South Caucasus and Russia’s War in Ukraine – by David Sichinava
The countries of the South Caucasus watch Russia’s war on Ukraine with much trepidation. For some, it leaves an eery and acute sense of déjà vu, conjuring not-so-distant memories of regional warfare. For others, it further exacerbates a chronic and widespread feeling of uncertainty. In one way or another, Russia’s military adventurism in Ukraine has shaken the societies of the South Caucasus, with many consequences to shape the future of this already volatile region in years to come.
The recent events in Ukraine have caught the South Caucasus’ political class by surprise and elites are now scrambling to devise effective responses. Two words, ‘reluctance’ and ‘caution,’ best describe how the leaders of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia have approached this war as they work to not only articulate their diplomatic stances but also consider the ramifications for their own countries and citizens. Despite being geographic neighbours, the three South Caucasian countries actually have quite disparate positions. Politically, Armenia is Russia’s main ally in the region. The country depends on Russia both economically and from a security perspective. Azerbaijan has a less robust but still formidable relationship with Russia, one buttressed just two days before the invasion of Ukraine on 22 February 2022, when Russia and Azerbaijan signed a Declaration on Allied Interaction. As some observers noted, the timing of the Declaration and the start of the war put the Azerbaijani leadership in an awkward position, since they were unaware of the impending Ukrainian invasion. Despite these allyships, both Armenia’s and Azerbaijan’s stances at international platforms have appeared cautious; representatives of both countries either abstained from or did not attend the numerous UN votes related to issues in Ukraine.
Taking the least supportive stance toward Russia, Georgia stands apart from its neighbours. There is very little support for the Putin regime in the country since Georgians vividly remember Russian bombs falling over their cities and villages—most recently in August 2008—but also relative to a longer history of Soviet and Imperial Russian intervention in the country. Such a painful experience made many Georgians wonder if in the case of a Russian success—or even of a failure—the Putin regime might decide to again turn its gaze toward Georgia. Even without an outbreak in local fighting, Russia’s war on Ukraine has undermined the government’s policy of a more balanced (or for others, appeasing) stance toward Russian foreign policy, pursued since 2012. While both Georgian citizens and select politicians openly support Ukraine, the government has been reluctant to join Western sanctions, justifying its decision by pointing toward these measures’ supposed ineffectiveness. On the Ukrainian side, this neutrality was not well received and has worked to strain relations between the once-close Georgian and Ukrainian leaderships, the latter even recalling its ambassador from the country on March 31 2022.
A large part of Georgian society was equally displeased with their government’s stance. In the very first days of the war, crowded protests in support of Ukraine took place in major Georgian cities, volunteers scrambled to gather humanitarian aid and assisted Ukrainian refugees locally in finding accommodations. Some Georgians even travelled to Ukraine to join the country’s defence forces. Opinion polling from the early days of the war showed that the Georgian public expected their government to do more to support Ukraine’s cause. When asked whether or not Georgia should enact sanctions, two-thirds of Georgians felt their country should take at least some measures. Civic protests and oppositional calls for the government’s resignation in the face of inaction are just two examples of the political ripple effects destabilizing the local situation. Nonetheless, Georgian president Salome Zourabichvili, has personally voiced her active support for Ukraine. Likewise, many Georgian politicians and celebrities have taken a clear pro-Ukrainian position.
The stance is less clear-cut in Georgia’s two breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which de-facto remain under Russian military control. Local authorities in both regions initially cheered the recognition of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics. Yet, when service personnel from local Russian bases including South Ossetian troops were moved to the Ukrainian front, this caused local resentment, especially after reports of the death of a soldier from Tskhinvali serving in the Russian army were publicized. After public outcry and apparent solider mutinies, part of the South Ossetian units pulled out from the Ukrainian front and returned to Tskhinvali. In the South Caucasus other breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh, the war in Ukraine has also exacerbated tensions. For example, an important gas pipeline supplying Karabakh was damaged, temporarily leaving locals without heat. Further rumours on social media stated that Russia was withdrawing its peacekeeping mission from the region, leading to a brief resumption of low-intensity local hostilities.
Moving forward, how might Russia’s unprovoked war against Ukraine further affect the South Caucasus? First, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia are bracing for significant economic impacts. All three countries have close trade ties with Russia and Ukraine. Sanctions imposed on Russia and the sinking ruble have meant that Armenians, Azerbaijanis, and Georgians living in Russia will see their incomes reduced, in turn diminishing the flow of remittances. Some may lose their employment altogether and have to emigrate back to their home countries. Second, from a humanitarian perspective, there is already a significant increase in the number of Ukrainian refugees, and Russian and Belarusian migrants who are fleeing because of the war, sanctions, or political repression in their home countries. Third, there is uncertainty regarding Russia’s continued ability to serve as a local geopolitical moderator. In the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War, Russia acted as the key mediator, bringing fragile peace to the region. Finally, yet another factor that could further undermine the stability in the region is a scheduled referendum in South Ossetia on joining the territory to the Russian Federation. While local authorities in Tskhinvali have multiple times made calls for uniting with Russia, the current context makes such claims potentially explosive.
In short, the South Caucasus has entered uncharted territory following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. While it is certain that there is no point of return to the situation, major questions are on analysts’ radars, including: Will the war increase Russia’s geopolitical and economic grip over the South Caucasus? Will it feed the country’s appetite for greater regional control, perhaps even through militaristic means? Is there a risk of ‘thawing’ previously ‘frozen’ regional conflicts? Even without the threat of warfare, how will the events in Ukraine reshape the domestic politics of each South Caucasian country? These are questions those in the region are now having to grapple with.