Russia Starting To Regain Positions In South Caucasus – Analysis


What a difference a few weeks can make. Earlier this spring, the Kremlin appeared to be yielding so many of its positions in the South Caucasus—or at least was on the defensive—that some Russian commentators discussed how Moscow may have entirely and permanently “lost” the region to the West (see EDM, March 14;, March 19; Rosbalt; Vestnik Kavkaza, April 18;  RITM Eurasia, April 20;, April 28).

They had what seemed to be compelling reasons. First, Moscow had just pulled its “peacekeepers” out of Karabakh and removed some of its officers who had been guarding the Armenian border (see EDM, April 22). Second, Armenia was reducing its participation in the Russian-led Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and was talking about joining the European Union and even the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Third, Georgia was still distancing itself from Russia and expanding ties with the West. Fourth, Armenia and Azerbaijan were making progress toward a border accord independent of Moscow’s mediation. Fifth, Baku was conducting a major and very independent naval exercise on the Caspian Sea and continuing to cozy up to Türkiye (Window on Eurasia, December 23, 2023; see EDM, March 5, 14). 

Over the past few weeks, the situation in all three countries appeared to be moving in the opposite direction as far as Russia is concerned. The Georgian government, through the ruling Georgian Dream party, has taken increasingly pro-Russian and anti-Western positions. The party reintroduced and pushed through a controversial Russian-style “foreign agents” law, sparking massive protests. Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili and the Georgian opposition view the Georgian Dream’s decision as kowtowing to Moscow, and the West says the new law will preclude Georgian membership in the European Union and NATO (see EDM, April 9, May 1, 13; Novaya Gazeta, May 14;; ABN Correspondence, May 15).

In Armenia, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan remains committed to a peace deal with Baku and his country’s integration with the West. Talks between Yerevan and Baku, however, have been slowed by equally massive Armenian protests against Pashinyan’s yielding of any territory to Azerbaijan and raised questions about the stability and longevity of his regime (see EDM, April 23, May 14; Nezavisimaya gazeta, May 12;, May 14). Perhaps most importantly, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, who has long pursued a more independent line, is now saying that Russia will never leave the South Caucasus and is the power Baku and the other capitals must deal with (Vestnik Kavkaza, April 24).

Moscow has achieved that outcome in Azerbaijan precisely because of the way it has exploited the protests in Armenia and Georgia. Russian officials and commentators have more generally played up the notion that Armenia’s current and Georgia’s past turns to the West have destabilized the two countries to the point that they face the specter of color revolutions. The Kremlin has also stressed that Azerbaijan, whose leaders naturally want to avoid such an outcome, is now “the only stable partner of Russia” in the region (TASS, April 23, May 14;, April 25; The Insider, May 7; TRT Na Russkom; RIA Novosti, May 15). Moscow has even suggested that Western agents are responsible for the anti-government protests in Georgia—a clear warning to Baku about cooperating with Western institutions (TRT Na Russkom;, May 15).

Whether Moscow will be able to build on the Azerbaijani president’s recent declaration about the importance of Russia in the South Caucasus and the warmth of recent bilateral meetings between Aliyev and Russian President Vladimir Putin remains to be seen. There can be no doubt, however, that this represents a significant step forward for Moscow, which has arguably always viewed Azerbaijan as the most important country in the South Caucasus. In the oft-repeated words of one Azerbaijani wit some years ago, for Moscow in the South Caucasus, “Georgia is the road, Armenia is the tool, but Azerbaijan is the prize.” This victory is especially striking, coming at a time when many in Moscow and the West count only Russian losses in the region.

Simultaneously, Moscow is working hard to strengthen its positions in Georgia and Armenia. In Georgia, where the government is already pro-Russian, the protesters in alliance with Zourabichvili and those Russians who fled Putin’s mobilization are opposed to the Kremlin’s growing influence (RFI, May 14;, May 15). Moscow is nevertheless demonstrating its support for the pro-Russian government and mobilizing its network in Georgia for the upcoming critical elections (see EDM, March 13). Again, whether Russia’s actions will prove to be enough or, alternatively, turn out to be counterproductive and generate more popular opposition remains to be seen. Overall, the Kremlin believes it can count on its allies in Tbilisi to hold on and will do almost anything to ensure they do.

In Armenia, where the Pashinyan government remains pro-Western, Moscow is not attacking but could be covertly supporting the demonstrators whose goal is to prevent the signing of any border agreement that cedes territory now under Yerevan’s control to Azerbaijan. Such a stance is entirely consistent with Moscow’s use of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict as part of its own divide-and-rule approach in the South Caucasus. The Russian government is also talking to Pashinyan, having invited him to Moscow for a lengthy session with Putin. The Kremlin claims that the talks showed that the withdrawal of Russian border guards has not “changed the character of the Russian presence in Armenia.” Moscow is also insisting that any problems in bilateral relations can be resolved via diplomatic channels. Yerevan has not yet responded to this Russian description of the talks. Moscow’s characterization, however, suggests that the Kremlin still believes it has or, together with the protesters, will soon have sufficient leverage to rein in Yerevan (, May 14).

This pattern of events in the South Caucasus has at least three important lessons for the West. First, it is essential to keep underlying factors in mind and not reach conclusions based on the latest developments alone. Second, it is equally important to remember that what may appear to be a defeat in one place may be the basis for a victory elsewhere. Third, it is critical to remember that there are few final victories or defeats in the geopolitics of a region as complicated as the South Caucasus. The struggle to advance the interests of one’s own country is ongoing rather than something that can be suspended, having achieved victory or defeat. 

Paul Goble

Paul Goble is a longtime specialist on ethnic and religious questions in Eurasia. Most recently, he was director of research and publications at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy. Earlier, he served as vice dean for the social sciences and humanities at Audentes University in Tallinn and a senior research associate at the EuroCollege of the University of Tartu in Estonia. He has served in various capacities in the U.S. State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency and the International Broadcasting Bureau as well as at the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Mr. Goble maintains the Window on Eurasia blog and can be contacted directly at [email protected] .

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