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Putin's Caucasus Surprise: A Portent of Worse to Come?

By Dr Kevork Oskanian.

The European Union's eastward expansion and its soft-power influence on the states of the former Soviet Union has been a major feature of the continent's political environment since the fall of the Iron Curtain. The conditionalities of the Copenhagen criteria have arguably led to the accelerated democratisation of new members from the Baltics to Bulgaria; further to the East, the European Neighbourhood Policy's regional incarnation, the Eastern Partnership, has also provided the more 'problematic' states of the former Soviet Union with incentives to modernize and democratise. The promise of Association Agreements including membership of a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) with by far the world's largest economic bloc seemed to open the way towards diversification and greater prosperity, in what was - and still is - seen as a positive-sum game in both Brussels and the relevant former Soviet capitals.

This reality may now be under acute threat. has already managed to 'turn' the weakest link in Europe's Eastern 'chain', Armenia: considering its extreme strategic-military dependence on Russia, forcing, coaxing or, depending on who you believe, persuading its president into an unexpected about-turn during last week's 'working visit' to Moscow was relatively uncomplicated. But indications are that this nasty surprise – for both observers in Brussels and analysts farther afield - was just the beginning of a broader Russian movement to reclaim exclusive authority over 'its' sphere of influence through its integration into a 'Eurasian Union', with implications for both the countries involved, and the European Union's future relations with Russia.

For Armenia, the consequences of his 179-degree turn – the government insists this isn't the end of its hopes for European integration – could be dramatic, not least in terms of its fragile democratisation. With the mitigating influence of Europe removed, and constitutional reforms on the political agenda, repression and democratic rollback could very well become more brazen and complete. The fact that two prominent civil-society activists were viciously assaulted only days after Sargsyan's about-face could be an indicator of worse to come in terms of the harassment of more liberally-minded independent groups and individuals. Unencumbered by EU conditionalities, Yerevan might also use upcoming constitutional reform – ostensibly aimed at transforming the country from a presidential into a parliamentary republic – to unilaterally push through legislative amendments weakening the protection of fundamental rights and checks and balances. Those concerned with Armenia's democratic development would have to be alert to these possible scenarios: for Armenia as for other post-Soviet states, a move towards the Eurasian Union may very well entail a move towards the Russian, Belorussian and Kazakh political models, as the pressure to democratise disappears.

From broader regional perspective, Armenia's plight might be a premonition of worse to come in the Ukraine and Moldova, two countries that have already been targets for various pressures on the part of Russia. Till now, these pressures have been cloaked in the de-politicised language of market mechanisms and public health; but the remarks of one high-ranking Kremlin official – as to how unfortunate it would be for Moldovans to 'freeze' in the winter – leave little to one's imagination. Both the Ukraine and Moldova remain highly dependent on Moscow for their energy supplies, and Moscow could decide to cut off their flow as a punitive measure for their European aspirations, quite literally, at the turn of a few valves. As a last resort, 'unfortunate incidents' could even lead to unrest in Ukraine's Russian-speaking East, and the Crimea, as well as in Moldova's separatist Trans-Dniestria region. While such a course of events would still seem highly unlikely, much depends on the level of Moscow's determination to prevent the continuation of its Western neighbours' European adventures; considering recent developments, it would, however, be prudent to closely monitor these pressure-points, which Russia has used in the not-so-distant past.

With Armenia now safely in Moscow's orbit, the Kremlin may also turn its attention to its two rather more recalcitrant Caucasus neighbours, Georgia and Azerbaijan. While Georgia is certainly the most openly pro-Western of all post-Soviet states, and public opinion would most likely not countenance membership of a Russian-led entity, the country also offers Moscow a raft of potentially useful vulnerabilities. Especially after the upcoming presidential elections, any maintenance of the recent thaw in trade relations with Russia might come to depend on a more pliant attitude on the part of the Georgian administration; the stability of the situation in Abkhazia, South Ossetia, or Armenian-populated Samtskhe-Javakheti would also have to be closely monitored for unexpected, 'coincidental' complications. Baku's initial Schadenfreude at Sargsyan's public humiliation may prove short-lived indeed, as Russia could come to use the Karabakh issue, and the Armenian-Azeri rivalry around it, to now focus pressures on Baku by throwing its weight behind Yerevan; a revival of ethnic Lezgin activism in the north, or of possible anti-regime activities by wealthy members of Russia's ethnic Azeri diaspora would also be potential pressure points to look out for, in a continuation of Russia's long-standing carrots-and-sticks/divide-and-rule approach.

Much of the above depends on Moscow's – and Putin's – determination to bring the states of the former Soviet Union back into a 'Eurasian' fold; but Russia's president has already demonstrated his considerable skills as a master of a new form of regional realpolitik, based on adroitly using dependencies and complications inherited from Soviet times to Moscow's advantage, putting other players before consecutive faits accomplis. Armenia could be only the first in a longer list of targets; every fallen domino would, no doubt, increase momentum towards Putin's Eurasian Union. The EU would therefore either have to learn to play this game, desist, or prepare for being put in front of rather uncomfortable faits accomplis in the not-so-distant future. In view of its presently dubious ability to provide relief from many of the potential pressures enumerated above, some hard-nosed strategic deliberation and hypothetical scenario building would appear to be called for.