The pace of geopolitical change in the South Caucasus is staggering, with the recent Karabakh war only underlining several major geopolitical trends in the region.
The first noticeable trend being the undercutting of democratic ideals and achievements of the region’s states. Take Armenia, its young democracy had high hopes following the 2018 revolution, but now it will be more even more dependent on Russia.
It is not a matter of whether a democratic model is better or not, the matter lies in the incompatibility of an aspiring democracy with a powerful nondemocracy such as Russia.
The Armenian leadership will now have to make extensive concessions to Moscow to shore up its military, backtracking on its democratic values. Building a fair political system cannot go hand in hand with the Russian political model.
The war also put an end to any hopes of Armenia implementing a multivector foreign policy, an already highly scrutinized issue. Mistakes were made continuously along the way, the biggest being an overreliance on Russia.
In the buildup to 2020, Armenia’s multiaxial foreign policy efforts gradually deteriorated, with the 2016 fighting showing the limits. Armenian politicians attempted to develop ties with other regional powers in the aftermath, but Russian influence had already begun to incrementally increase.
Tipping the scales in a no longer balanced alliance culminated in the 2020 war with Azerbaijan thanks to Yerevan’s maneuvering. More crucially, the war has obliterated Yerevan’s multiaxial policy efforts for years to come.
Now, Armenia’s dependence on Russia would be even more pronounced with no viable geopolitical alternatives.
With no more foreign policy diversification, the three South Caucasus states are divided by larger regional powers, further fracturing the region.
The return of Turkey and the growth of the Russian military could resurrect the great power competition, in which a nation’s military power, infrastructure projects and economic might are directly translated into their geopolitical influence over the region, ultimately deterring long-term conflict resolution.
The Western stance
The Karabakh war highlighted a regression in Western peacekeeping standards. The Western approach to conflict resolution based on equality rather than geopolitical interests has been trumped by the Russian alternative.
Moscow is not looking to resolve the conflict (it never does in territorial conflicts); instead, it is seeking to prolong it under its close watch in a bid to increase its influence.
Looking at the situation from the Russian perspective, it is clear the country will continue to influence Armenia and Azerbaijan, only now to a far greater extent than before.
The West’s inability to accommodate fluid geopolitical realities in the South Caucasus also raises questions about its commitment to resolving the issues at hand. The second Karabakh war was in a way a by-product of the West’s declining engagement in the region over the past several years.
The West can no longer treat the South Caucasus as a monolithic entity, and a diversified foreign policy should be applied in line with realities on the ground.
Policies should reflect each individual state, and the West should, perhaps, be more geopolitical in its approach.
Turkey’s recent suggestion to create a six-nation pact bringing together the South Caucasus states, Russia, Turkey and Iran, shows the regression of Western influence in the region. But the geopolitical vacuum is never empty for long, and Turkey and Russia approach.
Georgia could act as the last bastion of dominant Western influence, but even there, the West should be cautious. The country is on the cusp of Europe, making it susceptible to foreign influence.
Bordered by Russia and Turkey, two powers often discerning of Europe, Georgia also feels the pressure to adapt to the changing circumstances on the ground.
The lack of Western resolve in the region and the Black Sea could propel Tbilisi if not toward a total reconsideration of its foreign policy, toward diversifying its foreign ties – one could call a “rebalancing.”
The war also solidified that the Caspian basin and South Caucasus are inextricably linked to the greater Middle East.
Russia and Turkey are basing their strategies in the region on developments in the Middle East and the Black Sea region. Not since the end of the Soviet Union has the South Caucasus been such a critical point for the West, especially the incoming Biden administration.
But time is critical and any further delay in active U.S. policy could spell disaster for Georgia, which serves as a door to the Caspian and on to Central Asia.
The West has been in regression in the region for quite some time now; the Karabakh war only brought it to the light, and it must be proactive if things are to change.
Much will depend on the U.S. and its new administration, but the West will have to come to an understanding with Turkey, even if it be limited, to salvage its deteriorating position in the region.
After all, the South Caucasus has always been the only theater where Turkish and Western interests have always coincided. Considering its limited presence in the region, the West could consider backing Turkey.
Not only would it serve as a reconciliatory gesture pleasing Ankara, but it would also limit Russia’s movement in the region. With the ink about to dry on who will influence the region, the West must immediately adapt its approach if it wishes to have any input in the rapidly changing geopolitics of the South Caucasus.
Author’s note: first published in dailysabah