Crimea sneezes, and the Caucasus gets a cold – why some border disputes won’t go away

The Crimean annexation was a  shockwave that sent ripples throughout the region: how Russia’s behavior in the peninsula is worrying her smaller south Caucasus neighbours. Givi Gigitashvili explains the conflicts that define the region, and how the interrelation of these countries is more complex than you might think.

Six years after Vladimir Putin’s gamble in Georgia, the international community came up against a resurrection of the Kremlin’s imperialist nature. Consequently, Ukraine in essence joined the ranks of South Caucasus countries, in that by instigating frozen conflict in eastern Ukraine, Russia preserved an extensive lever over Kiev, enabling Moscow to have influence on the political destiny and foreign policy of Ukraine.

The crisis has noticeably fuelled anxieties about national security in three South Caucasus states that have bumped up the issue of security in the list of state priorities.[1] In addition, the Crimean case proved again that when looking for solutions to such intractable geopolitical problems, Russia’s influence should not be underestimated, since the Kremlin can apply coercive measures against neighbors at any time to attain its political goals. On logical grounds, Russia’s belligerent move toward Ukraine made restoration of territorial integrity of Georgia and Azerbaijan less promising. What is more, frail backing of the international community for Ukraine forced responsible stakeholders in South Caucasus countries to acknowledge that in case of military aggression against them, the international community and NGOs are likely to be reluctant in offering tangible assistance. The South Caucasus must manage its own security.



Abkhazia and South Ossetia conflicts (Georgia)

  In 2008, Russia for the first time utilized the rationale of “defending Russian compatriots overseas” to justify its intervention in Georgia. Likewise, violation of these ‘Russian compatriot’s’ rights, and Russia’s responsibility to react, was one of the legal justifications for the incursion in Crimea.

Since the outbreak of clashes in Eastern Ukraine, Georgian society has been observing a bunch of discreet statements by the ruling coalition “Georgian Dream” about Russia’s onslaught on Ukraine. Evidently, an incumbent government remains indifferent on Ukraine, to avoid infuriating the Kremlin. According to their logic, carefully worded announcements are much more insightful if they match their “constructive dialogue” with their Northern neighbour.

In contrast, the bitter reality suggests that Georgia’s appeasement policy with Russia, coupled with an absence of any functioning resistance to Kremlin’s aberrant activities can further encourage the Kremlin, exacerbating Putin’s confidence. Irrespective of Tbilisi’s effort to stabilize relations with Moscow, Russia sticks to its irreversible strategy toward Georgia. Shortly after the beginning of Crimean crisis, Russia Lawmakers from State Duma have ratified a so-called treaty on ‘Alliance and Strategic Partnership’ with Georgia’s breakaway regions – Abkhazia followed by signing the same treaty with South Ossetia a couple of months later. [2]


The so-called treaty implies founding a common space of defense and security as well as establishment of a common military group involving Russian-Abkhazian, and Russian-South Ossetian armed forces. Moreover, this treaty entails reorganization of the “legislation” of de facto territories along Russian lines. This shows Russia’s determination to gradually annex Abkhazia and South Ossetia after Crimea. Apart from this, gradual settlement of Russian people on the territory of Abkhazia along with issuing passports to local inhabitants, could lead to demands for a Crimea-style referendum, aiming at Abkhazia’s accession to Russian federation.

When Russia publicly voted on the treaty with Abkhazia in May 2014, Georgia gained a unique opportunity for the revival of the international community’s attention toward the Georgian conflict due to the similarity with Crimea, which NGOs remain concerned about. It would further damage Russia’s position, and the Kremlin would have to pay more for Crimea and Abkhazia concurrently.[3] However, due to Georgian Dream’s weak cooperation with Ukraine’s incumbent authority, and unwillingness to go into exposed confrontation with Russia on the international level, they are confined to formal condemnation. Meanwhile Russia’s keeps on alienating of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia.

The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict (between Armenia and Azerbaijan)

Azerbaijan’s foreign policy is exclusive in the region, since Baku strives to maintain balance between Russia and the European Union without tilting significantly toward one or the other, a policy aimed to keep away from participation in geopolitical competitions. Immediately after eruption of Crimean crisis, Baku resolutely propped up the territorial integrity of Ukraine, since Crimea embodies the detrimental pattern for Azerbaijan concerning Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

Azerbaijan has been seeking to avert any negative repercussions of Russia’s actions in Ukraine that would affect the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict by creating unwelcome international legal precedent. Meanwhile, President Ilham Aliyev accused the West of applying double standards: the West imposed sanctions against Russia for its activities in Crimea, while sanctions against Armenia have never been in the agenda of international society for the occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh.[4]

The consensus view seems to suggest that in the light of Crimean crisis, Azerbaijan has decided to act more accountably and preventively on the subject of Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. On these grounds, akin with Georgia, Baku acts relatively diffidently, forestalling Russia’s further wrath. Additionally, o-chair’s position of Russia in the OSCE Minsk mediation group in the Nagorno-Karabakh peace talks further exhorted Baku of being more prudent while choosing its responses on Crimean issue. If we look from the positive side, annexation of Crimea has inadvertently forced the Western community to rethink other protracted conflicts in the post-Soviet space. This pushes disputes like the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process to the top of the international agenda.

Each power in the region has a very significant stake in this conflict, meaning that “war in Nagorno-Karabakh will by no means be a local one”.[5] Obviously, if the war breaks out between Armenia and Azerbaijan, other regional countries, especially Turkey and Russia, would be compelled to engage, which they don’t want to do.

Therefore, after Crimea, it is in the interests of all the regional stakeholders to keep the status quo in Nagorno-Karabakh, including Baku at this point, due to amplified interests in Azerbaijan’s energy resources from the West. But as tensions rise, an accidental war looks more likely. And if negotiations fail, especially as Azerbaijan’s energy based economic growth looks set to slow within a few years, then the rhetoric of nationalism, and war, might be useful for the regime. “The idea would be to distract attention from the social problems and concomitant discontent that waning revenues might well trigger”.[6]


Serzh Sargsyan, the Armenian President

Serzh Sargsyan, the Armenian President, whose balancing act between two superpowers makes his country a possible cause for concern in the OSCE.

Armenia, which is locked in “geopolitical sandwich”, having broken diplomatic relations with two of four neighbours ,has managed to amaze EU officials with its unanticipated rebuttal of signing an Association Agreement with the EU. This shows that Russia’s hand is felt in Armenia more than was previously thought. Armenia has gone on to join the Eurasian Economic Union.

On logical grounds, Nagorno-Karabakh conflict was one of the key driving factors of Erevan’s decision, insofar as military alliance with Russia represents the crucial component of Armenia’s national security. Along with bunch of benefits, accession to EEU brought Armenia an opportunity of getting sophisticated military equipment from Russia at a fair price.

Seemingly unresolved, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is the strongest lever over Armenia in Russia’s hands in comparison with other regional conflicts (Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine). Besides, Armenia’s accession to EEU clearly reveals political stakeholders’ fear of change in this frozen conflict.

According to Armenian supporters of Eurasian integration, the Crimean precedent was a good message for their country to commence the reunification of Armenia’s historical lands.[7] Likewise, together with 11 other countries, Armenia voted against a resolution, supporting Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. As the Armenian ambassador to Ukraine had to explain, Armenia’s decision was partly motivated by historical voting in the UN by Ukraine in favour of Azerbaijan over Armenia.[8] There are also stories of Ukrainian weapons being sold to Azerbaijan. There are worries that Armenia’s behavior could jeopardize the OSCE Minsk peace talk group, chaired by Russia, the U.S. and France. [9] These fears haven’t however yet been realized.

The Ukrainian crisis has further induced Armenia to request membership in Eurasian union as well as domestic support has significantly increased toward EEU integration. However, due to Kazakhstan resistance to Armenia’s inclusion into EEU together with the unrecognized republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is legally still a part of Azerbaijan, Armenia had to agree to exclude the territory from the union. The border between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia remains open.[10]

As we can see, Crimea is a problem that sends ripples across eastern Europe and central Asia. It’s causing everyone to reassess their relationship with Russia, particularly the South Caucasus, who must prioritize national security. Hopes for the restoration of territorial integrity have been dashed for Georgia and Azerbaijan, and Russia will exert its influence to make sure that change doesn’t come any time soon.

Givi Gigitashvili studies at the Centre for European Union-Russia Studies at the University of Tartu in Estonia.

[1] Inayeh Alina, 2014. “Regional repercussions of the Ukraine crisis”. Europe policy paper 3/2014. The German Marshall Fund of the United States. Available from http://www.gmfus.org/publications/regional-repercussions-ukraine-crisis-challenges-six-eastern-partnership-countries accessed: 20.03.2015

[2] “Russia ratifies “Alliance treaty with breakaway Abkhazia”, Agenda.ge, 23 January, 2015. Available from: http://agenda.ge/news/28561/eng accessed: 04.02.2015.

[3] Gigitashvili, Givi. 2015. “Georgia’s ambivalence on Ukrainian crisis”. BeyondtheEU.com, Kiev, 2015.

[4] Valiyen Anar. 2014. “The Ukrainian Crisis and implication for Azerbaijan”. Caucasus analytical digest. Available from: http://www.laender-analysen.de/cad/pdf/CaucasusAnalyticalDigest67-68.pdf. accessed: 15.03.2015.

[5] Guliyev Parvin, 2014. “The Impact of the Ukrainian crisis on the foreign policy of Azerbaijan republic”. December 23. 4liberty.eu. available from: http://4liberty.eu/impact-ukrainian-crisis-foreign-policy-azerbaijan-republic/ Seen: 20.03.2015.

[6] International crisis group, 2011. “Armenia and Azerbaijan: preventing War”. February 2011. Europe Briefing N 60. Tbilisi/Baku/Yerevan/Istanbul/Brussels. Available from: http://www.crisisgroup.org/en/publication-type/media-releases/2011/europe/armenia-and-azerbaijan-preventing-war.aspx accessed: 11.03.2015.

[7] Suchkov, Maxim. 2014. “Echoes of the Ukraine crisis in the South Caucasus”. October 24. Carnegie Moscow Center. Available from: http://carnegie.ru/eurasiaoutlook/?fa=57015 accessed. 20.03.2015.

[8] Manukyan, Andranik. 2014. “Armenia did not betray Ukraine”. 5 April. Today.ua. Available from: http://www.segodnya.ua/world/posol-armeniya-ne-pre davala-ukrainu-510265.html accessed: 21.03.2015.

[9] Ter-Matevosyan Vahram, 2014. “Armenia and the Ukrainian Crisis: Finding the Middle ground”. 23 December. Caucasus analytical digest No 67-68. Available from: http://www.css.ethz.ch/publications/pdfs/CAD-67-68-14-17.pdf accessed: 21.03.2015.

[10] Schenkkan Nate, 2014. “Eurasian Disunion”, Foreign affairs. December 26. Available from: http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/142745/nate-schenkkan/eurasian-disunion. Seen 24.03.2015.


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