October 17, 2022

Russia’s War in Ukraine and Reconfiguration in the South Caucasus

AFP / Scanpix
AFP / Scanpix
An Armoured Personnel carrier (APC) of Russian peacekeeping forces is stationed above the demarcation line near the village of Charektar on November 25, 2020, as Azerbaijan said its forces had entered the Kalbajar district, the second of three to be handed back by Armenia as part of a deal that ended weeks of fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh.
An Armoured Personnel carrier (APC) of Russian peacekeeping forces is stationed above the demarcation line near the village of Charektar on November 25, 2020, as Azerbaijan said its forces had entered the Kalbajar district, the second of three to be handed back by Armenia as part of a deal that ended weeks of fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh.

At the beginning of September 2022, Azerbaijan launched a massive artillery bombardment of neighbouring Armenia, using military force outside the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh for the first time in decades. The timing was not a coincidence: Russian forces were too heavily engaged in Ukraine to intervene elsewhere. This demonstration of the CSTO’s impotence as a collective defence organisation and Moscow’s inability to provide military aid to strategic partners will likely have lasting impact on the security dynamics of the South Caucasus.

Azerbaijan’s interest is primarily a local one—the Zangezur corridor connecting Azerbaijan, through Armenian territory, with its landlocked exclave the Nakhichevan Autonomous Republic. But the broader relevance of the South Caucasus is as a critical land bridge linking the Black and Caspian Seas, and the European world and Asia. As such, it is an area of geopolitical competition. Russia’s August 2008 invasion of the sovereign nation of Georgia was an attempt to re-establish regional hegemony. Moscow’s military presence in the region has defrosted numerous local conflicts, most recently giving rise to the second Karabakh war in the Autumn of 2020. The militarisation of the region, including by the presence of Russian troops (2 000 in the Nagorno-Karabakh, 3 500 in Gyumri and Erebuni, and 7 000 in Abkhazia and Tskhinvali Region [so called South Ossetia]) increased local defence spending (according to SIPRI, Armenia spent a total of 7.8 billion USD [an average of 3.7% of GDP] and Azerbaijan 35.1 billion USD [3.5% of GDP] between 1997 and 2021) has heightened regional instability. But the fallout from Russia’s war in Ukraine has offered new opportunities to reverse this trend.

Azerbaijan: Extracting a price for hydrocarbons

Oil-rich Azerbaijan boosted its GDP almost 14 times between 1997 and 2022. During the same period, it imported 4.1 billion USD worth of major weapon systems, mostly from Russia (52.1% of procurements), Israel (21.7%), Ukraine (9.9%), Belarus (8.1%), and Turkey (2.5%). These acquisitions included air defence platforms, surveillance and attack UAVs, anti-tank guided missile systems, long-range high-precision artillery pieces, and air-launched cruise missiles. It also modernised Soviet-era land and air platforms. Even so, Moscow’s intervention in the second Karabakh war and subsequent deployment of troops in the strategically important Lachin corridor prevented Baku from fully achieving its military objectives, even if it was left in a considerably better position than Armenia.

Azerbaijan’s President Aliyev has since been quick to take advantage of Russia’s total commitment to its war in Ukraine and the West’s willingness to decrease its dependence on Russian natural gas. The unexplained leaks in the Nord Stream 2 pipeline in the Baltic Sea further strengthen Azerbaijan as an alternative supplier of local and Central Asian hydrocarbons. Indeed, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s recently visited Baku to highlight the potential for Azerbaijan to become a reliable and prominent energy partner for the EU.

Aliyev may also expect some political benefit from this relationship. Speaking at Prague Castle during the first-ever meeting of the European Political Community, he stated that Armenians living in the Karabakh region are Azerbaijan’s citizens with the same rights as Azerbaijanis, while maintaining that he would not discuss how to solve the nation’s internal problems with any international institution as these are purely domestic affairs. Nevertheless, an agreement was reached at the meeting in Prague between the Armenian PM, Azerbaijani President, French President, and EU Council President. The EU will now deploy a civilian observer mission to the Armenia-Azerbaijan border, stationed on the Armenian side. This increased international presence will contribute to peacebuilding and regional stability, to the benefit of every state in the South Caucasus.

Armenia: abandoned by a distracted Moscow

Armenia has been Moscow’s only stronghold in the South Caucasus. According to the IISS, Russian bases at Gyumri and Erebuni house 3 500 troops, equipped with jet fighters, tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, artillery pieces, attack and transport helicopters, and air defence systems. Besides strategic partnerships (both countries are members of the CIS, the CSTO, and the Eurasian Economic Union), Moscow is a major arms provider to Armenia supplying, according to SIPRI, more than 80% of the 648 million USD worth of weapon systems procured by Erevan during 1997-2022. Erevan is critically dependent on Russia, yet Russia refused to help its CSTO ally when Azerbaijanian shelled Armenian territory in September. The Russian foreign ministry instead called for a ceasefire and a diplomatic solution. The Kremlin’s inability to implement its coercive foreign policy in the region because of its distraction in Ukraine could be the starting of a gradual erosion of its leverage in the South Caucasus.

It is not plausible that Armenia could regain any time soon the control it lost in the second war in Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenian Prime Minister Pashinyan has announced his readiness to return disputed territory to Azerbaijan with several conditions, such as protecting Armenians who still live there and preserving their autonomy. The harsh reality is that in the circumstances this would be the best outcome for Armenia. Pashinyan, who came to power as the head of a popular democratic movement does not enjoy the same level of trust from Russia as his predecessors and is the first head of government not born in Karabakh. Returning territory would allow Erevan to avoid further disruptions, keep Armenians in Karabakh safe, and finally move away from Russia’s sphere of influence towards a European integration process.

Georgia: collateral damage and opportunity

As the only state in the region with a clear pro-Western foreign policy, Georgia’s strategic interests are to shape the region’s attractiveness for the West, counter Russia’s influence, and push Armenia and (less likely) Azerbaijan towards European integration. These interests have been threatened by the second Karabakh war, which has resulted in a triumphant authoritarian regime in Baku and the defeat of the only other state in the region with a (albeit much less developed) democratic character. Three out of four of Georgia’s land neighbours are authoritarian regimes, while two of Georgia’s own regions are still occupied by Russia. The only peaceful solution for the whole region is for Georgia to join the EU and NATO, allowing it to integrate Abkhazians and Ossetians without violence or war.

Azerbaijan is more critical to Georgia’s national security than Armenia. The two countries’ partnership began in the mid-2000s with the construction of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline between the Caspian Sea and the Mediterranean. Azerbaijan has also been the largest natural gas supplier to Georgia since 2007, when Moscow cut deliveries. But Armenia’s atrophied relationship with the Kremlin provides an avenue to search for consensus with Azerbaijan and enhance cooperation with Tbilisi, whose experience in European integration mechanisms could be a helpful bridge to the West. In another indication of Russia’s waning influence, President Aliyev has shied away from Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov’s initiative of a 3+3 multilateral platform with Turkey, Iran, Russia, and all three South Caucasian states, offering instead to establish a trilateral discussion platform—Azerbaijan-Georgia-Armenia—to promote peace and stability in the region.

Russia’s unprovoked war in Ukraine has had multiple impacts across the globe. In the South Caucasus, there is a glimmer of hope that the region might be freed from Moscow’s pernicious influence.

Views expressed in ICDS publications are those of the author(s).