Consequences of the Russia-Georgia war on the Western approach to Transcaucasia


Executive Summary

The Russia-Georgia war has led to the questioning of Georgia as the natural export route for Caspian energy, and necessitated  alternative thinking on how to secure an energy flow to Europe free of Russian as well as Iranian influence.

Furthermore, the war has reopened the debate on whether territorial integrity or nations’ right to self-determination should be preeminent when considering border issues.

With both Armenia and Azerbaijan challenged by the current situation in the Caucasus the West should readdress its policies towards the Caucasus and utilize the current situation to press for resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, thereby opening the door for Caspian oil and gas flowing through Armenia to Europe.

To avoid both Armenia and Azerbaijan tilting towards Russia in the future, the West must put up security guarantees for these countries, as it failed to do towards Georgia.

The Turkish proposal of establishing a “Caucasus Stability and Cooperation Platform” presents itself as another opportunity for the West to engage in the solution of the Caucasian ‘frozen conflicts’ by backing Turkish efforts.

With the Russia-Georgia war reopening the debate on whether territorial integrity or nations’ right to self-determination should be preeminent when considering border issues, an opportunity presents itself for the resolution of other ‘frozen conflicts’ in the Caucasus, including the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

The war has put a question mark on the naturalness with which we have come to see Georgia as the obvious export route for Caspian energy resources to Europe. The conflict temporarily halted energy exports from the Caspian, for instance through the Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline as well as the Baku-Supsa line, and has also interrupted maritime exit routes. In order to secure European energy imports that circumvent Russia and Iran, the only alternative to pipelines through Georgia are pipelines through Armenia. This, however, requires rapprochement between oil exporting Azerbaijan and Armenia, which ultimately necessitates a solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

Azerbaijan has hitherto tended to be supportive of the West but the weak Western response to Russian aggression in Georgia has alarmed the Azeris. Azerbaijan is regarded as one of the possible next points of Russian aggression, which might help explain the neutral stance President Ilham Aliev has taken on Russian actions in Georgia. As a member of GUAM<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[1]<!–[endif]–>, Azerbaijan should be expected to back its fellow member state, Georgia, but has been amazingly quiet. This indicates the possibility of Azerbaijan tilting towards Russia rather than the West in the future. Russia has so far attempted to win over the Azeris by offering to buy vast amounts of Azeri natural gas at market prices. To this point, Azerbaijan has not embraced the offer but neither has it declined it. In order to prevent Azerbaijan, a vital provider of energy for Europe and a key ally for the US in its Caspian energy strategy, falling prey to Russia, the West must put up trustworthy security guarantees. The recent visit of US Vice President Dick Cheney does not appear to have furthered amity between the US and Azerbaijan, as some accounts have suggested the visit was a diplomatic failure. Thus, the Vice President was not received on arrival by the Azeri President or Prime Minister but by the Deputy Prime Minister Yagub Eyubov and the Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov, and did not attend a reception held in his honour<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[2]<!–[endif]–>.

With regards to Armenia, the Russia-Georgia war has also been bad news. For one, the war was between two countries both friendly to Armenia, and on whom the country depends. Russia supports Armenia in the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, and as a landlocked country squeezed in between unfriendly Azerbaijan and the Azeri ally Turkey, Armenia depends on Georgia for exports as well as imports. Armenia has a healthy economy thanks to privatisation and other reforms as well as large amounts of Russian investment, particularly in Yerevan. However, with an uncertain situation in Georgia, Russia still holding the port city Poti, and a Turkish blockade on Armenian trade, the future prospects are looking dim.  Also, having recently taken over the chairmanship of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), Armenia faces the challenge of how to deal with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which have been recognised as independent states by the leading force in the CSTO, Russia. With other CSTO member states reluctant to accept the independence of the Georgian breakaway regions and thereby to accept them as member states of the CSTO, which Russia is likely to press for, Armenia is facing strong pressure from Russia on this issue in the future.

Russia already holds strong influence over Armenia and is currently seeking to lure President Serge Sarkisian to its camp completely. Nonetheless, the Sarkisian administration as well as the opposition continues talking to Western interlocutors, which indicates that there might be room for tilting Armenia towards the West.

Turkey, a regional player, has sided with Azerbaijan in its conflict with Armenia due to cultural and religious ties with the Azeris but also because Turkey wishes to become the main hub for Caspian energy exports. Thus, when Armenia took control of the Nagorno-Karabakh region, Turkey in 1993 broke off diplomatic relations with it. Turkey considers re-establishment of diplomatic ties with Armenia contingent on Armenian acceptance of the current borders between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and a cessation on Armenian lobbying for recognition of the Ottoman slaughter of ethnic Armenians in 1915 as genocide. 2008 has however seen efforts towards conciliation, with the Turkish President Abdullah Gul visiting Armenia to watch a World Cup qualifying match on 6 September, and using the occasion to hold a two-hour long meeting with President Sarkisian. This meeting resulted in agreements to upgrade consultations between the two countries to the level of Ministers of Foreign Affairs, as well as establishing joint commissions on both the claims of genocide as well as economic relations.

The current situation has also been costly for Turkey. Firstly, each day the BTC pipeline is out of operation costs Turkey $300,000 in transit fees. Also, the situation threatens Turkish-Georgian trade, which in 2007 reached $1bn<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[3]<!–[endif]–>. Turkey has thus suggested the establishment of a “Caucasus Stability and Cooperation Platform”, a multilateral forum that would encompass Russia, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Turkey. The Turkish proposal aims at facilitating dialogue and reducing tension, thereby increasing the likelihood of conflict resolution in Caucasus in the long run. However, Azerbaijan and Georgia are highly sceptical of the suggestion and require certain guarantees before joining, while Armenia and Russia looks upon the proposal favourably, as recognition of the status quo favours them both: Armenia being in military control of the Nagorno-Karabakh region and Russia of both South Ossetia and Abkhazia. A multilateral forum presents an opportunity for breakthrough in a region plagued by bilateral alliances; therefore, as Turkey is unable to present Azerbaijan and Georgia with security guarantees on its own, the West should back Turkey in this effort to resolve the stalemate situation in the Caucasus.

In light of its weak response to Russian aggression in Georgia, which Georgian President Mikhail Saakashviili has compared to the appeasement policies of the 1930s, the West must readdress its Caucasus policy to secure the free flow of energy to European markets and extend the values of democracy and liberty to the region. Backing Turkish efforts for multilateral consultations on the ‘frozen conflicts’ of the Caucasus would be a start, but in the long run the West will need to extend security guarantees to countries like Azerbaijan, Georgia and possibly Armenia, if it is serious in its intention of avoiding these countries falling prey to a resurgent Russia.


Camilla Hagelund is a Research Assistant at the Henry Jackson Society

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<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[1]<!–[endif]–> GUAM – Organisation for Democracy and Economic Development is a regional organisation encompassing Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova. GUAM was founded in 1997 as a consultative forum and in 2001 a charter was signed at a summit in Yalta. The aim of GUAM is to promote regional stability and democratic values and is often seen as a means to counter Russian influence in the region. Previously the organisation was named GUUAM (1999-2005) as Uzbekistan in this period was also a member state.

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