How Alliance Politics Affects The Resolution Of Conflicts In The South Caucasus?

Zaur Shiriyev*


Alliance politics is an important factor affecting threats and conflicts in the South Caucasus region. Alliances in this region are a direct reaction to the security of the region. The regional developments coupled with perceived threats, make the three states very cautious in choosing their allies. Allies are chosen to meet complex military-political needs vis-à-vis each other and regional and big powers. Hence, the Caucasus states, with the Azerbaijan as an exception, are still incapable of defending their national interests and providing for their security alone. Consequently, the security concerns raised by the states in this region and the foreign policy behavior they display may originate in their own belief that they are incapable of relying solely on their own means, and, that the solution of any ‘security dilemma’ must come from the outside.

However, it is hard to deny that the political situation in the Caucasus is unique or unstable [and even hazardous] in terms of the perspectives of the regional security. This fact was highlighted in August 2008 during the Russia-Georgia war that resulted in Russia’s recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states (1). As such, the three South Caucasian countries have now developed diverging strategies to ensure their own security (2). The ongoing ethno-territorial conflicts over Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia (with overall entrapment by Russia), and over Nagorno- Karabakh in Azerbaijan have been the primary sources of enhancing the overall regional security dilemma and rendering unintended anarchical consequences more tangible.


Concerned with threats from Armenia, Azerbaijan anchors its national security policy to Turkey, with whom it shares strong ethno-linguistic affinities and offers a bridge to connect Azerbaijan with both West (Euro-Atlantic structures) and East (the Muslim world). Geopolitically, the problems facing the country comprise: (1). the ‘frozen’ conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh and (2). the increasing militarization of the Caspian Sea, which brings into play, conflicts among the five littoral states regarding the development and export of energy resources from this basin to world markets. Nonetheless, besides the threats from Armenia and disputes over the NK, Azerbaijan faces strong economic challenges as well. That is why, Azerbaijan, unlike Armenia, seeks to have more diversified relations with other powers to respond both to its existential and economic challenges. Considering the united security principle and South Caucasus region as a part of Euro-Atlantic space, Azerbaijan supports efforts toward establishing the security system in this space and as it was determined by the military doctrine (3). Accordingly, it will continue cooperation with NATO on the basis of mutual interests. Moreover, Azerbaijan makes significant steps towards the Euro-Atlantic structures, without, however, asking for membership in NATO or the EU. The reaction of the EU and the US follows immediately by including Azerbaijan into the “Nabucco” project, a very ambitious strategy meant to contain Russia’s gas and oil monopoly. In actual fact, the BTC and BTE pipelines, mainly built to relieve the Western world’s oil and gas dependency on the Middle East, underscore Azerbaijan’s geopolitical importance for the European market (4).

Azerbaijan, although seeking to maintain good relations with Russia, ties itself to Turkey to balance against threat from Armenia. In this context, the Azerbaijani-Turkish interaction is as solid, valid, and reliable as the Russian-Armenian one. Turkey and Azerbaijan had sound friendly ties and Turkey- Azerbaijan High-Level Strategic Cooperation Council which established on 16 September 2010 (5) would boost these close relations. Ultimately, Azerbaijan historical alliances with Turkey counter balancing rising military tensions between Armenia and Russia.


Armenia, as a historical ally of Russia, perceived existential threats from Turkey (6) and Azerbaijan as hostile for it. In need of security, it sought to restructure its ties with Russia, which in turn, was strongly motivated to reestablish previous tsarist and Soviet influence. Thus Russia was gradually becoming not only Armenia’s military ally but its political and economical unique partner as well. Because of Armenia’s geopolitical and economic vulnerability as well as its need to ally with a great power, Russia quickly offered imposed its multi-vector assistance.

However, a closer analytical eye to the Russia- Armenia relationship reveals that such a high level of dependence may create some intra-alliance threats. Hypothetically speaking, if threats were to push Armenia to become more cautious of Russia, [and if] Russian attitudes were to change under different circumstances, then, Armenia would bandwagon with Russia – so as not to be fully absorbed by it. As such, Armenia’s political, military, and overwhelming economical dependence on Russia creates some hidden avenues for bandwagoning with Russia. However, external threats are im- mense, and intra-alliance threats will always be only secondary. Only serious changes in the levels of threats for Armenia could give Armenia another alliance motive and change its behavior vis-à-vis Russia. Therefore, Armenian leaders have repeatedly stated that despite forging closer security links with the West in recent years, they will not seek NATO membership in the foreseeable future (7). Thus, the Armenia-Russia politico-military strong alliance has both a very high level of cohesion and a high level of commitment and a very low level of defection from either side. Accordingly, Russia projects itself as a strong and implacable leader and a dominant power that pushes Armenia, its only strategic ally in the region, to cater to its interests which are anchored by its overall regional dominance. 20 August 2010, according to Russian senior officials an extension of the Russian military base deployment term in Armenia is signed for 49 years and nothing else (8). This cooperation seems to be prolonged and Western political interest can’t be reached in such situation.

“Azerbaijan, although seeking to maintain good relations with Russia, ties itself to Turkey to balance against threat from Armenia. In this context, the Azerbaijani-Turkish interaction is as solid, valid and reliable as the Russian-Armenian one.”


Georgia is oriented to the EU and Euro-Atlantic structures, but its alignment is very limited, giving no sense of full alliance formation. Georgia was not similarly linked (as Azerbaijan and Armenia) to any great power either historically or presently. Its quest for security and stability was formed under rapidly changing ideologies, visions, and policies, making Georgia vulnerable and easier for external forces to manipulate. However, the Georgian case is particular due to the fact that Georgia’s alliance behavior reflects the absence of a strong military ally, as opposed to Armenia and Azerbaijan. First, this is largely explained by the lack of historical or cultural affinities with any of the big powers that could have been revived once independence was achieved. Second, both Armenia and Azerbaijan choose their allies based upon the geographic proximity factor, while Georgia looks to more remote partners in the West. Full membership in NATO, as many argue, could prevent Russia from intervening in South Ossetia in 2008. However, others argue that a similar quest for NATO membership was the cause of the Russian attack on Georgia.

The Challenge of a Peaceful Succession

Generally, the alliance politics directly affect future of region. In the short run and the long run, the alliances reduce the possibility of renewed military activities; the status-quo provides a framework un- der which major conflicts are currently inconceivable. However, in the long run, [if] this “no war, no peace” situation in the region is maintained with neither bilateral/multilateral peace agreements nor a negotiated settlement, [than] the relative stability and the fragile cease-fires between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and Georgia and Russia, on the other, are threatened. Thus, up to now, the described mechanism works in the South Caucasian context. However, as mentioned, in the long-term, this pattern may change, if some hypo- thetical conflicts arise between big powers in the region that would entrap the South Caucasian states, specifically in the confrontations of “others” or if the existing conflicts between the South Caucasian states are again escalated.

“…the main question is always agenda: if the conflicts are settled, then will the external threat disappear and the South Caucasian states need to add to their capabilities or seek mili- tary assistance from big powers?”

In any case, the main question is always agenda: if the conflicts are settled, then will the external threat disappear and the South Caucasian states need to add to their capabilities or seek military assistance from big powers? Although this question is large enough to be the topic of separate research, some insights can shed light on the situation in the region and provide some answers.

Accordingly, under this circumstance, future “worst” and “best” case scenarios can be described as:

Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict

An optimistic or best-case scenario of conflict resolution for Nagorno- Karabakh conflict According to this scenario, diplomatic efforts around the NK conflict resolution could lead to the signing – as early as next year – of a Declaration of Basic Principles of Conflict Resolution, followed by a Political Settlement Agreement in the future (in 2012). For the successful implementation of this scenario, it is important that a consensus be reached between the key players in global politics – US, EU, and Russia, who act as principal mediators in the Karabakh resolution process (EU as represented by France), with Turkey’s involvement in the process as a regional power. Under this scenario, the Armenian community of NK would be granted a high degree of autonomy with de facto absolute economic self-sufficiency and political self-government; the only exception would be that it could not conduct its own foreign policy. In addition to such investments, NK would receive substantial subsidies from Azerbaijan’s national budget.

A pessimistic or worst-case scenario of conflict resolution for the Karabakh conflict According to this scenario, military efforts around the NK conflict could lead to the war. Recently intensified skirmishes around the Nagorno-Karabakh risk spiraling out of control at the heart of a key energy transit region, Azerbaijani adopted military doctrine on June, which excludes the use of war liberating territories that are still under Armenian occupation, show Azerbaijan ready to use force legally liberate his territories.

It’s clear, aspects of a resumed war may represent drawbacks for Azerbaijan, however. New military operations could disrupt investment in the Azerbaijani economy and slow down successful economic development. On the other hand, a new war may create serious problems for the pipeline politics of Azerbaijan (9). Apart from dealing a blow to its energy projects, a war in the region could seriously damage the use of transit capabilities in the region supporting the continuing operations in Afghani- stan, which are unlikely to conclude in the near future.

Four elements affect the settlement process that increases the risks of war:

1. the global and regional interests of the major powers and their present interrelationships;

2. the dominant trends in international relations as manifested in the agendas and decisions of international organizations

3. the conflicting sides’ own present political and economic situation;

4. the conflicting sides’ diplomatic approaches, convictions, and capacity to shape the peace process.

Thus, these elements will be decisional to realize the “worst possible” war scenario as well as the “best possible” one. In fact, it is hard to maintain equilibrium of interests in Azerbaijan further without somehow addressing the fact of the Armenian occupation. The Azerbaijani government is facing a challenge of changing conditions, which may soon make continuous outright rejection of a military option politically unsustainable.
Azerbaijan’s population has consistently ranked the ongoing occupation as the #1 problem; the sixteen years of the cease-fire have not reduced the urgency of the conflict for the Azerbaijani public, but, on the contrary, decreased hopes for a peaceful outcome.

“…a war in the region could seriously damage the use of transit capabilities in the region supporting the continuing operations in Afghanistan, which are unlikely to conclude in the near future.”

Georgian-Abkhazian Conflict

An optimistic or best-case scenario of conflict resolution for Georgian-Abkhazian conflict The Georgian government has only one chance to re-back its territories using the “State Strategy on Occupied Territories: Engagement through Cooperation, (10)” which carries full support from the West. Moscow might pressure Sukhumi not to respond to Western overtures calling for more engagement, due to the fact that such an engagement could reduce Russia’s influence in the region. If Russia took this approach, it would lead to greater tension in the Russian—Abkhaz relationship as Russia would be stopping Abkhazia from pursuing a policy that would look very appealing to the Abkhaz. Georgia’s “Action Plan” has the “best” possible chance for solving conflicts. Georgia’s commitment is positive and sounds convincing, but, will the occupiers and the separatist regimes commit themselves to these proposals instead of trying to frustrate them? Indeed, the very designation of the two regions as “occupied territories” is likely to trigger anger and resentment insofar as it implicitly denies that the local populations to have any say whatsoever over how, and by whom, the regions are administered. For that very reason, the strategy is hardly conducive to promoting “engagement through cooperation” with “populations that have differing perceptions of the conflict” in any sphere of activity, whether it is the economy, health, education, promoting freedom of movement, or “preserving cultural heritage and identity.”

A pessimistic or worst-case scenario of conflict resolution for Georgian- Abkhazian conflict. The challenge for the international community is how to engage with Abkhazia in a status neutral way and thus seek to influence both its internal security situation and its attitudes toward continuing to seek an agreed settlement with Georgia. If no such engagement takes place, it is likely that in the next decade Abkhazia will be irreversibly separated from Georgia and de facto absorbed into Russian economic, political, and military sphere. In these circum- stances, it could only be a matter of time before more violence erupts. Ultimately, pessimistic scenario was realized in August 2008, after unilateral de-jure recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia by Russia.

South Ossetia Conflict

An optimistic or best-case scenario of conflict resolution for the South Ossetia conflict.

The options for developing an effective security management mechanism or, a viable political dialogue between Tbilisi and Tskhinvali are limited and should be considered as a long-term objective. “State Strategy on Occupied Territories: Engagement through Cooperation” can help Ossetians and Georgians to start cooperation under the scheme of civil society. The access of any international organizations to South Ossetia will be similarly difficult in the foreseeable future.

A pessimistic or worst-case scenario of conflict resolution for South Ossetia conflict.

The strategy of engagement–without recognition, is not guaranteed to succeed as we described in the Abkhazia case, nor is it without political risks. The international community’s engagement backfired by Russia. Had the UN engagement in Abkhazia, it could have prevented Russia, a member of the UN Security Council, from unilateral recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states in violation of key principles of international law which the UN is tasked to promote. Thus in this context, new war risks should always be on the agenda.


There is no doubt that the conflicts that emerged at the end of the Soviet era in Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia have played an immensely destructive role in the development of the region over the last 19 years. These conflicts have hindered the progress of individual states, made regional cooperation difficult (or in some cases non-existent), and continued to create serious problems for peace and security in the region. Thus, the future of the Caucasus region will depend significantly on a global response to these conflicts. To sum up, the Southern Caucasus has come to a crossroads, regarding its cooperation and effective regional security. Either the region will begin to integrate into Europe and anchor into the Euro- Atlantic security system by developing into an effective barrier to the proliferation of terrorism, extremism, drug trafficking, and organized crime, or, there will be a deterioration of security, and a new gateway will open for ethnic conflict, terror and insecurity to Europe. Nonetheless, it remains a realistic aspiration that by 2011, the region could be more united, more prosperous, more democratic, and have greater security. PR


* Zaur Shiriyev is a foreign policy analyst at Center for Strategic Studies.
Ideas expressed here reflect the personal views of the author and do not represent the views of any institution.

1) Simon Tisdall, “The World’s Most Likely Trouble Spots in 2010”, The Guardian, 4 Ocak 2010;
2) ( jan/04/worlds-most-likely-trouble-spots ).
3) Cornell, Svante E., “Security Threats and Chal- lenges in the Caucasus after 9/11”, p. 44.
4) The full text of Military Doctrine of Azerbaijan Republic at law/183#comment
5) Elkhan Nuriyev, Azerbaijan’s strategic role in the contemporary geopolitics of Eurasia, Azer- baijan Focus, Vol.1/1, p.75
6) Baku, Ankara to establish supreme strategic council, New Europe, 19 September 2010,
7) According to the Armenian National Security Doctrine which was adopted in 2007, Armenia indicates that it is prepared to start a dialogue without bringing forward a precondition following these views that have been voiced. In reality, during the Turkish-Armenian rapproachment, Armenians raised the genocide issue.
8) Russian Troops In Armenia Set For Greater Role, Asbarez News, 30 July 2010, Russian Troops In Armenia Set For Greater Role
9) Basic goal of Russian military base in Armenia is to protect Russia’s interests, Panarmenian,27 August 2010, e n g / w o r l d / n e w s / 5 2 5 9 8 / B a – sic_goal_of_Russian_military_base_in_Armen ia_is_to_protect_Russias_interests
10) Zaur Shiriyev, Why peace can be as difficult as war, Hurriyet Daily News & Economic Review, July 15 2010
11) Georgian government approves state strategy on occupied territories, “Rustavi 2”, http:// id_news=35397&pg=1&im=main&ct=0&wth

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