In classical theories of geopolitics, when a powerful state goes to war, the effects of the conflict are usually instantly felt in neighboring regions. This leads to a paradigm shift, or at the very least, a crisis of the global order. This principle is even more applicable when it comes to a major power, like Russia, which launched a war of aggression against Ukraine on February 24, 2022. 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. Beyond the common space-time matrix, what can we learn from what lies at the nexus of these two conflicts? The question is all the more salient as it gives shape to a hypothetical bipolarity between democracies and autocracies. 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?
The interplay between the Ukrainian and Armenian-Azerbaijani conflicts is happening in an increasingly fragmented world, influenced by several different dynamics currently transforming the international order. These conflicts are reemerging during, and in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, and a two-year period in which global powers alternated between self-interest and solidarity to manage the virus, at the end of which, according to some studies, life expectancy has dropped considerably. While this health crisis may have subsided to some extent, the virus continues to kill and its effects are part of the global shift towards more mistrust between great powers, the breakdown of multilateralism and distrust of the public towards states’ security policies. The succession of worrying signs reveal the emergence of a new bipolarity between democracies and autocracies — or the Western world against the post-Western world, supposedly embodying the new configuration of world peace.
The world’s transformative dynamics in the wake of this unprecedented health crisis, operate through the juxtaposition of several geopolitical ruptures. In addition to the climate crisis, which is forcing states to prioritize the fight against CO2 emissions and less costly economic growth policies, the redistribution of strategic cards relies on several disruptive parameters.
Is the course of this increasingly formidable competition between the Western and Eurasian powers for world domination truly inevitable? On October 27, 2022, addressing the Valdai Discussion Club in Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin characterized this time of global order transformation as “the most dangerous decade” since World War II, with the conflict in Ukraine being an example of Russia’s struggle against Western domination. “The West, without clear unity, is not able to lead the world; but it tries desperately and most of the people of the world cannot accept it,” Putin said, adding that “Russia will never support the demands of the aggressive, neocolonial West,” referring to “inevitable” changes in “the world order.” A few months earlier, Speaker of the United States House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi, who during a tour of South Asia, followed later by a trip to Armenia, declared that “the world faces a choice between autocracy and democracy” — with China, Russia and Azerbaijan embodying the first category; and Taiwan, Ukraine and Armenia representing the second.
Such declarations on both sides attest to the extent of the differences between the two former adversaries of the Cold War and they impose two contradictory readings of stability in the world — particularly in Asia, Ukraine and the Caucasus. If the United States and the European Union phased out the obsolete principle of zones of influence, given that humanity lives in an open and global world, Russia on the other hand defends the multipolar world based on peripheral zones of security — with Moscow’s influence emanating outward in concentric circles. The first circle comprises the former Soviet space and includes Ukraine and the South Caucasus, and the last includes the southern hemisphere. According to this defense doctrine, Putin advocates for the creation of a New Russia or “Novorossia”, which covers former Soviet territory. This expansionist project is based on pan-Russian solidarity, state capitalism, the defense of Orthodox and traditional Slavic values and the erasure of national histories in favor of a single historiography — that of Russia.
In the same way, China, Turkey and Iran offer similar frameworks for zones of influence with, if not global, then at least regional scopes. This network of autocracies thus symbolizes the return of Empire to international affairs in opposition to the West, which has become their common target. This explains these actors’ rapprochement and their desire to de-Westernize their respective neighborhoods. For Moscow, this means Ukraine and the South Caucasus, at least to start. In this logic, in 2020, Russia and Turkey favored the victory of Azerbaijan against Armenia in the Nagorno-Karabakh war, with the aim, among other things, of defanging the OSCE Minsk Group, co-chaired by France, the United States and Russia since the 1990s. Indeed, the tripartite declaration of a ceasefire between Russia, Armenia and Azerbaijan on November 9, 2020, debilitated the Minsk Group — unable to date to reactivate as the only legitimate body to restore peace. Two years later, in the same anti-Western vein, Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine with the purported aim of preventing NATO from expanding further east and destabilizing Volodymir Zelensky. Halfway between the West and Asia, India represents an autonomous and median position — that of maintaining lasting relations with the West without cutting itself off from Eurasian powers or participating in sanctions against Russia.
Sociologist Bertrand Badie turns to the formula of “global wars” to explain the current conflicts between the West on one side and the Russia-China dyad on the other. According to him, in Ukraine as in the Caucasus, these existential wars are simultaneously global and identitarian. They are global, because they are universal in scope and involve both a nationalist ambition of outward projection and a Western desire to target state threats through sanctions aimed at cutting them off from globalization. They are also identitarian, because these existential conflicts oppose two forms of nationalism: one with a social and memory-based character and the other a historical and post-Soviet dimension. In other words, do the neighboring nations of Russia have the right to real sovereignty and an autonomous history with the support of the West or are they doomed to be vassals without history of neo-imperial Russia?
The Return of Imperialist Wars
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. 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.
The Inter-state Threat Resurfaces
These two conflicts also reflect the return of the classic threat to strategic issues after two decades of asymmetric and intra-state wars. Unlike the Syrian-Iraqi, Libyan, Afghan or Malian conflicts, the Nagorno-Karabakh and Ukrainian wars oppose two efficient states with regular armies and strategic alliances. This return to interstate conflict does not preclude the emergence of unconventional debate with the risk of nuclear escalation in Ukraine. In these war zones, two of the belligerents, Russia and Azerbaijan, have also used cluster and white phosphorus munitions — weapons prohibited by international conventions. Investigations are underway to ascertain liability. If regulation and prevention are not enacted to ensure respect for international humanitarian law as a whole, the risk of using tactical nuclear force cannot be ruled out. Russians and Ukrainians are already rejecting responsibility of resorting to a “dirty bomb”.
Alliances and Partnerships
These two conflicts also raise the question of strategic alliances in the rivalry between the Western world and the post-Western world. Indeed, how to explain that Armenia, an ally of Russia, could not obtain security guarantees from Moscow, in 2020 and in 2022 when Yerevan called the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) to the rescue, invoking Article 4 of the Security Treaty, which stipulates the automatic intervention of other members in the event of aggression by a third country? How is it that Turkey — a NATO member — does not sanction Russia when all other NATO states have decided to do so in solidarity with Ukraine? Furthermore, how have Turkey and Russia acted in concert against Armenia in 2020 when Russia and NATO have had hostile relations for years? Finally, how do we explain that Turkey continuously threatens Greece, which has signed a defense agreement with France to protect Athens in case of aggression from Ankara while all three states are NATO members? It is clear that these two wars show that security issues have moved from a logic of alliances to a logic of partnerships. The alliance system is almost sacred, with a clearly identified, lasting and structural enemy, while the partnership system is more fluid, flexible, malleable — with no enemy directly targeted and without time constraints. The forces of the post-Western world, in particular Russia and Turkey, opt for the logic of partnership and indulge in a confused, illegible game with totally unpredictable consequences.
Finally, these two conflicts refer to the opening up of the South Caucasus but also of Ukraine. In 2008, after the Russo-Georgian War, Iran and Turkey did not condemn the Russian invasion and advocated for the establishment of a format of dialogue between the three former Empires, all hostile to Western presence in the region. In 2013, this rapprochement process took on a new form when the European Union failed to get Armenia and Ukraine to sign the Association Agreement within the framework of the EU’s Eastern Partnership. Russia had explicitly demanded that Yerevan and Kyiv sign their membership of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). If Yerevan and Kyiv moved in this direction for security reasons, the Ukrainian population refused the Russian terms. Ukrainians launched the Maidan Revolution a year later and overthrew pro-Russian power. The new government signed the Brussels-Kyiv agreement — a turning point in relations between Ukraine and Russia, which later entailed the annexation of Crimea, bilateral tensions, the Normandy format and war in 2022.
Armenia joined the EAEU but was still able to sign a less consequential agreement of cooperation with Brussels –– the Eastern Partnership. In 2020, in the aftermath of the Armenian defeat, this convergence process took a more concrete form with the Russian-Turkish proposal to create a new format for conflict resolution and regional cooperation called the “3+3” format, which includes Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Russia, Turkey, Iran. The most important aspect of this move is that it excludes Western participation in changes in the South Caucasus.
For Russia, the Armenian and Ukrainian issues are similar in that they constitute two vectors from which the opening up of the post-Soviet space could thwart the Kremlin’s policy of power projection. Russia’s global ambitions consist of promoting geopolitical autonomy for Russia — far from Chinese and Western meddling, and based on the network of the five seas (White, Baltic, Azov, Black, Caspian). These geographic strongholds would be interconnected with the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) project, with a view to forming a multilateral economic and strategic cooperation project with Azerbaijan, Iran and India. In the midst of the Ukrainian war, the leaders of these different countries multiplied converging declarations in the name of a new road linking Saint Petersburg to Bombay, via Moscow-Astrakhan-Baku-Anzali-Tehran-Bandar Abbas-Chabahar. However, this Russia-driven project, comes up against Iranian and Indian desires to combine this route, with another strategic axis linking Bombay to Europe via Iran, Armenia, Georgia, and Ukraine to Northern and Central Europe.
It is around this parallel project that tensions among emerging powers arise. Indeed, India and Iran — keystones of the INSTC, do not want to depend on Russia and China. New Delhi wants a strategic partnership with Armenia because of the Pakistani-Turkish-Azerbaijani alliance. Tehran, although bogged down in internal and external problems, holds to its direct border with Armenia, the only immediate Christian neighbor. Tehran is wary of the revival of Azerbaijani nationalism on its territory (Iran is home to around 17 million Azeri-speaking Iranians) and is alarmed by the rise of pan-Turkism since Azerbaijan’s military victory in 2020. Russia, however, is worried about losing strategic and economic influence if Iran manages to channel its hydrocarbon resources to solvent European markets – even in the slightest hypothesis of a settlement of the nuclear dispute with the U.S.
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.
Finally, concerning Turkey, 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 authoritarian regime, so that Turkey appears today as the main beneficiary of this new geopolitical reality.
This long-sighted overview of global geopolitical issues cannot exclude a more in-depth examination of the challenges to be faced. To tell the truth, the underlying idea of opening up the South Caucasus refers to a fundamental question: which power will dominate this strategic isthmus in the future, which makes it possible to link Europe to Asia and Russia to the Middle East in record time, cutting out all existing trade routes (Suez Canal, Cape of Good Hope, Strait of Gibraltar, Bosphorus Straits). Against the background of conflicting changes in the South Caucasus, the war in Ukraine reveals tactical subtleties of the actors involved that should be scrutinized to fully grasp the fluidity of the strategies and to more clearly understand this world in perpetual motion.
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Deconstructing the Promise and Problems of the International Criminal Court
The scope of gross human rights violations that ethnic Armenians were subjected to during and after the 2020 Artsakh War contributes to the body of empirical data that could be used if Armenia were to become a party to the Rome Statute.Read more
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Magazine Issue N24
The Art of Negotiation: Towards New Cultural Strategies
In the context of ongoing regional strife in the Caucasus, the understanding of culture as an instrument of political agency and negotiation becomes especially vital as a mode of resistance and reinforcement for all the parties involved. Vigen Galstyan explains.Read more
The TUMO Phenomenon: Exporting Innovative Education to the World
As one of Armenia’s intellectual and technology exports, TUMO has become a symbol of the country’s potential to innovate at a global scale. TUMO’s executive team share their thoughts on the significance of the program’s global expansion.Read more
American and Russian Soft Power in Armenia
The United States has been projecting soft power in Armenia since the early days of independence; and while Russia has utilized its language and cultural heritage as soft power instruments, it still prefers coercive methods over soft power.Read more
Soft Power, the Community of States and Armenia
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