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

Due to the War in Ukraine, Russia Entered into a Situational Partnership with Azerbaijan

Iliya Kusa, International relations expert

- 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?

In my opinion, the main consequence is that as a result of the war, the Russian Federation lost certain positions and ability to influence regional processes. Accordingly, this granted, first of all, Armenia a chance to break from its influence and try to pursue more independent policies. The question of how well Armenia copes is a separate issue. The main outcome of the war is that the RF is now unable to allocate substantial resources to other areas, get distracted by serious crises, thereby creating potential shifts in the balance of power and opportunities for other countries to strengthen their influence. Examples include non-Western countries such as India, which recently concluded a military agreement with Armenia, as well as Turkey, China, France. Due to the war in Ukraine, the Western countries, in their turn, stepped up diplomacy to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh problem. The second consequence is that Russia was forced to enter into a situational partnership with Azerbaijan. If earlier the logistical issues in the region may have not troubled Russia much, now, the need for a route through the South Caucasus to bypass sanctions and facilitate parallel imports prompted Russia to openly support, for instance, Azerbaijan’s proposals related to the so-called “Zangezur Corridor”. We can already see that the Russian peacekeepers and the Azerbaijani military in different episodes, at least, had mutual understanding, and at most, they “played along” with each other.

At the beginning of the war, there were lots of speculations that the RF, for example, would force Armenia, as an ally within the CSTO, to somehow intervene, there were also discussions about volunteers who would come to fight with us, but this did not happen. We can note that the reverse influence remains quite limited, the war in our country being more or less localized. I would say that all this can affect us if some processes in the South Caucasus are completed. For example, if Russia is weakened and loses control over Armenia, this will hit its positions hard, including its ability to bypass sanctions, its economic and political standing and its reputation, which could further weaken its negotiating power concerning Ukraine. But so far this has not happened, so I cannot say that the South Caucasus impacted the war in Ukraine.

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

Ukraine has two important strategic interests. The first is the reduction of Russian influence in the South Caucasus at large. It is in our best interest to keep this influence minimal for the following five years or more. The second factor is Ukraine’s interest in developing bilateral relations with Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia. I cannot say that Ukraine faced major challenges in terms of political communication with the region, except for some energy-related interests and cooperation with Azerbaijani companies (SOCAR is active in the Ukrainian market). I cannot say either that relations with the countries of the South Caucasus were a priority for Ukraine. The war demonstrated Ukraine’s recognition of importance of non-Western directions and interest in countries with which relations were previously not quite developed. There is a need to reduce the Russian influence, not to allow to bypass sanctions, and to this end it is necessary to work with different countries, plus there is a need to diversify foreign policy. We realized that the world is big, a lot of processes can directly affect us, as well as Russia, and therefore us too, since we are at war with Russia. I don't think that Azerbaijan or Armenia will assume the role of super strategic partners for Ukraine in the near future. 

Ukraine’s strategic partnership currently rests with the West - the EU and NATO countries, on which we are highly dependent. But in the medium-to-long term, I think Ukraine will try to increase its influence and involvement in other regions. It will be beneficial for us to cooperate both with Azerbaijan, as there are joint projects and a common interest (of course, much depends on the developments in Azerbaijan and Turkey), and with Armenia. With Armenia, I would say even more - against the backdrop of the weakening of Russia in the post-Soviet space, it has become possible to strengthen relations with Armenia in order to enable Yerevan to diversify its foreign policy and diminish Russia's influence. We ourselves can act as a full-fledged partner and help build relationships, serving as a bridge with Western countries, and countries of Central and Eastern Europe.

- 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?

At a global level, we are witnessing a transition from one system of international relations to another. The system that was formed after the Second World War, and appeared in a more modern form after the collapse of the USSR, is no longer relevant. The war in Ukraine showed its irrelevance, the RF invasion led to the collapse of the old security architecture, the agreements between the West and the RF have proven ineffective, they withdrew from all agreements and do not acknowledge each other. Russia generally believes that in Ukraine it is at war with the entire collective West. Therefore, I think that this accelerates the transition to a new world order. The question of what it will turn out to be is open to debate, but it is obvious that one of the characteristic features will be dynamic multipolarity at the regional level. Regional states that have ambitions, goals, vision, resources and will to play a more active role, take on more processes, not depending on any single player, will grow stronger. The South Caucasus is no exception. Although this is a sub-regional level, I see that the process affects it as well. Russia, which was one of the dominant players in the region in the post-Soviet period, is losing ground. In my view, it will not fully vanish, but in the new security architecture it will be only one of the powers. This will be a unique chance for Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia to occupy some niche, to try to diversify their foreign policy through new ties and partners. The second point is taking some new functionality. Azerbaijan, in my opinion, is trying to sell its functionality to the Americans as part of the anti-Iranian coalition. They are working closely with Israel, they have started working with Americans, and are strengthening the anti-Iranian rhetoric. I see their attempts to say “we are bad with democracy, human rights, we also have energy problems, but we can help contain Iran.” I think that Armenia and Georgia are now in approximately the same state, when it is necessary to decide what to do. The question arises as to which actors should fill the vacuum of influence left by Russia, what role the countries will play in regional and sub-regional processes. This phenomenon is reflective of what is being observed in many regions. Ukraine has its own process associated with the strengthening of the Visegrad Four countries, with Poland, the Baltic countries, Romania, establishing their bloc within the EU. In the Baltic-Black Sea region, a strengthening of Turkey is observed, which seeks to expand its comfort zone, including, for example, through occupied Crimea. We don’t know when Crimea will be liberated, what kind of Turkish influence will exist there, and how Ukraine will react to these developments. At the recently held China-Central Asia Summit we saw that the region is falling under the influence of China, while maintaining relations with Russia, the US, added to that, there is also Saudi and Japanese influence and much more. I would characterize this situation as dynamic multipolarity where multiple influences, diverse ties may emerge and may or may not be utilized.

- 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?

The policy of equidistance, in my opinion, lacks some specifics. Let’s take as an example the policy of the Georgian authorities. I get the impression that everything they do (starting with the M. Saakashvili case, ending with an attempt to pass a law on foreign agents, and the decision to resume air connections with Russia) is based not on fundamental equidistance, but, firstly, on the commercial interests of specific companies , and secondly, the desire to maintain their power. This is about domestic interests. It is clear that formally they demonstrate neutrality so as not to fall under sanctions, but on the other hand, they are apparently afraid of taking the side of the West, as they fear Russia's reaction. I would describe it as a forced equidistance based on the interests of a narrow group of political elites. In Armenia, the situation is somewhat different in that, in my impression, Prime Minister Pashinyan does not dare to take a final step in one concrete direction - either towards the West, taking advantage of the weakening of Russia, or towards Russia, if he does not in any way see Armenia as part of the collective West. From my perspective, the seeming hesitation leads to Armenia’s indecisiveness in the international arena. Equidistence is also a principled stance of a country whereby it simultaneously develops relations with parties. Here I see an attempt to sit on several chairs. This is usually not a strategic position, but a situational one. Issues are being resolved here and now - we just need to play for time, if we wait, something will be solved by itself. Ukraine used to take this position before the war, which was not always efficient. We lost a lot of time, not daring to take any action, but we got what we got. Formally, this is an equidistant policy, an attempt to balance between Russia and the West, when there is no influence of third parties. There is political influence, as in the case of Armenia - the active diplomacy of the French, Americans, the EU as a whole, but, at the same time, not backed up by concrete actions, resources, ties, including due to the indecisiveness of the Armenian authorities.

I don’t think that Baku has taken any equidistant stance. In the case of Azerbaijan, the situational partnership with Russia is obvious. They do not openly support Moscow's position on Ukraine, but it is no secret that shortly before the invasion, Aliyev in Moscow signed an agreement on allied cooperation, which no one renounced. They did not impose sanctions and continue to trade, there is information that Azerbaijan is also a country through which sanctions can be bypassed. Besides, on issues of regional security, Azerbaijan closely cooperates with Russia, since in terms of their interests their positions show greater convergence. Formally, this can be called equidistance, but I believe that Azerbaijan at this stage is geopolitically closer to the interests of Russia, and vice versa, at least in the South Caucasus-related matters.

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

There are always prospects, but the conditions, timeframes, circumstances and compromises for a resolution remain key considerations. Any non-military settlement envisages a compromise, we must clearly understand that, and it always involves concessions. At the moment, there is no point of conversation in the war between Russia and Ukraine. Neither Russia nor Ukraine is ready for talks, and I don't think there will be negotiations this year (maybe until autumn). We are at a stage when there is belief in military operations to change the balance of power, strengthen negotiating positions, and only after that engage in the negotiation process.

When it comes to Armenia and Azerbaijan, there are problems related to the conditions. There are significant questions regarding the nature of the settlement, the issue of the rights of the Armenian population in Karabakh, as well as the guarantee of their security. In an environment of mutual distrust, reaching a long-term agreement, which instills confidence in all parties, is very challenging. At least external guarantors are required, but currently there is a problem in finding ones. The countries of the West do not dare or do not yet give such guarantees, or they are not acknowledged by a certain side. Russia has been discredited, I'm not sure that Azerbaijanis fully believe Russia, neither do Armenians, as far as I can see, especially after what happened in 2020 and in subsequent years, when Moscow did nothing, and Pashinyan himself said that the peacekeepers were not fulfilling their commitments. Where are the guarantees that they can really ensure something? The issue is also related to the fact that the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict has long been and especially now has transformed into one of the arenas of confrontation between the Russian Federation and the West, further complicating its resolution. It is evident that any settlement must take into account some party’s political interests, and here the struggle between Western countries and Russia begins: the former want the conflict to be resolved on the principles adopted back in Madrid, whereas the latter is trying to assert its dominance in the negotiation process: it seems they just say “come to Moscow, make a deal and that's it.” Here I also see a problem: there is a struggle between external players who are trying to win the negotiation process over to their side, which, accordingly, complicates it.

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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