The South Caucasus: A Changing Geography

Many circumstances are dragging the South Caucasus countries into the Middle East crisis, turning a region that seemed distant and alien only a couple of decades ago into an important player.

Politically, the South Caucasus is a configuration of three relatively small countries - Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia - surrounded by three larger regional powers - Turkey, Iran and Russia.

Some seven or eight years ago, any threats to the South Caucasus came almost exclusively from within the region. Ethno-political conflicts, unrecognized independent states (of which there are also three - Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh), weak recognized states and controversy between them created a serious risk of destabilization, which happened occasionally. Outside risks were secondary; the countries surrounding the region, although hardly model democracies, seemed quite stable. The rules of the game were more or less respected, and the mode of relations between external and internal players remained largely unchanged. This does not necessarily mean that the relations were good. Turkey and Armenia did not have any diplomatic relations at all, and Russian-Georgian relations were consistently bad even before 2008. But on the whole, the situation was predictable. The Middle East, which lies to the south of Iran and Turkey, also looked pretty stable and predictable, even with the de facto disintegration of Iraq. Anyway, the states of the South Caucasus never saw the Middle East as a source of threats.

The situation changed dramatically in a short period. After the 2008 conflict, Abkhazia and South Ossetia were recognized by Russia and received Russian security guarantees, which eliminated any real threat that the Abkhazian or South Ossetian conflicts would reignite. Two out of the three South Caucasus conflicts posed no threat of renewed hostilities due to the intervention of an external player: any aggravation of the conflict was now fraught with  Russia’s intervention and therefore became a priori impossible. The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict was different because the two opponents were roughly equally matched: the difference in military might between Armenia and Azerbaijan could not be even compared with the difference between the Georgian and Russian militaries. However, even in that case, major external actors play a moderating role, or at least try to avoid moves that could exacerbate it.

Furthermore, abrupt changes have occurred to the south of the Caucasus, where more than one source of turbulence simultaneously emerged in the region immediately adjacent to the Caucasus. I am referring to the loss of Syria as it was before its fragmentation and the emergence of ISIS, the destabilization of Turkey as a whole and Turkish Kurdistan in particular, and even the gradual easing of sanctions against Iran. The changes eroded the illusion that lingered for two decades after the Soviet Union’s collapse that the dynamics of relations between Russia and Europe (or wider, Russia and the West) was actually the main foreign policy collision for the Caucasus. The differences between Russia and the West are still important for the countries of the South Caucasus, but the increasingly chaotic Middle East is changing the situation dramatically: a year ago, Russian-Turkish-Iranian cooperation was unimaginable, but now it is reality, at least in regard to the Syrian crisis.

The Middle East has become closer to the South Caucasus. Geographically, it has always been close: the distance from the Armenian and Georgian borders to northern Iraq and Syria is less than five hundred kilometers. But psychologically, and on the level of public discourse, the Middle East felt like another planet before. On their mental maps, the residents of the Caucasus saw their countries somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic, between Moscow, Brussels and Washington.

Now these ideas are changing rapidly. The most infamous ISIS commanders have included a number of Georgian citizens – mostly of Kistinian descent, that is, closely related to the Chechens residents of the Pankisi Gorge, and Muslims by religion. Their names and nicknames were on the front pages of newspapers around the world. Azerbaijanis are also fighting in Syria and Azerbaijan is already having problems with its own citizens returning from Syria, where they have undergone indoctrination with radical Islam and acquired military and terrorist expertise. In Armenia, there are no Muslims, but there is an influx of refugees from Syria who are ethnic Armenians. Their numbers have reached tens of thousands already. Syria used to have a fairly large Armenian community, which is now destroyed by terrorists along with the other Christian communities of that country.

All the above, and many other circumstances, are dragging the South Caucasus countries into the Middle East crisis, turning a region that seemed distant and alien only a couple of decades ago into an important player.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.