Russian Diplomacy in South Caucasus:There Are No Easy Answers

Prof. Alexander A. KORNILOV
14 September 2010
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Recent visits of President Dmitri Medvedev of Russia to Armenia and Azerbaijan have brought new questions on the very sense and future of Moscow policies in relation to the post-Soviet neighbors of Turkey. To begin with, the August visit by President Medvedev to Armenia posed despair among some experts and politicians of Azerbaijan and Turkey. The reason of despair was simple.


Russian President Dmitri Medvedev and his Armenian counterpart, Serzh Sarkisian, have signed a deal extending Moscow's lease of a military base in the South Caucasus country for the next 24 years. Moscow had been set to vacate the Gyumri base in western Armenia in 2020. But the new deal extends the lease until 2044, and commits Russia to updating Armenia's military hardware and ensuring both countries' security, together with Armenian armed forces.

It should be noted that at a news conference following the August 20 signing in Yerevan, President Sarkisian praised the deal, which he said would expand the sphere of Russia's "geographic and strategic" responsibilities. “We confirmed once again at the very highest level our mutual commitment to continue building and strengthening the cooperation between our two countries. This is in our countries’ strategic interests and the interests of greater security and stability throughout this region. Our relations are those of strategic allies, and this reflects our peoples’ feelings and meets the demands of Armenia’s and - I hope – Russia’s real national interests”. In other words, relations between two countries remain to be very strong and strategic.

President Medvedev made position of his country very clear. He said Russia sought to play the role of peacemaker in the region, and that Moscow would stress negotiations as the best channel for resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. "The task of the Russian Federation as the largest state in the region, the most powerful state economically and militarily and in terms of its capacity to ensure security, is to maintain peace and order," Medvedev said. [1]

Elkhan Polukhov, a spokesman for Azerbaijan's Foreign Ministry, called on Moscow to honor previous agreements on not using arms at the Gyumri base against Azerbaijan [2]. Sinan Oğan, director of the Turkish Center for International Relations and Strategic Analysis, said Russian President Dmitri Medvedev sent a message to Azerbaijan “not to resort to military measures.” [3]

Two weeks later, on September 2-3 Dmitri Medvedev made a two-day official visit to Azerbaijan. Talks between President Medvedev and President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev concluded with the signing of a treaty on the state border and an appendix thereto mapping out the border line. The two presidents witnessed the signing of a supplement to the natural gas sale and purchase contract between the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan Republic and Gazprom on increased gas supplies in 2011-2012. Under the supplement’s terms, Gazprom will increase its purchases of Azerbaijani natural gas to 2 billion cubic meters a year starting in 2011. Russia and Azerbaijan also signed an intergovernmental agreement on rational use and protection of the Samur River, which crosses both countries’ territories [4].

Summing up the personal diplomacy of President Medvedev in the last weeks, we come to conclusion of multi-dimensional policy of Russia in South Caucasus.  Moscow strives to build a stable, strong and perspective system of security in the area with active participation of all involved actors. In such a way Moscow advances its own interests.

Armenia seems to be a reliable ally of the Russian Federation. The country is a strategic partner of the Great Power due to continuing blockade which has become less sensitive because of rapprochement with Turkey. After its President visit to Yerevan Moscow has taken long-term, serious and heavy responsibility for Armenia security. Is the Russian Federation is ready to go behind “the red lines” and defend the non-recognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic in, let's say, ex-ordinary circumstances? We think, it is not ready. At least, we don't see indications of such military-political behavior of Moscow in the foreseeable future. Russia does not wish a new conflict; it chooses a combination of balance of power and diplomacy. Existing status quo is very important to Russia. Perhaps, the situation gives hope to continuing negotiations on Karabakh. 


Azerbaijan stands within the strategic partners list of Russia because of oil and gas interests, military presence in South Caucasus and powerful Azerbaijanian diaspora in Moscow and other Russian regions. President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin, however, face certain difficulties when they formulate clear-cut policy in relation to Baku. Nagorno-Karabakh issue and NATO-oriented motives of Baku policy make Russian approach very careful.

As we know, both Armenia and Azerbaijan have very dynamic, ambitious and talented political leaders. Both countries seek for their own identity in the area and in contemporary world. And both countries use powerful resources of Russian-speaking diasporas, Armenian and Azerbaijanian ones respectively. As a result, Russian diplomacy has to maneuver. Russia preserves its own national interests and wishes to take national interests of Armenia and Azerbaijan into account. Nagorno-Karabakh issue shows an outstanding example in this case. The conflict is very uneasy and makes Russia – a Great Power, a permanent member of the UN Security Council – to maneuver. Maneuvers mean some kind of flexibility. Diplomacy of Moscow has two policy directions at its disposal. First, Moscow does influence the international mechanism for conflict resolution (the Minsk Group). Second, the Russian Federation strengthens bilateral ties with Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Turkey has become – unexpectedly for some observers – increasingly reliable partner of Russia in South Caucasus politics. Turkish intensive dialogue with Russia in the events of August 2008 has shown very interesting dynamics of the Ankara foreign policy. The more independent this policy became in the 2-3 last years, the friendlier and closer to Russia it was. And, generally speaking, Russian leaders welcomed more independent geopolitical game of the Recep T. Erdogan government and initiatives by Minister of Foreign Affairs Professor Ahmet Davutoglu. 

Variety of foreign policy options is anticipated to be when we approach the most complicated Transcaucasia issue for Russia. Georgia of President Mikhail Saakashvili still remains in the group of non-friendly countries to Russia. The events of August 2008 brought life to Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent and recognized states by Russia. Deployment of the C-300 missiles in Abkhazia has reinforced military stance of Russia as well as has fed up suspicions in Tbilisi [5]. Paradoxically, two Orthodox Christian peoples live in long-time conflict of different geopolitical schemes. While the Russian Orthodox Church continue to cooperate and to have joint God-services with the Georgian Orthodox Church, two political leaders, to our regret, still stand before starting a new dialogue.

Speaking of the variety of policy options, we mean any constructive cooperation of Turkey on the Georgian issue. Turkish business people successfully work in Abkhazia. According to Minister for Foreign Affairs Ahmet Davutoglu of Turkey, economic and investment cooperation is followed by political and cultural partnership. Turkey has already overcome political and conflict borders with Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Greece and continues to develop multi-lateral cooperation with the countries. Russian diplomacy is able to find and work out common agenda with Turkey on Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. All countries of South Caucasus as well as Russia, Turkey and Iran support an advancement of sound initiatives on peace-making, regional security and national prosperity.

Paradigm of Russian involvement in South Caucasus can be built in the following way. Russia as a Great Power maintains military-strategic ties with Armenia, Azerbaijan and the republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The military presence, to its turn, gives Moscow a quite privileged position to move energy cooperation forward and to advance various attractive business projects in the area. Moscow is also interested in Turkey and Iran’s support aimed at conflict resolution. However, global economic crisis, uncertainties of the regional politics, the role of the U.S., Georgian issue and other problems make Russian diplomacy to be more active, mobile and flexible in order to find adequate answers to uneasy questions.



Alexander A. Kornilov
Nizhny Novgorod State University,





1. Joint news conference following Russian-Armenian talks. August 20, 2010, 13:30 Yerevan/ President of Russia//


2. Deal Signed On Extending Russian Military Presence In Armenia. written by Daisy Sindelar in Prague with   reporting from Yerevan by RFE/RL's Armenian Service and agency material. 20 August 2010 / Journal of Turkish Weekly//

3. Baku-Yerevan Arms Race Surfaces in Caucasus. Journal of Turkish Weekly. 20 August 2010// Ibid.


4. Official visit to Azerbaijan. September 3, 2010/ President of Russia// ; see also: Пресс-конференция по итогам российско-азербайджанских переговоров. С Президентом Азербайджана Ильхамом Алиевым. 3 сентября 2010 года/ Президент России//

5. Госминистр Грузии прокомментировал размещение комплекса С-300 в Абхазии/ Лента новостей "РИА Новости". 12/08/2010// ; Размещение С-300 в Абхазии не нарушает равновесия сил в регионе, констатировал глава МИД Франции Бернар Кушнер. 08/09/2010/ Официальный сайт Президента Республики Абхазия// ;МИД Грузии выразил протест в связи размещением Россией С-300 в Абхазии.  11/08/2010/ Лента новостей "РИА Новости"//

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