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Understanding and Explaining the Heterogeneous Foreign Policies of the Three Caucasus Small States in Response to the Strategic Shocks of 2008 and 2014 amid the Fluctuation of Tensions between Russia and the West

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posted on 2023-08-10, 08:47 authored by Eduard Abrahamyan

The assumption of traditional IR literature suggests that the neighbouring small states in the international system, who are located in an immediate vicinity of a great power that intends to establish a hegemonial sphere of order-influence in its strategic peripheries, are likely to behave similarly. However, in the regional geopolitics of the Caucasus one may clearly observe the contrasting behavioural patterns of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, which turned apparent with Russia’s return to power politics in 2008, challenging the U.S.-led unipolarity and prevalent Euro-Atlantic integration trend with a clear ambition to reinvigorate its traditional sphere of regional dominance. This original puzzle laid the intellectual backbone for this qualitative case study research, raising a primary research question as to why did small states – Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, despite their initially shared goal of Euro-Atlantic integration, respond heterogeneously to Russia’s ‘return’ to the geopolitical arena with its system-shaping ambitions since 2008? The purpose of this thesis is to contribute to filling the following gaps. Notwithstanding the great deal of available literature on small states, the problem of dissimilar foreign policy choices of the neighbouring small states beyond the European system in general, and the rationales of contrasting strategies of the three Caucasus republics in particular, remained largely unaddressed. Driven by this, the current dissertation contributes to the emerging non-Western small states studies, given that the traditional small-state literature is frequently acknowledged as West-centric and Europe-oriented. The Constellation theory (CT) was selected to establish the theoretical framework of this research, which has never been applied before to investigate the geopolitics of the Caucasus. Thus, the contribution of this study to the theory lies in the application and development of the CT as an analytical toolbox that provided an original model for interpreting the asymmetrical relationships and homogeneous behavioural patterns of the three post-Soviet small states of the Caucasus in the era of contested multipolarity, thereby enriching the non-Western small state studies. Upon identifying these gaps, the current dissertation puts forth three key arguments explaining the foreign-political heterogeneity in the geopolitics of the Caucasus: First, compared to other regions (e.g., Baltics, Gulf states, Scandinavia, to the most extent Balkans, etc.) where the neighbouring small states predominantly exhibit a homogeneous behavioural stance geopolitically, the dissimilar foreign strategies of the three Caucasus republics are a direct consequence of their being not geopolitically like-minded. Specifically, the heterogeneity profoundly endured as a distinct phenomenon in the geopolitics of the Caucasus because the three small nation-states, i.e. Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia have developed radically contrasting perceptions of their shared environment, echoed in their conflicting national interests and political ideologies, which motivated them to interpret and respond to the same strategic shocks differently. Additionally, in comparison with the other regions, the multi-level power politics constitutes another feature of Caucasus geopolitics. In the salient environment of the three small states, the power politics is presented not only at the level of the competing poles but also at the level of the small states themselves, exemplified by Georgia-Russia and Armenia-Azerbaijan politico-military standoffs, which reinforces the geopolitical heterogeneity of the region. Second, the return of Russia as system-forming power for its peripheries in 2008 signified Moscow’s pursuit to advance sphere-of-influence politics with respect to the U.S.-led Euro-Atlantic community (EAC). This led to the emergence of non-Western Eurasian regional order in the Caucasus characterised by its peculiar competitive-confrontational features in the environment of the given small states, which precipitated their dissimilar positioning with respect to the rival power poles, namely Russia and the institutional West. The combination of these factors indicates the heterogeneity articulated their dissimilar reactions to the monocausal events of 2008 and 2014. Third, the geopolitical dynamics in the Caucasus have shifted not only because of the ‘return’ of Russia to the regional power politics that sparked the competitive course with the opponent pole but to the large extent due to the different foreign policy choices, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia made in response. The heterogeneous choices made by the Caucasus small states not only affected their abilities to exercise autonomy and influence but also influenced the capabilities of the divergent power poles to project negative or positive sanctions in the Caucasus. Putting simply, contrarily to the traditional IR assumptions, this research argues that the small states are not simply rule-takers since their very preferences and choices to a large extent determined the geopolitical dynamics and nature of order in the region they are located. Guided by the theory, the methodological approach of this qualitative analysis, based on the wide documentation and semi-structured individual interviews, was to attach importance to the contrasting characteristics of the asymmetrical relations (constellations) that the given small states distinctly developed with the divergent power poles. The paramount explanatory factor is that the dissimilar disposition of the investigated small states with respect to divergent poles, who significantly presented in their environment, affected the external freedom of manoeuvre of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia differently, which hence made these small states behave and position in international politics heterogeneously.



Robert Dover; Tara McCormack;

Date of award


Author affiliation

School of History, Politics & International Relations

Awarding institution

University of Leicester

Qualification level

  • Doctoral

Qualification name

  • PhD



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