Dr. Gayane Novikova

To analyze the Russian policy in the South Caucasus is very easy and very difficult in the meantime. Easy, as far as there is a kind of an axiom – Russia might act reflectively and might be dangerous.

And difficult, first, because there is a lack of strategic vision of the entire South Caucasus’s role in the Russian affairs and pragmatic approach to each of the states;

Second, the high level of predictability of Russia’s actions, motivated by protection of its strategic interests by any means, requires a very balanced, wise reaction from its partners and rivals;

Third, for the South Caucasian states themselves, viewing Russia just in black-and-white, it is a very hard task to keep the balance and to minimize far-reaching consequences of Russia’s both “love” and “hate.”

The South Caucasus has been characterized as one of the most unstable regions of post-Soviet space since the early 1990s. The security deficit or insecurity can be presented as a sinusoid, which reached its latest peak in August 2008, when the military actions on Georgian territory, actually between Russia and Georgia, followed the drastic change in the configuration of the security structure in the South Caucasus, and illuminated the role and importance of each regional and non-regional actor.

Russia has played a significant role in establishment of a completely new status quo in the region at least in the middle term perspective, which has been shaped against the background

  • Of the world economic crisis,
  • Revision of main directions and priorities of the U.S. foreign policy,
  • New “honey moon” in the U.S. – Turkey relationship,
  • Temporary reduction of the USA and EU involvement into the South Caucasian affairs.

Under the light of the abovementioned factors, there is also increasing of the complications between three stakeholders, namely Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, their speedily changed and reviewed relations with two regional powers, i.e. Russia and Turkey.

The model of political behavior of Russia in the South Caucasus is based on the following approaches and visions:

First: the Russian Caucasian politics started to shape by the middle of 1990s, from the revision of the basic meaning “Trans-Caucasus” as an area of the absolute Russian influence to the “South Caucasus” as an area of coming into contact and overlapping geopolitical and geo-strategic interests of the leading powers, regional powers, and the international political and political-military institutions as well.

Second: Russia’s own transformation from the super power to the regional power is very painful and has demanded an overcoming of its own ambitions, revision of its own abilities and possibilities, and development a qualitatively new type of the relations with the neighborhood.

Third: considering the so called “nearest abroad” as a zone of its vital interests, Russia since the Putin era has stronger demonstrated that it is not ready to share influence with others all along the perimeter of its borders.

Fourth: growing nationalism in the Russian society is a kind of fertile field to get excuse and support for usage of any leverage, either economic, political or military against the neighbors to achieve the main goal – restoration of the Russian image of the super power.

This goal is very clear indicated in the newly adopted National Security Strategy of the Russian Federation until 2020” (See Chapter III, ‘National Interests and National Strategic Priorities of the Russian Federation,’ §21).

The more interesting passages indirectly related to the South Caucasus are the following: “The trend is being shaped for the search of solution of the current problems and settlement of crisis situation on the regional basis without participation of the non-regional forces” (See: Chapter II, ‘The Modern Word and Russia: the state and trends of development’; article 8), as well as “In the struggle for resources, one cannot exclude that appearing problems might be solved with the use of the military force – the balance, established close to the borders of Russia and its allies can be broken.” (article 12).

In the previous document “Concept of the National Security of the Russian Federation,” which was in force in 2000-2009, threats to the Russian Federation’s national security in the international sphere were seen “in attempts by other states to oppose a strengthening of Russia as one of the influential centers of a multi-polar world, to hinder the exercise of its national interests and to weaken its position in Europe, the Middle East, Transcaucasus, Central Asia and the Asia-Pacific Region.”

James Sherr, one of the leading British experts in the Russian affairs, mentions in his analysis also such a subjective factor in Russian decision-making process like “resentment” -“obida,” for default of the West’s obligations toward Russia. His explanation that in the middle of 1990s, “the West wanted just to be nice to Russia,” and there was a kind of misunderstanding from the Russian side is nothing but an attempt to explain the Western unavailability to assess Russia’s growing will and readiness, as well as its contra-measures aimed to defense its own interests first of all in so-called “nearest abroad.”

In the chain of the Russian neighborhood the weakest link is the South Caucasus, thanks to three unresolved conflicts, absence of regional cooperation and common vision of the regional perspectives, as well as almost permanent internal instability and vulnerability.

This very regional weakness grants to Russia an additional power to modify the relationships with three stakeholders of the region – Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, – in the way of its own choice, leaving to the regional states a very narrow space for maneuvering.

Viewing (not without reason) the South Caucasus as an area of its direct influence, Russia has been changed its model of political behavior mainly reflecting on the external developments, considered as the direct threats to its national security.

In the meantime there is a lack of analysis of the internal developments and external relations of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia under the prism of the real threats which they can pose to Russia, as well as assessments of the gains and loses in each concrete situation for its bilateral and multilateral relations with the regional states.

The internal processes of the each regional stakeholder are considered by Russia as a secondary up to the critical point, where the possible developments might be followed by drastic changes in the main directions of their foreign policy.

The next source of Russia’s strong positions in the region is the dependence of the week national economies from the Russian investments, with its both positive and negative impact on the economies of the regional stakeholders. This is absolutely true in regards to Armenia that Russian investments allow showing some positive developments in the Armenian economics, and keep Armenia mainly in pro-Russian stream. In the meantime, strong economic ties with Russia provide a vulnerable dependence of the Armenian economy from it and narrow its room for political maneuvers.

This statement is a little bit less in case of Azerbaijan, which oil and gas contracts play a dual role in the Russian-Azerbaijani bilateral relations: from the one side, Azerbaijan tries to blackmail Russia suggesting the alternative transit routes for its energy sources, from the another side – minimizing the mutual disagreements as much as possible.

In case of Georgia, the Russian ‘coerce Georgia to peace’ practically collapsed the economics of this South Caucasian state. I would like also to add that the flow of transfers from the Georgian labor migrants is strongly reduced.

No less important source of the Russian strength in the South Caucasus is provided by the ambivalent interests of the divided West toward our region, with some kind of the double standards, which might be characterized by different formulas like “oil vs. democracy” in case of Azerbaijan; “democracy as an excuse for any mistake and fall” in case of Georgia, which worked up to the August 2008 war; “stability, stability and stability” in case of Armenia.

Besides, the Euro-Atlantic states and its main institutions, having

  • A lot of problems geographically outside Europe, first of all, involvement into military and humanitarian operations in Afghanistan and Iraq,
  • Significant contradictions in attitude toward Russia and assessment of its role in the world affairs, which are dividing the West,
  • Facing the world economic crisis, –

are unable to elaborate a common, in some aspects, preventive politics toward Russia.


The main source of Russia’s weakness is rooted in absence of the clearly formed and announced politics toward the South Caucasus as a region, and toward each of the regional states. Its methods and tools toward Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia have damage its image as a possible honest broker in the conflict resolution (the model of its political behavior was completely different in all three conflicts, although there were some technical similarities in so called “Georgian conflicts”).

The strong dependence of the Russian economics from the energy resources, and ultimately a subjection of its international relations to the protection of its gas and oil supplies as a cornerstone of its national interests affects its image as a stable economic partner.

It seems that on the wave of the global economic crisis the hard security measures as a main component of the Russian Realpolitik might be prevailed.


In August 2008 for the first time in quite a long period Russia demonstrated that it is prepared to defend its own national interests at any price, including the use of “hard security” measures, and also indicated quite clearly its priorities in the South Caucasus by the formula “no step backwards.”

The important factor in building relations with its counter-partners and partners is that Russia, taking into account the situation in the South Caucasus and having used Georgia’s strategic error and the West’s moral non-preparedness to take reciprocal actions against Russia, formulated and made public its achievements, goals and tasks, at least for the period of Dmitri Medvedev’s presidency: “A qualitatively new geopolitical situation has been created… Our Armed Forces have been restored to combat potential to a considerable degree… We will increase the volume and scope of our cooperation in the military and political spheres in the CSTO … The central role of the United Nations and effectiveness of its structures and mechanisms should be bolstered… The reaction to the events of August 8 and Russia’s recognition of the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia once again showed that we live in a world of double standards. Incidentally, the settlement of the South Ossetia crisis demonstrated that it’s possible to find solutions with Europe. We will deepen our relations with Europe in the field of security.”

In the Address of the Russian President to the Federal Assembly, which was made public the next day after the presidential elections in the United States, there is a proposal to “create a new global security architecture,” but this does not mean at all that Russia is ready to let external actors into the areas of its geo-strategic interests. There was a remarkable statement, related to the Caucasus: “… we will stand firm in the Caucasus.”

At least the first round in a new “Battle for Caucasus” Russia has won:

  • In the middle-term perspective there is no way for the NATO further enlargement by granting the membership to Georgia and Ukraine;
  • The new U.S. administration, in its turn, proclaimed a new era in the Russian-U.S. relations (the famous phrase of Vice-President Biden on reset of the bilateral relations with Russia). It this case is quite significant also the statement of Secretary of the State Mrs. Clinton on priorities of the political and military security in the relationships with the partners. During Obama-Medvedev meeting at the G8 Summit in London in early April the issue of the further NATO enlargement hasn’t been touched, moreover the sides indicated the areas of common strategic interests in global security, which at the glance overbalance their contradictions in some specific cases, namely, in regards to the war in Georgia. During the recent meeting of two Presidents in Moscow on July 7, 2009, Barak Obama mentioned that they “had a frank discussion on Georgia, and I reiterated my firm belief that Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity must be respected. Yet even as we work through our disagreements on Georgia’s borders, we do agree that no one has an interest in renewed military conflict. And going forward, we must speak candidly to resolve these differences peacefully and constructively.” Against the background of the other U.S.-Russian common approaches in strategic fields the Georgian factor can be considered just like a secondary one.
  • For most of states of the so called Old Europe the events in Georgia were another sign of the increased power of Russia. Against the background of the reformatting of U.S. foreign policy, the South Caucasus with all its plusses and many more minuses may cause a clash between Russia and the European Union, which the Europeans would like to avoid.

Thus, in the medium-term perspective, reduction of the U.S. and leading EU states’ interest toward the South Caucasus should be expected, which in turn will be followed by reasonable intensification first of all the Russian, then Turkish activity in the region.

Concluding, it is necessary to mention that due to the forced recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia Russia, first, acquired additional leverages to manage processes in the entire South Caucasian region.

Second, Russia has to take some steps for re-creating the image of some semblance of internationally acceptable “honest broker,” and the Nagorno Karabakh conflict can become a “proving ground” for testing such an intention. In this context its next step was the successful attempt to stress the leading role of Russia in the OSCE Minsk Group in the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. As it was already mentioned, the Mariendorf Declaration signed by the Azerbaijani, Armenian and Russian Presidents in Moscow in November 2008 is the first signed document in the Nagorno Karabakh conflict since the cease-fire agreement of 1994, which was also reached under the aegis of Russia.

Third, the implementation of the Realpolitik by Russia means that this state is going to act at least in the South Caucasus – where there are no real vital interests for the external actors, – almost not taking into consideration the West.

Fourth, as far as the relations of each South Caucasian state with Russia more or less impact on their relations with each other, and the assessment of the Russian role in the region still remains very diverse, Russia will succeed in its policy.

Fifth, the August 2008 war drastically changed the role of Russia in the South Caucasus, as far it has become a direct actor of the region with qualitatively new status quo.

So in the South Caucasus there is a real field of reciprocal interest and at the same time there is an asymmetric and vulnerable interdependence of Russia and three state of the still unshaped region.

July 11, 2009