Nervousness in the South Caucasus as Russia distracts in Ukraine

The war in Ukraine has shaken Russia’s grip on the South Caucasus, a strategically important post-Soviet region where Moscow has traditionally played a key role, experts told the Moscow Times.

“Russia was already facing challenges in the South Caucasus with Turkey playing an increasingly important role, but now it is distracted and could lose ground,” said Paul Stronski, South Caucasus analyst at the group. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

None of the region’s three post-Soviet republics – Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia – backed Russia in a series of UN General Assembly votes condemning the war. “Invading Ukraine is a very alarming precedent to set for all three countries,” Stronski said.

Military equipment of Russian peacekeepers and a police car at an outpost in the city of Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh.
Alexander Ryumin/TASS

Key to Russian influence in the South Caucasus is its role in Nagorno-Karabakh, a breakaway territory internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan but inhabited mostly by ethnic Armenians. If Russia maintains good relations with Armenia and Azerbaijan, the latter is also an ally of Turkey, Moscow’s main regional competitor.

After Baku’s victory over Yerevan in a six-week war in mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh at the end of 2020, Russia has become the guarantor for Armenians in the disputed region, with around 2,000 Russian peacekeepers deployed to monitor the front line between the two parts.

Recent rumors that Russia was withdrawing at least part of its contingent to serve in Ukraine have contributed to an escalation of hostilities in Nagorno-Karabakh, where ceasefire violations are commonplace.

Azerbaijani troops occupied the village of Farrukh in Nagorno-Karabakh over the weekend amid an upsurge in fighting and accusations from both sides.

The Russian Defense Ministry accused Azerbaijan of violating the Nagorno-Karabakh ceasefire and said Moscow’s peacekeeping contingent “would take steps to resolve the situation”.

The war of words marks a dramatic turnaround in relations between Russia and Azerbaijan, just a month after President Ilham Aliyev visited Moscow on the eve of the war in Ukraine.

Talks between Vladimir Putin and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev.

Talks between Vladimir Putin and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev.

The loyalist media in authoritarian Azerbaijan have mostly toed a cautious line on the war, to express oblique support for Ukraine.

For its part, Ukraine is traditionally aligned with Azerbaijan, selling arms to Baku, while Armenia depends on Russia for its security.

The outbreak in Nagorno-Karabakh suggests Azerbaijan is emulating Russia’s policy in Ukraine by attempting to rewrite the facts on the ground, analysts have said. Farrukh’s seizure could signal a more aggressive approach from Baku.

“Historically, Russian weakness and distraction contributed to the escalation in Nagorno-Karabakh,” said Rauf Mamadov, an expert at the Middle East Institute. “Baku could try to test the waters by taking advantage of the precarious situation in which Putin’s Russia finds itself.

The war in Ukraine also has ramifications for Georgia, the Caucasus state that has historically had the most adversarial relationship with Russia.

In recent years, Tbilisi has gone to great lengths to avoid offending Moscow, denying entry to some Russian opposition figures.

Even so, many in Georgia – a largely pro-Western country – fear that an already isolated Russia could be encouraged to launch new military incursions, even if its army is weakened by the war in Ukraine.

“The Kremlin has less reason to exercise restraint,” said Hans Gutbrod, a professor at Ilia State University in Georgia. “The Rubicon has been crossed.”

For their part, the breakaway republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which are internationally recognized as part of Georgia and depend heavily on Russian largesse, have backed Moscow’s operation in Ukraine.

Social media images including video released by South Ossetian President Anatoly Bibilov, showed local troops apparently fighting inside Ukraine. Ukrainian officials noted Wednesday that around 2,000 Russian and South Ossetian troops were redeployed.

Abkhazia and South Ossetia have also lent political support, officially recognizing pro-Kremlin breakaway republics in eastern Ukraine and holding rallies in support of their independence.

“We stand with the Russian people,” Abkhazian President Aslan Bzhaniya said at a March 11 rally where he announced his self-declared state’s recognition of the Donbas republics.

Abkhaz President Aslan Bzhaniya and Vladimir Putin.

Abkhaz President Aslan Bzhaniya and Vladimir Putin.

Although Abkhazia and South Ossetia are widely seen as appendages of Russia, Moscow’s recent announcement of reduced subsidies raises the specter of a decline in Russian authority even in Sukhumi and Tskhinvali.

For Gutbrod, the Kremlin’s embarrassment over military failures in Ukraine could spur him to take a more active role. “The Kremlin might conclude that it needs to reassert its authority in the Caucasus,” he said. “More uncertainty may be ahead.

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