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The Next Stage of Russia's Resurgence: The Caucasus States

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

The former Soviet republics in the Caucasus -- Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan -- have very different attitudes toward Russia's resurgence. Armenia depends on Russia for its security and is one of Moscow's most loyal allies. Georgia bore the brunt of Russia's resurgence in 2008, when Russia invaded two breakaway Georgian republics (where Russian troops remain stationed), and is likely to resist any further encroachment of Russian influence. Azerbaijan is cooperative with Russia but uses its energy wealth and support for pipeline projects that would not serve Moscow's interests as leverage against its large neighbor.


Armenia, located in the South Caucasus, serves as a territorial buffer for Russia to the south. It also gives Moscow a strategic foothold in the center of the Caucasus because it borders both Georgia and Azerbaijan, as well as Turkey and Iran.

Russia's Levers

  • Political: Russia supports and is allied with Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian and his Republican Party of Armenia. Moscow also has ties to former presidents Levon Ter Petrosian and Robert Kocharian.
  • Social: Armenia represents an Orthodox Christian foothold in the predominantly Muslim Caucasus. Also, a large Armenian diaspora of 1.5 million to 2.5 million people lives in Russia.
  • Security: Russia is Armenia's security guarantor against Azerbaijan in the ongoing Nagorno-Karabakh dispute. More than 5,000 Russian troops are stationed in Armenia in Russia's 102nd Military Base in Gyumri, and Russia has extended its lease of military facilities to 2044. Armenia is a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Rapid Reaction Force.
  • Economic: Russia owns most of the pipeline, energy, rail and telecommunications assets in Armenia. Remittances from Armenians working in Russia amount to around 10 percent of Armenia's gross domestic product.

Russia's Successes, Obstacles and Ambitions

During the past two years, Russia strengthened its military presence in Armenia by extending its lease of military facilities to 2044 and getting permission to move Russian troops throughout the country. Russia also manipulated normalization talks between Armenia and Turkey in order to strengthen its relationships with Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Russia's goals for Armenia for 2012 and beyond include maintaining its current levers in Armenia and preparing Armenia for possible integration into the Common Economic Space and Eurasian Union. Russia also wants to sustain the divisions between Armenia and Azerbaijan (and Baku's ally, Turkey).

Armenia's Position and Strategy

Any government in Armenia will operate in a difficult environment, both geographically and ethnically. Armenia is almost completely mountainous and is surrounded not only by three major powers -- Russia, Turkey and Iran -- but also Georgia, Azerbaijan and other smaller but independently minded ethnic groups. Armenia must, at a minimum, maintain internal consolidation in order to defend itself within the region, but it must also look for an external power patron to protect it from the larger powers. But given Armenia's location and lack of strategic natural resources, balancing external powers against each other to extract concessions is not much of an option.

Armenia has chosen Russia as its external power patron, with Moscow controlling much of the infrastructure in the country. Russia also has a substantial military presence in Armenia that serves as Armenia's security guarantor from Azerbaijan (its adversary in the Nagorno-Karabakh territorial dispute) and from Turkey and Iran (whose borders the Russian military patrols).

Other external powers have very limited influence in Armenia. The country maintains an economic relationship with Iran and has tried normalizing relations with Turkey (which, along with Azerbaijan, has economically blockaded Armenia), though these talks have failed because of Russia's manipulation and the wider geopolitical balance of power in the region. Although Armenia would like to open its borders with Turkey, Russia's security guarantee against Azerbaijan is more important. There is a sizable and influential Armenian diaspora in the United States and France, though its implications are more economic than political, as Armenia is firmly in Russia's orbit and not part of the Western-oriented camp in the former Soviet Union. Barring any substantial weakening of Russia's geopolitical position, Armenia can be expected to remain loyal to Moscow and to continue participating in Russia's regional initiatives.


Like Armenia, Georgia is important to Russian security because its location in the Southern Caucasus makes it a territorial buffer from powers like Turkey and Iran. Georgia also flanks restive Northern Caucasus Russian republics like Chechnya, borders the Black Sea and possesses strategic ports.

Russia's Levers

  • Political: Certain Georgian opposition leaders have espoused the need for closer ties with Russia, and some have met with Russian officials. Russia has weak ties to Georgia's government and business community, however.
  • Social: Georgia has no significant Russian population. However, approximately 80 percent of the country is Orthodox Christian.
  • Security: Russia occupies the breakaway Georgian territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, with about 3,500 troops stationed in each area. Also, Russian intelligence has penetrated Georgia proper. However, Georgia remains committed to NATO and EU membership and has stayed outside of Russia's alliance system.
  • Economic: Russia financially supports Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and around 1 million Georgians live in Russia and send remittances back to Georgia.

Russia's Successes, Obstacles and Ambitions

Since 2010, Russia has built up its military presence in Abkhazia and South Ossetia and extended its lease of military facilities there by 49 years. Russia's relationship with important NATO members, particularly Germany and France, has kept the alliance from any meaningful interactions with or presence in Georgia. However, Russia has not been able to create or support a viable opposition movement capable of truly challenging the anti-Russian president of Georgia, Mikhail Saakashvili.

In the coming months and years, Russia wants to increase the likelihood of the formation of a viable opposition movement in Georgia. It also wants to prevent the West, particularly the United States, from re-engaging in the country.

Georgia's Position and Strategy

Like many former Soviet countries, Georgia is split internally, both in geographic and political terms. Georgia has two breakaway territories, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and two regions with autonomous tendencies, Adjara and Samtskhe-Javakheti. Internal political consolidation is needed to overcome these autonomous tendencies, but that alone is not enough.

Georgia needs an external power patron to counter and potentially overcome Russia's influence and presence in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. For cultural and historical reasons, neither Iran nor Turkey is an attractive option for Tbilisi, so Georgia has chosen to take its chances with the West, particularly NATO and the U.S. security guarantee membership in NATO implies. However, given the region's geopolitical complexity and the strategic threat Russia poses to Georgia, the West has not been willing to become a reliable ally that guarantees Georgia's security against a resurgent Russia. While Georgia explicitly opposes Russia's resurgence and actively lobbies for Western engagement, it has not been able to receive significant assistance from the West.

This does not mean Georgia has no alternatives to Russia; it has partnered with Azerbaijan and Turkey to form a southern corridor for energy and trade that goes around Russia. But these alternatives are limited to economics and politics and leave Georgia militarily isolated and vulnerable. Lacking NATO membership, Georgia has sought to purchase weapons and build up its own military with help from the United States and Israel, but Russia has been able to obstruct these efforts.

As long as Russia maintains its strong and resurgent position, Georgia is unlikely to get the closer security relationship with the West that it wants. Russia will continue to have difficulties building political and economic ties inside of Georgia proper, but as long as it has its military foothold in the breakaway territories, Georgia's ability to challenge Russia is severely limited.


Azerbaijan, like the other former Soviet states in the Caucasus, serves as a territorial buffer for Russia from the south. It also borders the Caspian and has significant energy resources. Azerbaijan is an important part of a southern corridor that could undermine Russia's importance in the areas of trade and energy.

Russia's Levers

  • Political: Russia dominates the negotiation process between Azerbaijan and Armenia in the territorial dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh. Moscow's political ties in Azerbaijan are limited compared to Armenia, but it does have strong connections to the political and security elites in Nagorno-Karabakh.
  • Social: Russia has few ethnic or social ties to Azerbaijan, as most of the population is ethnic Azerbaijani and Muslim.
  • Security: Russia has a radar installation in Garbala. Its military presence in Armenia and Georgia helps to keep Azerbaijan in check, and Russia has a significant intelligence presence in Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan is not part of Russia's alliance system, but it is also not part of NATO (though it has a bilateral security partnership with NATO member Turkey).
  • Economy: Russia does not control Azerbaijan's energy resources but has offered to purchase all of its natural gas. Azerbaijanis working in Russia send home remittances, but the effect of these remittances on the Azerbaijani economy is minimal.

Russia's Successes, Obstacles and Ambitions

Since 2010, Russia has been able to limit Azerbaijan's expansion of energy projects like the Nabucco and Interconnector Turkey-Greece-Italy pipelines that work against Russia's interests. Russia has also manipulated Azerbaijan's relationship with Armenia and Turkey to its advantage in the wider region. However, Azerbaijan has not sold all of its energy supplies to Russia (it only delivered 2 billion cubic meters of natural gas to Russia in 2011), and it continues to increase exports to other countries and pursue other southern corridor projects.

Russia's goals for Azerbaijan include preventing Azerbaijan and Turkey from developing a stronger relationship in terms of energy and security. Russia also wants to expand and extend its lease for the Garbala radar station and continue to prevent pipeline projects from coming to fruition.

Azerbaijan's Position and Strategy

Like the other two former Soviet states in the Caucasus, Azerbaijan must have internal consolidation if it is to face the challenges of its difficult environment. Azerbaijan proper is consolidated via a centralized authority and security apparatus. However, its breakaway territory of Nagorno-Karabakh is supported by Armenia and secured by a military guarantee from Russia that undermines Azerbaijan's sovereignty in the territory.

Unlike Georgia and Armenia, Azerbaijan has had some success in its second imperative of balancing powers to preserve the sovereignty it has. It owes this success largely to its energy resources. Azerbaijan is the only country in the Caucasus that has avoided having foreign troops on its soil; it has leveraged its energy resources for this purpose. Azerbaijan exports energy to nearly all directions -- to Russia, Iran and the West via Georgia and Turkey -- but not to Armenia.

In terms of security, Azerbaijan knows it cannot be oriented toward Russia, which supports Armenia, or toward Iran, which historically possessed territory that is now part of Azerbaijan and has a large Azerbaijani minority in northern Iran. Therefore, it has partnered with Turkey for military and weapons deals, though Azerbaijan knows this is not enough of a deterrent to match Russia and the country prefers to keep some distance from Ankara. Baku has proceeded cautiously, despite the rhetoric about taking back Nagorno-Karabakh by force. It has focused on building up its energy sector and using its energy revenues to build up its military and economy.

Azerbaijan will continue using its energy and the accompanying pipeline projects in order to protect its sovereignty from its large neighbors, especially Russia. It will be able to maintain this strategy in 2012, and despite Russia's efforts to undermine its energy options Azerbaijan will be the most difficult country in the Caucasus for Russia's resurgence to penetrate, though Baku will certainly not be immune.

This article reprinted with permission of Stratfor.

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