U.S. Policy Toward the South Caucasus: Take Three

U.S. Policy Toward the South Caucasus: Take Three

The United States has important but not vital interests in the South Caucasus, which include preserving regional stability; preventing the resumption of frozen conflicts; and supporting democratic change and better governance as well as the international integration of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. Recent events—the breakdown of the post–Cold War European security order, changing global energy markets, instability to the region’s south, a new U.S. administration, and the European Union’s (EU) internal challenges—call for sustained U.S. engagement to advance those interests. It is stated in a survey by Carnegie Endowment for International Peace titled U.S. Policy Toward the South Caucasus: Take Three Vestnik Kavkaza presents the most interesting parts of the analysis. 

U.S. policy toward the states of the South Caucasus—Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia—has gone through several phases over the past quarter century. At each phase, U.S. policy set out ambitious goals, and each time the accomplishments fell short of initial expectations. The region has become increasingly complex, due to a confluence of recent events. These include the breakdown of the post–Cold War European security order in the wake of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea, changing energy markets, growing instability in the Middle East to the region’s south, the new administration in Washington, and the European Union’s (EU) internal challenges, to name just a few. This changing landscape calls for reassessing U.S. policy toward the South Caucasus. Formulating such an approach requires an analytical review of U.S. experience in the South Caucasus, an assessment of key successes as well as shortcomings, and recommendations for U.S. policy toward the region going forward.

The sudden breakup of the Soviet Union made the United States confront three countries that were entirely new to U.S. foreign policy. By the mid-1990s, Washington and the three states in the region could finally turn to the task of reconstruction. Again, U.S. policy was guided by big aspirations and generated equally big expectations. By the turn of the century, some of these goals had been realized, but the end result once again fell short of promises and expectations, as local customs and difficult legacies prevailed over the best of intentions.

The next phase in U.S. policy was given impetus by the 2003 Rose Revolution in Georgia, which rekindled hopes for democratic renewal as well as for new opportunities to expand the reach of Western institutions further east. Georgia accomplished a great deal in its internal transformation, but the rest of the region did not follow in its footsteps. Moreover, Georgia’s own accomplishments fell short of its own and U.S policymakers’ ambitions and expectations. The 2008 war between Georgia and Russia effectively halted the expansion of Western institutions into the South Caucasus and also sent sharp warnings to Georgia’s neighbors of the lengths Russia would go to in order to preserve its perceived interests. Since then, U.S. policy has proceeded along a path of carefully calibrated engagement with the region. The same declaratory policy of democratic renewal and integration with the West is still on the books, but expectations are clearly diminished—particularly as Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia have proceeded along different paths.


No region of the former Soviet Union has seen more turmoil than the South Caucasus. With three frozen conflicts—in Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia—and the ever-present possibility of renewed fighting across the fragile ceasefire lines, the region is likely to remain tense and volatile for the foreseeable future. The fact that each is locked in an open-ended military standoff with no prospect of peaceful resolution in the near future also contributes to the perception that the entire region is frozen in time. That, however, is not the case. The 2016 Four-Day War between Armenia and Azerbaijan—the bloodiest confrontation the two countries have seen since the 1994 ceasefire—highlights that these conflicts are anything but frozen.

By the time the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991, war had already broken out in the South Caucasus. The longest-running conflict in the territory of the former Soviet Union—between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh—erupted as Moscow’s grip on the region gradually loosened in the late 1980s. But Nagorno-Karabakh was not the only conflict that broke out with the easing of Soviet-era political and security restraints. It seemed the entire Caucasus region had exploded with long–bottled up destructive energies.

The relaxation of ideological and political restrictions during former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost campaign had led to a fundamental reassessment of the Soviet experience and a rewriting of the entire Soviet-era historical record, as well as the exploration of cultural, ethnic, and religious roots. In every union republic, leaders draped themselves in nationalist banners and pursued their own agendas of national liberation from Moscow’s control. But throughout the Caucasus, with its patchwork quilt of ethnic groups, arbitrarily drawn and redrawn boundaries, and long legacy of resistance to Russian rule, national liberation slogans created fault lines between republic leaders and small autonomous regions and ethnic groups within these republics.

Waves of nationalism swept over the entire Caucasus, along with a host of historical grievances that the Soviet system had mostly suppressed, but not resolved. When ethnic groups aired their grievances in the 1950s, 1960s, or 1970s, Moscow tightened its grip and cracked down. That did not happen during the Gorbachev era. The national revival and the freer political atmosphere of that period made possible the rise of new nationalist leaders throughout the region. On those occasions when Moscow tried to intervene, its attempts to suppress these nationalist revivals were crude and even counterproductive, and only led to more unrest.

Early Conflicts in the South Caucasus States

Armenia was the first troublemaker. From the 1960s onward, the Soviet government had tolerated and occasionally even encouraged Armenian grievances against Turkey. But, in the increasingly permissive atmosphere of glasnost, Armenia’s intellectual and political elites turned their attention to the fate of the Armenian population in Nagorno-Karabakh, an autonomous territory with a predominantly Armenian population within Azerbaijan. Leading Armenian voices charged that the Armenians there were victims of persecution at the hands of Azerbaijani authorities, and they called for Nagorno-Karabakh to be liberated and reunified with Armenia proper. The political campaign quickly escalated into an armed conflict with Azerbaijan by the end of the 1980s.

Azerbaijan experienced a cultural and nationalist revival during this period too. In addition to the nationalist tide engulfing the republic, its domestic politics were energized by the imperative to push back at Armenian claims and preserve Nagorno-Karabakh as a part of Soviet Azerbaijan. The Armenian territorial claim represented a twin challenge to Azerbaijan—it threatened its territorial integrity and its reemerging sense of national identity and pride. Cultural elites in both countries dove deeply into history with both sides trying to delegitimize each other’s claim to the territory and construct a narrative to support its own. The rise of conflicting nationalist visions fueled an action-reaction dynamic, with Azerbaijan holding firm in its resolve to protect its territorial integrity and Armenia fearing for its ethnic kin in this atmosphere, and thereby pushing even harder to seize Nagorno-Karabakh.

Georgia too found itself caught up in a nationalist revival. A major turning point was the brutal suppression of a peaceful demonstration in Tbilisi by Soviet paratroopers, which resulted in a number of fatalities. Georgia’s grief, indignation, and pride energized an even more fervent nationalist movement. This in turn triggered a backlash in small, non-ethnically Georgian enclaves, where the revival of Georgian nationalism was feared because it was perceived as a threat to the national identities of Georgia’s smaller ethnic groups. This sentiment was encouraged by Moscow, which was desperately trying to stem the nationalist tide and keep the empire from unraveling. No doubt, some of these frozen conflicts bore visible signs of Russian attempts to hold on to its crumbling empire. The frozen conflicts—in Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and South Ossetia—are the enduring legacy of that turbulent era. None of these conflicts has the slightest hope of being resolved in the foreseeable future. Their unfreezing is likely to produce only more violence, grief, deaths, and suffering.

The Limited Role of Other Regional Actors

The early years of independence in the South Caucasus were marked by turmoil and fears that the conflicts engulfing the region would continue indefinitely. The surrounding geopolitical context offered little hope for relief. In fact, the early post-Soviet period left the new states of the South Caucasus in a vacuum, without a strong and continuous stabilizing presence to assist them in their difficult transitions. Due to their own unique and complex reasons, none of the major powers with a potential stake in the region was in a position to help. Ill-prepared to face the challenges of transition, the South Caucasus region was nonetheless left to chart largely its own course—a situation compounded by the equally ill-prepared condition of its potential partners to engage in the region.

At this time, Russia was struggling with the challenge of its own post-Soviet transition: a seemingly endless succession of domestic political and economic upheavals, the consequences of losing its empire, and its shrinking presence on the world stage. Russia’s own tenuous hold on its restive North Caucasus provinces was an additional source of concern and insecurity for the entire Caucasus region.

The two other neighboring countries and former contenders for hegemony in the Caucasus — Iran and Turkey — were likewise in no position to exert a stabilizing influence in the region. Iran was still recovering from its nearly decade-long war with Iraq and was ill-equipped either to project its influence to a region from which it had been cut off during the Soviet era, or to offer much-needed economic assistance. After all, the conflict-torn Caucasus was struggling to overcome the economic shock of the Soviet Union’s breakup, and was not an attractive trading partner. If anything, it was a likely competitor seeking to develop its own energy resources and transportation infrastructure.

Moreover, with its substantial ethnic Azeri minority, Iran saw the emergence of an independent Azeri state on its northern border as a development to watch warily and not worth antagonizing Russia over, just in case it had lingering imperial ambitions. Iran’s relationship with Russia was becoming too important to risk over the South Caucasus, as Tehran was coming under increasing pressure from the United States and its allies suspicious of its nuclear ambitions. From the standpoint of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, the pressure from the United States and the international community to isolate Iran made it a problematic partner. Their friendship with Iran could get in the way of better ties with the United States, the sole remaining global superpower and a source of much-needed aid and reassurance in the turbulent post-Soviet environment.

Turkey too was hardly in a position to stabilize and project its influence in the South Caucasus, even if it had wanted to pursue an ambitious geopolitical agenda there. Its own economic circumstances made it an unlikely source of assistance to the economies of the region. Moreover, Turkey’s own geopolitical orientation during the 1990s was fixed on Europe, driven by Ankara’s aspirations for European integration. Although the South Caucasus was an important frontier in security terms, and while it held a certain degree of historical and ethnic nostalgia, it was hardly a region rich in opportunities for advancing Turkey’s economic or political modernization.

Turkey’s ties with the three South Caucasus countries were an additional complicating factor. Its relationship with newly independent Armenia was severely hampered by the legacy of the Armenian massacres early in the twentieth century and Turkey’s rejection of Armenia’s claim that it was a genocide; there was also the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, during which Turkey, siding firmly with its ethnic Azeri kin, had closed its border with Armenia. Turkish-Georgian relations, while benign on the surface and reinforced by residual shared suspicions of Russian intentions, were hardly trouble free. Turkey, with its large Caucasus diaspora, maintained ties with the Georgian breakaway region of Abkhazia and near-breakaway territory of Ajara on its border; the latter’s longtime ruler, Aslan Abashidze, had barely recognized Tbilisi’s sovereignty and threatened to secede from Georgia.

The Early Role of Western Actors

Europe and the United States remained distant—even if well-inclined—partners to the South Caucasus. Both were preoccupied with opportunities and challenges elsewhere. The EU was then still a very new entity, only beginning to tackle the tasks of formulating a common foreign and security policy and a strategy for engaging its neighbors. That left the United States in the driver’s seat, steering the foreign and security policy of the entire transatlantic community. Yet throughout the 1990s, the United States was focused on more significant geopolitical developments elsewhere—the conflicts in the Balkans, the post-Soviet transition of Russia and the fate of the Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal, and the rise of China. The South Caucasus certainly mattered to Washington, but largely, if not mostly, as a derivative of those bigger geopolitical developments, chiefly Russia’s post-Soviet transition.

To be continued