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Five ways President Biden should re-engage US foreign policy in the South Caucasus

Incoming US President Joe Biden should re-engage US foreign policy in the South Caucasus in order to function as a balanced foreign policy actor between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

January 14, 2021 - Taras Kuzio - Articles and Commentary

US President-elect Joe Biden speaking in Des Moines, Iowa in August 2019. Photo: Gage Skidmore flickr.com

Although the US is a co-chair, along with France and Russia, of the Minsk Group of the OSCE, created in 1995 to mediate a peace agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, both the Trump and Obama Administrations ignored the South Caucasus. When Washington issued statements, they played to the Armenian lobby and always took the side of Armenia.

President Biden should change US policy towards the South Caucasus in five ways.

Firstly, the US needs to re-engage with the South Caucasus by ensuring the Minsk Group is not side-lined by Russia in the aftermath of Azerbaijan’s military victory and the introduction of the Russian “peacekeeping” force. Going back to the 1990s, Russian “peacekeepers” have never acted as peaceful arbiters, and instead have supported separatist forces in frozen conflicts in Moldova’s Trans-Dniester region and Georgia’s South Ossetian and Abkhazian provinces.

After its five-year term ends, the US should support the replacement of Russian “peacekeepers” with a genuine UN peacekeeping force.

The incoming Biden Administration should permanently amend the Freedom Support Act so that Section 907 can no longer be used to deny US aid to Azerbaijan, the only country in Eurasia which was penalised in such a manner. Azerbaijan always believed this policy was patently unfair because it sent a signal that Armenia was being rewarded for illegally occupying one-fifth of Azeri territory.

US support for Armenia also contradicts the US overall strategic goal to support the independence of countries in Eurasia who are facing various forms of Russian pressure. While Azerbaijan has always been pro-Western, pro-Russian Armenia has been a member of all Russian-led economic, political and military integration projects in Eurasia. In 2013, Armenia withdrew from the EU’s Eastern Partnership and joined Russian President Vladimir Putin’s pet project, the Eurasian Economic Union.

Former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright recognised that Section 907 damaged US national interests “by undermining the administration’s neutrality in promoting a settlement in Nagorno-Karabakh.” Section 907 also prevented the US from having the ability to lobby the Azerbaijani authorities to pursue reforms and reduced “efforts to advance an East-West energy transportation corridor.”

In October 2001, the United States Senate amended the Freedom Support Act to permit presidents to waive Section 907. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama provided assistance to Azerbaijan, which proved itself to be an important security ally of US and NATO military operations in Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan.

President Biden should make this waiver permanent and integrate Azerbaijan within the Section 333 Authority to Build Capacity. The US could provide assistance to Azerbaijani security forces in counterterrorism, cooperate in military intelligence, counter trans-national criminal activities and strengthen border security.

Secondly, the Biden Administration should abandon being beholden to Armenian lobbyists in Washington and Paris who have persuaded the US and France to pursue foreign policies over the last three decades in favour of Armenia. Aligning US foreign policy to Christian over Islamic countries has been disastrous for the United States’ image in the Middle East, where anti-Americanism is fanned by terrorist groups and pro-Russian regimes, such as Syria and Iran.

Thirdly, the Biden Administration needs to repair Washington’s relations with Turkey as a US strategic ally in the region in the fight against international terrorism, as well as balancing power against Russia in the South Caucasus and Ukraine. The US and Turkey both support the UN-recognised Government of National Accord in Tripoli, Libya, while Russia backs General Khalifa Haftar who is seeking to overthrow it.

The US and Turkey share the same security interests with pro-Western Azerbaijan and Georgia. They oppose Russian policies of destabilisation and support for separatism in Eurasia. Turkey is cooperating with Azerbaijan and Ukraine in the production of high technology military equipment, such as drones, which proved to be highly effective in ensuring Azerbaijan’s military victory over Armenia.

The Biden Administration should build on productive Azerbaijani-Israeli cooperation in counterterrorism. Azerbaijan is a launching pad for Israeli operations against terrorists and other targets in Iran, while Azerbaijan and Turkey cooperate in counterterrorism against ISIS forces operating in Iraq and Syria who seek to use the South Caucasus as a rear base.

Fourthly, US foreign policy should re-energise the GUAM group, which unites pro-Western Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova, launched in 1997 and formalised in 2001. With the support of the US and Turkey, GUAM could be rebuilt into a pro-Western regional group of stability, thereby undermining Russia’s demand for Eurasia to be recognised as its exclusive sphere of influence.  

With the support of Turkey, GUAM could provide one of the means for President Biden to return US leadership to strategically important regions such as the South Caucasus. Towards this end, GUAM would become an important vehicle to promote transatlantic integration, cooperation with NATO’s Partnership for Peace Program and provide support to US and US-led military coalitions and interventions in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

All four members of GUAM have experienced Russian-backed frozen conflicts on their territories stretching back to the early 1990s, and in the Ukrainian case, since the 2014 crisis. Turkey also suffers from pro-Russian-backed separatism in the form of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party), which is recognised by the US and EU as a terrorist organisation. Re-energising GUAM would assist the US in promoting cooperation in the search for peace in international organisations such as the UN and OSCE.

Fifthly, the US should support Azerbaijan’s energy initiatives to bring oil and gas through Georgia and Turkey into Europe. US and Azerbaijani energy exports to Europe could become a serious competitor to Russian supplies, thereby reducing Moscow’s influence over EU and NATO members. Russia’s exportation of oil and gas is closely tied to Russia’s use of corruption to buy support on the far right and extreme left in Europe. In cooperating with Azerbaijan on energy, the US would be assisting Ukraine and Georgia’s energy independence from Russia.

The incoming Biden Administration should revitalise US leadership in the South Caucasus and Eurasia by re-affirming the importance of the Minsk Group, exchanging its traditional pro-Armenian bias for a more balanced position on Nagorno-Karabakh and rebuilding relations with Turkey by bringing it into a close regional alliance with the GUAM regional group. These five actions would provide the Biden Administration with the means to deny Russia its claim to an exclusive sphere of influence over Eurasia and reduce its influence over European affairs through energy and corruption.

Taras Kuzio is a Professor of Political Science at the National University of Kyiv Mohyla Academy in Kyiv, Ukraine. His most recent book (November 2020) is Crisis in Russian Studies? Imperialism, Racism and War.

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