The Peculiarities and Prospects of NATO-South Caucasus Cooperation Evolvements


The USSR dissolution onwards, the “frozen conflicts” do not cease being a major challenge for South Caucasus and a main obstacle on the path of the establishment of regional stability. The three republics of South Caucasus face the problem of ensuring state security as much as right after the independence they became involved in armed conflicts, and to leave the situation, a quest for a format relevant to security became an urgency. Within the current analysis we will review the role of NATO as a military and political organization in the issue of ensuring security in South Caucasus, and the possibility degree of the afore spoken. However, let us first and foremost touch upon the NATO “enlargement” policy origins. The signing of Washington Treaty on April 4, 1949, laid the foundations for the formation of the North Atlantic Treaty, which became the milestone to the Euro-Atlantic security during the Cold War over the years. Although the treaty did not allude to any particular adversary, it evidently targeted the Soviet Union’s growing military power and the communist ideology threat. Presently, uniting 28 countries, the North Atlantic Treaty is guided by the principles to meet safety requirements and provide collective security. In 1991, after the USSR collapse, the NATO faced the problem of its role and revaluation. The administration of president Bill Clinton supported NATO’s further expansion to the East and the reinforcement of democratic achievements within former Soviet bloc. On the other hand, some of the USA officials were willing to discontinue Pentagon’s obligations after the elimination of Soviet threat to Europe. European NATO member countries as well had different viewpoints on this issue. Great Britain opined that the further expansion of the organization would split the alliance, but France believed that it would increase the organization’s influence and was willing to integrate the post-Soviet republics into European institutions. Nevertheless, NATO’s expansion was of a greater importance to the White House. In January, 1994, amid his first visit to Europe, President Bill Clinton announced: “It is no longer a question of whether NATO will enlarge, but how and when. And days before the leaders of the Alliance had approved the launch of “Partnership for Peace” program, which was aimed at strengthening relations not only with the states in Central and Eastern Europe, but also with former Soviet Union states.

Accordingly, NATO chose the “change for existence” option implementing functional modifications, acquiring new aspects of security. And such modification required integration of new territories as well. Russia viewed this move of NATO as a threat to its security and a violation of the pledge on eastward expansion in 1990, after the German reunification.

Nevertheless, NATO gradually started expanding eastwards, suggesting diverse forms of cooperation to all post-Soviet regions, South Caucasus comprised. The latter appeared in NATO’s limelight due to a row of inducements.

  1. Firstly, South Caucasus is rich in hydrocarbon recourses. Here such transnational corporations have been already operating as “British Petroleum”, “Statoil”, “Total” and “ConocoPhillips”.
  2. Oil and gas carrying important pipelines pass through this region. South Caucasus is a Central Asia and Europe together binding region. The diversification of energy recourses is the key issue of NATO member states.
  3. Strategically South Caucasus is a vital bridgehead to put pressure on Iran. Although the West has recently changed its attitude towards Iran, which has been accompanied by the cancellation of most of the economic sanctions, it still remains a problematic country for the West.
  4. And most importantly, the increase of NATO’s influence in South Caucasus will undermine Russia’s positions in this region. Russia has a primary role in the region, which is first and foremost conditioned by its military bases. The 102 nd Military Base is deployed in Gyumri, and 3624 th Air Base in Erebuni Airport, Yerevan. Russian peacekeeping troops are located in the territory of Georgia – in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and Russian border guards serve on Armenia- Turkey and Armenia-Iran borders.

It should be noted, that a passel of problems emerged while establishing relations between NATO and South Caucasus. Unlike countries in East and Central Europe that firmly wanted to cooperate with NATO and further become its member (which would insure them from Russian threat), the three republics of South Caucasus adopted three different stances towards the vision of cooperating with NATO. Although partner relations were established [i], a series of objective and subjective factors existed impeding the further development of the relations. First and foremost, the three countries of South Caucasus were former Soviet republics and carried the heritage of the Soviet system. Being within USSR’s membership, NATO has been viewed as a foe group to the socialist camp and this perception did not immediately vanish after achieving independence. The mismatch of the armed forces of the republics of South Caucasus to the NATO standards also had a negative influence on the implementation of joint operations with NATO. It presupposed such questions as military equipment upgrade, national control over armed forces, soldiers’ rights protection, etc. And all these required extra budget allocations to defense sector. As to cooperation with NATO, it should be noted that the stances of the countries in South Caucasus were particularly based on the imperatives of their own national security and national interests. However, the primary factor influencing NATO-South Caucasus cooperation is the factor of Russia’s role in the region. In Moscow, a widespread viewpoint states that NATO attempts to weaken Russia’s influence in the region, to achieve the closure of Russian military bases and that this progression should be intercepted at any cost. The three countries of South Caucasus possess different stances relative to NATO, thus it is necessary to consider each state’s cooperation with NATO separately.


Unlike Armenia and Azerbaijan, Georgia stands out with its clear position for membership. Georgia perceives the cooperation with NATO as a means to counterbalance Russia. The intensification of Russian-Georgian relations took place after the collapse of the Soviet Union forthwith, connected with the separatist aspirations of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, notwithstanding that Russia assisted these regions both politically and militarily. Tbilisi perceives Russia as a threat and NATO is viewed as a means to restrain Russia’s influence in the region. As a result of the Rose Revolution, after M. Saakashvili’s rise to power Georgia became more Western-oriented than before. Georgia’s cooperation with NATO was conducted in two directions. The first one is that the defense budget has recorded a fast growth. Georgia hereby attempts to make its defense sector correspond to NATO standards. Russia criticized Georgia on this occasion for creating a security dilemma, inasmuch as they can be used against Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

The second direction is connected with the main process of NATO integration. Tbilisi spares no effort in current direction, implementing “Individual Partnership Action Plan”, being a member to the Intensified Dialogue and Membership Action Plan. The five-day war in 2008 revealed Georgia’s vulnerability and the increase of Russia’s role in the region. During the war, the assistance to Georgia by NATO was confined solely to political terms.

Despite Georgia’s strivings to join NATO, still in 2007, NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop announced that Georgia should first and foremost resolve its internal conflicts with Abkhazia and South Ossetia: in this case alone Georgia will be enabled to join NATO. It is necessary to mention that in 2013, the Prime Minister of Georgia – Bidzina Ivanishvili announced the achievement of Membership Action Plan from NATO as the ultimate objective of 2014. However, NATO does not promise anything except for closer cooperation and extensive military aid. As the main reason not to take Georgia in the Alliance, NATO announces that despite the reforms, Georgia’s political system, security and defense sectors, still do not correspond to NATO standards. Nevertheless, the major obstacles for Georgia to NATO continue to remain Abkhazia and South Ossetia issues.


After gaining independence, Azerbaijan endeavors to follow the example of Khemalist Turkey’s statehood, being a member of Euro-Atlantic community and preserving its Muslim identity. For this reason Azerbaijan cooperated with Turkey, the USA and NATO. In 1994 Azerbaijan has been an active member to Partnership for Peace program and partook in several international peacekeeping missions together with Turkey. Nevertheless, Azerbaijan considers its membership to NATO as an option, not a priority. It is not a secret that per attempt of NATO expansion is perceived negatively by the neighbors of Azerbaijan – Iran and Russia. Azerbaijan, for its part, uses this to receive concessions from the two parties maintaining relationships both with NATO and Russia. In 2007, Ilham Aliyev, in the interview given to Deutsche Welle, has noted: “Azerbaijan is not ready to NATO membership and does not want to nominate unrealistic goals”. The top issue of Azerbaijan’s foreign policy is the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. It considers the latter’s independence as the violation of its “territorial integrity” principle. All presidents of the Republic of Azerbaijan adopt such foreign and secure policy, in which the resolution of this very conflict is a priority. This circumstance is also reflected in Azerbaijan’s policy to become a member of this or that international organization (whether it is NATO, CSTO, CIS or etc.)’’.

Consequently, the involvement of Azerbaijan in any international organization has been dependent on to what extent those structures would support Azerbaijan’s control “restoration” over Nagorno Karabakh. In this respect, Azerbaijan’s expectations from NATO are not high, which is conditioned by a series of circumstances. Firstly, NATO is not directly integrated in the settlement of Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and accepts and supports the efforts of the current OSCE Minsk Group as the sole preferable format of the conflict resolution. Secondly, Azerbaijan attempts to avoid Georgia’s “fate”. The authorities of Azerbaijan are conscious of the great losses they will suffer in case they repeat Georgia’s policy. The five-day war in 2008, which led to the increase of Russia’s influence in the region, proved their concerns. Pursuant to the notifications by Azerbaijani experts, Azerbaijan’s membership to NATO will not be guaranteed through the return of so called “occupied” territories. And it is solely possible if the three republics become a part of that security system. From time to time Azerbaijan refreshes its strategic, military and political cooperation with NATO and its active member – Turkey. However, not receiving an expected response from NATO, it steps back.


Becoming a full member of NATO has never been Armenia’s ultimate objective. Armenian authorities have always noted that the cooperation with NATO can never hinder the relations with its strategic ally – Russia [ii]. Armenia perceives Russia as a security guarantor country in the event of Turkey’s possible threat, and therefore displays a greater confidence and loyalty towards it, as compared with NATO, in which Turkey is actively involved. Armenia is the only country in South Caucasus to be a member of CSTO. Thus, a set of circumstances exist impacting NATO-Armenia cooperation deepening. Nevertheless, this does not mean absence of cooperation, it merely bears a “selective” character: Armenia participates and will participate in all those programs which will not undermine Russia’s interests in the region.

Armenia seized the war against terrorism declared in 2001 and the US-Russia cooperation on this occasion to conduct a multi-vector policy in order to integrate in European and Euro-Atlantic structures. Already in 2002, Armenia joined the “Virtual Silk Highway” NATO project, in the same year partaking in “Planning and Review Process” within the framework of “Partnership for Peace” program. Next year NATO military trainings and exercises were held for the first time, and in 2004, after Istanbul Summit, when NATO announced its particular attention towards the region, a more profound and multi-aspect cooperation started on. It should be noted, that Armenia takes part in the “Individual Partnership Action Plan” initiative as well. Consequently, the above- represented unravels that the deepening of cooperation between NATO and South Caucasus does not solely depend on the existence or absence of Azerbaijan’s, Armenia’s and Georgia’s will. Still in 2002, NATO Secretary General Lord George Robertson mentioned that South Caucasus does not stand in the center of the Alliance’s attention [iii]. NATO itself conducts an “adaptive” and flexible policy, and cooperation is accomplished at a level where it is possible to preserve power levers in the region. South Caucasus is itself a “disunited” region, abundant in conflicts. NATO’s interest in the region will increase in the case alone, when South Caucasus corresponds to the notion of “region” not only geographically, but also in political, economic and other terms, forasmuch as joint political, economic, trade and other types of relationships lack between the three republics. Apart from this, NATO perceives South Caucasus as a zone of Russian influence and every step it takes may worsen Russia-West relations. Therefore, it is early to speak about one of South Caucasus countries’ full membership to NATO. For their part, the republics of South Caucasus should view NATO not as the “main guarantor of their security”, but as a partner in security provision. NATO is a steadfast military and political structure and has a potential to leave its positive mark on the issue of South Caucasus security provision.

[i] In 1992, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia joined the North-Atlantic Cooperation Council. In 1994, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia signed the Partnership for Peace (PfP) Framework  document.

[ii] President Robert Kocharyan declared that joining NATO would affect Armenia’s relations with neighboring countries and would barely improve its national security. His successor Serge Sarkisyan (who served as Minister of Defense from 1993–95 and 2000–07, then as Prime Minister) has made similar indications. Consequently, this course was documented in Armenia’s “National Security Strategy,” which was adopted in a meeting of the National Security Council of Armenia on 26 January 2007.

[iii] In 2002, NATO’s Secretary General, Lord Robertson, stated that the South Caucasus was not particularly relevant to the Alliance.


  1. Security Studies. An Introduction. Edited by Paul D.Williams (2008)
  2. Regional Security in the South Caucasus: The Role of NATO.Central Asia-Caucasus Institute 2004.
  3. Martin Malek .NATO and the South Caucasus: Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia on Different Tracks (2008)
  4. Alberto Priego.NATO cooperation towards South Caucasus.Caucasian Review of International Affairs.2008

Author: Armenuhi Gevorgyan: © All rights are reserved

Translated by Marine Ohanjanyan