Stoltenberg in the South Caucasus

NATO sees an opportunity in a region where the balance of power could shift.
March 20, 2024
Two years into Russia’s full-scale war in Ukraine, the stability of the South Caucasus has become a priority on the Euro-Atlantic security agenda.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg’s just-completed three-day trip to the region, which came as Russian President Vladimir Putin celebrated a victory in an election that the West has labelled a sham, is stark evidence of heightened transatlantic interest in Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia.

Stoltenberg began his travels in Baku, where he expressed gratitude for Azerbaijan's contributions to NATO-led operations and missions. He also spoke of the opportunity for lasting peace with neighboring following decades of conflict and encouraged both nations to seize the moment to forge a comprehensive peace agreement.

In Tbilisi, the secretary general’s next stop, discussions centered on strengthening NATO's partnership with Georgia, particularly crisis management and cybersecurity. Stoltenberg reiterated the alliance's commitment to assisting with Georgia's path toward greater democracy (the country holds a presidential election in the second half of this year) and full Euro-Atlantic integration. His comments echoed the significance of NATO’s declaration, at the bloc’s 2008 Bucharest summit, that Georgia would one day be a member state.

Stoltenberg's visit to Yerevan held special significance for two reasons. First, it marked his first visit to that capital as secretary general, a position he has held for a decade. Second, Armenia's foreign policy is shifting. Its government decided earlier this year to “freeze” Armenian membership in the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization. Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has publicly criticized Russia for its inability to provide his country with security guarantees following Azerbaijan’s recapture of the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. He now advocates for broader public dialogue on closer ties with the West, including the possibility of EU membership. Stoltenberg commended Pashinyan for his pursuit of a "more independent" foreign policy and expressed hope for the swift development of an Individually Tailored Partnership Program for Armenia, which would set out key areas of cooperation with the alliance.

The NATO chief’s travels did not go unnoticed in Russia. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov expressed skepticism about the alliance’s ability to foster stability in the three countries and announced that Moscow, too, will focus on its bilateral relations with them. But Russia’s attention is focused elsewhere, leaving its power in the South Caucasus in decline. There is a window of opportunity for recasting ties between the region and the West. Russia’s dominance in that corner of the world may just be nearing an end.