By Taras Kuzio
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February is not just a crisis for the two countries involved. The invasion has set off the biggest global crisis since World War II that is affecting economic, energy, humanitarian, security and many other areas.
The divisions the Kremlin hoped to exploit in the West were exaggerated and instead, Europe and North America united to robustly condemn and respond with tough sanctions to Russia’s invasion. As seen in their response to the invasion, NATO and the EU are both more united and energised.
An important outcome of the crisis is Russia’s international isolation.
At the United Nations, Russia was only supported by one out of fifteen former Soviet republics – Belarus. Four of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan) members and three of the five members of the Eurasian Economic Union (Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan) did not support Russia at the UN.
Russia’s image and that of the Russian World have been severely damaged within Eurasia where only Belarus has remained a close ally of the Kremlin. Massive protests against election fraud in 2020 were suppressed by self-declared President Alexander Lukashenka with the backing of Russia. In return, Russian President Vladimir Putin demanded Belarus be absorbed into a union state where it has de facto lost its sovereignty.
Russia’s invasion has destroyed pro-Russian sentiment in Ukraine. Even if the Kremlin succeeds in occupying the capital city of Kyiv it will find it impossible to hold the country. Putin invaded with the goal of creating a country of 45 million “Little Russians” through its transformation into a second Belarus. Instead, Putin has created 45 million Ukrainian patriots who are negatively disposed towards Russia.
Russia’s weakness inside Eurasia and international isolation provide the West with strategic advantages in the South Caucasus.
To exploit these strategic advantages the West should pursue six policies towards the South Caucasus.
Firstly, the US and Western Europe should understand that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a direct threat to Western security. With a far bigger international crisis at play, greater strategic attention should be placed on Turkey and Azerbaijan.
Secondly, the West should overcome its Turkophobia and recognise the strategic importance of Turkey, which has NATO’s second largest armed forces, as an ally in the war with Russia. Turkish drones are after all killing large numbers of Russian troops; as are British-Swedish NLAW’s and US javelins and stingers.
Thirdly, the US and EU should immediately sanction Russian oil and gas exports which would be a devastating blow to the Russian economy and state budget on top of tough Western sanctions imposed earlier. The money earned from Russian oil and gas exports helps to fund Putin’s war machine and criminal invasion of Ukraine.
Some Western European countries, such as Germany, have opposed immediate sanctions on Russian oil and gas exports because they need a transition period where they can replace Russian with non-Russian energy sources. Azerbaijan, a major energy exporter through Turkey and Georgia, should be tasked with providing alternative oil and gas to that currently supplied by Russia.
Similar to Georgia, Azerbaijan is adopting a cautious approach to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Nevertheless, Azerbaijan is supplying oil to Ukraine for humanitarian purposes.
Fourthly, the US should return to the South Caucasus and support Turkey’s strategic partnership with Azerbaijan. US support to the Turkish-Azerbaijani would lead to the region no longer being viewed as Russia and Iran’s sphere of influence.
Fifthly, Georgia has remained restrained in its criticism of Russia during the crisis since November of last year and Russa’s invasion of Ukraine. With limited Western support, Azerbaijan has had to adopt a careful foreign policy towards Russia.
The return of the US to the South Caucasus would strengthen the resolve of Azerbaijan and Georgia to adopt foreign policies independent of Russia. Weak Western support for and interaction with Azerbaijan has given Baku no option but to cooperate with Russia.
Sixthly, stronger US engagement with the South Caucasus would encourage Armenia to become less reliant on Russia and pursue, like Azerbaijan, a balanced multi-vector foreign policy. Until Russia’s invasion, Armenia was as close to Russia as Lukashenka’s Belarus, always supporting Russia in international forums. Armenia changed its stance at the UN after Russia invaded Ukraine, voting to abstain. Perhaps for Armenians, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine crossed a red line.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has created an international crisis the West should exploit to re-engage with the strategically important South Caucasus. The region is rich in energy resources that should provide an alternative to Russian oil and gas.
A US strategic presence in the South Caucasus and support for the Turkish-Azerbaijani strategic partnership would provide a counter-weight to Russia and Iran. Moscow and Tehran are revanchist powers in their neighbourhoods, promoters of international chaos and backers of the destruction of the world order that the West has fashioned since 1945.
*Taras Kuzio is a Research Fellow at the Henry Jackson Society and Professor of Political Science at the National University of Kyiv Mohyla Academy and the author of the just published Russian Nationalism and the Russian-Ukrainian War