With Liz Truss all but set to become the next Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, the guest list to the Prague Summit scheduled for 6 October is nearly complete. Aimed at building a new, more flexible coalition of like-minded European democracies, including not just EU members and aspirants, but also former Soviet states Armenia and Azerbaijan, the move is clearly aimed at enhancing European security against what is perceived as the threat of Russian military aggression. But the key question is, does Russia have an answer to these new developments?
UK’s Role in the New Coalition
Even though the UK is no longer part of the European Union after Brexit, it is still a key player in the European security paradigm, a member of NATO, and at the forefront of calling out the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Therefore, Charles Michel, the President of the European Council, is leaving no stone unturned to ensure the soon-to-be UK Prime Minister’s attendance at the gathering next month, going as far as to downplay differences between the EU and UK over the Northern Ireland protocol, and the recent jibe of Ms Truss against French President Emmanuel Macron by giving an ambiguous response to a question about whether or not Macron was a friend of the UK.
Despite these awkward positions, if Mr Michel’s active diplomacy succeeds, the October 6 summit in Prague will feature an assembly of 27 EU states, 9 EU aspirants, including Turkey (provided that Greece and Cyprus can be brought on board), Norway, Switzerland, Armenia and Azerbaijan. A veritable coalition stretching from the Atlantic to the Caucuses to encircle Russia on multiple fronts.
Eurasian Diplomacy Wooing Russian Neighbors
Even though Russia has not made a formal statement on these developments, it is likely that the Kremlin is calculating its next move already. In July this year, the President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen visited Azerbaijan to explore energy deals to replace Russian gas. On August 31, President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan and Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan of Armenia met Michel in Brussels to negotiate a new peace deal that would effectively undermine the Russian-brokered 2020 peace deal after the Nagorno-Karabakh War. And if all goes as planned, these two leaders will be meeting the likes of Emmanuel Macron, Olaf Scholz, Tayyip Erdogan, and Liz Truss, all desperate to increase their influence in Russia’s backyard.
Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine is slowly reaching a stalemate as neither side has been able to make significant advancements since the fall of Mariupol to the Russian forces in April 2022. The European states have responded by sanctioning Russia, suspending Russian gas imports, and sending arms to Ukraine. None of these have succeeded in deterring Russia as it has shown its capacity to stay for the long haul in Ukraine and continue to inch further. In this context, reaching out to Armenia and Azerbaijan may be a desperate and ill-thought move on the part of the European states.
The Russian Role in the Caucuses
Russia is still the primary broker of peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan. It successfully mediated peace between the two countries and got them to sign a ceasefire agreement. And until 26 August, it was patrolling the Lachin strip, which connects Armenia with Stepanakert, the capital of Nagonro-Karabakh, before the Azerbaijan forces took over from them. This move might seem to have emboldened Azerbaijan to enter into strategic relations with Europe; however, Russia would still hold the key to the fragile peace between these two important countries in its neighborhood.
The Prague Protests—A Spoiler or Moscow’s Good Fortune?
A surprising development that might also play in Russia’s favor is the unexpected sparking of protests in Prague. On 4 September, an estimated 70,000 angry protestors poured into the streets of Prague against their government’s siding with the EU and NATO over the Ukraine War and demanding a resumption of Russian gas supply. Persistent inflation could lead to more people joining the protestors, raising serious concerns for the weak coalition government of Prime Minister Petr Fiala.
For Moscow, these protests could not have come at a better time, weeks before the show of European strength and unity against it. How these protests pan out will determine the discourse that takes place at the European Political Community summit and the message that it will send to Russia, if it happens at all.
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