The Impact of Russia’s Play in Syria on the South Caucuses

Originally published at the Penn Political Review online blog

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) meets with his Armenian counterpart, Serzh Sarkisian, in Moscow on September 3.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) meets with his Armenian counterpart, Serzh Sarkisian, in Moscow on September 3.

When Vladimir Putin challenged Barack Obama’s willingness to enforce his “red line” of no chemical weapon usage in Syria, the international consensus hailed Russia as the clear winner of the confrontation. In Syria, Putin effectively downplayed Russia’s consistent hardline stance against external violations of state sovereignty and instead framed the Russian position as pacifist and compromising. Obama’s message of human rights’ protection fell flat in the face of two years of United States inaction and widespread rumors of serious human rights abuses committed by all parties.

For the most part, speculation continues as to whether Russia’s diplomatic success in coercing a change in United States behavior foreshadows a resurgent Russia, as the Kremlin’s rhetoric suggests, or whether Russia’s clever political maneuvering will only bring about short-lived prominence. Many analysts have discussed Syria’s strategic importance to Russia as an outlet to the Black Sea and Mediterranean region.[1] However, the conversation has largely overlooked the ramifications that the Russian power play has on immediate Russian interests in their Caucasian near-abroad.

The European Union (EU) has been steadily courting the post-Soviet Eurasian countries to join the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) shared with EU member states. Over the past few years, negotiations have been taking place between the EU and individual Eastern Partnership countries.[2]  In particular, efforts have targeted the countries in the Caucuses—namely, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. All three countries were expected to participate in the upcoming Vilnius Summit to negotiate bilateral association agreements with the European Union.

Russia has traditionally felt strongly about maintaining these Eastern Partnership countries within its own economic sphere, and the proposed extension of European Union influence has put Moscow on the defensive. Russia responded by pressuring the countries to join the Russian-led Eurasian Customs Union between Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan.

Before the U.S.-Russian confrontation, all three countries withstood Russian pressure and announced their intention to attend the Vilnius Summit. This decision is particularly noteworthy on Armenia’s behalf, whose entire economic operation is dependent upon Russian support.

However, President Obama declared his decision to seek Congressional approval for strikes in Syria on August 31. The Caucasian states interpreted the move as a nod to growing Russian power. Four days later, in an abrupt turnabout Armenia caved in to Russian pressure and announced its intention to join the Customs Union. Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan defended his decision by declaring that “this is a rational decision, it is a decision based on Armenia’s national interests.” In other words, with Russia flexing its strength against the Western interventionist coalitions, Armenia’s strategic calculus changed—it didn’t pay to challenge Russia.

The EU states have tried to balance Russia’s pressure with limited success. Eight European ministers from Nordic and Baltic countries issued a joint statement against Russian pressure on post-Soviet states. “Any economic threat or political pressure directed against Eastern partners because of their European aspirations and engagement with the EU is unacceptable,” they said. The EU officials have also stressed the mutual exclusivity of the DCFTA and the Customs Union.

It is unlikely that Georgia or Azerbaijan take such rash steps towards the Eurasian Union. While current Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili has moved towards Russia, the Georgians have still not forgiven Russia’s 2008 invasion in response to unrest over South Ossetia. On October 3, Boris Yaroshevich, Deputy Head of the EU delegation to Georgia, confirmed that Georgia would not be joining the Customs Union. “Membership of Eurasian Customs Union and DCFTA (Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area) are absolutely incompatible and Georgia have to chose which one to join (…) I don’t think that there is a threat that Georgia will join CU because the government’s position is clear,” Yaroshevich said. As for Azerbaijan’s part, the country carefully guards its independence from Russian influence, and will likely use the Eastern Partnership Summit as a balancing act against any increase in Russian power projection.

[1] In particular, focus has been given to the Tartus naval base operated by the Russians on the coast of the Black Sea.

[2] The Eastern Partnership is comprised of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine.


About Brian Mund

UPenn '13; YLS '18. My research focuses on sovereignty, the United Nations and the legitimacy of secession.
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