Russia’s preoccupation with the war in Ukraine and its subsequently forced passiveness in the South Caucasus has created a security vacuum in the region, where it had previously established a military-political hegemony. The balance of power has shifted in favour of the Azerbaijani-Turkish nexus, creating a new geopolitical reality, which comes with both opportunities and challenges. A new redistribution of power in the region has granted Georgia more room to manoeuvre in its foreign policy. Yet, it has also compelled it to balance against otherwise asymmetric power relations determined by the Ankara-Baku axis. At the same time, all the conditions are in place now for the EU to finally step in and lead conflict transformation processes in the South Caucasus, starting with that of Nagorno-Karabakh, which has recently re-escalated beyond the disputed territories.
A new regional order in the making
Although Azerbaijan emerged victorious in the Second Karabakh War of 2020, the Russia-brokered ceasefire agreement left the status of Karabakh open, as well as that of the so-called ‘Zangezur corridor’. Azerbaijan was waiting for the right moment to finalise the victory, which came when Russia weakened in the war with Ukraine and was left with neither enough military power, nor political will to intervene. Consequently, nothing stood in the way of an eventual resolution of the conflict by military means from the side of Azerbaijan.
Further emboldened by its ascending role in the energy security of the West, as an alternative to the Russian supplier, Azerbaijan went even beyond the conflict zone and launched unlawful strikes on the internationally recognised territory of Armenia. Azerbaijan demonstrated its power capability to go as far as cutting a direct land passage with Turkey, through Armenia – if not with the consent of Yerevan, then by force. These recent flagrant acts of military aggression were meant to harass and intimidate Armenia, persuading Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan to agree to the Azerbaijani terms of the EU-mediated peace agreement.
Armenia is certainly in a bad position, being left with no other choice but to make concessions. No military aid can be expected from its supposed security guarantor, Russia, which has abandoned it both in bilateral and in CSTO format, which turned out to be completely dysfunctional. Besides, Armenia’s Nagorno-Karabakh policy has never had any external political support, as the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan has been recognised by the international community. Therefore, at this stage, the maximum the West can do for Armenia, and for regional peace, is to respond to Azerbaijan’s unlawful aggression and temporarily stop the fighting, if it cannot be prevented.
The war is not in the interest of any regional actor, including Azerbaijan, as it weakens Baku's positions from a diplomatic point of view. In the eyes of the international community, Aliyev has turned into an aggressor, and his authoritarian policy of conflict resolution has been condemned by the West. On the other hand, peace is acceptable only to those on whose terms and conditions it is established. Even if, in the end, the pre-existing balance of power was not favourable to anyone but Russia, it still gave a feeling of relative safety – with the situation being critical, yet stable.
Opportunities and challenges
A change in the status quo is a source of anxiety among regional actors that are not directly involved in the conflict but are going to be the most affected by its consequences, namely Iran and Georgia. As uncertainty prevails, they are afraid of finding themselves in a qualitatively worse geopolitical position. Indeed, Tehran is concerned about the ‘Zangezur corridor’, which may reduce its geo-economic importance should the route connecting Azerbaijan to Turkey bypass it, while also ripping Iran off its exit to Armenia, leaving it encircled by the unified Turkish world. On the one hand, Georgia is interested in expelling Russia from the region; on the other hand, without a significant Western engagement, Tbilisi is growing a little suspicious about the Azerbaijani-Turkish tandem.
Georgia is not in the position to take sides in the Nagorno Karabakh conflict, given its strategic partnership with Azerbaijan, its strong economic ties with Turkey and its good neighbourly relations with Armenia. What is more, Azerbaijanis and Armenians represent the largest ethnic minorities in the country. At the same time, though, Georgia, which is confronted with the two separatist breakaway regions on its own sovereign territory, for obvious reasons, has always recognised the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan. Yet, the UN territorial integrity principle applies to Armenia as well, just as to any other country in the world. Therefore, its sovereignty should similarly be protected. What is more, the failure of a democratic government in the face of authoritarian regimes is in any case detrimental, not only to Armenia but to the whole region.
Yet, the victory of autocratic regimes also stands as a chance for Georgia to strengthen its geopolitical stance, as a main stronghold of Western democracy in the area. For it to become a reality, though, the West should be ready to claim itself a dominant, extra-regional power. Also, Georgia should proactively reinforce its synergy with both the EU and the US. A stronger EU and US presence in the South Caucasus would facilitate regional cooperation, allowing Georgia, but also Azerbaijan and Armenia, to manoeuvre in their foreign policy vis-à-vis Russia – which, even with its power declining, remains a powerful neighbour and regional player.
As a final point, until the fate of the Ukraine war and, hence, the strength of the Russian factor in the region is finally clarified, Georgia should try to develop its diplomatic and economic relations with the rest of the stakeholders, in search of regional power parity.