2 years of war in Ukraine: What should the South Caucasus expect now?

By Benyamin Poghosyan

In just one month, the world will mark the second anniversary of the Russian-Ukrainian war. During this period, assessments on the course and possible outcomes of the war underwent significant changes several times. At the end of February 2022, almost everyone was sure that the war would end very quickly with Russia’s victory, bringing a change of government in Ukraine, with President Volodymyr Zelensky replaced by a pro-Russian figure. Already in September 2022, after successful Ukrainian counter-offensives in the Kherson and Kharkiv regions, expectations changed dramatically. This time, many were sure of Russia’s imminent defeat.

The peak of these expectations was perhaps May 2023, when everything seemed ready for a new Ukrainian counteroffensive. Armed with modern Western weapons and tens of thousands of soldiers trained in Western countries, the Ukrainian army was supposed to defeat the Russians. They had to reach Crimea or at least the Sea of Azov and cut the land corridor from Russia to the peninsula. The armed uprising started by Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner private military organization, in June seemed to confirm expectations of Russia’s imminent defeat.

However, the Ukrainian war once again defied the expectations of experts and politicians. During the more than four-month counteroffensive, the Ukrainian army suffered heavy losses and managed to advance only a few kilometers in several areas of the front. By the end of 2023, the initiative on the front almost completely passed to the Russian army, and currently the main task of the Ukrainians is to avoid new territorial losses.

The failure of the Ukrainian counteroffensive has sparked a new wave of debates in the West about the prospects and end of the war. Many people are not so sure about Ukraine’s victory and the possibility of restoring its 1991 borders.

Indeed, it is extremely challenging to make predictions about the course of military operations in 2024. However one thing is clear: In this war, it is easier to defend than to attack, and now it is the Ukrainians’ turn to defend. This means that it will be quite challenging for the Russian army to capture new territories, and significant changes on the frontline are unlikely. At the same time, it has been more than a year since the war entered a phase of attrition, where the availability of resources and the determination of the parties to continue the war are playing a crucial role.

After the failure of the Ukrainian counteroffensive, the Russian side has the advantage. Ukraine cannot continue the war without military and economic aid from the United States, European Union and other players — and it faces significant difficulties in this matter. At the end of 2023, the EU could not reach an agreement on providing Ukraine with 50 billion euros due to Hungary’s opposition.

In the United States, the issue of Ukraine has become one of the main foreign policy themes discussed in the 2024 presidential campaign. The Republican Party refuses to provide another package of aid to Ukraine, demanding that the Democrats agree to a drastic tightening of immigration rules. In general, some Republicans, led by former President Donald Trump, question the need to continue aid to Ukraine, saying that Washington’s strategic adversary is Beijing, not Moscow, and that the United States should focus on competing with China.

In that context, they emphasize preventing the further deepening of cooperation between Russia and China, considering the possibility of reaching an agreement with Russia on the issue of Ukraine. The Democrats, led by President Joe Biden, declare that the United States should continue to help Ukraine as long as necessary. In general, it can be argued that at least since 2023, the Ukrainian conflict has turned into a Russia-West proxy war, where Ukraine is assigned the role of a battlefield.

Southern Caucasus

The course of the Ukrainian war has had a significant impact on Russia’s policy in the South Caucasus and the degree of Russian involvement in this region. After 2022, on the one hand, Russia’s possibilities to influence the situation in the South Caucasus have decreased, while on the other hand, the importance of the region and, in particular, Azerbaijan and Turkey, has increased for Russia. At the same time, expectations about Russia’s imminent defeat are gradually fading, which means that the concept of a “Russia-free South Caucasus” is unlikely to become a reality. In the future, Russia will continue to maintain a leading position in the region, and any country, including Armenia, must take this fact into account in the process of developing its foreign policy.

In the foreseeable future, no other state or organization — Turkey, Iran, the United States, France, the European Union, NATO — will replace Russia in the region. Turkey and Iran simply do not have adequate resources. While the West wants to push away Russia from the region, it is not ready to provide security guarantees. In this context, discussions and statements about severing ties with Russia and shifting the vector of Armenia’s foreign policy from Russia to the West by 180 degrees will only contribute to the further deterioration of Armenian-Russian relations and will support the propaganda campaign carried out by Azerbaijan in Russia. The main goal of that campaign is to convince Russia that Armenia has already betrayed Russia and made a decision to make a foreign policy u-turn, and the only way to maintain Russia’s influence in the South Caucasus is to deepen Russian-Azerbaijani strategic cooperation.

The prospect of Russia’s defeat in the Ukraine war is gradually becoming more dim, and if Trump is elected president of the United States in November 2024, its probability may reach zero. Under these conditions, Armenia should be extremely careful to avoid new foreign policy blunders, which, after the loss of Artsakh in September 2023, could lead to the occupation of proper Republic of Armenia territories by Azerbaijan. The medium-term vision of Armenia’s foreign policy should not be to turn around and decouple with Russia, but to diversify its foreign policy, which implies the intensification of contacts with other partners without the collapse of relations with Moscow.

Benyamin Poghosyan is a Senior Research Fellow at the Applied Policy Research Institute of Armenia, based in Yerevan.

Also read: Armenia must avoid becoming entangled in the ‘Russia vs West, democracy vs authoritarianism’ dilemma.