The countries in the South Caucasus—Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia—have managed their relationships with Russia in a variety of ways, all different. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the former republics on the periphery, orbiting the Moscow center, became sovereign, independent states, but the center remained the same, backed by power and persuasion. The three countries have been grouped together because of their geographic proximity, but they face varying security concerns, domestic political situations, and economic realities. This, in turn, has shaped their individual relationships to Russia since 1991.
The countries orbiting Moscow faced unchangeable as well as malleable factors, that affected how the Caucasus countries crafted their foreign policies towards Russia. In this article, SSU will discuss some of the factors that affect each country’s foreign policy vis-à-vis Moscow. All three Caucasus countries have managed their overlording northern neighbor by courting it to some extent, bound by their shared interests and geographic proximity. Yerevan, Tbilisi, and Baku have all realized that they cannot escape reality, they remain in the underbelly of Russia’s southern sphere.
Armenia: The Beholden Partner
Armenia’s relationship with Russia from 1991 into the present has been shaped by the movement for the recognition of Nagorno-Karabakh as a part of Armenia. But more important for the relationship, is Armenia’s geopolitical reality. Armenia finds itself without significant natural resources, unlike Azerbaijan, and in a poor region for hydrocarbon transit, unlike Georgia. Armenia is economically dependent on Russia, its largest trading partner and energy supplier. Most of its military supplies come from Moscow, and regular loans from the Russian government help support its budget. In return, Armenia hosts the Russian military base, Gyumri, which Russia has used to rattle Armenian attention, to bring the smaller country to heel when it disobeys. Multiple times, Russia has pressured Armenia into shirking a closer relationship with the EU, forcing Yerevan instead into the less beneficial Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). Finally, because of the conflicts with Azerbaijan and, by extension, Turkey, Armenia has a dearth of influence in regional influence or relationships. It has a small partnership with Georgia, very little with Iran or China, and nothing to offer an opportunity to partner together and act as a counterweight to Russian influence. In the end, rather than managing its relationship with Russia, Armenia is much more the one being managed.
Georgia: The existential crisis
Since 1991, Georgia has oscillated between pragmatic cooperation with Russia, and rejection of Moscow, its power plays, and politics, while flirting with alignment with the West. Georgia’s elites have generally positioned themselves against Russian power, resenting the influence of Moscow on their politics. Politicians are often elected for their anti-Russian stance. Concurrently, however, the Kremlin has played a key role in backing candidates in Georgian elections. All presidents elected in Georgia since 1991 have focused on appointing key players in the Georgian foreign ministry to handle and negotiate with Russia on pragmatic issues, like borders, military bases, and transport routes. Its elites spend resources to keep Russian placated.
Despite animosity between the two countries, particularly regarding the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Georgia and Russia have cooperated on a number of policies, such as military cooperation during Russia’s first Chechen War and to ward off the threat of Islamic extremism. In managing Russia, however, Georgia is working alongside its own goals of closer integration with the West and being a regional power. Georgia was a member of the Russian-led CIS, but backed out of the agreement in August 2008, following the Russo-Georgian War, as part of a consistent trajectory of foreign policy away from Russia. It has pursued close rapprochement with the EU, particularly through the Eastern Partnership, and repeatedly attempted to join NATO, much to Russia’s chagrin. While the territorial integrity of Georgia plays an important role in the Caucasian country’s management of Moscow, history has proven that the leadership and policy is more pragmatic: Georgia wants cooperation with Russia, but is unwilling to sacrifice its relationship with the West. Tbilisi is constantly looking for the best deal for pragmatic gains, like regional transport, and respect for its sovereignty. Georgia needs Russia, but it is not sure or consistent in how to manage the relationship. Since Saakashvili’s fallout with Moscow, subsequent leaders have taken a more gentle approach in dealing with Russia, echoing the desire in local discourse to keep two-way dialogue flowing between the two.
Azerbaijan: The wary oil king
Azerbaijan has been and continues to be the wealthiest country in the South Caucasus by far, both in its natural resource endowment and its GDP. This has held constant since the mid-1990s. This has led to a strong “oil diplomacy,” whereby Azerbaijan has courted western companies for investment and interest in Azerbaijan. Over time, oil revenue and rapprochement with western countries has consolidated Azerbaijan’s domestic economic and political situation and ensured its economic independence from Russia.
Furthermore, Azerbaijan has used its oil wealth to invest in its fellow South Caucasus neighbor, Georgia. The State Oil Company of Azerbaijan, SOCAR, is one of the biggest investors in Georgia’s infrastructure like railroads, highways, and port terminals. Azerbaijan has no relationship with Armenia, nor does it seek one: the territorial dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh has effectively cut off all cooperation between the two. Azerbaijan has been attentive to Russia since 1991. The country joined the CIS in late 1993, and, as both countries are involved in the discussion of Caspian Sea rights, Azerbaijan keeps a close eye on Russian policy.
Azerbaijan is the most authoritative of the three Caucasian countries, and the legacy of the current leader, Ilham Aliyev, is traceable back to his father’s time working for the Soviet Politburo. But that link does not imply a strong Moscow-Baku connection; on the contrary, Aliyev has worked to consolidate his power in the country and block outside influence from Russia. A key facet of Aliyev’s time in power has been his leadership during the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Azerbaijan, like Georgia and Armenia, is largely shaped by threats to its territorial integrity. It, too, is part of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. But unlike Armenia, Azerbaijan does not enjoy the backing of Russia in the conflict. This is both a blessing and a curse. It has helped Azerbaijan to maintain its independence from Russia and not be manipulated on geopolitical or economic policy. On the other hand, it has made it harder for Azerbaijan to enforce its territorial integrity. At times, Russia has used the relationship with Azerbaijan to tighten the screws on Armenia by selling weapons or making overtures for economic deals at Armenia’s cost.
The conflict and the joint Russian-Armenian antagonism has forced Azerbaijan to develop other regional partnerships, which have kept it astride Russia. It has a strong relationship with Turkey, underscored by the ethnic Turkic links shared by the two. As noted above, Azerbaijan has also used its oil and natural resource might to court western oil companies, foiling Russia’s attempts to keep the country under heel. Overall, Azerbaijan’s wealth and natural resources make it easier to be overly concerned about Russia, and harder to pin down. Azerbaijan, like Georgia, has aspirations outside the regional sphere, and has been able to back those aspirations with oil deals and access to investment opportunity in the country.
It is difficult, if not impossible, to speak of any regional plan aimed at managing Russia: critics debate whether the three countries should even be grouped together as “the Caucasus,” given the disparity of variables amount them. And these variables, both inherited, unchangeable ones and those that are being actively shaped by events in the country as they work to build their sovereignty.
Armenia is overwhelmed by its role in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and is swallowed by Russia’s shadow in the conflict and in keeping stability in the country. Deprived of other partners, Armenia has little where else to turn. Georgia is driven by a push-and-pull relationship with Russia, dominated the issues of territorial integrity and its overtures to the west. This has resulted in Georgia’s need to build some relationship with Russia, but one that shifts. Azerbaijan is secure in its oil power and wealth, and has perhaps been the most successful of the three at keeping Russia at arm’s length, but still deals with the country with regards to the Caspian Sea and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. In managing the relationship with Russia, it is the sum total of pre-existing and developing factors that allows each country to act and react to its northern neighbor with the goal of securing domestic stability.