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A self-destructing empire: Stefan Meister on how the Kremlin lost its role as security guarantor in the South Caucasus

On November 6, Edvard Asryan, the Chief of the Armenian General Staff, held talks with Steven Basham, the deputy commander of the US European Command. The parties agreed on military cooperation; at the same time, Armenia refused to participate in the meeting of the CIS Security Council secretaries. Russia’s non-interference in the war in Nagorno-Karabakh demonstrated that the Russian Federation is losing influence in the region, where it used to act as a guarantor of stability. The vacuum is filled by other powers, and while Turkey has already declared its ambitions, the West still lacks initiative, Stefan Meister, the head of the Eastern Europe and Central Asia programs at the German Council on Foreign Relations, believes.

Russia can no longer play both sides

After the Second Nagorno Karabakh war in autumn 2020 was won by Azerbaijan, Russian president Putin was still able to stop the complete takeover of the disputed region by Azerbaijan and to broker a ceasefire agreement between Baku and Yerevan. Moscow’s deployment of “peace forces” in Nagorno Karabakh, created the framework for guarantees for the Armenians living there. Like in the past decades, Russia was still the guarantor of the status quo and additionally it finally managed to have troops in all three South Caucasus countries to underline its regional hegemony.

But already this war, which has shown the military superiority of Azerbaijan over Armenia and the more active and open engagement of Turkey on the side of Baku, where signs of changes in the power balance in the region. With the quick military takeover of Nagorno Karabakh by Azerbaijan after the September, 19th attack this year the 2020 ceasefire agreement is history and Russia’s role as the guarantor of security for Karabakh Armenians and the Armenian state has lost any credibility.

Russia’s policy of keeping the conflict going on and playing both sides has come to an end. Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov even said in July 2023, that Karabakh Armenians have to accept Azerbaijan’s rule, which was rather an acceptance of the new reality than the expression of Moscow’s interests.

Russia’s policy of keeping the conflict going on and playing both sides has come to an end

The regional security order which was guaranteed by Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union does not function anymore and Azerbaijan is now not only controlling Nagorno Karabakh and forced the exodus of Armenians from the region, but it questions also the territorial integrity of the Armenian state. The Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization which was set up as an alternative to NATO for the post-Soviet country was not able to play any role for the security of Armenian’s in Nagorno Karabakh or the Armenian state.

With the support of NATO member Turkey Baku has systematically prepared this military take over and it has developed at the same time good relations with the EU as a relevant supplier of oil and gas as well as the US and Israel as a partner in weakening the role of Iran in the region. It even supports Ukraine with humanitarian aid. Especially Israel has become an important supplier of modern weapons including drones to Azerbaijan. While Azerbaijan is exporting first of all oil to Israel both countries have developed a close technology and intelligence cooperation with the aim to weaken Iran. Besides, Azerbaijan supports Ukraine by sending humanitarian aid there.

Changing geopolitics in the South Caucasus

Beside Armenia Iran is the second loser of the power shift in the South Caucasus since its partner Armenia has been weakened and its adversary Azerbaijan and Turkey are becoming the dominant security actors in the region. For Iran keeping the status quo in the South Caucasus guaranteed by Russia was always the preferred goal. Now Russia is weakened and cannot play this role anymore. Even worse, if Azerbaijan is taking in a next step by force or with military pressure the control over a corridor to its exclave Nakhichevan via the Southern Armenian Syunik region Iran will lose influence over its northern border with Armenia.

Beside Armenia Iran is the second loser of the power shift in the South Caucasus

The latest agreement between Iran and Azerbaijan to build a road link to Nakhichevan via Iranian territory should not been understand has an alternative to the “corridor” via Armenian territory but rather Baku wants to buy into better relations with Teheran. It has to been seen, if there can be a deal between both countries.

For Russia the war against Ukraine since 2022 has changed the interests in the South Caucasus. With the Western sanctions it needs alternative transit routes like the North-South Corridor via Azerbaijan to Iran and then further to the Indian Ocean. Furthermore, Turkey has become more important in terms of trade and circumventing sanctions for Russia. As a result, the bargaining position of Azerbaijan and Turkey towards Moscow has improved. We can expect, that the recent attack on Nagorno Karabakh was not only coordinated with Ankara but also agreed with Moscow. At the same time, Moscow has an interest in more trade routes to Turkey, that means it will support a “corridor” via the territory of Armenia.

The recent attack on Nagorno Karabakh was not only coordinated with Ankara but may also have been agreed with Moscow

Even if the Russian image in Armenia is at a very low level, Moscow stays the most important trading partner and supplier of gas for the Caucasus country. Russian companies own strategic infrastructure in the railway and electricity sector. It still has a military base in the second biggest Armenian city of Gyumri. Russia will have to withdraw its troops from Nagorno Karabakh soon, but it might increase its role in the corridor in the South of Armenia.

Russia’s changing role and interests

So far Russia has not completely left the region and remains a significant player in terms of economic relations and informal ties in the Caucasus. Moscow has increased its influence on Georgia in the last year with abolishing sanctions, ending visa regime for Georgians and reestablishing direct flights between both countries. The current government lead by Georgian Dream party even tried to introduce a foreign agent law copied from Russia. The adoption of this law was prevented by Georgian civil society but in a salami tactic, Georgian Dream now implements a media and LGBT law again inspired by Moscow.

Furthermore, Moscow will establish a naval base in Ochamchiara in Abkhazia, since its Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol is not safe anymore especially after an attack of its headquarter by Ukraine military forces.

Moscow also says it has been discussing with Tbilisi the revitalization of the railway connection through Abkhazia. And in the bidding for building the deep see port of Anaklia in the Georgian Black Sea, beside a Chinese consortium a company from Luxemburg and Switzerland with a Russian background is short listed. All these infrastructure projects might not be implemented, by they will prevent any serious alternative investment from Europe or the US in Georgian infrastructure. That means Russia’s role in the economy of Georgia will grow and if Georgian Dream will win the parliamentary election in 2024 the rapprochement with Russia will even more deepen. Also here, in preparing to win the election, the Kremlin is a norm setter for Georgian Dream.

Finally, Iran has become a close ally for Moscow in the war against Ukraine, supplying drones and helping Russian leadership to circumvent sanctions. Both are competitors in the South Caucasus but they will also have an interest to coordinate their activities in the region.

Liberal peace versus authoritarian conflict resolution

The EU tried to increase its footprint in the region after the second Karabakh war and with Russia’s invasion into Ukraine. After the multilateral OSCE-Minsk group on Nagorno Karabakh was sidelined with its ceasefire agreement and failed to have any credibility in the conflict anymore, the EU tried to fill this gap. For the first time it was willing to play a role in the negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan through a facilitation platform initiated by the President of the European Council Charles Michel.

The EU deployed a civil monitoring mission in Armenia on the border with Azerbaijan to prevent further attacks on Armenian territory. The EU was willing to promote its concept of peaceful conflict solution in the region supported by the US government. But with the military takeover of Nagorno Karabakh by Azerbaijan EU and US diplomacy failed. The weak reaction to this Azerbaijani aggression and the recent exodus of Karabakh Armenians from the region demonstrated again the lack of interest, unity and ability to act by the EU member states in a crisis in its neighborhood. It was not the EU which became the norm setter with liberal peace but Russia and Turkey as the models for authoritarian conflict solution by force.

It was not the EU which became the norm setter with liberal peace but Russia and Turkey

The new regional security order in the South Caucasus is in the making. It has become more transactional, less institutionalize and will be dominated by the power of force and military strength. Turkey will become a more dominant player in the region in supporting its ally Azerbaijan. Neither the US nor the EU have the will to play a decisive role in the regional security order. Without giving security guarantees, playing a role in regional peacekeeping and building up leverage on countries like Azerbaijan and Turkey, the EU will stay an observer of the regional power fight.

These are not so bad news for Moscow, which shares the interest with Turkey, Iran and Azerbaijan to keep the West out from the region. Moscow is a transactional player which will have less military resources for the regional power play. The outcome of the war in Ukraine will therefore also impact on the regional order in the South Caucasus. But Russia still has economic power, informal ties and leverage to influence regional developments. Turkeys dependency on Russian gas and Moscow’s economic role for Georgia and Armenia are examples for this bargaining power. It will stay one key player in the regional power game and will be a key norm setter for authoritarian rule.

The outcome of the war in Ukraine will therefore also impact on the regional order in the South Caucasus

For the societies of the South Caucasian countries these are bad news. The military takeover of Nagorno Karabakh is not the end of the conflict but it is the next stage in the escalation between both countries. It will create more hate and humiliation; Azerbaijan might be able to undermine the territorial integrity of the Armenia state with the support of Turkey and the agreement of Russia. Armenian Premier Minister Pashinyan’s attempts to leave Russia’s sphere of influence cannot be successful as long as there are no alternative offer for security guarantees by the EU, NATO or international multilateral institutions. And Azerbaijan is able to divide the EU member states by offering gas and its role as a transit country.

Georgia’s democratic backsliding in a time, when the EU offers the country a membership perspective, is quite symbolic. The change of governance into an autocratic state with a ruling party, against it is impossible to win elections demonstrates the limits of Georgian civil society and the soft power of the EU.

So, Russia will stay an authoritarian norm setter in the South Caucasus. But it has to compete increasingly with other authoritarian countries like Turkey, Iran and Azerbaijan which are able to act as ruthless and transactional as Moscow.

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