Transformation of conflicts in the Caucasus: from Western world to Russian

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“The growing role of Russia in the South Caucasus and the decline of the influence of the West is a threat to the security of Georgia as the only state in the region that declares a pro-Western foreign policy. Russia’s goal in the foreseeable future with regard to Georgia will be not only to hinder the sovereign foreign policy but also to hinder the democratic development of the country”.


Contrary to the popular opinion that there is no military solution to the post-Soviet conflicts, the second Karabakh war has, for the most part, suddenly changed the pre-war status quo.

The sudden thaw of the frozen conflict was a kind of culmination of important geopolitical changes taking place in the region and at the same time the result of the following processes:

  • The unwillingness of the United States to rethink its policy in the Middle East, and then in the Asia-Pacific region,
  • Growing revisionism in Russia and the erosion of the rules-based world order,
  • “Regionalization” of conflicts in the Caucasus,
  • A sharp reduction in the number of Western instruments of influence on conflicts in the Caucasus.
  • After the end of the war, it remains unclear what will happen to the pre-existing Western instrument of conflict resolution – the OSCE Minsk Group. After all, according to one of the conditions of the ceasefire agreement reached on November 9, 2020, Russia deployed peacekeeping forces in Karabakh and assumed the role of “peacekeeper”.

As a result of the war, another regional player, Turkey, whose military-political support largely determined the fate of the winner of the campaign, also increased its own authority and influence in the South Caucasus.

At the same time, it should be noted that the interaction between Russia and Turkey during the Karabakh war fits well into the relations of these two countries in recent years. The formula, developed and tested in other “political theaters”, is a mixture of cooperation and competition, based on the pragmatic calculations of the two leaders.

The success of this formula of Russian-Turkish interaction is achieved by weakening the interests of the West (explicitly or implicitly) and, probably, this effect will spread to the entire Caucasus.

The growing role and influence of Russia in the South Caucasus is of particular concern in terms of Georgia’s security as the only state in the region that has declared a pro-Western foreign policy.

Against this background, as Gia Nodia rightly notes, it is strange that most of the articles written about the second Karabakh war ignore the Georgian conflicts and do not mention the possible impact of the second Karabakh war on the conflicts in Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region / South Ossetia.

In my opinion, this “weirdness” begins with the August 2008 war and its aftermath. It was with the August war that the irreversible predominance of the geopolitical component in the conflicts in the Caucasus began over the local dynamics. And it took its final form during the second Karabakh war.

Conflicts in the Caucasus: geopolitical and local dimension

Observation and analysis of the dynamics of the protracted Nagorno-Karabakh conflict once again reveal the failures of the Western approach to conflict resolution in the Caucasus. This is due to geopolitical processes, namely, Russia’s interest in using the conflict as a lever to influence the post-Soviet states.

The academic and political debate about which of these two phenomena was primary and what caused the conflicts will probably never stop between the people interested in the problem and will eventually lead to a value choice.

Representatives of the (conditionally) school of realism in international relations see the causes of conflicts in the Caucasus and their possible solution only through the prism of Russia’s geopolitical interests and Western Russian rivalry.

The second, (conditionally) liberal school focuses on the context and understanding of conflicts, the immaturity of political systems in the countries of the region, the weakness of liberal democracy, and nationalism.

The experience of the second Karabakh war reinforced the arguments of the first group. Supporters of this theory (in a number of cases) rationalized Russia’s role in conflicts and absolutized Russia’s role. The results of the second Karabakh war weakened the arguments of those who allowed a political settlement in the Caucasus without Russia’s participation.

Today, almost thirty years after the existence of modern conflicts in the Caucasus, it can be said that both groups greatly simplified the situation. It is important to understand and contextualize the dynamics of events.

It is clear that, despite Russia’s involvement in the conflicts in the region from the very beginning, the levers and opportunities for its negative influence in the early 1990s and in the second decade of the 2000s differ significantly.

Consequently, the assertion that the failure of the peaceful settlement of conflicts in the Caucasus has always been due solely to Russia’s geopolitical interests does not fully reflect the situation.

Quite often, the very rejection of the consensus of the parties to the conflict prevented them from agreeing on generally acceptable formulas for the peaceful resolution of conflicts.

As a result, Russia’s interests and the strategic myopia of the region’s elites had a “mutually reinforcing” effect on each other, which was mainly used by Russia.

The background for these processes was the growing revisionism in Russia, as well as the aggravation of internal problems in the West – which, as a result, weakened its influence in the Caucasus. Politicians, full of liberal enthusiasm in the 1990s, preferred to attribute failures in resolving conflicts in the region to local political causes alone. But such an approach, in principle, did not take into account the external background: the growing revanchism in the world and the readiness to use force without limit to establish world order.

Replacing Western Instruments of Conflict Management in the Region

In an article on the second Karabakh war, Lawrence Broers notes that the conflict in Karabakh differed from other Caucasian conflicts, including that it was the only one with a “unipolar memory”, and the international mechanisms for its political settlement were based on the post-liberal ideology of “cold war.”

In particular, we are talking about the OSCE Minsk Group, which has been dealing with the conflict settlement since March 1992. Since 1997, the group has been co-chaired by the United States, France, and Russia, as well as representatives from Belarus, Germany, Turkey, Italy, Finland, and Sweden, as well as Armenia and Azerbaijan.

The logic of the OSCE Minsk Group, nurtured by the ideals of post-Cold War conflict transformation, was based on the assumption that responsible actors would find a formula for a political settlement of the conflict without separation [territory], taking into account the self-determination of people and the protection of human rights.

The years of fruitful work of the OSCE Minsk Group coincide with the enthusiasm characteristic of the unipolar period of the 1990s. Then the group offered the parties several formulas for the peaceful settlement of the conflict – “package”, “phased” and “nationwide”. “.

Of particular note in this regard is former Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrosyan’s failed attempt to convince his people of the importance of a step-by-step formula and consensus-based solutions, which cost him his post.

The latest attempt by the OSCE Minsk Group to resolve the conflict was presented to the parties in 2007. These were the Madrid Principles, which were refined in 2009.

However, by this time, the geopolitical trends described above were already visible. These are the “exhaustion” of the West, the strengthening of Russia’s influence in the South Caucasus, the dynamics of political processes in the conflicting states. All this significantly reduced the prospects for a peaceful settlement.

In the fragile peace process in Karabakh in 2009-2020, the balance has shifted from Western mechanisms to military approaches. At the same time, Russia played a leading role as one of the main suppliers of weapons for both sides of the conflict.

Even earlier in the Georgian conflicts, as a result of the August 2008 war, there was a “replacement” of Western instruments of conflict management. There has been a violent change in the status quo that had developed in the 1990s.

It should be noted that, in contrast to Karabakh, where the two parties to the conflict were sovereign states (respectively, integrated into international organizations), in the case of Georgian conflicts, Western mediation tools were initially weak.

Under the pretext of participating in various wars in the Balkans and the Russian factor, the UN actually refrained from deploying full-fledged peacekeeping forces in Georgia. It was not until 1993 that the UN opened a UNOMIG mission. And a year later, it expanded its mandate to independent monitoring of a group of independent states (but in fact it was under the leadership of Russia).

As for the conflict in South Ossetia, the “Western presence” there has been provided by the OSCE mission since 1992. The mandate of the mission went beyond the function of monitoring the classic ceasefire agreement and included more activities needed to reconcile the parties and peacefully resolve the conflict.

The most dynamic period of political settlement with international mediation (or support) of the conflicts in Abkhazia, Tskhinvali and Karabakh falls on 1994-2006. During this period, a number of formulas for a peaceful settlement of the conflict were discussed at various stages, and several times the parties were close to signing them.

Several local factors also influenced the success or failure of the Western-mediated peace processes in Georgia. But what was decisive was an exogenous shock, evidence of Vladimir Putin’s revisionism.

In his famous Munich speech in 2007, he declared that Western recognition of Kosovo’s independence would not be without consequences.

Unfortunately, the existing peaceful formats and the efforts of the West were not enough to prevent the August 2008 war, the consequences of which led to a radical revision of all previous mechanisms.

The Georgian authorities and civil society often criticized the mechanisms in the peace process in 1993-2008 due to insufficient or unfavorable progress. Often there was talk about the possibility of improving their effectiveness. The leverage often referred to was the internationalization of peace processes.

However, as a result of the August war, instead of the long-awaited “internationalization”, Georgia received the strengthening of Russia.

Against this backdrop, it became clear that the UN and OSCE missions actually played an important role in bringing peace to the region and spreading Western ideals of conflict resolution.

However, it is much easier to understand all this now in retrospect than when the August war marked the beginning of the end of the “unipolar moment” in the Caucasus, which finally took shape after the second Karabakh war.

The impact of the consequences of the second Karabakh war on conflicts in Georgia and beyond

The Second Karabakh War did not have a direct impact on Georgia in terms of conflict resolution, management and transformation. Because Tbilisi already had the opportunity to maneuver in this direction after the August war.

However, the geopolitical trends that emerged during the second Karabakh war pose a serious threat in the long term to the postulate underlying Georgia’s strategy to resolve the conflict.

The main essence of the strategy is as follows:

Democratic Georgia is becoming part of the Euro-Atlantic space and is becoming such an attractive place to live that it makes it possible to agree on a formula for living together with Abkhazians and Ossetians in a single state.

Until such a hypothetical future comes about, measures based on the principles of “politics of engagement and non-recognition” will continue to be provided by the post-war stratus quo.

In the wake of the rise of Russian revisionism, the decline of Western influence makes the dynamics of democratization in the South Caucasus even more negative. And the hypothetical future described above looks even more chimerical.

It is true that the states of the South Caucasus before the second Karabakh war were in the “grey zone” between authoritarianism and democracy. But this war, with its aftermath, put an end to the transitional paradigm, in which post-Soviet states moved from authoritarianism to a certain logic.

Since independence, territorial conflicts have had a significant impact on the foreign policy vector and the entire political system of all three Caucasian countries.

The second Karabakh war marked a new trend in this regard. Authoritarianism is strongly associated with victory and triumph in war, and any attempt at democratization with territorial losses.

Previously, on the example of Georgia and Ukraine, it was believed that democratization, combined with foreign policy choices and, as a result, integration into NATO/EU, carries the risk of radical military actions by Russia.

The example of Armenia showed that the “red line” for Russia is any alternative, that is, a democratic model of development. Including its strategic ally, although the goal of the “velvet revolution” was not to change foreign policy, but to fight corruption and introduce fair governance.

For Georgia, whose security and prosperity depend largely on democratic development and appropriate Western support, such a subtle change in Russian foreign policy is particularly dangerous.

Russia’s goal in the foreseeable future with regard to Georgia will be not only to obstruct the country’s sovereign foreign and security policy (including by cyber means), but also to hinder the democratic development of the country in various ways (mainly non-cyber methods).

Moscow’s panicky fear of democracy, popular legitimacy, and revolutionary changes will sooner or later inevitably affect the actual political life of Abkhazia, where there has been a change of power through popular mobilization.

It is likely that the Russian authorities will become more rigid in this direction, and the Abkhazians will be even more limited in their already limited space of “statehood”.

But the Abkhazian political elite should take into account the experience of Armenia in other aspects as well

First, the winner is the one who takes the time to achieve the goal, especially when he is in the position of the winner.

Second, winning by ignoring internationally recognized rules is costly and unreliable. The price for this is lost Western opportunities.

Third, relying on Russia for your security could at some point mean loss of security in addition to missed opportunities.

Unfortunately, the Georgian and Abkhazian societies were unable to foresee the described situation and relieve themselves of the burden of unresolved conflicts in a much more favorable geopolitical environment. In the current conditions of complete Russian dominance, when Western ideas and related instruments of conflict resolution in the region have been replaced by the Russian world, this will be much more difficult to do.

Against this background, until the right moment comes, Tbilisi’s main strategic goal is to preserve democracy and thereby save the Western political perspective, guaranteeing future protection of their identity and political rights to the Abkhaz and Ossetian societies.

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