Since early 2012, and especially in the run-up to the NATO Summit in Chicago, news reports about the alliance’s activities have frequently mentioned the South Caucasus. In most cases, politicians and experts analyzing NATO’s approaches to this region focus on two major issues: Georgia taking formal steps toward being considered for membership and the “Russian factor,” particularly Moscow’s stubbornness on what it sees as NATO’s enlargement into Eurasia. Though this focus makes the brief 2008 Russo-Georgian war and its geopolitical consequences the dominant subject of discussion, NATO’s role in the region is in fact much broader.
An Evolving Policy
The alliance’s policy in the Caucasus has never been static. Rather, it has evolved under the influence of many factors, including the strategic interests of the United States and its European allies as well as the aspirations of the regional players. While the South Caucasus previously was considered to be on the periphery of the international agenda, after the Soviet Union’s dissolution and the subsequent formation of newly independent states, it became much more important both to its neighbors and influential nonregional actors. The former Transcaucasian republics suddenly became subjects of international law. They identified their own national interests and foreign-policy priorities. The formation of independent states in the South Caucasus was accompanied by a search for new mechanisms to ensure regional security and a new format for international cooperation.
In the 1990s, the alliance did not show significant interest in the Caucasus. NATO’s focal point then was the situation in Balkans, provoked by the collapse of Yugoslavia. The prospects of NATO enlargement were added to discussion only as a footnote after the wide range of issues in the "powder keg of Europe." But after Bulgaria and Romania joined NATO in 2004 and then the European Union in 2007, the Caucasus began to be considered a new frontier for NATO and the whole structure of European security. Other factors also have fueled interest in the region. Foremost among them are the numerous unresolved ethnic and political conflicts, as well as the proximity to three major and ambitious Eurasian states: Russia, Turkey and Iran. And then there is the region’s crucial new role as a transport and energy corridor.
Furthermore, the internationalization of the region has piqued the interest the former Transcaucasian republics themselves. Each country, however, has its own motivations. Georgia and Azerbaijan lost their conflicts with their separatist provinces, which called their viability into question.
Because of this question of national security, there is interest in NATO as a counterweight to Russia. Armenia has been subject to a blockade from both Azerbaijan and Turkey as a result of the long-running Nagorno-Karabakh ethno-political conflict, impelling Armenia to consider a Western alliance. It does not want to lose initiative and give Azerbaijan a chance to monopolize the issue of Euro-Atlantic integration. Armenian participation in NATO projects promotes Brussels’ interest, so that it need not make the alleged “final choice” between the two Caucasian republics involved in the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh.