How The Russian-Ukrainian War (2022-2023) Could Change The Political And Military Balance In Both North And South Caucasus In The Years To Come
By Danish researcher Carsten Sander Christensen, PhD. (Dr.) in history and political science at the Institute Zachodni (University of Poznan), Master of Art in French and English language and culture (University of Aalborg)
Today, the Caucasus region receives much less attention among scholars and decision-makers than a few years ago. Eurasian security studies are currently dominated by the coverage of the armed conflict in east Ukraine and the turbulence in the Middle East. Since 2010 the North Caucasus has been more or less stable, but will it continue? And does the eternal inheritance of the Soviet Union still play an important role?
The South Caucasus, however, remains rather unstable due to its geopolitical fragility. As Russia and the United States find themselves in the midst of the most severe crisis in their relations since the end of the Cold War, their relationship in this sensitive part of Eurasia deserves every attention. If you, furthermore, consider that the two regional powers Türkiye and Iran have an increasing interest in the area, and especially Türkiye has got a stronghold in the region, the situation becomes more and more tense. Furthermore, the two neighbours and regional powers Türkiye and Iran interacting on their own. All seen from the future perspective of the ongoing Russian-Ukrainian war (2022-2023) and a past perspective from the era of the Soviet Union (1920-1991), it becomes a very interesting situation in the region.
However, Russia’s preoccupation with the war in Ukraine and its subsequently forced passiveness in the South Caucasus has created a security vacuum in the region, where it had previously established a military-political hegemony. The balance of power has shifted in favour of the Azerbaijani-Turkish nexus, creating a new geopolitical reality, which comes with both opportunities and challenges.
The Russian-Ukrainian War (2022-2023) – a prelude
The Russian-Ukrainian War began already in 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and Russian-backed separatist in Eastern Ukraine succeeded to control a greater part of the Donbas region on the border between Ukraine and Russia. The establishment of the breakaway regions of the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic that was the bridgehead for the war that started in February 2022. The war in the Donbas region has been simmering for several of those eight years and on February 24, 2022, the present war between Russia and Ukraine broke out.
In other words, the conflict in Ukraine has more or less set the military and political agenda in Kremlin in Moscow in more than eight years. The Caucasus region has slipped into the background in Moscow, to such an extent that one can start talking about a zone with an incipient security vacuum in a high-risk region. Here in the spring of 2023, there are no signs that the war will end for the time being. A ceasefire will be difficult to achieve because Ukraine will demand a total Russian withdrawal from all occupied territories in southern and eastern Ukraine on one hand. The Russians will not leave their occupied territories on the other hand.
But it is not only the Russian focus that is being shifted to Ukraine. USA, NATO and other western partners and their focus is also directed at Ukraine, and to a much greater extent in the area around the Baltic countries, which are all NATO members. Also other Russian border areas, like Moldova, have right now bigger interest than the Caucasus Region.
Georgia is the only country in the region that during the war 2022-2023 is designated as an allied partner of NATO in the Caucasus region. However, immediate negotiations on admission or closer military cooperation with NATO’s forces are not at all in the cards for a manageable future. On February 17, 2022, Georgian Minister of Defence, Juansher Burchuladze, was quoted – following a meeting with Norwegian general secretary Jens Stoltenberg in Brussels, as saying that joining NATO was the only way to preserve Georgia’s territorial integrity. Georgian President, Salome Zourabichvili, who took office in 2018, has, however, conceded that NATO membership might not be possible while Russia occupies Georgian territory, and therefore has sought to focus on membership of the EU. Georgia submitted its application for EU in May 2022.
The relations between NATO and Armenia and Azerbaijan are on a completely different level. Neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan has been in cooperation with NATO in many years. Even though an Armenian delegation visited Brussels on April 26, 2022, and Azerbaijan has completed several programs under NATOs SPS Program. Neither applications nor inclusion of the two countries in the defense alliance seem realistic before 2035. The same applies to Armenia’s and Azerbaijan’s relationship with the European Union. Here, too, one must conclude that eventual applications and approximations are probably after 2035. Apart from Georgia, only Türkiye has a real interest in possible membership of the European Union in the Caucasus Region. A Turkish membership, however, will to some extent shift the balance of power in the EU. Therefore, Turkish membership of the union does not have many chances in the next 10-15 years, either.
All in all a difficult situation for the countries in South Caucasia, because they are not a unity. Negotiations of membership with NATO and the European Union will require an agreement, at least on an overall level of all the states in the area.
Caucasus – a Region in the Russian and Eurasian sphere
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia declared itself the legal successor of the Caucasus Region – a role that Russia has played since the 1700s. Because 300 years ago, the gateway had become so important to the expanding Russian Empire and its connections to Asia that military force began to subjugate the land between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. After 1991, Russia began to make use of the different conflicts in the region, instead of helping the new independent states to find foothold. The new Russian stronghold was an important part of strengthening its new geostrategic power position in the Caucasus – a potential powder keg.
However, after the so-called end of the Cold War in 1990s, USA has joined the struggle for spheres of influence in different areas of the former Soviet Union like the Baltic States and in the South Caucasia. Also by supporting and helping the newly independent states that emerged from the apparent dissolution of the Soviet Union, in Central Asia and in the South-West corner of the former vast empire (Ukraine, Moldova etc.). Afghanistan and the Middle East, furthermore, became American strongholds in Asia. Especially the military actions in Iraq in the beginning of the 1990s, cemented the American dominance in the regions Middle East/South Caucasus. Hereby, the South Caucasus turned into a political playground of Russia, USA, Türkiye and Iran. Three decades after, the region still is such a playground, but the roles of the different powers are changing rapidly.
The Caucasus has always had a very central strategic location in the westernmost Eurasian / easternmost European region. The Caucasus region is the size of the European state of France, i.e. about 550,000 km2. The population is about 35 million in the mountainous region. The Caucasus region can be divided into three separate units, northwest, north and south, all of which are important to describe in order to understand the region’s past, present and future. The region was the only gateway over land when the Russians wanted to go to Persia or the Indian territories (today’s Pakistan, India and Bangladesh). The alternative was travels and expeditions through the desert areas of present-day Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan or Uzbekistan. Since the early middle Ages, there has been lively traffic between the peoples of the Russian steppes and the Asian hinterland. But as the centuries have passed, this relationship has changed.
NORTHWEST CAUCASUS (PART OF NORTH CAUCASUS)
The area consists of Krasnodar Krai and Stavropol Krai – an area of approx. 145,000 km2 and 10 million inhabitants. The area is totally integrated into the Russian society and the Orthodox Church in Russia. Muslims are a minority in the areas. Very strategically located in this region, is the administrative center of the Russian North and Northwest Caucasus – Pyatigorsk. A small provincial town with 150,000 inhabitants – 150 kilometers north of Mount Elbrus.
The north-west Caucasian area is not characterized by political unrest or military guerilla uprisings – neither in the Soviet era nor after 1991. And therefore not much attention from the international community in this region either. More than 80% of the population in the area is ethnic Russians. The region’s Russian rise is due to the conquests of the Russian Empire in the late 1700s. The nomads in the areas were displaced to the south and many of the Russian military camps became the basis for Russification of the area, mostly steppes.
NORTH CAUCASUS (CISCAUCASIA)
North Caucasia is approx. 180.000 km2 with 10 million inhabitants. Ethnic Russians constitute less than one-third of the total population at 2,857,851 (28.83%) according to the 2021 Census, and are at least 15% of the population in North Ossetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, and Karachay-Cherkessia. A diverse assortment of mostly Muslim North Caucasian speaking ethnic and tribal groups form the remainder. The North Caucasus is Russia’s only Muslim-majority district, and is the only federal district that does not have an ethnic Russian majority.
The regions of Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia, Ossetia and the Karbadino-Balkarian Republic are all well-known names in international Medias in the last four decades. Military uprisings, terrorist actions (Beslan school siege in 2004) and political disorder are very normal in the region. Especially, the First and Second Chechen War (1994-2000) tormented the North Caucasia in a very severe way.
SOUTH CAUCASUS (TRANSCAUCASIA)
South Caucasia is approx. 200.000 km2 with 16 million inhabitants. The region is a patchwork of religion, political differences and affiliation with the surrounding great powers. Armenia is Christians, Georgia orthodox and Azerbaijan Muslims. Politically Armenia is a Russian stronghold, Azerbaijan a Turkish stronghold and Georgia is an American stronghold (or is it?)
Like North Caucasus, the southern parts are tormented by conflicts, in Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia and also in Ngorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan. Especially, the wars in the small Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan have tormented South Caucasus in a lots of years.
The author of the article comes from a country that experiences somewhat the same phenomenon. During the Cold War, Denmark was super-strategically located on the edge of the Baltic Sea. The large Russian naval port in Saint Petersburg was, after all, ice-free, Murmansk was not always, and therefore the Russian Navy’s vessel always had to pass through Danish straits and belts to get out of the Baltic Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. This gave Denmark a unique position in NATO and other organizations. Around 1991 the Cold War ended and the strategic advantage diminished considerably. Another reason, however, was also that the Russians began to orient themselves more and more towards Asia. The naval port in Vladivostok therefore received an increased focus and was expanded.
Russia’s increased orientation towards China and the rest of the Far East has also affected the Caucasus region. Reached which also becomes clear when you look at the consequences of the Russian-Ukrainian war 2022-2023. And with the declining interest from Europe, the USA and other countries in the Western Hemisphere, yes, the structures of the political and military structure in the Caucasus region are changing. And this very rapidly.
The Eternal Legacy from the Soviet Union (1921-1991)
By the end of 1921 Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan had all come under Bolshevik governance. In Moscow discussions went on with regard to the future representation of the three Transcaucasian states. It was decided that a Transcaucasian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic (TSFSR) would be constructed, which represented the three republics in Moscow, while they retained their own national governments. Only Georgia rebelled against the directives from Moscow. At least until 1923 there were still some other political parties that the Bolsheviks tolerated, but by 1923 and 1929, in all Transcaucasia republics, other political parties were abolished by decision of the authorities in Moscow.
For the next 70 years, The Caucasus was under Soviet Rule, with severe consequences for the local structure of the three countries in the South Caucasus but also for the self-governing Muslim region in the North Caucasus. More than 30 years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, there are still regional conflicts as well in the North Caucasus as in the South Caucasus. Regional conflicts that will flare up from the very moment that Russia turns its focus even more towards Ukraine and the Baltic states.
The Ngorno-Karabakh conflict began in 1988 and very soon after the independence of Georgia in April 1991, conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia broke out. All conflicts that from a Russian point of view are important in order to maintain a Russian supremacy in the Caucasian area. Georgia, that is the main problem in present Russian Policy what depends Caucasia, will be paralyzed. And Russia will quickly be able to pull on both political and military threads, if real Georgian negotiations with the EU and NATO begin to taper off.
The Russian-Ukrainian War (2022-2023) – an interlude
The new security vacuum in Caucasus region opens up to new powers to seek influence in the region. Türkiye is actually the most active political player in the region. It is increasingly difficult to ship cargo between Europe and China via Russian and Belarusian territory due to recent sanctions. According to the new World Bank report, the Impact of the War in Ukraine on Global Trade and Investment (2022), logistics disruptions have affected almost all trade flows between Russia and Europe, causing significant delays and inflating already high global freight prices. China-EU shipments along the Northern Corridor, which connects China to Europe via Kazakhstan, Russia, and Belarus, have decreased by 40 per cent since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This situation has increased the appeal of Türkiye’s Trans-Caspian, Middle Corridor initiative which bypasses both Russia and Iran.
Among the many significant geopolitical consequences of Russia’s war against Ukraine has been the reinvigoration of the Middle Corridor, both as a regional economic zone comprising Central Asia, the Caucasus, and Türkiye but also as an increasingly attractive alternative route between Europe and China. Russia’s war has disrupted overland connectivity via the New Eurasian Land Bridge, also known as Northern Corridor, which passes through – now heavily sanctioned – Russian and Belarusian territory.
The Middle Corridor is an initiative that seeks to connect Türkiye to China via Georgia, Azerbaijan, the Caspian Sea, and then either 1) Kazakhstan or 2) Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan. For the Asian Development Bank Institute, two major achievements of the Middle Corridor initiative are the Trans-Kazakhstan railroad, which upon completion in 2014 shaved 1,000 km off of the east-west transport route across the country, and the Baku–Tbilisi–Kars (BTK) railway, which became operational in 2017. The BTK railway, or the “Iron Silk Road”, reopened direct rail trans-port between the Caucasus region and Türkiye following the closure of the railroad between Armenia and Türkiye resultant of the Armenia–Azerbaijan conflict in the early 1990s. The opening of freight transportation between Azerbaijan and Türkiye not only came to complete the shortest rail-way corridor between China and Europe but it also enhanced connectivity between Türkiye and the states of Central Asia and the South Caucasus. Partially financed by the Japan International Cooperation Agency and the European Investment Bank, the Marmaray tunnel in Istanbul became the first underwater railway in the world, linking Beijing and London via the Bosporus Strait.
While the Middle Corridor will not be able to fully replace the Northern Corridor, regional integration along the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route is likely to increase its potential at the expense of Russia in the long-term. Ankara’s close cultural ties with the Central Asian republics combined with the latter’s willingness to diversify their foreign relations away from Moscow and Beijing provide Türkiye with greater leverage in the region. The EU and Türkiye share a common interest in enhancing Eurasian connectivity for several reasons: to promote peace and prosperity in the South Caucasus and Central Asia, to enhance commercial access to Central Asia, to increase the resilience of European supply chains, and to diversify European energy supplies. Strengthening Eurasian connectivity would also work to balance Russian, Chinese, and Iranian influence in Central Asia.
Russia and the importance of the Caucasus Region
The Caucasus region is important to Russia for at least six reasons. First, the region is of great geo-strategic importance in linking the European continent with the Middle East and the Black Sea with the Caspian Sea. This is particularly important given the energy riches found in the Caspian Sea and further illustrated by the pipelines – the Baku–Tbilisi–Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline and the South Caucasus Pipeline (gas).
Second, the region is the scene of unresolved conflicts in Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia and South Ossetia which hold a potential for escalation. The conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh in particular has been highlighted since 2014, when the number of armed incidents started to rise, peaking during the “Four Day War” in April 2016. The unresolved conflicts in the post-Soviet space benefit Russia in the sense that they guarantee Moscow’s leverage on the countries concerned. This is particularly true when it comes to South Ossetia and Abkhazia in the Georgian area. Although these conflicts have not stopped Georgia strengthening contacts with the EU and NATO, they prevent Georgia from achieving membership in these Western organizations. NATO, in particular, explicitly does not accept new members that have unresolved conflicts with their neighbours.
Third, as noted above, the South Caucasus is still perceived by Moscow as a matter of rivalry between Russia and the West. The three South Caucasus states have taken different positions in their relations to Russia and the West. For Georgia, fears and threat perceptions concerning Russia have strengthened the wish for a closer relationship with the EU and NATO. Armenia has taken the opposite position, linking its economy and security to Russia. Russia has a military base in Armenia and Russia’s Border Troops guard Armenia’s border with Türkiye, a NATO country. Azerbaijan, finally, is in the middle, keeping a distance from both sides, a position made possible by its own sizeable energy resources.
Fourth, the region’s proximity to the Middle East and the recent wars in Syria and Iraq play an increasingly important role in the Caucasus. The key dynamic is Islamist extremism. Russia has been fighting Islamist extremism in the North Caucasus since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Since 2014, when the Islamic State (IS) declared the Caucasus as a priority region and sphere of interest, the issue of Jihadi warriors going from the Caucasus to fight in the Middle East and, presumably, returning to continue the fight in their own neighbourhood has been added to the agenda both in Russia and in the South Caucasus.
Fifth, to keep up the political and military stabilization of the North Caucasus. In 2023, the North Caucasus and Ramzan Kadyrov (Head of the Chechen Republic) are framed as a growing liability for Moscow and its internal political stability. This policy memo investigates how the war in Ukraine is changing power dynamics in the North Caucasus by looking at Kadyrov’s governance methods, his regime’s role in Ukraine, and the potential for unrest in the region. Whereas the Chechen leader has used the war, his Kadyrovite forces, and his teenage sons to display ever-increasing loyalty to the Kremlin, Ukraine’s Chechen battalions, portions of the diaspora, and a significant number of North Caucasians are aligned against Moscow, resulting in growing social and political confrontations in the region.
Sixth, the Russians want to prevent Türkiye and Iran from gaining too much power in the region. This will mean that the Russians cannot continue their policy of escalation. It will also mean that the Muslims will be outnumbered in the region, which will create a completely new scenario in the Caucasus Region. Something that in the not so distant future could mean that Russia’s role in the region would be very limited.
If anti-war protests in Russia had been limited in the North Caucasus before the call for war mobilization, Moscow and regional leaders are now facing a political force they had not witnessed in many years, even under the Caucasus Emirate. Combined with heavy losses sustained by North Caucasians during the first phase of the Russian invasion, the table is set for political instability to grow in the region. Such unrest is also fed by a growing political mobilization outside of the North Caucasus targeted at the region.
Although it is easy to depict the North Caucasus as a powder keg ready to explode, leading to a domino effect in Russia, the situation on the ground appears more complex. While strong political actors like Ramzan Kadyrov are drawn away from the region and growing grievances and political struggles are fostered across the region, the grassroots forces remained ill-equipped to challenge Moscow’s control over the North Caucasus. In the context of Western sanctions and Russia’s exclusion from the European Court of Human Rights, Moscow is free to address any existing issues in the North Caucasus through heavy coercive means. Without a clear commitment from external factors, including the European Union and the United States, Russia has the tools to maintain its control over its southern border.
However, the fallouts of the war in Ukraine, combined with the mobilization within the Diaspora and the local population, set the table for growing unrest in the region. To take advantage of it and support that mobilization, Western actors should increase resources dedicated to human right advocacy in the region and, most importantly, avoid stigmatizing North Caucasians because of their Russian citizenship. Such collective responsibility will hinder North Caucasians from seeking asylum in Western countries as well as prevent them from fully engaging in the mass mobilization against the Russian state.
Türkiye and the Caucasus Region
Following the dissolution of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), Türkiye was among the first countries to recognize the independence of Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia. Türkiye has developed good relations with Azerbaijan and Georgia in the following years. However, a similar momentum could not be reached in Turkish-Armenian relations due to the occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh by Armenia and Armenia’s negative attitude towards Türkiye. Following Armenia’s occupation of Kalbajar region of Azerbaijan in 1993, the border between the two countries was closed.
Türkiye has always had a long-standing links with the Caucasus Region. The area was, for a long time, the scene of intense competition between the Persian-Sassanid and Ottoman Empires, before its gradual incorporation into the Russian Empire during the first half of the 19th century. Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Türkiye has become a major regional player through direct investments, and the trade and transportation links tying the Caspian basin to the outside world over Georgia in circumvention of Russian territory, most important among them the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline. But the weight of both history and ethnic kinship has distorted the operation of material interests, even under Ankara’s new, zero-problems foreign policy.
In line with Türkiye’s aim of establishing a common area of prosperity in South Caucasus region, Türkiye attaches importance to regional cooperation and development projects as well. With the aim of establishing peace and stability in Southern Caucasus, Türkiye supports the resolution of the conflicts in the region (Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia and South Ossetia) through peaceful means within the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Azerbaijan and Georgia. Main aspects of Türkiye’s Southern Caucasus policy are strengthening the independence and sovereignty of the countries of the region and supporting their integration efforts with Euro-Atlantic structures, while preserving and enhancing regional cooperation and political and economic stability. Türkiye has deep-rooted historical and cultural ties with Southern Caucasus, which serves as a bridge linking Türkiye to the Central Asia.
From the Turkish perspective, the possibility of a military confrontation with either Iran or Russia provided ample concern. Türkiye worried that Iran would attempt to have an impact throughout the Caucasus on people’s identification to Shi’a Islam – an apprehension shared at the time by the Russian Federation and the West in general. Iran, on the other hand, was concerned that Türkiye’s active role in the region might revive a pan-Turkic hegemony on its borders. Sunni Islam is dominating in North Caucasus and in Türkiye.
Although Türkiye avoids getting involved in any way in the conflicts on Russian territory, the quest of the Chechens for independence has rapidly become a sore point in Turkish-Russian relations. The crisis is critical for Türkiye, not only because Turkish public opinion has shown great sympathy for the Chechen cause, but also because the crisis has displayed similarities to Türkiye’s Kurdish problem. While criticizing Russia for its excessive use of force in Chechnya, Türkiye always carefully stated that the matter was and remains an internal affair of the Russian Federation.
Türkiye’s future role in the region could be very important. It is entirely up to the Turks themselves. But if they act with the same kindness in the Caucasus Region as they do in NATO at the moment, regarding Sweden’s inclusion in the defense alliance. Türkiye, with its almost 90 million inhabitants and strategically important location between Europe and Asia, can become the new great power in the Caucasus Region. But it requires a greater withdrawal and neglect of the area if the puzzle pieces are to fall properly into place.
Iran and the Caucasian Region
While Türkiye became the first country to extend recognition to Azerbaijan, Iran did not conceal its concern, accusing Türkiye of pan-Turkism, and the West of instigating such sentiments. Fears were expressed that the Turkish recognition would encourage independent Azerbaijan to lay claim to a ‘greater Azerbaijan’. The existence of about 25 million Azerbaijanis – out of a roughly 90-million population – makes Iran edgy and afraid that Iranian Azerbaijan might get restless after the independence of Soviet Azerbaijan. The concern was exacerbated earlier in Azerbaijan by the nationalist rhetoric of the former President Abulfaz Elchibey. Though Türkiye never played to such sentiments and though Azerbaijan after the former President Heydar Aliyev’s rise to power has stayed clear of the issue, Iran still dreads the possibility that another nationalist leadership might come to power in Azerbaijan. In such a case, Iran will inevitably see Türkiye as the beneficiary in their evolving relationships, which directly affect Iran’s territorial integrity, and might put itself on a high-stakes conflict path with Türkiye.
Since September 2021, when Iran-Azerbaijan relations hit a low point, Tehran and Baku have engaged in a process of de-escalation. From then much of the focus is on expanding economic cooperation and advancing plans to establish pan-regional transportation links such as the North-South railroad corridor connecting India to Russia via Iran and Azerbaijan. From Tehran’s point of view, Azerbaijan’s victory in the 2020 war against Armenia could not have been achieved without Turkish and Israeli support and a Russian inability to prevent Armenia’s defeat. In this Iranian reading, Baku has been emboldened and views military strategy vindicated.
In short, Iran and Türkiye are presently engaged in a subtle but deeper competition for influence in the South Caucasus, including in the realm of possible new transit projects. Since the mid-1990s the Iranians have had to engage in a delicate balancing act not to let the close military-security cooperation between Baku and Jerusalem scuttle Tehran’s preference to maintain cordial relations with Azerbaijan. Meanwhile, Russia, which has its own significant Turkic minorities and shares Iran’s fears about pan-Turkism, has a weakened hand in the region thanks to its invasion of Ukraine and the adverse ramifications this has had on Moscow’s ability to continue to play its historic role as a powerbroker in the South Caucasus.
Iran’s future influence in the Caucasus region depends to a large extent on Türkiye’s ingenuity, or lack thereof. It’s no secret that Shia’s and Sunnis are not the best of brothers in the world. And in the area, only Azerbaijan has good relations with Israel. Iran’s main rival in the Middle East. North Caucasus is dominated by the Sunnis. Iran, however have no strongholds in the region. Iran’s main asset in the region is that it is on extremely good terms with the Russians. Azerbaijan is the only real gateway for the Iranians in the region.
The Russian-Ukrainian War (2022-2023) – an aftermath
The Russian-Ukrainian war is still going on, and peace is not just within reach. It means that instability will affect the Caucasus Region in several years. When a powerful state goes to war, the effects of the conflict are usually instantly felt in the neighbouring regions, which normally leads to a paradigm shift, or in a worst case scenario to a global crisis. In May 2023, the first effect is fully perceptible in all neighboring regions, whereas the global crisis is still in the initial phase. on February 24, 2022, Russia launched a war against Ukraine. This happened despite Russia being a stakeholder in another conflict involving two post-communist neighbors — Armenia and Azerbaijan — the last major flare up of which happened in 2020 and ended in victory for Baku. In 2022, regional peace remains elusive.
The interplay between these two conflicts, one in Eastern Europe, the other in the Caucasus, is striking and provides a global dimension to the issues they contain. In this way, in 2022, the South Caucasus finds itself confronted with a question: have the crises in the South Caucasus effectively become extensions of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, or can one consider the Caucasus a laboratory for future political appeasement for Russian and Western policymakers? These two wars of aggression restore a force to the principle of territoriality that it had somewhat lost to more abstract notions of space under globalization. It had been a long time since global powers waged war to gain territory: with these two invasions, the aggressor Russia in Ukraine and Azerbaijan in Armenia territory again became a symbol of power, at least in theory.
These two conflicts also highlight the return of imperial wars in global conflicts to the European continent. Since the Syrian-Iraqi and Libyan wars, the specter of neo-imperial policies has gradually reappeared in competitions of power and has taken on an inevitable nature since the 2020 Artsakh War, and was further confirmed in February 2022 with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and with the Azerbaijani aggression in Armenia in September 2022.
But what about NATO and the European Union and their interest in the area? As for the West, Americans and Europeans do not wish to leave the South Caucasus in the hands of these neo-imperial powers and that after the snub of November 9, 2020, believe it is time to give strategic interest to this region as well as to Ukraine. This explains the entry ticket to the EU granted by Brussels to Ukraine, Moldova and even to Georgia. But one thing is words on a piece of paper, another is the harsh reality. After all, NATO is indirectly present via Türkiye. But whether more countries in the defense alliance will be invited to that, both the political and military situation is too fragile. With Iran and Russia in the region, outright membership for one country could create a smaller global crisis.
Finally, concerning Türkiye, Ankara is keen to maintain its cooperation with Russia but also to maintain close relations with the West. It seeks to keep its partnership with Moscow under wraps as much as possible in some part because it needs Western investors to save its struggling economy. Ankara, which is reaping financial dividends from the war in Ukraine, is becoming an unavoidable power, multiplying arbitrations favorable to each other but above all to Erdogan’s, so that Türkiye appears today as the main beneficiary of this new geopolitical reality.