The Geopolitics of the Caucasus

By Shaffer, Brenda | The Brown Journal of World Affairs, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

The Geopolitics of the Caucasus


Shaffer, Brenda, The Brown Journal of World Affairs


STUDENTS AND SCHOLARS OF INTERNATIONAL relations should regularly call to mind the city of Gori. They should remember this city not only as the birthplace of Joseph Stalin, but also as a reminder of the centrality of geography to international politics and security. Gori was the center of the August 2008 war in the Caucasus. However, the city is not a historical symbol, nor the location of some important monastery or mosque. It does not hold any great meaning in the identity of Russians, Ossetians, or Georgians. Gori was central to the 2008 war simply because it is located at the center of the Caucasus. Russian control of Gori meant that Tbilisi, as well as all land-locked states of Central Asia and the Caucasus, had no access to Georgia's Black Sea ports. These ports have become, in recent years, an important trade outlet for the land-locked Caspian region. Once Moscow had control of Gori, there was no need to conquer Tbilisi, or to apply pressure on the states of the Caspian region in order to get its way on a variety of economic and security issues on its policy agenda.

A look at a map illustrates the strategic importance of the Caucasus region for Russia and other powers. Not only is the Caucasus adjacent to Russia's southern border, but it is the essential outlet of the landlocked Caspian region to open seas. Control of Georgia determines the flow of trade patterns and venues of infrastructures for all of the Caucasus and Central Asia. The Caucasus is also the physical meeting ground of a number of powers: Russia, Turkey, and Iran. Moreover, it serves as an important air corridor from the United States and Europe to destinations in the Middle East and Asia, including Afghanistan.

In addition to external powers such as Russia, the unique geographic locations of the three states of the Caucasus (Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia) have had considerable impact on their own foreign policy constraints and opportunities - Armenia and Azerbaijan as land-locked states, and Georgia as a key transit state for the Caucasus and Central Asia. In the post-Soviet period, the three independent states of the Caucasus adopted different foreign policy orientations. Armenia chose close cooperation with Russia, as well as good ties with Iran. Azerbaijan attempted a balanced policy of cooperation with the United States and Russia while maintaining stable and cooperative relations with Turkey and Iran. Georgia, especially after President Saak'ashvili's rise to power in 2003, chose to ally with the United States and its NATO partners. Other former Soviet states located adJacent to the open seas have aspired to join European and U.S.-oriented eco. nomic and security structures, while landlocked states have given larger consideration to Russia in their foreign policy orientations.1 Geography also impacts the policy options of the global and regional powers involved in the region. Despite its immense global power, the United States as a sea-based power has a limited ability to determine the security outcomes in the Caucasus and greater Caspian region, which is land-locked except for Georgia. At the same time, demographic considerations have had decisive influence on Iran's policy choices in the region, with Iran acting to prevent spillover of Azerbaijani nationalism into its own Azerbaijani minority.

The August 2008 war and other events in the Caucasus region demonstrate a number of lessons. First, geographic factors have significant influence on the emergence of conflict and the determination of political and security developments in the Caucasus and greater Caspian region. Second, alliances in the region and interventions are not formed on the basis of common identities, but are based on strategic material-based calculations. This principle is also applicable to the foreign policies of the Muslim powers Turkey and Iran. Third, external support for secessionists has been essential to their cause in the region, and this too has been determined mostly on the basis of geopolitical considerations. …

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