COMMENT: US, Europe, and Russia jostle for influence in the South Caucasus

Nov 6 2023
By Zachary Weiss in Tbilisi November 6, 2023

More than a month after Azerbaijan attacked ethnic Armenians living in its Nagorno-Karabakh region, displacing 120,000 people, foreign political influence in the Caucasus is still shifting. In the recent conflict, the United States played a role for Armenia in ways it had not done in years past, while Russia’s leadership is still attempting to limit the damage from its failure in mediating the conflict.

Evolving Russian interests made Moscow unable and unwilling to prevent the conflict or help Armenia as it had previously. Russia’s ties with Armenia have loosened, partially because it is distracted by the ongoing war in Ukraine.

As the West is beginning to fill Russia’s old supportive role in Armenia in its own way, the most powerful foreign players in the Caucasus have changed their relations with regional actors, undoing 30 years of precedent.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia supported Armenia in its territorial dispute and wars with Azerbaijan, and key Western states stayed largely uninvolved, though some aided Azerbaijan. According to Krzysztof Strachota, department head for Turkey, the Caucasus, and Central Asia at the Centre for Eastern Studies in Warsaw, Russia’s weakening influence is changing power dynamics in the Caucasus, but Russia is not abandoning the Caucasus entirely.

“The last war is one more major step in the erosion of the regional order, the post-Soviet order, the order donated by Russia. Right now, the Russian influence, Russian instruments, and Russian politics are much weaker than they were two months ago, two years ago or 10 years ago,” he says.

Changing Russian influence could mean that the West can form new relations with regional actors, according to Strachota. “A weak Russia doesn’t mean that Russia is powerless. From the Western perspective, weakening the post-Soviet system, weakening the Russian donation, creates more space for the states in the region. It creates more space for the West and the Caucasus’ relations.” 

Despite Russia’s failure to mediate the September war and prevent the ethnic cleansing of Armenians from Karabakh, it still holds leverage over the small nation in the South Caucasus. Russia supplies Armenia with natural gas. Armenia is also dependent on Russia for trade, and Moscow has investments into important parts of the Armenian economy, including mining, transportation, and financial industries. It can use this leverage to disrupt Armenia’s growing ties to the West.

Western entities like the United States and the European Union, on the other hand, have new influence and leverage over Armenia. The United States sent the head of the United States Agency for International Development, Samantha Power, as the September conflict was ongoing, along with millions of dollars of aid.

Prime Minister of Armenia Nikol Pashinyan is looking to the West more for support; he has also attacked Russia, calling Armenia’s reliance on Moscow for military support a mistake and joining the International Criminal Court, which has called for the arrest of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

With Russia out of favour as a peace broker, new peacemakers are stepping in to fill the void, according to Strachota. “The USA is somehow needed in the region, by Armenia, and by Azerbaijan.” Strachota noted that their official policy is to avoid more conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and to establish a sustainable peace in the region.

Efforts by American Secretary of State Antony Blinken and European allies are vital for this effort. They can “clearly communicate to Azerbaijan to avoid open aggression towards Armenia,” Strachota says. He adds, “helping Armenia in this current situation is important because right now Armenia is extremely weak without external guarantees for its security.”

Political guarantees from the West in partnership with Azerbaijan are the best way to ensure that sustainable peace is achievable. Another tool the West can use is sending peacebuilding and aid missions to Armenia as a deterrent. Anything that the West can do to encourage peace is important, as Armenia alone lacks the leverage to prevent Azerbaijan from further aggression. These tactics are likely what has deterred Azerbaijan from further aggression, according to Strachota, as some have feared Azerbaijan would attack Armenians again to connect Azerbaijan to its exclave of Nakhchivan, which the south of Armenia separates. 

The United States may not have a strong incentive by itself to prevent conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia, but reducing Russian influence in the region has long been its goal. Much of Europe is more reliant on Azerbaijani energy than ever as it struggles to find energy sources aside from Russia. This reliance limits how much Europe will be realistically able to push back on Azerbaijani aggression towards Armenia, so its peacekeeping efforts are the best it can do to stabilise the region.

Russia itself cannot easily undo the strengthening ties between Armenia. Instead, it must wait, according to Strachota. “Russia wants to stop, or to push out the West from the region.” That means weakening Pashinyan’s grip on power over time, with the goal of a new leader of Armenia coming to power that does not protest against Russian failures by siding with the West to the same degree as Pashinyan. At this moment, according to Strachota, “it’s not the time for a very assertive active politics of Russia in the Caucasus because it seems to be risky for Moscow”. That time could come soon, though.

Russia’s efforts to undermine the West in the region could even mean improving relations with Azerbaijan and Turkey. By changing its relationships with Azerbaijan for better relations and shifting from a peacekeeping role with Armenia, it would drive a wedge between Russia and the West in a way that would punish them for supplanting Russia as a peacemaker.

The United States, Europe, and Russia are all trying to take advantage of the recent conflict to cement their own influence in the region. As Armenia, and to a lesser extent Azerbaijan, are reliant on foreign support in their conflict, the steps more powerful nations take in the ongoing conflict could bring lasting peace or fuel growing tensions in the South Caucasus.

Emil Lazarian

“I should like to see any power of the world destroy this race, this small tribe of unimportant people, whose wars have all been fought and lost, whose structures have crumbled, literature is unread, music is unheard, and prayers are no more answered. Go ahead, destroy Armenia . See if you can do it. Send them into the desert without bread or water. Burn their homes and churches. Then see if they will not laugh, sing and pray again. For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a New Armenia.” - WS