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The Geopolitics of the Southern Caucasus

Updated: Mar 5

International Affairs Analyst

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Regional powers are vying for influence in the region in the face of the attempt to influence by Russia, China and the Turko-Azeri axis. The long-term Western strategy is to curb the Turko-Azeri chokehold in the region by ensuring Georgia’s and Armenia’s Euro-Atlantic path.


Geopolitics and Competing Strategies


With Moscow’s reduced status, Turkey and Azerbaijan have glimpsed a new opportunity for their power-eroding pan-Turkic strategy among CSTO members (Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan) and Turkmenistan coming along through the opening of the Nakhchivan corridor. Moreover, the Azeri military endeavour has, once again, shown the transactional approach of Turkey to NATO members, given how it prefers to cooperate with Azerbaijan and Russia instead of the US and the EU. This comes as no surprise considering the poor record of the last years, its project of striking gas deals with Moscow, its aim to keep relying on Russia’s fossil fuels, the TurkStream project, and its broadly stated aim at creating a pan-Turkic alliance complete with key geostrategic projects, all very China-friendly. Equally, the EU’s hopes for an inclusive solution were misplaced, given Azerbaijan’s ambiguous policy between Russia and the West, the strategic business ties to Moscow, including the one between SOCAR and Gazprom that supplies extra Russian gas to the Caucasian country in order to keep its flows steady and expand trade to Turkey, Georgia, and, crucially, to Europe, also through the Southern Gas Corridor. For Armenia, this would mean keeping on relying on Russia strategically.


As Turkey triumphantly stated, “the Igdir-Nakhchivan gas pipeline project we have launched will further strengthen our cooperation with Azerbaijan in the energy sector, and will also contribute to the supply of gas to Europe”. Azeri Minister of Digital Development has hailed the project as a vital “part for the Middle Corridor ''. Azerbaijan’s Rashad Mammadov stressed, “I can say that the Zangezur corridor will create new transport opportunities not only for Azerbaijan but also for the whole region. This corridor will provide the shortest road link between China and Europe and will promote closer integration between Europe and Asia''. It effectively goes hand in hand with the preservation of the Belt and Silk Road Initiative, such as through Baku International Maritime Trade Port as a part of the long-term anti-Western strategy by China by breaking into the South Caucasus, the last barrier to China's mastery of the vital routes to the EU. It could also present military aspects hinted at by the Defence Ministry of Azerbaijan to his Chinese counterpart in 2018 and by a relative deal signed.


Zagenzur has also been hailed by Moscow’s FM’s spokesperson as having “significant potential” while, upon signing the 2020 ceasefire, Putin himself praised the geostrategic implications of the project, no doubt with an eye to the Middle East, Turkey, and Iran and according to the 2023 Foreign Policy Concept. Armenia’s negative response is ascribed squarely to its ties to Iran. This assumption, while not entirely incorrect, points to the need to control the route in order to preserve its security. Azerbaijan described it as a corridor and declared it was negotiating it “not with Armenia, but with Russia”, signalling the unimportance of Armenia as an equal partner and Moscow’s opportunity to cut the losses from the failed quick military operation in Ukraine.


Additionally, by opening this second project, Georgia would also be sidelined as desired by Russia despite the Georgian Dream government’s effort to balance ties with the West, Russia and China and, apparently, forgetful of the potential of the Lapis Lazuli corridor through its ports of Poti and Batumi. In the geopolitical race between the US and China, the latter has stepped up its game by striking, in 2023, a deal with pivotal Georgia to maximise the benefits from the Middle Corridor to the EU. Georgia’s Anaklia port project, unveiled by China’s Chou Tsien’s enthusiastic momentum given the need to boost EU-China logistics and against the Western need to curb China and Moscow, was matched by David Saganelidze’s interest in reducing “cargo transportation from China to Europe”. Georgia has also signed a rail deal with Kazakhstan in order to reduce China-Europe logistical distance through the Trans Caspian International Route in the spirit of the 2022-2027 Middle Corridor Map. Anti-western narratives, justifying the opening of new routes from China to Europe, were extolled by Armenia’s political scientist Poghosyan.


With the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline already operative, the hypothetical green light to the Zangezur project seems redundant when not geopolitically inopportune. The Turko-Azeri resurgence will tip the balance in favour of the overreliance on the ambitious Turkic allies and strengthen all the anti-Western forces, China first, to the detriment of the Western position in the strategic routes there. Turko-Azeri cosying up with Moscow and Beijing squares with Turkey’s insistence on Moscow’s idea of the so-called 3+3 Caucasus platform with its objective of allowing the said project to cross Armenia’s Syunik region that is also looked upon favourably by Iran, given Armenia’s refusal to allow it as proposed, thus echoing the Turko-Azeri interest in being their sole arbiters. Iran’s role is subject to fresh negotiations, thus showing Azerbaijan’s unreliability and mere transactional role as a gas supplier to the EU. The proposed construction of the Astara Cargo Terminal along the International North-Sound Transport Corridor will effectively expedite cargo transportation from Bandar Abbas to Russia and from China to Europe, thus making East Zangezur fundamental for the region and the Middle East, India, and South-East Africa.


Given the nature of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and the Belt and Road Initiative sponsored by China, the proposed Zangezur corridor would expedite transportation of Chinese goods to Europe, thus making long-term disenfranchisement more arduous, challenge long-term Western preeminence and jeopardise Georgia’s and Armenia’s EuroAtlantic prospects and possibility of becoming strategic pivots for the West in the region. One can expect Russia to give practical support to this last Chinese venture into regional expansionism in order not to fall into irrelevance. The Turko-Azeri project will strengthen China’s position regionally by boosting Iran’s dependence on it and, ironically, providing life support for the theocratic regime. The two Turkic countries are also intent on cooperating with China, strengthening ties and establishing key strategic projects that go against the Western long-term objective of opposing any attempt at regional meddling by the superpower and isolating Russia strategically. As Cosco Pacific, China Merchants Holdings (CMHI) and CIC Capital highlighted their share acquisition in Turkey’s Kumport Terminal, it is a project in a “strategic location along the Silk Road Economic Belt”.


Territorial security-wise, given Moscow’s loss of influence with Armenia opting for an EU mission there instead of a CSTO one, the landlocked country’s security could suffer a severe blow southward as Moscow has proven with Ukraine and Azerbaijan with the EU’s hopes for honouring the promise not to resort to a military solution in Nagorno Karabakh. Russia, Turkey, and Azerbaijan firmly opposed an EU mission in Armenia, thus signalling once again that little divergences do not matter when pursuing Armenia’s isolation by building projects and ad hoc ties to curb the EU and the US.


In the absence of a Western brokered comprehensive and sustainable agreement between Azerbaijan and Armenia as equal counterparts that address regional concerns and clearly define borders, Turko-Azeri bonding is problematic. The EU and the US should put forward a counter strategy to isolate the two allies and relieve Armenia from the threat of Azerbaijan trying to invade its southern territory.


The closing of the Lachin corridor, despite the reiterated Western request to open it for humanitarian help, to get the opening of Zangezur, has finally dispelled the search for just ensuring the territorial integrity and proved the Azeri’s encompassing strategy for regional pre-eminence and Armenia’s isolation. However, Armenia and the President of the EU, Charles Michel, Zangezur stated it could constitute the basis for a broad peace agreement that puts the two neighbours on an equal footing by sharing according to good practices. The peace agreement should be under the sole auspices of the US and EU without Russia’s and Turkey’s veto. However, it is impossible for Azerbaijan to accept any agreement not involving its powerful backers. Therefore, a Western mission, similar to Kosovo, should be deployed in order to ensure Azerbaijan does not transgress and Turkey and Russia refrain from meddling.


Regarding the possibility of a Russian military base in Abkhazia, the war in Ukraine amply dispelled the rational choice theory despite its integration within Western markets. This makes soft and hard power essential in deterring those countries showing contempt for War and Armed conflict law. There is a need to sanction the method with which Turkey and Azerbaijan achieved the putsch because it could embolden the rogues in the International Arena who intend to resort to brutality to solve regional issues. Azerbaijan’s legal insistence on territorial integrity cannot justify a military solution instead of a very much-needed Western brokered deal and super-partes involvement. It should not be the prelude to regional militarism, expansion and encroachment to which the Turko-Azeri axis points. Mere recommendation to sanction, such as the ones voted by the European Parliament, is not enough in the face of blatant militarism and, in the case of the remainder of Russian peacekeepers in Nagorno Karabakh, as the Kremlin’s spokesperson hinted, will also require heavy Western military deployment on the Armenian border.



Source: Tillotoma Foundation


Western Multi-level Strategy


The West cannot aspire to supplant China and eliminate the Russian threat permanently, one being directly controlled by the Chinese Communist Party the other having historically deeper cultural roots in the region. In the face of the Chinese and Russian one sided approach to organic integration and institutionalism, the region needs more Western activism through armed diplomacy, broad politico-economic integration by investments, and coercive countermeasures to limit the risks posed by the transactional policy among the South Caucasian countries with China and Russia. The risk that transactional policy will lead to a more robust integration in the spirit of “multilateralism”, as expressed by China’s vice President, should never be underestimated, given the many implications it might have, as it is, for example, proven by “The Legal Status of the Caspian Sea”.


Therefore, innovation, trade, and production should be planned according to the 2023 Joint Communication on European Economic Security and the 2022 US National Security Strategy. By taking as an example the ratio behind sanctions on Russian vital dependencies to the West, the collective West and its Asian allies orbiting around the US should try to offer better service for the countries linked to China and Russia that are deepening ties with them in order to get those same commodities. The EU’s Global Gateway and the US’ Joint Statement on Cooperation on Global Supply Chains is an answer to China’s and Russia's broad infrastructure projects by using privates and the work on data securitisation, communication, and surveillance methods.


The West should invest in the long-term diversification strategy in order to limit its dependence on gas and oil according to the Paris Agreement and for the EU to counterbalance the Baku Initiative, given also the doubts regarding the inability to provide the amount agreed upon through the development of the TransCaspian pipeline through Turkmenistan by the American TransCaspian Resources. Since genuine de-risking or de-coupling is of no priority to the Turko-Azeri allies, sanctions should target Russian gas channeled through SOCAR and Turkish state and non-State entities that, to boot, aim to become first in terms of container freight and become energy transit hubs. It will also have major geopolitical changes for which hydrocarbon-reliant countries will be doubly affected. Such costly projects, such as the Zangezur corridor sponsored, will become redundant and problematic for regional stability.


It is prudent to prevent Azerbaijan from developing the possibility to diversify its revenues perspective and become more omnipresent in the European market, thus irrevocably binding the Chinese market with Central Asia. Given the Turko-Azeri gas pipeline linking Turkey’s gas grid with the exclave, the West will have to help Armenia to ensure the blockade of Nakhchivan as China will arguably use it by boosting business opportunities and more and, ironically, relieve Iran in its anti-western crusade. It would be part of the answer to a new anti-western alliance that could politically weaken the US-led bloc and Europe itself given the existence of the International North-South Transport Corridor and the Transport Corridor Europe - Caucasus - Asia.


The West should firmly spearhead the Euro-Atlantic path of Armenia and Georgia to counter the anti-western approach of the other regional players involved. It follows that investments on transports and logistics and the opening of an American military base in Armenia and Georgia are strategic to deter the Russo-Chinese influence and the Azeri and Russian aggression respectively. It would present them with the opportunity to become independent and establish permanent ties to the West. More military involvement should serve to keep firmer roots in the area.


As Azerbaijan and Russia will increase their cooperation and activism, Armenia and Georgia should be the focus of a strategy to deter further territorial reconfiguration. The US-Armenia joint military drill should go beyond the 1994 NATO partnership for peace. It requires EU and US increased support, not least military, by profiting from Armenia’s refusal to sign a CSTO defence aid deal, signing a proper defence deal with Western powers and proceeding with arming Armenia to help its army start meeting NATO standards. It will require Armenia’s resolve to exit the CSTO and the EEU, expel Russian peacemakers and shut down the Russian military base.


Regarding Georgia, as Irakli Beraia put it, NATO needs to speed up the integration process that would help disentangle the country, as the EU needs to offer the membership status to pave the way to Europeanisation as Moscow continues to destabilise and threatens to intervene through potential annexations of both Abkhazia and South Ossetia, thus opening a new front. In the interim, the EU mission in the country should go with ad hoc NATO involvement to counter the possible opening of a Russian military base on the Black Sea coast of occupied Abkhazia.


Conclusions


The transactional relations the West should entertain with the Caspian countries should be matched by deeper ties with the regional actors that, despite evident internal constraints and contradictions, aspire to integrate with the EU and NATO and seek a diversification policy. It will progressively favour the choice of privileging ties to the West.


The rapport between the West and Azerbaijan is purely transactional, thus becoming fundamental for the EU to treat it as a gas supplier and no ally for strategic diversification. The same goes, albeit alarmingly, with NATO member Turkey further in opposition to NATO principles and values. The EU should stop appeasing the pan-Turkic objectives and acquiescing to its project involving directly or indirectly China and Russia in the spirit of Erdogan’s motto of “the world is bigger than five” and Aliyev’s view of a multipolar world as a “guarantee of stability”.


Finally, Armenia should establish closer ties with Georgia that would oppose Turkey, Azerbaijan, Russia and Iran by dropping past grievances that play in their hands to expand the Western front against regional Empires and China wanting to appropriate vital routes to Europe.




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