The War in Ukraine Threatens Tectonic Changes in the South Caucasus
Image: Alexander Lukatskiy/Shutterstock
Along with Eastern Europe, the South Caucasus is arguably the region most exposed to the unfolding geopolitical changes which are taking place in the wake of the war in Ukraine. Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia are each trying to balance between potential Russian reprisals and the need to stand together with Ukraine. That need is especially strong for Georgia as Ukraine’s defeat would probably mean Russia demanding that it held back from any attempts to secure NATO or EU membership.
Though partially occupied by Russia, Georgia has already applied for EU membership. And while the government has largely abstained from publicly criticizing Russia, the population has been expressing support through large demonstrations in central Tbilisi while humanitarian aid has been flowing to Kyiv. Indeed, Georgia has proved to be the single biggest source of humanitarian aid to Ukraine. It seems that Tbilisi is trying to maintain a certain balance, at least as long as it remains unclear how the war will end.
But the balancing act is becoming increasingly untenable. Pressure from inside is growing as are the concerns from international partners. While the logic of Tbilisi’s behavior in a broader sense is cautious and based on the balance of power on the ground, hopes that Russia might be less challenging toward Georgia are premature. Rarely, if ever, has Moscow made any concessions to Georgia when it came to bilateral relations.
On February 21st Russia recognized the independence from Ukraine of the separatist Luhansk and Donetsk Peoples’ Republics. Outwardly there seem to be strong similarities with what Moscow did in Georgia back in 2008. Then, Russia invaded its southern neighbour and recognized the ‘independence’ of Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali Region (often referred to in international literature as South Ossetia). But here, similarities with Ukraine end. In reference to Georgia, Russia managed to shrug off any threat of Western sanctions, and the ‘collective West’ proved to be highly hesitant to rupture ties with Russia, allowing Moscow to claim victory on both military and diplomatic fronts. Moreover, despite Tbilisi remaining antagonistic toward Moscow, Georgia did not pose any serious strategic threat to Russia. The country’s small size, relatively poor economy and limited military capabilities plus the occupation of two separatist regions essentially stripped Tbilisi of any realistic ambitions to regain the territories and successfully complete its pro-Western drive. Any such hopes that Georgia might have had were undermined by the West’s hesitancy which, in many cases, seemed more like dangerous complacency.
Meanwhile, Azerbaijan-Russia relations are rooted in a transactional approach. In February the two countries signed an ‘allied cooperation agreement’. Moscow is successfully laying the groundwork for a likely extension of its peacekeeping mission in Azerbaijan after 2025. In a way, Azerbaijan, sandwiched between Russia and Iran, has little room for manoeuvre. Its alliance with Turkey would not save the country from potential Russian threats: hence Baku’s caution when it comes to positioning amid Russian aggression.
Armenia is still reeling from the trauma of defeat in the Second Karabakh War. The West was largely absent from the conflict and has remained fairly detached during the post-war period. This angered many in Armenia and the large Armenian diaspora who felt betrayed by the way the ‘collective West has been responding to the country’s plight. Armenia simply has little space to maneuver and its decision to support Russia in various votes in international fora since the war began underlines the growing limits Yerevan faces in the last years especially following 2020 war. Moscow’s control of vital Armenian infrastructure and the economic dependence on Russia limits the space for any pro-Ukrainian sentiments in Armenia’s leadership. The fear of Turkey and Azerbaijan still looms large in the country.
All three states clearly see that the invasion of Ukraine is a danger that could have a spillover effect on the South Caucasus. But perhaps more significant is the problem of a feeble Western long-term approach toward the wider conflict and has remained fairly detached during the post-war period. This has angered many in Armenia and the large Armenian diaspora who have felt betrayed by the way the West has been responding to the country’s plight. However, like its enemy, Azerbaijan, Armenia has little room to manoeuvre and as has been underlined by decisions to support Russia in various votes in international fora since the war began underlines.
Thus each South Caucasus country has its own agenda, but all have one commonality: avoidance of potential Russian reprisals whether economic or military. All three face constains that force the space for geopolitical meneuvering. The longer the war in Ukraine continues and Russia-committed atrocities pile up, the more difficult it will be for the three South Caucasus states to retain their neutrality.
Separatist regions are disregarded, Georgia’s security conundrum is often ignored and the Nagorno-Karabakh problem now almost entirely relegated to Russia. The latter has a viable strategy. The Kremlin ruthlessly acts according to it and is playing a long game there trying to gradually sideline the collective West from peace initiatives and security architecture.
The West is still in the middle of processing what is taking place in the wider Black Sea region. Only with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine does a shift appear to be happening. Moscow’s belligerence has already led to the soothing of tensions within the trans-Atlantic community. Even within the EU, some sort of wider understanding is emerging whereby Russia is viewed not only as an acute threat to the liberal order, but actually capable of upending the system altogether.
There is now a growing momentum to lay the building blocks for an overarching Western strategy in the Black Sea and South Caucasus regions. This is the space where a battlefield between two civilizational systems are playing out: Western liberalism versus Russian authoritarianism. Whoever manages to dominate this theatre also manages to set the rules for how international relations will be play out.