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The world has changed. Time for the US to take note of the strategic importance of the South Caucasus

The US has proven itself to be a firm supporter of Ukraine in resisting Russian aggression. Despite this, however, Washington has still not taken advantage of the various opportunities now presenting themselves in Eurasia and the strategically important South Caucasus.

July 13, 2022 - Taras Kuzio - Articles and Commentary

Department of State Headquarters in Washington DC. Photo: Mark Van Scyoc / Shutterstock

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February has had ramifications around the world. One major consequence has been the denting of Russia’s image as a great power. Russia is the most sanctioned country in the world, facing more sanctions than even Iran.

Russia’s international image is in the doldrums. While Russia’s military was touted by the Kremlin as the second best in the world, it is now seen as weak, poorly commanded and reliant on Soviet era training. Its corruption is a reflection of the kleptocratic mafia state built by President Vladimir Putin over his last two decades of power.

Russia has always viewed Eurasia as its exclusive sphere of influence. However, the Kremlin’s influence has collapsed in the area. Only Belarus continues to support Russia. Self-declared President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has little choice after Moscow rescued his regime from mass protests following electoral fraud in the 2020 presidential elections.

Traditionally pro-Russian Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Armenia have distanced themselves from the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine. One example of how countries in Eurasia are standing up to Russia was evident during last month’s St. Petersburg International Economic Forum. Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev went so far as to outline his disagreement with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and expressed strong opposition to the Kremlin’s support for separatist movements in former Soviet republics.

Putin made the traditional Russian imperial claim that the entire former Soviet Union is part of “historical Russia”. He also warned that other countries could face the same fate as Ukraine if they defied Moscow. Nevertheless, Tokayev did defy Putin, possibly in the knowledge that the decrepit Russian army would be unable to fight additional wars on other fronts when it was already faring so poorly in Ukraine.

When quizzed by the head of RT Margarita Simonyan during a panel at the forum, Tokayev stated that Kazakhstan does not diplomatically recognise the so-called DNR (Donetsk People’s Republic) and LNR (Luhansk People’s Republic), two Russian proxy entities illegally created eight years ago in Ukraine’s Donbas region. Tokayev argued that recognising such entities would triple the number of countries in the world today and only lead to chaos. This is why Kazakhstan also does not recognise Taiwan, Kosovo, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Tokayev said that this “principle will be applied to quasi-state entities, which, in our opinion, Luhansk and Donetsk are”. This presumably explains why Kazakhstan has also never diplomatically recognised Crimea, Transniestria, South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Karabakh.

Since 2014, Armenia, a member of the Russian-led CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organisation) and EAEU (Eurasian Economic Union), has always voted with Russia at the UN in opposing resolutions condemning Crimea’s annexation. Yerevan wrongly believes that the Crimea situation is analogous to Karabakh. The Armenian government ignores the fact that territories within states do not have the right to “self-determination” in international law. The invasion of Ukraine proved too much for Armenia and Yerevan has abstained in votes at the UN denouncing Russia’s military campaign.

New opportunities

Russia’s rapid decline as a great power is taking place at the same time as the revival of the West and reinvigoration of NATO and the EU. This affords Washington an opportunity to rebuild its damaged strategic partnership with Turkey, which has the second largest army in NATO, and forge a new strategic alliance with Azerbaijan. Improved US-Turkish relations would help ease the tension surrounding offering NATO membership to Finland and Sweden, which Turkey initially opposed but then agreed to. The US would be following the EU, which has led the way in building relations with the South Caucasus and brokering talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan regarding a future peace treaty.

The US should encourage and facilitate Turkish-Armenian reconciliation as it would be in the interests of all three countries. This would subsequently expand western influence in the South Caucasus. Towards this end, Washington should stand up to the Kremlin and pro-Russian nationalist lobby in Armenia, which is backed by the large Armenian diasporas in the US and France. Russia continues to use old “divide and rule” imperial policies to maintain conflicts and tensions in the South Caucasus, preferring poor inter-state relations and frozen conflicts to reconciliation and peacemaking.

Azerbaijan always resisted joining Russian-led structures in Eurasia, such as the CSTO and EAEU. Instead, it has preferred to maintain a strong presence in the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). India is a key member of NAM and a key target for the US in its campaign to strengthen the western alliance against Russia’s revanchism. Despite India being the world’s largest democracy, it has resisted joining the West in condemning Russia’s invasion, let alone imposing sanctions. A new US strategic partnership with Azerbaijan would provide Washington with fresh opportunities to spread its influence within NAM and subsequently among countries such as India.

Besides its high-profile membership in NAM, Azerbaijan would bring two further advantages for Washington if it were to upgrade its strategic relationship with Baku.

The first is Azerbaijan has a long-standing economic and security partnership with Israel that goes back as far as the late 1990s. Israel is a major purchaser of Azerbaijani oil. Meanwhile, Azerbaijan has long been a major purchaser of Israeli military equipment, especially different types of drones and air defence systems. For example, the Israeli Iron Dome system purchased by Baku shot down an Iskander missile fired from Armenia into a civilian area of the country during the Second Karabakh War in 2020.

Israel and Azerbaijan – much like the US – view Iran as a security threat and proponent of chaos, political instability and regime change throughout the Greater Middle East. Iranian terrorist attacks in Azerbaijan against Azeri and Israeli targets have been thwarted on numerous occasions. Iran held military exercises on its border with Azerbaijan last year after briefly occupying Azerbaijani territory during the Second Karabakh War. 

The second is Azerbaijan’s long border with Iran and the large size of the Azerbaijani national minority in the country. This makes it a geographically important country that lies at the crossroads of the South Caucasus. Better relations could only benefit US geostrategic policies in the region. The Azerbaijani minority in Iran supported Baku in the Second Karabakh War. Reports have even surfaced of anti-government sentiment and instability among the large number of Azerbaijanis living in Iran.

A natural partnership

Azerbaijan does not come empty handed to the table. Baku has heavily invested in modern military equipment and this was evident in the first war in history won with the assistance of (Turkish and Israeli) drones. Azerbaijan’s victory in the Second Karabakh War was effectively the result of NATO training and western equipment defeating an Armenian military that had continued to rely on outdated Soviet equipment and Russian training. The victory showed Azerbaijan to be the most powerful military power in the South Caucasus.

Another important factor is Azerbaijan’s role as an energy superpower. Oil and gas supplies via Turkey to the Balkans and Italy play a strategic role in reducing Europe’s dependency on Russian gas. This has become imperative since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as EU member states desperately seek ways to reduce their dependency on Russian energy supplies.

Iran is a well-established ally of Russia in Syria, the South Caucasus and elsewhere. Iran has long established ties with Armenia, a country Tehran has used to bypass international sanctions. Improved and reinvigorated ties between Washington on the one hand, and Turkey and Azerbaijan on the other, would establish a strategic axis stretching from Istanbul to Baku. This would act as a deterrent to Iranian meddling in the Greater Middle East. This in turn, would improve the security of Israel, a key US ally.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has brought many security challenges. However, it has also created opportunities for Washington to work with the EU in developing strategic partnerships with countries in Eurasia that no longer see themselves as part of Russia’s sphere of influence. The EU has led the way, brokering peace talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan and offering candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova.

The US is working closely with Ukraine to counter Russia’s military aggression but remains a bystander in the South Caucasus. With Russian influence in Eurasia in decline, now is the time for the US to work with the EU to deter Russia and Iran and bring peace and development to this critically important crossroads.

Taras Kuzio is a professor of political science at the National University of Kyiv Mohyla Academy and author of the recently published Russian Nationalism and the Russian-Ukrainian War.

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