The New Geopolitics of South Caucasus
The 2020 peace agreement in Nagorno Karabakh is not just redrawing the security relationship between Yerevan and Baku, but, at the same time, it reshapes the regional geopolitics.
First of all, the OSCE Minsk Group played an insignificant role in these negotiations. It is true that the support of the West for Armenia is much lower when compared to Azerbaijan. This is because of the chosen foreign policy of either state, Armenia opting to prioritize its relationship with the Russian Federation, including by withdrawing from the Eastern Partnership in 2013. By contrast, Azerbaijan is, along with Georgia, a key NATO partner in the region. At the same time, its energy reserves make Azerbaijan a strategic partner for the EU in its pursuit of energy security.
The events have also revealed the inefficiency of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Two of its members, Armenia and Azerbaijan, used force to decide the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, while yet another member, Russia, aggressed Georgia in 2008. The CSTO’s failure is also the failure of Russian regional policy based on “divide and conquer”, which perpetuates a multitude of frozen regional conflicts that hinder any true regional alliance that can offset NATO. This has led, for the first time in modern history, to the penetration of Turkey in the Russian near-abroad’s strategic depth. Russia is no longer the only power broker in the South Caucasus, a region which it should dominate by its very nature.
Of course, Russian diplomacy and tenacity led Moscow to an efficient solution. This area was the only disputed territory in its near-abroad where Russia had not placed its troops in the field (despite its military presence at Gyumri in Armenia). While the financial costs of its military projection abroad are very high, given the pressure of international sanctions, Russia has managed to place peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh. This could be a trap for Azerbaijan in the long term if we observe the Russian modus operandi in its near abroad. Transnistria comes to mind.
At the same time, Moscow tries to mask the fact that Armenia’s gamble on the Russian geopolitical trump card was a failure for Yerevan, and the results of the conflict can place the loyalty of Russia towards its strategic partners under doubt. For this reason, Russian propaganda, through Margareta Sonyan, head of Russia Today, criticized in very strong terms the Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, saying that it was his pro-Western policy which precipitated Russia’s lack of support in Nagorno-Karabakh. Pashinyan had undertaken a campaign of arrests of noted Armenian leaders accused of corruption, who were also in close contact with Russia, which interpreted this as an attempt to limit its influence projection capability in Armenia.
It is certain that Moscow will try to catalyze the frustration of Armenian society against Pashinyan, forcing his departure. For Russia, the prospect of a colored revolution in Armenia led by Pashinyan would be a disaster.
Alongside Azerbaijan, Turkey is one of the de-facto winners of the crisis, showing that Ankara has learned its lessons from Syria, and now has better strategic capabilities in using proxy forces.
Pan-Turkish nationalism will be evident in the actions undertaken by Turkey in Central Asia in the following years, and the relationship between Baku and Ankara will be vital, with Azerbaijan as Turkey’s gateway into the region.
While, at the moment, there is a complex balancing act between Turkey and Russia, the rivalry between the two powers may increase in the medium and long term owing to these South Caucasus dynamics.
Turkey’s ambitions are to remodel the South Caucasus through an alliance not only with Azerbaijan, but also Ukraine, Georgia and the Republic of Moldova, basically revitalizing the GUAM formula as a counter to Russia. This was indicated by the meeting between Turkish President Erdogan and his Ukrainian counterpart Vladimir Zelensky, in which Erdogan supported the territorial integrity of Ukraine, which implicitly includes the Crimean peninsula, illegally annexed by Russia.
Israel can also play an important role the unfolding events, as it sees in Azerbaijan a possible counter to Iranian influence. Israeli know-how and technology when it comes to manufacturing drones were keys to the Azeri victory over Armenia.
Israel also took the opportunity to consolidate its image among the Azeri population, of which 75% is located in Iran and has a different take on Israel when compared to that of Tehran. Azeri-Israeli cooperation has been much in evidence in the last few years. For instance, Israel used Azerbaijan as a springboard for a commando raid into Iran to assassinate an Al-Qaeda leader in 2019.
The consolidation of a new geopolitical axis under Turkish coordination and in partnership with Israel cannot take place without a thawing of the relationship between Ankara and Tel Aviv, and the recent signals given by both states indicate that this is the direction they are headed towards.