The Big Caucasus
March 26, 2012
Situated astride one of the world’s key strategic crossroads, the “Big Caucasus” is increasingly a region in flux. The August 2008 war among Georgia, Russia, and the separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia emphasized the fragility of the territorial status quo that took hold in the years immediately following the collapse of the USSR, but which has failed to establish legitimacy among either local populations or the international community. The 2008 war solidified the de facto separation between the Georgian state and its breakaway provinces and put Georgia’s NATO accession on indefinite hold—but did not resolve the underlying problems of sovereignty and security that led to the conflict. Similar problems abound across the Big Caucasus. An increasingly authoritarian Azeri government has staked much of its legitimacy on regaining Nagorno-Karabakh. While talks between Baku and Yerevan have made little progress, an arms buildup in the region continues, raising fears of renewed conflict. Meanwhile, Russia’s North Caucasus smolders. A nationalist insurgency that began in Chechnya in the early 1990s has spread to neighboring regions and taken on a harder jihadist edge, raising concerns about a possible al Qaeda presence and creating a direct threat to Western interests.
Even as the Big Caucasus itself becomes less stable, changes in the international environment surrounding it are also accelerating. Twenty years after the Soviet collapse, the three du jure states in the region—Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia—have established themselves as fully sovereign members of the international community, though their borders remain contested. Meanwhile, the August 2008 war witnessed the large-scale projection of Russian power beyond the borders of the Russian Federation for the first time since the Soviet collapse. Yet this dramatic reassertion of Russian power obscured the fact that Moscow’s influence in the Caucasus—North and South—is gradually eroding. The West, increasingly consumed with righting its own finances and retrenching its overseas commitments, is likewise seeing its influence over events in the Caucasus, never decisive to begin with, wane further. Nevertheless, Russia, the United States, and the European Union remain the region’s most significant partners in both the economic and security spheres. The ebbing of Russian and Western power has created opportunities for new actors to gain a foothold, drawn by the region’s strategic location and associated economic opportunities. In particular, Turkey, Iran, and—to a lesser degree—Ukraine are establishing themselves as players with a stake in the region’s future development.