Despite its peripheral position in relation to Greater Eurasia as a zone of international cooperation, the South Caucasus can be a source of concern. It is deeply dramatic if this factor remains the only one capable of securing the interest of large external players, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Timofei Bordachev.
The new military-political escalation between Azerbaijan and Armenia is a good reason to think about the real significance of the region in terms of security in Eurasia and the implementation of large-scale projects necessitating international cooperation there. Despite its geographic proximity and our preconceived notions, the value of the region is not great. The South Caucasus is rather part of the Middle East and shares the international political peculiarities that are characteristic of this region, which are strongly influenced by its historical heritage and external players from the West.
Economically, the South Caucasus is also of little interest for Eurasian development — its complex landscape and the need for at least two sea “trans-shipments” along the route of goods movement, as well as the region’s poorly developed economies place this part of the former USSR on the periphery in terms of transport and logistics cooperation. The total population of the three states of the region (Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia) is less than 17 million, and they are not solvent consumers. The efforts of frequently changing local governments to change this state of affairs have not yet yielded statistically significant results.
These natural competitive disadvantages could be partially compensated by institutional mechanisms of international cooperation. However, the relations of the three states of the region with each other and with the great powers do not yet provide grounds for such a development. In theory, responsible external players — Russia and, economically, China — could help these countries make international news headlines, and not only as a result of military conflict. This, however, requires a new conceptual approach to the “sick outskirts of Eurasia”, which is not obvious either.
It is rather difficult for external players themselves to determine their attitude to the problem of the South Caucasus — this region is not a priority from the point of view of their national security. Despite all the disagreements, Russia and the leading European powers are in principle interested in seeing the countries of Eastern Europe within a controlled escalation process. With the exception of Ukraine, this has been achieved wherever the military capabilities of Russia and NATO are in almost direct contact. In Central Asia, local political regimes are stable and able to maintain peaceful relations with each other, and China and Russia share both the responsibility for that and the absolute benefits. Moreover, Central Asia, especially Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, enjoys proximity to strategically important Siberian regions in Russia, which makes Moscow particularly attentive to the security and development of these states.
The Greater Eurasia Project became part of the international political development of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative, the foundations of which were defined in a speech President Xi Jinping gave in 2013 in Astana. The fact is that five years later, China and the Eurasian Economic Union, individual states acting on a bilateral basis, were able to form an informal community of countries for which cooperation prevails in international relations. With the exception of one-off episodes on the border between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in 2019 and the problem of Afghanistan, which has not healed due to Western intervention, Eurasia is now a supplier of good news. Trade turnover and the scale of cross-border transportation of goods are constantly growing. Astana has become one of the recognised international centres for peacekeeping and multilateral dialogue. Over the past years, relations between China and Russia — the main powers of Eurasia — have been in a state of stable prosperity. None of the territorial problems in Eurasia are viewed by observers as threatening international security. After the start of the new policy and openness in Uzbekistan, this state is increasingly actively promoting cooperation, both at a large regional level (these are contacts with the EAEU) and the idea of joining this union, and at the regional level, increasing working dialogue between the Central Asia “five” ... This behaviour is an indicator of the stability of the “heart” of Greater Eurasia for the international community.
We know that economically, the South Caucasus cannot offer serious dividends to interested players. So far, the only relatively integrated project there is the energy infrastructure associated with the Caspian Sea. The maximum that the countries of the region could count on in terms of transport and logistics is, even according to the estimates of authoritative regional experts, no more than 17,000 — 20,000 TEUs. Against the background of the constantly growing transit in Greater Eurasia, which in 2020 amounts to just under 750,000 TEU, this figure is not worth the efforts of serious international players. It should be reminded that in 2015, transit between China, Russia and the countries of Central Asia amounted to about 150,000 TEU per year. The growth that we see is clear evidence that Eurasian cooperation is yielding results in the context of peaceful interaction between the main participants.
The current state of international politics contributes to the fact that small and medium-sized regional players are beginning to behave more and more opportunistically. The bloc discipline is weakening and the adventurous behaviour of Turkey, which is already in conflict with its official NATO allies, is a clear confirmation of the trend towards universal autonomy and a temporary reduction of responsibility. Some authoritative observers saw in the statements of the representatives of Azerbaijan and Armenia the threat of international terrorism with the use of weapons of mass destruction. For example, we read opinions about the likelihood of strikes against energy facilities, including atomic ones.
Despite its peripheral position in relation to Greater Eurasia as a zone of international cooperation, the South Caucasus can be a source of concern. It is deeply dramatic if this factor remains the only one capable of securing the interest of large external players. Moreover, the number of such external stakeholders is decreasing. Domestic political difficulties in the United States and the deep crisis of European integration have negatively affected the ability of America and Europe to continue to play the same role in strengthening the sovereignty and international responsibility of the South Caucasus. Russia does not see them as a threat to its interests or security — unlike Syria, this region is not even considered a potential source of cross-border terrorism threatening Russian territory. At the same time, general international instability, the conflict between Russia and the West, as well as Ankara’s foreign policy adventurism, compel us, perhaps despite our better judgement, to consider how the countries of the region are, in principle, ready to engage responsibly in international communication. For several millennia, the life and relative cultural autonomy of the inhabitants of Transcaucasia were safeguarded with varying degrees of success through direct imperial control from Russia or Iran.