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.
NATO's 2007–2008 response to the request for the "internationalization" of the region formed extremely high (and sometimes unfounded) expectations among the elites of the Caucasus republics, particularly in Georgia and, to a lesser extent, Azerbaijan. These expectations were based on miscalculations and an underestimation of relations between Russia and the West, as well as connected to issues relating to Iran, Afghanistan and antiterrorism. This reevaluation led to inflated perceptions of NATO's potential peacekeeping capacity. As a result, these expectations were shattered by the alliance’s actual behavior vis-à-vis Russia during the 2008 war, when Georgia suffered its most serious military and political defeat since the dissolution of the USSR. NATO demonstrated to all the Caucasus countries it was not willing to fight Russia for the sake of Georgia’s territorial integrity. This signal was immediately and accurately read by a careful Azerbaijan, which thereafter strengthened the multivector nature of its foreign policy and joined the Non-Aligned Movement.
A New Outlook
Today, the Caucasian countries no longer suffer from old illusions. NATO’s promises, meanwhile, have become more cautious. Alliance membership is still proposed for Georgia, but there are no specific deadlines or concrete stages for its acquisition. For the most part, NATO’s current interests are dictated by other considerations. First, the Caucasus republics have a role in operations in Afghanistan. This May, President Barack Obama and his Afghan counterpart Hamid Karzai signed a Strategic Partnership Agreement, which formalizes, among other things, the withdrawal of coalition troops from the country by 2014. It is clear that the U.S. military wants to reduce the number of possible losses by spreading risks among alliance members and partners outside of NATO.
Today, the alliance has only two real "workhorses" in Afghanistan: the United States and Britain. The engagement of other European allies is minimal. In this context, the United States and NATO as a whole have a very clear interest in building up the Georgian Afghanistan contingent from its current 925 troops to 1,500 troops, as promised by Tbilisi. And while Georgia and, to a lesser extent, Armenia, are focused on supplying soldiers, Azerbaijan is especially important for its role in transport logistics. Almost a third of all NATO cargo bound for Afghanistan is now supplied via Azerbaijan. In fact, last December, Azerbaijan Airlines replaced the Georgia’s Sky Georgia as the cargo carrier for the alliance’s needs.
The unpredictable situations in Iran and Syria also increase the geopolitical importance of the Caucasus for the alliance, especially taking into account the common border shared by Iran and Azerbaijan, a very controversial bilateral relationship between two those countries and an active Israeli military partnership with Azerbaijan.
The United States and its NATO allies consider Euro-Atlantic integration and engagement an important tool in the process of democratization, as well as economic and military reform in the region. This priority stands up to attacks by skeptics who question its validity. For example, Georgia's NATO promotion is considered to be tied to one “package” of metrics, which includes successful parliamentary and presidential elections in 2012–2013.
The discussion of NATO’s enlargement toward Eurasia and Russia’s southern borders has become very rhetorical—but the real issues are more mundane. In addition, Brussels is extremely interested in the involvement of the Caucasian republics in various EU projects. Through such cooperation, it would be easier for the alliance to keep its finger on the pulse of the political life in Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia—even if, for the foreseeable future, this only results in further prescriptions for getting into better shape before trying out for the NATO team.
Sergey Markedonov is a visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Russia and Eurasia Program, in Washington, DC.