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Russian and Western engagement in the South Caucasus conflicts: Building sustainable stability in the region?

Russia is playing a dual game in the South Caucasus at the same time both stabilising and destabilising the region. On the one hand, there is Russia the Conflict-Mediator, – the one that brokers ceasefire and seeks to resolve the South Caucasian conflicts via its mandate of a co-chair of OSCE Minsk Group. On the other hand, there is Russia the Provoker. Having already provoked its own war with Georgia in 2008 (defending South Ossetia’s Russian passport holders designated „citizens“), Russia continues creeping annexation of the Georgian territory, while also keeping close economic and military ties with Georgia’s separatist regions. Russia is also selling arms to both Armenia and Azerbaijan for their fight over Nagorno-Karabakh, thus inflaming an arms race between the two conflicting parties.

Map of Southern Caucasus and its frozen conflicts
Map of Southern Caucasus and its frozen conflicts

Since the break up of the Soviet Union, countries of the South Caucasus region have witnessed their constituences breaking away with Moscow’s direct or indirect involvement (The 1st South–Ossetian conflict and Abkhazian war in Georgia; the 2nd South Ossetian conflict or the 2008 Russian-Georgian war;  the skirmishes over Nagorno-Karabkh that still continue). Russia (as the provoker) recognizes two of the Georgia’s breakaway regions as independent states and is still militarily present in the territories that are considered „occupied“ by the Georgian side. Creeping annexation of Georgia continues as Russia is moving the administrative border line further into the Georgian territory.

Two integrational treaties recently signed with Georgia’s separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia are the latest examples of Kremlin’s „divide and rule“ modus operandi in Georgia. These treaties indirectly convey a message to both Georgia and the West, that Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations cannot go scot-free and that Russia can always use the leverage of frozen conflicts to coerce the countries of the region into abandoning their pro-Western orientation (if the West itself does not give up on them). Last year, Georgia still managed to sign Association Agreement with the European Union, but NATO Membership Action Plan refusal to Georgia on 2008 Bucharest summit can be seen as Russia’s political success.

Moscow further intimidated the West with the 2008 intrusion into Georgian territory with the pretext of defending its citizens (separatists that Russia had „passportised“ before) and especially after Russia‘s recent Crimean annexation, Georgian aspirations of NATO membership are to remain on hold for quite some time. The membership of the European Union is even more distant prospect. Other hard power tools that Russia has applied to Georgia (especially during Saakashvili rule) have been economic sanctions (wine embargo and including Georgia in black list for food imports) as well as political usage of energy leverage. Besides, in 2006, Russia went as far as to deport Georgian migrant workers, hurting Georgian economy. Russian propaganda machine has also been active as a soft power tool directed against Georgian government. Moreover, Russia blocked UN Security Council resolutions and OSCE suggesting the extension of mission mandates in separatist regions. Russia managed to make OSCE mission leave Georgia.

Against the background, it can be said that Russia’s coercive politics have had relative success in holding Georgia a prisoner of its plea for territorial integrity as well as in straying Georgia from its Euro-Atlantic way.

At the same time, Russia has been given further power over the region through a role of a conflict-mediator assigned to it. Russia is the one that brokered cease fire ending the escalation of the South Caucasus conflicts in 1994 (establishing the negative peace). Yet, Russia has been using its role as a mediator for advancing its own interests rather than the actual conflict resolution. On the one hand, it is definitely true that Russia is not interested in the South Caucasus conflicts flaring up as it could have a spill-over effect to Russia’s Northern Caucasus. On the other hand, neither conflict resolution (positive peace) is in Russia’s interests: as long as the three South Caucasian states are divided within, Russia can rule them (“divide and rule” strategy). It is no secret that South Caucasus conflicts serve Russia as political leverage over Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Yet, Moscow has been allowed much room for manipulating with the “frozen conflicts” in the South Caucasus – Russia presently co-chairs the OSCE Minsk group and also participates in Geneva discussions. What is more, Russian „peacekeepers“ are present on the Georgian soil and it is highly likely they will be stationed in Nagorno-Karabakh too (strategy: first fueling the conflict, then coming to help as a peace-keeper). This peace-maker role does nothing but reinforces Russian influence and presence in the region. As double-edged as the Russian strategy in the South Caucasus is, there are serious reasons for putting Russian committment to the region’s sustainable stability into question. Russia is there only to control the South Caucasus.

Regarding the Western engagement in the South Caucasus conflicts, in the first years of the conflict escalation (meaning the 1990s), the West was rather indifferent, South Caucasus was not considered a region of direct western interests (there were agreements between South Caucasus and the EU, such as TACIS and TRACERA, assisting them in their post-Soviet transitional period. SC conflicts were largely ignored though). Yet, with the 2004/2007 enlargement rounds, the proximity of the South Caucasus to the EU’s borders became a geographical fact and the stability in the region got directly linked to the EU’s own security. West’s energy security interests in the region are of no less importance here. Significant measures undertaken by the European Union towards stabilising the region were the appointment of South Caucasus Special Representative, including all three countries of the region into the European Neighborhood Policy and later into the Eastern Partnership. Granting Georgia Association Agreement and Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement is noteworthy here. Chiefly, EU’s main approach has been putting these countries on the way towards democracy, rule of law, human rights protection and economic development believing it would positively contribute to stability in the long run. European Union’s main strategy was to encourage regional cooperation as a pre-requisite to regional stability, conflict resolution and eventually, European integration. European Union has also been passing resolutions in support of Azerbaijan’s and Georgia’s territorial integrity and has not once voiced discontent with Russian destructive policies, condemning any kind of intrusion into the internal affairs of the sovereign countries. EU’s key achievement in its conflict management efforts in the South Caucasus was securing the ceasefire in the 2008 Georgian-Russian war (France’s Sarkozy serving in the name of EU presidency brokered a 6 point peace agreement) and the deployment of the EU Monitoring Mission on the ground.

Along the EU, NATO has also given increased importance to the region (especially because of US lead with its post 9/11 security interests) and Georgia was even promised NATO eventual membership (as a remedy to MAP-refusal on Bucharest Summit in 2008). Nevertheless, NATO is not coherent in its policy towards South Caucasus – some of its members are favouring more engagement, others are more cautious about any move possibly disturbing Russia. The Russian-Georgian war and the recent Ukraine crisis have made the West more reluctant – expansion into Georgia is not expected to be on NATO agenda in the near future, nor EU’s further enlargement is to happen any time soon. NATO has been much criticised for its weak response to Russian invasion into the Georgian territory, arguing that NATO’s mistake has encouraged Russian takeover of Crimea.

Georgian armed infantry during the 2008 war with Russia. Photo credit:
Georgian armed infantry during the 2008 war with Russia. Photo credit:

Instead of taking a firm posture in the aftermath of 2008 Georgian-Russian war, NATO reset its relations with Russia, resulting in the credibility crisis the alliance is still undergoing. Nowadays, NATO is mainly occupied with its inside cuisine (article 5) rather than with open-door-policy (article 10) or out-of-area operations. Yet, if NATO opts for a greater engagement, NATO’s increased role in the region will both pose a problem (in terms of Russian counter-actions) and offer a solution (in terms of reduction of external threat, and improvement of internal state of affairs: stability, democracy, human rights, rule of law and promotion of other western values).

Unfortunately, until west is ready and willing to take on the responsibility for the security and democracy in the South Caucasus, the region is to remain stably unstable under the Russian double-edged sword.

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