As the Russian invasion of Ukraine reverberates across the world, one region particularly susceptible to unfolding geopolitical changes is the South Caucasus. Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia are trying to maneuver trying to balance between potential Russian reprisals and the need, near necessity, to stand together with Ukraine.
Georgia is on a knife-edge. It has sent mixed signals over the past two weeks. Tbilisi applied for EU membership but has also largely abstained from publicly criticizing Russia. Ordinary people, however, have been expressing support. With large gatherings in central Tbilisi, constant flow of humanitarian aid is flowing to Kyiv. It seems that Tbilisi tries to maintain a certain balance while it is still unclear how the war in Ukraine ends. Russia winning augurs trouble for Tbilisi. As the second country mentioned in Russia’s security demands addressed to NATO and the US, Georgia feels insecure and rightfully considers that a victorious Russia will have greater space to pressure Tbilisi into obedience regarding the latter’s NATO aspirations.
Russia’s retreat, on the contrary, will be a major boon for Georgia's EU/NATO membership bids. Understanding the Georgian government's logic, Russia has sent some positive signals to Tbilisi as the latter did not join the sanctions regime against Moscow.
But the balancing game is turning increasingly untenable. Pressure from inside grows as do calls from international partners. Hopes that Russia might be changing its position on the occupied territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia is premature at best. Yet one positive development for Georgia though is that two separatist territories are unlikely to see expanding international recognition. Moscow's recognition of Donbas entities showed that the Kremlin purposefully fostered separatist regimes for geopolitical goals and that there is no ground for inter-ethnic problems Moscow has been arguing about. The end result is that Russia created too many entities for its foreign policy to gain credibility and expect wider recognition.
With Azerbaijan Russia will continue its highly successful transactional approach. The recent agreement on allied cooperation with Baku stressed this tactic. Moreover, it also means that Moscow has successfully laid ground for its likely presence in Azerbaijan post-2025. Baku has avoided openly criticizing Russia as it also fears potential Russian reprisals. In a way, Azerbaijan, sandwiched in between Russia and Iran, has little maneuvering room. Alliance with Turkey would not be saving the country from potential threats.
Armenia is perhaps least shaken by the war in Ukraine. The trauma of 2020 and how the West was largely absent from the conflict and the post-war period made many angry to the way the West has been responding to the Russian invasion. Armenia simply has little space to maneuver and its decision to support Russia in various votes in international settings since the war began underlines the growing limits Yerevan faces in the last years especially following 2020 war.
The three countries nevertheless fear that if Russia wins it would be able to further close off the South Caucasus from the West, whose influence has already been declining in the region for some time. The Second Nagorno-Karabakh war and the subsequent 3+3 initiative covering all regional players highlights changing balance of power in the region. What Russia aspires is a greater acquiescence. Iran and to a certain extent Turkey will be critical in shaping the new order where hierarchy will be a dominating feature.
The South Caucasus states are also watching for any signs of potential shifts in Russia’s position over Ukraine. An outright Russian defeat is hardly possible at this stage, but withdrawal is quite possible. This could lead to unraveling of some of the aspects of Russia’s foreign policy in the South Caucasus. First, Georgia might be successful in its EU membership bid, while Azerbaijan could be pushing for the end of Russia peacekeeping mission in 2025. Shattered Russian military prestige would foretell issues for Moscow’s positioning vis-à-vis other regional powers.
Another potential result from Russia’s weakened position could be Armenia increasing its ability for foreign policy maneuvering. Through better ties with Ankara, Yerevan could be realistically aiming at gaining greater autonomy in the economic realm. Improved connectivity and greater trade ties with the neighboring countries will allow Armenia to diversify at least some elements in its foreign policy.
Hard power is the only tool Moscow has been able to use to maintain its clout in the region. This is well reflected in the growing number of military bases Russia has built in the South Caucasus over the past two decades. Therefore, a potential retreat in Ukraine will have a major impact on Moscow's position among the South Caucasus states and the separatist entities.
Regional powers such as Iran will be also less intent on coordinating its moves with Moscow as willingly as they have tried to do so far. Another actor, Turkey, could become more assertive as it sees a less confident Russia. Moreover, there could be a return of the West in the South Caucasus especially as since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the trans-Atlantic community has shown greater efficiency and willingness to work in unison.