Old dependencies and regional security
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia continued to act as the guarantor of regional security for the local regimes in Central Asia and partly in the Caucasus (Armenia): on the one hand, by organising the Collective Security Treaty (CSTO) and maintaining military bases in the region (Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Armenia) and, on the other hand, by bilaterally balancing out military-technical cooperation.
It is true that Russia continues to operate military bases in Armenia and Central Asia even after the start of the war in Ukraine. At the same time, regulating the access of Central Asian guest workers to the Russian labour market is an important lever for influencing its neighbouring countries. But this combination of instruments is increasingly losing its effectiveness in view of the comprehensive sanctions that are slowly leaving their mark on the Russian economy.
New players emerge
In comparison, China appears a much more attractive partner. Chinese economic influence in Central Asia and the Caucasus has been growing for years through infrastructure investments and the Belt and Road Initiative. A look at the trade statistics reveals a constant shift in trade flows. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia and, a distant second, the EU, have been the region’s most important trading partners. However, over the past decade, the EU’s share of the trade volume of countries in the region has fallen everywhere (except Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan), most notably in Armenia, Georgia and Kazakhstan.
During the Karabakh war in the summer 2020, Turkey already profiled itself as a key military player and arms supplier. His balancing position between Kyiv and Moscow makes President Recep Erdoğan a potential mediator in the war in Ukraine. However, Turkey and Iran are purely transactional actors, seeking to play the relative instability in the region to achieve situational – economic or security – gains. Against this background, Turkey is strikingly one of the countries (alongside China and India) that has increased its trade volume with Russia the most in the course of the war.
The message is clear: any perception of a region as ’lying between the stools’ is an outdated view of the regional security order inspired by now-extinct geopolitical paradigms. The local rulers are striving to secure their rule, to preserve the territorial integrity of their states, to continue to pursue their distinctively transactional style of foreign policy and, ultimately and above all, to generate security and prosperity for their respective countries. They are interested in diversifying their foreign and economic policy partners (in the spirit of risk spreading). In this context, the EU is just one player among many. These countries’ foreign policy orientation is therefore primarily not a question of conviction – according to the motto: ’join us because we have the better system’ – but more the recognition of security policy and economic realities.
Therefore, strategically and in line with its own values, the EU needs to try to expand its influence in Central Asia and the Caucasus on the realistic premises that Russia will remain a major player, China will continue to gain influence, and new players like Turkey will increasingly want to have a say.
I’d written at my old site about the role of France in Armenia- Way larger than is usually acknowledged.
The goal, therefore, cannot be to force Russia and China out of Central Asia or the South Caucasus. The EU totally lacks the means to do that, unable as they are to make good the missing elements of internal and external security.
Should, however, Germany and the EU nonetheless succeed in helping these states emerge from the current geopolitical and economic crisis with greater stability, a great deal will already have been achieved. For this, greater account must be taken of these countries’ own perspectives. In most cases, the starting point here will be their desire to stabilise their power.
Attention should be paid in concrete, small-scale economic cooperation situations, to the fulfillment of production standards, employee and human rights and environmental protection. These will successively have more positive effects than the unrealistically demanding attitudes that marked the German-Russian modernisation partnership.
Germany is unable to play any sort of substantive role in this area- given it’s current economic decline
Still, Armenia and the situation in that region is important because the destabilization of Iran and still more destabilization of Turkey will be very harmful to these two nations, both of whom, have been trying to make their own way in this world. As mentioned in this linked piece.