Russia and the South Caucasus’ relation: re-equilibrating powers and influences in the region

Photo reference : http://static.kremlin.ru
Photo reference : http://static.kremlin.ru

Only twenty six years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the geopolitical map in the Caucasus remains still questioned. In fact, the countries of the South Caucasus – Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia, are still facing a lack of regional cohesion, in terms of hierarchization and political order : Armenia is reinforcing the links with the European Union, so is Georgia, however with different objectives and Azerbaijan is rather cooperating with Russia. It seems that neither Russia nor every organization – states that are involved in the region are ready to give up their influence on the countries of the South Caucasus. Conceptually speaking, it is hence manifested that there is currently a form of battle for power in Russia’s “newly” independent neighbors : South Caucasus has not only been a strategic place that all players want to dominate (geopolitical issues), this is also a place with a lingering sound of the East/West opposition (identity issues). The aim of this article will be to analyze how Russia deals with new influences in the region, from Europe and the NATO.

The Caucasus, a Russian historic private preserve

Oftentimes named as the Transcaucasia, the South Caucasus is a geographical space that has frontiers with Iran, Turkey and Russia, and which is surrounded by the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan are the three countries that make up the “South Caucasus”, which is opposed to the “North Caucasus”, included in the Russian territory. The three obtained their independence after the collapse of the former Soviet Union, in 1991. This space is considered to be the “border crossing of the two great civilizations (islam and christianity)[i]. However, because of the mutual conflicts they have, it has no specific structure, neither in terms of cooperation nor in terms of regional organization (security, business), which makes it unique.

When we have something for a long time, we consider it for granted. This is the same with Russia : the country has been present in the South Caucasus region since the beginning of the 19th century, when trying to conquest the whole Caucasus. After that, when it was the Soviet Union, the South Caucasus was included in its preserve and no one ever wondered about who’s going to say what. It only belonged to the Soviet Union. But the dislocation of the Soviet Union enforced a notable shift : Russia had to instore “relations” with those countries, and the international law was now predominant. Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan were newly independent states[ii], meaning they had to (re)build themselves as democratic countries. This double process, which consists in domestic and foreign policy construction, has caused a form of instability in the region, oscillating between separatist impulses and military tendencies. In fact, these countries have experienced Russia’s close influence, since it has kept its presence in the region for a long time. More notably, the South Caucasus became an official area of interest when Russia wrote it in its foreign policy agenda under the notion of “Regional Priorities” (“Географические Направления Внешней Политики”) in 2008[iii].

Writing down this element has a specific goal : make the rest of the world understand that their interest for the “near abroad”[iv], not only geographically speaking but also ideologically, remains of essential importance for the policy Russia aims to pursue. This is particularly significant in this instance of relations between Russia and countries of the South Caucasus, because each of these countries serves for an important geopolitical purpose. On the one hand, Georgia and Azerbaijan have strategic ports, not only for mastering the continuation of trade and gas transport, but also to connect other ports, like the one of the Bosporus in Turkey (which is an anchorage point to Europe). On the other hand, regarding the borders with Turkey and Iran, Armenia constitutes a crossing point between the Islam and Christian worlds. But this notion of “near abroad”, that is of geopolitical dimension, remains relatively recent, if we compare to the storyline of international relations. Indeed, the year 1991 not only symbolizes the end of a regime, but also the end of an ideology : Marxism. At that moment, the new Federation of Russia had to rethink its history, rebuild itself, and adopts its turning point, opening itself to the world. The end of the long-lasting one-track thinking brings the Russian authorities to expect a new “story-telling” on their history : this is mainly through the Eurasian ideas it will find matter for alimenting its new policies, oriented towards the defense of the doctrine of the “near abroad” and their interests in the region. In keeping with the steps of other geopolitical theories, such as the one of Mackinder who argues that “who rules East Europe commands the Heartland [NB : Russia], who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island [NB : Eurasia], who rules the World-Island commands the rest of the world[v], implying the needs for having maritime outlets, new Eurasian-inspired theories, based on Aleksandr Dugin, have emerged : the latter was an advisor on geopolitics in 1999 and is considered to have being one of the “drafters of the concept of national security”[vi], This specific perspective have alimented the identity dimension of the Russian foreign policy, notably regarding its consideration for the South Caucasus.

The identity influence between Russia and the South Caucasus can be observed through different elements, such as, inter alia, the participation to common regional organizations (Eurasian Economic Union, Commonwealth of Independent States…). It cements the historical bonds between these countries, despite an eminently Russian impulse in this strategy that could be qualified of “global reconquest”, with a substantive background on security issues. This is no more about conquering States, but rather conquering ideas, governments and their representatives, their interests, in order to gain allies who provide Russia with the security of its borders. The paradigmatic shift is being obvious. However, their common past has necessarily neither the same meaning nor the same impact depending on the country.

The specific case of Russia – Georgia: the so-called “tinderbox”

Nowadays, Russia and Georgia hold tense, perhaps hostile, relations. During the 17th and 18th centuries, however, Georgia is of capital importance for Russia: after it was joint to the Russian empire in 1801, the Georgian Military Road was built to connect the two countries through the mountains. The project was finished in 1863. At that moment, Russia aimed at conquering the whole Caucasus. This road was giving a lot of hope: with its 208 kilometers length, it allowed transits of goods and persons, which was a factor of economic growth. During the First World War, after Georgia became a source of claims between Ottomans and Russia, the country appeared under Soviet influence in 1922. Thus, until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Georgia has been a permanent preserve for Russia, for more than two centuries.

But this situation is cut short. Quickly after its independence, conflicting dynamics emerge around Georgia. These dynamics are part of a macro-regional context, perhaps national: with the 2003 Rose Revolution one the one hand, with the 2008 war on the other hand. The Rose Revolution belongs to a group of revolutions in the post-soviet states, called « Color Revolutions », which consists in generally pro-occidental peaceful uprising[vii]. These revolutions have led, for the majority of cases, to a change of governments that was until then considered whether corrupted and unsuitable. In Georgia, in 2003, Mikheil Saakashvili took the lead of the country, after the elections that gave him 96% of the votes. Indeed, he had a doublespeak speech: even if he advocates for entering the European Union and the NATO, he doesn’t want the links with Russia to be ended. Nonetheless, the crisis both countries are facing (regarding Ossetia and Abkhazia) creates a dialogue of the deaf: the only thing Russia remembers is Saakashvili’s speech to the United Nations, where he called Georgia a “European nation and this is not recent[viii]. Shortly after, the year 2008 represents a turning point in the Georgia – Russia relations. If, since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Ossetia and Abkhazia have declared themselves autonomous from Georgia, the latter has never recognized it. After myriads of episodes of tensions and mini-wars, Georgia finally attacks South Ossetia in 2008, triggering a regional war in which Russia took action. Since then so far, Russia has expressed its support towards the auto-proclaimed regions of Abkhazia and Ossetia, making its relations with Georgia strained. Besides, this conflict between the two countries is not yet over: this is how Georgia’s neighborhood has ended by being called «a tinderbox».

Those national and macro-regional contexted elements have an influence at the regional level. The region has been facing new transformations, and the European Union and the NATO have been a source of proposal for Georgia. This was due to a favorable national context: a pro-occidental leader, an infuriated population towards the Russian attitude, and new democratic and economic growth opportunities that were offered to the government. This is how Georgia came to endorse its “shift towards Occident”: during the NATO summit in Bucharest (April 2nd to 4th 2008), it announced its promise of joining the NATO, with the support of the United-States. Meanwhile, Georgia received a financial assistance from the European Union from 2007[ix], and sign an Association and Free Trade Agreement from 2009.

Thus, we notice that Georgia serves a substantial geopolitical purpose, because of these interests both from Russia and Europe. From a strategic point of view, only focusing on a map, we can highlight that the maritime outlets on the Black Sea (giving access to the Mediterranean Sea) are of capital importance for mastering the energy axes leading to Central and Occidental European countries. Mastering the ports of this water space, at least in majority, is essential from a military and geostrategic perspective: it comes back to the idea of hard power. Who has the major economic influence in the region? Who masters all strategic points of the region? Who can boast itself with the idea of being hegemonic in the region? In parallel, the fact that Georgia makes eyes with an obvious manner to the European Union or NATO is badly experienced by Russia, since the majority of the former Soviet democracies, like Bulgaria, Poland, Romania or Bulgaria, stick with “occidental values”.

We are thus facing a double geopolitical and identity dynamic which seems, in this precise case, leave some doubts on the future of the Russia-Georgia relations, and on the impact it will have on regional geopolitics.

Russia, Azerbaijan and Armenia: a hybrid way to cooperate

If Georgia has a conflictual relation with Russia, this is not the case either of Armenia, or of Azerbaijan. In fact, the two countries are accustomed to collaborate with Russia and have cordial, perhaps friendly relations. Then, there are different stakes there, if we consider the long-lasting conflict about the Nagorno-Karabakh, which has been a source of permanent tensions. Here, we should highlight the origins of this conflict: the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, or the Republic of Artsakh, has been included in the Azeri territory since the 1920s by Stalin, but the region is populated mostly by Armenians. So, this territory is considered to be an enclave of Armenia in the Azeri territory: that is why the Armenians voted in 1991 for being independent from Azerbaijan, turning into the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (that is only recognized by 3 non-UN member states), which Armenia has kept supporting. But besides this conflict, is the relation with Moscow as harmonious as we may think?

By their strategic positions and their reciprocal assets, Russia, Azerbaijan and Armenia bring each other mutual benefits. Russia constitutes a powerful ally because of its ability to manage crises and also external actors, Azerbaijan can be distinguished because of its capacity of economic growth, while Armenia is playing the role of an essential outpost, at Iran’s doors, the latter being a major actor of the regional politics, notably in terms of security, but especially at Turkey’s doors, which represents the European entrance gate for the whole Middle East. For Russia, Armenia and Azerbaijan are important allies, but the nature of their relations is different.

As a matter of fact, we notice there is a complex reading grid between the three countries: Russia and Azerbaijan, and Russia – Armenia are cooperating at different scales, while Azerbaijan and Armenia are in an open conflict (borders are indeed closed between the two). On the one hand, Armenia and Azerbaijan have started being involved together from 1992 in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict (1988-1994). The same year the conflict ended, Azerbaijan has signed the “contract of the century” for the construction of energy axes, which had a tremendous effect on its economy[x]. This will reinforce its position as an opponent within the GUAM – Organization for Democracy and Economic Development, created two years later and which was aimed to challenge Russia’s role in the Caucasus region, especially in the Black Sea. In fact, the GUAM has a framework for cooperation with the United States[xi], which embarrasses Russia. Even if the organization had not any power nor the expected role in the Black Sea, it remains an expression of will to challenge something. It takes on the impression Russia and Azerbaijan are not on the same page. On the other hand, even if Russia has signed more than 200 bilateral contracts with Armenia, with whom it has a natural affinity, Azerbaijan was offered a status of economic partner in 2004, when signing a principle agreement with Russia.

Moreover, the difficult, perhaps hostile, cohabitation, between Armenia and Azerbaijan, tends to isolate Armenia from the rest of the Caucasus : it is important to highlight that, even if Georgia and Armenia are not in an open conflict, Armenia still relies on Georgia for accessing its ports in the Black Sea and thus, for accessing Europe. There is also an issue about the Javakheti Georgian region, mostly populated by Armenians, where a railroad linking Turkey to Azerbaijan was supposed to be built. The Armenians of the region were not in favor of this since it would exclude Armenia from the exchanges. Then, while being landlocked between Georgia, Iran and Azerbaijan, Armenia seems to constitute a perfect partner for Moscow, which can stretch out its hand to a traditional all y. Armenia is a member of the CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organization), an equivalent to NATO that was instituted as an Organization in 2002, but created in 1994. Armenia is not only a full-member from its creation, but remains the only member among the three states of the South Caucasus[xii]. As a matter of fact, Armenia relays a Russian military influence, acting like an outpost[xiii]. Moreover, Russia holds approximately 5% of defense societies in Armenia, where Russia also stations strategic military bases (Gyumri and Erebuni). Traditional or historical ally and protection of their mutual security and deep interests : here what describes the relation between Russia and Armenia.

On the other hand, Azerbaijan has never owned a very good record for Russia : between its domestic and foreign policy oriented towards the signature of energy contracts, its investment against Russia inside the GUAM – Organization for Democracy and Economic Development or the fact that the Azeri population is being skeptical towards Russia’s policy in Chechenia… All of these could be factors of aggravation of their relations. Nonetheless, in 2011, Dmitri Medvedev stated that the two have a «close friendship and trust relations »[xiv]. If we look at the situation closer, Azerbaijan is a privileged economic partner for Russia, but not only for the energy aspect : his openness on the Caspian Sea, its ports (including Baku, the capital city, where the Russian Embassy stands), its others economic partners, including Turkey and Iran, are of strategic interest for Russia. In fact, Azerbaijan seems to constitute an economic and cyclical ally, meaning that if the context was about to change, the nature of the alliance would change in the same time. Since now, their alliance serve each other, there is no disillusion and everyone gets satisfied.

We then oppose traditional, cultural and military alliance to economic and cyclical alliance : it creates a geopolitical entity at variable geometry, where everyone has to tread very carefully. The Caucasus is not a hierarchized nor military organized region : some organizations do exist, like the CSTO or the Eurasian Economic Union, but not all states of the South Caucasus belong to the mentioned organizations. Besides, Georgia, Azerbaijan or Armenia have no interstates meetings or events, due to the respective conflicts they are involved into, meaning there is no consensus regarding the main foreign policy issues in the region. So, there is a place for a new leader. Is it a place for Russia or immediate neighbors, like Turkey or Iran ? Or new players such as the European Union or the NATO, with whom Armenia seems willing to cooperate[xv] ? We witness a real interregional competition of power struggle in the heart of this strategic region, struggles that have several forms depending on the individual or common past. Here also lies the interest for Russia to maintain and equilibrate its relations on both sides, otherwise Armenia would definitely turn to occidental bodies to ensure its security, otherwise Azerbaijan would find other economic partners. Besides, Azerbaijan benefits from Ankara’s support for trade, business and share the same values. Their mutual relations, in the region, is a fragile balance, below the historical conflict that prevent from taking new initiatives and invites to stick to the status quo. The rising of new forms of occidental interests or intervention inside the South Caucasus, whether of a political, military or social nature, bring us to rethink the Caucasian geopolitical map.

Towards new alliances ? Re-organization of the Caucasian geopolitical map

When reading those elements of analysis, several points remain uncovered. The first one is that the South Caucasus constitute a crossroad of geostrategic interests, not only for its closest neighbors, but also for the remote one. This is why we are talking about a new form of struggle for power : let’s remember that the NATO made the South Caucasus a “priority intervention area” in 2004, with its doctrine of the “open door policy”[xvi], while the European Union has implemented its “neighborhood policy” since 2006, arguing that bringing democratic values in these countries was its number 1 goal We may also think that this region, despite appearing consistent, is in reality very heteroclite : Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan are still facing internal, national or regional conflicts. However being the direct consequence of the collapse of the Soviet Union, this creates this subtle balance for security struggle in the region. Indeed, war and conflict keeps being present in the region, and may be considered as a factor for transformation. This also explains the cautious tactical implementation every protagonist of the geopolitical chessboard uses.

The second element we notice is that Russia keeps being present in the region, and this presence challenges the emergence and the maintenance of new players in the region. This deals with a kind of new East-West integration : on which side should they turn ? Whatever, for Russia, there is no other possibility than a bipolar world[xvii] : East against West, confrontation against cooperation, ideology against values. Here again, a global soft power competition[xviii], where there is a battle for integration models[xix].

Because of these two observations, we find again the notion of geopolitical and identity struggle from Russia, in a region that it still considers as its preserve. Geopolitical struggle, because each of these countries can bring satisfactory solutions that would give Russia back its hegemony ; identity struggle because those countries are a battleground for foreign influences (from the European Union, or the United States).

Either way, this seems to confirm that micro-regional or regional conflicts are a factor for transformation of the South Caucasus’ geopolitical map. Whether each country has either a conflictual relation, either an historical continuity, either operates a cyclical shift with Russia, those relations are still subject to evolution, notably under the impulse of the upcoming Russian presidential elections.


  1. Jafalian Annie, Reassessing security in the South Caucasus : regional conflitcs and transformations, November 2011
  2. Jansiz Ahmad, Reza Hojaste Mohammed, Conflicts in the Caucasus region and its effects on regional security approach, Journal of Politics and Law, Volume 8, n°1, 2015
  3. Minassian Gaïdz, Armenia, a Russian outpost in the Caucasus ?, IFRI/Russia, Russie.Nei.Visions n°27, February 2008
  4. Minasyan Serguey, New opportunities in Armenia – EU relations, PONARS Eurasia Policy Memo n°476, May 2017
  5. Trenin Dmitri, Russia in the Caucasus : reversing the tide, The Brown Journal of World Affairs, Volume XV, Issue 2, 2009


[i] JANSIZ Ahmad, REZA HOJASTE Mohammed, Conflicts in the Caucasus region and its effects on regional security approach, Journal of Politics and Law, Volume 8, n°1, 2015, page 86

[ii] In 1991, April 9th for Georgia, August 30th for Azerbaijan and September 21st for Armenia

[iii] Внешнеполитическая и дипломатическая деятельность Российской Федерации в 2007 году, March 2008, page 38. See : http://www.mid.ru/web/guest/foreign_policy/news/-/asset_publisher/cKNonkJE02Bw/content/id/345430

[iv] A doctrine that has defined most of the orientation of Russia’s foreign policy since 2005. The “near abroad” is supposed to include the countries of the Community of Independent States but remains unclear from time to time. This goes with a nationalist perspective.

[v] MACKINDER Halford, Democratic ideals and reality : a study in the politics of reconstruction, 1919, page 150

[vi] Versiya newspaper, May 2001

[vii] MITCHELL Lincoln, The Color Revolutions, 2012

[viii] Statement by his Excellency Mr. Mikheil Saakashvili at the 61st session of the United Nations General Assembly, September 2006. See the full speech here : http://www.un.org/webcast/ga/61/pdfs/georgia-e.pdf

[ix] 14 million were offered the first year. See the presentation EU budget support to Eastern Partnership Countries, Civil Society Forum, 2014, page 34 ; [http://archive.eap-csf.eu/assets/files/WG1_EU%20Budget%20support_last_en.pdf]

[x] See : https://www.azer.com/aiweb/categories/magazine/24_folder/24_articles/24_aioc.html, Winter 1994

[xi] For more details, see the official website : http://guam-organization.org/en/node/291

[xii] Azerbaijan and Georgia withdrew in 1999.

[xiii] MINASSIAN Gaïdz, Armenia, a Russian outpost in the Caucasus ?, IFRI/Russia, Russie.Nei.Visions n°27, February 2008

[xiv] Trend News Agency, “Dmitry Medvedev : Peoples of Russia and Azerbaijan tied with closest friendship and trust links”, November 25th 2011. See on : https://en.trend.az/azerbaijan/1961897.html

[xv] MINASYAN Serguey, New opportunities in Armenia – EU relations, PONARS Eurasia Policy Memo n°476, May 2017, page 77

[xvi] The concept was reiterated during the NATO Warsaw Summit that took place on July 8th and 9th 2016. See : https://news.am/eng/news/339158.html

[xvii] http://www.lemonde.fr/idees/article/2014/02/25/la-crise-en-ukraine-n-a-rien-a-voir-avec-une-nouvelle-guerre-froide_4373036_3232.html

[xviii] TRENIN Dmitri, Russia in the Caucasus : reversing the tide, The Brown Journal of World Affairs, Volume XV, Issue 2, 2009, page 145

[xix] JAFALIAN Annie, Reassessing security in the South Caucasus : regional conflitcs and transformations, November 2011, page 167


Author: Hélène Richard. © All rights are reserved


LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here