When Russia’s special military operation commenced in Ukraine a year ago, not too many countries have surprised Moscow to the upside by their attitudes to the global changes. However, this was the case with Georgia. While the country is obviously harboring ambitions of a Euro-Atlantic integration, with its political forces competing for love of the West, Tbilisi has nevertheless rejected the option of a sanctions war with Russia.
Georgia stunned everyone already on February 25, when Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili, after calling upon the international community to do whatever it takes to stop the fighting, announced that Tbilisi would not join the West’s financial and economic sanctions against Russia. As the U.S. and EU anti-Russian sanctions packages were approved, Georgia clarified its position: the country complies with all international restrictions to avoid being hammered by the Collective West, but it chooses not to impose any restrictions on its trade with Russia, unlike many other states.
As a result, Georgia lived almost the same way in 2022, as other partners and allies of Russia, struggling not to be hit by secondary sanctions or disclose its help to Russia in circumventing the restrictions. Transport links have not been severed, economic contacts keep expanding, and we could even talk about a heyday in Russian-Georgian relations in the midst of the SMO. Georgia is only different from Kazakhstan, Belarus, Azerbaijan and other states close to Moscow in that Tbilisi formally supports all anti-Russian international documents, taking sides with the U.S. and the EU at every vote in the UN—because the government of Mr. Garibashvili has not yet renounced its European aspirations.
A Pre-February Georgia
In order to understand how Georgia manages to combine a pro-Western course with its defiance of anti-Russian injunctions by the U.S. and the EU (which commands nothing but respect, according to Sergey Lavrov), it is necessary to recall the dynamics transpiring in the Russia-Georgia-West triangle on the eve of February 24, 2022.
The modern Georgian state has existed for little more than 10 years. On October 1, 2012, the “Georgian Dream” party, closely associated with the billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, won the parliamentary elections against President Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM), ending Saakashvili’s nine-year rule. Back in 2010, the leader of the “Rose Revolution” introduced amendments to the Georgian constitution that significantly limited the powers of the president, since he planned to rule the country indefinitely as prime minister after his two presidential terms, but—given to the defeat of the UNM in the elections—he lost power overnight.
Mr. Ivanishvili established his “Georgian Dream” with the express purpose of snatching power from Saakashvili and transferring it to less “noxious” and more efficient managers, to transform Georgia in a “nation with human features” – nothing less, nothing more. The “Georgian Dream” political agenda differed from the UNM program by its moderate approach, but not by the strategy: Ivanishvili retained aspiration for the EU and NATO membership in the country’s foreign policy, intensifying full-fledged cooperation with both organizations, and he did not give up claims on Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The billionaire only wanted to save Georgia—and probably himself—from Mikheil Saakashvili, so as soon as the embattled president fled the country before his tenure expired, Ivanishvili retreated into the shadow of Georgian politics again, handing over the post of prime minister to the 31-year-old Irakli Garibashvili.
Moderation in the Georgian Dream’s foreign policy choices was primarily reflected in the resumption of trade with Russia, which had been suspended when Saakashvili was in power. Moscow predictably welcomed the arrival of a more sagacious leader in Georgia and responded favorably to Ivanishvili’s initiative to set up a bilateral format for discussing the issues that do not pertain to the political agenda at the Geneva Discussions on Security and Stability in Transcaucasia. As early as December 2012, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin and Georgian Prime Minister’s special envoy Zurab Abashidze started a multi-year dialogue on bilateral issues in Geneva (the venue was later moved to Prague). In January 2013, Ivanishvili had a brief meeting with Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev on the sidelines of the Economic Forum in Davos, stressing that Tbilisi intended to restore relations with Moscow.
In the same year, Georgian companies returned to Russia, with Russian companies returning to Georgia. Ivanishvili acted as pragmatically as possible: it was necessary to put aside the hard-to-resolve political issues and reconstruct the ties with Russia destroyed by Saakashvili, wherever possible. True, no resumption of diplomatic relations between Tbilisi and Moscow could be expected in the foreseeable future (which is true even now, 10 years later), but Georgia is a small state, lying far away from the centers of power towards which it gravitates, while bordering on such a huge power as Russia. Tbilisi simply cannot afford either to stay in conflict with Moscow or shut itself off from the Russian market. Saakashvili’s anti-Russian games were pure madness, which naturally culminated in the Five-Day War of 2008, so Ivanishvili wanted Georgia to get back to the path of prudence.
Thus, at the end of 2012, the new Georgian state conceptually separated the two tracks in its relations with Russia: political and economic—never to mix them again. Georgia voted for all anti-Russian steps taken by the West after the coup d’état in Ukraine and Crimea’s reunification with Russia in 2014, but it did not impose any economic restrictions on its trade with Russia. On the contrary, during the years of initial Western sanctions pressure on Russia, Russian-Georgian trade turnover kept steadily growing, peaking at $1.355 billion in 2018 during the pre-Covid era. On the European track, Tbilisi successfully signed the Euro-Association agreement in 2014, entering the visa-free travel regime with the EU in 2017, looking forward to the prospect of becoming a candidate for EU membership after the European Commission’s conditions have been met. Prudence allowed Georgia to achieve a win-win outcome as it maintained normal relations with both Russia and the West.
In fact, under the “Georgian Dream”, the Caucasian Republic used any chance to strengthen its positions. As the only open East-West route in South Caucasus amidst the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict and given the tense relations between Tehran and Baku, Georgia ensured its participation in global economic projects such as the Southern Gas Corridor, which helps the EU import Azerbaijani gas (11.5 bcm in 2022), and the Baku–Tbilisi–Kars railroad (432 thousand tons of cargo carried over it in 2022). The BTK became Georgia’s entry ticket to China’s interregional transport projects (One Belt, One Road and the Middle Corridor) due to the possibility of transporting freights by rail from Baku to both Turkey and Georgian ports. Tbilisi entered the turbulent 2020s as a successful regional state focused on national interests and mutually beneficial cooperation with everyone.
Factor of Saakashvili
The irritating factors that Georgia has had to face in its foreign policy are also worth mentioning. All of them revolve around the figure of the former president Mikheil Saakashvili. Having fled the country in 2013, he has not given up his claim to power in Georgia, even though he has no legitimate tools to regain it. His United National Movement (UNM) lost most of the electorate to become a convenient target for the Georgian Dream, which in its first four years explained all problems faced by Georgia due to failures of the Saakashvili regime. When it became clear to analysts and ordinary citizens that the Dream itself was not working very effectively, the ruling force confronted them with an alternative: “either us or Saakashvili”, which literally meant a call to choose the lesser of two evils.
After taking a vacation, obtaining a Ukrainian passport and getting a job as chairman of the Odessa Region’s Administration, Mikheil Saakashvili set out to create problems for the “Georgian Dream”. It should be noted that the politician’s extravagant behavior created more problems for himself and his party, because people voted less and less for the UNM (65 seats in parliament in 2012, 27 seats in 2016, 36 seats in the coalition with four other parties in 2020). The former president, however, apparently saw some sense in pure sabotage. Moreover, we are not talking about a regular information campaign against the “Georgian Dream” in the media under Saakashvili’s control, but about much more serious actions.
First, the UNM resorted to anti-Russian provocations, using any Russian-Georgian contacts as a pretext to foment protests and unrest. It became commonplace to falsely accuse the Georgian Dream of being pro-Russian and to hold rallies under those banners. The most successful provocation was an aggressive escapade against Russian delegates in the Georgian parliament during the session of Inter-Parliamentary Assembly on Orthodoxy, held on June 20, 2019. Then UNM members picketed the rostrum and disrupted the work of the General Assembly. The Russian delegates had to be escorted out of the building, and a large-scale rally was organized in the evening, with Saakashvili’s associates instigating the protesters to siege the parliament, demanding resignation for Speaker Irakli Kobakhidze, Interior Minister George Gakharia and the government at large.
As a result, the next day Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree suspending air communication with Georgia starting on July 8. It could be resumed about two years ago soon after Georgia had lifted Covid restrictions, but on April 1, 2021 the UNM attacked Russian TV host Vladimir Pozner, who arrived in Tbilisi to celebrate his birthday. Because the local authorities cannot guarantee the safety of any Russian citizen (being also aware that Saakashvili’s close associates attack media people and politicians rather than ordinary Russians), Russian carriers abstain from flying to the Republic for the time being, even though a restart of flights is currently negotiated.
Second, Georgia began to receive “unpleasant signals” from the European Union. In the European structures, especially in the EuroParliament, Saakashvili retained quite a strong lobby, which started to put pressure on the Georgian government on all uncomfortable issues—from the fact that the Republic is essentially led by Bidzina Ivanishvili hiding in the shadows, with characterless successive prime ministers George Kvirikashvili, Mamuka Bakhtadze, Georgiy Gakharia and Irakli Garibashvili being just his puppets, to the fact that the majority electoral system allows the “Georgian Dream” to secure most seats in parliament even if defeated in the general elections. Ivanishvili had no such lobby in the EU, so the list of demands placed on Tbilisi by Euro-bureaucrats was steadily expanding.
The UNM acted as an inventor of a false agenda, especially after its defeat at the 2020 parliamentary elections. The party announced that it would not recognize the results of the vote, refused to enter parliament and launched infinite protests. The UNM rallies before and after the elections were never numerous, but the Saakashvili-controlled media presented each of them as yet another outbreak of popular anger against the authorities, while EU lobbyists conveyed the fabricated picture of those events to the very top. Nothing dangerous was really happening in Georgia, but Brussels got the impression that the country had lost stability because of the imperfect political system. As a result, the “Georgian Dream” was forced to sign the Charles Michel plan to resolve the internal political crisis, which did not exist in reality, even though the UNM rejected the document anyway.
Later, the Charles Michel plan had to be revoked due to the apparent unwillingness of Saakashvili’s associates to do anything but imitating the wobbling of the country, and the former president then dealt Georgia his final blow. On October 1, 2021, nine years after his loss of power, he was detained in Tbilisi and placed in prison. Saakashvili was returning to the country, firmly knowing that he would immediately be arrested on account of the criminal cases filed against him, but he did it anyway. For the “Georgian Dream”, his arrest became a new problem. The politician went on hunger strike, and his entourage stuck to their proven pattern, as it did earlier with the UNM rallies, fanning the scandal of their leader’s serious illness and the need to let him out of jail and out of the country. The European officials supporting him became even angrier with Tbilisi.
Georgia in February
So, Georgia met February 24, 2022 in the following situation with regard to its foreign policy: the course towards Euro-Atlantic integration saw both successes (agreement on Euro-Association and visa-free regime with the EU) and problems (the opposition used its lobby in the European institutions to create a false picture of the internal political situation and legality in the Republic), with the country having no prospects of joining NATO because of the claims to Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Yet, the country is involved in the Alliance’s programs, modernizing the army and infrastructure to the NATO standards.
The course towards economic and humanitarian contacts with Russia continues. Here, too, there are successes (steadily growing turnover) and problems (the opposition used provocations to halt air communication between the two nations). Besides, there are no prospects of restoring diplomatic relations with Russia because of the same claims.
The course for the broadest possible economic interaction as Georgia develops mutually beneficial ties with all neighboring states, as well as with extra-regional states participating in projects that transit the territory of Georgia.
Obviously, Georgia was faced with a difficult choice, unlike many other states, on the day when Russia started its special military operation in Ukraine. On the one hand, the EU dragging its feet with making Tbilisi a candidate for EU membership, preferred to deal with fake Georgian crises, expecting immediate solidarity with all anti-Russian decisions from the Georgian government, offering it the carrot of a “candidate status” as an encouragement. On the other hand, Russia will hardly even notice Georgia’s individual sanctions, whereas Russia’s potential all-out retaliation could be very painful for the small country.
The practice introduced by Bidzina Ivanishvili back in 2012 that entails separating the political and economic tracks in its relations with Russia greatly relieved the stress faced by the Georgian government. Neither Brussels nor Moscow expected it, but when Tbilisi was confronted with picking the right posture in the new stand-off between Russia and the West, it already had an answer: political denunciation of Russia’s invasion should not affect bilateral economic ties with its northern neighbor. The choice was made not in favor of Russia and not in favor of the West, but in favor of Georgia and its national interests. This is the reason behind Moscow’s appreciation of the way Tbilisi answered to the challenge: the Georgian authorities have their national interests in mind, as a sovereign state, which for the Russian leadership is the norm of healthy international relations.
A Post-February Georgia
The West made Georgia pay a price for the country’s refusal to impose individual sanctions against Russia. This is what it does to any country that prefers sovereignty to external control. With Georgia always complying with all European requirements in respect of reforms, Ursula von der Leyen still said on June 17, 2022 that the European Commission would not recommend granting the Republic a candidate status at the forthcoming EU summit, in contrast to Moldova and Ukraine, which will be honored with this status. This is exactly what happened: Moldova and Ukraine became candidates, while Georgia received a list of 12 mandatory points that it should work on. Some of them were clearly added by the same Saakashvili lobby—above all, we are talking about the requirement of weaning oligarchs off power (that is, depriving Bidzina Ivanishvili of unspoken control over the government) and about the mandated aspiration for the “political cohesion of society” (which can never be achieved under the provocative strategy of the UNM).
Perhaps, the bitterest pill to swallow for Tbilisi was that Brussels gave the candidate status to Chisinau, a nation that also refused to impose individual sanctions against Russia. This detail was also the most telling: the EU showed the distinction it makes between countries under its control and states defending their sovereignty. Moldova gained EU candidate status because President Maia Sandu’s regime is informally subservient to Brussels and the Moldovan authorities did not decide on their own what they were going to do in the new world. Instead, they asked European officials for permission—similar to EU member states requesting exemptions from the next sanctions package. Georgia, unlike Moldova, behaved too independently and was punished with a “penalty loop”.
For Tbilisi, this was a rather unpleasant but not a shock price to pay for maintaining economic ties with Moscow. The authorities acted prudently once again, and they accepted the 12 additional conditions from Brussels, while sharply intensifying business contacts with the Russian Federation. The Russian-Georgian trade turnover in 2022 increased by 50% year-on-year, reaching USD 2.5 billion, a new record for bilateral trade. This January, Russia topped the list of Georgia’s trading partners for the first time, overtaking Turkey; and its share in Georgian export-import reached 18% (USD 263.6 million).
The message from Brussels was augmented by Kiev that demanded from Tbilisi to show anti-Russian solidarity by opening a “second front” against Russia, restarting hostilities in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. It is unclear how much of this demand was a military calculation and how much was a continuation of Tbilisi’s punishment for waiving the sanctions. The Georgian army only numbers 37,000 men, while the Russian Southern Military District alone has a 70,000-strong contingent on the borders. After the Five-Day War, only Saakashvili’s men allowed for the possibility of new engagements, while that was simply at odds with the national strategy under Ivanishvili and the broader consensus in Georgia. That is why in April, when the idea of the “second front” was first voiced, Irakli Garibashvili immediately rejected it. This repudiation might also have contributed to Georgia’s denial of EU candidate status.
What 2022 meant for Georgia
The most accurate word to describe Georgia’s foreign policy is stability, which is how the Republic tried to get through 2022—in a balanced way, seeking to minimize losses and increase profits. The EU remains discontent about Georgia not imposing individual sanctions against Russia, but ramping up trade volumes with its northern neighbor instead. However, it does not refuse to cooperate with the Georgian authorities, all European and NATO programs are still in force for the country, and Tbilisi is patiently fulfilling the new 12 conditions in pursuance of the EU candidate status. European Commission’s February Report on Georgia is generally positive, but the Saakashvili lobby keeps working. Now, European officials insist on letting him go abroad for treatment, and the EU foreign policy service directly threatens Tbilisi with sanctions for the possible restoration of air links with Russia.
In other words, the carrot and stick policy in relation to Georgia continues. The Georgian authorities are thankful for carrots and endure the stick, but they do not agree to steps against Russia that could harm their country. Irakli Garibashvili summed up the year 2022 for the Republic at the Munich Security Conference on February 18. When the moderator asked him about the impact of the special military operation on Georgia, the politician said nothing about the growing trade turnover with Russia, nor did he mention a potential resumption of air links, much less did he say about Moscow’s gratitude for its independent policy. The Georgian Prime Minister, in fact, avoided answering the question, because it was simply inappropriate for him to say in Munich that the SMO benefited his country more than it did harm to Georgia; he only repeated many times that Tbilisi was in favor of the soonest possible cessation of hostilities. Still, he also noted that during and after the Five-Day War Georgia had never seen the kind of help the West is currently providing for Kiev.
This phrase left hanging in midair. Mr. Garibashvili was then asked about the health of Ukrainian citizen Saakashvili, and Prime Minister had to convince the Europeans that the artistic politician was all right and did not need to go abroad, but he did not refrain from reproaching the EU and the U.S. of their double standards.
For now, Georgia plans to bear up with a further protraction in its European integration, yet the dissatisfaction of the Georgian government about the unfair treatment by the West keeps mounting. After all, Georgia has been the most diligent and loyal participant of the Eastern Partnership program. One should not expect the Caucasian Republic to abandon its Euro-Atlantic course in the foreseeable future, but a further expansion of economic ties with Russia is predictable and rather inevitable.
Georgia’s focus shifting towards regional collaboration is equally predictable. In the new world, where global interaction is in decline, regional interaction is most important, since the neighboring states are always interested in constructive collaboration, even if their governments get involved in enmity at some turn of history. With the development of China’s Middle Corridor and the Turkish gas hub, which will include Azerbaijani and Turkmen gas in addition to the Russian gas, Georgia’s role as a transit state for cargo and energy supplies will be rising. This means that the impossibility of joining the EU will no longer matter for Tbilisi at some point, and a revision of Georgia’s foreign policy strategy will then be quite possible.
Russia, for its part, will welcome any sensible and robust steps taken by Georgia that clearly promote its national interests. Independence in foreign policy is what Moscow is calling for, saluting all nations prioritizing their interests.
From our partner RIAC
Education: Armenia’s Path to Stronger Economic Growth
Better education and a stronger innovation drive are crucial for achieving higher rates of economic growth and prosperity in any country. Countries that prioritize improvements in education – from the pre-primary to the university level – and innovation are better positioned to adapt to economic change and help raise the living standards for their people.
Education equips individuals with the knowledge and skills necessary to contribute to the economy, with the ability to learn – and unlearn – continuously. Innovation involves the creation of new products, processes, and services that expand the capacity of enterprises and economies. In fact, the most innovative countries tend to be the most successful economically.
Take the case of Estonia. In 1993, Estonia’s GDP per capita was a modest about $6,480. In comparison, Japan’s was $24,000. Fast forward 30 years. Estonia’s GDP per capita was equal to that of Japan in 2022, at nearly $43,000. Estonia now boasts the highest PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) scores in math, science and reading in Europe. A similar ‘miracle’ happened in Korea, a country that moved from developing country status to an advanced economy in just one generation. How can countries replicate Estonia’s or Korea’s success and achieve faster economic growth and standards of living that are like to those of high-income countries?
Through education and innovation.
Here in Armenia, education has been a priority since the country’s independence in 1991. The government has made efforts to increase the number of schools, provide free education for primary and secondary schools, and promote STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education. As a result, Armenia has a high literacy rate of over 99% and over 60% of adults have completed at least secondary education.
Yet, the education system is not producing the needed outcomes. Children born in Armenia today will be only 58% as productive during their lives as they could have been if they had received quality health and education services available. Armenian children are expected to complete 11.3 years of schooling. This decreases to 8 years if the quality of education is factored in. Pre-primary school and secondary school enrollment is low compared to peer countries in Europe and Central Asia (ECA). It is the quality of education that is the most pressing concern. Armenia’s TIMSS mathematics score – a standardized test for children in grade 4 – is one of the lowest in the region. The quality of tertiary education is below the ECA average: it is nearly 30% lower than Georgia, and half as low as the new EU member states. These outcomes are not surprising, given that public spending on education is just under 2.7% of GDP in Armenia, which is half that of the EU.
The World Bank is helping Armenia improve its education system, including through the Education Improvement Project, which is enhancing the conditions for learning across educational levels by extending preschool coverage, providing laboratory equipment, informing curriculum revisions, and improving the relevance and quality of higher education institutions. The many outcomes of the project include new preschools in rural communities, training of preschool teachers, and grants to higher education institutions through the Competitive Innovation Fund. Under the EU4Innovation Trust Fund, the World Bank is also helping improve the quality of STEM education. By September this year, Armenia will have a fully revised STEM curriculum for middle and high schools (grades 5 to 12), improved learning materials, school-based STEM laboratories and as well as enhanced student-centered instructional methodologies/teaching methods.
Education is essential but alone is not sufficient to drive economic growth. How knowledge is applied by firms, researchers and workers through innovation is critical. In Armenia, there is a disconnect between education, research, and the link to entrepreneurs and markets. For example, academic research in Armenia is dominated by the National Academy of Sciences which comprises more than 30 separate research institutes. None of these institutes are formally integrated with any teaching university in the country. There is also a proliferation of universities in Armenia, with 26 public (state) and 33 private universities; many of the latter, in name only. In Denmark, a country with almost twice the population, there are only eight state-recognized and funded universities offering research-based education.
Consolidating the universities in Armenia, merging them with the research institutes, and focusing government attention on accreditation could help address some of these challenges. It is also essential to reform the university admission process to incentivize talented high schoolers to apply. The government could also support the commercialization of research. In many advanced economies, universities are prodigious producers of knowledge and basic research output, and the private sector, the user of this research, is very vibrant. Without practical application, research may have little impact on the country’s growth potential.
Extensive work by the World Bank shows that human capital is at the core of efforts to strengthen innovation and technology adoption. In Armenia, as in many other countries, human capital is one of the main binding constraints to growth.
While the government has taken significant steps and has initiated important reforms to promote both education and innovation, more is needed to realize their potential. By making a greater investment in education and innovation, Armenia can build a knowledge-based economy that can help the country deliver a development miracle and elevate standards of living to those of high-income countries. The dialogue at the recent panel discussion on “Growth, Education, and Innovation” could help policymakers in their efforts to transform education and innovation in Armenia.
This op-ed was originally published in Banks.am via World Bank
The dilemma of China’s role as Mediator in the case of Ukraine
Since the full-scale Russo-Ukrainian war unfolding after 24 February 2022, China has maintained so-called neutral stance on the conflict, passively calling for a peaceful resolution. But on the anniversary of Russian invasion, Beijing popped up with concrete suggestions on how to end the war: China claimed its readiness to participate in peaceful adjustment.
Beijing’s peacemaking attitude and Xi Jinping’s legitimacy as Mediator were acknowledged by Putin during Xi’s visit to Moscow and the rumors about the following soon phone call between Xi and Zelensky spread, however, it is arguable whether Kyiv is truly ready to welcome China as the broker. The US, in turn, treated Beijing’s position skeptically.
This piece elaborates on how China became Global Mediator of the 21st century and why now Ukraine is reluctant to accept Beijing’s brokering.
For starters, China is a realist actor across the domain of international relations. Kissinger states that Chinese leaders are making profound foreign policy decisions only when they do not lack the means to achieve the goals [Kissinger, 2010], hereby Xi knew that Beijing’s possible mediation between Moscow and Kyiv during first months of the war would not be realizable. The sides were not sincerely ready for a truce, neither Russia, occupied territories and continued advancements in Donbas, nor preparing counteroffensive Ukraine, backed by vast Western support.
Moreover, from realism perspective, peace achievement lies in accepting and adapting to the irresistible existence of powers involved in security competition [Mearsheimer, 2001] and peacemaking is most likely when there is no hegemon [Morgenthau, 1946].
China adhered tenaciously to aforementioned realist position by declaring that “the security of the country should not be pursued at the expense of others”, obviously referring to NATO’s strengthening and Russian lament about bloc’s eastward expansion. But such Xi’s mediation ceasefire proposition in the heat of the war would be found senseless by Ukraine and the USA, which were publicly committed to peace restoration by beating Russia on the battlefield and reestablishing liberal world order led by predominant power – the U.S.
Beijing had to prepare before ascending as Mediator between Kyiv and Moscow.
Firstly, China gained legitimacy as a global security provider. Ukraine fights for its land, but Washington made a geostrategic mistake by being directly involved in a confrontation with Russia: by imposing enormous economic sanctions on Moscow, tolerating Nord Stream pipeline sabotage and trying to end the Russo-Ukrainian war only by military means, not diplomacy.
While China proposes negotiations, the U.S. is only committed to the war continuation.
As a result, the USA lost worldwide recognized status as the sole provider of economic prosperity and global security; the unipolar liberal world order ideology became an American tool for maintaining the U.S. leadership and Western dominance at any price, despite the economic losses of others.
Therefore, some states, especially from the Global South, did not support American efforts to isolate Russia, perceiving Washington’s strategy as destabilizing. Instead, they opted for cooperation with China as an alternative planetary center within the uprising multipolar world order model; Beijing met the demand by launching Global Security Initiative, posing itself as a stabilizing Mediator.
Secondly, Beijing successfully proved its new status. China became broker between Iran and Saudi Arabia, helping two longstanding Middle East rivals to achieve reconciliation as well as détente, giving them solid security guarantees. Tehran and Riyadh restored relations without Washington’s participation and pleasingly deepened economic interaction with China.
Thirdly, concerning the Russo-Ukrainian war, Xi Jinping can become Mediator and repeat the historical brokering successes of pacification Russia achieved by such famous statesmen like Otto Bismarck and Theodore Roosevelt.
German “iron” chancellor, apologist of realpolitik, frequently played role of mediator among leading European nations in the 19th century, balancing their interests within spheres of influence. Balkans became one of such great states’ competition arenas, where Austria and Russia struggled to gain control over newborn Bulgaria and influence in the region. The war between them was prevented because Bismarck sagaciously established “League of Three Emperors”, through which mediated disputes between two empires, therefore he was known as “honest broker”.
American president contributed to halting the war between Russia and Japan in 1905. His wise brokering helped states to sign the Treaty of Portsmouth. Serving as mediator for combatants, Roosevelt induced two countries to make concessions on the most intense issues regarding reparations and territorial disputes, thereby sides reached peace.
But while Putin acknowledges Xi as broker, Zelensky probably does not, due to Ukrainian survival dilemma – if Kyiv accepts China as a Mediator, it loses Western vital support.
Thus, there are three reasons why Ukraine is not enthusiastic about Beijing’s brokering, at least publicly.
First, Zelensky has his own, approved by the West, peace plan. He wants Xi to take part in Kyiv’s “peace formula.” It assumes restoration of Ukraine’s territorial integrity and Russian troops withdrawal from occupied territories. Chinese “peace position”, on the contrary, suggests the immediate ceasefire and peace talks launch: frozen conflict, not total Ukrainian victory. Moreover, it does not stipulate the matter of Ukraine’s territorial restoration.
Secondly, Ukraine is diplomatically, politically, militarily and economically dependent on the West, i.e. the USA. China, successfully mediating between Moscow and Kyiv, is the worst-case scenario for America, because intensifies Beijing’s global influence at the expanse of the U.S., which has different from Chinese stance on Russo-Ukraine war ending issue. The USA wants to preserve its worldwide leadership. Consequently, Washington will reduce its vital aid to Ukraine if China is chosen as broker. Kyiv needs to consider the stabilization puzzle, given the significantly suffered from the war economy.
Thirdly, Ukrainian ruling elite, opinion leaders and society are ideologically inclined as well as biased to accept West as only one party, which can help Ukraine to stop the war. NATO is seen as the sole security guarantees provider. Besides, there are many West-funded organizations and media outlets in Kyiv, influencing public narratives within Ukrainian society. So, even if Zelensky accepts mediation, economic support and post-war restoration plan from China, elites in Kyiv and Ukrainian society will oppose him, challenging his legitimacy. Zelensky risks repeating former president Yanukovych fate.
To sum up, it should be stated that China’s role as global security provider is inevitable, Beijing will continue to use its economic leverage to reconcile many conflicting rivals in the world. Thus, Beijing mediation option may be considered by Ukraine in the near future, but not today.
Erosion of Russia’s Hegemonic Stability in the South Caucasus and Transition to Risky Instability
In early nineteenth century, following the wars with Persian and Ottoman empires, Russia completed the invasion of the South Caucasus. The region that hosts present day Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia remained under the control of Moscow until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, though the three countries were independent for a brief period after the World War I. Suppressing the independence movements in these countries along with the other parts of Russian Empire and later the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, Moscow also acted as security provider in the region. In this role, Russia subdued conflicts between the subjects of the empire and also countered the intervention of external powers into “its” territories. This created a stability in the South Caucasus, as in other parts of the empire, dubbed by the theories of international relations as “hegemonic stability”.
In early 1990s, the Soviet Union collapsed and, subsequently, most of the newly independent states in the territories of the former empire ushered into inter- and intra-state conflicts. In the South Caucasus, Russia sought to manipulate and ultimately benefit from these flashpoints in order to preserve its influence over the region. Moscow’s support to Abkhaz separatists in Georgia and Armenia’s occupation of the Karabakh region of Azerbaijan in early 1990s helped the Kremlin recover its control over three countries of the South Caucasus. This translated into resurgence of Russia-dominated security order in the region in the post-soviet period but with more assertive independent states that sought to boost their sovereignty while minimizing Russia’s hegemony.
Armenia joined the Russia-led security and economic integration with a full membership at the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). Azerbaijan, on the other hand, managed to build neutral and multilateral foreign policy and succeeded to resist Russia’s pressure thanks to economic independence of the country. The only country of the region, Georgia, that sought to escape Russian orbit and join the Eura-Atlantic political and military structures faced insurmountable obstacles on this path and remained in-between. Russia’s occupation of two regions of Georgia (Abkhazia and South Ossetia) in 2008 has served for the Kremlin as the Sword of Damocles over Tbilisi’s foreign policy.
The post-Soviet hegemonic stability in the South Caucasus has been, therefore, more volatile compared to earlier periods. The occasional military escalations between Baku and Yerevan along with the war in Georgia (2008) manifested such sporadic disruptions of the regional security order. However, in both cases, Russia succeeded to act as hegemon by recovering ceasefire between Armenia and Azerbaijan and putting a de-fact veto on Georgia’s foreign policy.
Even during the full-scale military operations between Azerbaijan and Armenia in 2020, known as the Second Karabakh War, Russia appeared as the only mediator with enough authority to bring the sides to ceasefire. Deploying its troops to the Karabakh region of Azerbaijan under the name of peacekeepers, Russia managed to complete its mission of deploying its troops on the soil of each of the three countries of the region.
Hence, in the post-Soviet period, Moscow managed mostly to preserve the security order in the region under hegemony of Russia. The Kremlin, however, has had to swallow growing security ties between Azerbaijan and Turkiye, but reacted more calmly to these ties as Baku demonstrated deference to Russia’s core national interests and concerns in the region.
In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Moscow’s dominance established over the South Caucasus in early nineteenth century came under jeopardy for the third time after the post-WWI and early years of the post-Soviet periods. Facing an unexpected military debacle in Ukraine and massive economic troubles at home, Russia encounters challenges against its dominance in the South Caucasus, the region that has overarching geopolitical significance for Moscow.
This time the challenge to Russian power originates in Armenia and Azerbaijan, as Georgia avoids provoking Moscow and seemingly drifts away from its pro-Western aspirations. On the one hand, Azerbaijan criticizes Russia’s support to the separatist regime in the Karabakh region, tries to end the mission of the peacekeeping contingent, deepens its strategic alliance with Turkiye, increases its contributions to the energy security of Europe, and relies more on the EU’s mediation in the peace process with Armenia. On the other hand, Armenia defies Russia’s authority by distancing itself from Russia’s military bloc, builds closer relations with the European countries and the United States and invited a mission of the EU to monitor the security situation along Armenia’s border with Azerbaijan. The Kremlin reacted rather furiously to these developments and blamed the West on attempts to squeeze Russia out of the South Caucasus.
To the disappointment of Moscow, this signifies a decline in Russia’s dominance over the region, although it is now premature to say how this process will go on and whether this will end up with Russia’s withdrawal from the South Caucasus. The decline of Russian influence over the region creates a period which can be seen through the lens of the power-transition theory of international relations. According to this conceptual framework, the decline of the dominant power might lead to a conflict or war with the rising power as the latter becomes more assertive seeking to challenge the dominance of the declining power. This can be observed also as the emergence of a power vacuum in the respective region which other powerful state(s) might try to fill in which again leads to a conflict or war between the dominant power and rising power(s).
The present situation in the South Caucasus, thus, resembles the period described by the power transition theory. Other external powers, including Iran, Turkiye, the EU and United States try to benefit from Russia’s diminishing influence over the region and increases their power. Particularly, for Iran, the “encroachment” of the external players into the South Caucasus is inadmissible. The Russia-Ukraine war complicated the regional geopolitics for Iran as the European Union (EU) and United States have increased their influence in the South Caucasus by boosting their mediating role in the Armenia-Azerbaijan peace process, effectively sidelining Russia therein and deploying a monitoring mission to the Armenia-Azerbaijan border in the aftermath of Prague summit (October 6). Against this background, increasingly closer relations between Israel and Azerbaijan and the emerging possibility of the formation of Israel-Turkiye-Azerbaijan trilateral cooperation platform further enrage the Iranian authorities.
Tehran is determined to use military and other instruments to fill in the power vacuum emerges in the region in the wake of Russia’s decline. In this endeavor Iran effectively enjoys the support of Armenia whose leaders try to use the Iranian card against their common enemies of Azerbaijan and Turkiye. The recently growing ties between Armenia and Iran have provided Tehran a useful chance to get into the South Caucasus more assertively and form a de-facto alliance against the two Turkic states. Towards this end, Yerevan and Tehran are clearly building up their cooperation in various spheres, including military and economy. Apart from aiming to boost bilateral trade turnover from $700 million to $3 billion, Iran is also discussing supplying combat drones to Armenia.
That said, the hegemony Russia acquired over the South Caucasus in early nineteenth century is fading and with it the security order it built in the region is rapidly eroding. This process might be accompanied by violent conflicts and wars amongst different regional and external actors. For now, the major security threat to the regional stability is Iran and the alliance it builds with Armenia.
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