An Armenia-Azerbaijan Diplomatic Breakthrough?

An Armenia-Azerbaijan Diplomatic Breakthrough?

Washington and Brussels do the right thing for the right reason.


Two recent diplomatic events brokered by the West in the ongoing peace process between Armenia and Azerbaijan indicate that the United States and the European Union have become fully engaged in brokering a deal to normalize relations between the two sides. The outcomes of these two events also represent the final nail in the coffin for the secessionist ambitions of the Karabakh Armenians and their supporters.

The West has thus now unambiguously aligned its position on the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan with support for the territorial integrity of Ukraine. This is due not only to a renewed realization of the advantages of upholding this cornerstone principle of world order centered on the UN Charter, but also to the recognition that Azerbaijan is the indispensable country for the advancement of the West’s strategic energy and connectivity ambitions in the Caspian Sea basin, and Eurasia more broadly (a more useful term here might be “Silk Road region”).


This, in turn, implies a strong connection between supporting the establishment of enduring peace between Baku and Yerevan along lines proposed by the former in spring 2022 and broader Western interests in what Zbigniew Brzezinski called the “strategically pivot states” of Eurasia, like Azerbaijan. And this, in turn, implies the relativization of a values-first U.S. foreign policy in the face of more solidly realist geopolitical and geoeconomic considerations. In the present case, this involves understanding the implication of the contrast between the fact that Azerbaijan’s president was the “first post-Soviet leader to publicly distance himself from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine” with the assessment that Armenia is a satellite of Russia and an ally of Iran—notwithstanding perhaps genuine yet tactically unfulfillable overtures to the West.

The foregoing is an integral part of the background against which we can measure the achievements of the two recent events brokered by the West involving the Armenia-Azerbaijan peace process. The first was held in Washington and hosted by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on 1–4 May 2023. Delegations led by the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan (Ararat Mirzoyan and Jeyhun Bayramov, respectively) produced significant enough progress on the text of a peace treaty to set the stage for the second recent event: a meeting between the leaders of the two states (Nikol Pashinyan and Ilham Aliyev, respectively) in Brussels on May 14, 2023, which was hosted by EU Council president Charles Michel.

The statement read by Michel at the conclusion of the Brussels meeting (we can safely assume it was drafted with Armenian and Azerbaijani input) suggests that peace has never been closer—both its tone and substance reflect Blinken’s remark at the end of the Washington meetings that “an agreement is within sight, within reach”—whilst still leaving unanswered the question of whether it is close enough.

Four basic observations are warranted in this regard.

First, the Brussels meeting was the first one between President Aliyev and Prime Minister Pashinyan in many months. It took quite a long time for Michel to overcome the opposition of French president Emmanuel Macron, who insisted on personally participating in the continued EU facilitation of the peace talks, which Azerbaijan deemed unacceptable. An intra-EU compromise seems to have finally been worked out. Without American support, however, the peace process would have likely reverted entirely to Russian mediation. Not only did the United States pick up the ball after the EU needlessly dropped it, but Washington and Brussels seem now to be closely coordinating their efforts: the outcome of the American thread of the process looks to have been seamlessly woven into the European one.

This concerted Western effort is all the more important since it does not necessarily appear to be at zero-sum odds with Russian mediation. This effectually makes the South Caucasus the sole geopolitical theater in which the White House and the Kremlin are presently not in overt opposition, which suggests a tacit realization by each that their respective interests in this part of the world are not entirely incompatible. The veracity of this hypothesis, however, will be tested soon on May 19, when foreign ministers Mirzoyan and Bayramov travel to Moscow for further talks brokered by the Russian side.

Second, the fact that Aliyev met with EU Commission vice president Maroš Šefčovič on the same day that Michel hosted peace talks in Brussels suggests that the two main branches of the EU—the Council and the Commission—are also closely coordinating their approaches. Further evidence is the meeting that took place between Bayramov and the head of the EU diplomatic service, Josep Borrell, one day later, also in Brussels. Of note is that the Aliyev-Šefčovič and Bayramov-Borrell meetings took place two weeks after the latest round of the EU-Azerbaijan Energy Dialogue between EU Commissioner for Energy and Energy Minister Parviz Shahbazov, which also took place in Brussels.

Both the timing and outcome of the Aliyev-Šefčovič meeting represents a critical signpost. It demonstrates that the bilateral strategic energy partnership is further deepening, both in terms of the provision of more Azerbaijani natural gas but also renewables from Azerbaijani (and Georgian) sources in the years and decades ahead. All this flows directly from the terms of the historic Memorandum of Understanding that was signed in Baku between Aliyev and President of the EU Commission Ursula von der Leyen in July 2022.

Why is the Azerbaijan-EU strategic energy partnership important in the context of the peace process? Because it shows that the EU is broadening its understanding of the consequences of Azerbaijan’s indispensability, as characterized above. The imperative of fulfilling the unique potential of the aforementioned strategic energy partnership ensures the EU remains constructively neutral in its role as a facilitator of the peace process. This appreciably reduces the influence of “spoilers” like the Armenian diaspora operating in parts of the EU, particularly in France (and, by extension, parts of the United States). It also compartmentalizes the “Macron effect” by indicating clearly that the French president’s participation in informal Aliyev-Pashinyan-Michel meetings scheduled to take place on the margins of the European Political Community summits in June (Moldova) and October (Spain) will be supplemented by the participation of German chancellor Olaf Scholz, whom Baku considers to be less partisan than his French counterpart.

In other words, when it comes to engaging strategically with the Silk Road region, particularly in the context of providing support to Armenia-Azerbaijan normalization and the anticipated peace dividend, the EU is no longer even pretending that geopolitics and geo-economics are not intrinsically linked. This is a direct consequence of the EU’s decision to impose sanctions on Russia, in close coordination with the United States.

Third, the press statement made by Michel after the Brussels meeting shows that the five peace principles that Azerbaijan put forward in Spring 2022, as noted above, continue to be the primary basis of the negotiations.

Going into some of the textual details is warranted, because the Michel statement is refreshingly clear on several fundamental points, two of which should be highlighted. One, the document says that Aliyev and Pashinyan “confirmed their unequivocal commitment to the 1991 Alma-Ata Declaration,” which recognized all the Soviet-era union republic borders as the sovereign borders of the newly-independent states. The immediate sequel explicitly mentions the square kilometer area of both countries, which unmistakably signifies no support for what the Michel statement calls the “former Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Oblast” as anything other than constituting an integral part of Azerbaijan. The message is clear: the Michel statement extinguishes the secessionist hope of the Karabakh Armenians and their supporters. The territory former NKAO, which is known in secessionist circles as “Artsakh,” has no legal personality whatsoever.

Two, the entire paragraph of the Michel statement on what Baku calls the Zangezur Corridor is very encouraging from the standpoint of regional connectivity. The document says that the Armenian and Azerbaijani position on “reopening the railway connection to and via Nakhchivan” are “very close to each other.” This implies that a road connection is unlikely to be part of the agreement, at least not initially. But it indicates that a rail link will probably become a reality in relatively short order. What still needs to be finalized, the document says, are some modalities—including customs arrangements—and a concrete timetable on construction. But the text indicates that Aliyev and Pashinyan agreed to instruct their technical negotiating teams to get this done. Presumably, this means that Michel (and perhaps Blinken) will push Armenia not to renege on its commitment to actually achieve a breakthrough on the Zangezur rail link. The document does not indicate what, if any, role will be played by the Russian FSB Border Guard Service in this context, which, after all, is one of the provisions of Article 9 of the November 10, 2020 tripartite statement. In fact, the Michel document does not mention Russia at all.

The fourth observation concerning the Michel statement centers on what else the document did not say. One, the text says absolutely nothing about arrangements having to do with the Lachin Corridor. The omission here likely implies that this topic falls outside of the EU thread of the peace process and lends credence to Baku’s position that these arrangements—now and in the future—effectually have nothing to do with Armenia, either.