Agendas and New Algorithms of Policies in the South Caucasus - 2023: Ukraine

We Cannot Demand More From Others Than What We Once Offered Them Ourselves 

Yevhen Mahda, political scientist

- In your view, how does the Russian-Ukrainian war impact the Armenian-Azerbaijani post-war developments? Do the Armenian-Azerbaijani post-war developments, in their turn, impact Ukraine’s interests? How exactly is this impact manifested?

The Russian-Ukrainian war has taken a global significance, becoming the biggest war of the 21st century not only in Europe, but in the entire world. Acting as a magnifying glass, it displays other problems as well. Apart from its immediate effect on different countries determining their stance on the Russian-Ukrainian war, we see that the support of Russia at the international level, particularly in organizations such as the UN, OSCE, is minimal. Considering Russia’s status as a nuclear power and the largest state in the world, its support is simply meager. Ukraine enjoys much greater support. I do understand that the countries of the South Caucasus have their own pressing issues and contradictions. However, I believe that the military presence obtained by the RF in all three republics of the South Caucasus is now being rolled back, and, in my view, we will witness the Russian troops withdrawing from both Azerbaijan and Armenia, and over time, from Georgia as well.

Any conflict and war teaches some lessons, yet the real challenge lies in our capacity to internalize them. As of today, Ukraine could probably have the capacity to take stronger action in the South Caucasus, but there are a number of reasons that impede such action. One notable factor is that Ukraine's diplomatic representation in both Georgia and Armenia is not at the highest possible level. Therefore, I think that the scale of the Russian-Ukrainian war consumes the attention and energy of both the Ukrainian authorities and citizens of Ukraine, often leaving other events largely marginalized.

- Does Ukraine currently have any common interest with the parties to the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict? What kind of interest is that?

I think that Ukraine, thanks to the success of the Defense Forces, has every chance to emerge as a more influential player in the Baltic-Black Sea region and, accordingly, engage in the South Caucasus. While this transformation will not materialize overnight, it is crucial to lay the foundation for this progress today. Thus, we need to build relationships. Let's be honest - after the more than 30-year-long existence of the first Minsk negotiating group on Nagorno-Karabakh, which is lesser-known in Ukraine due to the Minsk Group established on Donbass in 2014, it is somewhat naive for Ukraine to offer its mediation efforts. Nevertheless, it is necessary to strive to maintain relations and seek a common post-Soviet narrative against the “Russian world”. Based on my observations, each of the three republics of the South Caucasus has experienced the Russian imperial influence in its own way. I think this is not a secret for any educated person both in these republics and throughout the world. Hence, we must resist the narrative of the “Russian world” not through aggression, but rather through efforts to demonstrate that being a normal country, even if not the largest in the world, is quite natural, and we can achieve a lot in this matter.

- Can we say that today new algorithms of policies of external actors are being shaped in the South Caucasus? From your perspective, which countries exhibit the highest level of enthusiasm or effectiveness in advancing these policies, and what are the specific policies being pursued?

I think Russia no longer dominates the South Caucasus, although traces of its influence still persist. We can observe this in the case of Georgia. The resumption of flights and withdrawal of visas (between Russia and Georgia - ed.) from the outside, I am sorry to say, resembles a situation where a burglar who had robbed your apartment 15 years ago returns with a tie, saying “Here is your tie, please take it.” However, I believe this is the decision of the ruling Georgian party, which was agreed upon, otherwise Putin would not have issued a relevant decree. There is the position of President Zurabishvili and numerous Georgian citizens who are against this. As for other players, we see the active involvement of the US and the EU in the search for peace between Azerbaijan and Armenia. I believe that a peace treaty between Azerbaijan and Armenia and mutual recognition will create conditions for gradually squeezing Russia out of the South Caucasus. This is also in the interests of global players due to factors such as the Caspian Sea. No matter how much we promote electric motors, we will not get away from internal combustion engines and the need for oil and gas, at least in our lifetime. As for Turkey, I think, its current focus lies on presidential elections: it is obvious that after they are over, regardless of the outcome, it will also become as active as possible in the South Caucasus, within its sphere of direct influence. Iran, which may seem like an ally of Russia, will also be active. I think that for Iran, the American eagle is no less repulsive than the Kremlin stars. Today for Tehran, the light of the Kremlin stars is more concerning than the position of Washington or Brussels.

Diplomacy often defies straightforward calculations. Let’s take some well-known events, such as the May 9 parade. There was only one leader from the South Caucasus out of three: in football terms, the score is 2-1 in favor of the West. On May 14, the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan met under the patronage of Charles Michel. Those who anticipate a rapid reconciliation process, in my opinion, have some lack of awareness regarding the 30-plus-year history of the South Caucasus. I believe that the West has more opportunities than the Russian Federation, which is stuck in Ukraine. If you like, this offers the South Caucasus a chance to diminish Russia’s influence in the region. I never thought that Georgia and Ukraine would share the similarity of having around 20% of their territory occupied. But hostilities persist in our country, and in Georgia they happened swiftly almost 15 years ago. One way or another, the situation in Georgia is unlikely to change before the parliamentary elections, but the case of the consideration of the so-called law on foreign agents indicates that the authorities feel the protest potential of society, which periodically surpasses the repressive power of the government. 

- What is equidistance, in your understanding, from the parties to the Russian-Ukrainian war? What is the policy of the countries of the South Caucasus in this context?

As far as I know, all three states of the South Caucasus, both at the state level and at the level of diasporas in Ukraine, provided humanitarian assistance to Ukraine. I believe that Ukraine should not forget about this, despite the fact that its relations with the three republics objectively differ. Secondly, we cannot demand more from others than what we once offered them ourselves. In 2008, Ukraine also had problems supporting Georgia. It was at the level of the Verkhovna Rada, the arms supplies to Georgia were actually pushed through by the then President V. Yushchenko. In such situations, we should exercise fair judgment: the way we were treated should be weight against the way we treat others. Despite the rather tough rhetoric of the Georgian leadership and the fact that the ex-president, now a citizen of Ukraine, Saakashvili is in prison, the situation resembling a live broadcast of torture. There is a drop in the level of relations, due to both Russian influence and the fact that Kyiv does not have enough strength to influence the three states of the South Caucasus. But this doesn’t mean that the possibilities for dialogue with the South Caucasus are entirely closed for us. I believe that changes are possible after the end of the Russian-Ukrainian war, and I have no doubt that it will end with the defeat of the Russian side. This is evident in the dynamics of Russia's losses and its behavior, which increasingly demands (in my view) an unacceptable level of positioning from its allies, whether permanent or situational. 

- Is there a prospect for settling the Russian-Ukrainian and Armenian-Azerbaijani conflicts?

I think that the interconnection is quite simple: the defeat of Russia will serve as a decisive factor for it to lose influence and interest in the post-Soviet space. After that, many issues will be resolved more easily: this applies to the South Caucasus, the dialogue between the unrecognized PMR and Chisinau, as well as the situation in Belarus, which currently appears to be a complete satellite of Russia. The defeat of Russia will also determine the vector of further changes within the post-Soviet space.

Series of interviews "Agendas and New Algorithms of Policies in the South Caucasus - 2023" has been organized within the framework of the Region Research Center's project "New Agendas for Peace and Stability in the South Caucasus after the Karabakh 2020 War". The project is being implemented with the support of the Black Sea Trust for Regional Cooperation. The opinions expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the opinions and positions of the Black See Trust for Regional Cooperation or its partners. 


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