Russia's invasion puts the Old Continent on alert as tensions escalate in its eastern region

Europe looks the war in the eye again

REUTERS/AZIZ KARIMOV - Azeri service members guard the area, which came under the control of Azerbaijani troops following a military conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh against ethnic Armenian forces and the subsequent signing of a ceasefire agreement, on the border with Iran, in the Jabrayil district, 7 December 2020.

The war in Ukraine, tension in Nagorno-Karabakh and the Serbian and Croatian arms race threaten Europe.

It is only a few days to the one-year anniversary of Moscow's decision to begin its invasion of Ukraine. Twelve months in which the Old Continent has once again seen at close quarters the war that is flooding its eastern region with tension. While Kiev is the only country currently in conflict, many experts point to neighbouring countries as potential hotspots of violence in the coming months.
The US think tank Crisis Group's report analyses what it considers to be the ten conflicts to watch in 2023. The first two are in Europe, Ukraine-Russia and Armenia-Azerbaijan. And it is precisely the latter that is attracting increasing attention with regard to possible new clashes after the six-week conflict in 2020 over the Nagorno-Karabakh region. At the same time, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Albania seem to be facing an arms race that, in Belgrade's case, is focused on Kosovo.

Ukraine and Russia in 2023

The most worrying aspect of the invasion is that, after a year of Ukrainian resistance, the end does not seem to be in sight in the near future. The Kremlin had hoped to have put an end to Ukrainian resistance quickly and effectively, something that Kiev has not only not allowed, but has shown itself to be able to defend its territory fiercely. Even the annexation of four Ukrainian regions - Donetsk and Lugansk in the east and Kherson and Zaporiyiaha in the south - has not deterred the country led by Volodymir Zelensky in its efforts to keep Russian troops at bay in their invasion attempt.
Russian aerial harassment by drones - of Iranian origin, an important nuance that will be mentioned again later - and the resulting power cuts have left parts of the country virtually uninhabitable. Moreover, one in three Ukrainians have been forced to leave the country because of the conditions.

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But this does not make Ukraine consider capitulating, as Moscow would like, far from it. In fact, it is one of the most complex points when it comes to analysing what this year's conflict might bring. Neither side seems willing to give ground on the battlefield. Kiev sees that it has managed to regain some ground, raising optimism, and the Russians still believe they can complete the invasion. As far as the armed conflict is concerned, therefore, the situation does not give reason to believe in a solution.
Western military support for Ukraine has seen a significant increase with the dispatch of Leopard 2 tanks and Abrams tanks by Germany and the US respectively. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said that the main thing is to prevent "the war from turning into a war between Russia and NATO", and this support is intended to give a boost to Ukrainian defence, although Scholz himself was reluctant to send the tanks despite pressure from his Polish ally.


Diplomacy is - or at least should be - the most feasible way to end the war, though neither, as on the battlefield, seems willing to budge. The Kremlin has on numerous occasions expressed its willingness to engage in dialogue, although it demands Ukrainian capitulation. What worries the international community most is a possible escalation of tension that would force NATO to take action, leading to a global catastrophe. Hence, many experts advocate keeping the door open to negotiations with Vladimir Putin's side, always bearing in mind that Ukraine cannot and will not be part of Russia.

A possible new confrontation in Nagorno-Karabakh

The two former Soviet republics have been at loggerheads for almost four decades. The first Nagorno-Karabakh war (1988-1994) opened a conflict that remained under ceasefire thanks to Russian mediation until 2020. Less than three years ago, what is known as the second Nagorno-Karabakh war broke out, killing more than 7,000 soldiers, and was again brought to a halt by Moscow's mediating stance 44 days after the ceasefire opened on 27 September 2020. This left an advantageous position for Azerbaijan, which regained territory previously occupied by Armenia outside the former Soviet Autonomous Oblast of Nagorno-Karabakh.


Now, some experts point to a new violent episode in this region. And they worry that, although shorter than previous ones, the war would be just as devastating as past ones, especially since Azerbaijan is the country that has been strengthened the most since the last ceasefire. The Azerbaijanis have increased their arms strength, in addition to the support of Turkey. In addition, precisely because of the war in Ukraine, Europe's interest in Azerbaijan's gas has grown, strengthening its position in the region.
Armenia has experienced the consequences of the Russian invasion first-hand, as Moscow was its main arms supplier. The Russian shortage has prevented this connection from maintaining its activity, while the conflict with Kiev has not allowed Russia - which prepared a draft agreement for the resolution of the Azerbaijani-Armenian conflict - to continue its efforts to calm the waters in the Caucasus. In fact, it was supposed to be Putin's country that guaranteed the security of the 2020 crossing between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia, something that, according to the Armenian ambassador to Spain, Sos Avetisyan, is not being fulfilled.


"Azerbaijan can put a group of fake eco-activists and cut off a corridor," the ambassador said in an interview with Cadena SER. He also accuses Baku of "trying to ethnically cleanse Nagorno-Karabakh". Yerevan, aware of its inferiority at the moment, is worried about the possibility of a new conflict with its Azeri rival. It has therefore sought new alternatives on the arms market to reinforce its army. This is where Iran, a country that is trying to take advantage of this tense situation in Eastern Europe, comes in.
The Armenian country has reportedly shown interest in acquiring Iranian-produced drones used in the Russian war. Proof of their good performance on the battlefield has led Yerevan to focus on them to strengthen its military capacity. China is also on the Armenian agenda, albeit with considerably less force than Tehran. The country presided over by Ebrahim Raisi is also interested in bringing Armenia closer to Armenia in order to continue gaining influence in Europe, something it intends to do on several fronts, with Serbia appearing as one of the ayatollah regime's potential allies.

Tension in the Balkans

Serbia is one of the most worrying countries in the Balkans. Its rapprochement with China and Iran has not gone unnoticed by its regional neighbours who, with Croatia at the forefront, have responded by arming themselves against the possible threat from Belgrade. The tension between Serbs, Kosovars and even Bosnians has created a scenario in which new episodes of violence are not ruled out, such as those that took place in December when the Kosovo government tried to take control of a northern region populated by Serbs, which led to violent protests.
That same month, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić put his army on "high alert". Following this decision, he sent the chief of the General Staff, Milan Mojsilovic, to the border with Kosovo, which suffered roadblocks as Serbs from the town of Mitrovica - in the north of Kosovo, divided into two halves and with a Serb and Kosovar population - erected barricades to impede traffic. All this, coupled with shootings such as the one in the town of Zubin Potok, also in northern Kosovo, has caused Europe to fear a rapid escalation of violence.


But while the Old Continent watches with fear, Iran watches with malice aforethought. The more unstable the situation in the region becomes, the more influence Tehran can gain. And so it has begun to do with Serbia, which, like Armenia, is seeking to acquire Iranian drones, even though Belgrade has its own UAV manufacturing programme. However, the performance demonstrated in Ukraine, as well as the low cost of these drones, means that the Serbs are considering acquiring them.

The country under President Vučić would have no problem moving closer to the Iranians, just as it did when it decided to strengthen its relations with China or Russia. In 2021, Serbia purchased several Russian Mikoyan MiG-29 aircraft, Mi-35 and Mi-17 helicopters, T-72MS tanks and Pantsir-S1 anti-aircraft systems from Moscow, in addition to sealing a deal with Beijing for the purchase of CH-92 armed drones and anti-aircraft missiles. Therefore, the purchase of arms from Iran would only be one more step in its more than proven break with Western countries.

Iranian influence in response to Turkish support

Ali Khamenei's leadership hopes to strengthen its position in Europe through the aforementioned approaches to Yerevan and Belgrade. But the advantage it seeks to gain could be doubly valuable as Turkey is involved in the conflict as Azerbaijan's arms supplier. Ankara is one of the main reasons why the Azeris have such a superior army to the Armenians. Recep Tayyip Erdogan's country took advantage of NATO's intention to counter Russian influence in the Caucasus by supplying arms to Baku and showing itself to be a help to the Atlantic Alliance.
However, the Ottomans' real goal goes beyond helping NATO, which, as some experts point out, they use for their own strategic benefit. A good example of this is the demands they intend to impose on NATO to carry out new attacks against the Kurds in exchange for their approval of Finland and Sweden's entry into the organisation - stalled for the moment due to the controversy over the burning of the The Quran in demonstrations in Sweden against the Turkish blockade.


Indeed, Turkey has been criticised by some powers, including the United States. Former Pentagon official Michael Rubin believes that "statistics about Turkey's role - it has the second largest army in NATO - do not translate into importance on the ground for NATO". Ankara has used NATO missions for its own goals of expanding power and influence, and this escalation of tension in Eastern Europe is no exception.
Iranian and Turkish intentions combine with the climate of tension in the Balkans to set the stage for a truly complex context in which European countries have the most to lose. Expert projections are not too rosy, and the possibility of an escalation of tension either in Nagorno-Karabakh or on the Serbia-Kosovo border cannot be ruled out. The Balkans and Caucasus are close to falling into the abyss of war and countries such as Iran and Turkey are pushing to bring them down.