Russia’s increasing role in the South Caucasus

The election of Donald Trump as the US president and his foreign policy goals also will serve to strengthen the positions of these great powers – Russia and China.

December 10, 2016 20:34
3 minute read.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu (standing in the first car) and Colonel-General Oleg Salyukov

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu (standing in the first car) and Colonel-General Oleg Salyukov (second car, standing), Russia's Army Commander and Victory Parade Commander review troops at the beginning of the Victory Day parade at Red Square in Moscow. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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The world has entered a new and very complex period in recent years. Global terrorism threats have increased, human rights violations, anti-democratic and authoritarian inclinations have risen.

There are two main trends that offer alternatives for creation of world order. It seems that dreams of a globalist and unipolar international system have declined, and an alternative multi-polar world system has manifested and been adopted by great powers such as Russia and China.

The election of Donald Trump as the US president and his foreign policy goals also will serve to strengthen the positions of these great powers – Russia and China. This will also result in the weakening of US influence on other regions.

In this environment, Russia can readily put into practice its foreign policy concepts. Indeed, Russia began to do so at the beginning of the 2000s, gradually.

Nowadays, it seems Russia has clearly increased its influence dramatically, especially militarily in numerous regions. Russia has put serious effort into regaining its dominant role throughout the Eurasian region.

The creation of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (1992), Shanghai Cooperation Organization (1996) and Eurasian Economic Union (2014) can be considered part of Russia’s efforts to increase its role in Central Asian and South Caucasus countries.

Constructing these organizations also restricted Western powers’s ambitions related to this region and served the formation of a multi-polar international system recognizable from the discourses of Russian decision-makers since the Yevgeny Primakov period in the 1990s.

The turning point for shifting the regional and global balance was the August 2008 war between Russia and Georgia.

With the Georgian War, Russia reacted harshly to the expansion of a Euro-Atlantic alliance, NATO, toward its borders for the first time since the ending of Cold War. Russia’s influence on the post-Soviet region began to increase again after this war, as all states in the region understood Russia still had ambitions and could protect its interests with the use of hard power.

The behavior of Western powers helped Russia to strengthen this perception.

Western powers lost their reputations in the view of regional states by not giving an adequate response to Russian aggression. Constructing new military bases through the region and extending existing bases illustrate the consolidation of Russia’s regional ambitions.

The complex situation in the South Caucasus after the demise of the Soviet Union and the behavior of the international actors in the South Caucasus – Iran and Russia in particular – have all impacted the regional balance. Russian influence in the South Caucasus is of vital importance to Moscow’s goal of reconstructing its dominance and becoming a global power.

In this sense the concept of divide and rule seems to be part of its approach, and Russia seems keen to maintain the status quo of regional disputes and conflicts. The continued instability in the region has significant negative impacts in terms of the integration of the South Caucasus into the Western community.

Russia’s latest efforts can be analyzed via this assumption.

Russia’s latest move was creating joint military forces with Armenia, in which Russian President Vladimir Putin approved an official document in recent days. It is expected that these units will be located at the borders of Armenia with Nakhchivan and Turkey.

Generally, Armenia has been Russia’s most loyal partner in the South Caucasus region. Russia supported Armenia against Azerbaijan.

Iran has also been supportive of Armenia, although a majority of Azerbaijanis are Shi’ite Muslims (it seems that Iran sacrifices its Shi’ite identity when realpolitik requires). Thus, there has been Moscow-Tehran-Yerevan axis against a Ankara-Tiflis-Baku partnership throughout the post-Cold War period.

Russia’s two bases in Armenia, Erebuni and Gyumri, aim to continue Russia’s influence in Armenia and to keep Azerbaijan under control, using the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as a pressure tool. Although Azerbaijan is also one of the main buyers of Russian arms, Russia’s partiality to Armenia has been clear throughout the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

In conclusion, the creation of joint military forces with Armenia is the continuation of Russia’s efforts to maintain its dominance in the South Caucasus. These military units will serve to provide Russian dominance and the continuation of the unsafe status quo in the region.

These units, together with military bases in Armenia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia will make Russia the one and only external power with a military presence in the region, constituting the backbone of Russia’s regional hegemony.

The author is a PhD candidate in political science and international relations at the Institute of Social Sciences of Istanbul University.

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