Since the Soviet collapse, Europe and Russia have remained unable to construct a common framework for security cooperation. The Kremlin has consistently pushed for grand security bargains to assert its privileged spheres of influence over swathes of the Eurasian landmass. In contrast, Europe’s normative preferences for a market economy and liberal democracy have favored a very different approach, one based on rules and rights, in order to advance security and order in the emergent post-Soviet space.

This contradiction has played out in each “small war” in the post-Soviet space. In the absence of a grand security agreement between Europe and Russia, a preference for “controlled chaos” in those conflicts has emerged as a strategic choice for the Kremlin: Russia’s involvement in various conflicts around its borders has served to stabilize them while falling short of full resolution, endowing the Kremlin with extensive political leverage over these regional hotspots. The most recent forty-four-day Russia-condoned war between Turkey-backed Azerbaijan and Armenian forces, however, revealed the limits of both the Russian and the European approaches to Eurasian security, and exposed Russia’s shortcomings in controlling local actors.

After numerous attempts at brokering a ceasefire, the Kremlin sealed an agreement that confirmed Azerbaijan’s Turkish-enabled battlefield successes, forcing painful concessions on the Armenians and inserting Russian peacekeepers—but not European or Turkish ones—on the ground. Analysts will debate whether the latest Karabakh war was a political loss for the Kremlin or whether it heralds a new regional order: one opportunistically shared between Ankara and Moscow. What is clear, however, is that Russia, which long pushed back on outside encroachment in the South Caucasus, is now confronting a potentially ascendant Turkey in the region.

The war showed that treating Russia simply as a geopolitical villain or victim obscures the complexity of post-Soviet wars and ignores the local agency driving them. With or without a grand geopolitical bargain between Europe and Russia, any sustainable security architecture in the South Caucasus will remain deeply local in nature, dependent on participatory institutions that can emerge only when states in the region liberalize.

Conflict-ridden regions have historically been pacified through a combination of sustained great power engagement and the emergence of liberal political systems, both of which contribute to a favorable environment for conflict resolution and integration. The Russian-brokered ceasefire agreement in Karabakh may offer near-term geopolitical stability and an opening for European regional institutions to influence the trajectory of the South Caucasus. Europe’s capacity in and commitment to rules-based liberal norms of politics can move the region toward a more sustainable peace and help advance much-needed reforms in states willing to do so.

Putin the Peacemaker?

Politically left out of the ceasefire agreement in Nagorno-Karabakh, European powers will likely remain lukewarm to and suspicious of the hastily brokered “Russian peace” postwar arrangement. Given Moscow’s track record of opportunism and intervention in Eurasian regional conflicts, Russia now appears to be more deeply wedged in the region, raising concerns about whether it can be an honest broker in finding a final political solution to the Azerbaijani-Armenian conflict.

Such a solution would ultimately entail a determination of Nagorno-Karabakh’s political status. The current agreement stopped the fighting, enshrined battlefield gains, and committed the warring sides to a mutual exchange of all captives and a reopening of transportation corridors. However, the political status of Nagorno-Karabakh itself was by design left unresolved, an exclusion that Moscow is in no rush to address at present.

The status issue, if left unaddressed and in limbo, will likely increase the fundamental security concerns of ethnic Armenians across the region. The status quo likewise provides the main political rationale for Russian peacekeepers in the region.

But the Kremlin’s relative control of geopolitics on the ground may well create enough stability to allow Europe to turn the Kremlin’s brokered agreement into a venue for multilateral cooperation. Russia has a daunting task ahead of it in keeping the peace, particularly one that enables a sustainable framework for the future, and Europe’s normative power of rights-based and governance-focused peace-building has an important place here.

The current postwar conditions in Nagorno-Karabakh also give the Kremlin leverage over domestic politics in both Armenia and Azerbaijan. With its peacekeeping force, Russia has militarily entered Azerbaijan for the first time since the closure of its Cold War–era Gabala radar station in 2012. Some have described Azerbaijan’s acquiescence to the Russia-backed agreement as a Faustian bargain rather than a victory: while Azerbaijan regained previously occupied territories, it now may well have to accept Russian constraints on its foreign policy and security doctrines.

Still, since succeeding his father, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has often proved capable of playing off big powers to his advantage. Leveraging its oil and gas for “energy diplomacy” with Europe, Azerbaijan for years successfully fended off Western calls for reform and liberalization. And now, with Turkish patronage, Aliyev is pushing back against domestic opposition—however meager—to the return of Russian troops onto Azerbaijani soil. Whether playing off Russia and the West, or Russia and Turkey, Aliyev has applied the quintessential strategy of regime survival that is characteristic of many of the “in-between” states in post-Communist Eurasia.

In Armenia, the levers of Russian influence over that nation’s nascent democracy have grown significantly longer. The coordination between Azerbaijan and Turkey against Armenia during the war profoundly increased the sense of physical insecurity among Armenians both in Armenia and in Karabakh, and the Russian peacekeeping presence on the ground appears to be intensifying an already largely pro-Moscow orientation across the political spectrum.

Popular anger over the country’s military losses under the leadership of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan raise questions about the sustainability of Armenia’s democratic gains that emerged from the 2018 Velvet Revolution. Given the simmering political tension in Armenia, the perceived “security versus democracy” (and “stability versus democracy”) trade-offs have reappeared in Armenia’s political discourse, challenging the political prospects of democratic consolidation in the country.

European Rewards from the Russian Peace

Europe has a role to play in rebuilding the region and promoting a sustainable future, should it choose to support and advance the current “Russian peace” in Karabakh. One important dividend would be democracy promotion in the South Caucasus. A Russian-enforced peace, perhaps ironically, could be remarkably conducive to that end.

The increased commercial connectivity that is promised by Moscow’s interest in unblocking transport and trade routes in the region would yield economic dividends for Armenia’s struggling democracy, possibly eventually reducing threat perceptions and enabling the country to look forward.

Stronger democracy in Armenia also would be exclusively good news for neighboring Georgia’s reform efforts, which have stagnated in recent years. Democracies have historically shown a tendency to consolidate regionally, as they mutually reinforce one another in otherwise authoritarian neighborhoods.

Democratic consolidation in Georgia and Armenia, sandwiched as they are between authoritarian Turkey, Iran, Azerbaijan, and Russia, may well prove to be mutually reinforcing. Sustained European political and economic engagement in the South Caucasus, under Russian peacekeeping cover, would likely yield a disproportionate windfall for democratic consolidation in a region that may well, in turn, seed it further afield.

Building regional security orders in Europe’s neighborhoods could prove easier to achieve if pursued from the bottom up. This would mean providing targeted and principled support to democratic aspirants and pushing for more accountable and responsible governance in authoritarian states, approaches Europe has pursued only inconsistently in this region and elsewhere.

Unresolved conflicts like the one in Nagorno-Karabakh remain the frontlines of authoritarian consolidation, and as such will continue to threaten and derail democratic breakthroughs. These unresolved regional conflicts have been a political boon to the autocrats who leverage such conflicts to silence their domestic oppositions.

Lastly, while enhanced European support for reconciliation, reconstruction, and reform efforts in the South Caucasus may help stabilize the region, such support should be conditional and principled, driven by the norms of human rights and minority protections. Unequivocal European support for the sovereignty of the new post-Soviet states in the 1990s offered only rhetorical support for these issues.

Since independence, concerns over minority rights and protections have been turned into political wedge issues across Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia, creating the political conditions for the illiberalism that continues to stymie political reform. A reckoning with this failure is overdue in European capitals. An unapologetic and determined advocacy of minority and human rights is indispensable as a core basis for engagement with the region. Absent this, European ambitions of sustainable regional security orders in its neighborhoods will not succeed.

This article was published as part of the “Relaunching U.S.-Russia Dialogue on Global Challenges: The Role of the Next Generation” project, implemented in cooperation with the U.S. Embassy to Russia. The opinions, findings, and conclusions stated herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Embassy to Russia.

  • Anna Ohanyan