Establishing unchallenged dominance in a geographical ‘neighborhood’ and holding potential rivals at bay is a top priority for all great powers, including Russia. For Moscow the former Soviet countries situated in its periphery constitute its “sphere of privileged interests” where the encroachment of rival great powers is regarded as unacceptable. The Western powers oppose this geopolitical mindset of the Russian leaders and often declare that the sovereign states in the post-Soviet region have the right to choose their own path of development. They have on many occasions reiterated that
the right to maintain a “sphere of influence” will not be recognized for any state.
However, the political situation in the South Caucasus – the region that hosts three former Soviet states – Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia – and the policies of the EU and USA in regard to this region give substantial ground to argue that these statements of Western politicians have been largely declarative with no tangible practical consequences.
The unfulfilled expectations of the South Caucasian Republics
The countries situated in the South Caucasus – a sensitive geopolitical location surrounded by great powers such as Russia, Turkey and Iran – have tested various strategies to effectively handle the foreign policy challenges they encounter: Pan-Turkism, pan-Caucasianism, a balanced approach in foreign policy, pro-Russian and pro-Western stances, etc. The reason for this uncertainty primarily derives from the fact that Russia’s still strong influence in the region and its determination to preserve it at all costs both has circumscribed freedom of the regional countries in their foreign policy choices and challenged maneuvers of the rival great powers. For the Kremlin, the South Caucasus is of existential importance for Russia as former President Medvedev
openly stated following the Georgian War in 2008
: “[had we] lost the Caucasus… ultimately, [we] would have lost Russia itself.”
For a significant period of time after the collapse of the Soviet Union, most South Caucasian governments (particularly those of Azerbaijan and Georgia) openly favored Euro-Atlantic integration and sought Western support in their efforts to minimize Russian influence over their countries. Most prominently, Georgian leaders put their support behind the Euro-Atlantic aspirations of the country which former Georgian President Shevardnadze characterized as “the dream of Georgia’s ancestors for centuries.” During the presidency of Mikheil Saakashvili, the country made some serious steps to that end, by leaving the Russia-led Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), and seeking membership into the EU and NATO. Although Azerbaijan has not openly stated any intentions to join either the EU or NATO, it has until recently pursued Euro-Atlantic integration and sought more intensive and constructive engagement of Western powers in the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
The response of the Western powers to these calls of the South Caucasian republics has continuously failed to transform into serious practical results. Neither European powers nor the USA have been able to get effectively involved in the regional ethno-territorial, political conflicts or to seriously challenge Russia’s predominance in the region. The impotence of the West in this region have become evident in two issues more specifically: Georgia’s relations with Euro-Atlantic military and political structures and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
The Caucasian countries, but first and foremost, Georgians, were disillusioned with the West in 2008, when earlier that year NATO declined to offer them a Membership Action Plan (MAP) – which provides a path to joining the Alliance – for Georgia and later did not provide tangible support to Tbilisi in its strikingly asymmetric war with Russia. These two events critically reinforced Russia’s hegemony
over the South Caucasus in general. In the aftermath of the war, Moscow stationed military forces in and around Georgia’s breakaway regions, some of them only about 40 kilometers from Tbilisi, and ballistic missiles that can reach the majority of Georgian territory. In subsequent years, this disillusionment with the West grew further as the Alliance consistently refused to grant MAP to Georgia.
The United States and NATO also leave Georgia “defenseless”
in a situation “fully exposed to Russian threat.”
Vladimir Socor of Jamestown Foundation
“NATO and the United States have no contingency plans for responding to Russian threats in Georgia. And since 2008, the US and NATO countries generally have declined to provide Georgia with “lethal” weaponry (anti-tank, air defense) or troop training for homeland defense.”
The recent and seemingly progressive developments in NATO – Georgia relations over the last year, such as
the inauguration a of training center of the Alliance
or Georgia’s participation in joint exercises with troops from NATO member states – are not of serious geopolitical importance. These measures arguably serve the purpose of keeping Georgia on a Western track and to preclude
“steadily” growing support for joining the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union
prior to critical parliamentary elections.
Many western observers warn that:
“Political forces that are openly pro-Russian have a good chance of winning seats [at] the Georgian parliament in an election to take place in October this year – something that was unimaginable few years ago.”
The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is another regional issue where the vital interests of Russia are at stake and where the West exerts little, if any, influence. It is commonly believed that Russia is the only external great power that benefits from the persistence of the conflict. Moscow adroitly makes use of the conflict to pressure the two sides when they tend to cross the behavioral red line Russia has drawn before them. Truly, the settlement of the conflict would dramatically lessen Russia’s influence over the conflicting sides and increase the scope of the EU’s and NATO’s regional engagement.
Hence, although the resolution of the conflict might be in line with the regional interests of the Western powers, they fail to effectively contribute to the negotiations between the sides. Armenia’s dependence upon Russia for protection and economic well-being, its participation in Russia’s regional economic and military integration projects, and Azerbaijan’s reluctance to confront Russia in any way generate grave challenges for the West’s regional policies. These and also the preoccupation of European leaders with ongoing internal crises strictly lower the profile of the European Union in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Elkhan Shahinoglu, Director at Atlas Research Center,
pointed out in a Facebook post
that the EU has become less willing to deal with foreign issues, including the relatively faraway Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Otherwise, it is believed that German Chancellor Angela Merkel would not have portrayed Russia as the key actor in the settlement of the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia during President Aliyev’s latest visit to Berlin.
The geopolitical picture of the region suits Russia’s vision
Thus, although the Western powers dare to challenge Russia’s influence elsewhere in the post-Soviet world, in the South Caucasus they either possess less leverage to affect the regional issues or refrain from directly provoking Russia. Under these circumstances, the South Caucasian republics have been compelled to contend with unpleasant, existing geopolitical realities: Armenia has submitted to Russia’s economic and military domination and joined Moscow’s regional integration projects; Georgia remains committed to its Western aspirations regardless of the West’s reluctance to admit the small Caucasian republic into its ranks. But over time, important political circles in Georgia have come to better understand the geopolitical and geographic impediments of the country and are
calling for a reconsideration of the foreign policy agenda of the country;
Azerbaijan recognizes Russia’s dominance in the region and evidently avoids all projects that might jeopardize their friendship. The common denominator in the geopolitical status of these three countries is that each of them, more or less, suits Russia’s regional interests.