Despite having been torn apart by territorial conflicts, ethnic rivalries and domestic crises for centuries, the South Caucasus has succeeded in establishing multiple links with the Alliance. These have gradually developed into various mechanisms for co-operation which promise political advantages as well as very practical military benefits. But unless radical changes are made to strategic thinking in national capitals and NATO headquarters, the South Caucasus will continue to be a permanent “headache” for Brussels.
In 2002, NATO’s Secretary General, Lord Robertson, stated that the South Caucasus was not particularly relevant to the Alliance. This was hardly surprising, as all the South Caucasus republics had been co-operating within the broader framework of the “Partnership for Peace” since 1994 and showed no particular interest in becoming full members of the Alliance. Unlike earlier waves of NATO enlargement in Eastern Europe, none of the countries of the South Caucasus has ever been able to formulate a coherent strategic rationale for NATO to play a more active role in the region. The Eastern European experience illustrates how the initial fears and reservations which characterized every phase of enlargement were overcome by strong, logical and legitimate arguments that favored the accession of new members. These arguments—which in fact established the logic of the sequential process of enlargement briefly formulated as the “open door policy”—were: i) the latent security vacuum which followed the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact; ii) the OSCE’s weakness in terms of structure and capacity to absorb the security requirements and national demands of the new democracies; and iii) the fragile nature of the democratic achievements which nations were eager to bolster and secure as quickly as possible. NATO thus took on a new mission, a rationale for its enlargement, which justified the protection of new members as the only means to secure the process of democratic consolidation. This rationale essentially mirrored the patterns of the “democratic peace” model, with its dominant idea that democratic nations do not fight against each other and therefore uphold peace and security.
For the South Caucasus, however, the matter of a strategic rationale remains troubling and unresolved. NATO showed no particular interest in the region until its 2004 summit in Istanbul. The ISAF operation in Afghanistan, which the Alliance subsequently took over in 2003, made it increasingly dependent upon the contributions of partner countries in terms of units and logistics. Georgia eagerly supported this mission and gradually increased its military contribution to ISAF up to half-brigade level. Armenia and Azerbaijan followed suit by sending national contingents, though of much smaller size. Yet of much greater importance was the transport corridor and facilities which Georgia and Azerbaijan offered to NATO: these enabled the Alliance to create a reliable supply line for ISAF forces in Afghanistan—one that would be less vulnerable to terrorist attacks on supply transports in Pakistan and to the caprices of the Russian government, which threatened the northern transit route. NATO’s Istanbul summit underlined the vital importance of the South Caucasus and Central Asia, and led to the appointment of the Secretary General’s Special Representatives to both regions. The ISAF mission was without doubt the key factor for this decision, but other global factors also gave the region the additional status of being a “bulwark” against drug smuggling and extremist organizations. With some national nuances, this particular view was commonly accepted by the Alliance. NATO’s summits in Lisbon (2010) and Chicago (2012) reinforced the operational emphasis of co-operation with partner-nations, and sent signals clear enough to indicate that the military and operational dimension of co-operation was at the core of the Alliance’s interest in countries that do not pursue the goal of membership. Evidently, Armenia and Azerbaijan both fall under this category.
If we observe the current status of relationships between NATO and the countries of the South Caucasus, we see at first glance that there are significant disparities between the levels and dynamics of the Alliance’s co-operation with Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Georgia was promised it would become a future member, and Armenia and Azerbaijan enjoy the levels of co-operation they agreed since the inauguration of their Individual Partnership Action Plans (IPAP) in 2005. Yet a closer look at the individual conditions and dynamics of co-operation (and their relevance to NATO’s strategic agenda) discloses a very worrying picture of the Alliance’s indecisiveness and apathy. These risk demoting the region to increasing irrelevance, especially after the end of ISAF operations in 2014. Despite the political recognition of Georgia’s aspiration to NATO membership, no formal instrument for future accession (i.e. a Membership Action Plan) has been offered, which many key NATO members regard as indispensible for accession. In fact, NATO’s statement at its summit in Bucharest and its decision to establish a NATO-Georgia Commission (NGC) were spontaneous reactions to external pressures (e.g. the Bush administration’s strong pro-membership position and Russia’s aggression in 2008) rather than a decision based upon lengthy prior discussions and consensus. It is no secret that NATO members are far from unanimous regarding Georgia’s accession, and there is a little chance for this stance to be revised any time soon. The Intensified Dialogue (ID) or the Substantial Package (SP) the Alliance offered Georgia in 2006 and in 2014 bring no essentially new elements that were (are) not covered by the country’s IPAP or Annual National Program (ANP), and once more illustrate the Alliance’s lack of a strategic rationale vis-à-vis Georgia which could be decisively agreed upon.
As for Armenia and Azerbaijan, the matter is significantly easier to analyse given both countries’ lack of interest in membership. Unlike Georgia, where democratic requirements are given a decisive relevance when assessing the country’s performance, Yerevan and Baku’s co-operation with NATO is predominantly based upon a military and technical dimension. Armenia is bound by its strategic reliance upon Russian military support within the CSTO, and Azerbaijan is not interested in NATO membership given its declared position of non-alignment and the obvious autocratic nature of its government, which is often criticized in the West. Both have made statements recognizing the critical importance of NATO assistance to efforts to increase the interoperability of their armed forces and speed up efforts to implement defence reforms, yet both continue to rely heavily upon Russian military hardware, supplies and military training assistance. This says much about the selective approach and limitations which Yerevan and Baku adopted within their respective co-operation processes, in which all activities are in fact subsumed to the overarching imperative of ensuring and enhancing the combat readiness of their forces facing each other on different sides of the Karabakh frontline.
Although the strategies NATO has adopted vis-à-vis the countries of the South Caucasus differ in terms of scope and intensity, overall little progress has been made as a result of co-operation. This failure can essentially be attributed to the limitations of the Alliance’s strategic interest in the region. Despite a heavy emphasis upon the democratic transformation of Georgian institutions, the slow progress which has been made over the past 12 years is a clear testimony of the irrelevance of other incentive mechanisms other than that of membership (which has its own formal mechanisms) as “carrots” for domestic democratic change. As for Armenia and Azerbaijan, the nature of their co-operation with NATO seems to have shrunk to the level of routine “mil-to-mil” work without any significant political pressure to accelerate their democratic transformation. Furthermore, NATO vehemently refuses to assume any viable role in facilitating (at least politically) territorial disputes in the region, and by doing so contradicts the very rationale of admitting Georgia as a future member. We are in fact witnessing a mode of behavior which can be characterized as self-imposed neutrality, i.e. Alliance passivity in the South Caucasus region, with a set of formal requirements for partner countries and no mechanism for sanctions. On the other hand, fulfilling NATO requirements can result in serious domestic as well as Russian-made repercussions, and fulfilling them currently provides no alternative benefits or guarantees powerful enough to outbalance the weight of these negative risks.
Pursuing approach such as this endangers the Alliance’s credibility in the region, increases the fear of insecurity and continuing political rivalry, and significantly weakens national commitments to democratic reforms. NATO’s inability to formulate and commit itself to strategic objectives in the region is directly mirrored by the weak progress national governments have made, and serves as a strong incentive for more Russian dominance in the region. Rapidly granting Georgia a MAP, however, would be a first sign of a coherent and better structured approach. Doing so would revitalize Georgia’s efforts to introduce reforms, would boost the Alliance’s credibility in the country and would uphold the democratic essence of NATO membership, thus encouraging Armenia and Azerbaijan to carry out more reforms of their own. Even the prospect of them becoming members should not be ignored, especially Armenia. This would send strong signals concerning the Alliance’s strategic objective in the region, i.e. the democratic transformation of all countries as the best way of supporting regional peace and security, where Georgia’s membership would play the pivotal role in terms of transformational stimulus. It would also reiterate the continuity of the democratic pillar of enlargement and narrow Russia’s options for regional dominance, providing viable alternatives to political elites in Yerevan and Baku.