A Deadly Thaw? Why the frozen conflicts of the South Caucasus may soon feel the heat

By WILL KINGSTON-COX

Russian soldiers in an APC during their 2008 invasion of South Ossetia, Georgia


The heat from the Russian invasion of Ukraine is thawing out the post-Soviet South Caucasus’ frozen conflicts. Azerbaijan and Georgia have experienced low-level ethnic insurgencies since the collapse of the Soviet Union; both of which are now facing rapid escalation. The potential for these to spiral into a full-blown geopolitical and humanitarian crisis is great.


On the one front, pro-Kremlin South Ossetian separatists are actively seeking annexation by Russia, a move which could see a renewed military incursion into Georgia. On the other, an increase in the presence of Russian peacekeepers into the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan has the capacity to seriously strain Moscow’s relations with Turkey. Both issues, if ignored, could see the South Caucasus severely destabilised, perhaps to the brink of all-out war.


South Ossetia and its counterpart, Abkhazia, are occupied territories of Georgia. Both received international recognition from Moscow in the aftermath of the 12-day Russo-Georgian war in August 2008 and since then Russia has provided extensive military and financial support to the two separatist regions. The Kremlin is believed to have over 10,000 troops garrisoned in the two states.


On 30 March 2022, South Ossetian President Anatoly Bibilov declared that the breakaway state would commence the legal procedures to become a constituent republic of the Russian Federation. Such a statement is guaranteed to cause anxieties in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital. In his statement, Bibilov cited an “age-old dream” of the Ossetian people to reunite with Russia. Russian news broadcasted Bibilov’s calls for reunification with the region alongside advocating for a referendum.


Denis Pushilin and Leonid Pasechnik, the leaders of the Kremlin-backed Donetsk and Luhansk separatist states in Ukraine respectively, also expressed support for a referendum in South Ossetia. In addition, they called for the same legal processes to begin in the Donbas. Already then, concerns are apparent over what precedent such a referendum in South Ossetia would set for Ukraine. It is not irrational to assume such referendums would be exacted in the Donbas separatist states, especially as Putin’s “special military operation” refocuses on Ukraine’s east.


Tbilisi should be concerned. Its options of averting a Russian annexation of South Ossetia are extremely limited. If a referendum were enacted, it would be almost suicidal for Georgia to respond with military force. With the Russian invasion of Ukraine failing, and a supposed scale-back of its scope, it is wholly reasonable to assume a sizable proportion of the Russian military could be reallocated to repel any Georgian military response. With NATO and the West’s focus on Ukraine, any support for Georgia will be strained, limited, and potentially obsolete.


A close eye on the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region is also needed. Whilst Russia does not seek annexation, its increased involvement is likely to have severe geopolitical ramifications. Since March, Moscow has been deploying more peacekeeping troops to the area, in an attempt to consolidate its sphere of influence in the face of an emergent Turkey, and stave off recent Azerbaijani advances.


Nagorno-Karabakh is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan, but is largely under the control of the Republic of Artsakh, the pro-Armenian breakaway state. Russia itself does not recognise the government of Artsakh. However, Kremlin support for the Armenian separatists can be inferred by the direct support provided by Russia’s proxies in Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Transnistria in Moldova. Together, these four former Soviet Union states form the Commonwealth of Unrecognised States.


Indeed, for the first time since the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war the Kremlin has publicly accused Azerbaijan of violating the ceasefire agreements in place. It is reasonable to assume this, coupled with the increase in Russian peacekeepers, is an attempt to reinforce their influence in the South Caucasus, parrying Turkey’s ever-growing role in the region.


Azerbaijan and Turkey enjoy extremely strong relations, often referred to as “one nation, two states”. The unwavering Turkish support for Baku, and increased aggression between Istanbul and Moscow in Nagorno-Karabakh, is a bleak scenario. It not only has the propensity to cause proxy conflict in the South Caucasus between two great powers, but could have ramifications felt in Ukraine.


Recep Erdogan, the Turkish President, has recently emerged as the ‘guarantor apparent’ for peace in Ukraine. If the Nagorno-Karabakh situation continues to worsen, it is highly plausible that relations between Russia and Turkey will deteriorate. Such a deterioration will render Erdogan’s aspirations to facilitate peace in Ukraine futile. Furthermore, a proxy conflict between the two in Nagorno-Karabakh has the potential to engender another devastating humanitarian crisis.


The geopolitical situation in the South Caucasus is worrying. On two fronts, post-Soviet conflicts are thawing at a concerning rate. With the world preoccupied with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the West must not make the mistake of believing Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy to be focused solely on the reunification of the Donbas with Russia. February did not mark Putin’s first invasion of a sovereign state in Europe; why would we assume it to be his last? With Moscow facing unparalleled setbacks and failures in its Ukrainian offensive, and Victory Day celebrations looming, perhaps Putin can taste political and military success elsewhere.



Image: Flickr / World Armies