Russia and the conflicts in the South Caucasus: main approaches, problems, and prospects

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In recent years the developments in the Middle East and in Ukraine pushed the political situation in the South Caucasus to the periphery of the international agenda. However, despite the reduced spotlight provided by experts and diplomats, this region continues to hold strategic importance.

Conflicts in the Caucasus are increasingly influenced by external factors, among them, the confrontations between Russia and the West as well as the armed conflict in the Southeast of Ukraine and in Syria. As a result, the issues in the Caucasus become embedded in broader contexts. Their regional format is increasingly complemented by geopolitical considerations, which reduce the possibilities for reaching a compromise since the principle of “zero-sum games” becomes dominant. In this context, it is extremely important to start a general and substantive dialogue on European security issues, which would include consideration of the situation around Ukraine, the Caucasus, and the Black Sea region, with the participation of both the EU and NATO member states and Russia. Currently, without a minimal positive dynamic on this issue addressing the conflicts in the Caucasus is problematic. In this regard, it is vital to update the “inventory” of the interests of all players, define competitive goals and objectives, and try to develop a “roadmap” despite existing disputes over status issues.

 

Recommendations

The following recommendations towards issues in the Caucasus are put forward considering the current trends:

  • The collapse of the existing negotiation formats should be prevented: the Geneva talks on the situation in the Caucasus and negotiations on the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. These are extremely important as channels of communication between the conflict parties and other players involved in the peace process.
  • In the current context, the utmost aim is to have the joint oral agreement on the non-use of force in Abkhazia and South Ossetia supported by all parties of the Geneva talks. Based on this not legally binding agreement, it will be possible to develop a more detailed document in the future.
  • The work of separate working groups in the framework of the Geneva discussions on security and humanitarian issues should be intensified. It is necessary to minimize detentions and arrests and ensure the most convenient contacts between the populations on both sides of the conflict.
  • Practical content to European Union’s “engagement without recognition” approach in relation to Abkhazia and South Ossetia should be added. It is important to identify areas where interaction between Sukhumi, Tskhinvali, Tbilisi, Moscow, the EU, and other players is possible despite the unresolved status issues.
  • Trilateral processes (negotiations between the presidents of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Russia) along with the existing diplomatic format (OSCE Minsk Group) should be activated. This (trilateral) format has already paid off in 2008-2012. This format managed to keep Yerevan and Baku from repeating the South Ossetian scenario and even reach mutual agreements on humanitarian issues, as well as come very close to compromise on “basic principles.” In addition to increasing Russian participation, this format would allow Moscow to maintain cooperation with France and the United States, the two OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs interested in cooperating with Russia in this direction. Russia’s effectiveness in this context would strengthen the confidence between Moscow and Washington and facilitate solving broader international issues.
  • Constructive relations between Russia and the new authorities in Armenia should be built in order to prevent the sharp polarization within this republic and the reevaluation of its relations with Russia and Eurasian integration. High-quality relations with the new cabinet are extremely important in the context of the Nagorno-Karabakh settlement. They will allow Yerevan to overcome the existing stagnation in the negotiations and return to a meaningful dialogue with Baku.
  • A special Russian-Armenian integration package should be developed as a bridge between the EU and the EAEU. While this topic directly is not related to the conflict settlement, such an “and-and” model and the rejection of the explicit choice between Moscow and Brussels is an important strategy when considering prospects of pragmatic relations between Russia and the West, or at least with the European Union.
  • Moscow’s policies towards Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the elites of which have different views about the prospects of their existence, should be diversified. At the same time, coordination of integration steps with Sukhum/i and Tskhinval/i should be conducted with a clear understanding that Russia has its own interests and reasons, and Moscow’s position cannot be that of a lobbyist for Abkhazia and South Ossetia (in this regard it would be useful to refrain from implementing “United Ossetia” plans per the Crimean model).
  • Areas of cooperation between Russia and Georgia that already have been tried and unite the positions of the parties despite the existing contradictions should be developed. This refers to the security issues on the North Caucasus border (especially countering radical Islamism). This is extremely important in the context of Pankisi, as well as the participation of immigrants from Georgia and the Russian North Caucasus in the Middle Eastern terrorist and extremist structures.
  • Pragmatic relations between Russia and the United States and its allies should be built to counter radical jihadism in the Middle East (considering the influence of the situation in this region on the Southern and Northern Caucasus).
  • Regular contacts should be established between NATO and Russia to exchange information on the military-political situation in the Caucasus. This model has been tested in Syria already. The possible risks during military exercises should be minimized.
  • Activate, and possibly, establish regular consultations between Moscow, Ankara, and Tehran on issues in the Caucasus. This format of cooperation already paid off in the Middle East. It seems that it could be tested in the South Caucasus as well.
  • A coordination mechanism should be established on security and cross-border cooperation in the framework of the Greater Caucasus (including representatives of Georgia and Azerbaijan, which have a common border with the Russian Federation along Dagestan, Chechnya, and Ingushetia). The participants on the Russian side can include the staff of plenipotentiary representative in the North-Caucasian Federal District (North Caucasus Federal District) and representatives of the relevant departments of the Russian Foreign Ministry. Such experience already existed in the 1990s and the first half of the 2000s.
  • A coordinating expert-analytical structure should be created for the Greater Caucasus that would help facilitate interaction and exchange of information between experts working on the issues related to the South Caucasus and North Caucasus. It is extremely important to ensure regular interaction among expert structures dealing with Middle East issues, as well as counter-terrorism issues. This would improve the quality of expert support of practical recommendations on security, defense, and political development of the entire Greater Caucasus.

 

*The feature photo of this publication is taken from the Canva free photo stock. 

 

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