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Erosion of Russia’s Hegemonic Stability in the South Caucasus and Transition to Risky Instability

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Image source: kremlin.ru

In early nineteenth century, following the wars with Persian and Ottoman empires, Russia completed the invasion of the South Caucasus. The region that hosts present day Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia remained under the control of Moscow until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, though the three countries were independent for a brief period after the World War I. Suppressing the independence movements in these countries along with the other parts of Russian Empire and later the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, Moscow also acted as security provider in the region. In this role, Russia subdued conflicts between the subjects of the empire and also countered the intervention of external powers into “its” territories. This created a stability in the South Caucasus, as in other parts of the empire, dubbed by the theories of international relations as “hegemonic stability”.

In early 1990s, the Soviet Union collapsed and, subsequently, most of the newly independent states in the territories of the former empire ushered into inter- and intra-state conflicts. In the South Caucasus, Russia sought to manipulate and ultimately benefit from these flashpoints in order to preserve its influence over the region. Moscow’s support to Abkhaz separatists in Georgia and Armenia’s occupation of the Karabakh region of Azerbaijan in early 1990s helped the Kremlin recover its control over three countries of the South Caucasus. This translated into resurgence of Russia-dominated security order in the region in the post-soviet period but with more assertive independent states that sought to boost their sovereignty while minimizing Russia’s hegemony.

Armenia joined the Russia-led security and economic integration with a full membership at the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). Azerbaijan, on the other hand, managed to build neutral and multilateral foreign policy and succeeded to resist Russia’s pressure thanks to economic independence of the country. The only country of the region, Georgia, that sought to escape Russian orbit and join the Eura-Atlantic political and military structures faced insurmountable obstacles on this path and remained in-between. Russia’s occupation of two regions of Georgia (Abkhazia and South Ossetia) in 2008 has served for the Kremlin as the Sword of Damocles over Tbilisi’s foreign policy.

The post-Soviet hegemonic stability in the South Caucasus has been, therefore, more volatile compared to earlier periods. The occasional military escalations between Baku and Yerevan along with the war in Georgia (2008) manifested such sporadic disruptions of the regional security order.  However, in both cases, Russia succeeded to act as hegemon by recovering ceasefire between Armenia and Azerbaijan and putting a de-fact veto on Georgia’s foreign policy.

Even during the full-scale military operations between Azerbaijan and Armenia in 2020, known as the Second Karabakh War, Russia appeared as the only mediator with enough authority to bring the sides to ceasefire. Deploying its troops to the Karabakh region of Azerbaijan under the name of peacekeepers, Russia managed to complete its mission of deploying its troops on the soil of each of the three countries of the region.

Hence, in the post-Soviet period, Moscow managed mostly to preserve the security order in the region under hegemony of Russia. The Kremlin, however, has had to swallow growing security ties between Azerbaijan and Turkiye, but reacted more calmly to these ties as Baku demonstrated deference to Russia’s core national interests and concerns in the region.

In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Moscow’s dominance established over the South Caucasus in early nineteenth century came under jeopardy for the third time after the post-WWI and early years of the post-Soviet periods. Facing an unexpected military debacle in Ukraine and massive economic troubles at home, Russia encounters challenges against its dominance in the South Caucasus, the region that has overarching geopolitical significance for Moscow.

This time the challenge to Russian power originates in Armenia and Azerbaijan, as Georgia avoids provoking Moscow and seemingly drifts away from its pro-Western aspirations. On the one hand, Azerbaijan criticizes Russia’s support to the separatist regime in the Karabakh region, tries to end the mission of the peacekeeping contingent, deepens its strategic alliance with Turkiye, increases its contributions to the energy security of Europe, and relies more on the EU’s mediation in the peace process with Armenia. On the other hand, Armenia defies Russia’s authority by distancing itself from Russia’s military bloc, builds closer relations with the European countries and the United States and invited a mission of the EU to monitor the security situation along Armenia’s border with Azerbaijan. The Kremlin reacted rather furiously to these developments and blamed the West on attempts to squeeze Russia out of the South Caucasus.

To the disappointment of Moscow, this signifies a decline in Russia’s dominance over the region, although it is now premature to say how this process will go on and whether this will end up with Russia’s withdrawal from the South Caucasus. The decline of Russian influence over the region creates a period which can be seen through the lens of the power-transition theory of international relations. According to this conceptual framework, the decline of the dominant power might lead to a conflict or war with the rising power as the latter becomes more assertive seeking to challenge the dominance of the declining power. This can be observed also as the emergence of a power vacuum in the respective region which other powerful state(s) might try to fill in which again leads to a conflict or war between the dominant power and rising power(s).

The present situation in the South Caucasus, thus, resembles the period described by the power transition theory. Other external powers, including Iran, Turkiye, the EU and United States try to benefit from Russia’s diminishing influence over the region and increases their power. Particularly, for Iran, the “encroachment” of the external players into the South Caucasus is inadmissible. The Russia-Ukraine war complicated the regional geopolitics for Iran as the European Union (EU) and United States have increased their influence in the South Caucasus by boosting their mediating role in the Armenia-Azerbaijan peace process, effectively sidelining Russia therein and deploying a monitoring mission to the Armenia-Azerbaijan border in the aftermath of Prague summit (October 6). Against this background, increasingly closer relations between Israel and Azerbaijan and the emerging possibility of the formation of Israel-Turkiye-Azerbaijan trilateral cooperation platform further enrage the Iranian authorities.

Tehran is determined to use military and other instruments to fill in the power vacuum emerges in the region in the wake of Russia’s decline. In this endeavor Iran effectively enjoys the support of Armenia whose leaders try to use the Iranian card against their common enemies of Azerbaijan and Turkiye. The recently growing ties between Armenia and Iran have provided Tehran a useful chance to get into the South Caucasus more assertively and form a de-facto alliance against the two Turkic states. Towards this end, Yerevan and Tehran are clearly building up their cooperation in various spheres, including military and economy. Apart from aiming to boost bilateral trade turnover from $700 million to $3 billion, Iran is also discussing supplying combat drones to Armenia.

That said, the hegemony Russia acquired over the South Caucasus in early nineteenth century is fading and with it the security order it built in the region is rapidly eroding. This process might be accompanied by violent conflicts and wars amongst different regional and external actors. For now, the major security threat to the regional stability is Iran and the alliance it builds with Armenia.

nagorno karabakh

On March 27, the Office of the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan proposed once again to hold a meeting in Baku in the first week of April for the purpose of reintegration of the representatives of the Armenian public of Karabakh Economic Region (KER) as well as to discuss the implementation of infrastructure projects in Karabakh. In the last two years after the Second Karabakh war, the Republic of Azerbaijan has spoken about the intention to reintegrate Karabakh’s Armenian, however, the first official meeting between the parties was held in the headquarter of Russian peacekeeping forces in Khojaly in Karabakh on March 1 2023. After the first meeting, the Azerbaijan President’s Office issued another invitation on March 13 for the Karabakh Armenians to visit Baku but left unanswered.

Azerbaijan announced earlier in 2021 that the process of Karabakh Armenian reintegration is internal matter. However, within the international negotiations some discussion held such as on 27 September in Washington between assistant to the President of Azerbaijan Hikmet Hajiyev and Secretary of the Security Council of Armenia Armen Grigoryan. According to the document leaked to the press later Azerbaijan will nominate a representative to work with a similar representative designated by the Armenian ethnic community in Karabakh to conduct discussions and the process will not prejudice to Azerbaijan’s sovereignty.

Ruben Vardanyan, Russian oligarkh of Armenian origin, who was exported to Karabakh from Russia before the Washington meeting, settled in Karabakh to sabotage the process of dialogue. The Azerbaijani side declared that it was ready to hold a dialogue with the indiginous representatives who have the right to represent the Armenian residents, and declined to receive outsiders. On Azerbaijan’s insistence after five monthes Ruben Vardanyan, has been removed from his duties by local Armenians. Shortly after that Azerbaijan appointed a special reptesentative – Ramin Mammadov, Member of Parliament, to meet with the Armenians public of  KER, and on March 1, a meeting was held in Khojaly between the parties.

Official Baku, however, want to have direct talk without a mediator in negotiations with the Karabakh Armenians, whom it considers its own citizens. For this reason, the Presidential Administration invited the Karabakh Armenians to Baku two times for the continuation of the next talks. But Karabakh separatists declared that they are ready to meet only with the mediation of the command of the Russian Peacekeeping Contingent. The insistent of the separatists to have the mediation of the Russian peacekeepers stems from influence from Moscow – to control the situation in Karabakh, and the whole process. During his meeting with Ararat Mirzoyan in Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov gave the example of Donbas and Kosovo models for the Armenians of Karabakh. Moscow wanted the Karabakh issue to be excluded from the peace agreement to be signed between Armenia and Azerbaijan. In short, Moscow favors the preservation of the status quo in the region.

Besides, Moscow tries to solidify the continued presence of illegal Armenian armed forces in the KER in violation of the terms of the 10 November 2020 Tripartite Declaration and facilitates or connives the transportation of weapons and military personnel from Armenia to KER. On 5 March two Azerbaijani soldiers killed by illegal Armenian gunmen while the Azerbaijan Army Units attempted to stop and inspect the vehicle of the Armenian military formations transporting illegal military supplies thorugh Khankendi-Khalfali-Turshsu dirt road. After that, the Ministry of Defense of Azerbaijan announced several times that Armenians were using dirt roads for illegal purposes. These statements were actually a call to the international community to react the illegal use of this road. After the Azerbaijan`s MOD statements Russian peacekeeping forces started to accompany illegal Armenian formation to use dirt roads for military purposes. On 11 March the presented video footages by Azerbaijani MOD clearly demonstrated that the movement of military vehicles of the Armenian armed forces units and illegal Armenian armed detachments along the above-mentioned route was accompanied by a BTR-82A fighting vehicle belonging to the Russian peacekeeping contingent. At the same times military aircraft belonging to Iran made a non-stop flight along the Azerbaijan-Iran state border at a distance of 3-5 km from the state border, and in some cases over the state border.

Furthermore, ignoring the warnings of the Ministry of Defense of Azerbaijan, the Russian peacekeeping forces started to accompany the Armenian armed forces for the expansion of dirt roads – Azerbaijan defense ministry released a related video on March 24. Although the Armenian side claimed that these roads were used for humanitarian purposes the video footage circulated clearly revealed that the vehicles here were military ones. With this development, the Azerbaijani side voiced again the opinion about the necessity to put a checkpoint on the Lachin road. While there is such a checkpoint at the entrance from the Armenian side, the absence of such a checkpoint from Azerbaijan makes situation non-transparent. It shlould be noted further that the installation of checkpoints at the border is inherent rights of the states, according to international law.

As a result, on March 25, the Azerbaijani army was deployed at some heights, preventing the use of dirt roads for military purposes by Armenian illegal military forces. But in parallel, all roads are open to meet the humanitarian needs of Karabakh Armenians.

To summarize, despite the efforts to reach peace agreement after the Second Karabakh War and calls for the launch of the Karabakh Armenians reintegration process, as per the agreement reached in Washington on September 27 2022, the transportation of weapons from Armenia to the KER and the misuse of the roads leading to Karabakh, in violation of the Tripartite Declaration of 10 November 2020, increases the military tension in the region.

The Russia-Lithuania-Poland tripoint near Vištytis (photographed from the Polish side) marks the northwestern end of the Suwałki Gap. Russia is to the left and Lithuania is to the right. Image source: Wikipedia

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia’s claim to Kaliningrad was not contested by any government, though some groups in Lithuania called for the annexation of the province, or parts of it.  

Russia and Lithuania negotiated the simplified transit regime to Kaliningrad in late 1990s. Initially, Russia pushed for a right to have a military corridor, but Lithuania refused as it would breach the country’s sovereignty. 

Nevertheless, Russia continues to view the region as a vital element of its ability to project power in the Baltic region. 

Though Lithuanian officials claim that military capabilities in Kaliningrad had been significantly diminished, they insist on strengthening the border with Belarus (main Russia’s ally in Europe) in order not to allow the widening of Russia’s influence. 

A series of restrictions on transit through Lithuania between the Russian semi-exclave of Kaliningrad Oblast and mainland Russia were implemented in June 2022.  

Among other things, the transit of coal, metals, cement, wood, building materials and high-tech products by railway transport has stopped. The governor of the Kaliningrad Oblast, Anton Alikhanov, said that the ban affected 40-50% of cargo transported between the region and the rest of Russia. On June 21, Lithuania extended restrictions on freight vehicles as well. 

On July 11, Lithuania expanded restrictions on the transit of goods, starting the phased introduction of sanctions announced by the EU. The list included concrete, wood, alcohol and alcohol-based industrial chemicals. 

The European Union, in its turn, tries to remain more pragmatic and not so aggressive towards Russia and Belarus. On 23 July Lithuania removed rail transit restrictions for Kaliningrad after EU revised its sanction recommendations that only apply to road transit and not rail. 

Though Lithuania lost a large part of its imports when sanctions were imposed, the authorities’ activity and rhetoric remain aggressive.  

So, it has become known that in March Lithuania detained at the border more than 30 wagons and returned them back to Belarus. The more so, Lithuania also creates conditions resulting in huge queues of loaded trucks on the border with Russia. As of 9 am on April 4, 2023, there were 70 trucks in the direction of Lithuania and 24 more in no man’s land, already cleared by Kaliningrad customs officers. Problems at the border arose on the night of Sunday, April 2, due to a “failure” in the information system of the Lithuanian customs. For more than a day, loaded vehicles were not allowed into the territory of Lithuania. 

In response, the Russia openly threatens Lithuania. Andrey Arkadyevich Klimov, the head of the temporary commission of the Federation Council for the protection of sovereignty, said that if the EU “does not correct the situation with the blockade, it will free Russia’s hands to solve this problem by any means”. 

Russia tries to soften the situation and also trying to prepare the Kaliningrad region for “complete isolation and to ensure food safety and that its energy system is capable of functioning independently”. 

It is a big question for how long Russia is ready to tolerate Lithuania’s behavior. Judging by Moscow’s operation in Donbas, where it defends Russian speaking population, it is highly likely that Russia will not stop itself if its population in Kaliningrad region will be isolated. Is Lithuania ready to loose Suwalki Gap? To behave in such a way as Vilnius does means a possible open military confrontation. 

Ukrainian soldiers return to their positions after a fierce battle with Russian occupiers. February 2023, the Donetsk region. By Yevhenii Zavhorodnii

Tens and thousands of civilian-military people perished in the first year of the Russo-Ukraine war. And the war continues with no end in sight. As the ongoing war enters its second year, it threatens to develop into a nuclear conflagration. But no serious action to stop the war is in place. Why?

Because anti-war political movements, the peace movement, and anti-war public opinion globally are all dead; and, despite claims that the post-Cold War world is gradually becoming multipolar, in the absence of a new global security architecture we find multilateral mechanisms are non-existent. What is bizarre is some leading world powers, China, for example, which are suspected of complicity in the Russian war of aggression, haven’t stopped singing and dancing their “neutrality” as the war rages on. Besides, amid (though unverified) US accusations that China was providing lethal weapons to Russia, on the first anniversary of the invasion China instead put forth its “12-point peace plan” to end the conflict.

Root Causes of the Russo-Ukraine War

It is baffling as we are unable to understand, instead of resenting the US “war machine” why the European NATO countries have been more in “lockstep” with the United States since the war’s inception. Without a doubt, it is a paradox why a Europe that has suffered two world wars in the past one hundred years is walking toe-to-toe with the US in this war; with the war entering its second year, despite the specter of nuclear confrontation returning to their continent why are Europeans least bothered about their own security; or, 12 months after the war began, why is it that more governments in Europe have reached the consensus that “only a Ukrainian victory will stop Putin’s war.”  

Of course, though ineffective, anti-war demonstrations have been taking place here, there, and everywhere. But the demonstrators’ appeal to political forces waging this war to “negotiate, not escalate” will go unheeded without first grasping the root causes of the crisis in Ukraine. Without going too long back into the past, let’s understand the recent historical background of the conflict. The crisis in Donetsk and Luhansk provinces in eastern Ukraine caused following the coup d’etat in 2014 resulted in a ceasefire agreement (the Minsk Accords) brokered by Russia, France, and Germany. However, tensions started escalating following the US decision – as part of its post-Soviet collapse NATO expansion policy and further militarization of Europe, called “defensive strategy” – to grant NATO membership to Ukraine.

This caused major security concern for Russia which had been trying to prevent the eastward expansion of NATO since the end of the Cold War but to no avail. Showing no concern for Moscow’s consistent red lines – no more eastward NATO expansion, actual or by proxy; and security guarantees for the ethnic Russian population in the Donbas region – the US too remained firm on its position saying Russia needs to respect the international rules-based order. With both sides refusing to show flexibility in their respective bargaining positions, Putin finally resorted to “military operation” in order to a) overthrow Ukraine’s post-2014 anti-Russian government; b) halt the massive inflow of military aid pouring into Kyiv.       

War in Ukraine and US-Russia-China: Romance of the Three Kingdoms

While China did not play a role in causing the Ukraine crisis, it has been deeply invested in the outcome of the war. As a Chinese scholar recently wrote, “The Russia-Ukraine war has completed one year…although the war is being fought a thousand miles away yet China is finding itself in the thick of it.” Another IR expert in China observes that given the conflict of interests between China, Russia, and the United States, their directly getting entangled in the geopolitics of the crisis in Ukraine is like the warring kingdoms during the Han dynasty (202 BC – 220 AD). The political turmoil and feuding kingdoms during the last years of the Han dynasty, when China was divided into three big warring states – also known as Sanguo, or Three Kingdoms – has been vividly described in the 14th-century fiction Romance of the Three Kingdoms (Sanguoyanyi) written and composed by Luo Guanzhong. 

To return to the present-day three “warring kingdoms” – China, Russia, and the United States, what is at the same time incomprehensible is the speedy and swift manner in which the post-Trump US administration has successfully converted the bipartisan anti-China consensus, also into a bipartisan consensus against Putin and Putin’s Russia. A recent multi-country poll, as reported in a European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) publication, suggests the Russian war of aggression in Europe has consolidated “the West.”  Especially when [the US] aim of the ongoing war is essentially to militarily defeat Russia, create a regime change in Russia, and install a puppet regime in order to place natural resource-rich Russian landmass under the direct control of the US (and maybe a handful of European) corporations on one hand, and to establish complete US domination over Eurasia on the other.

China, interestingly, was caught on the wrong foot, as it were. Typically, perhaps more out of concern about what to do in case the situation across Taiwan Strait flares up, Beijing remained both indecisive and confused as to what side to choose in the US/NATO-Russia war in Europe. Moreover, not at all surprising, especially in the country’s domestic political debate on Russia’s war on Ukraine, to date, the Communist Party of China’s (CPC) leadership – including President Xi Jinping, has been perceived as “careful” not to overtly support Russia and invite “Western” isolation and US sanctions.      

Indeed,let there be no illusion that on the part of Russia, the decision to launch the “Special Military Operation” on February 24, 2022, was not only unjustified and anti-humanitarian but also in violation of international law. It is pertinent to recall, notwithstanding claims such as discrimination against the ethnic Russian populace in eastern Ukraine, Putin-led Russia’s troubles with Ukraine were set into motion by a right-wing coup in 2014 which overturned the pro-Moscow government and brought into power “anti-Russia, pro-US” regime in Kyiv. But Putin is no angel either. He [Putin] invaded Ukraine hoping to extract a “compromise understanding” with Washington. However, the plan turned into a catastrophe. 

Will Ukraine become another North Korea?

Finally, in the first year of the Russo-Ukraine war, Europe’s bloodiest war since WWII, an estimated 200,000 civilian-military people have been killed. As the ongoing war entered its second year, it is becoming evidently clear that neither Russia nor the US is going to end the war soon. Into its second year, the war threatens to develop into a nuclear conflagration.Yet it is shocking no serious action is in sight to stop the war. Only a couple of days ago, in an interview with the Associated Press, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky ruled out negotiations with Russia. Just a couple of weeks ago, the United States (and the West) dismissed the Chinese 12-point peace plan without even considering it.

In fact, the only serious attempt to end the war last April was sabotaged even before being discussed. An article in Foreign Affairs (August 2022) revealed that Kyiv and Moscow may have had a deal to end the war all the way back in April but the chances of a tentative agreement were scuttled by the then British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. During a visit to Ukraine in April last year, Johnson had put immense pressure on Zelensky to walk away from a possible negotiated settlement for two reasons: Putin cannot be negotiated with; the West isn’t ready for the war to end.

Unfortunately, and sadly, the two reasons continue to guide the crisis in Ukraine. Just days before the anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, President Biden declared during a visit to Warsaw, Poland: “Ukraine will never be a victory for Russia, Never.” Since the inception of a warring situation in Ukraine, the US administration has consistently and relentlessly maintained the aim of defeating Russia. Last June, President Biden promised the G-7 leaders “US will support Ukraine ‘as long as it takes’ to win the war.” A Chinese scholar – who called the CPC leadership’s efforts to “broker” an agreement between Kyiv and Moscow “wishful thinking” – has fearfully predicted: I’m afraid the war in Ukraine threatens to turn akin to the crisis in the Korean peninsula!