International Crisis Group, 30 January 2023

Yerevan/Tbilisi/Baku - The European Union is sending monitors to Armenia’s border with Azerbaijan, so as to lessen the danger of renewed fighting between the two countries over Nagorno-Karabakh and other issues. Brussels must give the mission the means and mandate it will need to succeed.


What’s new? In January 2023, the EU announced a new mission to monitor the Armenia-Azerbaijan border. Fighting had flared there the previous September, though high-level diplomacy helped prevent it from expanding into full-scale war. But with peace talks faltering, and Baku in a stronger military position, the risk of renewed clashes remains high.

Why does it matter? A new war between Armenia and Azerbaijan would have tremendous human costs, undermine the EU, Russian and U.S. goal of de-escalating regional tensions, and sow further instability in an already volatile Eurasia. The new monitoring mission could help lower the risk.

What should be done? Brussels should endow its new two-year civilian monitoring mission with adequate resources as well as a flexible mandate to foster communication and cooperation between the parties. It should seek Baku’s cooperation for the mission, including cross-border access, and (if possible) let the mission’s staff liaise with Russian border guards.

Executive Summary

Two years after their second war over Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenia and Azerbaijan are uncomfortably close to starting a third. Over the course of 2022, even as mediators sought a comprehensive peace deal, three major bouts of fighting – the most recent in September – demonstrated the situation’s volatility. While the future of the mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh enclave remains at the core of the neighbours’ conflict, September’s fighting, which took place along the countries’ border and inside Armenia, expanded the battlefield.

With Azerbaijan enjoying a greater military edge, and Russia distracted by the war in Ukraine, there is little to keep Baku from pressing its advantage along this new front should it grow impatient with talks. That could plunge the two countries back into war at significant human cost and to the detriment of the broader South Caucasus. The European Union’s (EU) new civilian monitoring mission to Armenia’s border with Azerbaijan is a bold and encouraging step to help mitigate the risks. The mission must be given the means and mandate to succeed.

Since the end of the Cold War, Armenia and Azerbaijan have been locked in a bitter conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, which was part of Azerbaijan in Soviet times and is home to a majority ethnic Armenian population. Armenian troops took control of the enclave and seven adjoining regions by force in the early 1990s, and for nearly 30 years it has been ruled by de facto authorities seated in the city of Stepanakert. But in 2020, a six-week war, which killed more than 7,000 troops, saw Azerbaijan regain control of about one third of the Soviet-era Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast and most of seven adjacent territories, while also demonstrating its superior military capabilities.

Russia brokered a ceasefire agreement to end the war and also took steps to keep the peace. It inserted peacekeepers to constrain resurgent fighting in and around the enclave, and border guards on the Armenian side to keep the parties from fighting along the frontier. But the results have been uneven at best, as Baku has tested its newfound strength both at the negotiating table and on the battlefield.

Against this backdrop, the last year and a half of relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan have been marked by movement along two very different tracks. On one track, the parties have pursued a peace process, with an emboldened Baku eager for concessions and a wary Yerevan worried that it will be railroaded but hoping for benefits for its development agenda. The fate of Armenian-populated Nagorno-Karabakh remains the most substantial issue separating the parties: Yerevan demands special rights and protections for the enclave’s residents, while Baku insists that their status is a domestic matter inappropriate for bilateral discussions.

But there are other major issues, too. These include a dispute around several sections of the interstate border that were never fully demarcated at the end of the Cold War, and an argument over development of a transport corridor that would pass through southern Armenia and link Azerbaijan to its exclave, Nakhchivan, off Armenia’s western frontier. Still, the parties have made progress – at one point committing to reach an agreement to conclude a deal by the end of 2022 – though they failed to meet the deadline.

Even amid the negotiations, however, the neighbours’ relations have simultaneously hurtled down a more confrontational track. The last calendar year witnessed three major bouts of fighting between the parties, each bloodier than the last. The first two series of clashes, in March and August, enabled an increasingly confident Azerbaijan to improve its military position vis-à-vis Nagorno-Karabakh. But the most lethal and arguably most consequential round occurred along the two countries’ border in September. These hostilities saw Azerbaijan move troops into strategic positions inside Armenia itself that they still control.

High-level diplomacy by Brussels, Washington, Moscow and others helped end the fighting, supported by separate short-term monitoring and assessment missions from the EU, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO). But those missions lapsed. Moreover, the diplomatic track stalled, in part because of Baku’s backing for activists blockading the road linking Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh.

It is anyone’s guess whether or where fighting might next flare up, but the risk of a reprise of September’s hostilities – along roughly the same lines – is substantial. Enriched by its energy resources, Baku continues to gather military strength and confidence in its edge. Armenia, by contrast, has struggled to replenish its weapons stores following the 2020 conflict, with its traditional security partner, Russia, hoarding armaments for its conflict in Ukraine.

Russian peacekeepers and border guards have not proven an effective deterrent: they were unable to stop Azerbaijani advances in the 2022 fighting and Moscow has made clear that it does not want to alienate Baku or its ally Ankara. From the high ground that they now control inside Armenia, Azerbaijani forces could sweep down to take more territory, which would cut off southern Armenia from the rest of the country and force Yerevan into more concessions. Some worry that if Baku grows frustrated with the pace of talks, it could well try its luck at exactly this manoeuvre.

Against this backdrop, the EU’s announcement on 23 January that it will deploy a new monitoring mission to Armenia in the border area comes as welcome news. This mission may well be the best way to keep the parties from returning to blows at the border and inside Armenia. In theory, the CSTO or the OSCE could also have done the job, but neither of them was acceptable to both parties. Yerevan expressed deep reservations about the CSTO’s proposal; notwithstanding its own membership in the alliance, it does not fully trust its fellow members to side with it against Baku. Baku rejected the ideas from the OSCE, which sponsored decades of failed mediation under the auspices of the so-called Minsk Group chaired by Russia, the U.S. and France, and which Azerbaijan treats as defunct.

With Armenia’s backing, the EU forged ahead, overcoming scepticism among member states, to make its 23 January announcement of a new two-year mission. Now, as Brussels prepares to deploy monitors, it will need to work out many operational details as well as turn its attention to eliciting Baku’s cooperation, absent which the mission will lack access both to Azerbaijani territory and to certain areas of the border zone that would be too dangerous to monitor without arrangements on both sides.

It will also need to look for ways to coexist productively with the Russian presence at the border. Personnel must be empowered not only to share information with EU mediators, but also to build communications channels between the two sides, and if possible to exchange information with Russian border guards. Although Moscow will surely object to the mission, its interests in seeing de-escalation in the South Caucasus overlap with the EU’s, and it would do well to look at the 23 January announcement as an opportunity. Indeed, Russians in the area suggest that some quiet cooperation at the local level may be possible.

The threat of another war on a continent already struggling to cope with Russia’s war in Ukraine is all too real. Spring will soon reach the South Caucasus, with melting snows clearing the way for new operations. Brussels should move quickly to get its mission on the ground before new fighting breaks out – engaging in diplomacy to ensure that its staff have the freedom of movement, the cooperation of local actors and the mandate that will best help them prevent clashes with the potential to spiral into a wider conflagration.

For the full report, visit: