The Ukraine war has taught us that failure to thwart aggressive autocratic regimes can lead to horrors—from mass murder to the disruption of global energy and food supplies. A similar push by authoritarianism now threatens international consequences in another corner of the former Soviet Union, the Caucasus.
While our eyes have been diverted to the inferno in Ukraine (and to the passing of Queen Elizabeth II and the political fray in the United States), new clashes erupted this month after Azerbaijan attacked Armenia. Hundreds died and a fragile ceasefire now holds, but the threat of war looms.
This is happening in a region where a trio of dangerous players—Russia, Turkey and Iran—meet to create a uniquely combustible tinderbox. Rather than witness another bloody catastrophe unfold, the West should pay attention. One of the main tactics the West might encourage is staring us in the face, but has never actually been tried.
Armenia is landlocked and disadvantaged by Azerbaijan’s status as a petro-state with a powerful ally in NATO member Turkey, as well as a useful arms supplier in Israel. But it is also a scrappy young democracy whose heart is in the West. Right to its north lies Georgia, another young democracy which faces its own difficulties with autocracies, having fought a war with Vladimir Putin’s Russia in 2008.
Georgia and Armenia, which share not just democracy but great Christian cultures, should be working together to promote democratic values, and to oppose the autocratic excesses of autocratic Russia, Iran and Turkey.
This would create an alliance based on values—the main calling card, along with tourism, of two ancient Christian civilizations. The two small countries would find greater strength in improved scale, and, by drawing the attention of the West, might be able to each move away slowly from competing associations that have kept them apart.
For example, Georgia has held joint military exercises with Armenia’s foes Azerbaijan and Turkey, aimed at ensuring the security of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline. As a self-perceived Western nation, Georgia should not align itself with authoritarian Azerbaijan and Turkey. It has probably felt the need to do this because of tepid Western support, which was negligible during its 2008 war with Russia.
Armenia, for its part, hosts a military base in Gyumri for Georgia’s nemesis, Russia. Priding itself as a liberal democracy, Armenia cannot remain associated with Putin. Armenia deserves praise for its democracy despite the Kremlin’s influence and sadly limited backing it has received from the United States and Europe. It would certainly reorient, it the West truly held out a helping hand.
The way to change this equation is to boost Western backing of Armenia and Georgia. The West must encourage Yerevan to free itself from Moscow. Tbilisi must free itself from Ankara and Baku.
To create an Alliance of Caucasus Democracies, Armenia and Georgia would also have to overcome some perception issues as well as common neighborly squabbles.
Georgians often consider Armenians, somewhat unfairly, as sellouts to Russia—but Armenia cannot warm relations with Georgia without drawing the wrath of Moscow. Both countries claim to be the true homeland of wine, and they bicker over the origins of each other’s cuisines, among other secondary national and cultural identity disputes that would need to be put aside.
Signs of alignment on some of these territorial issues might help this along.
Armenia would appreciate a restoring of the status quo ante in Nagorno Karabakh from 2020, before Azerbaijan seized swaths of what had been an autonomous, ethnic-Armenian populated region. Georgians, meanwhile, want Abkhazia and South Ossetia back from Russia. Armenia has never joined Russia in recognizing the disputed territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent, and Georgia, despite close ties with Azerbaijan, did not side with Baku during the 2020 war in Karabakh.
Western support for such an alliance with common goals could temper Azerbaijan’s threats to annex a strip of territory across Armenia’s southern province of Syunik, which borders Iran and separates mainland Azerbaijan to the east from the Azeri-controlled enclave of Nakhchivan. Such a move, which Baku might be tempted to carry out by force, could cut Iran’s access to Armenia and the Caucasus and establish a land link between Armenia’s foes Azerbaijan and Turkey via Nakhchivan. And it could be a gross violation of Armenia’s right to its sovereign and internationally recognized territory.
The equation also involves Israel, another democracy that sees itself as Western but has ended up on the wrong side of its own values in the Caucasus. Azerbaijan has close ties to Israel and buys Israeli weapons. This outrages Iran, which recently dubbed its military exercises near the border with Azerbaijan as “Conquerors of Khaybar”—in reference to a 7th-century battle waged by the first followers of Muhammad against the Jews.
The United States, Israel, France and other Western countries love the Caucasus, and all host proud communities of ethnic Georgians and Armenians, as well as Georgian and Armenian Jews. Jews have lived in Georgia for 26 centuries and in Armenia and Azerbaijan since antiquity.
Israel and Georgia already share economic and cultural relations, and more can be done to warm Israel’s ties with Armenia. Israeli and former Soviet Jews have stepped up constructively to navigate the humanitarian and political crisis in Ukraine. They can also mediate among Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Approaching the Georgian, Georgian Jewish and Armenian diasporas would improve Armenian-Israeli relations, Georgian-Armenian relations and South Caucasus-Levant relations, as Armenians live in Lebanon, Syria and Israel. These alliances would give more influence in the handling pressure coming from Russia, Turkey and Iran.
There would be several prongs, then, to the needed reorientation.
The brightest Armenians, Georgians and their diasporas should promote democratic pushback against the hegemonic adventurism of Russia, Turkey and Iran.
Western powers—and reputable think tanks—should make the case that the Armenia-Georgia rivalry undermines both nations, detailing how a strategic alliance would advance them regionally and globally.
And, critically, the two countries need visionary leadership that understands the potential of an alliance and finds ways to celebrate the rich heritages of each while leveraging their influential diasporas.
Such a strategy would sidestep the divide-and-conquer strategy of bad-faith players aiming to subject smaller countries to their whims, and win Tbilisi and Yerevan a more significant place in the global dynamic.
Jonathan Wachtel was a senior policy advisor, spokesman and director of communications at the US Mission to the United Nations, working on Nagorno-Karabakh, South Sudan and other flashpoints. A former journalist, he covered the Soviet Union’s collapse as well as the independence of Armenia and Georgia, and the wars that erupted as a result.