The Countries of the South Caucasus Cautiously Follow the Russia-Ukraine War
Thus, amidst Russia’s war against Ukraine, Azerbaijan continues to maintain (or at least attempts to maintain) a balanced approach in foreign policy that this country consciously adopted in the mid-1990s. The recent history of Azerbaijani-Russian relations (e.g., Russia’s traditional support to Armenia in the former Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict, and Moscow’s military supplies to Armenia prior to and during the 2020 Second Karabakh War) constitutes the rationale for Baku’s cautious Russia policies. The political leadership of Azerbaijan, though refraining from openly criticizing Russia, has declared indirect support to Ukraine by highlighting the importance of international law, especially sovereignty and territorial integrity, as the basis for a ceasefire to be achieved between the conflicting parties.
This came as a surprise for many observers who expected Azerbaijan to unambiguously side with Russia in all critical international issues—the way Armenia and other Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) allies of Russia used to do—following the recently signed Azerbaijani-Russian declaration on allied cooperation. Just a month before the breakout of the war, and amidst the escalation of hostilities, President Aliyev was conspicuously the only leader from the post-Soviet space (excluding the Baltic States) who travelled to Kyiv, where he signed a number of agreements on deepening bilateral cooperation and declared his support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.
In contrast, the political leadership of Georgia—the only country in the South Caucasus aspiring to European Union and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) membership, as well as the only regional country in a territorial conflict with Russia—refused to visit Ukraine in the middle of the growing crisis, despite many such calls from the public and the opposition. The Georgian government, in general, held a rather restrained position that fell in the middle between those of Russian ally Armenia and more balanced Azerbaijan.
On February 25, the ruling party Georgian Dream refused to hold an extraordinary parliamentary session on the Ukraine crisis that had been initiated by the parliamentary opposition and supported by President Salome Zurabishvili. In order to prevent any parliamentary talks on the issue, the opposition deputies were reportedly barred from entering the plenary hall at Speaker Shalva Papuashvili’s request.
Nor does the Georgian government plan to join the Western sanctions against Russia; though the National Bank of Georgia declared that it “cannot and will not help” anyone seeking to evade these sanctions . According to Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili, alignment with the strictly imposed sanctions regime of the West would only damage Georgia and its people. His declaration was praised by the first deputy head of the International Committee of the Federation Council of Russia (upper chamber of parliament), Vladimir Jabarov, who said, “One can only welcome such a decision.” But this policy stance of the Georgian government outraged the opposition and most of the general public, which has strongly condemned Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and called for the resignation of Prime Minister Garibashvili.
In response to this criticism and defending his decision, Garibashvili, on February 28, referred to the absence of any resolute external power to prevent the bombing of Ukraine; as he noted, “sanctions are not [an] effective means” for this. “We sympathize with everyone, but we must protect our country and people first,” he added. Despite this caution, the Georgian government joined Azerbaijan and sent medical supplies to Ukraine worth 1 million lari ($315,000).
In the capitals of both countries, the general public organized crowded demonstrations in support of Ukraine. In a tweet on February 26, President Zelenskyy thanked the Georgians for their pro-Ukraine rallies but, criticizing the attitude of the Georgian government, continued, “Indeed, there are times when citizens are not the Government, but better [than] the Government.” The Ukrainian ambassador in Azerbaijan also thanked the Azerbaijanis for their pro-Ukrainian demonstrations.
In turn, Armenia stood out as the only South Caucasus country that has allied with Russia on the Ukraine issue. On February 25, Armenia alone voted with the Russian delegation against a decision at the Council of Europe to suspend Russia from the organization due to its armed attack against Ukraine. And that same day, Armenian Defense Minister Suren Papikian paid a visit to Moscow and met with his Russian counterpart, though the press release from the meeting did not mention the Ukraine war. On February 26, Armenia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs denied information spread on social media about the alleged participation of Armenian service members in the war against Ukraine.
For Richard Giragosian, an Armenian analyst, even though Yerevan’s vote at the Council of Europe in support of Russia “dangerously isolates Armenia, there was little choice and even less of an alternative for Armenia”. Having become almost entirely dependent on Russia in the economic and security spheres, Armenia’s capacity for independent maneuvering in foreign policy has been strictly restricted.
Consequently, Yerevan is also worried about the regional reverberations of the anti-Russian international sanctions. On February 27, while addressing the meeting of the Inter-Governmental Council of the Moscow-dominated Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian warned against the dangerous repercussions of this crisis. “Of course, it is obvious that sanctions will have a direct impact on the economic climate in the Eurasian space,” he said, adding that the EEU member countries need to take measures to minimize the negative effect of these sanctions on their economies.
Thus, the three republics of the South Caucasus have so far taken either a vigilant stance (Azerbaijan and Georgia) or politically support Moscow (Armenia) amidst the Russian war against Ukraine. Arguably, they cannot do more because of the dangerous security situation in the wider region and Russia’s strong political and military influence over the South Caucasus.