The EU and Eurasian Union are gearing up for a coming clash in the Caucasus, one which may replicate the far-reaching consequences of the competition over Ukraine. At the core of the oncoming crisis is that Georgia is moving towards the EU while Armenia is joining the Eurasian Union, with the bone of contention being that most of Armenian-Russian bilateral trade must traverse Georgian territory. While still a ways to go, as Georgia advances on its path to the EU, it will eventually have to enact a tariff border as it merges with the bloc, which could create a serious challenge for the flow of goods between Armenia and Russia. What may appear to be nothing more than an oncoming geo-economic obstacle may in fact be a preplanned form of asymmetrical destabilization against the Eurasian Union, and Moscow must find innovative ways to avoid falling into the ‘Reverse Brzezinski’ trap of militarily subduing Georgia.
The Economic Lure To The Military Trap
To set the proper context for the analysis, it is necessary to quote then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in December 2012 when, referring to the Eurasian Union, she threatened that “let’s make no mistake about it. We know what the goal is and we are trying to figure out effective ways to slow down or prevent it.” This quote has mostly been used in relation to Ukraine, but it’s relevant for the Caucasus as well. The overall idea is that the US will carry out some kind of sabotage operations against the Russian-led economic trade bloc because it views it to be a major competitor to Western dominance in Eurasia. In Ukraine, this took the form of a Color Revolution, the full fallout of which almost brought Russia to the brink of militarily intervening in the eastern portion of the country. Had it done so, it would have fallen into a strategic trap called ‘The Reverse Brzezinski’, whereby the US does whatever it can go goad Russia into ill-fated and strategically adverse interventions abroad, with the hope that this will bog Moscow down and inflict long-term conventional and asymmetrical losses against it.
ABC (Adapting Brzezinski to the Caucasus)
The same template from Ukraine is now at play in the Caucasus. The 2008 War has never been fully resolved, despite Moscow recognizing the legitimate independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Georgia refuses to accommodate for this reality and still lays claim to what it believes to be ‘breakaway provinces’. All the while, it has continued on the path of Western institutional integration, which besides the EU, also includes NATO. The latter has been lost amid misleading media reports that the post-Saakashvili government is ‘pro-Russian’. It’s confusing how such a characterization could still be muttered by anyone when Tbilisi is currently moving forward with implementing a deeper cooperation plan with NATO and may even host one of its training centers there (despite over half of the population being against this). Anyhow, the salient point is that the current Georgian authorities, while promoting the illusion of pragmatism with Russia, still view it as a threat and thus retain their innate suspicion of and hostility towards their northern neighbor. The rumors that lethal American ‘defensive’ weaponry might be sent to the country per the Ukrainian model, as well as the push to make Georgia a ‘major non-NATO ally’, may likely have emboldened Tbilisi’s leaders even more.
Forecasting ahead, the geographic disconnect between Eurasian Union partners Armenia and Russia may be exploited by the West via Georgia and the EU to entice Russia once more with the Reverse Brzezinski trap. Russia is Armenia’s largest trade partner and accounts for over half of its foreign investment, which is only expected to grow. The vulnerability in this relationship, however, is that Georgia physically stands in the way of the two countries, and 70% of Armenian imports and exports go through it. When the time comes for Georgia to implement the imminent EU tariff barriers that come with moving closer to the Union, this will directly get in the way of Armenian-Russian bilateral trade and could potentially make some products prohibitively expensive for their respective markets, to say nothing of the potential for a de-facto blockade over trumped-up ‘reasons’.
This would thus have internal effects within the Eurasian Union’s Armenian and Russian markets, amounting in some ways to an asymmetrical attack on them, especially in the case of Armenia, whose economy is small, weak, and vulnerable to this type of shock. Should this occur in coordination with an escalation of Armenian-Azeri tensions over Nagorno-Karabakh, then it could easily be the straw that breaks the back of Russia’s Caucasian ally, with negative implications for Moscow in the region and the Eurasian Union in general. Under such circumstances, it may appear tempting and almost irresistible for Russia to contemplate using military means against Georgia to ensure the security of its vital trade to Armenia (as well as to resolve the threats to South Ossetia and Abkhazia once and for all), thereby giving rise to the second application of the Reverse Brzezinski theorem.
Finding A Way Out
Understanding the astronomical costs that Russia would procure by falling for a Reverse Brzezinski, it’s in Moscow’s best interests to consider alternative non-military means for resolving the oncoming crisis. Since it’s highly improbable that Armenia and Azerbaijan will revitalize their relations any time soon (much less have booming bilateral trade relations), that avenue should rightfully be discounted as a workaround for securing Armenian-Russian trade. This leaves three remaining possibilities:
The Georgian ‘Flip’:
One of the things that Russia can do is work to ‘flip’ Georgia from its adamant pro-Atlantic ambitions to something more moderate and less destabilizing for the region. This will probably have to occur after Georgia experiences a change of government, since the current Prime Minister, despite fooling some into thinking that he’s pragmatic towards Russia, previously pledged his allegiance to bringing the country into the EU and NATO, even going as far as to say that Euro-Atlantic integration is “irreversible” and a “civilizational choice”. Such resolute language indicates that he won’t be up for bargaining with Russia anytime soon, thus making his government an anti-Russian placeholder when it comes to bilateral ties.
More realistically, however, is that internal disputes within the Georgian government may lead to internal reshufflings that could (unwittingly) place pragmatists into positions of power, thereby giving Russia suitable counterparts to speak with in negotiating a political normalization. Progress is already being made, slowly but surely, as Putin said that he is ready to fully liberalize the Russian market for Georgian goods, and would even be willing to meet Georgian officials in Moscow. This is a clear diplomatic opening to Tbilisi, with the ball now being in their court over whether they’d like to take the initiative in restoring relations. Should substantial steps be made in this direction, then Georgia may be reminded of the substantial national interest it has in not excluding itself from the Russian market, thus tempering its rush to the EU (however long it may take) and buying time for a more comprehensive resolution to the oncoming crisis.
Ideally, it would be in the regional interest for Georgia to fulfill the bridge role that Ukraine failed to do, but instead of linking just the EU and the Eurasian Union (colossal economic giants as they are), it could also connect to the burgeoning trade coming out of Iran and India via Armenia. This scenario will be explored more in-depth at the end of this section, but in order for it work, Georgia must be ‘flipped’ from its Euro-Atlantic orientation and see itself and the Caucasus as an open bridge between Europe and Asia, not as the EU’s closed eastern boundary. Implicit in this shift is also the understanding that Georgia will not join NATO, which would destabilize the region and potentially inhibit Euro-Eurasian-Asian trade through the Caucasian Corridor.
The Turkish Turnaround:
The Black Swan that may continue spreading its wings would be for Turkey to continue its retreat from Euro-Atlanticism and move ever closer into the Eurasian fold. The outlines of this are already apparent, seen most plainly in Ankara’s willingness to deal with Moscow over the New South Stream project, despite officially being a NATO member and EU aspirant. Taken further step-by-step, the next thing that could happen would be for Ankara and Yerevan to work on normalizing their ties, with the process mediated by Russia or even taking place in Moscow (much as the future Inter-Syrian Dialogue will be). This wouldn’t be unprecedented, as there was a lot of hype about it occurring back in 2009 before it fell through. With Turkey pondering the creation of a Free Trade Agreement with the Eurasian Union and Russian network diplomacy towards the country showing promise, Ankara could be guided to see the benefits of positive relations with Yerevan.
The primary stumbling block is whether Armenia makes any forthcoming normalization dependent on Turkish recognition of the Armenian Genocide, but as is typically the case in Great Power politics (for better or for worse), Russia, Armenia’s Great Power patron, could politely signal to the country’s political leadership that it is best to drop the issue for now in the overall interests of expanded multilateral cooperation. In any event, a breakthrough in Armenian-Turkish and/or Turkish-Eurasian Union ties would be mutually beneficial for all parties involved, and in the context of the oncoming crisis, it would more than substitute for any trade lost through Georgia and could have the residual benefit of steering Ankara further away from the West.
The Orient Express:
Perhaps the most ambitious alternative to falling for the Reverse Brzezinski in Georgia would be for Armenia for position itself via an Iranian-built railroad along the prospective North-South Corridor that will link India with Russia through the Caspian. Should both projects go forward, both the initiative to connect Armenia to Iran’s railroad infrastructure and India and Russia’s plans to use Iran’s Arabian and Caspian Sea coasts as the geographic conduit to their bilateral trade, then Armenia would have found the perfect opportunity for strengthening its economy and avoiding any negative blowback from Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic integration. It would not only have an outlet to trade with Russia (albeit obtuse and extremely roundabout), but it would also have access to the gigantic Iranian and Indian markets, which could be a godsend for a small economy like Armenia’s if managed properly.
Taking it a step further, if the Orient Express scenario is combined with a Georgian Flip, then both Caucasian countries could benefit by becoming strong arteries of East-West trade. Georgia already has significant trade relations with Europe, and these networks could prove extremely profitable if Iranian-Indian goods entering Georgia through Armenia (by way of the Iranian railroad) could be exported further afield into that market. In fact, if the Caucasian Corridor is successful enough, it could possibly even replace Tbilisi’s (false) dreams of joining the EU, as well as bequeathing tangible economic benefits onto its population (which the EU is doubtful to do).
The main goal here is to use Armenia’s position as the Oriental Gateway to induce closer cooperation between the two, which could then carry over towards a Georgian rapprochement with Russia and increase the prospects of a ‘flip’. Once Georgia participates in the North-South and Caucasian Corridors, it will experience suitable economic benefits that may make it rethink its commitment to Euro-Atlantic integration. If Georgia halts its path to the EU, then the threat of a restrictive tariff barrier being raised between Armenia and Russia disappears and Tbilisi could then even possibly join the Eurasian Union. Whether or not it takes this huge step, normalized and constructive ties between Georgia and Russia as a result of Armenia’s prosperous Oriental Gateway role could have a positive aftereffect on Azerbaijan and complete its realignment towards Eurasia.
Wrapping everything up, the oncoming crisis in the Caucasus is real but predictable, and Russia needs to take steps to alleviate the threat posed a Reverse Brzezinski in the region. As part of this strategy, innovative solutions must be thought of that safeguard Armenia’s vulnerable position from what seems to be an imminent economic strangulation by the EU, with the resultant political and military consequences for both Yerevan and Moscow. But as with any crisis, the forthcoming one offers plenty of opportunities for the Eurasian Union, which if properly carried through, could actually entrench its position between the EU and Asia and deepen its global importance.
Andrew Korybko is the political analyst and journalist for Sputnik who currently lives and studies in Moscow, exclusively for ORIENTAL REVIEW.