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Friday, August 6, 2021

New Geopolitical Realities of the Caucasus: Reevaluating Georgia’s National Security Strategy

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The outcome of the military conflict in Upper Karabakh between Azerbaijan and Armenia transformed the geopolitical reality in the South Caucasus, with implications for the wider Black Sea-Caspian region. The war demonstrated that power politics is alive and well, and that with great power consent (in this case Russia and Turkey), smaller actors like Azerbaijan can achieve their national objectives with military means more efficiently than with diplomatic means. By maintaining neutrality in the military conflict, Russia has obtained some leverage on Azerbaijan, while further increasing Armenia’s security dependence on Russia. Turkey now has a greater role in the Caucasus’ affairs, but it is no longer seen as necessarily the channel of Western interests in the region, but rather as representing its own national interest the way President Erdogan and his domestic allies understand it.

As a result, we are moving toward a new status-quo in the South Caucasus, with different actors facing different challenges as well as opportunities. Georgia will be impacted by the outcome of the war in multiple ways, and the country will need a strategy to adapt to the new realities, taking into consideration gains and losses of the parties actively involved in the conflict, as well as post-conflict development.

Azerbaijan achieved significant military victory and territorial gains, more than it ever hoped to achieve at the negotiating table. Seven regions outside of Nagorno-Karabakh, previously occupied by Armenia, went back to Azerbaijani control. This includes the entire length of the Azerbaijani-Iranian border in the South, and regions between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, except a 5-kilometer-wide transportation corridor under Russian peacekeeper control – the so-called Lachin Corridor. About one third of the region called Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Oblast in Soviet times will also be under Azerbaijani control, including the town of Shusha – a medieval citadel of utmost military and cultural-historical importance for both sides. 

This military success will help President Aliyev to further consolidate power domestically, and to gain more respect internationally, particularly in the wider Black Sea-Caspian region, where strongmen traditionally garner greater respect.

At the same time, Azerbaijan’s success is not without cost. Azerbaijan had to agree to delegate part of its sovereign rights to the Russian military over some parts of de jure Azerbaijani territory. The majority of Upper Karabakh will remain under Armenian control, secured by Russian military peacekeepers. The access road via Lachin from Armenia to Armenian controlled territories of Karabakh will also be under Russian control. In addition, one important segment of the November 9 trilateral agreement between Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Russia is that Border Troops of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) will be in charge of safety of the access from Azerbaijan to Nakhichevan via Armenia. The agreement does not specify size and operational modalities of those troops, however.  

All these elements of Russian military engagement are gains for the Russian Federation, and compromises from the Azerbaijani side. The geopolitical consequences of this decision are yet to be seen and understood. Meanwhile, Azerbaijan at this stage clearly wants to work with Russia to achieve what it considers a priority national objective. This sends a pretty good message from the Russian perspective: you have a better chance to be successful in the conflict if you are on good terms with Russia. This contrasts with the Western effort of mediation, which has not delivered any meaningful results for Azerbaijan for three decades.

As a result, Russia is a beneficiary of the outcome of the war, which should not be exaggerated, but cannot be disregarded either. It is now back in the role of arbiter and peacekeeper in the Azerbaijani-Armenian conflict, with the ability to change the status-quo again in the future at its discretion. Most importantly, with its peacekeeping role in the conflict, and necessity to keep logistical /supply lines open, Russia is establishing a long-term military presence in the region.

The military defeat caused significant internal political tensions in Armenia. It weakened the country’s reform-minded leadership, headed by Prime Minister Pashinyan, who came to power through one of President Putin’s much-despised color revolutions. To the extent that an Armenian leader can be independent-minded vis-a-vis Russia, Pashinyan was perceived as such, and more Western-leaning compared to his predecessors. Reminding him about Russia’s role in the security interests of Armenia seems to be one explanation of the limited and slow Russian response to the conflict.

Meanwhile, Turkey moved further away from the role of the channel of Western interests to the role of pursuing sovereign Turkish interests in the South Caucasus and wider Black Sea-Caspian region, essentially neglecting the opinion of its Western partners.

Turkey is very happy with the outcome of the war, as President Erdogan has stated many times. If all the points of the agreement are implemented, Turkey may have shorter access to mainland Azerbaijan via Armenia, hypothetically leading to the normalization of relationships and the opening of borders with Armenia as well, which has been one of Erdogan’s objectives for some time. Due to these interests, it appears Turkey is not overly concerned with Russian peacekeeper presence in Azerbaijan.

The war and trilateral agreement between Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Russia is a major diplomatic failure of the West. The absence of the US and Europe, as well as the OSCE Minsk Group, from the process of negotiations of the modalities of the peace agreement demonstrate that the international framework for conflict settlement was replaced by a de-facto Turkey-Russia format. Co-chairs of the OSCE’s Minsk Group in charge of the conflict, France and the US, were completely ignored by the third co-chair of the group, Russia, when organizing and signing the agreement. The West and NATO were also ignored by NATO ally Turkey, which provided support to Azerbaijan without consulting with NATO partners. A diminishing role of Western institutions in Russia’s neighborhood has been a priority for Russia for more than two decades.

All these factors lead to new geopolitical realities in Georgia’s neighborhood, which in turn create several major challenges for the national security of Georgia. The most obvious is increased presence of Russian military in the region. In addition to the larger geopolitical implications, this has direct military-security implications for Georgia. Russian peacekeepers will need logistical support and Georgia may find itself pressured to open air or land access for Russian military supplies. Georgia was already asked to open its airspace to transport Russian peacekeepers on November 10 and 11, immediately after the signing of the trilateral peace statement. As it was reported, the request came from both Armenian and Azerbaijani governments to allow overflight of Russian military planes. Georgia needs a policy toward requests like this going forward.

The second potential challenge is the planned opening of the direct railway line between Azerbaijan and Turkey through Armenia which may impact transit via Georgia. Obviously, it will take time, investment, and political will to implement this element of the agreement, but Georgia needs to be ready for such a development.

The next challenge is increased Russian pressure on Abkhazian separatist leadership to give up whatever domestic power it has on local affairs in the Georgian breakaway region under de-facto Russian military occupation. The case of Karabakh has shown to Abkhazians, as well as to others, that Russia carries a big stick and a very small carrot for those ’allies’ who fully depend on Russia. It is no surprise that the leader of the Abkhaz separatist regime met President Putin on November 12 and started to talk about multiple concessions that previously were unacceptable for Abkhaz leadership, including steps toward greater economic integration, rights of Russians to own property in Abkhazia, etc. These concessions will ease de-facto annexation of the region by Russian Federation.  

Responding to these and other national security challenges, including Covid-19 and its ongoing and expected negative economic impact, it is important for Georgia to reevaluateand redefine its national security concept and strategy, and create functioning mechanisms for the implementation of the strategy. The best possible scenario is to conceptualize national objectives in new realities, formulate basic principles of a national security strategy, and engage Georgia’s international partners in designing a detailed action plan with assigned resources and organizational mechanisms of implementation.  

The priority for security should remain EU and NATO integration in the multilateral format, as well as deepening bilateral security ties with key strategic partners – the United States, and Black Sea neighbors Turkey, Ukraine, and Romania. But it is essential to understand how far outside support can go, and to not exaggerate expectations while trying to extract as much as possible from the international partnerships.  With the help of partners, Georgia should continue its focus on developing its territorial defense capabilities, as well as acquiring advanced, more efficient and cost-effective defensive technologies and weapons.  

This focus on hard security needs to be complemented with meaningful cooperation on regional infrastructure development and Europe-Black Sea-Caspian connectivity. It is important for Georgia and Azerbaijan to achieve the same degree of understanding and collaboration on issues of general cargo transit as they had and continue to have on the development of the energy transit infrastructure. Georgia needs to take pro-active position in this process.

For internal development, the priority should be structural reforms which can reduce the role of the state in the economy and help to unleash creative entrepreneurial capacity of Georgians. In times of dealing with the consequences of the global crisis, privatization of state assets is the only way Georgia can attract international and domestic capital and to transform those passive state assets into productive assets.  

And finally, the national healthcare needs to be integrated into the national security system in order to be able to deal with not only current challenges, but also to develop capabilities to manage with future domestic, regional, or global crises. Georgia has the natural environment and human capacity (in Georgia and abroad) to evolve into a global healthcare hub for good times, and bad. This can only happen, however, with the right conceptual ideas, focused strategy, and appropriate resources.

Internal political stability and full mobilization of intellectual, organizational, economic, military, political and diplomatic resources are essential pre-conditions for successful planning of Georgia’s national security for several very difficult years to come.  

Dr. Mamuka Tsereteli is a non-resident scholar for MEI’s Frontier Europe Initiative. The views expressed here are his own. 

Photo by Aris Messinis/AFP via Getty Images

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