Jens Stoltenberg

Jens Stoltenberg

In March 2024, the South Caucasus region celebrated an important but underestimated milestone: the 30th anniversary of its partnership with NATO under the Partnership for Peace (PFP) program. The visit of NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg to Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia on March 17-19 highlighted this point, offering sharp reflections on the last three decades of cooperation and on future commitments.

Launched in 1994, the PFP was aimed at strengthening military cooperation between NATO and non-member states, primarily in Eastern Europe and the post-Soviet space. Initially, the program covered 24 countries, but some of its participants became full members of NATO, while cooperation with Russia and Belarus was suspended in 2014 and 2021, respectively. The objectives of the PFP include advancing military reforms, ensuring civilian control over the armed forces, and developing peacekeeping capabilities.

The different trajectories of Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia in their relations with NATO reflect the complex geopolitical mosaic of the South Caucasus. Each country started with similar perspectives, but has since diverged in terms of political and military engagement with the Alliance.

Azerbaijan is an authoritarian country that does not meet European political standards in terms of the lack of freedom of choice and expression. And at the same time, he indirectly made a big leap in the transition to NATO military standards through close cooperation with Turkiye, the second army of the alliance after the United States. It was this transition to NATO standards that played an important role in Azerbaijan's victory over Armenia, which continued to develop its armed forces within the framework of the Soviet military doctrine. The only positive achievement of the partnership, which President Aliyev and Secretary General Stoltenberg mentioned not without pleasure in their speeches, is the energy security of Europe, to which the COP29 climate initiative was added. It was these two issues that the Secretary General called the tactical agenda for bilateral relations. It follows from the talks in Baku that Azerbaijan's "cautious" strategy of cooperation with NATO remains a priority.

Armenia. With the coming to power of Nikola Pashin in 2018, in the wake of the velvet revolution, which broke the chain of undemocratic elections, Armenia approached the construction of a new democracy, which did not weaken at all after the defeat in the war with Azerbaijan.  In the military field, the country continues to be torn between the CSTO and NATO, and quite unsuccessfully curtailing ties with the Russian military tradition. According to the latest Armenian statistics, Russia accounts for only 10% of the weapons purchased by the country. The Secretary General advised Yerevan to develop democratic initiatives and cooperation with NATO for the strategic security of Armenia and the region.

Georgia, after President Mikhail Saakashvili came to power in 2003 as a result of the Rose Revolution, made a romantic attempt to rapidly break into the NATO zone of influence, but was stopped by the Russian invasion in 2008, which ended with the rejection of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which blocked further aspirations to join the bloc. Joining the alliance is possible only if territorial integrity is restored, which forces Tbilisi to balance in a difficult dance between Brussels and Moscow. In these circumstances, Secretary General Stoltenberg sympathetically advised deepening democracy and reforms for the strategic, but not tactical, goal of joining NATO,

Undoubtedly, the main purpose of the NATO Secretary General's visit to the South Caucasus was to push Azerbaijan and Armenia to reach a peace treaty as soon as possible, which would eliminate Moscow's manipulation of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict and thereby weaken Russia's influence on both countries. Aliyev and Pashinyan, each in their own way, declared their desire to achieve such a peace, but within the limits of what is possible. The view of the world, which includes the terms of the peace treaty, the demarcation of borders and the opening of communications, remains specific to Azerbaijan and Armenia, largely formed under pressure from the Kremlin.

Kremlin, which closely monitored Stoltenberg's movements between Baku, Tbilisi and Yerevan, regarded the Secretary General's visit to the South Caucasus as another manifestation of an attempt to draw the countries of the South Caucasus into the Euro-Atlantic zone of influence. The official representative of the Russian Foreign Ministry, Maria Zakharova, commenting on the visit of the NATO Secretary General to the South Caucasus, made the following remark: "Recently, Western emissaries in the Armenian direction have become noticeably more active. In particular, they are pushing the Armenia-NATO Individually Adapted Partnership program. Their efforts are aimed at discrediting Yerevan's ties with Moscow, ideally, at completely curtailing our contacts, the Westerners do not hide this. Now they want to drive wedges into our relations with Baku."

During his three-day trip to the Caucasus, Stoltenberg tried to unite the diverse countries of the South Caucasus with ideas of solidarity with Ukraine, whose victory or defeat, according to Brussels, will determine the future of the South Caucasus. In both Yerevan and Tbilisi, the Secretary General noted that Russia's victory would lead to the spread of aggression against the region: "Russia has imperialist aspirations, Ukraine turned out to be an obstacle to their realization. That is why it is so important to continue our support."

Although the South Caucasus countries stand in solidarity with the struggling Ukraine, each of them builds its own national security system, where relations with Russia have specific moments. Azerbaijan has the most balanced relations with Russia, which has occupied an equidistant geopolitical position at the political level for many years and has been building priority economic and logistical relations with both the West and Russia. Armenia is rushing between the Western and northern alliances in the absence of peace with Azerbaijan, and cannot ignore the factor of Russia and its interests in the region. Georgia understands that its European integration is not possible without the restoration of territorial integrity, the keys to which are in the Kremlin. She is in search of a proper model for maintaining the balance of interests. And so far it has not been unsuccessful. "We understand that NATO membership depends not only on our desires. A consensus must be reached among all the countries (of the alliance) in order to grant Georgia membership in NATO. We are not naive and understand that Georgia has territorial problems. We must first resolve these issues and then become a member of NATO," then Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili said in June 2022.

The Prime Minister added that the policy of the Georgian government is to "restore territorial integrity and sovereignty through peaceful negotiations."

Based on the results of the visit of NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg to Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia it can be  noted that, against the background of escalating tensions between Moscow and Brussels, NATO's position on strengthening cooperation in the South Caucasus remains cautious and balanced, especially in light of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. With the specter of war looming over Eastern Europe, the Alliance is hesitant to openly increase its involvement in the Caucasus regionuntil the Ukrainian crisis is resolved.

Geopolitical intricacies require a subtle approach from NATO, which has to balance between asserting its influence in the South Caucasus and avoiding further exacerbation of tensions with Russia. Consequently, strategic decisions on expanding cooperation in the region are postponed until the post-war period, as NATO faces difficulties and uncertainties related to the Ukrainian conflict.

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