By Saudamini Mohan Contributing Writer 15 November 2018

In July, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan visited Brussels and met with EU and NATO officials. He spoke of his country’s need for more assistance from the West in support of peace and democracy in Armenia. This was surprising because experts assumed that out of the three countries in the South Caucasus – Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan – Armenia was the most pro-Russia country. Pashniyan’s visit to Brussels signals a shift in the  South Caucasus’ foreign policy regarding Russia. South Caucasus appears ready to defy Russia and align with the West.

The South Caucasus has been mired in conflicts for decades. Russian meddling has undermined democracy and economic growth in the region. Russia fomented problems in the South Caucasus in order to maintain the region as a buffer between itself and the West. Regional instability also forced Europe’s reliance on Russian natural gas. To prevent Russian meddling and to support peace and stability in the region, the West should encourage Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan to join NATO.

Georgia was keen to align with the West and join NATO, soon after it gained independence from the USSR. To prevent  Georgia from joining NATO, Russia invaded the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, destabilizing the country. The regions remain in dispute to this day. Russia has also supplied arms to Armenia and Azerbaijan to maintain their dispute over the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Russian interference in the region also restricts the development of a Caspian Sea pipeline, which could supply natural gas to Western Europe. Such a pipeline could challenge Russian dominance as Europe’s natural gas supplier and hurt its economy, which is heavily reliant on natural gas revenues.

So far, the West has supported the South Caucasus with assistance for development and strengthening democracy.  Now it is time for the West to broaden its relationship with the countries in the South Caucasus and support them in defending themselves against Russian meddling. The West should create a special NATO representative for the South Caucasus with a mandate to encourage them to join NATO.

The process of becoming a NATO member usually takes several years.  However, the West needs to move swiftly to bring the South Caucasus into NATO and guard against the possibility of a Ukraine-like crisis in the region. Ukraine was invaded by Russia precisely because it was beginning the process of becoming a NATO member and preparing to join the EU. A move by the South Caucasus to join NATO could trigger a Russian invasion to stall the three countries from joining the bloc. A considerable portion of the Russian military is currently deployed in Ukraine and Syria, however, reducing the chance that Russia could mount such an invasion.  This presents a great window of opportunity for the formal induction of the South Caucasus into NATO.

By becoming NATO members, the three countries will be able to deter Russian meddling in their internal and regional affairs and create stability. Fear of a NATO reprisal will reduce Russian influence in regional affairs and conflicts. Furthermore, the three countries will be able to address regional differences and unite under the NATO umbrella. In addition, they will be able to focus on developing the oil and gas pipeline from the Caspian Sea to Europe and concentrate on strengthening their economies.

A NATO policy to encourage the South Caucasus to become members will enhance the credibility of NATO. It will send a clear message against Russian meddling not only in the South Caucasus but also in other parts of Western Europe. It will also work to undermine Russia’s influence in the region by bringing the South Caucasus into alignment with the West and by lending NATO’s might to deter any Russian political or military attacks.

Some argue that a NATO expansion will heighten Russia’s insecurity about the West and that Russia may retaliate militarily. This is not necessarily the case. The Russian military is already stretched thin and is weaker than it was during the Cold War. Moreover, Russia no longer has the economic might to expand and modernize its armed forces to confront NATO. Russia would have to halt its political and military interference in the South Caucasus or risk a NATO retaliation.

Every nation has a right to defend its sovereignty. Every nation has a right to peace and development. The West should help the South Caucasus strengthen democracy and achieve economic prosperity, as well as help the South Caucasus counter Russian interference and build peace and stability. Finally, the West should encourage Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan to join NATO.

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Saudamini Mohan is a current student in the Master of International Policy and Practice (MIPP) program at the Elliott School of International Affairs. She worked as a banker for 10 years before coming to GWU and now is interested in working in conflict resolution. She spent the summer working with Thabyay Education Foundation in Yangon, Myanmar conducting M&E for a new peace building module.