The Russia-Ukraine War and its Impact on the South Caucasus

By Alex Avaneszadeh, MALD 2023 Candidate, The Fletcher School

Since the beginning of the Russia-Ukraine War in February 2022, a power vacuum has been growing in the South Caucasus. As a result, the region, traditionally under Russian hegemony, has witnessed turbulence in the political, economic and security spheres. New geopolitical dynamics have emerged between Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan in regards to the breakaway territories of Nagorno-Karabakh, South Ossetia, and Abkhazia. 

On October 24, 2022, the Fletcher Russia and Eurasia Program held a virtual panel in collaboration with Sokhumi State University in Tbilisi, Georgia, to discuss the consequences of the Russia-Ukraine War for the South Caucasus. The panelists included Vakhtang Charaia, Dean of the Business and Management School at Grigol Robakidze University; Malkhaz Kakabadze, former ambassador of Georgia to Sweden and Finland; Petre Mamradze, Georgian politician and former member of the Georgian Parliament; Maia Otarashvili, deputy director of the Eurasia Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute; Zurab Khonelidze, rector of Sokhumi State University; and Jeffrey Taliaferro, professor of political science at Tufts University. The discussion was moderated by Arik Burakovsky, assistant director of the Russia and Eurasia Program, and Lasha Kasradze, U.S. liaison officer for Sokhumi State University.

Kicking off the conversation, Charaia stated that, “the overall impact of the Russia-Ukraine War can be both positive and negative” for Georgia, and that “it is too early to say that it will give more benefits or disadvantages to Georgia because we do not know yet how this war will continue or how it will end.” 

Charaia highlighted the war’s consequences on the Georgian economy, given that both Ukraine and Russia are in Georgia’s top ten trading partners. Tourism, investment, and financial remittances from these countries have been affected, and inflation in Georgia is rising. Yet the war has also led to increased opportunities for conflict resolution with the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. 

“Abkhazia and South Ossetia are in a strange position. They want Russia’s support, but at the same time, they are not willing to be close to the Russian Federation. The economic situation in those occupied regions is becoming worse because half of the so-called budgets of these occupied territories is subsidized by the Russian Federation…This gives new opportunities for peacebuilding for Georgians and Abkhazians, and Georgians and Ossetians, but it is not so easy to find common ground for cooperation, despite the medical, educational, and COVID-related programs that the Georgian government wants to implement,” Charaia said.

Since 2008, Georgia officially has not had diplomatic relations with Russia. Since the Russia-Ukraine war began, Georgia has joined the Western powers in voting against Russia in the United Nations, but has abstained from economic sanctions against Russia.

“Western partners say that Georgia should join the sanctions. They do not understand when we say Russian tanks are 30 kilometers from our capital,” said Mamradze. He also noted that the Georgian government would not enter Abkhazia and South Ossetia by force if Russian soldiers withdrew.

In addition, Mamradze discussed the growing closeness of Turkey and Azerbaijan, saying, “This was the end of Russia’s dream of restoration of the empire.” He also explained that Russia failed to fulfill its defense treaty obligations to the Republic of Armenia during Azerbaijan’s September 2022 attack, noting, “In Yerevan, they say Russia is a traitor.” 

The Georgia-Ukraine relationship dates back to the beginning of their post-Soviet independence, when Ukraine showed solidarity with Georgia against Russia in regards to South Ossetia in the early 1990s. Their relationship is characterized by friendship, cooperation, and mutual assistance.

“Georgia is doing its best in humanitarian fields and assisting at the international level, supporting any resolution or decision which is in favor of Ukraine,” said Kakabadze. He also echoed the ideas of previous Georgian presidents that the South Caucasus should operate as a regional unit.

Taking an oppositional stance, Otarashvili criticized the other speakers for “touting Russian propaganda talking points.”

“You say it would be really hard for Georgia to join the economic sanctions against Russia. The Georgian prime minister has said that Georgia has seen double digit economic growth. So is Georgia’s economy so broken that it cannot join the world in sanctioning a country that has occupied 20 percent of Georgian territory?” she asked. 

She also expressed concern about the increasing number of Russians fleeing to Georgia after partial mobilization was declared in Russia. 

“There is no transparency or accountability in terms of who is coming into Georgia from Russia, how long they are staying, how much money is being laundered in Georgia. At some point, we will start seeing clashes and ethnic-based confrontations in Georgia; you are going to see an increase in the number of incidents of Russophobia. What happens when Putin decides that Russians are being harassed in Georgia and needs to come in to protect ethnic Russians in Georgia? This is a greater danger than the location of Russian tanks in Georgia,” Otarashvili warned. 

Khonelidze continued on this theme, saying, “After the pandemic and later the Ukraine war, geopolitical directions and regional differentiation changed the civilized world…The modern world does not allow a country to effectively control all internal and external threats independently. The only way for Georgia to achieve this is to have a peaceful coexistence with other nations and to protect the balance of the world’s regulating forces.”

Khonelidze also discussed the region’s “hidden and open interests,” and echoed Kakabadze’s previous point that what is needed is a “South Caucasus unified security system, and transformation of peaceful space under one umbrella without isolating each other.”

Finally, Taliaferro discussed the U.S. perspective of Georgia’s acute vulnerability through its proximity to Russia and its presence in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. 

“The U.S. position has always been one of stability. With respect to the South Caucasus, the Biden administration does not want to see Russia use military force against any of the Soviet successor states, does not want to see Russia escalate any of the frozen conflicts, and is also clear that the U.S. is tepid in advocating for the inclusion of South Caucasian states into NATO and in the EU,” he said. 

As for the Russia-Ukraine war’s impact on Caucasian states’ accession into NATO, Taliaferro stated, “Sweden and Finland are fast-tracked, but they have a different geopolitical profile, are advanced industrial states, bring military capability to the alliance, and are useful to defending the Baltics, whereas this is not the position of the South Caucasus states.” 

It remains to be seen what role the West will play in contributing to stability, peace, and progress in the South Caucasus, as Russia’s hegemony in the region continues to be called into question.

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