Skip to content

Russia and the Caucasus Region: Part II

Russia in Context podcast host Jeff Hawn continues talking with Harold Chambers and Ivan Klyszcz, who are joined by Natia Seskuria, another expert on Russia and the Caucasus, for a discussion focusing on the South Caucasus region. Among the topics they cover are the effects of the Nagorno-Karabakh war, Georgia’s political environment, and Russian influence in the region.

Jeff Hawn:

Hello, and welcome to Russia in Context, a subseries of New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy’s, Contours podcast. This is your host, Jeff Hawn.

Three decades ago, the Cold War ended with the red flag being lowered over the Kremlin. The USSR was dead and Russia was reborn, but history did not end, as some thought it would, and over the last three decades, Russia has once again become a persistent challenger to U.S. global leadership. How this is happening and why is what we seek to answer in our new subseries of the Contours Podcast, Russia in Context.

Joining me today is Dr. Ivan Klyszcz from the International Center of Defense and Security in Tallinn, Estonia. Also with us is Harold Chambers, a PhD researcher in political science at Indiana University. Also joining us is Natia Seskuria, Associate Fellow at Royal United Services Institute and Director for the Regional Institute of Security Studies based in Tbilisi, Georgia. Welcome, everyone.

All right, so my first question would be to you, Natia, as your expertise is in the region, and you’re also based there. Can you give us a broad summary of what Russian policy has been in the Caucasus region outside of the territory it directly controls since the end of the Soviet Union?

Natia Seskuria:

Of course. Thanks, Jeff.

Well, Russia has been very much present since the end of the Soviet Union. Russia has been a dominant power in the South Caucasus, and has been heavily involved in the regional conflicts in South Caucasus. Primarily, of course, its involvement has been heavily felt in Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as well as in Georgia. And currently, as we know, Russia occupies 20% of Georgian territories, Abkhazia and the so-called South Ossetia. So, Russia has had longstanding interests in the region. However, of course, these interests have been shifting and changing given the political landscape and the situation in the region.

And I would mention a few, for instance, since 2003 when the Rose Revolution has happened in Georgia, which involved revolutionary changes that has put Georgia on the Western radar, we can say so. And it has prompted the process of democratization and changes within the Georgian system. Russia has been leading much more aggressive policy towards Georgia because it has seen that the Western, so-called expansion in the region and the consolidation of Western interest in the region, could potentially threaten the Russian interest.

So then in 2008 of course there was a war, full-scale war, between Russia and Georgia, and since then we have seen consistent efforts from the Russian side to dominate the region as well as… And especially with regards to Georgia, we have seen a number of methods being used such as cyber warfare, disinformation, economic pressure, and Russia has been consistently building up its efforts since Georgia.

But of course it’s very interesting what has been Russia’s role in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. And I’m sure we can, my colleagues will also elaborate on this topic. And we have seen Russia’s changing role, and in the recent past of course we saw that Azerbaijan has been leading much more assertive policy, which has sparked the debate what would be Russia’s future role in the region in that sense, and whether or not Russian influence has been weakened as a result of the recent development.

So, it’s very interesting to observe actually how Russia’s role has been changing as a result of the recent developments, and I’m sure we’ll have some time to elaborate on the effect of the war in Ukraine in terms of how that has impacted the South Caucasus countries.

Jeff Hawn:

So we discussed in our previous episode that Russia’s interest in this region is largely driven by grand strategic calculus rather than any immediate resource or political gain. As I understand it, there are a number of sovereign, internationally recognized states in the region. There’s Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. And then there’s also unrecognized states such as Abkhazia, South Ossetia as were mentioned, and of course, Nagorno-Karabakh, but I understand it’s been shifting.

Ivan, can you give us a broad overview of how Russia has inserted itself into the issues in the region and what the relationship the sovereign states of Armenia and Azerbaijan have had with Russia, and the role it’s played in their own conflicts?

Ivan Klyszcz:

Yes, certainly. Thank you for the question.

It’s a big topic and Natia already covered very important elements of Russia’s presence in the South Caucasus. When it comes to Armenia and Azerbaijan in particular, I think there it’s important to highlight that Russia sees itself very much as having either hegemony, or at the very least primacy, over the Caucasus region, and it sees it really as its own area of almost direct control with some minor intrusions from NATO, Turkey, and Iran. So it very much sits itself with a certain type of imperial entitlement almost. That’s a very broad background point. When it comes to the actual relations with Armenia and Azerbaijan, I think I would highlight a few elements.

First, the role of the economy. In the case of Armenia, Russian firms, banks, financial institutions play a very large role in Armenia’s economy. To the point where if there were a hypothetical Russian withdrawal from the Armenian economy, it would create a rather large… It would be very significant for the country’s economy. Add to that, the fact that Russia’s largest minority groups are Armenians. Almost as many Armenians, people of Armenian heritage, in Russia as in Armenia itself. And their role and the role of other trans-border minorities has been very important in mediating the relationship with their homelands beyond the state borders.

In the case of Azerbaijan, the situation is different of course economic links are important, but Azerbaijan has oil. It’s important to start from that, because that is the source of a lot of wealth of that country, of state revenue and a source of its military strength, investment into the military that has played such a crucial role in shaping events in the region, especially since 2016, and of course since 2020 and 2022.

In the case of Azerbaijan, I think I would look at it more through the lens of the relationship between the government in Azerbaijan, the Aliyev family, and way they have managed their relationship with Moscow, and with Putin specifically, to have Russia facilitate the consolidation of their regime, especially against internal opposition and denunciations on human rights abuses committed by the regime in Azerbaijan.

Russia, of course, benefits from that, uses it as a lever to maintain a presence in the region. Of course, in the face of the deteriorating hand when it comes to a rise in Turkey, rising influence of the European Union, of the United States. Though still, I think it’s fair to say that Russia maintains a large leverage over these three countries, and of the region overall.

Jeff Hawn:

So the traditional hegemon, that might have become a bit unbalanced due to recent events, but it’s important for us to remind our listeners, and ourselves, that we’re not just talking about pieces on a board here, these are sovereign nations with their own histories, autonomy, and self-determination.

Harold, can you give us a general overview of what the governmental structures, and what some of the political issues are in the region? My understanding is that Armenia and Georgia have become more democratic in recent years while Azerbaijan not so much, but I don’t know. Can you give us a broad overview of how these countries have changed since the end of the USSR and how that’s affected their relationship with, as Ivan mentioned, the European Union, and Turkey, and Russia itself?

Harold Chambers:

So, looking at the grand arc of political structures and political changes, obviously there’s nothing really to say about Azerbaijan, other than it has simply just grown more and more authoritarian over the past three decades or so, plus.

And obviously right about now, the internal situation has just been purely horrendous since the lead into the 2020 war with Ilham Aliyev fully weaponizing this militaristic rhetoric to basically just rid the country of what little opposition really existed there. Basically, bringing it into the fold of just, “You have to stand by Azerbaijan because of this need to return territorial integrity, this need to get rid of the Armenians.” And that overrode any democratic contestations within the country. So that was one of the big developments, was this entering into almost a final stage of authoritarianism in Azerbaijan. And that’s really been within the past few years, but this was long in the making.

Obviously both Georgia and Armenia have obviously leaned more democratic, but have had their struggles with it. Armenia, obviously, had the Velvet Revolution in 2018, but there’s obviously been a lot of discussions about it because of some more recent moves by Pashinyan to keep a hold on domestic politics while he was facing criticism due to Armenia’s lack of preparation for war with Azerbaijan. And so that has brought this renewed retrospection, might be the best way to say it, on what he is all about.

Obviously Georgia’s current situation has gotten, reasonably, a fair amount of publicity internationally due to one, the imprisonment of Mikheil Saakashvili, former revolutionary leader, and also just the increasing clashes with the West by the Georgian Dream party. And obviously if we just had Bidzina Ivanishvili return, again, to domestic politics, which is… It’s one of those events that it’s just like, “Oh, okay, he’s in then he’s out.” And with Ivanishvili back in, it will be… I would say it’s most likely to start becoming a more serious situation inside Georgia with respect to clampdowns on democracy with him back actively publicly in politics once again, rather than his just puppeteering from behind the stage, from behind the curtains there, it’s likely to get worse in the coming period.

Jeff Hawn:

And this is the organizer of the Georgia Dream Party that is currently the party in government, correct?

Harold Chambers:

Yes. Bidzina Ivanishvili is the founder of the Georgian Dream and controls a very large portion of Georgia’s wealth, and obviously Natia can speak better to the exact dynamics on the ground than I can.

Jeff Hawn:

Natia, as you are based in Georgia, would you care to build on that?

Natia Seskuria:

Yes, of course. I think my colleagues have covered so much there, but just a couple of things to add.

So Georgia has been going through quite turbulent times recently, and there is obviously much discussion in the Western media about the democratic backsliding, whether or not Georgia is still on the right track. Georgians have been feeling a lot of pressure recently, especially since the first decision by the European Union not to grant Georgia a candidacy status when they granted it to Ukraine and Moldova. And everybody acknowledged that there was a missed opportunity, but at the same time there was still a chance for Georgia to work on it and to get the candidacy status after a year.

And I think the recent decision was a relief for majority of the population, which is very much firmly pro-Western, but at the same time there is an acknowledgement that Georgia is lagging behind Ukraine and Moldova and this is due to the political turbulences that have been very much felt in Georgia throughout the recent years and especially since the beginning of the war in Ukraine.

And, to give a couple of examples, one of the most problematic issues and polarizing issues I would say is the domestic political situation and some of the decisions that have been made recently, such as to have more soft policy towards Russia. And this includes allowing, for instance, Russian citizens to travel without further visa limitations to Georgia. That has prompted a lot of Russians to move to Georgia, especially since the mobilization.

And on the one hand, it has increased the economy, and the economic boost was very obvious in a very short period of time, and, especially after Covid, this was a very significant growth. But at the same time, a lot of Georgians are very much worried about the fact that there is no clarity with regards to the policy towards Russia. And in the recent past, Georgia has been seen as a country that is turning a blind eye towards a lot of issues that European Union, for instance, and NATO allies are worried about. And at the same time, there was a significant request from Georgians to change that and to have tougher policy towards Russia to have more control over who is coming into the country, for instance, and how long they’re allowed to stay in the country. However, we have not seen any changes with regards to that, as well as the economic dependency which is growing and growing up since the beginning of the war in Ukraine.

And that is also development, because we know that Russia has a longstanding track record of using the economic dependency to its own benefit. And to give a few examples, for instance, in 2019 when the protests have erupted in Georgia, anti-Kremlin protests as a result of the arrival of the Russian MP Sergei Gavrilov to Georgia, and his attempt to address the Georgian parliament from the speaker’s seat, this has very much caused a deep frustration within Georgians, and there were numbers of people who protested this event. And leverage on these developments and he has framed Georgians as Russophobes and he has banned flights between Russia and Georgia, and back then this was quite a significant hit.

And same thing has happened with regards to wine export, for example, which Putin has weaponized before. Now we have the recent, another recent development is that recently it was Putin’s decision again to restore the flight to Georgia and to lift the Visa regulations which have remained very tough since the 2008 war. And these developments have been very much concerning developments for most of Georgians, who think that this does not frame Georgia in a positive way, especially when the Western allies are trying to cut the links with Russians. And there are growing concerns about increasing Russian influence and leverage in the country. So this means that Russia is very much present. Putin is very much interested in keeping Georgia within its sphere of influence, and especially since the recent decision of the European Union to grant Georgia a candidacy status, I think we would feel, we would see more efforts to sabotage the pro-Western aspirations that most of Georgians feel very much.

And, of course, there are elections coming up in 2024 and this is also one of the opportunities for Russians to put pressure on Georgia and make sure that… And push their candidate for the elections.

Jeff Hawn:

And just a quick question for me, is there a unified opposition to Georgia Dream or is the opposition fairly splintered in Georgian politics currently?

Natia Seskuria:

Well, this is one of the main questions, really, these days, and I don’t think that opposition is unified. I think opposition is very much fragmented at this point, which, of course, gives the Georgian Dream a very favorable position, because there are quite a few opposition parties, but there is no unity at the moment.

And the main opposition party is the United National Movement, which is the party of the former President Mikhail Saakashvili. And this, of course, the party itself has a very heavy background, and a lot of Georgians don’t want the party because of its legacy, because of its previous track record, to come back into power. There is definitely a desire to see new faces, new parties in Georgian politics, but so far, and we are not that far away from elections. Elections will be held in October 2024. We only see the usual suspects, and from this point of view, I don’t really think that there is much unity within the opposition.

Jeff Hawn:

So this is the complexities of the region that Westerners need to think about, is that you’re essentially stuck between various different points on the compass.

Russia obviously has a legacy of a great, and continues to exercise a lot of economic, political, and security interest, but you also have the European Union, which many of the nations in the region aspire to be closer to. You have China, obviously, beginning to build investments as part of Belt and Road, you have Turkey.

So actually let’s talk about Turkey there for a second. What is the role it plays in the region? Is it in competition with Russia? Is it in cooperation? What exactly is its impact on these dynamics? Ivan?

Ivan Klyszcz:

Yes, certainly.

Well, I think with Turkey we have two contrasting realities in a way when it comes to the Turkish presence in region. On the one hand, Turkey is a NATO member and this is a core element of its foreign and defense policy. And on the other hand, it is a country that is very much carrying out a foreign policy that is more, let’s say, trying to maintain some relationship with Russia and to try to gain leverage by maintaining that relationship with Russia, find it’s an expansive autonomy as separate actor in the region.

And with Turkey, I think the role in the South Caucasus is rather complex, because it is different per each one country in the region. This is something that Natia will be better able than myself to comment on, but in my understanding Turkey was many times seen in Georgia as a potential partner, or even ally, in Georgia’s path towards transatlantic integration.

Then with Armenia, of course, there’s the unavoidable legacy of the Armenian Genocide that has maintained difficult relationship between the two countries. Turkey never recognized the Armenian Genocide, and of course the Genocide is a key central feature of Armenia’s identity as a country, key feature of its recent history, of course. That said, sometimes Armenia would engage in some cooperation and cross-border trade with Turkey. So, the legacy of the Genocide is has not impeded some contacts even after 2020 and 2022.

And finally Azerbaijan there, it’s the most… Azerbaijan is perhaps the only true ally, other than NATO, that Turkey really has. There’s been different reports, the extent to which, about how deep the relationship goes, with some reports even suggesting that the 2020 war, the Second Karabakh War, Turkey had some role in anticipation of the breakout in the fighting, with some even suggesting that Turkey may have given some reassurance to Azerbaijan that it could proceed with the military operation.

Moreover, I should stress that there are many that consider, in Azerbaijan itself, that consider Azerbaijan is… Consider Azerbaijan Nation, Azeri Nation also sometimes called, as being the same or as the Turkish nation. Some would say that these are two different nations but very close. They both speak Turkish, well not Turkish, but the Turkic language that are very close, almost entirely mutually intelligible. So of course proximity is very, very close.

I would add one more thing about Turkey, and relating to Russia, is that Russia was always in competition with Turkey for influence in the Caucasus region, going back to the Ottoman Empire and the Russian Empire. But also more recently, in the 1990s, Russia would routinely accuse Turkey of supporting Chechen secessionists. And even today, once in a while you do hear Russian officials complaining, doing vague accusations of Turkey when it comes to whenever anything goes wrong in the North Caucasus. So that rivalry is still there in many ways.

Jeff Hawn:

Harold, you wanted to add to that?

Harold Chambers:

Just to add to the Turkey-Russia contention over the North Caucasus, there are a lot of parks in Turkey named for Dzhokhar Dudayev, the first President of independent Chechnya, who was a Soviet general in Estonia and refused to crack down on protesters and instead fell back to Chechnya with his men. This has been a major point of contention, especially within the past few years, as Chechen opposition have really begun to actively work with Turkish intelligence to stop assassinations in the country. And Turkey has long been a playground for both the Kadyrov regime and federal security services in terms of assassinating Chechen and the pro-independence figures. And this has been something that it has just been since about end of 2020, that this has been a substantial change, and this did not go down well in Turkish-Russian relationship.

Jeff Hawn:

So that is interesting.

Natia, you had some other things to add?

Natia Seskuria:

Well, Turkey’s role is quite a significant one and especially I think I’ve seen that Turkey trying to strengthen its role in the Black Sea especially, and Russia and Turkey have had competing interests, and I think that is especially obvious and evident when we look at the Black Sea. With regards to Georgia, Georgia has always seen Turkey… In the recent past has seen Turkey as its ally. And Turkey as a NATO member has always pushed forward the idea for Georgia’s NATO membership, and it has also supported Georgia’s Western aspirations. So in that sense, Georgia has been… Georgia-Turkish relationships have been developing towards the positive side.

Of course, Turkey’s relationship with NATO itself has been quite a difficult one, especially there were some low points when Turkey has been trying to accommodate Russian interest maybe a little bit too much, but that has never really affected Georgia’s relationship with Turkey, because no matter how Turkey and Russia have been cooperating with each other, how closely, Turkey has always been very clear when it comes to Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, particularly with regards to the Russian-occupied territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

And in the recent past we have also seen quite a significant military cooperation between the two countries, and I think the government probably will try to strengthen that relationship, especially. I would say that when it comes to NATO-Georgia relationship, we haven’t really seen much happening in the recent past, and that has also caused some criticism to address towards the government. But when it comes to regional cooperation, I think one of the strongest regional cooperation is between, that Georgia has, regional ally, is definitely Turkey.

Jeff Hawn:

Okay, so that’s very interesting and I think that speaks to the issue that each of these countries is, in many ways, acting in their own self-interest, but is stuck in this very tight, historically very conflict-ridden, region.

Just one other question before we start to talk about the Ukrainian impact on all of this. What is the domestic political impact of the expatriate communities that reside in Russia? Is there a significant Armenian lobby?

Harold, I think you alluded to there’s a significant Armenian lobby in Moscow. Is there a significant Azerbaijani presence? Is there any significant expatriate pressure group at all like we see in the West? Is that linked into Russian domestic politics, or is this strictly a foreign policy issue, and the Caucasus is, like we discussed last week, in the Russian political mind, this wild, far-off place?

Ivan Klyszcz:

Like I mentioned in my opening remarks, there’s the element of all three, let’s say, titular nationalities of the three South Caucasus countries have large diasporas inside Russia. I don’t have the numbers in front of me, so I don’t want to mislead you giving you false numbers, but these are substantial groups.

I think Armenia is one of the largest minority groups inside the Russian Federation, so these have, no doubt, a large role in the relationship, just in cross-border exchanges of people going back and forward. This is a human, people-to-people connection that gives Russia access to these three countries that it’s quite unique, that you cannot really compare with other relationships that do not enjoy this type of diaspora linkage.

I want to emphasize, also, the role of the North Caucasus in this relationship because the border between Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Russia along the Caucasus mountain range was not meant to be international border, thinking about the Soviet era. It was… Of course there was a period of independence in the interwar period of Georgia and Azerbaijan, but for the most part the border was a domestic border, so it was not protected and staffed in the way that an international border would be.

Nevertheless, there are communities of people from North Caucasus inside the three countries and vice versa. The three countries have minority communities in the North Caucasus and their perceptions do shape the policy of the local governments in the North Caucasus, and these governments ultimately act as some of the intermediaries in the relationship, especially when it comes to trade, to investment, to connectivity, especially. And especially for Armenia for instance, it is a country without access to the sea, these type of connections are very important.

Jeff Hawn:

It’s very interesting.

So there’s been a delicate balance that’s existed since the fall of the Soviet Union that’s been disrupted by the gradual shift of Georgia more towards the European Union, which resulted obviously in the escalation to full-scale war and increased occupation of Georgian territory. There’s been the Navarro-Karabakh issue, which has been an ongoing since the collapse of the Soviet Union. But then in 2022, we saw the escalation of Russia’s ongoing conflict in Ukraine. And my question for all of you is, how did this impact the political calculus of the sovereign states within the Caucasus and the relationship with Russia, and how did Russia change its policy towards the region? I can imagine it now has much less in the way of resources and political capital to expand on trying to maintain its influence in this very important region.

Natia, would you like to start?

Natia Seskuria:

Yes, sure.

So yes, on the one hand I would definitely agree that since the 2022 invasion, Russia has far less resources to be spent in the South Caucasus. But, at the same time, I think Russia still has enough resources and enough interest to be quite present in the region. And I will give you a recent example that has been quite a concerning development for Georgia, and not only, I think especially for the Black Sea littoral states. The announcement of the expansion of the naval base in Abkhazia, for example, that has been a very concerning announcement, which we do not know yet whether or not Russia will succeed and Russia will actually expand the existing port in Ochamchire region, which is part of Abkhazia.

But if Russians are serious about it, this could potentially create a very serious security threat, far serious security threats, that Georgia has already been experiencing as a result of the two fully operational military bases that are located on its territory in Abkhazia and South Ossetia as of today. And, there are also significant efforts, for instance, in terms of if we look at the unconventional means that Russia is using against Georgia, especially when it comes to spreading Russian disinformation, and as I know Armenia has been also struggling with that quite a lot.

And we also see that unlike previous years in the recent past, there are far more actors that are openly pro-Russian. We see them in media, in politics, as a political parties as well as movements, political movements. And these people… There is of course very heavy suspicion, doubts that they are probably directly funded by the Kremlin. And these people are, what they are trying to do, is to further polarize the society and as well as to argue in favor of having closer ties with Moscow.

And one of the clearest examples is, for instance, this idea of Georgia’s neutrality, which has been promoted quite a lot since the beginning of the war in Ukraine. We know that similar ideas have been promoted with regards to Ukraine as well, that the so-called non-aligned status, the rejection of NATO aspirations, Western aspirations in general, can make countries like Georgia and Ukraine peaceful. And these countries under those circumstances, if they declare neutrality, will be able to have the so-called “sovereign” foreign policy and co-exist between Russia and the West without clashing with the Kremlin. Which, of course we know that even the Russian foreign policy, and given Putin’s idea how he sees the South Caucasus region, the Black Sea region, it is impossible to have neutrality.

And at the same time, neutrality basically means, in my opinion, alignment with Russia, because, especially for Georgia, which is such a small country that does not have resources, has of course the strategic location that it can leverage and use in a wiser way, but it is impossible for Georgia to survive having the so-called “neutral” foreign policy stance and at the same time not being under the Russian influence.

And these narratives ideas, pro-Kremlin narratives, are very heavily pushed in order to mislead the society. And I think this war scare that we see that certain political leaders for political actors are using, pointing at Ukraine and basically telling to the society that it is because of the Ukraine’s Western aspirations that the war is still ongoing in Ukraine, is trying to twist the minds of the people who are so supportive towards the Western foreign policy agenda. And in a long-term perspective, that is quite concerning, because we may not see the weakening of the pro-Western aspirations today, but it is still working within the certain segments of the society. So I think we should still pay enough attention to the Russian effort to instill chaos within this region.

Jeff Hawn:

Ivan, did you want to add to that?

Ivan Klyszcz:

I can mention about Armenia and the impact of Russia’s full-scale aggression against Ukraine. Because I think with Armenia’s case, it’s interesting, because I think a lot of dynamics right now in the Armenia-Russia relationship have been rather unleashed by the 2020 war between the Second Karabakh war of 2020. And I think Russia’s full-scale invasion in 2022 has only has accelerated certain pressure in Armenia to move away from Russia.

But, at the same time it remains a bit of a… It’s a complicated situation, because on the one hand, as I mentioned, there’s a Russian economic weight. There’s, of course, a fully operational military base of Russia in Armenia. Which, as an aside, allegedly it was used as a staging world for coerced return of Russian draft dodgers that found refuge in Armenia. So Armenia’s situation, on the one hand, it’s hard for Armenia to extricate itself from Russia, but on the other hand, the failure of Russia to really rescue Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020 or in 2022 has put Yerevan in the trajectory of, on the one hand, trying to maintain balance when it comes to its relationship with Russia, but also to evade Russia and to try to grow closer, enter a genuine balancing position instead of being under Russia’s primacy as it has been for a long time.

And of course, in the current juncture we see a lot of misinformation and disinformation campaigns portraying Armenia as a… Of course Armenia is a treaty ally of Russia through the CSTO, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, an alliance led by Russia including Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Belarus, which, in theory, would be the key security provider for Armenia in the case of any word that would target Armenia. But trust in the CSTO is rather low, with voices advocating for Armenia to leave the CSTO growing.

And at the same time, misinformation and, misinformation campaigns allegedly coming from Azerbaijan, but not only portray Armenia as just faithful Russian ally, going along with Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. So just to sum up, just to say that Armenia’s situation was already very difficult since 2020 and the full-scale invasion has only strained the situation for Armenia even more, and there’s no clear-cut path for Armenia when it comes to evading Russia’s primacy.

Jeff Hawn:

So then my question is, and this will be our last question to each of you, what is your outlook over the coming years as Russia continues to be stuck in Ukraine, and continues to diminish in its ability to project power abroad?

Will it prioritize the Caucasus or will it look for more lucrative opportunities overseas, perhaps in Sub-Saharan Africa, and begin to retreat from the region? And if it does so, who will fill the vacuum left on that?

Harold, we can start with you.

Harold Chambers:

I don’t think we’re going to see any decrease in Russian interest in the region in the next few years. In terms of helping with imports and getting around Western sanctions with Western countries willingly and knowingly helping have been sent, you can look at basically the export data for any of the countries in Central Asia, or the South Caucasus, or Turkey, and you can see these absurd export spikes from Europe coinciding with the invasion.

So I think from an economic standpoint, there’s not going to be any shift in Russian interest from a security standpoint. There’s certainly not going to be any shift in Russia’s interest despite the fact that Armenia is becoming fed up with Russian narratives, and yet failure to help amidst continued threats from Azerbaijan, Russia still has boots on the ground and realistically those aren’t going to go anywhere. And obviously Russia has also been trying to increase its relationship, or improve its relationship with Azerbaijan, and strengthen that.

So I think realistically we’re just going to see continuation of some of the trends that we’re seeing. And, as much as it’s frequently positive as this either/or between the West and Russia in terms of choices in relationship, I think reasonably it’s not going to come down to a choice and we’re going to see engagement by both camps here, the West and Russia, and just negotiating this middle ground.

Jeff Hawn:

And Natia?

Natia Seskuria:

Thanks, Jeff.

Well, I actually fully agree with what Harold just mentioned. I don’t really expect that we’ll see a Russian retreat from the region anytime soon. Of course, a lot will depend on the outcome of the war in Ukraine. And there is a sense, particularly, I can say it being based in Georgia, that there is a sense that much will depend.

Georgians usually say that the fate of Georgia depends on the outcome of the war in Ukraine. That might seem exaggerated, but in many ways I think that reflects the current reality. What we can say from current perspective is that unless we see some full destruction of the Russian regime as we know it, which is unlikely, I don’t certainly think that we will see Russian interests being weakened in the region, as well as Russian presence.

Of course Russia is far less capable from the military perspective because of the losses that they have experienced on the ground in Ukraine. However, there is the Russian presence. Russian engagement in this region is far more complex than just the use of military means. So, in that sense, I think we will see the continuation of the Russian foreign policy as we know it in the region. And I’m sure that Russia will be very much willing to use any vulnerabilities, any opportunities to disrupt the internal processes, especially in Georgia and Armenia, and efforts, further efforts from Pashinyan or from the Georgian side to get closer to the European Union and NATO allies.

So in that sense, I think it’ll be quite interesting to see how things will involve in 2024 and beyond.

Jeff Hawn:

And Ivan, did you have anything to add?

Ivan Klyszcz:

When it comes to forecasts or what comes next, right now what the evidence that we have is that the Kremlin belief is that it is locked in a war with NATO that happens to be taking place through proxy on the territory of Ukraine. This is, again, this is a conspiracy. This is very a reflection of the conspiratorial thinking that is prevalent in the Kremlin among the leadership of the Russian Federation.

And I think this view almost certainly continue to be reflected in Russia’s policy towards the West, but also towards the Caucasus where Russia will continue to see any westward moves from the three countries of the region as part of this supposed war that Russia is fighting defensively, in the point of view of Russia against NATO and the West.

And I think how the war develops in the coming months and years, it will shape a lot of Russia’s capabilities, but I want to only emphasize one thing, is that Russia is of course not as powerful as it was. Moscow is not as powerful as it was under the Soviet Union. We can talk about the Russian economy and limitations that Russia generally has, especially in the context of its aggression against Ukraine, but what it needs to secure in the South Caucasus is well within its reach.

Like Natia and Harold already mentioned, this is not a region that… Russia has many levers in the region, and I think… I don’t expect any large pivot to consolidate. I think we haven’t seen really a very strong drift away from Russia in the region despite attempts and genuine efforts by civil society and national governments, some of the national governments.

Jeff Hawn:

So the Caucasus, a region of great interest in contention for Russia for the better part of 300 years, likely going to continue to be so, despite its diminishing power. I suppose I should mention, someone once told me that Russia sometimes is the emeritus superpower. It no longer has the same authority or influence it once did, but continues to want to be treated as a great power and continues to behave as such, and I think the Caucasus and its relationship to them certainly illustrates this.

So, thank you, everyone, for joining us. This has been another episode of Russia in Context. We look forward to speaking with you all again soon.

Thank you, and have a good rest of your day.

Related Articles

The Importance of Aiding Ukrainian Veterans 

The Importance of Aiding Ukrainian Veterans 

As Russia’s war in Ukraine continues, a large population of Ukrainian veterans is entering a health care system unequipped to address their physical and mental health needs – a growing crisis that will have societal, economic, and security implications for Ukraine. In this Terrain Analysis, Lena Denman explains why the United States and its allies must urgently assist Kyiv in closing the gap in veteran care.

Syria Between Turkey and the U.S.

Syria Between Turkey and the U.S.

In today’s Contours episode, host Carolyn Moorman sits down with Syrians for Truth and Justice Executive Director Bassam Alahmad. Together, they discuss the humanitarian situation in Syria, including Turkish political/military developments, the possibility of an American withdrawal, and the fight for justice against ongoing war crimes.

Afghanistan: The Forgotten

Afghanistan: The Forgotten

In this first episode of Eurasian Connectivity in the new year, host Kamran Bokhari speaks with Dayne Curry, the country manager for Mercy Corps in Afghanistan, about developments in the Taliban-ruled country since its exit from the headlines.

Africa-Europe Energy Connectivity

Africa-Europe Energy Connectivity

In this Contours episode, Carolyn Moorman talks with Chaouki Ghenai about the challenges, benefits, and emerging opportunities presented by increasing green energy connectivity between Africa and Europe.