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Russia’s dilemma: partnership or empire?

Kremlin domes
Kremlin domes. Photo: flickr/Yukon White Light

For centuries, the South Caucasus region, a patchwork of ethnic, linguistic and cultural groups, was the playground of empires – Persian, Ottoman and Russian.  In the early 19th century, the territory of today's Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan was annexed by Tsarist Russia. In 1918, each of the three states declared independence. It was to be short-lived. Soviet rule was imposed in 1920 and the region was all but neglected by the West during the decades that followed.

The South Caucasus returned to the international arena in the early 1990s following the fall of the Soviet Union. Though the collapse of the USSR brought about the independence of all three South Caucasus republics, it also marked the beginning of a severe economic downturn, violent contestation of Soviet-time borders, extreme political tensions, and the displacement of millions of people. 

Russia, however, with its empire gone but many of its imperial entanglements intact, maintained troops on the ground in all three states. This generated the main themes of the current Russian debate on the Caucasus: the fear of losing influence, often allied to a sense of frustration; the belief that control of the Caucasus is vital to Russia's standing as a great power; and a sense of growing rivalry not only with the US but also with the EU in this region.

Andranik Migranyan, a well-known Russian expert on the South Caucasus and an outspoken critic of US and European policies, wrote in 2007:

"In the South Caucasus, Russia has already lost Georgia and Azerbaijan: the US, Turkey and the EU have already established themselves in these countries. Georgia has taken on the role of NATO's and the West's outpost and calls, in essence, for a crusade against Russia, identifying itself as the key anti-Russian force in the region. In these circumstances, Armenia remains the only country which retains its traditional and strategic ties to Russia." [1]

Migranyan argued that the way for Russia to ensure Armenia's pro-Russian stance is by providing more financial aid, investment, and possibly even lower gas prices. Other analysts have questioned Migranyan's prescription. In April 2009, Sergey Mikheev of the Center for Political Technologies wrote:  

"We are no longer going to 'feed' anyone, enough! Our partners in the Commonwealth of Independent States have turned politics into trade – they want to be with those who give them more money. My understanding of politics is as follows: either you have a natural partnership, or you don't. Russia is not going to buy anyone's friendship. If Turkmenistan, Armenia or Belarus believe that others will pay well for their friendship, then let it be, we won't hinder them. But ultimately, such a policy will turn out to be detrimental to their interests."[2]

Then again, turning its back to the region is not considered an option for Russian policy makers either. A second recurrent theme is the real or symbolic importance of the region for Russia's status as a world power. In 2004 Mikhail Leontiev – one of Putin's favourite TV journalists – published an article tellingly entitled "The Union of the Sword and the Ploughshare". In it, he celebrated the restoration of Russia to a position of strength under President Putin:

"Russians have a huge desire to see a renaissance of their country, a restoration of its role, power, and national dignity. As underlined by all sociological studies – regardless of the differences in the assessments – these sentiments all point to the same fact: it is a demand for revenge. Putin as a political phenomenon was born out of that feeling of humiliated national dignity and the craving for a revenge."

One way to act on this craving for revenge is a more assertive foreign policy:

"… it was important to regenerate Russia's vital interests in the territories around its borders. Without the neighbouring countries located in the so-called post-Soviet space, Russia cannot be viewed as an economically and, moreover, politically self-sufficient sovereign state. The latter means restoring the Russian state as a player in international politics, as well as maintaining its sovereignty. It should be noted that only a handful of contemporary countries enjoy genuine sovereignty; the others either lack the chances of becoming truly sovereign or delegate a part of their powers – more or less voluntarily – to some great power. Except for a few international outcasts, several countries have real sovereignty – the U.S., China, India and Russia. Germany, Britain or Japan, for example, cannot be categorized as truly sovereign nations."[3]

If Germany and Japan have no true sovereignty, it follows, then clearly Georgia or Azerbaijan cannot claim to have any either! In line with such thinking, the Caucasus states' only potential source of patronage – the only great power they should look to – is Russia.

Welcome to Mestia

"Welcome to Mestia". Soviet tourist sign in the Svaneti region, Northern Georgia. Photo: flickr/tomaradze

Even those who believed that relations between the newly independent states of the South Caucasus and post-Soviet Russia could develop in an amicable way shared these assumptions. In early 2004 Sergey Karaganov wrote the following on the subject of Georgian-Russian relations:

"Russia may toughen its policy toward Georgia if the regime in Tbilisi is transformed into an externally-controlled one. This move by Russia is even more likely considering the growing overconfidence and nationalist sentiments on the part of the Russian elite, which manifested themselves during the election campaign prior to the December 2003 parliamentary election."

He also saw the possibility of a different scenario:

"… if the new Georgian leaders are not downright insane – and I am almost confident of their good sense – they must be given a chance; we must open for them a road to the north, to Russia. To this end, it is necessary that we first start pursuing a friendly and indulgent policy toward Georgia, a policy befitting a strong state such as Russia. It is necessary that we offer Georgia the carrot (the stick will always be with us, and there is no need to display it, since everyone knows that it is there)."[4] 

Such thinking – that the Caucasus is Moscow's to lose, that local elites in the South Caucasus states have to accept a dominant Russian role and that a loss of influence would mark Russia's demise as a great power – nourishes the view of the region as a theatre of strategic confrontation with the US, NATO and even, increasingly, the EU. This view already figured in the debate in 2004, President Mikheil Saakashvili's first year in power and year one of the big-bang East European enlargement. It was then that Russian analyst and EU expert Timofey Bordachev noted that rivalry in the common neighbourhood between Russia and the EU was almost inevitable:

"Russia and Europe have been increasingly divided by problems associated with the post-Soviet space. Moscow's projects for economic integration between the member states of the Commonwealth of Independent States, and its own strategy of settling local conflicts, did not receive a positive response from the EU. On the other hand, the European Union has to intensify its policy toward countries in the western part of the CIS and in the South Caucasus, since following EU enlargement these regions will become the Union's immediate neighbors. Simultaneously, the European project attracts the attention of the elites in a majority of post-Soviet states – a factor that greatly increases the rivalry between Russia and the European Union."[5]

Writing at roughly the same time, Caucasus expert Vladimir Degoev, head of the Centre of Caucasus Studies, also predicted a growing rivalry between Europe (not NATO!) and Russia in the region.

"In 1991, an expanding Europe once again turned its attention to the Caucasus. The situation at the time there was unprecedented – never in the past had the countries of the region enjoyed so many opportunities to formulate their national goals as full-fledged members of the international community … Until fairly recently, the European Union mostly admitted to its ranks the countries and nations belonging to the European cultural, historical and geographic space. The Caucasus has never been part of the Occidental civilization, and its integration into the EU – something that officials in the regional countries often mention today – will be problematic even on the conditions of associated membership, especially if the problem of European identity comes into the limelight."

Degoev has little patience or respect for the Caucasus states' autonomous development. Russia, he argues, has a right and a duty to reorganise its neighbourhood.  The EU must either accept this or face potential conflict.

"Whatever the projects designed for the Caucasus, they are doomed if they ignore Russian interests. The immediate neighbourhood of the South Caucasus is of automatic concern for Russia's national security. The last thing the Kremlin will be ready to part with is the right to defend Russia's southern borders from the variegated threats emerging from sections across the Caucasian Range, and there are signs that Moscow is toughening its stance on the issue. …

Europe is an entirely external player in the Caucasian geopolitical theater, and the EU in its current structural and institutional condition is an entirely new player. It may make any declarations about its goals, but its presence in the region that used to be part of the Soviet Union will continue to keep Moscow on alert. As for the possible deployment of NATO and/or EU military infrastructures along Russia's southern flanks, the reaction from the Kremlin would be even more predictable."

He concludes, ominously:

"Presently, it is difficult to outline the contours of a compromise that Moscow would be ready to make with the West in Transcaucasia. Obviously, it will not object to a mutually beneficial business partnership and honest economic competition. But the idea of turning Azerbaijan, Georgia or Armenia into a military and political affiliation of the EU will inevitably encounter Russia's resistance with all of the negative consequences concerning peace and stability in the South Caucasus."[6]

All of the above renders Russia's perceptions of the Caucasus of great importance to its relations with the rest of Europe. There is suspicion of outside designs – even the modestly ambitious Eastern Partnership launched by the EU in May 2009 is seen through the lens of potentially "losing" the region to a geopolitical rival. Russia also has little respect for independent policy-making by the South Caucasus states. All this makes the region volatile and dangerous. The 2008 war in Georgia did little to counter this impression.

In fact, for many Russian analysts the main source of instability in the Caucasus region is Western policy, particularly following the 2004 EU enlargement and the experience of "velvet revolutions":

"New NATO and the European Union members, such as Poland and the Baltic States, contributed a lot to the irritation in Russian-Western relations, as they – out of petty egoism – did their best to impede the establishment of a business partnership between Moscow and Euro-Atlantic structures. This policy by the Russophobe leaders of those states enjoyed U.S. support – just as in the case with Georgia – which could not but tell on the Russian-U.S. dialogue. NATO's expansion to former Soviet republics, colored by an ideological tint, marked the beginning of a new phase that can be described as a rivalry for influence in post-Soviet territory using nonconfrontational means. The 'democratic revolutions' in Georgia and Ukraine, instilled in the Western public consciousness as opposed to 'autocratic tendencies' in Russia, moved this rivalry into the field of heated international debates about social development models, election technologies, and the role of non-governmental organizations in elections.

An analysis of elections in Slovakia, Serbia and especially Ukraine gave Moscow weighty grounds for concluding that the United States and its NATO allies used the democracy rhetoric as a cover. Thus, the mechanisms created and financed by the West for replacing unwanted regimes formally acquired a political legitimacy. Many experts even began to speak of the danger of creating a cordon sanitaire along Russia's western and southern borders, including neighboring states unfriendly to Russia ranging from Estonia to Georgia."

Never has it been more important to understand and engage with Russian views of the region. It is only on the basis of such an understanding that a credible European policy towards the South Caucasus can be defined.

The Russian debate on the South Caucasus contains multiple strands and takes place in different arenas. A new Russia Debates the Caucasus manual, produced by ESI, covers the most important institutions, experts, and media sources that shape public opinion and official policy in the South Caucasus.

This picture story highlights some of the main recent themes.


[1] Andranik Migranyan, "Elections in Armenia and Russia's Strategic Interests" (in Russian),, 5 April 2007.

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