April 6, 2022

IntelBrief: Ukraine Invasion Causes Problems for Moscow in the Caucasus

Mikhail Klimentyev, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

Bottom Line Up Front

  • Adversaries of Russia in the Caucasus are taking advantage of Russia’s focus on its war against Ukraine and its demonstrated weaknesses on the battlefield.
  • Russia’s allies in the Caucasus are concerned that Moscow might not be willing or able to protect them while its involvement in Ukraine continues.
  • Armenia, an ally of Russia, is insisting that Russia prevent Azerbaijan from advancing in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh territory.
  • Pro- and anti-Russian factions in Georgia, including Russia-occupied territories, are using the Ukraine war to advance their respective agendas.

The poor performance of Russian forces on the Ukraine battlefield has apparently encouraged Russia’s adversaries in the Caucasus countries—Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia, all of which were republics in the Soviet Union—to advance their longstanding agendas. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s allies in the region appear to be concerned that Putin does not have the resources or bandwidth to protect them, given his difficulties in prosecuting a successful war in Ukraine.. In the Caucasus, Armenia has historically been a key ally of Russia; Azerbaijan is generally a Russian opponent and an ally of Turkey; and Georgia has, like Ukraine, been a victim of Russian aggression, losing the territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia to Russian-supported separatists in 2008. Georgia’s government has nonetheless sought to preserve ties to Moscow in the current Russia-Ukraine conflict.

The leaders of Azerbaijan are apparently seeking to take advantage of Russia’s preoccupation with Ukraine and its poor battlefield performance to build on the country’s 2020 victories in the longstanding territorial dispute with Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh territory. Following the 2020 clashes, in which Azerbaijan recaptured all territories lost to Armenia in the 1994 Nagorno-Karabakh war, Russia brokered a ceasefire and deployed peacekeepers to separate the two sides.

However, according to a Russian Defense Ministry statement, “From March 24 to 25 [2022] the Azerbaijani armed forces, violating the November 9 [2020] trilateral ceasefire agreement, entered the area of responsibility of the Russian peacekeeping contingent on the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh and established an observation post.” The Ministry also accused Azerbaijan of striking Armenian forces using a TB-2 Bayraktar drone, the weapon supplied by Baku’s main ally, Turkey, which was pivotal to Azerbaijan’s gains in the 2020 battles. Turkey has also supplied the weapon to Ukraine, assisting its unexpectedly strong battlefield performance against the Russian invasion. The Azerbaijani ground advances were accompanied by a disruption in natural gas supplies to Karabakh, which Armenian authorities claimed was an effort by Azerbaijan to intimidate the ethnic Armenian population of that territory.

Armenian authorities, evidently concerned about Russia’s ability to protect its allies in the context of Moscow’s overriding priority in Ukraine, blamed the Russian peacekeepers for the Azerbaijani advance. On March 26, the Armenian Foreign Ministry stated, “We also expect the Russian peacekeeping contingent in Nagorno-Karabakh to undertake concrete, visible steps to resolve the situation and prevent new casualties and hostilities.” Armenia, a member of the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), hosts more than 10,000 Russian soldiers, including a Russian military base, Russian border guards, and the Russian peacekeeping force in the Armenian-controlled areas of Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenian leaders appear to be concerned that Russia will withdraw some of these forces to replenish its depleted ranks in Ukraine. In an effort to reassure Russia’s allies in Yerevan, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu—who is said to be under pressure from Putin for the poor Russian military performance in Ukraine—reportedly called his Azerbaijani counterpart to discuss “ways of stabilizing the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh and supporting security in the Caucasus.” Perhaps as part of their efforts to engage Moscow to end the fighting in Ukraine, the United States and France issued statements criticizing Azerbaijan for the flareup. The State Department said, “The U.S. is deeply concerned about gas disruptions and Azerbaijan’s troop movements. Armenia and Azerbaijan need to use direct communications channels to immediately de-escalate.”

Moscow also faces new problems in Georgia, which has not troubled Moscow greatly, despite simmering resentment over Russia’s 2008 military incursion. In the wake of the Ukraine war, Georgian leaders initially stated that the country would not join Western sanctions on Russia. However, the political opposition, identifying strongly with Ukraine as a victim of Russian aggression, attacked the government for trying to undermine Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Opposition pressure appeared to succeed, insofar as Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili subsequently pledged to join international financial sanctions against the Kremlin. Georgia’s Foreign Minister reaffirmed that stance, saying, “We are in full compliance with the financial sanctions imposed by the international community [against Russia]. The National Bank of Georgia has already made it clear that Georgia is complying with its obligations and international standards.” Appearing to move even further toward the opposition view, Georgia’s ruling party announced plans to “immediately” submit an application to join the European Union, after the bloc’s parliament backed Ukraine’s bid for membership amid Russia’s invasion.

Some of Moscow’s allies in the pro-Russian breakaway regions of Georgia seized on the Ukraine invasion as an opportunity to move. The Russian-backed breakaway region of South Ossetia immediately sought to hold a referendum on joining Russia. Abkhazia, the other Kremlin-backed breakaway region, did not take similar action. The Georgian government called the planned Ossetia vote unacceptable, and Russian leaders immediately denied having instigated the referendum attempt. It is not clear whether the South Ossetian attempt to legally join Russia will proceed. However, the increased polarization of Georgia’s politics—including new calls by many Georgians to recapture South Ossetia and Abkhazia from Russian control—might complicate Putin’s reported plans to redeploy 1,200 to 2,000 troops from the Russian-occupied Georgian territories to Ukraine. For Georgia’s government, the effort to find middle ground evidently failed when Zelenskyy decided to recall the Ukraine ambassador from Tblisi, claiming Georgia had not done enough to punish Russia for the invasion. The re-ignition of supposedly dormant disputes in the Caucasus has demonstrated that Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine has had significant unintended consequences that might outlast the war.