Forget the Middle East and Asia. Perhaps the most exquisite seismograph for subtle and not-so-subtle shifts in the geopolitical fortunes of major powers is the Caucasus, whose very ethnic complexity and heart-stopping beauty makes it a region of signal fascination. If you are going to be an area expert, here is a place with real intellectual and aesthetic riches to plumb.
The big take-away from the Caucasus is that Russia is a rising geopolitical power, however temporary and tenuous this may be, and the United States may have come up on its limits. In the 1990s, many people said that with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia had lost the Caucasus and countries such as Georgia and Azerbaijan were destined to join the Western camp; even Armenia, it was said, though allied with post-Soviet Russia, was considered to be in play. But the last decade or so has demonstrated a truth of geography that all the blather about the triumph of democracy and civil society back then obscured: that in the Caucasus, Russia is close and the West far away. Proximity, if cunningly taken advantage of, defeats ideas, in other words.
Of course, the Caucasus being the Caucasus, nothing is that simple. The picture is piled with nuances. But broad themes, nevertheless, stand out.
Before dealing with the more geopolitically volatile South or Trans-Caucasus, a look at the North Caucasus is in order.
The North Caucasus has constituted the most unstable part of post-Soviet Russia: an often violent mix of clans and ethnic groups nestled on the slopes of a great mountain range -- Chechens, Lezgins, Avars and others. It is a world that recalls Herodotus. The Russians fought two vicious wars with the secessionist Chechens. The first, in the early 1990s, was a military stalemate and essentially a political defeat for Russia because Chechnya achieved de facto independence. The second war, in the late 1990s, was a Russian victory. Largely responsible for that victory was Russian President Boris Yeltsin's prime minister at the time, Vladimir Putin. Rather than employ brute force, as in the first Chechen war, Putin used a more subtle divide-and-conquer strategy, playing nationalist factions off of transnational, jihadist-trending ones. Chechnya was gradually brought back under Russian control via the nationalist Kadyrov clan, even as low-level violence continues. North Caucasus militant groups like the Caucasus Emirate have meanwhile threatened to disrupt the upcoming Olympics in nearby Sochi.
The manner in which tough Russian tactics have restored a significant measure of control over the North Caucasus provides context for how the Russians are, measure-by-measure, wresting control of the Trans-Caucasus to the south.
The Trans-Caucasus embody power politics writ large. Here we have three states -- Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia -- squeezed between the three much larger ones of Russia, Turkey and Iran, with massive energy deposits a prize for external powers. The European Union and the United States have been trying in vain for years to lure Armenia away from the Russian camp. But that hope completely vanished recently when Armenia announced it would be joining the Russian-dominated customs union that also includes Belarus and Kazakhstan. With Russia virtually owning the Armenian economy and 5,000 Russian troops on Armenian soil, Armenia has become a hard satellite of Russia. Armenia's stance is not without logic, bordered as it is in the west and east by two historic enemies: the Turks-proper and the Azeri Turks. The Russians, in other words, provide the Armenians with a strategic level of protection that allows Armenia to continue to keep the formerly Azerbaijani territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. The United States, despite the presence of a sizable Armenian diaspora, could never do that.
Azerbaijan, unlike the other countries in the Caucasus, is wealthy in oil and natural gas, especially from adjacent Caspian Sea deposits. This allows Azerbaijan to play various powers off of each other in order to achieve a degree of sovereignty that neighboring Armenia and Georgia cannot. The Azeri Turks are friends with the Turks-proper, newly friendly with the Israelis and wary of both the Russians and the Iranians (which does not prevent Baku from exporting energy to both countries). Turkey is the biggest customer for Azeri hydrocarbons. Relations with Iran are always tense, in a small way because of Azerbaijan's relationship with Israel, and in a large way because more Azeri Turks live in Iran than in all of Azerbaijan, leading to a latent concern in Tehran about some future Greater Azerbaijan.
As for Russia, though Azerbaijan is far more independent of the Kremlin than Armenia, the failure some years back of an Armenian-Turkish rapprochement (with ramifications for Azerbaijan) was, among other things, a manifestation of both general Western weakness and Russian influence in the region. To wit, Azerbaijan has been cool to political overtures from the European Union, aware as it is of its own energy clout, as well as of Russia's proximity. Azerbaijan has thus achieved a balance, delicate though it may be, between numerous powers vying for influence in the country.
Whereas Armenia has been pro-Russian and Azerbaijan has been neutral between the West and Russia, Georgia -- a transit country for Azeri hydrocarbons -- has been demonstrably pro-Western for most of the past two decades. Georgia has seen itself as an outpost of the West and has eagerly tried to gain membership in NATO and the European Union -- especially under the former and Western-educated President Mikhail Saakashvili. But Saakashvili failed to gain NATO membership for Georgia, and his policy of provocatively courting the West and antagonizing Russia culminated in 2008 in a Russian invasion.
Here again was a lesson in geography: for despite claims of support from the United States, Russia was close by, and when it chose to act, the United States could do nothing. Georgia is further undermined by the fact that the Russians have transformed the former Georgian territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia into hard satellites with troops on the ground in those places, like in Armenia.
Russian influence in Georgia achieved a further boost when a Moscow-based oligarch, Bidzina Ivanishvili, was elected Georgia's prime minister in 2012 with Russian connivance. Ivanishvili is not overtly pro-Russian, but he nevertheless shifted Tbilisi somewhat closer to Moscow during his tenure. Trade between the two countries that was completely cut off under Saakashvili was resumed, and discussions began on cooperation on larger and more strategic issues like transit and energy.
The country now has a new President and a new Prime Minister in Giorgi Margvelashvili and Irakly Garibashvili, respectively, but both are loyalists from within Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream Camp and can be expected to pursue the same foreign policy initiated by Ivanishvili. Thus, Georgia is now at risk of being Finlandized by Russia. This is a far cry from the heady days of the 2003 Rose Revolution that brought the pro-Western Saakashvili to power in a wave of demonstrations demanding more democracy. The political evolution in Georgia has also been of extreme concern to Azerbaijan and the balance that it has worked so hard to maintain.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has come a long way since his service for Yeltsin in bringing the rebellious Chechens to heel. He has created new Russian satellites, made Azerbaijan aware of the limits of its independence from Russia, and is slowly in the midst of neutralizing Georgia. Of course, he is helped by the fact that the United States remains distracted by events both in the Middle East and in the Pacific Basin. Truly, the Caucasus is the seismograph of great power politics both nearby and far from its own confines.