Thursday, 12 February 2015 13:50

A Western Strategy for the South Caucasus

Caucasus-StrategyBy Svante E. Cornell, S. Frederick Starr, and Mamuka Tsereteli

February 2015

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The South Caucasus is key to Western efforts to shape intersection between Europe, Eurasia and the Middle East, and to Western commercial and strategic access to and from the heart of the Eurasian continent. Yet far from developing, Western influence in the region is at an all-time low. As Western influence has declined, and partly as a consequence of it, the region’s development has stagnated. This situation is the result of a lack of strategic vision in the West and to a series of tactical errors. This paper analyzes the shortcomigns of western policies, and offers proposals for a new Western approach to the region.


1502strategy-coverExecutive Summary

From a Western perspective, the Caucasus is far more important than its size alone would suggest. Its significance to the United States and Europe lies in its crucial geographical location. Its strategic importance derives from its location at the point of intersection between the key Eurasian powers of Russia, Iran and Turkey, and its central role in the burgeoning east-west transport corridor connecting Europe to Central Asia and beyond. The Caucasus is therefore key to any Western efforts to shape future interactions between Europe and the Middle East, and to Western commercial and strategic access to and from the heart of the Eurasian continent. At a time when the two most salient challenges to the transatlantic alliance are Russia’s aggressive expansionism and the Islamic radicalism emanating from the Middle East, the Caucasus is a strategically important pressure point in both directions: a bulwark against both Moscow and the Islamic radicalism of the Middle East. The Iranian theocracy’s continued efforts to expand its influence from Syria to Yemen, and the growing anti-Western authoritarianism with Islamist underpinnings in Turkey, further enhance the importance of this role.

These considerations alone should dictate a growing American and European engagement with the states of the Caucasus, but this has not occurred. Quite the contrary, Western influence in the region is at an all-time low. As Western influence has declined, and partly as a consequence of it, the region’s development has stagnated.  This stagnation is evident in areas as diverse as security, energy, governance, and human rights. Meanwhile, new challenges to the region’s security and development have multiplied and strengthened, threatening its long-term viability and eroding important Western interests.

This situation is the result of a lack of strategic vision in the West and to a series of tactical errors. At the core of Western shortcomings in the Caucasus are serious flaws in the analytical lenses through which leaders and analysts perceive events in the region:

  • A failure to grasp the changing nature and importance of the region’s unresolved conflicts, particularly their transformation into key components of Russian geopolitical maneuvers.
  • A failure to grasp the nature of regional politics, succumbing too often to a simplistic schema of “government versus opposition,” when the real and relevant political divides have been equally within each of these groups.
  • A failure to understand the inter-connection between security and democratic development, in particular the powerful negative effects of a worsened security situation on the prospects for internal political reform.

Compounding these analytical errors, several factors of a strategic nature have contributed to the West’s failures in the Caucasus.

  • The failure to embrace a regional approach to the Caucasus, focusing instead on bilateral relationships; and subordinating these to the West’s ties with various regional powers.
  • The failure to coordinate effectively legitimate interests in diverse areas, particularly between security and governance.
  • The failure to grasp dynamic changes in the broader geopolitical environment, particularly internal changes in Russia and Turkey, which should enhance the potential role of the Caucasus in Western policy.

Western policymakers have also made serious mistakes that are operational in nature:

  • Insufficient coordination between relevant governmental agencies in Western capitals and across the Atlantic.
  • The assignment of the Caucasus and Central Asia to different organizational entities within Western governments has led to the neglect of Trans-Caspian connections.
  • The resort to finger-pointing and hectoring in the promotion of democracy and human rights has been deeply ineffective, alienating governments rather than influencing them.

To remedy this situation, this paper calls for a new strategy toward the Caucasus. This strategy should rest on the following analytical components:

  • All policies toward the Caucasus must be rooted in a regional rather than purely bilateral approach.
  • Policies must be engineered in recognition of the diverse forms of Western interests in the region and must take into account the ways in which these interests interact with one another on the ground.
  • Western powers should re-engage the region in the area of sovereignty and security, which will do more than anything else to pave the way for progress in other areas.
  • The West cannot expect progress on governance and human rights without a clear commitment to security issues; conversely, the states of the Caucasus cannot expect Western support for their security without a commitment to governance and human rights.

On this basis, the paper offers the following proposals for a new Western approach to the region:

  • Increase rhetorical and concrete support for the sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity of all three of the regional states.
  • Develop a substantial and sustained Western initiative on the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict, including strong U.S. Government leadership from the top level and a willingness to bypass, if necessary, the Minsk process.
  • Increase cooperation in defense and security.
  • Provide Armenia a strategic alternative to the Eurasian Union.
  • Seek ways to anchor Azerbaijan in the EU’s Eastern Partnership.
  • Adapt policies to improve governance and human rights to changing realities, including greater emphasis on improving effectiveness and accountability on the part of governments.
  • Support the trans-Caucasus transport corridor as a “Land Suez” connecting Europe with both India and China, focusing especially on the role of businesses and of soft infrastructure.

Improve and clarify intra-agency, inter-agency, as well as transatlantic coordination on issues relating to the Caucasus.

Read 24030 times Last modified on Thursday, 12 February 2015 21:04





  • New Article Series on Changing Geopolitics of Central Asia and the Caucasus
    Wednesday, 24 November 2021 11:53


  • CACI Initiative on Religion and the Secular State in Central Asia and the Caucasus
    Sunday, 24 January 2021 13:53

    In 2016, the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program launched an initiative on documenting the interrelationship of religion and the secular state in the region. This initiative departed from the fact that little systematic reserch had been undertaken on the subject thus far. While there was and remains much commentary and criticism of religious policy in the region, there was no comprehensive analysis available on the interrelationship of religion and the state in any regional state, let alone the region as a whole. The result of this initiative has been the publication of six Silk Road Papers studying the matter in regional states, with more to come. In addition, work is ongoing on a volume putting the regional situation in the context of the Muslim world as a whole.


    Case Studies

    Each study below can be freely downloaded in PDF format.


    Azerbaijan's Formula: Secular Governance and Civil Nationhood
    By Svante E. Cornell, Halil Karaveli, and Boris Ajeganov
    November 2016   

    2018-04-Kazakhstan-SecularismReligion and the Secular State in Kazakhstan
    By Svante E. Cornell, S. Frederick Starr and Julian Tucker
    April 2018




    1806-UZ-coverReligion and the Secular State in Uzbekistan
    Svante E. Cornell and Jacob Zenn
    June 2018




    2006-Engvall-coverReligion and the Secular State in Kyrgyzstan
    Johan Engvall
    June 2020

     Event video online


    2006-Clement-coverReligion and the Secular State in Turkmenistan
    Victoria Clement
    June 2020

    Event video online




    Articles and Analyses

    Svante E. Cornell, "Religion and the State in Central Asia," in Ilan Berman, ed., Wars of Ideas: Theology, Interpretation and Power in the Muslim World, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2021.

    Svante E. Cornell, "Central Asia: Where Did Islamic Radicalization Go?" in Religion, Conflict and Stability in the Former Soviet Union, eds. Katya Migacheva and Bryan Frederick, Arlington, VA: RAND Corporation, 2018.

  • Basic Principles for the Rehabilitation of Azerbaijan's Post-Conflict Territories
    Wednesday, 07 October 2020 09:01

    Rehab-coverIn 2010, the CACI-SRSP Joint Center cooperated with Eldar Ismailov and Nazim Muzaffarli of the Institute for Strategic Studies of the Caucasus to produce a study of the methodology and process for the rehabilitation of the occupied territories in Azerbaijan. The study was written in the hope that it would prove useful in the aftermath of a negotiated solution to the conflict.

    Such a resolution nevertheless did not materialize. At present, however, it appears that some of these territories are returning to Azerbaijani control as a result of the military conflict that began in late September, 2020. While it is regrettable that this did not come to pass as a result of negotiations, it is clear that the challenge of rehabilitating territories is as pressing today as it would be in the event of a peaceful resolution - if not more, given the likelihood that such a solution would have included a time-table and provided the Government of Azerbaijan and international institutions time for planning.

    It is clear that the study is a product of a different time, as much has changed since 2010. We fully expcect many updates and revisions to be needed should the recommendations in this study be implemented today. That said, we believe the methodoloy of the study and its conclusions remain relevant and would therefore like to call attention to this important study, published in English, Russian and Azerbaijani versions.

    Click to download:



  • Resources on the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict
    Monday, 05 October 2020 08:19

    Resources on the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict


    The Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program have a long track record of covering the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict. This page presents the key resources and most recent analysis. 

    In 2017, Palgrave published the first book-length study of the International Politics of the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict, edited by Svante Cornell. The book concluded by arguing that if international efforts to resolve the conflict are not stepped up, “the ‘four-day’ war of April 2016 will appear a minor skirmish compared to what is sure to follow”.

    In 2015, CACI & SRSP released the Silk Road Paper  “A Western Strategy for the South Caucasus”, which included a full page of recommendations for the U.S. and EU on the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict. These are reproduced below:


    Develop a substantial and prolonged Western initiative on the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict.

    o This initiative must be led by the United States, in close consultation with its European partners – primarily the EU Commission and External Action Service, and France. Barring some process to reinvigorate the Minsk Process – a doubtful proposition given Western-Russian relations in the foreseeable future – Western leaders must be prepared to bypass that process, utilizing it where appropriate but focusing their initiative on developing direct negotiations between the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders.

    o The U.S. and its European partners must abandon the practice of relying solely on the Minsk Group co-chairs to resolve the Karabakh conflict. These diplomats have contributed greatly to formulating a workable framework agreement. However, strong and sustained U.S. Government leadership from the top level is needed to complement or, failing that, to replace the Minsk Process. In practice, this means the expressed support of the President, involvement of the White House, and leadership manifested in the appointment of a distinguished citizen as Special Envoy for the resolution of the conflict.

    o The EU must take a more clearly defined and substantial role in the process, by integrating to the highest degree possible the French co-chairmanship of the Minsk Group with EU institutions. While Washington will need to take the lead on the political side, it would be natural for the EU to take the lead in organizing an international development program for the currently occupied Azerbaijani provinces and Karabakh itself. That effort, too, would need to be led by a senior EU figure.


    In 2011, CACI & SRSP helped launch an extensive study of the steps needed for the post-conflict rehabilitation of Azerbaijan's occupied territories, in cooperation with Eldar Ismailov and Nazim Muzaffarli of the Institute for Strategic Studies of the Caucasus. The monograph "Basic Principles for the Rehabilitation of Azerbaijan's Post-Conflict Territories" can be accessed here


    More background resources:

    Svante E. Cornell, "Can America Stop a Wider War Between Armenia and Azerbaijan?", The National Interest, October 2020

    Brenda Shaffer and Svante E. Cornell, Occupied Elsewhere: Selective Policies on Occupation, Foundation For Defense of Democracies, January 2020. 

    Brenda Shaffer and Svante E. Cornell, "The U.S. Needs to Declare War on Proxies", Foreign Policy, January 27, 2020

    Svante E. Cornell, “The Raucous Caucasus”, American Interest, May 2017

    Svante E. Cornell, Small Nations and Great Powers: A Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict in the Caucasus, RoutledgeCurzon, 2001.

    Svante E. Cornell, The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict, Uppsala University, 1999

    More recent analysis:

    Turkey Seeks to Counter Russia in the Black Sea-Caucasus Region,” Turkey Analyst, 10/5/20, Emil Avdaliani

    Turkey’s Commitment to Azerbaijan’s Defense Shows the Limits of Ankara’s Tilt to Moscow,” Turkey Analyst, 9/25/20, Turan Suleymanov & Bahruz Babayev

     “Cross-Border Escalation between Armenia and Azerbaijan,” Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 9/25/20, Natalia Konarzewska

    Russia and Turkey: Behind the Armenia-Azerbaijan Clashes?”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 8/31/20, Avinoam Idan

    Armenia and the U.S.: Time for New Thinking?”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 10/2/19, Eduard Abrahamyan.

    Why Washington Must Re-Engage the CaucasusCentral Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 7/8/19, Stephen Blank

    Azerbaijan’s Defense Industry Reform”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 5/7/19, Tamerlan Vahabov.

    Military Procurements on Armenia's and Azerbaijan's Defense Agendas”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 3/27/19, Ilgar Gurbanov

    Armenia's New Government Struggles with Domestic and External Opposition,” Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 3/20/19, Armen Grigorian.

    Bolton's Caucasian Tour and Russia's Reaction”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 12/17/18, Eduard Abrahamyan.