The South Caucasus’ regional order has undergone a profound and dynamic transformation in recent years. These monumental shifts have come as a result of, inter alia, the war in Karabakh, internal changes in Georgia, and, above all, Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The ongoing Russo-Ukrainian war, in particular, has given fundamental importance to those unfolding transformations, which, in turn, have raised critical questions about the continued sustainability of three decades of Western political and economic investment in the region, the stability of the Black Sea region, the future of the other Caucasus-linked neighboring post-Soviet areas (especially Russia and Central Asia), and the nature of Turkey’s developing regional policies and their implications for the Middle East. But one thing is certain: There will be no return to the status quo ante bellum.
Washington is aware of this. The Biden administration, with support from Congress, is actively engaged in a normalization process to avert the threat of a new war between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Negotiations under the auspices of Secretary of State Antony Blinken have been going on for months, with the latest two rounds held in May and late June. Parallel mediations are being conducted by the European Union — but additionally by Russia.
The situation is also tense in Georgia, traditionally a gateway to the East and, for decades, a leader in integration with the West. In recent years, however, the Georgian government has consistently drifted back toward Russia. In the past couple of months alone, Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili has accused the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) of responsibility for the outbreak of war in Ukraine and resumed direct air links with Russia. In March, the authorities attempted to introduce Russian-inspired oppressive laws targeting civil society, though these were successfully blocked thanks to mass public protests and Western pressure. Georgian society — and the incumbent president — has consistently advocated for Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic integration, yet such feelings may flag if the West’s support ebbs, its focus shifts, or the Georgian people begin to lose hope in ever being welcomed as full members of the Western world. The fading hopes for integration with the West and the political passivity of the majority of the population are efficiently exploited by the Georgian government and serve Russian interests.
The challenges are profound. The South Caucasus region needs a clear push from the West to ensure its long-term stability and achieve a pro-Western orientation. But no lasting solutions in this space will be possible until there is an end to the war in Ukraine that fulfills the interests of both Ukraine itself and the broader West. For now, the South Caucasus remains essential for the West, but it is not a priority. This makes it all the more important for the United States and the European Union, in cooperation with other key players — foremost Turkey — to showcase greater determination, flexibility, and coordination when it comes to their policies toward the region.
Erosion of regional order
In the South Caucasus, the old order was upended in a major way in late 2020, with the Second Karabakh War. Azerbaijan, supported indirectly by Turkey, overcame the Armenian forces in Karabakh and regained most of the disputed territory. Russia was the guarantor of the ceasefire, under the terms of which its military forces are set to remain in Karabakh until 2025. In practice, the conflict ended a precarious equilibrium lasting since 1994 (the end of the First Karabakh War). Azerbaijan and its supporter Turkey came out of the 2020 war significantly strengthened; Armenia suffered a strategic defeat; and Russia’s authority was seriously undermined, as it had to accept Baku’s (and Ankara’s) growing ambitions and power. The current ceasefire does not satisfy Baku, which demands, among other things, an extraterritorial corridor through southern Armenia and questions the current state border with Armenia, signaling a readiness to impose a military solution to the dispute. Of course, the existing status quo does not satisfy Yerevan, whose security, territorial integrity, and de facto sovereignty are at stake. None of the external players — neither Russia, Turkey, individual Western states, nor the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) Minsk Group, which is a formal mediator — were strong enough to push through and guarantee any political solution to the conflict.
Problems have also been growing in Georgia for several years. The country has continued to declare its desire to integrate with the EU and NATO for two decades, and public support for joining both organizations has stayed exceptionally high throughout this time, currently estimated at 81% and 73%, respectively — never dropping below 61%. The actual prospect of membership in the EU and NATO, however, remains distant, causing growing frustration. At the same time, fear of Moscow on the one hand and the possibility of economic cooperation with Russia on the other, all the while playing up anti-liberal and anti-Western resentments (often actively stoked by Moscow), has allowed the ruling camp in Tbilisi to consolidate its political base. During the reign of Georgian Dream, which has been in power for 13 years, the party’s (or its informal leader, Bidzina Ivanishvili’s) control of the state apparatus, as well as financial and media dominance, have marginalized and helped divide the opposition, while contributing to the passivity of a large portion of society. The government’s pressure on the opposition has received repeated pushback from Brussels and Washington, which have called on Tbilisi to protect democratic standards. But that policy has had limited results other than to exacerbate the already growing distrust between Georgia and the West and between the Georgian authorities and the pro-Western part of society.
Point of no return
These fundamental tensions across the South Caucasus further crystallized and intensified because of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine in February 2022 and the ongoing war there, which finally sealed the end of the post-Soviet order. Namely, Moscow’s own actions have undermined the informal rules by which Russia had dominated the newly independent countries of its former empire since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. First, the attack on Ukraine spotlighted Russia’s aggressive expansionist policy; but second, it revealed the apparent weakness and brittleness of the Russian Armed Forces and state structures — Yevgeny Prigozhin’s failed coup of June 22-23 only underscored the dynamics of the crisis inside Russia. Today, all regional players realize that a return to the status quo ante bellum in the Caucasus is out of the question.
When it comes to Armenia and Azerbaijan, achieving a workable peace between the two should be simple. Azerbaijan’s hard power advantages over its rival are obvious, as is the international law foundation for its position. In turn, Armenia already de facto withdrew from Karabakh, recognized Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity, and is interested in opening shared borders and routes with its neighbors (Azerbaijan and Turkey). In principle, everyone wants peace. The fundamental problem is that a sustainable peace agreement requires guarantees and must be part of a larger stable arrangement.
The weakness of the West is the inability to provide such guarantees — the EU observation mission in Armenia (EUMA), operating de facto from October 2022 and formally from January 2023, is not enough; and it is hard to imagine a larger presence today, particularly since Russia and Turkey are reluctant to allow a significantly increased Western footprint in the region. Moscow and Ankara could hypothetically seek an agreement and push for a solution that would sanction their “condominium” in the South Caucasus, but the situation is too dynamic for that, and the risk of counteraction from the West (against Turkey) and Iran, which does not want to be pushed out of the region, is too high. Yet while the prospect of peace remains unclear, the war option remains open — i.e., the armed seizure by Azerbaijan of the so-called the Zangezur Corridor connecting it with its Nakhchivan exclave and Turkey. If successful, would Armenia retain its territorial integrity and sovereignty? Would a democratic government in Yerevan survive such a challenge? How would the West respond to Baku’s military actions? There is uncertainty in every answer.
Georgia’s problem is that the Russo-Ukrainian war has radicalized its own internal political dispute, elevating it to an identity and geopolitical conflict. To drum up support for itself, the government refers to Georgians’ fear of Russian aggression, disbelief in the effective help of the West, and the financial gains that the war brings (Georgia did not join the sanctions and still favors the influx of capital, business, and people fleeing Russia). At the same time, it appeals to the emotions of the conservative, provincial, and politically passive parts of society. It overtly associates the pro-Western and pro-Ukrainian opposition with the threat of war and the West’s meddling in Georgia’s internal affairs or purported efforts to drag Georgia into the conflict. The government is also aware that Ukraine’s success would significantly strengthen the opposition. All this, the Georgian government seems to believe, justifies its actions aimed at, for example, strengthening state control over the media and civil society. With political polarization growing, public discontent is increasingly likely to break out in mass protests (as was the case last March). On July 11-12, Vilnius will host the next NATO summit, which could once again spotlight the limits of Georgia’s membership prospects in the Alliance, thus potentially triggering public anger among Georgians; and later this year, if the political situation in Tbilisi does not improve, a similarly negative decision might be made in Brussels regarding Georgia’s candidate status with the EU. The risks of a freezing of Georgia’s ties with the West, a strategic rapprochement with Russia, and/or the South Caucasus country’s internal destabilization (whether by Russia or from within) are all high.
Can the West "return” to the South Caucasus?
Effective control of these regional processes is a significant challenge for all parties involved. And if the West wishes to rebuild its influence there, it will require a serious rethink in Washington and European capitals. Yet a new Western strategy toward the South Caucasus should include at least three key elements. The war across the Black Sea continues to shape the conditions throughout the South Caucasus, so any success by Moscow (including freezing the conflict in Ukraine) would make the situation even more problematic as it would be difficult to block or counter Russia from refocusing its soft and hard power back on the countries on the other side of the Caucasus Mountain range. Therefore, the first issue for the West is to hold the line on supporting Ukraine.
The second component of updating the West’s strategy should be an even deeper synchronization of U.S., EU, and member states’ policies toward the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict and Georgia. In the case of Georgia, this primarily concerns efforts to counter Russian soft power and propaganda, encourage dialogue between the government and opposition, and figure out ways to undermine or sever Georgian-Russian links. The pressure should be accompanied by granting Georgia EU candidate status — conditional on improvements to the internal political situation — and avoiding radical gestures that attack socially conservative aspects of Georgian cultural and religious identity. In the case of the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict, it seems crucial to emphasize to both sides the absolute priority of a diplomatic solution based on a respect for both states’ territorial integrity and sovereignty. For Azerbaijan as well as Armenia, political and economic cooperation with the West is critical in light of regional instability and powerful or expansionist neighbors.
The third essential element for the success of Western policy in the South Caucasus is the need to broaden the partner base. Neither the U.S. nor the EU and NATO are ready today to unilaterally impose and guarantee their solutions for the region. This is impossible not only due to the partially legitimate concerns of the regional states but also the opposition coming from Russia and Turkey. In this context, it seems reasonable for the West to return to a dialogue with Turkey on South Caucasus issues — indeed, such a cooperative partnership was an essential element of the successes of Western policy toward the region in the early years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Today, a renewed dialogue with Turkey would be an opportunity to avoid earlier misunderstandings such as over Syria, loosen Turkish-Russian ties, and finally help pull both sides out of their lengthy strategic impasse in relations.
Krzysztof Strachota is the head of the Turkey, Caucasus, and Central Asia Department at the Centre for Eastern Studies, in Warsaw, Poland.
Photo by Celal Güneş/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
The Middle East Institute (MEI) is an independent, non-partisan, non-for-profit, educational organization. It does not engage in advocacy and its scholars’ opinions are their own. MEI welcomes financial donations, but retains sole editorial control over its work and its publications reflect only the authors’ views. For a listing of MEI donors, please click here.