The crisis in Ukraine seized the world’s attention for the better part of 2014, and it may be just the beginning of a broader trend in confrontation and competition between Russia and the West across Russia’s periphery.Within the territory of Ukraine itself, the conflict has some risk of spreading. Ukraine has a 405 km-long border in its southeast with an internationally unrecognized pro-Russian breakaway region of Transnistria, which is locked in a “frozen conflict” with the government of Moldova. Before the current crisis in Ukraine blew up, Kyiv had acted as one of the guarantors of the peacekeeping process there (along with Russia, and with the OSCE as mediator). The new Ukrainian authorities have, however, changed tack on the region, constructing defensive fieldworks across the border and disallowing Transnistrians who hold Russian passports from crossing it. While the current economic malaise consuming Moscow’s elites makes it unlikely that the Kremlin will push events on behalf of the Transnistrians, Western policymakers focusing solely on events in the eastern half of Ukraine are ignoring a potentially dangerous situation.But the real effects of the Ukraine crisis will be felt most profoundly in the South Caucasus, the least predictable hotbed of discontent in Eurasia, where the events in Ukraine are being watched attentively. Six of the nine armed conflicts in the space of the former Soviet republics are festering in the South Caucasus, and it is here that several destabilizing precedents—like the recognition of former autonomous areas (Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia) as independent states—were first attempted by Moscow. It is also the only part of the former USSR where neighboring states have no diplomatic relations with each other (Armenia and Azerbaijan, Russia and Georgia). Finally, it is a region of particular focus for Russian security services, which are preoccupied with the looming threat of cross-border Islamic fundamentalist terrorism, always apparently on the verge of spinning out of control.The precedents and examples created by Ukraine’s Maidan protests, its civil war in the Donbass, and the case of Crimea are reverberating across the region. And although Ukraine itself has not historically been the biggest player on the South Caucasian chessboard, its role in regional affairs should not be underestimated.Kyiv’s Strategic AllyGeorgia was among the first of the former Soviet republics to sign the treaty “On Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Help” with Ukraine, in April 1993. Ever since, Tbilisi has been Ukraine’s most loyal ally in the region. The dynamics and the content of the relationship have certainly changed over time, but what has been preserved and re-emphasized is a focus on strategic cooperation. Georgian elites viewed Ukraine as a new potential “elder brother”, and an alternative power center for Moscow’s policies in the post-Soviet space. The idea reached its zenith in the GUAM project in 2001, a trade and security pact uniting Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Moldova in a bid to counter Moscow’s predominant influence in the region. At one point, there was even a serious debate about the possible deployment of Ukrainian peacekeepers in the zone of Georgian-Abkhaz conflict.1Today, Georgian elites regard the situation in Ukraine as a microcosm of the bigger geopolitical standoff between Russia and the West, rather than as a sui generis crisis that arose out of various domestic political developments. As a result, Georgia’s leaders are on tenterhooks, worrying if Tbilisi is next on Moscow’s list of states that need to be brought to heel. Make no mistake: the Ukraine crisis is currently a prime driver of Georgia’s ambitions for integrating into Euro-Atlantic institutions.And these fears seem justified by the recent developments in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, where the Ukrainian conflict was cited by the breakaway factions as justification for further moves for outright secession. During the parliamentary elections in South Ossetia, the victorious “United Ossetia” party trumpeted reunification with North Ossetia in Russia. Similarly, the newly elected President of Abkhazia, Raul Khadzhimba, favors deeper politico-military relations with Russia and a freezing of all contact along the breakaway region’s frontier with Georgia. Moscow subsequently began preparing a new bilateral treaty, with emphasis on deeper trade integration and further liberalization of the border. It was finally signed last November.Nevertheless, it’s important to note that the treaty was not some sort of unilateral triumph for the Kremlin’s expansionist ambitions, as it was often portrayed in Western media. Though the Abkhaz elite was interested in having deeper relations with Moscow, it nevertheless managed to reject some key points in the treaty, such as a clause allowing Russians the right to acquire Abkhaz citizenship and to claim land and property there.Though the worry that Moscow will incorporate the breakaway regions into its territory is certainly not farfetched, it is based on the assumption that it is now the Kremlin’s strategy to multiply “Crimean precedents” all across the post-Soviet space. The reality, however, is that Moscow has shown little appetite to extend the precedent to the Caucasus. Right after the five-day war with Georgia in 2008, for example, the Kremlin extended its Treaty on Friendship, Cooperation, and Partnership with Ukraine, originally signed on May, 31, 1997, for another ten years. This was at a time when Saakashvili’s close ally, Victor Yuschenko, ran the country. And more importantly, while it has expressed interest in a closer relationship with Georgia’s two breakaway entities, Moscow has repeatedly declined to discuss the regions’ change in status and any “incorporation” of new territories into the Russian Federation.The truth of the matter is that Russia has little additional leverage to gain from outright annexation, and in fact would be only multiplying its liabilities, both economic and in the security realm, should these wayward territories be joined to it. And therein lies a potentially serious trap for Moscow. If the Russian-backed regions present the Kremlin with a direct plea for annexation, it will face an unpleasant choice: either disappoint its clients or further antagonize the West, cementing its reputation as a pariah state for more than a generation to come.Nevertheless, none of this means that Russia will foreswear annexation eventually. Many Georgian leaders, in both the United National Movement party and the Georgian Dream, hope that Russia’s support for the separatist forces in Ukraine is ineluctably forcing the West to confront Russia both directly, through sanctions, and indirectly, by putting in place some kind of security framework in other post-Soviet states. Though there is precious little evidence that the West is tilting in this direction—both the Obama administration and the EU seem focused on keeping their disagreement with Moscow focused on what is going on in Ukraine alone—Georgian leaders’ most fervent wishes could well turn out to be the stuff of nightmares for them. For as history has repeatedly shown since the fall of the Soviet Union, pushing Russia out of areas where it perceives it has real national interests only increases its resolve. And this has little to do with Russia’s political or military swagger, or with dreams of recreating some kind of expansive empire on the ashes of the Soviet Union. It is, rather, the product of a genuine and broad resentment across Russian society for any and all foreign encroachments on its sovereignty. President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry can speak all they want of outmoded 19th-century ideas about spheres of influence, but if anyone in Washington or Brussels is at all perplexed by the resiliency of Vladimir Putin’s popularity, he need not look further than this very real psychological fact.Ukraine Crisis as Accelerator of Eurasian IntegrationThe Ukrainian Maidan pushed Georgia’s neighbor Armenia in the opposite direction. While Yerevan had never been particularly close to Kyiv2, it was far from an open-and-shut case that the country would choose to join Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union (as it did by signing a treaty on October of 2014 that gives it full membership in January 2015). There is no common border between Armenia and Russia, and tariffs and custom duties are already lower in Armenia than in the current members of the Eurasian Economic Union. Furthermore, the common border between Armenia and a Western-inclined Georgia, which is still angling for further Euro-Atlantic integration, could potentially also create problems.Ideally, the Armenian leadership would have liked to stick to a balancing, “complimentary approach”, having both Russia and the West woo it, playing one off against the other just as Ukraine had managed to do to varying degrees after the Orange Revolution. After Maidan, however, it saw the Eurasian Union as the better deal: an opportunity to re-configure bilateral relations with Russia and to get some additional sweeteners from Moscow. The Association Treaty with the EU, the leadership judged, would just as surely scupper Yerevan’s “complimentary approach” without giving it any of the tangible benefits that Moscow was offering.The government decision to do so, however, triggered a great deal of skepticism among some sectors of Armenia’s elites, and strengthened support for opposition parties. While the treaty may well be a done deal, the political ramifications may not yet be fully felt.The other precedent Ukraine set for Armenia parallels what we have seen in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and has to do with the resurgence of nationalism in the region. There is growing sentiment across the political spectrum that the “re-incorporation of Crimea into Russia” justifies Yerevan’s striving to win back “Armenia’s historical lands” in Nagorno-Karabakh. Perhaps not surprisingly, then, the summer of 2014 saw the largest number of reported cases of ceasefire violations in the region since overt hostilities ended in 1994. Over the last week of July and first week of August, there were more than 1,500 breaches of the ceasefire on both sides, resulting in at least 24 dead. In one of the most serious incidents, an Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh Defense Army plane was shot down by the Azeri military this November. This is all truly regrettable, as Nagorno-Karabakh has probably been the only conflict in the post-Soviet space where, despite differences in interests and positions, Russia and the West (the United States and France) cooperated within the OSCE Minsk group with relative success over two decades.And the international community is being far from helpful. As the crisis in Ukraine grew more heated with each passing week, each member of the OSCE Minsk group tasked at policing the conflict—the United States, Russia and France—insisted more vehemently on pursuing its own policy without coordinating with the others. This led to a particularly silly series of repetitive meetings between the Presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan, first mediated by President Putin in August, then by Secretary John Kerry in October, and then by French President François Hollande in November.Azerbaijan: Between the Energy and RevolutionAzerbaijani interpretations of the developments in Ukraine, however, are based on different premises than those of its neighbors. For one, Azerbaijan has been Ukraine’s principal partner since the two countries established diplomatic relations in 1992. Unlike Georgia, the strategic focus between the countries has been the creation of an alternative energy supply route to minimize Russian influence. Just before the protests sparked on the Maidan, then-President Victor Yanukovich declared Ukraine to be a reliable transit-state for Azerbaijan’s energy exports, and called on Baku to consolidate this key segment of their nexus and to pool their efforts in supplying hydrocarbons to Europe. Yanukovich, of course, is there no more, but despite the outspoken criticism of his policies on the part of the current Ukrainian leadership, there’s every reason to presume that this specific area of Azeri-Ukrainian relationship will remain in place.The strongly authoritarian government in Baku remains extremely wary of any signs of agitation for regime change on its territory and in its periphery. A little-known fact is that the Maidan first appeared as a symbol of civic and political activity in Azerbaijan during an 18-day rally in late November and early December of 1988. From that time, numerous small-scale Maidans have recurred across Azerbaijan, usually during election campaigns—for example in 2003 and 2005. This explains the circumspect way the Azerbaijani authorities have approached the Ukrainian revolution. Since the country’s territorial integrity with the status of Nagorno-Karabakh is brought in question by the precedents in Ukraine, the ruling elite in Baku have sensibly adopted a wait-and-see approach, until a real power center in Ukraine emerges that they can do business with.One thing is for certain: the longer the conflict in Ukraine continues, the more ripple effects it is likely have across the Caucasus and the rest of Eurasia—ripples which can easily grow into sizable waves, given how divisive the conflict is proving across the post-Soviet space. The Ukrainian experience certainly will not be exactly repeated in any of the countries, but it has stirred passions across the political spectrum in all the important countries in the Caucasus, a region that neither Russia nor the West is likely to let go easily.How one sees the Ukrainian revolution all depends on one’s “sitting point” (a favorite phrase of Ukraine’s second President, Leonid Kuchma). But by stubbornly clinging to the inviolability of its “sitting points” and by failing to work out a modus operandi, Ukraine could easily become a sticking point that leads to yet another era of deep mistrust, confrontation, and uncertainty between the West and Russia, with neither side a winner.
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Published on: January 6, 2015
RepercussionsThe Caucasus After Ukraine
A look around the Caucasus shows that the various constituent countries have drawn vastly different lessons from the crisis in Ukraine.