it’s good to be alarmist. Because sometimes the EU seems to just take it for granted that these things go ahead. For example for the TANAP part of the SGC [the section via Turkey] there was a shortage of finance, because Azerbaijan pulled out some of the financing. But as far as I’m aware, the World Bank and the EIB have now stepped in to bridge the gap and are apparently ready to deliver some €2 billion. It’s clear, this is a flagship project. In terms of the amount of gas that is going to be going through it. It is not going to be huge, but it’s highly symbolic in terms of breaking Russia’s hold on gas going to the West from the Caspian.
So I do think it’s important that we keep our eye on the ball and that this project goes ahead as quickly as possible. Speed is one of the elements here,
Do you think the Russians could still revive the South Stream gas pipeline project?
It’s difficult to see how they could revive it. They couldn’t get it to Bulgaria. The relationship with Turkey has collapsed. So what options are on the table, it’s difficult to see, frankly speaking. Russia’s main goal now is Nord Stream 2, (and) having it up and running as quickly as possible.
How would you describe the way the Russians conduct their pipeline politics?
The Russians are very proactive. They are the kings of PR, propaganda and self-promotion. They use every instrument they have in their tool box to achieve their objective event, including pushing projects that many people believe have little chance of being successful.