“By launching a military offensive in Nagorny Karabakh, President Aliyev forfeited the trust of Europeans. Azerbaijan’s status as a transport hub cannot be a reason for the EU to go soft on Baku,” Thomas de Waal, a veteran scholar of the Caucasus, concludes in a note for think tank Carnegie Europe on September 26.
The events unfolding in Karabakh are rapidly turning into a humanitarian crisis with tens of thousands of refugees making their way out of the enclave, fearing for their lives. An increasing number of unverified reports of atrocities are emerging on Armenian social media.
At least 200 people have been wounded and there are reports of dozens killed in the shelling that was part of the Azerbaijani so-called anti-terrorist operation that began on September 19.
The attack has ignited a heated debate about the need for a profound recalibration of Europe's policy towards Azerbaijan, observes de Waal. “While the immediate cause of concern revolves around the Karabakh conflict, the implications extend far beyond this territorial dispute,” he adds.
Baku’s unprovoked attack on Karabakh, known as Artsakh by the ethnic-Armenian locals, has crossed a red line established by both the European Union and the United States.
“The consequences are cataclysmic. The eventual casualties will run into the hundreds. Fearful for their future, thousands of Karabakh Armenians are now making a mass tragic exodus from their homeland to Armenia,” says de Waal.
“Many in Brussels and Washington feel shocked and betrayed by Azerbaijan’s use of force. Up until the last minute, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev was reportedly assuring high-level interlocutors—including European Council President Charles Michel and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken—that he would not launch a military operation,” he notes.
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, in raising the issue of the conflict while still at the United Nations in New York during its General Assembly week, didn’t minced her words, saying: "Baku broke its repeated assurances to refrain from the use of force, causing tremendous suffering to a population already in dire straits."
There was no need for the attack, argues de Waal. “An egregious aspect of this is that Azerbaijan was getting pretty much everything it wanted at the negotiating table.”
After years of deadlock and many equivocations, the Karabakh Armenians had already agreed to engage in talks with Baku, signalling a willingness to strike a deal on integration into Azerbaijan. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan had even acknowledged Azerbaijan's territorial integrity, including Karabakh, aligning with international norms. A compromise deal was already half-done.
Now the status quo cannot persist, as the human rights dimension takes centre-stage. Azerbaijan says it now has full control over the region, insisting that the remaining Armenians have nothing to fear. Yet, the complexities of ethnic conflicts paint a different picture, with reports of alleged abuses by Azerbaijani soldiers already surfacing on Armenian social media.
Baku's refusal to allow international monitoring missions into the region has only fuelled concerns. Human rights groups, for instance, are attempting to document multiple alleged atrocities carried out by Azeri soldiers on Armenian soldiers and civilians accused of taking part in the 44-day Second Nagorno-Karabakh War that took place in late 2020.
“If atrocities are confirmed in Baku’s war of choice or remaining Karabakhis suffer abuse, there should be calls for prosecution of the abusers concerned, along with cases in the European Court of Human Rights,” says de Waal.
The EU has yet to respond in any meaningful way to the situation, announcing on September 26 that it was earmarking a mere €5mn for humanitarian aid to deal with the crisis.
Beyond the immediate consequences, the attack has probably brought Baku closer to Moscow at a time when Europe was keen to work more closely with Azerbaijan as a gas transit hub and source of non-Russian oil. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen travelled to Baku last year to meet with Azerbaijani strongman Aliyev and signed off on a big gas delivery deal. She called Aliyev a “reliable partner” and failed to mention any of Azerbaijan's well-documented human rights abuses.
“That is all the more relevant as the next big issue is the planned transport route [from the main part of Azerbaijan] across Armenia to Azerbaijan’s exclave of Nakhchivan. Russia, Azerbaijan, and Turkey all have a shared interest in imposing their own version of what the latter two call the Zangezur Corridor with as little Armenian control of the route as possible—and perhaps by force,” says de Waal.
Aliyev has also started to talk about "Western Azerbaijan" to describe southern Armenia’s Syunik region, which is home to a large Azeri population. Given recent developments in Karabakh, his comments have become ominous.
While acknowledging Azerbaijan's past hardships, particularly during the 1990s, and the resulting displacement of its population in the first war with Armenia which the Azeris lost, it is essential to steer clear of civilisational rhetoric, says de Waal. Yet, the use of force to deal with unresolved outcomes of the second conflict in 2020 renders the "occupation" argument obsolete. Aliyev's aggressive stance and recent remarks suggest a need for a more cautious approach to Baku by Europe.
“Aliyev qualified that this return [by Azerbaijan to the entirety of the enclave] would happen 'peacefully.' But after what happened in Karabakh, how seriously can reassurance be taken?” asks de Waal.
Von der Leyen blankly ignored Aliev’s dictatorial record during her meeting, yet she rails against Russian President Vladimir Putin’s record on an almost daily basis.
“Aggression continues on the home front, too. Azerbaijan’s democracy ranking with Freedom House is rock-bottom. In July the well-known economist and opposition activist Gubad Ibadoghlu, linked to U.S. universities and the London School of Economics, was arrested on palpably bogus charges and is now in ill health in detention,” says de Waal.
But the EU has been willing to ignore all of this for the sake of energy deals and attracting regional players into its anti-Russia camp. Azerbaijan's appeal to the West centres around oil and gas, business and geography. Baku has positioned itself as the sole country bridging Russia and Iran with essential east-west oil, gas, and transport infrastructure along the Middle Corridor.
“In Western capitals this frequently produced a silo effect. One part of the establishment—in the Brussels case, Michel and the European External Action Service—would press for peacemaking and resolution of the conflict with Armenia. Another—the European Commission in Brussels—would hold talks with Baku on energy and transport projects,” says de Waal.
What little trust there was between Brussels and Baku has now been broken. Aliyev has crossed a line with his unprovoked attack on Karabakh. The EU says it stands for values, and those values are now on the line.
“In short, it is time for the EU to talk a lot tougher with Azerbaijan,” says de Waal.