South Caucasus Shudder in the Shadow of Russia’s War

Balancing is the most commonplace word in the South Caucasus. This is how the three states approach the war Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

As the Russian invasion of Ukraine reverberates across the world, the South Caucasus region is especially susceptible to the dark geopolitical mood music. Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia are balancing between potential Russian reprisals and the need, near necessity, to stand together with Ukraine. 

Georgia is the most threatened. Invaded and partially occupied by Russia in 2008, it has sent mixed signals over the past two weeks. The country applied for EU membership early last month, but has also largely abstained from publicly criticizing Russia. The population, however, has expressed overwhelming support— a poll suggested 88% sided with Ukraine and 1% with Russia. There have been large demonstrations in central Tbilisi, a constant flow of humanitarian aid is being sent, and a number of Georgian military volunteers have fought (and died) in Ukraine.

The likely explanation for the chasm between the government and its citizens is that the ruling Georgian Dream party is unwilling to take a position until the war’s outcome is clear. A Russian victory would augur badly for Georgia, which is the other country named in Russia’s original list of demands to NATO and the US in December, which sought a new security deal for Europe. A victorious Russia would be in a very strong position to demand obedience from Georgia regarding the alliance’s 14 year old promise to make the country a member.

But the government’s balancing game is becoming increasingly untenable. Pressure from inside is uncomfortable, as are the calls to do more from international partners. While the logic of Georgia’s behavior is cautious and acknowledges the disparity of power with Russia, the idea that the Kremlin might be less challenging toward Georgia is premature. Russia continues to occupy Georgia’s territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and is unlikely to change. There is no indication that Vladimir Putin’s regime will smile favorably on Georgia when its stated goals are expansionist and uncompromising.

In Azerbaijan, Russia will continue its highly successful transactional approach. The recent agreement on allied cooperation underlined this. Moreover, it also means that Russia has probably laid the groundwork for a continuing military presence in Azerbaijan post-2025, one of its key aims in the region which ensures that all three South Caucasus countries have Russian troops inside their internationally recognized borders. Like Georgia’s leaders, Azeri ministers have avoided openly criticizing Russia, as they too fear potential Russian reprisals. In a way, Azerbaijan, sandwiched between Russia and Iran, has little room for maneuver. Even its alliance with Turkey cannot protect the country from a Russian threat.

Armenia is perhaps least shaken by the war in Ukraine. The trauma of 2020 and how the West was largely absent from its defeat in the Second Nagorno-Karabakh war and its fallout thereafter have made angry consideration and support for Ukrainian independence. Like its small neighbors, Armenia simply has very little freedom of maneuver, and its decision to support Russia, or abstain, during votes in international organizations since the war began underlines the growing limits it faces, especially following the 2020 war.

So, while each has its own national considerations, they also have one key concern in common: avoidance of Russian reprisals.  

Meanwhile, other developments unrelated to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine are also shaping the region’s future. Armenia and Turkey, which have for years been on less-than-friendly terms, are moving toward a comprehensive improvement of bilateral relations. The opening of their long-closed border as well as the restoration of diplomatic ties are under serious discussion. If implemented, this would have tremendous effects on the geopolitics of the region. The opening of the otherwise geographically closed region, which has been mostly dependent on Russia for infrastructure in recent decades, would open up and give Turkey a bigger stake in the region’s fate.

Armenia and Azerbaijan too, though continuously embroiled in flare-ups along their contact line in Nagorno-Karabakh, seem to be heading toward a significant breakthrough in their decades-long conundrum, which dates back at least to the first Nagorno-Karabakh war from 1992-94. Various hints from the Armenian side indicate that they might agree to regard Nagorno-Karabakh as a part of Azerbaijan in exchange expect some sort of autonomy and guarantees for the Armenian population in the enclave.

The third major development is the indication that a proposed railway revival project is unlikely to move ahead under Russia’s auspices. Azerbaijan and Iran recently signed an agreement whereby the Islamic Republic will play a role in transit projects between Azerbaijan proper and Nakhichevan, its detached territory beyond Armenia.

Author’s note: first published in cepa

Emil Avdaliani
Emil Avdaliani
Emil Avdaliani specializes on former Soviet space and wider Eurasia with particular focus on Russia's internal and foreign policy, relations with Iran, China, the EU and the US. He teaches history and international relations at Tbilisi State University and Ilia State University (Georgia).