A Western option in the South Caucasus after the Russian invasion of Ukraine

Authors: Maurizio Geri and Francesco Foti

The recent Russian meddling in Moldovan domestic politics, with warnings of even a possible coup, are worrisome for all the West, but should not be surprising anymore for Europe. As Blinken stated recently also in its trip in Kazakhstan, Central Asia, that has the biggest Russian minority after Ukraine: “Washington supports the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of all countries. Sometimes we just say those words, but they actually have real meaning and of course we know in this particular time they have even more resonance than usual”.

The 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine has changed finally the Western European perception of the Russia’s pledge to respect the International Law, namely the right to territorial integrity, sovereignty and self-determination against western encroachment. To be sure, to many Europe didn’t need the 2022 invasion to call a spade a spade: already the Russian war in Transnistria, Moldova, in 1992 and Chechnya in the 1994 represented a clear show of how Russia was going to treat its former Soviet Republics. With the invasion in 2008 of Georgia, and finally the very annexation of Crimea in 2014, with the staged unrest in Donbas which brought to the Minsk system, have shown how Putin staunchly clings to the old-fashioned idea of spheres of influence, and jealousy considers the above mentioned little less than sovereign countries and more like a fiefdom consistent to its doctrine of Ruskij Mir and national imperialistic interests.

Now that the divide between two different security systems widens and Russian expansionist strategy became clearly dramatically incompatible with basic international law and respect of national security rights of each sovereign nation, it is fundamental that the “collective” West let go of the useless strategy of appeasement and procrastination (such as the 2008 summit in Bucharest which, under franco-Germany timidity, failed to provide Georgia with an official path to membership) and steps up its game to increase its presence in its Southeastern periphery.

The EU in particular should think about the South Caucasus, which is the door of Europe for Central Asia, in a strategic move to stop Russian maneuvers in the region and support the building of a new security architecture promoting peace and cooperation amongst Georgia, Azerbaijan, and even pro-Russian Armenia, for the start of a future “South-Caucasus Platform” which has been put forward by Azerbaijan and fairly supported by Georgia. As it has been echoed by the EU Special Representative Toivo Klaar Georgia’s role, acting like a bridge between Armenia and Azerbaijan, will be undoubtedly very important.

The South Caucasus, due to its particular geopolitical position as a bridge between continents but still geographical part of European continent, looks up to Europe as a model of political-economy unity and shouldn’t be left therefore to the Russian meddling. The EU should think to a major shift, in the face of the current Russian weakening on the Ukrainian war theater and political stage. When the ship sinks, one looks elsewhere for long-term security guarantees and trade opportunities, and even if the post-Soviet space has still the influence of Russian language and economic sphere with its political space still prey to conflicting factions, with different sympathies, allegiances, interests, within the state and society themselves, the EU has already a higher “soft power” of attraction

The case of Georgia is a perfect example of how polarized politics, due to key pro-Russian sentiments and links, hampers reaching closer to the EU membership status and NATO prospective. This has brought Georgia increasingly behind its initial pledge to key reforms and major political sweeps in order to isolate the Anti-western elements bent on compromise or even rapprochement with the former foe. It is hoped that “Georgian dream”, the ruling party, will be marginalized at the next election. This also demands the West to spend more for the civil society and NGOs in order to highlight the potentialities of the pro-western path to be undertaken for security concerns. The goal is, of course, full EU and NATO membership along with the build-up of the energy and transportation corridor that connects Central Asia with Europe, bypassing Russia.

Azerbaijan’s pro-European course should be firmly supported towards organic ties to the West as this will strengthen  the EU’s role as an honest peace broker  by weakening and ultimately squeezing out Russia’s foothold in Karabakh region of Azerbaijan which is torpedoing much desired dialogue of Azerbaijan with local Armenians in an effort to extend the duration of its presence. A new Comprehensive Partnership and Cooperation Agreement between Azerbaijan and the EU is fundamental, to update the one of 1999 In these cases, a strategic “alternation” of the EU and US should increase the different types of support it can give which is based on the different peculiarities of the two countries.

Finally, regarding Armenia, an interesting point of departure is profiting from recent Russo-Armenian rifts over on Russia’s failure to honor its commitments under 10 November Trilateral Statement. Arguably, Russia has been keen on holding all the strings by sheer hard power and soft power with no aim at presenting an alternative consistent with international law. To boot, as in other post-Soviet theatres of disputes, Russia has exploited historic revanchist hopes which, should be made clear to the interested parties, are not consistent with stability and economic progress.  The EU should make clear to Armenia that the latter needs to give up Karabakh topic in its political discourse in order to reduce significantly Russia’s influence on Armenia’s foreign policy it is important for the West to put in place the peace agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan based on the principles of international law which would include the respect for territorial integrity, sovereignty and inviolability of international borders, abstaining use or threat of force, abandoning territorial claims, delimitation and demarcation of borders and unblocking communications. In parallel, the West can present Armenia with suitable security guarantees and integration to the western market by ad hoc agreements and accords and highlighting the need for landlocked Armenia to opt for a new start away from Russian empty promises and questionable political constraints. Therefore, Armenia has to give assurances of its will to distance itself from Russia and have the courage to say no to Russian military presence in the country. Just what Russia would hate in that this would deprive her of leverage and military presence in the region through the so-called 3+3 platform which, clearly, excludes the West entirely. The hope here is also for Armenia to play as the pivotal pawn for breaking the CIS from within. But the EU as usual seems not yet completely strategically wise, risking to alienate Azerbaijan with the recent move of sending a mission to Armenia ignoring the legitimate concerns of Azerbaijan.

Another variable in the complex scenario sketched is the role of Iran, the second Anti-western actor acting in the region. Surely, it seems to favour Armenia over Azerbaijan, the arch-foe that tries to stem the Islamist and anti-western elements within, and it is understandable it won’t be amenable to an augmented western activism in the region and, particularly, in the conflict. However, this is an incentive to show western resolve to obstruct the Islamic Republic and its Russian ally in their self-aggrandizing designs in the region which are not conducive to long-term regional security, trade, and business opportunities.

Now it’s the right time for a major page turn as a weakened Russia is finally presented as a reliquary of the past, in a region that needs a new security compact and a much more robust western presence by guaranteeing security assurance, energy exchange and trade opportunities with the EU.

Dr.Maurizio Geri
Dr.Maurizio Geri
Dr Maurizio Geri is a senior strategic analyst in international security with twenty years of experience between NGOs, academia, think tanks, and international institutions, Dr Geri is a former analyst for different NATO bodies, to include CMRE in Italy, ACT in the US and HQ in Brussels. He has been awarded a Marie Curie postdoc fellowship that will start in 2024, between GMU in Washington, BSIS in Belgium, and Ca’ Foscari in Venice, to research on the EU-NATO cooperation in Emerging Disruptive Technologies against Russian hybrid warfare, in particular in the energy-resources-climate security nexus. Dr Geri is an associate fellow at South Asia Democratic Forum, at the Center for Media and Peace Initiatives and at the International Team for the Study of Security. He has experience with different research centers to include the Carter Center in the US, the Italian MOD Center for the Innovation of Defense, the Euro Gulf Information Center and Trends Research and Advisory. Dr Geri holds a PhD in International Security from Old Dominion University in Virginia, a MA in Cultural Studies and a BA in International Relations from the University of Florence, Italy and he published a book (https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007/978-3-319-75574-8) and several articles, both academic and journalistic (https://muckrack.com/maurizio-geri/articles)