The South Caucasus and the limits of Western power

If Russia is a “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma” as Churchill famously claimed, then the South Caucasus region is a conundrum cloaked in obscurity and tangled in Gordian knots. The three countries of the region—Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia—have distinct ethnic, cultural, religious, linguistic, and geopolitical identities that have been shaped and hardened over a millennia-long history in the craggy Caucasus mountains. But despite the tremendous differences among the constituent countries, they are typically grouped together in Western policy considerations. This grouping has led to shortsighted policy approaches at times, but it is naive to expect the average policymaker in Washington or Brussels to appreciate the granular complexity of a South Dakota-sized region in Eurasia. That said, the countries of the South Caucasus today share a similar and arguably unique challenge for Western policymakers.

Stability and integration in the region are clearly important to the West—the region is a strategic global crossroads and a traditional scrum of great power interests. But the region is also of relatively low priority, and the West has limited capacity for major initiatives that might solve the region’s intractable problems. Within this reality, there is still much that the United States, Europe, and particularly Turkey can do “below the radar” to encourage the countries of the region onto a better trajectory. Together with my colleagues Fiona Hill and Kemal Kirişci, we have published a new report, Retracing the Caucasian Circle—Considerations and Constraints for U.S., EU, and Turkish Engagement in the South Caucasus, that proposes a policy of “soft regionalism” that focuses on long-term efforts, mostly at the societal level, that might move toward overcoming the fragility and fragmentation of the region.

High hopes, dashed

Soft regionalism is not the traditional Western policy in the region. Immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the South Caucasus countries drew considerable Western attention for three principal reasons: The newly independent nations held untapped potential for developing a new route for exporting Caspian hydrocarbons; the West aspired to further its associations with Euro-Atlantic institutions to enhance security and stability on the periphery of Europe; and the West had an interest in offsetting long-standing Russian and Iranian influences. The countries appeared keen to transform their states into modern democratic societies, integrate their countries into the global economy, and forge new political and security relations with the West. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, this orientation—combined with assistance from the United States and Europe—led to considerable economic and institutional developments and reforms in the South Caucasus, including the launch of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline in May 2005 and a promise to Georgia in 2008 that it would one day join NATO.

Since 2008, however, the trajectory of the South Caucasus has radically changed. The brief Georgian-Russian war in August of that year starkly revealed Russia’s interpretation of the region as part of its privileged sphere of interests. For the West, other foreign policy crises—from the Arab Spring to Syria and Iran—overwhelmed its agenda and led to an unintentional disengagement in the South Caucasus. The global economic downturn eroded its international aid financing, and the eurozone crisis diminished both the attractiveness of EU integration for aspirants and the EU’s own appetite for enlargement. Western-supported efforts to bring about greater stability and regional integration, including the EU’s Eastern Partnership framework and the diplomatic push to normalize relations between Turkey and Armenia, have either foundered or backfired. Lastly, changes in the global energy market, including diminished European demand for gas, have revised strategic calculations about the value of Caspian resources for European energy security.

More recently, Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its backing of separatists in Eastern Ukraine have heightened the sense of insecurity and instability in the South Caucasus and exposed the risks for post-Soviet states of pursuing a Western orientation. Russian assertiveness has also reignited long simmering tensions surrounding the unresolved conflicts in the South Caucasus, especially in Nagorno-Karabakh where violence has reached its highest level since the ceasefire was signed in 1994.

Ready for the long haul?

The West now finds itself looking toward the South Caucasus with fewer resources and less overall foreign policy capacity, while the three countries themselves no longer share an unambiguous orientation toward Euro-Atlantic integration. Across the region, government officials and the foreign policy elites have become cynical about Western intentions and commitment after the failure of past policy initiatives. The United States and Europe have struggled to formulate a sustainable policy approach that adapts its vision for the region and the tools available to engage it with the changing geopolitical realities.

This reality means that the United States and EU need to resist the urge to “fix” the region through grand gestures that will ultimately lack sustainability. To make the most of limited capacity and sustain efforts over the long term, U.S. and EU engagement should complement and potentially build upon Turkey’s regional involvement. More generally, for the countries to move forward in resolving conflicts and improving internal and external relations, an informal regional understanding needs to be created that could encourage trade, civil society contacts, and conflict management exercises. The absence of formal regional institutions, or even a shared sense of belonging, remains a fundamental impediment to untangling the knots of the South Caucasus and realizing its potential.

This is a long-term policy, requiring great strategic patience. It lacks the satisfaction of grand pronouncements and media-friendly summits. But it is a realistic expression of both Western interests and Western capacities, and it holds out hope of effectively promoting regional integration into a more stable order.