The war in Ukraine overshadows tectonic changes in the South Caucasus
Alongside Eastern Europe and the Black Sea, the South Caucasus is perhaps the place most affected by the strategic shifts resulting from Russia’s war in Ukraine. Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia are all attempting to strike a balance between the threat of Russian retaliation and the urgent imperative to stand with Ukraine. After all, if the latter loses, Russia will almost certainly insist that Tbilisi abstain from pursuing its NATO and EU membership ambitions.
Georgia, which has been partially occupied by Russia since 2008, filed for EU membership in March 2022 along with Moldova and Ukraine; the three countries are now awaiting the EU Commission’s decision on their candidate status. While Georgia has so far mostly refrained from criticizing Russia openly, a steady supply of humanitarian supplies has been pouring into Kyiv (Georgia is currently among Ukraine's top providers of humanitarian aid). With the uncertainty surrounding the outcome of the war, Tbilisi appears to be attempting to strike a balance between the two sides. Russia’s victory would most certainly spell further difficulty for Georgia, as it would give Moscow a stronger position from which to push Tbilisi to abandon its pro-Western stance and long-held NATO ambitions.
However, this delicate balancing act is becoming increasingly difficult. Internal pressure is mounting, as are calls from foreign partners. Despite Tbilisi's cautious stance and the balance of power on the ground, it would be premature to assume that Russia will be less aggressive toward Georgia. When it comes to bilateral ties, Moscow has seldom, if ever, made any concessions to Georgia. Take for example, the early 1990s when Tbilisi, reeling from the war in the separatist Abkhazia region, sought Moscow’s help, but to no avail.
Russia recognized the independence of the rebel Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics on February 21st. On the surface, there are striking parallels with what Moscow did in Georgia. In 2008, Russia invaded its southern neighbor and recognized the "independence" of the Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali regions (often referred to in international literature as South Ossetia) under the pretext of defending the Russian-speaking population, but essentially aimed at reversing Tbilisi’s pro-Western stance. However, the parallels with Ukraine cease here. In the case of Georgia, Russia was able to eschew potential Western sanctions. The EU, US and NATO were unwilling to reevaluate ties with Moscow because of a potential economic fallout, which ultimately allowed the Kremlin to claim success on both the military and diplomatic fronts.
Furthermore, notwithstanding Tbilisi's animosity toward Moscow, Georgia posed no real threat to Russia. The country’s small size, weak economy, and limited military capabilities effectively constrained Georgia from regaining the territories and moving forward with its pro-Western push. Georgia's aspirations were dashed by the West's hesitation and, in many cases, dangerous complacency toward Russia.
Traditionally, the relationship between Azerbaijan and Russia has been mostly transactional. The two countries inked an enhanced cooperation agreement in February of 2022, whereby Moscow set the groundwork for a possible extension of its peacekeeping mission in Azerbaijan beyond 2025. The date was set by the 2020 agreement between Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Russia, which allowed Moscow to dispatch nearly 2000 troops to Nagorno-Karabakh following the Second Nagorno-Karabakh war. Azerbaijan, situated between Russia and Iran, has limited room for maneuvering. Hence, Baku's prudence and efforts to forge closer ties with Turkey stem from potential hostile military and economic moves by Russia.
Armenia is still struggling from the defeat in the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War of 2020, when Azerbaijan set out to regain control over the territories occupied by Armenian forces since the end of the First Nagorno-Karabakh war of the early 1990s. The West was mostly unable to play an active role during the War and has remained relatively uninvolved in the post-war process. This infuriated many Armenians, particularly the powerful Armenian diaspora, who felt deceived by the "collective West's" response. Armenia simply does not have much room for maneuvering, and its choice to vote in favor of Russia in numerous international fora since the war in Ukraine began, highlights the rising constraints Yerevan is facing, particularly since the end of the 2020 war. Russia’s control over Armenia’s gas and railway infrastructure, as well as Armenia's larger economic dependency on Moscow, limits the room for pro-Ukraine views among Armenia's elites. Moreover, since Turkey and Azerbaijan remain a source of concern, Yerevan’s reliance on Russian military help is likely to continue.
Each of the three Caucasus nations has its own agenda, but they all have one thing in common: avoiding any form of Russian retaliation, whether military or economic, especially given the constraints that limit their ability to maneuver geopolitically. However, the longer the war in Ukraine drags on and the more aggressive Russia becomes, the more difficult it will be for the three South Caucasus governments to maintain their neutrality.
All three countries recognize that the war in Ukraine poses a serious threat and may spread to the South Caucasus. But perhaps a more serious issue is the long-term neglect of the wider Black Sea region by NATO and the EU. Separatist territories are ignored, Georgia's security dilemma is frequently overlooked, and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has often been effectively “relegated” to Russia. While the reasons for the West’s lack of willingness to act may vary, analysts are now increasingly of the mind that the West may have been mistaken in its policy on the Black Sea region by not considering it a priority.
Russia, in contrast, has a long-term strategic vision toward the South Caucasus and is operating mercilessly in accordance with this vision, with the aim of excluding the West from peace initiatives and the emerging security architecture in the region.
The silent revolution
The war in Ukraine has also overshadowed another critical development in the South Caucasus, namely the dual Armenian-Azerbaijani and Armenian-Turkish rapprochement. Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders met in Brussels on May 22 to discuss the peace process, with European Council President Charles Michel facilitating the meeting. The swift execution of some of the topics agreed upon by President Ilham Aliyev and Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan during their meeting in Brussels can be defined as historic.
Armenia and Azerbaijan agreed on transit lines, including the Zangezur corridor, following a lengthy period of discussions. The process of delimitation and delineation of borders was another key result of the Brussels conference. President Aliyev and Armenian Prime Minister Pashinyan both stated that they were willing to form an international committee to address the matter. The commission on the state boundary between Armenia and Azerbaijan met the next day (May 24) and began its work.
The Brussels summit is yet one indication of the EU’s increasing involvement in the South Caucasus. While representatives of the two South Caucasian republics have met through the EU's mediation since the beginning of this year, the only Russia-mediated meeting – that of the foreign ministers on May 12 – took place on the sidelines of another major event and produced no new developments.
Though still far from reaching a definitive rapprochement, Armenia and Azerbaijan are poised to reach a tentative peace agreement aimed at ending the conflict between the two sides. Over the past several months a number of hints made by Armenian officials indicate a major shift in Yerevan’s perspective on a long-simmering Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
The first concrete sign came in March when Baku released a framework document which – beyond ordinary statements on peaceful intentions – stipulated the mutual recognition of the territorial integrity of Armenia and Azerbaijan. Major points of the proposed peace treaty include: mutual recognition of sovereignty, territorial integrity and inviolability of each other's borders, confirmation of the absence of territorial claims, delimitation and demarcation of the border, establishment of diplomatic relations, and opening of transport communications.
This clearly meant Armenia’s recognition of Azerbaijan’s sovereignty – a condition which Armenia had vehemently opposed ever since the end of the First Nagorno-Karabakh War in the early 1990s. Yerevan did not object to the proposition, though it did add some further points to be discussed, such as the rights of the Armenian population. As Ararat Mirzoyan, Armenia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, stated: “For us, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is not a territorial issue, but a matter of rights.”
The Foreign Minister’s comment follows a shift in the Armenian leadership’s rhetoric, which was visible in recent months. The Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, in one of his interviews, mentioned rather carefully that Nagorno-Karabakh was an integral part of Azerbaijan. This is a major deviation from the official Armenian diplomatic rhetoric, which has traditionally regarded the separatist exclave as separate from Azerbaijan. This interpretation, in fact, undermined every major diplomatic attempt to solve the problem.
Quite naturally, Armenian politicians are denying the shift arguing that the self-determination of the Armenian population still represents Yerevan’s core demand. However, considering the positive rhetoric from Baku too, the two sides appear to be heading toward a significant rapprochement and this most likely includes recognizing the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan. As a reflection of this positive trend, on April 11th, the first direct phone call took place between Armenia and Azerbaijan, whereby the foreign ministers of the two countries discussed preparations for the Joint Border Commission.
This, however, does not mean that Armenia will not have special demands (guarantees) from the Azerbaijani side. Special rights or some form of autnomy safeguarding the lives of Armenian residents is what Yerevan will be pushing for. Perhaps the use of the Armenian language in schools or media will be one of those demands. Maintaining the land connection between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh too might be discussed.
Baku seems to be edging toward granting these kinds of liberties. After all, this is significantly less than what Yerevan was demanding before 2020. Moreover, Azerbaijan will be gaining a major concession – recognition of its territorial integrity by Armenia. Baku also needs the deal as it will pave the way for the Zangezur corridor to its exclave of Nakhchivan – one of the stipulations of the November 2020 tripartite treaty which ended the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War
These “concessions” are unlikely to go down well with the Karabakh Armenians, who staunchly support the previous policy of total separation from Azerbaijan. In mid-April, Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh even voiced the possibility of joining Russia, while the de-facto government broke with the rhetoric in Yerevan announcing that living under Baku’s control would be impossible.
Pashinyan’s government also faces a less patient audience in Armenia itself, where the ruling party is under constant pressure from the opposition forces. Former president Robert Kocharyan and his adherents might not be popular to the wider spectrum of the Armenian population, but they nevertheless could complicate the reception of new stipulations on Nagorno-Karabakh by the Armenian parliament. On April 26-27, scuffles took place in central Yerevan, where protesters began gathering from various parts of the country to stop the potential deal. Since then, weeks-long demonstrations have taken place in Yerevan, but the threat to Pashinyan’s government is not existential. Pashinyan is confident that he can weather the storm, as the former rulers of Armenia are mostly associated with a corrupt system which undermined Armenia’s position. In fact, the consensus in Armenia is that the defeat in 2020 cannot be blamed solely on Pashinyan, but rather on decades-long depravations at the hands of the Republican Party.
The Armenian government will also face stiff opposition from the powerful Armenian diaspora, which has already staged demonstrations calling for the boycotting of the potential deal. This might evolve into financial and political support for Armenia from abroad, complicating the Armenian government’s position. Here, too, a growing understanding is that the powerful Armenian diaspora is largely detached from the realities prevalent on the ground in Armenia. First, the enmity between Armenia and Turkey is not as rampant in Armenia as it is among the diaspora. Second, many in Armenia see the need to make progress with Azerbaijan, whereas this is an unfathomable scenario for the diaspora.
Therefore, Pashinyan is likely to survive the crisis as the wider spectrum of the population still supports the Prime Minister, both because there is no other viable alternative and also because a rapprochement with both Turkey and Azerbaijan will benefit Armenia economically and geopolitically. Improved ties will help boost Armenia’s economy through expanded trade with Turkey while opening a new door to European markets. Moreover, a rapprochement would mean revived railway links, essentially turning Armenia from a pariah in regional affairs into an essential actor in the new order that emerges in the South Caucasus.
The wider picture
The change in Armenia’s rhetoric is significant and reflects the changes on the ground. The Second Nagorno-Karabakh war irreversibly tilted the balance in favor of Azerbaijan. Its victory did not change Moscow’s calculus – Armenia has not received the support it hoped for. Baku, in fact, has upgraded its relations with Moscow through the agreement on expanded cooperation signed in February, just two days before Russia launched its military operation in Ukraine. Add to that Turkey’s allied ties with Azerbaijan and the long-term geopolitical prospects for Armenia seem bleak.
The progress in Armenia-Azerbaijan ties is also linked to the nascent rapprochement in Armenia-Turkey relations. Ankara and Yerevan have both expressed readiness to establish diplomatic ties and open the long-closed border. This signals Turkey’s growing role in the region and its potential to increase its penetration into the South Caucasus through the nascent corridor via Nakhichevan and the southernmost part of Armenia. Turkey has expanded its cooperation with Azerbaijan, which will act as a launching pad for its ambitious vision toward mostly Turkic Central Asia.
Turkey’s growing role raises questions regarding Russia’s dominant position in the region and how genuinely Moscow is interested in the revival of the Soviet-era railway infrastructure through Azerbaijan and Armenia, which technically would give Moscow railway access to Turkey. Skepticism toward the Kremlin’s intentions is not unwarranted as it loathes Ankara’s ties with Baku, but can do nothing about it except use blunt military force.
It is this military tool that still makes Moscow the most powerful player. It has military bases in all South Caucasus states and is unlikely to withdraw from Azerbaijan in 2025, when the first term of its peacekeeping mission ends.
Furthermore, as a result of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, France and the US announced the end of their cooperation with Moscow within framework of the OSCE Minsk Group, the body overseeing the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process. This effectively leaves the Kremlin as the only power managing the process and thus accruing all the influence.
This growing silence nevertheless is evident of the great power competition between Russia and Turkey, and sidelines a third critical player in the region – Iran. The country would benefit from Armenia’s growing openness with its neighbors, as it would help restore railway connections with Armenia and further with Russia. However, there are also downsides for Tehran. The country could lose its current transit capabilities between Nakhchivan and Azerbaijan if the corridor through Armenia becomes operational.
Two historic foes are closer to forging an agreement on ending the confrontation. However, many questions remain unresolved. The Armenia-Azerbaijan rapprochement will have wide-ranging effects on the geopolitics of the South Caucasus. All paradigms governing the balance of power in the region since the 1990s will be changed. A new order will emerge where Russia will continue to play, but together with Turkey. The West, despite the EU’s mediation attempts, will be somewhat distanced. And Iran’s position will be most vulnerable among large powers neighboring on the South Caucasus.