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An (In)delicate Dance of Diplomacy? The South Caucasus Response to the Ukraine Conflict

Article by Naira Sahakyan

May 12, 2023

An (In)delicate Dance of Diplomacy? The South Caucasus Response to the Ukraine Conflict

Six leaders of former Soviet states attended the 9 May Parade on Red Square this week to commemorate the end of World War II (WWII) in Europe in 1945.[1] Among them was the leader of Armenia, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. The two other countries of the South Caucasus – Georgia and Azerbaijan – did not participate.


While the Russian invasion of Ukraine has elicited a range of reactions from countries around the world, the leaders of Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia have found themselves balancing between their aspirations for independent diplomacy and Russia’s enduring influence in their region. These countries view the war in Ukraine through the lens of their own conflicts – Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh). The extent of their political dependence on Moscow varies, meaning that their responses to the war have differed as well.


As a country that has had its own conflict with Russia over the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, some might have expected that Georgia’s response would have been more aligned with that of Western countries. However, the leadership in the capital Tbilisi looked at the events through the prism of the challenges presented before it. The Georgian side, despite expressing its opposition to Russia’s actions, was extremely critical of the Ukrainian leadership, which at one point claimed that in order to lighten their own burden in Kyiv, a  ‘Second Frontline’ should be opened in Georgia.[2]


Azerbaijan, meanwhile, tries to keep a balance between Russia and the West. In many international fora, Azerbaijan has refrained from participating in any decisions against Russia. For example, Azerbaijan opted out of the vote to terminate Russia’s membership in the Council of Europe and similarly from the vote on the United Nations General Assembly’s resolution to suspend Russia from the Human Rights Council.[3] However, having signed energy deals with both Russia (to import Russian gas to Azerbaijan) and the European Union (to double the flow of gas to Europe in five years), Azerbaijan is in a good position to profit by maintaining this balancing act[4]. Most notably, those in the capital Baku look to Russia in relation to its significant role in the ongoing Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Thus, while demonstrably showing support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity (which is the main line of Azerbaijan’s foreign policy regarding the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict), President Aliyev still maintains relatively friendly relations with Russia, including keeping silent when the Azerbaijani honorary consulate in Kharkiv was destroyed by Russian airstrikes in March 2022.


By contrast, Armenia’s position is more difficult. In light of its devastating defeat to Azerbaijan in the second Karabakh War in 2020, Armenia’s response to the war in Ukraine has been more cautious.  The leader of Armenia, Prime Minister Pashinyan, even avoided calling the Russian invasion a war, instead referring to it from the outset as “the events in Ukraine”.[5] Yet he harshly reacted to the disinformation that Armenia had sent Su-30SM multifunctional jets to Russia, demonstrating a desire to make it clear that Armenia is not helping Russia in this war.[6] Nevertheless, Armenia’s relations with Russia are at a historical low, due to the country’s disappointment with Moscow’s actions during the 2020 Karabakh War and inaction during the attack by Azerbaijan on the territory of Armenia proper in 2022, when Russia and other members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) stayed silent.[7]


The situation is antagonised further by Azerbaijan’s continued blockade of the Lachin corridor, the only road connecting Armenians of Artsakh to the rest of the world.[8] The tension between Armenia and Russia showed itself once again when Azerbaijan, in a move denounced by Yerevan as a violation of the November 9 Trilateral statement, installed a checkpoint on the Hakari Bridge at the entrance to the Lachin corridor.[9] Amidst the apparent indifference or inaction from the Russian peacekeepers deployed to the region, the United States and France, two key countries involved in mediating the negotiations, have voiced their concerns over Azerbaijan’s establishment of the checkpoint on the Lachin corridor, considering that a step that “undermines the ongoing efforts to build confidence in the peace process“.[10] A statement by Armenia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in April 2023 called “on the Russian Federation to finally fulfil the obligation under provision 6 of the Trilateral statement by eliminating the illegal blockade of the Lachin corridor”.[11] Indeed, Russia seemingly does not wish to confront Azerbaijan, while President Aliyev looks to gain an advantage from Russia’s war, namely the ability to apply pressure on Armenia.


This situation, and Armenia’s recent shift towards the West, might have a knock-on impact on the country’s stance on the war in Ukraine. However, while the political centre of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has moved to the West (the next round of peace talks are to be held in Brussels), Armenia’s dependence on Moscow remains strong. [12]  This could explain Pashinyan’s decision to visit Moscow on May 9. Nevertheless, this may not be the only reason.


Since 9th May 1992, when Armenian forces entered the town of Shushi (Shusha for Azerbaijanis) in the region of Nagorno-Karabakh, May 9 has embodied not only the 1945 victory for Armenians. Every year Armenia’s leaders have congratulated the nation on the 1992 historic victory as well; and prior to the country’s defeat in the 2020 war, Pashinyan was no exception.[13] However, this year Pashinyan noted in his address “In recent years, we celebrate May 9 with bitterness and anxiety. This is primarily related with the severe consequences of the 44-day war of 2020, with the loss of Shushi during the war, with the aggressive policy unfolding around Nagorno-Karabakh and the Republic of Armenia”.[14]


In this context, Pashinyan’s visit to Moscow could be seen as a helpful deviation from the tradition of visiting the Yerablur Military Pantheon, where many of those who died fighting for Nagorno-Karabakh rest. With previous visits resulting in uncomfortable political scandals, avoiding this scenario fits with the adopted policy of Pashinyan’s government to achieve peace at any cost and to prevent angering Azerbaijan, and its patron Turkey, in any way. This aside, Moscow also retains the means by which to pressure Pashinyan to participate in the events in Red Square, in order to show that Putin and Moscow still have friends and are not isolated from the world.[15] Potential coercion and blackmail could be effective, especially given the Azerbaijani attacks on Armenia proper, the Azerbaijani blockade of the Lachin corridor and the Russian military presence in Armenia.[16]


In contrast to Pashinyan, and in a move mostly likely designed to demonstrate that the city is under Azerbaijani control, the President of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev and First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva spent 9th May in Shushi*.[17] Interestingly, the President’s website made no mention of a visit to a memorial dedicated to the victory of May 9, 1945. The leader of Georgia Irakli Garibashvili meanwhile opted for a third way.[18] He laid a bouquet of flowers at the monument of Meliton Kantaria, a Georgian sergeant in the Soviet Army, and spoke with veterans of WWII. The whole emphasis of the event was Georgians’ participation in WWII, with the May 9 victory seen as a national rather than Soviet celebration.


The varied responses by the countries of the South Caucasus to the war in Ukraine, and their level of engagement with Moscow, clearly reflect their complex relationships with Russia as well as the conflicts within their own region. Understanding these can provide important insights into the political dynamics in the region as well as the broader geopolitical landscape. Yet it is difficult to predict with certainty how this might evolve in the near future. While the complex historical, geopolitical, and security considerations will remain unchanged, some shifts towards the West have already been observed. The ultimate outcome of the war in Ukraine will inevitably have an impact, but the current ties and dependencies on Russia, as well as the unresolved conflicts in the region, will continue to strongly shape each country’s position in the near future.



Naira Sahakyan is a Senior Researcher at the Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute and is a Visiting Scholar at the University of Cambridge and part of a Turkish-Armenian Relations research project hosted by Cambridge Interfaith Programme and funded by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. She is also lecturing at the American University of Armenia and Yerevan State University. Follow her on Twitter @NSahakyan


*Editorial note: As referenced earlier in the article, different place names are used – Shushi for Armenians and Shusha for Azerbaijanis.


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this piece are those of the authors and do not reflect the views of The Foreign Policy Centre nor of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.



[1] RadioFreeEurope, Russia Holds Victory Day Celebrations Amid Fresh Strikes On Ukraine, May 2023,

[2] Prime Minister of Georgia Official Website, Keynote Speech Delivered during Interpellation at the Plenary Session of the Parliament of Georgia, March 2023,

[3] United Nations UN News, UN Affairs Team, UN General Assembly votes to suspend Russia from the Human Rights Council, April 2022,

[4] David O’Byrne, Azerbaijan’s Russian Gas Deal Raises Uncomfortable Questions for European, Eurasianet, November 2022,; O’Byrne, Azerbaijan and EU Agree to Strategic Energy Partnership, Eurasianet, July 2022,

[5] The Prime Minister of the Republic of Armenia Official Website, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s speech at the National Assembly during the discussion of the performance report of the Government Action Plan for 2021, April 2022,

[6] The Prime Minister of the Republic of Armenia Official Website, It is necessary to launch an international mechanism for the monitoring of the border situation, Nikol Pashinyan, March 2022,

[7] The Collective Security Treaty Organization is an intergovernmental military alliance in Eurasia consisting of six post-Soviet states: Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan. See –

[8] Amnesty International, Azerbaijan: Blockade of Lachin corridor putting thousands of lives in peril must be immediately lifted, February 2023,

[9] Commonspace.EU, Document: Full text of the agreement between the leaders of Russia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, November 2022,

[10]  The Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs of France, Azerbaijan – Lachin corridor, April 2023,; US Department of State Website, Press Release, Actions on the Lachin Corridor, April 2023,

[11] Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Armenia, Press Release, The Statement of MFA of Armenia regarding the installation of an illegal checkpoint by Azerbaijan in the Lachin corridor, April 2023.

[12] Henry Foy, Armenia and Azerbaijan to resume peace talks in Brussels, FT, May 2023,

[13] The Prime Minister of the Republic of Armenia Official Website, Congratulatory Message by Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan on Victory and Peace Day, May 2019,

[14] The Prime Minister of the Republic of Armenia Official Website, Congratulatory Message by Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan on Victory and Peace Day, May 2019,

[15] Hetq, Yerevan Police Remove Protesters at Yerevan’s Yerablur Pantheon, Sep 2022,

[16] Natalia Konarzewska, What’s behind the new round of clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan, New Eastern Europe, September 2022,; Amnesty International. Azerbaijan: Blockade of Lachin corridor putting thousands of lives in peril must be immediately lifted, February, 2023,

[17]  President of the Republic of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev Official Website, Ilham Aliyev and First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva examined works to be carried out in front of administrative building of Special Representative Office in Shusha, May 2023,

[18] Government of Georgia Official Website, Irakli Garibashvili: I wish to first of all congratulate our heroic veterans on this day, marking the defeat of this huge evil – fascism – and our victory over it, May 2022,

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