Place of Georgia following the results of the Karabakh war
Arguments that the results of the second Karabakh war changed the security architecture of the South Caucasus have become a commonplace in assessments of these events. The appearance of Russian “peacekeepers” in Karabakh, which formalized the military presence of Moscow in all three countries of the South Caucasus, the appearance of the Turkish military in Azerbaijan – all these are undoubtedly important events. However, military force is only a tool for achieving specific political and economic goals – the last argument of kings. Ultima ratio regum – at one time, Cardinal Richelieu, a man who knew a lot about international affairs, ordered to cast these words on the guns of his army. And then, and now, military force was not an extreme measure, which was taken when all other means were exhausted. Quite simply, military strength was the deciding factor. And, nevertheless, the means cannot be the end, so let’s try to figure it out.
The other day, Maria Zakharova, Director of the Information Department of the Russian Foreign Ministry, held an interesting briefing, in which she reacted to the results of the NATO summit in December: “This causes us serious concern. We are forced to take into account the buildup of military activity by the Alliance and its member countries and react accordingly. The Black Sea region already has experience in maintaining security by the forces of coastal states. The emergence of a new player here, clearly not with the best intentions, undermines regional stability and drives a wedge between neighboring countries. ”
The most interesting thing about the statement is that the coastal countries have a track record of maintaining stability and security. It is clear that here we are talking about Russia and Turkey, Moscow has never perceived either Georgia or even Ukraine as independent subjects of international law. In fact, this is the Kremlin’s biggest problem, but this is not the issue now. For a long time, the Kremlin’s policy in the South Caucasus was determined mainly by the phantom pains of the Soviet empire. It was control for the sake of control. Then a practical task arose – to prevent the creation of logistics and energy routes bypassing Russia. Moscow was especially frightened by the prospect of transporting energy resources from Central Asia to Europe, which, incidentally, greatly influenced the delay in resolving the issue of the status of the Caspian. The Kremlin has consistently opposed all regional projects in the South Caucasus, seeing them as a threat to its interests. But the situation has changed in recent years.
The annexation of Crimea and the hybrid occupation of a part of Donbass have led the Russian Federation into a geopolitical dead end. Of course, if Moscow were able to fully implement the Novorossiya project, the situation would be fundamentally different. The Russian Federation would reach the borders of the European Union, which would completely change the political geography of the entire post-Soviet space. However, this did not happen. Moreover, the attempt to compensate for the loss of Ukraine through Nord Stream 2 and Turkish Stream 2 also failed. Nord Stream 2 was suspended indefinitely, and the Turkish Stream 2, built in record time, clearly did not meet the needs of the Russian Federation, especially since, along with this project, Turkey acquired the Southern Gas Corridor and the Trans Anatolian TANAP corridor. The same can be said for the transport infrastructure. The Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway, which during its construction was perceived in Moscow as a threat to national security, today is a real alternative to logistics through Ukraine. At the same time, it is not at all necessary that freight trains from Russia should not go through Ukraine. Similarly, the Russian Federation will not at all stop gas transit through Ukraine. The very fact that there is an alternative is important here, and the Kremlin found such an alternative in the person of its sworn friends in Ankara. This also explains the fact that the latest changes in the South Caucasus took place with the active non-participation of the Kremlin. In this case, it was enough for Moscow to do nothing and intervene at the last red line, which ensured the implementation of Lavrov’s long-cherished plan (the deployment of Russian peacekeepers in Karabakh), albeit in a rather truncated form. So there is nothing strange or surprising in Maria Zakharova’s proposal to use “the experience of maintaining security by the forces of coastal states”. This is a banal call to Ankara not to allow other players, such as the United States, into the region.
The main point in the agreement on the Karabakh settlement between Russia, Armenia and Azerbaijan is the last, ninth point, which says: “All economic and transport links in the region are unblocked. Armenia guarantees the safety of transport links between the western regions of Azerbaijan and the Nakhichevan Autonomous Republic. Transport control is exercised by the bodies of the Border Service of the FSB of Russia. By agreement of the Parties, the construction of new transport communications linking the Nakhichevan Autonomous Republic with the western regions of Azerbaijan will be ensured. That is, we are talking about the fact that the South Caucasus is becoming an open transport hub under the control of Turkey and Russia. The question is to what extent is it under the control of Turkey and how much is it under the control of Russia?
For Ankara, the situation is quite favorable. During Erdogan’s rule, Turkey became one of the largest transport hubs on the continent. Huge funds have been invested in the modernization of railways, motorways and ports on the Mediterranean coast. At the same time, the Russian Federation was losing its significance as a transport corridor. Moscow’s attempt at the beginning of the 2000s to connect the Georgian railway to the South Caucasian Railway (a railway in Armenia owned by Russian Railways) ended in failure. Which, by the way, was one of the reasons for the aggravation of relations between Georgia and Russia. The current situation is another chance for Moscow to logistically return to the South Caucasus. The key issue here will be the question of opening a railway through Abkhazia. The opening of this railway is in the interests of Moscow and Yerevan, Ankara, at least, is not against it, and for Baku the pain of this topic is greatly reduced.
The issue with the Abkhazian “authorities” has already been resolved – it is no coincidence that immediately after the end of the second Karabakh conflict, in hot pursuit, Putin organized a meeting with the head of the collaborationist regime in Abkhazia, Aslan Bzhania. The issue of the railway, which, by the way, was legally agreed with the Georgian side at the end of 2017, is not just a matter of Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. This is the most important marker of the influence of the Russian Federation in the South Caucasus.
In these situations, Georgia is becoming a kind of golden share of the regional hub. It is clear that, despite the serious influence of Moscow in Baku, the current level of Russian-Azerbaijani relations cannot be compared with the Azerbaijani-Turkish ones. The military contingent in Karabakh will help to influence Armenia, and partially also Azerbaijan. However, it does not seem realistic to talk about effective control of the hub by Moscow without Georgia.
And here we are faced with a paradoxical situation. On the one hand, the Russian Federation occupies two regions of Georgia, and there are no diplomatic relations between Moscow and Tbilisi. That is, there are force majeure circumstances between Georgia and Russia. Moscow is not going to compromise on the territorial integrity of Georgia. This is impossible, because the Kremlin simply does not recognize the international subjectivity of Georgia, not formally, in fact. It is clear that there is always a variant of a military solution to the problem, however, Moscow does not have the political resources for such a solution. What remains is the policy of a wolf’s mouth and a fox’s tail, when, on the one hand, there is a constant threat of military invasion, and on the other, constant attempts to use soft power in order to persuade Georgia to recognize the current status quo. Is this policy of the Kremlin successful? No, not successful. Even with the Georgian Dream in power in Tbilisi, which is doing everything possible and impossible in order not to irritate the Russian Federation and to improve relations between Moscow and Tbilisi, political relations have not moved off the ground. It’s another matter that the current Georgian authorities are doing practically nothing in order to protect themselves from the threat from the North. Meanwhile, the moment now is very favorable.
After all, Georgia has a golden share of control over the logistics hub not only for Moscow, but also for other players. It is clear that Georgia cannot provide effective protection from the threat from the North on its own, and whoever offers this protection will control the space from the border of Georgia with Azerbaijan to the border of Georgia with Turkey. The most likely options are the United States and NATO, which are practically the same thing. The visit of Secretary of State M. Pompeo, statements by active and former military personnel, talks about the possibility of an early provision of the MAP are from this series. Most experts agree that the new Biden administration will pay much more attention to the region than the previous one. And among the appointees in the new administration there are many people who know Georgia firsthand. But for now, this is all talk. The question is how much more attention will be paid by the Biden administration to Georgia in the context of the imbalance of the entire world system.
At the NATO summit held in early December, cooperation with Georgia was expanded, three new military programs were added, now there are seventeen of them. The programs imply the expansion of cooperation, primarily in the security of the Black Sea region, which caused a nervous reaction in Moscow. In addition, NATO made a separate, harsh statement regarding the occupation of two regions of Georgia. Yesterday it would have been a major success for the country on the path of Euro-Atlantic integration, but today it is almost nothing. It will be seen further. It is clear that the current political crisis in Georgia is by no means conducive to making positive decisions. However, the presence of this crisis in itself can have positive moments. First, it is much more difficult for the authorities to make concessions to the Kremlin in a crisis of this kind than in a calm situation. And, secondly, the consistent demand from the political forces and civil society of Georgia for free, fair elections is a sure sign that democracy is no longer a cargo cult for us.
Of course, Turkey is also very interested in such control. In addition to the fact that Turkey is a member of NATO and actively supports Georgia’s aspirations to become a member of the North Atlantic Alliance, there are separate programs of trilateral military-political cooperation Georgia-Turkey-Azerbaijan. However, Ankara clearly does not want to quarrel with Moscow over Tbilisi. They perfectly understand the very limited political resources of the Russian Federation in Georgia and the existence of force majeure circumstances between the Russian Federation and Georgia. In addition, the current government of Georgia, to put it mildly, is not entirely loyal to Ankara. But, as you know, a holy place is never empty, and if today the United States does not show interest in the region, in the future the division of Georgia between Russia and Turkey is inevitable. Moscow will control the occupied territories of Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region, and the Turkish forces will protect the rest of Georgia from the Kremlin’s attempts to solve its problems in the region with the last argument of the kings. Ultimately, they have already done this in Azerbaijan.
Gela Vasadze, material from the Center for Army Research, Conversion and Disarmament