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Rome, Byzantium and NATO: Grand Strategy of the West and Georgia

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Authors: Prof. Dr.Tedo Dundua and Dr. Emil Avdaliani

There are two ways to prove Georgia’s place within the NATO Alliance. First is the current argument urging for total Euro-Atlantic unity, next – historical one. Previous pan-European (Roman and Early Byzantine) military presence in Georgia can be applied to the present discussion. The article covers this issue.

Roman Period. Frankish Limitanei in Lazica

Before being totally destroyed, the Roman Imperial security system actually had shown three gradual phases of development.

A large number of the Italian colonists with the best technologies, swift and comfortable communications, the most prominent industrial output, Roman citizenship, municipal freedom – that was the Roman gift for the Western provinces in the 1st-2nd cc. A.D. Sincere intimacy with the metropolis had been founded as a direct result of complete satisfaction. It paved the way to the Romanization. As for the Greeks, the Romans reserved a quite life and economic stability. Still beyond the Roman Rhine, Danube and Pontus there were others favouring this concept of pan-European integration. The happy client kings used to be awarded with the Roman citizenship. And for the Julio-Claudians these client kingdoms formed the first defense-line of the Imperial territories. A little behind, the whole perimeter was dotted by solid legionary concentrations, proving the system to be impregnable. No cardinal changes took place in the era of the Antonines, except for annexation of the client kingdoms and breaking the big army concentrations in favour of scattering the legions along the whole frontier. In both cases, after defeating comparatively weak enemy at the border, the Romans usually attacked their territory. This system of security is called forward defense.

Greeks and the Romans were sending more and more working hands towards industry, but not to manufacture the means of production. As a result, population was growing, but not amount of industrial goods per capita. Prices rushed high for the Italian produce, demanding damping for provincial food and raw materials, thus weakening the sympathies between the European subjects of the Roman Empire. Some even started to search for a relief beyond the Rhine and Danube rivers. Many things happened that completely changed the defensive strategy, namely: 1. economic crisis; 2. weakening of the integratory links; 3. socio-economic animation of “Barbaricum”; 4. financial chaos and some professional regiments converted into limitanei. From now on they are to stand the first strike and evacuate the whole frontier folk into citadels, thus wearing down the enemy. And there were large and mobile field armies deployed far behind those self-contained strongholds to cut down any invasion into the depth. This system shaped in the times of Diocletian is called defense-in-depth.

But before this new system was finally established, the Romans had been fighting those already easily passing the border wherever they could manage to concentrate large army-units. In the early days of the Empire praetorians formed the only Imperial reserve. And now Gallienus recruited special mobile reserve-regiments. Name for this defensive system is elastic defense.

Security system had to be changed at least because of emergence of the Germanic seaborne attacks from the 3rd c. everywhere at the seas that prolonged the line of the frontier (Ed. N. Luttwak. The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire. From the First Century A.D. to the Third. Baltimore. 1981, pp. 192-193; T. Dundua, N. Silagadze. European Industrial Complexes of I Cycle of Capitalism and the Georgian Western Affiliations. Historical and Numismatic Tale. Tbilisi. 2005, pp. 5-7; T. Dundua. North and South. Tbilisi. 2001, pp. 8-15).

Full-time units, legions, alae of cavalry, cohortes of infantry and mixed cohortes equitatae served the forward defense-system. Part-time border force of limitanei had appeared and auxiliary alae and cohorts had disappeared; and regular mobile reserve – comitatenses – substituted legions, fixed at the border. All they served new security system – defense-in-depth. The whole 3rd c. saw these changes, finally shaped in the times of Constantine I. Septimius Severus was the first to form a certain kind of reserve. He stationed II Parthica in Albanum, increased praetorian and urban cohorts in number. And Gallienus created special cavalry units to serve as a reserve (Ed. N. Luttwak. The Grand Strategy, pp. 173, 184).

In the 3rd c. large federations of Franki and Alemanni began to threaten the Rhine-frontier. And the Goths had already reached Dniester by 238 (Ed. N. Luttwak. The Grand Strategy, pp. 128, 146). Franks attacked Gaul, Alemanns – Italy. From the great deeds of Emperor M. Aurelius Probus (276-282) the most important is the deliverance of seventy Gaulic cities. He drove back Franks and Alemanns, four hundred thousand of them being killed. Probus passed the Rhine, and returned back with considerable tribute of corn, cattle, and horses. Sixteen thousand Germanic recruits were dispersed among the Roman units. Other captive or fugitive barbarians gained a new status, that of part-time peasant-soldiers (limitanei). Emperor transported a considerable body of Vandals into Cambridgeshire, great number of Franks and Gepidae were settled on the banks of the Danube and the Rhine, Bastarnae – in Thrace. Pontic (The Black Sea) coast was reserved for some more Franks (Ed. Gibbon. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Vol. 1. London. 1993 (first published in 1776), pp. 362-368). But which one exactly? This is to be discussed.

According to Ed. Gibbon, Franks settled at the sea-coast of Pontus had to check the Alani inroads. A fleet stationed in one of the harbors of the Euxine fell into their hands, and they resolved, through unknown seas, to explore their way from the mouth of Phasis (river Rioni in West Georgia) to that of the Rhine. They easily escaped through the Bosphorus and the Hellespont, and cruising along the Mediterranean, indulged their appetite for revenge and plunder by frequent descents on the shores of Asia, Greece and Africa. City of Syracuse was sacked by the barbarians. Franks proceeded to the columns of Hercules, coasted round Spain and Gaul, and steering their course through the British channel, at length finished their voyage by landing in safety on the Batavian or Frisian shores (Ed. Gibbon. The Decline and Fall . . ., pp. 367-368).       

What is this whole story based on? Zosimus and one panegyric to Constantius Chlorus contributed to it.

Narrating about the events in the past, in the times of divine Probus, author of this panegyric mentions undeserved success of the small Frankish band, who, sailing from Pontus on the captured fleet, ravished Greece and Asia, damaged Africa, stormed Syracuse, and passing through the columns of the Hercules, reached the ocean (Recursabat quippe in animos illa sub diuo Probo paucorum ex Francis captiuorum incredibilis audacia et indigna felicitas, qui a Ponto usque correptis nauibus Graeciam Asiamque populati nec impune plerisque Libyae litoribus appulsi ipsas postremo naualibus quondam uictoriis nobiles ceperant Syracusas et immenso itinere peruecti oceanum, qua terras irrumpit, intrauerant atque ita euentu temeritatis ostenderant nihil esse clausum piraticae desperationi, quo nauigiis pateret accessus.) (Panegyricus Constantio Dictus, IV, XVIII. Panégyriques Latins. T. I (I-V). Texte Établi et Traduit par Édourd Galletier. Paris. 1949, pp. 96-97).

Zosimus tells us about the Franks having appealed to the Emperor, and having a country given to them. A part of them afterwards revolted, and having collected a great number of ships, disturbed all Greece; from whence they proceeded into Sicily, to Syracuse, which they attacked, and killed many people there. At length they arrived in Africa, whence though they were repulsed by a body of men from Carthage, yet they returned home without any great loss (Zosimus. New History. Book 1. London. 1814).

There is no mention of mouth of the river of Phasis as a spring-board for the expedition in the sources. Then, what was in Gibbon’s mind? Perhaps, logic, excluding the possibilities.

Indeed, the Northern Black Sea coast is beyond the Roman rule. The Western shores, and the Balkans are already packed with the barbarians. Southern littoral was less used for receptio, while Lazica (West Georgia) and Pontic Limes cannot be argued.And something strange had happened to this limes in the 3rd c.  Now threat comes not from the front, the Romans have Lazi client king dwelling there, but – from behind, because of the Goths living at the Northern shores.

We can only guess that the Franks were in Lazica as limitanei. But we really know nothing about how they were coordinating with the full-time units, their number before and after the revolt, what was the life like for those who stayed loyal.

Still, it seems quite reasonable that the bargain of receptio-system should have been distributed among all Roman provinces to keep the centre undisturbed from the barbaric influx. In the 3rd c. theEmpire is able to do this, not after.

Byzantines in Georgia

With the death of Theodosius, last Emperor of the united Roman world, in 395 A.D. the Empire was divided into two almost same-sized halves. The Western part, while defending itself throughout the 5th c. from various barbarian hordes (at the time, the Western part was defended by regiments consisting mainly of barbarians) coming from beyond the Rhine river, had an almost destroyed tax-paying system. This very factor did not allow the Imperial administration based in Ravenna to muster enough economic and military resources for effective defense of the Northern borders. Last Western Roman Emperors were mere puppets in the hands of barbarian warlords – the process which culminated in deposing the last Emperor Romulus Augustulus in 476.

The Eastern part (Byzantium) with the capital in Constantinople, on the other hand, showed greater resilience in managing internal problems and external threats. Byzantium managed simultaneously to hold off the barbarians coming from the North and the Sassanians from the East. This was made possible by an efficient tax-paying system the Byzantines inherited from the Romans, which, in turn, made it possible to field large armies to defend the Imperial borders on several fronts and at the same time wage offensive wars (Ed. N. Luttwak. The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire. Harvard. 2009, pp. 1-16. The most apparent case is the reign of Justinian when, while waging war on Vandals in North Africa and the Ostrogoths in Italy, Constantinople still had to defend its Eastern border from the Sassanians and the Danube river from the Slavs).

The Byzantines did not have such abundant resources as the Romans had during the first three centuries A.D. Moreover, the Eastern half was spread on three continents – Europe, Asia and Africa – making the Imperial borders highly vulnerable to foreign powers. In other words, the geography put the Byzantine Empire at a huge disadvantage as the Danube river was a barrier easy to cross for the Goths, or in later centuries Huns, Slavs and Avars. In Africa, the desert frontier stretching for more than a thousand kilometers had no geographic barrier to rely on making rich Tripolitania and Byzacena and the South of Egypt exposed to attacks from the Berbers and other nomadic groups. The Eastern frontier too was highly vulnerable as the Arab groupings could easily reach Palestine and Syrian cities from the Syro-Mesopotamian desert. In the North Mesopotamia Byzantium faced its greatest rival, Sassanian Iran, and this portion too needed to be defended with the assemblage of large military power, whether through the field armies or military fortifications. Moreover, the Byzantines had little geographic depth along its entire Eastern frontier to fully employ the defense-in-depth strategy (e.g., in the Balkans Constantinople did enjoy large geographic depth necessaryfor the defense. This was apparent when the Huns under Attila and then the Avars in early 7th c. broke through the Danubian defenses and reached Constantinople. However, military regiments placed in various fortresses and the distance of several hundreds of kilometers (from the Danube to the capital) enabled the Emperor, whether it was Theodosius II or Heraclius, to thwart the barbarian onslaughts). The similar situation was in Africa. Since Asia Minor, Balkans, Egypt and Syria were the most prosperous lands in terms of population number and the level of urbanization, the functioning of the Empire was contingent upon the defense of these provinces. Overall, the Byzantines were at much worse geographic situation than their Western counterparts.

Thus, in order to survive in this difficult geopolitical situation and preserve the Empire from early 5th c. to the 7th c., the Byzantines had to develop a whole set of military strategies. In other words, the Byzantines were no less successful than the Flavians, Antonines and late 3rd c. Emperors. However, the Byzantines made numerous changes by adapting to new circumstances. Since Constantinople had less economic and human resources than the united Roman Empire, the Byzantines always tried to use less military power and employ more diplomacy and the propagation of the Christian religion (G. Fowden. Consequences of the Monotheism in Late Antiquity. Princeton. 1993, pp. 80-100) to safeguard Imperial borders.

The Byzantines inherited from the Romans military presence in Lazica and alliance with Kartli/Iberia (East and South Georgia). This military tradition goes back to the first two centuries A.D. and represents a forward-defense strategy. Byzantine garrisons, which existed in Lazica from the 5th c. till the Arab invasion of the Middle East in the 30s of the 7th c. (T. Dundua. Influx of Roman Coins in Georgia. Roman Coins Outside the Empire. Ways and Phases, Contexts and Functions. Proceedings of ESF/SCH Exploratory Workshop. Nieborow (Poland). 2005. Moneta. Wetteren. 2008, p. 313), did not change their location. However, the role of Lazica considerably increased as in late 4th c. the so-called  Völkerwanderung” or Migration period began. Since the new peoples such as Huns, Avars etc. lived in the Eurasian steppes, which bordered the Caucasian range and the Danube river, Constantinople had to face a two-front war from the North (from the Eastern and Western parts of the Black Sea). Therefore, the Byzantine garrisons in Lazica were transformed into forward posts for collecting information about new peoples coming from the steppes and, in case of need, establishing first diplomatic contacts too.

For example, when approximately in 557 the Avars reached the Volga river, in modern-day Southern Russia, in a year or two through the Alans they sent an embassy to Constantinople. But, before the letter was received in the capital, first it had been passed through the hands of Byzantine generals stationed in Lazica (Ed. N. Luttwak. The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire, p. 59). The role of Lazica increased also because of the mountain passes through which the newly-coming nomads from the North could potentially penetrate into the South and cause havoc even in the Eastern provinces of the Byzantine Empire as it happened in 395 when the Huns reached as far as Antioch (P. Heather. The Fall of the Roman Empire. A New History of Rome and the Barbarians. Oxford. 2007, pp. 145-154). The Byzantine officials also used the passes to distract nomad leaders by making them to take much longer roads to reach the Imperial capital. Menander Protector preserves the bitter complaint of a Turkic chief from the steppes, North to the Caucasian range, dated by 577: “As for you Romans, why do you take my envoys through the Caucasus to Byzantium, alleging that there is no other route for them to travel? You do this so that I might be deterred from attacking the Roman Empire by the difficult terrain (i.e. high mountains which for horses are very hard to cross). But I know very well where the river Danapris (Dniepr) flows, and the Istros (Danube) and the Hebrus (Maritsa, Meric)” (Excerpta de Legationibus Romanorum ad Gentes, 14, in The History of Menander the Guardsman. Translated by R. C. Blockley. London. 1985, p. 175).

Lazica’s military importance increased even more following the stand-off between Justinian and the Sassanian Shahanshah Khusro I Anushirvan in mid-6th c. By the time Iran had already been increasing its political and military pressure towards North and West, which culminated in the abolition of the Albanian and Armenian kingdoms during the 5th-early-6th cc. As was said, mid-6th c. saw renewed warfare between the empires and the focus of the conflict, traditionally along with the North Mesopotamia, also fell on Lazica. Iran was interested in occupying the Eastern Black Sea coast to pressure Constantinople (which by the time was already embroiled in a war with the Ostrogoths in Italy) into signing a more winning peace treaty for Ctesiphon. The Byzantines knew well that if the Sassanians managed to occupy the Lazica shore, Iranian military vessels in the near future would make their way through the Bosphorus directly to Constantinople. This is well reflected in one of the passages from Procopius – Lazi sent an embassy to Khusro to explain the geopolitical advantages which the Iranians would gain through controlling Lazica and the Byzantine fortresses there: “To the realm of Persia you will add a most ancient kingdom, and as a result of this you will have the power of your sway extended, and it will come about that you will have a part in the sea of the Romans through our land, and after thou hast built ships in this sea (i.e. Black Sea), O King, it be possible for thee with no trouble to set foot in the palace in Byzantium. For there is no obstacle between. And one might add that the plundering of the land of the Romans every year by the barbarians along the boundary will be under your control. For surely you also are acquainted with the fact that up till now the land of the Lazi has been a bulwark against the Caucasus Mountains” (De Bello Persico. II. 15; Procopius of Caesarea. History of the Wars. Translated by H. B. Dewing. Cambridge. Massachusetts. 1914, pp. 225-226).

The above analysis of the Roman and Early Byzantine military strategies towards their neighbors quite clearly shows that Georgia always had its own place within the pan-European military alliances. Why not bring it back?

NATO and Georgia

NATO alliance’s strategy could be likened to the best military traditions of Roma and Byzantium discussed above. As was the case with these two Empires, NATO too regards the Black Sea and its Eastern shore – Georgia – as fundamental for the alliance’s strategy in the Eastern Europe and the Black Sea region overall.

As for the Romans and Byzantines before, for NATO too Georgia’s Black Sea shore would allow the alliance to expand militarily in the region and control crucial land and maritime military routes from the North to the Black Sea basin. There is also an economic dimension since Georgia serves as a vital transit route for oil/gas pipelines, important railroads connecting the Caspian and Black Seas. Indeed, as Roman and Byznaitne army units before, NATO’s presence in Georgia would serve as a defensive shield for trade in the region which in Antiquity was often referred to as a part of the famous Silk Road and nowadays is called as the South Caucasus energy and transport corridor because of oil/gas transport infrastructure.

This strategic vision is well reflected in one of the recent NATO-Georgia Commission statement: “Georgia is one of the Alliance’s closest operational partners, and an Enhanced Opportunities Partner. Allies highly appreciate Georgia’s steadfast support for NATO’s operations and missions…” (NATO-Georgia Commission Statement. Oct. 2019. Direct allusion to the alliance’s Black Sea strategy is also seen in another passage from the same Commission statement: “NATO values Georgia’s engagement in, and contributions to, strategic discussion and mutual awareness, on security in the Black Sea region” (NATO-Georgia Commission Statement. Oct. 2019.

Thus NATO alliance’s strategic vision for Georgia and the wider Black Sea region is similar to how the Romans and Byzantines saw this part of the world.

Author’s note: first published in Georgia Today

Prof. Dr. Tedo Dundua is the Director of the Institute of Georgian History, Faculty of Humanities, at the Ivane Javakhishvili Tbilisi State University.

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Peace, Problems and Perspectives in the Post-war South Caucasus

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The Second Karabakh War ended with the signing of the trilateral declaration between Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Russia on November 10, 2020. The declaration, which stopped the war and laid the foundation for solving other thorny issues between Armenia and Azerbaijan, including the liberation of the remaining territories under occupation (Aghdam, Kalbajar, Lachin) as well as the unblocking of all economic and transport communications in the region, may have heralded the dawning of a different period in the history of a long war-ravaged region of the South Caucasus. This is evidenced by the announcement of new cooperation initiatives such as the “six-party cooperation platform” and the establishment of the “Zangezur corridor,” which aims not only to link Armenia and Azerbaijan, but also to play a wider role in enhancing the region’s standing by providing interconnectivity across diverse geographic and geopolitical zones. This process has already involved Russia and Turkey and will potentially facilitate links between Central Asia and Europe. There is much going on in the region in this regard and talks about the probability of building a Pax Caucasia in the South Caucasus are more than mere hype.

There have already been reports and testimonies about Azerbaijan’s intention to move on, post-Second Karabakh War, and adopt a maximally cooperative and magnanimous approach towards Armenia following the latter’s defeat in the war. This was apparent in the many concessions made by Azerbaijan in the post-war period, such as providing a ten-day extension (from November 15 to November 25, 2020) of the deadline for the Armenian Armed Forces and the Armenian population that had settled in Kalbajar during the occupation to leave the region, and the return to Armenia of 69 Armenian nationalsdetained in Azerbaijan and 1400 bodies. Moreover, as a gesture of good will, Azerbaijan helped with the transfer of humanitarian aid to Armenian residents in Karabakh; facilitated the transfer of goods through Azerbaijan’s main territory; allowed Armenian citizens to continue using the parts of the Gorus–Kafan highway that pass through the newly liberated Azerbaijani territories; and last, but definitely not least, for the first time in three decades the transportation of Russian natural gas to Armenia through Azerbaijan became a reality.

However, this cautious optimism about the nascent prospects of peace and cooperation in the region is facing a number of challenges. These include Armenia’s flouting of Article 4 of the November 10, 2020 declaration that demanded the withdrawal of all remaining armed groups from Azerbaijani territories; purposeful misrepresentation by Armenia of militia members captured by Azerbaijan as a result of counter-terrorist operations since November 10 as prisoners of war (PoW) and resultant attempts to exert pressure on Azerbaijan; and the newly intensified debate on who might have launched Iskandar M missiles against the Azerbaijani city of Shusha during the 44-day war. The latter issue in particular seems to boggle the mind after the Azerbaijani National Agency for Mine Action (ANAMA) recently discovered the remnants of an Iskandar M ballistic missile in Shusha. According to the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), the export version of this missile is the Iskandar E, which the Russian Federation exported only to Armenia. The Iskandar M, the remnants of one of which were discovered in Shusha,is in the sole possession of the Russian Federation. The story behind this discovery definitely has a dark side that needs to be clarified, as the absence of plausible answers may generate dangerous speculation. Either way, this issue, along with the others discussed above, is also inhibiting a seamless transition to the post-conflict rehabilitation period.

In addition to the above, the danger posed by the landmines planted in the previously occupied Azerbaijani territories is very acute. According to some estimates, Armenia spent$350 million on planting landmines in and around the Nagorno-Karabakh region. ANAMA is currently undertaking operations towards clearing the areas contaminated with landmines and unexploded ordnance (UXO) and initial estimates suggest that the neutralization of UXO, missiles, and the remaining ammunition in the combat areas could require 5–6 years, while it might take some10–13 years before the mined areas are completely cleared. Although Azerbaijan is also receiving help from its friends, partners, and international organizations, including Turkey, Russia, and the United Nations, in the form of staff training, delivery of mine-clearing equipment, and financial assistance, this is obviously not yet sufficient for tackling this very difficult and precarious work.

The issue is further exacerbated by the fact that, in response to all the gestures of goodwill by Azerbaijan aimed at turning the page on hostility and embarking on building a cooperative relationship with Armenia, the latter still refuses to give Azerbaijan maps of the landmines planted in its formerly occupied territories. Worse still, as noted by the Assistant to the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan – Head of the Department of Foreign Policy Affairs of the Presidential Administration at the briefing held for the diplomatic corps on the occasion of the “International Day for Mine Awareness and Assistance in Mine Action” (April 5, 2021),on the one occasion when Azerbaijan was able to obtain maps of purported mined areas from Armenia, these maps turned out to contain false information, as ANAMA was unable to find anything based on the coordinates therein. “This could mean that Armenia purposefully misled Azerbaijan,” Mr. Hajiyev noted. Apparently, there is still no progress whatsoever in terms of persuading Armenia to cooperate on the issue of landmines. However, this is hugely important, as refusal to collaborate on such a crucial issue may diminish the already meagre prospects for achieving lasting peace and cooperation between the erstwhile enemies in the wake of Azerbaijan’s one-sided concessions to Armenia.

International conventions prohibit anti-personnel landmines (APL), the most dangerous form used against civilians. Every year, reputable organizations in the field, such as the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL),report thousands of people dying or being injured owing to landmines. Post-Second Karabakh war, Azerbaijan has already reported the deaths of dozens of its citizens as well as military servicemen, including Russian peacekeepers, who have died or been maimed as result of anti-personnel landmine explosions. If the correct maps of the mined areas are not given to the Azerbaijani side in due time, the numbers of casualties will increase, adding to the already daunting global statistics of human deaths due to landmines. It is hoped that Armenia will not realize too late that civilians should not be at the receiving end of the regime’s frustration and resentfulness over the war that was lost.

Thus, there are clearly visible challenges of the post-conflict period that need to be overcome. The complexity of the outstanding issues demands transparency, cooperation, and mutual compromise if there is a genuine wish to move away from the horrors of the past. This should be undertaken by all the stakeholders that signed the November 10, 2020, agreements that ended the Second Karabakh War, because unilateral efforts may likely be insufficient to ultimately break the vicious cycle of hostility and war.

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South Caucasus: Prospects and challenges

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During an online conference on the current situation in the South Caucasus, hosted by Rossiya Segodnya news agency, the executive director of the “Eurasian Development” center Stanislav Pritchin and Alexander Karavayev, a researcher with the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Economics, presented their joint report on the “Settlement of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict and the development of the South Caucasus: prospects and challenges.”

Earlier, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met with his Azeri and Armenian colleagues on the sidelines of the meeting of the Council of Foreign Ministers of the CIS to discuss humanitarian and economic issues related to Nagorno-Karabakh. They noted that the Russian-mediated ceasefire agreement in Nagorno-Karabakh, signed on November 9, 2020, was the first document in many years to tackle systemic issues of settlement and offer a primary plan for normalizing relations between the conflicting sides.

During the online conference, Stanislav Prichin and Alexander Karavayev outlined potential areas of cooperation in various fields and identified the role of external actors, primarily of Russia and Turkey, in realizing the existing potential. They also analyzed the prospects of economic development in the South Caucasus.

Stanislav Pritchin said that the idea of writing the report came right after the signing of the peace accord in Nagorno-Karabakh. In addition to the usual collection of information, several roundtables were held, attended by Russian experts, and Armenian and Azerbaijani specialists were polled and asked the same questions. Naturally enough, Baku and Yerevan had diametrically opposite views of the results of the ceasefire agreement, with  Azerbaijan seeing them as a reflection of the changes brought about by its military victories, while Armenia views them as a major defeat that forced it to make major concessions. There was even talk about the resignation of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and his government. Pashinyan has so far managed to stabilize the situation, with early parliamentary elections slated for this coming summer, which will most likely keep him in power. Polls also showed that even if Pashinyan’s party loses out, Armenia will still be forced to comply with the terms of the agreement simply by virtue of its position. Indeed, Yerevan has been quick to give the Akdam, Geybaldar and Lachin regions back to Baku.

Speaking of risks and challenges, the expert noted that we are primarily talking about domestic political risks both in Armenia and Azerbaijan, as well as external ones – exacerbation of contradictions between outside players and, finally, the danger of a new conflict flaring up directly between Yerevan and Baku. … First of all, Armenia finds itself in the former group of risks. A  survey of experts done in February showed that 67 percent of respondents  believed that Nikol Pashinyan would not stay in power, while only 33 believed he would. The situation in Azerbaijan is calmer: they expect Armenia to fulfill all the terms of the trilateral agreement. By the way, Azerbaijan has a lot of work to do to restore the region’s infrastructure and resettle the refugees, which will prove a heavy burden on the country’s budget.

As far as external risks go, the gravest concern is the regional rivalry between Russia and Turkey. Seventy-two percent of the Armenian experts surveyed believe that this is fraught with destructive consequences, and only 28 said that Russian-Turkish interaction will help stabilize the region. The overwhelming majority of Azeri experts have no problem with the Russian and Turkish influence on the peaceful settlement in Nagorno-Karabakh. The role of the OSCE Minsk Group in the settlement of the Karabakh problem is assessed differently in Armenia and Azerbaijan. While the Armenians pin hopes on the Group, the Azerbaijanis do not see any benefit from it.

The status of the Russian peacekeepers, who will stay on in the conflict zone for the next five years, is an important issue. Their mandate will automatically be renewed if it is not objected to by either side. As of now, 42 percent of Azeri experts believe that five years from now the mission of the Russian peacekeepers will be over. Just as many believe that they will still be needed, and 16 percent said that it will depend on the situation. In Armenia, 85 percent of respondents answered that five years from now the presence of Russian peacekeepers will still be needed.

The dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh remains the biggest sticking point, with Azerbaijan considering this territory as its own, which is confirmed by the relevant resolutions of the UN Security Council issued in the wake of the Soviet breakup. The Armenians, conversely, believe that even after the conclusion of the November trilateral agreement, Nikol Pashinyan does not recognize Azerbaijan’s right to Nagorno-Karabakh. A survey of the two countries’ experts showed that in each of them the absolute majority – more than 80 percent – thinks that within the next five years the status of Nagorno-Karabakh will not acquire a mutually acceptable legal form. Pritchin also considers the problem of border delimitation in disputed territories as being intractable.

Wrapping up the political section of the report, Stanislav Pritchin outlined three possible scenarios of political development in the South Caucasus: negative, neutral and optimal. In a negative scenario, one or more parties opt out of the trilateral accord. According to the neutral scenario, some of the provisions of this agreement will be implemented, while some will not. The positive scenario sees the implementation of all provisions by all the signatories to the deal. The majority of experts in Armenia (about 80 percent) and a significant number (over 40 percent) of those in Azerbaijan, gravitate towards the second, neutral variant.

The economic part of the report was presented by Alexander Karavayev, who emphasized that it is for the first time in 30 years that a post-Soviet state is restoring its territorial integrity, including in economic terms. Not only did the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh suffer from the ethnic conflict of 1991-92, but it was not developing economically and did not have any investment status. The development took place only at the microeconomic level; there were no large-scale recovery programs sponsored by the state, including those aimed at luring major foreign investors. Karavayev warns that given the enormity of the tasks at hand one should not expect any quick results – we are talking about a decade, no less.

The Azeri leadership has outlined the first stage of restoration to run until 2025. In 2021, US 1.3 billion will be allocated for the reconstruction of energy facilities, the construction of roads, trunk infrastructure, including the creation of transit transport communications across the territory of Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. To fill them with goods, Armenia, as the party that has suffered the most from the conflict, must see the prospects for making up for the losses. This could be achieved through exports, primarily of raw materials, such as copper ore and rare earth and precious metals (molybdenum, gold, etc.). In practical terms, the export of raw materials from Armenia to Mediterranean ports would be facilitated by modernizing the old Soviet railway via the Nakhichevan autonomous region to the Turkish port of Iskenderun, where there is a terminal of the Magnitogorsk Iron and Steel Works. Alexander Karavayev warned, however, that the implementation of large-scale economic projects would attract big investors and competition between them could stir up contradictions between large regional players. He still believes that “the game is worth the candle.”

The main conclusion that can be drawn from the report is that the signing of the trilateral agreement has opened a “window of opportunity” for the gradual normalization of political and economic relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan, including the settlement of the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh.

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A Grey Swan: Is There a New Conflict in Donbass?

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The prospect of a new exacerbation in Ukraine’s Donbass region has worried market players. It is difficult to talk about the strong influence of bellicose statements on the currency and stock markets. However, investors have again started talking about “geopolitical risk”. The key concern stems from the fact that the resumption of a large-scale armed conflict will inevitably lead to new sanctions against Russia. Moreover, the scale of such restrictions is difficult to predict, which gives rise to the uncertainty of expectations. Should strict sanctions be viewed as a baseline scenario? What is to be expected from the development of the situation?

Ceasefire violations in Donbass were already evident in winter. The ceasefire has been in effect since July 27 last year. However, on March 31, in the Contact Group on Conflict Resolution, the Ukrainian side raised the issue of a new ceasefire statement. In fact, this meant that Kiev considered the existing agreement invalid, citing cases of shootings and military losses. Moscow criticised this initiative. All this is happening against the background of the concentration of Ukrainian troops in the conflict zone. Russian troops are also moving to the state border. Statements by Ukrainian officials, who cited a conversation between ministers, about US support in the event of a war with Russia, added fuel to the fire.

A military exacerbation may well be viewed as one possible scenario. At least it is not devoid of precedent. During the August 2008 war in in Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili launched a military campaign, citing the support of the United States, among other things, as one of his motivations. Later it turned out that such support was only conditional, but confidence in it could become a trigger for radical decisions. There is also the experience of the recent war in Nagorno-Karabakh. For a long time it was believed that it would be difficult for both sides to win in the conflict. As a result, Azerbaijan won a victory using new tactics: with the help of unmanned aerial vehicles. Ukraine also plans to use Turkish drones, although they have not yet appeared in large quantities in service in the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Kiev may also believe that a new conflict will have a high cost for Russia. Even in the event of the defeat of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, Moscow is unlikely to go beyond the existing boundaries of the DPR and LPR. New sanctions will be imposed against Russia. Perhaps the Ukrainian leadership also hopes for good luck. Even tactical successes in Donbass will strengthen the Ukrainian position.

However, this scenario is still extremely risky for Kiev. In recent years, Russia has shown that it is ready to take decisive action. Force can be used without undue hesitation. Moscow understands that the West will side with Ukraine in any scenario. But political support is one thing, and military intervention is quite another. The United States and its allies are unlikely to agree to such an intervention. Even the supply of lethal weapons will have its limits. Without a doubt, they increase the combat readiness of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. However, they are unlikely to allow it to achieve qualitative and quantitative superiority, even on the scale of the alleged theatre of military operations. The Russian army has undergone a high degree of modernisation. It is capable of rapidly concentrating well-trained and well-armed small units, units and large units. The threat of sanctions will also fail as a deterrent. There’s no doubt they will damage the economy. However, Moscow is unlikely to be stopped if it comes to a military conflict. In addition, Russia has a certain amount of space to vary the degree of its involvement. It can range from active support of the forces of the LPR and DPR to direct involvement in the conflict and the defeat of the Armed Forces of Ukraine in the conflict zone.

Apparently, the Ukrainian leadership does not intend to bring the matter to a direct clash. It is escalating the situation, trying to attract the attention of Western partners and gain points for the future. Most likely, the Kiev authorities initiated the current manoeuvres of their own accord, and they are not the result of the “insidious game” of the West. However, the American and EU diplomats may well use such manoeuvres to put pressure on Russia. The main threat is the loss of control over the situation, should the symbolic whipping turn into a real conflict.

In the end, full-scale military operations in Donbass in the near future are not the baseline scenario. Russia is a strong adversary; the risk of big losses for Ukraine are great. Accordingly, it is hardly worth considering a scenario of a sharp tightening of sanctions against Russia. No radical aggravation—no radical sanctions.

At the same time, politics likes surprises. Erroneous assessments, the personal ambitions of leaders, the peculiarities of group decision-making with their “shift to risk”, random incidents and much more can give rise to an extreme scenario. War in this case is a “grey”, rather than a “black swan”. It is unlikely, but its parameters are quite clear. Low chances of winning a war can be offset by high expectations of its consequences. Is it not an attractive scenario to give Russia a military slap in the face during an election year? However, in Moscow, such a scenario is also, apparently, expected. With appropriate organisational conclusions.

From our partner RIAC

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