EU Mission in Armenia and Russia
The European Union with its newly created foreign policy instrument, the EU monitoring mission in Armenia, aims at monitoring the conflictive situation on the borderline between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Russia perceives this mission as a competition and a danger to its interests. The situation has become tense since Russian border guard units are located on the territory of Armenia on the same border the EU mission is monitoring. What problems occur on the ground, why, where, and how can they be solved?
All you need to know about the EU mission in Armenia
Following the 2020 large-scale war in the South Caucasus and the 2022 deadly attacks by the Azerbaijani armed forces on Armenia's sovereign territory, the European Union has dispatched an extended monitoring mission to the unstable border between Armenia and Azerbaijan․ This demonstrated Brussels' heightened dedication in a region that Moscow has traditionally regarded as within its sphere of influence. The EU Mission in Armenia (EUMA) officially started operating on February 20, 2023 and is comprised of approximately 100 civilian staff. The mission was proclaimed to build upon the work of its predecessor, the European Union Monitoring Capacity to Armenia (EUMCAP). The EUMCAP, staffed with 40 people, was deployed in October 2022, right after the Armenian villages and cities were attacked as Azerbaijani forces pushed into Armenia’s sovereign territory. Those hostilities claimed over 300 lives. Despite being more than twice the size of EUMCAP, the new deployment is only half the size of the European Union Monitoring Mission (EUMM) in neighboring Georgia. EUMM in Georgia monitors the administrative boundary lines with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, territories occupied by Russia since late 2008. The initial budget for the EUMA covers EUR 8.1 million for the first four months of its two-year deployment.[ii] Chief of the mission Markus Ritter is the former head of the German Federal Police Headquarters in Stuttgart and the former chief of the EU Advisory Mission (EUAM) in Iraq.[iii]
Armenian and other reactions
Armenian President Vahagn Khachaturyan welcomed the deployment, stating that he was “deeply thankful to the EU and member states for manifestation of strong solidarity with Armenia,” adding that the EUMA would “play a role in de-escalation and establishing stability and ultimately bringing peace to the region”.[vi] Calls for a more robust and long-term monitoring mission were heard even before the EUMCAP’s remit ended in December 2022. French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna stated that the mission “really limited the danger of escalation” and “should continue as long as it is needed”.
Although EUMCAP received a cold reception from Baku, Azerbaijan nevertheless agreed to cooperate with the mission. In contrast, the new EUMA mission proceeded without Azerbaijan's approval, even after negotiations. This illustrates how the authoritarian regime in Azerbaijan has been and is planning to use force and intimidation in order to reach its political goals. To do that, it resists any monitoring and transparency efforts on the Armenian-Azerbaijani borderline to avoid accountability.
The deployment of the mission has clearly angered Russia. As the EU deployment was rolled out, Russian MFA spokeswoman told reporters that “everything is being done to squeeze Russia out of the region and weaken its historical role as the main guarantor of security”.[v] As a result, Russia’s stance is perceived by the Armenian general public as either illogical or hostile[vi]. On one hand, Russia fails to fulfill its obligations as an ally, on the other hand, it actively opposes any efforts to balance the situation if they are undertaken by the Armenian government together with the EU.
Problems on the ground
With this said, it also should be acknowledged that the Russian presence and influence in Armenia is still colossal. This applies not only to the economy, infrastructure, and energy, but also to the military. Armenia hosts one of the largest (according to some calculations, the largest) Russian military base outside of Russia. Russian border guards are in charge of border control not only with Turkey and Iran but also of certain parts of the Armenian border with Azerbaijan. The situation is full of complexities as the responsibilities of the Russian armed border guards and the unarmed EU mission members overlap. Not surprisingly, some problems already occurred during the former mission's operations. This happened when the Russian border guards were not allowing the Europeans to enter certain parts of Armenia, especially on its southeastern frontiers. This resulted not only in international tensions, but also in conflicting views within Armenian society. As a response, the EU mission was escorted by Armenian high-ranking army officers (in one case even the Head of the General Stuff himself) to all those parts of the border where Russians held positions. Currently, the EU mission has no obstacles on the ground, yet the Russian side has been increasing its pressure on Armenia, sharpening it statements, and activating its proxies[vii] in order to change the situation and get rid of the mission.
The key question is whether the Armenian government will be able to craft its foreign policy competently enough not to lose this instrument. The first test it passed was the ratification of the mandate of the EU mission on August 31, 2023.[viii] However, more institutional solutions should be further explored. A well-described, detailed and prolonged mandate with a far bigger contingent, combined with a visible political will of support from the government of Armenia, might institutionalize the relations between actors on the ground. Simultaneously, one will need to revise the outdated agreement of 1992 between Armenia and Russia that is settling the mandate of the Russian border troops in Armenia.
Additionally, after the military operation of Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh on September 19-20, 2023 and cease of existence of the Armenian unrecognized polity, the depopulation of the land has already started with almost 85,000 people fled to Armenia. This brings to a question about the ground of keeping the Russian “peacekeepers” in Nagorno-Karabakh if there might be no Armenian population to protect. In general, that might become another ground for rethinking of the Russian influence in the bigger region.
Areg Kochinyan is a historian, political scientist, specialist of the history of transitional societies, and the head of Research Center on Security policy (RCSP) NGO.
[ii] EU Deploys Two-Year Monitoring Mission in Armenia, https://iwpr.net/global-voices/eu-deploys-two-year-monitoring-mission-armenia
[iii] Dr. Markus Ritter Head of Mission of the European Union Mission in Armenia, https://www.eeas.europa.eu/sites/default/files/documents/2023/Markus-Ritter-bio-short.pdf
[v] Exclusively geopolitical motives behind new EU mission in Armenia: Russia, https://www.aa.com.tr/en/politics/exclusively-geopolitical-motives-behind-new-eu-mission-in-armenia-russia/2826576
[vi] Public Opinion Survey: Residents of Armenia | January-March 2023, https://www.iri.org/resources/public-opinion-survey-residents-of-armenia-january-march-2023/
[vii] Աշոտյան. ԵՄ դիտորդական առաքելության գործունեության հետ կապված հարցերն ավելի շատ են, քան պատասխանները, https://www.panorama.am/am/news/2023/04/15/%D4%B1%D5%B7%D5%B8%D5%BF%D5%B5%D5%A1%D5%B6-%D4%B5%D5%84-%D5%A4%D5%AB%D5%BF%D5%B8%D6%80%D5%A4%D5%A1%D5%AF%D5%A1%D5%B6-%D5%A1%D5%BC%D5%A1%D6%84%D5%A5%D5%AC%D5%B8%D6%82%D5%A9%D5%B5%D5%B8%D6%82%D5%B6/2822032
[viii] Հավանության է արժանացել Հայաստանում Եվրոպական միության առաքելության կարգավիճակի վերաբերյալ համաձայնագրի ստորագրման առաջարկությունը, https://www.primeminister.am/hy/press-release/item/2023/08/31/Cabinet-meeting/