The South Caucasus: Obama’s Russia ‘Reset’ And Putin’s Doctrine
by Mahir Khalifazadeh, Ph.D,*
The article reviews the key priorities of President Obama’s ‘reset’ policy with Russia. The author analyzes the impact of the ‘reset’ policy on the South Caucasus. The region’s strategic importance is emphasized for U.S. policy towards the Great Middle East and the post-Soviet space. The author discusses the failure of the “Russia reset” policy in improving America’s interests particularly in the South Caucasus. The priorities of Putin’s doctrine and the implications of the Crimean crises for the South Caucasus are evaluated as well. The author urges for new U.S. initiatives to enforce peace, international borders and America’s strategic interests in the South Caucasus and Central Asia.
Since the collapse of the USSR, the South Caucasus has become an arena for the powerful struggle between the West and Russia. The South Caucasus is of great importance for its geostrategic location and its access to Caspian’s energy resources. Geographically, the region is a land bridge between the Black and Caspian Seas. Its proximity to the Middle East increases the South Caucasus’ importance for both the U.S. and Israelis Middle East policies. The South Caucasus is also a sensitive region of the former Soviet Union space. The large energy resources of the Caspian increase the South Caucasus’ role for Europe’s and Israel’s energy security.
IMMIDIATE POST-SOVIET PERIOD
It is well-known that the South Caucasus always was at the focus of U.S. foreign policy toward the USSR. However, since the Soviet Union’s disintegration, the first high-level contacts with leaders of all three South Caucasus states took place when the Secretary of State, James Bakker III, embarked on a historical trip to Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Central Asia on February 12, 1992 and to Georgia on May 26, 1992. The trip occurred shortly after the dissolution of the USSR in December of 1991. The visit indicated that the South Caucasus states were of strategic importance for America’s interests in the post-Soviet space. It also generated a clear message that the U.S. has strong intentions to launch active diplomacy towards all three newly emerged countries of the South Caucasus without discrimination. So, despite the strong opposition of the Armenian-American diaspora, the United States opened its Embassy in Baku, Azerbaijan without delay in March 1992.
Immediately after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the newly emerged states of the South Caucasus held unbalanced influence on Capitol Hill. Unlike Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia at the time did not have influential diasporas and bold political experiences to deal with the U.S. Congress and administration. However, thanks to the powerful diaspora, Armenia held more advanced positions in the United States. So Armenia widely explored diaspora’s network to shift America’s policy to more pro-Armenian stance in the South Caucasus.
In fact, Congress has excluded Azerbaijan from receiving U.S. governmental assistance under Section 907 of the 1992 Freedom Support Act (FSA). Despite strong opposition from the George H.W. Bush administration, the language of Section 907 of the FSA prohibited U.S. government-to-government assistance to Azerbaijan. Capitalizing temporary advantages, the Armenian-American diaspora tried to put Armenia at the center of America’s regional policy, while pushing Armenia as a key promoter of American interests in the South Caucasus. Strong efforts have also been launched to gain U.S. support for Armenia’s position in its conflict with Azerbaijan over Azerbaijan’s Nagorno-Karabakh. However, as further political events have shown, the diaspora has miscalculated or overestimated Armenia’s power in promoting U.S. interests in the region. Subsequently, both the diaspora’s and Armenia’s goals began to contradict America’s strategic interests in the South Caucasus and in the Caspian Basin.
AZERBAIJAN’S “CONTRACT OF THE CENTURY” AND AMERICA’S REGIONAL ENGAGEMENT
On September 20, 1994, Azerbaijan signed a production-sharing contract, or “Contract of the Century”, with a consortium of international oil companies (British and American oil giants) to explore oil in Azerbaijan’s sector of the Caspian Sea. The discovery of the Azeri, Chirag, Guneshli oil fields in the Azerbaijan sector of the Caspian has significantly energized U.S. policy and diplomacy to transform the region into an important source of non-Middle Eastern energy. Huge Azeri oil and gas reserves have raised an issue of energy transportation routes to bypass Russia. In this light, some experts have emphasized the three main drivers of U.S. foreign policy at that time: the role of energy production to strengthen the sovereignty of the South Caucasus nations; U.S. corporate interests; and the role of Caspian energy resources for global energy security.
There is no doubt that the decision of the late Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliyev to bring American and British oil giants into the South Caucasus/Caspian affairs was a successful step in his strategy to find a delicate balance in enforcing Azerbaijan’s security and promoting U.S. interests. He and President Shevardnadze of Georgia also attempted to bring Azerbaijan and Georgia into focus in the U.S. policy and while equilibrating Russia’s influence.
Since the Soviet’s disintegration, Azerbaijan has tried to strengthen its national independence and security while liberating lands occupied by Armenia. Azerbaijan needed to contain strong pressure from both Iran and Russia, which provided large-scale assistance to Azerbaijan’s regional rival – Armenia. Trying to stabilize and strengthen Azerbaijan’s independence, the late Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliyev oriented the country’s foreign policy towards the West and Israel. Thus the “Contract of the Century” was President Heydar Aliyev’s strategic step to anchor Azerbaijan to the West.
Undoubtedly, the Contract has changed the region’s political landscape. The Contract confirmed Azerbaijan’s strategic characteristics in promoting U.S. interests in the region. The Contract also became a long-term tool to project U.S. power deep into Central Asia. In this way, the Contract opened the “gates” for the West’s direct engagement into the South Caucasus and Caspian basin’s affairs. As one can emphasize, the Contract was a message to Russia: the West comes back. Given that the British withdrawal from Baku in August 1919, put an end to the West’s presence in the South Caucasus, the West returned once more as a strong and influential actor.
Indeed, the United States, the European Union (EU), as well as Turkey and Israel started to play increasing roles in the South Caucasus’ affairs, which traditionally have been orchestrated by Iran and Russia. The Clinton administration launched, and the Bush administration expanded upon, a package of long-term programs (Partnership for Pease, Silk Road Strategy Act; and later, the Caspian Watch and the EU’s Eastern Partnership), oriented to strengthen the West’s presence, while minimizing both Iranian and Russian influences.
After the tragic events of September 11, the United States significantly expanded its political, military, and security cooperation with the South Caucasus countries, which were enlisted by the United States in its war against terror. All three countries agreed to allow passage through their airspace. On December 16, 2001, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld visited all three capitals of the South Caucasus countries to consolidate U.S. military ties to a vital region. In Baku, Rumsfeld also announced that “the United States Congress appears within days of waiving sanctions imposed in 1992 under the Freedom Support Act”.
By early 2002, the U.S. started a train-and-equip program for the Georgian military. There were also some indications that the U.S. Department of Defense had intention to establish a military presence in Azerbaijan. In December 2003, in a meeting with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, Donald Rumsfeld expressed his interest in establishing the U.S. air base on the Apsheron peninsula ; however, Azerbaijan denied this option, so as not to anger Iran and Russia.
Within a couple of years, Azerbaijan and Georgia started to rank amongst NATO’s most reliable and committed partners involved in providing support for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan. The United States has also realized that Azerbaijan and Georgia, unlike Armenia, are crucial countries that can promote America’s interests in the region and beyond. In this context, the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline (BTC), a main export pipeline to pump the Caspian oil to world markets via Georgia, was the next strategic step in involving Azerbaijan and Georgia in strengthening America’s influence. The BTC also became a key element for Israel’s energy security. Finally, the BTC enforced the “Contract of the Century” strategy: to engage the West, while balancing Russia’s influence.
Meanwhile,huge and long-term international projects aimed at pumping and transporting Caspian energy while bypassing Russia have shifted America’s policy towards the region. The South Caucasus became an increasingly important component of U.S. foreign policy. Azerbaijan and Georgia both aligned themselves with the United States and sought integration into Euro-Atlantic structures, while Armenia deepened its ties with Moscow. So, the United States began focusing on Azerbaijan and Georgia in its regional policy and increased its direct assistance to Baku and Tbilisi . Finally, the large energy projects pushed Washington to gain strategic momentum in the Caspian basin, which greatly angered Moscow.
Since the BTC started to operate in 2005, Russia has realized that the United States has been rapidly increasing its operational abilities to limit Russia’s influence. Moscow understood that Washington has become a powerful actor that can seriously jeopardize Moscow’s interests in this sensitive part of the world.
RUSSIA’S RESPONSE: THE WAR WITH GEORGIA
Undoubtedly, Azerbaijan’s “Contract of the Century” accelerated American economic and political penetration. Washington became a key player, which was directly engaged in tight and complex affairs in the South Caucasus and Caspian basin. The United States, as one can emphasize, has gained considerable momentum in expanding its influence in the region and beyond. This tendency created a serious concern in Moscow and Tehran because it puts Russia’s and Iran’s historical dominance under inevitable erosion.
Indeed, Russia painfully reacted to America’s rapid “advance” into the region, which Moscow’s decision- makers traditionally considered as a part of Russia’s backyard. Some scholars noted: “…to counter this development, one of Russia’s tactics is to slow down Western advances… ”. In this context, the Russo-Georgian war of 2008 possibly originated from these tactics. Sources confirmed that the plan for Georgia has been prepared by Russia’s Armed Forces General Staff, even at the end of 2006 – to the beginning of 2007; this was quite soon after the BTC started to operate in 2005.Moscow’s goals were clear: stop Russia’s retreat, reverse strategic momentum, and ensure Russia’s interests were protected.
Unfortunately, former Georgian President Saakashvili’s miscalculations gave Russia the chance to strengthen Moscow’s security posture in the region. Moreover, the war with Georgia has provided a brilliant opportunity for Russia to shift the region’s balance of power and regain strategic momentum to enforce Moscow’s influence in its immediate neighborhood. Russia has demonstrated to global and regional powers that the South Caucasus (like the entire CIS) is Russia’s near abroad and Moscow has exclusive rights to use the force and manage the situation in accordance with its strategic interests.
As a result, the Georgian and Ukrainian movement towards NATO membership has been abandoned from the agenda. In addition, two parts of Georgia have been recognized by Russia as independent states. Some scholars indicated: “Western actors have in practice been forced to recognize Russia’s military dominance in the region and act only in areas approved by Russia and within the limits set by Russia”.
One might interpret that the Georgia war was a message to the West: Russia recovers with its old imperial ambitions, and the Russian military once again serves as a working tool in Moscow’s strategic calculations. “As the Russia-Georgia conflict demonstrates, military force has become a major factor in Russian foreign policy”. Moreover, Russia’s rapid advance deep into Georgia also confirms that Russia can reach both capitals, Baku and Tbilisi (key U.S. partners) easily, and that there is no power that can stop Russia’s forces. So, the war has demonstrated that the Western companies’ oil and pipeline infrastructures in the Caspian could be under threat, and that the West has no effective tools to stop Russia’s military.
As further political development has indicated, the Georgia war became a turning point in Russia’s foreign and security policy toward the former Soviet republics. There are many indications that the Kremlin has adopted a new strategy: to expand Russia’s military presence in the near abroad, and so as to increase Moscow’s power to keep former Soviet republics in Russia’s orbit. Moscow has launched a double-track policy: to intensify a military buildup in Russia’s immediate neighborhood, and to pressure neighboring countries to join to the Moscow-dominated Eurasian Union, which must start operating in 2015. In parallel, Russia pushed the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a Russia-dominated post-Soviet security block.
In fact, in 2009, soon after the Georgian war, Russia pressured Kyrgyzstan to close its U.S. military air base Manas. A year later, Russia extended its lease for the military base in Armenia to 2044 and offered large amounts of military hardware to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the two Central Asian countries that also host Russian military bases. Earlier, Russia signed a deal with Kyrgyzstan to allow Moscow to keep a military base in the country until 2032. Russia also signed $4 billion military deal with Azerbaijan in 2010 and it negotiated plans to open military air base in Belarus in 2015. Russia increased its military personnel up to 5000 strong, and added combat helicopters to the fighter unit in Armenia.
Undoubtedly, the Russo- Georgian war of 2008 was a milestone development in the post-Soviet space. Russia enforced its dominance in the near abroad and increased its efforts to launch the Moscow-dominated Eurasian Union. However, the United States was shocked and pushed to adopt a new strategy.
AMERICA’S RESPONSE: ‘RESET’ WITH RUSSIA
When President Obama took office in 2009, he immediately announced a new foreign policy strategy: to reset relations with Russia. The relations between the United States and post-Soviet Russia were so bad at that time that some observers characterized them as a new Cold War. However, attempts to improve relations with Russia are not unique to the Obama administration. As Paul J.Sanders, Executive Director of the Nixon Center, believes, “… efforts made by previous two administrations included resets that ultimately failed to live up to expectations”. But Dr.James M.Goldgeier of the Hoover Institution emphasizes that the origin of America’s Russia ‘reset’ policy has a root that runs deeps to the Clinton-Yeltsin period.
Meanwhile, in 2009, the ‘reset’ policy was originated by serious disagreements between Washington and Moscow on the Europe-based missile-defense system, Iran’s nuclear program, post-Soviet politics, NATO’s eastward expansion, the Georgia war of 2008, and other issues. In this context the Russo- Georgian war of 2008 was a crucial factor in the South Caucasus’ ‘frontline’ of opposition between the United States and Russia, which pushed the Obama’s administration to reset its relations with Russia. Political analysts even emphasized that the war in Georgia was a proxy American- Russian war, for the Georgian forces were supplied and trained by Washington.
It is necessary to note that the Obama administration considered this ‘reset’ as an essential step in improving relations and overcoming the sense of distrust. The goal was to replace conflicts with cooperation, or “selective cooperation”, on issues that were at the top of the United States’ priorities. Some commentators, such as Russia specialists Thomas E. Graham of Kissinger Associates and Peter Baker of theNew York Times, believed that Obama’s reset was a “new partnership”.
In fact, both President Obama and Russian President Medvedev considered their personal friendship as evidence for the reset’s success. At the 2010 APEC summit in Japan’s Yokohama, President Obama met with Russian President Medvedev in an informal meeting to discuss a wide range of bilateral and global issues. President Obama made statements such as, “my friend Dmitri” and “an excellent partner,” where as President Medvedev replied with “very pleasant for me” and “we understand each other very well”. So within the ‘reset’ policy, as scholars believe, the United States was able to gain Moscow’s cooperation on some U.S. priorities like: the war in Afghanistan, Iran’s nuclear-weapons aspirations, New START and nuclear proliferation.
DOUBTS ABOUT OBAMA’S ‘RESET’ WITH RUSIA
At the same time, political analysts from both sides of the Atlantic expressed serious doubts about President Obama’s success in improving Russia- United States relations. Some of them accused President Obama’s reset as being a “capitulation” and stated it was a “dangerous bargain” they also regarded it as a policy of “seeing no evil”. They directly criticized the Obama administration for its wrong approach and for the possible “grand bargain” between the United States and Russia as part of the administration’s reset efforts with Russia.
David J.Kramer, former deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs in the George W.Bush administration, stated in the Washington Post: “… the administration would pursue a “Russia first” policy at the expense of Russia’s neighbors. The problem, it appears, is actually worse: the administration seems to have moved toward a “Russia only” approach, neglecting and even abandoning other countries in the region”.
Dr. Ariel Cohen of the Washington, D.C. based Heritage Foundation believed that a “Russia first” approach seriously damaged U.S. interests. He strongly argued that Obama’s ‘reset’ policy has failed to improve bilateral relations and that Obama conceded too much to Russia at the expense of American interests. He stated: “… the Kremlin is exploiting Obama’s “see no evil” approach in Russia’s expansion into former Soviet space and cooperation with anti-Western regimes. The Obama administration’s Russia policy will inevitable produce a massive loss of American influence in Eurasia and jeopardize the security of the U.S. and its friends and allies east of the Order”.
PUTIN’S DOCTRINE PRACTICE IN THE REGION
There is a well-known statement from President Putin of Russia arguing that the breakup of the USSR was “the biggest geopolitical catastrophe of the century”. Since his election in 2000, President Putin tried to recover Russia’s political and geostrategic assets that were lost by the USSR in 1991. President Putin has sought to renew Russia’s status and influence in both regional and global politics, while making the Russian Federation a great power again. He has been increasing Russia’s military budget and had tried to frustrate and foil U.S. initiatives which, as he believes, can seriously damage Russian interests. He has also been expanding Russia’s relations with countries, that share anti-American politics, and he tries to exploit diplomatic friction between the U.S. and its allies. President Putin’s attempt to restore Russia’s sphere of influence and to regain its superpower status, as some analysts argue, is Russia’s new foreign policy concept, otherwise known as the Putin Doctrine.
The first component of Putin’s foreign policy consensus, as Leon Aron stated in Foreign Affairs, is to maintain Russia as a nuclear superpower. The second pillar is to export nuclear technologies, so, as to enhance Russia’s position as a global power. The third is to recover Russia’s close relations with its former Soviet clients in the Middle East. Next is to ensure Russia’s regional hegemony in near abroad and “… to strive for the political, economic, military, and cultural reintegration of the former Soviet bloc under Russian leadership”. Regarding Russia’s efforts to strengthen Kremlin’s position in the near abroad, Leon Aron also emphasized the following: “Under the Putin Doctrine, the pursuit of regional hegemony has acquired a new dimension: an attempt at the ‘Finlandization’ of the post-Soviet states, harkening back to the Soviet Union’s control over Finland’s foreign policy during the Cold War. In such an arrangement, Moscow would allow its neighbors to choose their own domestic political and economic systems but maintain final say over their external orientation. Accordingly, Moscow has taken an especially hard line against former Soviet republics that have sought to reorient their foreign policy”.
Meanwhile, the Russian opposition leader and former State Duma First Deputy Vladimir A.Ryzhkov believes that “the doctrine includes Russia’s renunciation of attributing itself to the European and Euro-Atlantic civilization; selective recognition of the norms of international law; selective cooperation with international organizations; and the right to limit sovereignty of the post-soviet states, as well as to ignore national sovereignty and territorial integrity of weaker states”.
In fact, under direct pressure from Moscow, Ukraine’s President Yanukovych did not sign a political association and free trade pact with the European Union, which was scheduled to take place at the Eastern Partnership Summit in November 28-29, 2013 in Vilnius, Lithuania.Armenia was forced to abandon the process of signing the free trade agreement with the European Union as well. Russia has also pressured Armenia to join the Russia-led Customs Union of Belarus, Russia, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, which is set to transform into the Eurasian Union by 2015.
Meanwhile, Russia has been strengthening the Collective Security Treaty Organization of Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, and it has been increasing its military presence in these countries, except in Kazakhstan. One can emphasize that the unchallenged Russian military’s superiority in Russia’s near abroad is a crucial element of the Putin doctrine, as it can keep former Soviet republics under Moscow’s control, while stopping NATO’s eastward expansion. Russia uses its military installations as a tool to force the West to avoid deploying US/NATO troops or troops of any NATO member country into Russia’s immediate neighbourhood.
In this way, Russia’s military base in Armenia transforms this country into the so-called Russian “fortress” to ensure Russia’s regional dominance and to prevent NATO’s deployment in the South Caucasus, which holds geostrategic importance for Israel, as a part of the Greater Middle East, as well as for the United States and Europe. The base, thanks to newly deployed Fulcrum fighter jets and attack helicopters, has a full set of strategic characteristics that render it a key military installation in the region to project Russia’s military power to the Persian Gulf and deep into the Middle East.
One can emphasize that Russia’s military base in Gyumri (Armenia) and its naval base in Tartus (Syria) are key elements in Putin’s plans to expand Russia’s influence in the Middle East and undermine America’s dominance in the region as well as to shake America’s global role, as Soviets did. In this context, Russia is not interested in the Turkish-Armenian rapprochement. If this occurs, there is no doubt it will erode any grounds to keep the base in Armenia.
Moreover, in light of Russia’s resent invasion to Crimea (Ukraine), the Russian military base in Armenia has become a real threat for Azerbaijan’s and Georgia’s independence. In 2008, as the Russo- Georgia war started, Georgian President Saakashvili was seriously concerned about the possible invasion of Russian troops from Russia’s military base in Armenia. Russia demands a corridor for its military base in Armenia through Georgia. Russia has also pushed Tbilisi to accept new realities and to recognize South Ossetia’s and Abkhazia’s independence as a precondition for which to re-establish the diplomatic ties that were broken after the 2008 war. So, Russia tries to kill Georgia’s NATO and EU ambitions.
In Azerbaijan, Russia has been keeping the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict ‘frozen’ and holds the key to unfreeze the conflict at any moment. Moscow has been pressuring Baku to formally desist from using force to return Nagorno-Karabakh under its control.Russia tries to prolong the conflict and maintains the Azeri- Armenian hostility as an effective tool through which to manipulate both Baku and Yerevan to secure Russia’s interests and dominance in the South Caucasus. Recently, Russia has introduced semi-official speculations related Abkhazia’s and South Ossetia’s, as well as Nagorno-Karabakh’s membership in the Moscow-dominated Eurasian Union. This approach is designed to increase the pressure on Georgia and Azerbaijan. So, some Russian political analysts do not exclude further cases of territorial “revisions” of both pro-Western Georgia and Azerbaijan if they escape from Russia’s orbit.
In addition, Russia increases efforts to consolidate its influence in the Caspian basin. On April, 22, 2014, during a meeting of the foreign ministers of the Caspian Sea’s littoral states – Iran, Russia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and Turkmenistan – in Moscow, Russia (together with Iran) has cautioned against the military presence of any non-littoral states in the Caspian Sea.
CRIMEA CRISIS: THE END OF ‘RESET’? IMPLICATION FOR THE SOUTH CAUCASUS
Despitesound criticism on the Obama administration’s Russia ‘reset’ policy, the key goal of the ‘reset’ – to replace conflicts with cooperation – was a correct and strategic goal to try to re-normalize relations with post-Soviet Russia. Within the ‘reset’ policy, the United States has gained Russia’s support on some of the key priorities of America’s foreign policy, such as on Iran and Afghanistan. However, the United States canceled the planned deployment of missile interceptors and radars in Poland and the Czech Republic. The United States postponed offering the NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP) to Georgia and Ukraine. Later, Washington started to send signals to Tbilisi to improve its relations with Moscow, which were seriously damaged after the Russo- Georgia war of 2008.
Meanwhile, there are some indications that the Russian political elite interpreted President Obama’s ‘reset’ policy as a sign of American weakness. The decade-long American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have fully exhausted the U.S. military machine and pushed the Pentagon to abandon its two-war doctrine requesting America’s military to fight two simultaneous conventional wars. The Pentagon’s move to reject the concept of winning two wars has generated serious speculation that America’s global power is in decline. Thus, the significant shift in America’s foreign policy, presented by Obama’s ‘reset’ initiative, as well the fact that the new U.S. military doctrine focused on China not on Russia, sent a wrong message to Moscow pushing the Kremlin to energize its newly adopted foreign policy concept, the Putin doctrine. In addition, President Obama’s policyof non-intervention in Syria as well as Pentagon plans to shrink U.S. Army to pre-World War II level, probably, reassured Moscow that the United States is not interested in serving as a global arbiter. “The Russian elite interpreted the reset as weakness on the part of the Obama administration and as an invitation to be more assertive in the post-Soviet space and beyond.”. In this context, as one might interpret, the Crimean crisis is the Kremlin’s powerful message to the world powers: Russia has strong intention to restore its non-Red Empire and retake its superpower status. And Russia’s Crimean ‘anschluss’ provides an example of the Putin doctrine in practice, which is a clear sign of the threat to the post-Soviet states.
In fact, on February 11, 2014, Russia started a large-scale military exercise in Armenia; moreover, beginning March 15, 2014 a group of Russia’s Caspian Flotilla ships, including landing boats have launched two week long exercises in the Caspian Sea. In February 2014, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, Vice-Chairman of the Russian State Duma and leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), called for Russia to annex five entire countries – Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Kyrgyzstan – as Russia’s “Central Asian Federal Region”. He also called to occupy Georgia and used offensive and humiliating words and phrases to refer toAzerbaijan and Ukraine.
Sergey Fedunyak, an expert at Kennan Institute, believes that “there is an increasing risk of the use of force by Russia against its neighboring countries, particularly, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus. In the first three cases, it may develop into hostilities of different intensity ranging from classical war with armed forces to “hybrid wars” with a high autonomy of soldiers and subversive small units. Georgia has already suffered from, and Ukraine has begun to experience, Russia’s new approaches to war. In the cases of Kazakhstan and Belarus, there may be a “mild” annexation of a part of a territory or complete absorption that may be facilitated with populations’ psychological and military unpreparedness to resist Russian occupation”.
As one can emphasize, Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula (Ukraine) is a failure of President Obama’s Russia ‘reset’ policy. The failure of the ‘reset’ policy generates long-term implications for U.S. foreign and security policy. Dr.Condoleezza Rice, former U.S. secretary of state, emphasizes: “Most important, the United States must restore its standing in the international community, which has been eroded by too many extended hands of friendship to our adversaries, sometimes at the expense of our friends”.
Indeed, in the South Caucasus, the United States and NATO have to reassure their full support for independence, as well as for the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan and Georgia. Unlike Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia are America’s allies, implementing pro-Western foreign policy that anger Moscow. There is no doubt that Russia will consistently follow the policy to undermine the West’s influence and to pressure America’s friends in the region.
Since President Putin’s annexation of Crimea, no one can exclude the idea that Moscow may select Azerbaijan and/or Georgia as its next targets for Russia’s plan to protect Russians and Russian-speakers. The Russians will continue its efforts to incorporate both Azerbaijan and Georgia into the so-called “Russian world”. If Russia regains Azerbaijan and/or Georgia, it will re-establish Russia’s full control over the Caspian energy reserves and energy transportation routes jeopardizing America’s interests and multi-billion dollar oil investments. Also, it will put an end to the West’s new strategic plans to expand the Southern Corridor to bring Caspian gas to Europe and so to decrease Europe’s dependence from Russia’s gas.
Meanwhile, European leaders recently agreed to step up their moves to cut energy dependency, notably on Russia, after events in Ukraine.British Foreign Secretary William Hague expressed an idea to increase gas exports to Europe and to support projects such as the Southern Corridor pipeline in Baku, Azerbaijan, which will bring Caspian natural gas to Europe, bypassing Russia.
In this context, the involvement of Turkmenistan into the Southern Corridor is strongly essential for the strategy to try to reduce Europe’s dependence from Russia’s gas. The project of a Trans-Caspian Pipeline (TCP) between Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan via the Caspian Sea needs to be on the table again to bring Turkmenistan’s gas to the European Union via the Trans-Anatolian Pipeline (TANAP) and Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) projects.Piping Turkmen gas to Europe should be the next logic step in the development of the Southern Corridor. In this light, the first Trilateral Meeting of the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of Turkey, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan in Baku, in 26 May 2014, is an important step in this direction. “The meeting is expected to address the opportunities for developing cooperation at bilateral and regional levels in matters of common interest to all three countries, especially in the fields of energy and transportation and to enable an exchange of views on international and regional developments”. Earlier, Ankara emphasized the importance of TANAP for the EU’s energy security following Russia’s military intervention in Crimea.
However, there is one problem: the West does not have an effective political or military tool to balance Russia’s military in Armenia. Since the Crimea crisis, the unbalanced and overwhelming Russian military presence in Armenia creates a serious and direct threat to America’s strategic interests and generates security problems for Western-oriented Azerbaijan and Georgia. It is also a threat to Western oil and gas infrastructures and pipelines.
In this context, the triangular cooperation between Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Georgia offers valuable reasons for the alliance to be transformed into an effective defense tool to enforce peace, stability, and international borders in the South Caucasus. Today’s cooperation addresses politics, security, energy, transportation, trade and investment, but it should have a military dimension as well. A defense alliance could be created on the basis of the Turkey-Azerbaijan-Georgia triangle to protect Western oil and gas infrastructure, and to enforce Azerbaijan’s and Georgia’s independence. The next possible option is to sign Turkey- Azerbaijan and/or Turkey-Georgia bilateral defense agreements to strengthen both Azerbaijan’s and Georgia’s defense capabilities. In this light, it is necessary to note that the trilateral cooperation between Georgia, Turkey and Azerbaijan in the military sphere was discussed during the Tbilisi summit of the presidents of Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey which was held on May 6, 2014. In parallel, as one can emphasize, the United States needs to support Azerbaijani- Georgian military cooperation, which should be expanded upon and transformed into a defense alliance in the foreseeable future. Furthermore, the formation of Azeri- Georgian or joint Turkish-Azeri-Georgian peacekeeping battalions could be considered as well. Thus, mentioned above approaches and close cooperation with NATO will improve both Azerbaijan’s and Georgia’s defence capabilities. Moreover, these measures may partially balance Russia’s military presence in Armenia as well as to prevent Russia from taking potentially irreversible and aggressive steps against Georgia and Azerbaijan. In fact, people in Azerbaijan and Georgia are very concerned that Russia may move as it did in 1920-1921. At that time, Bolshevik Russia occupied all three countries in the South Caucasus and terminated their short-lived independences.
Unfortunately, one negative aspect of the ‘reset’ policy was that the U.S. has decreased its attention as well as its involvement with the South Caucasus.As a result, the ‘reset’ policy has failed to improve the political atmosphere and to solve ‘frozen’ conflicts in the South Caucasus.Thus, there is no peace along the pipelines that are pumping Caspian energy to Europe. Moreover, there are indications that the region’s political situation is deteriorated and America’s strategic interests are now under threat.
Indeed, Russia has been strengthening its influence and it has considered cementing its positions in the region of paramount importance; it has also tried to secure its interests at any cost. Russia has pushed America to retreat; and it has increased its pressure on Azerbaijan and Georgia, which are America’s real friends. On March 27, 2014, only two countries – Azerbaijan and Georgia- from the list of South Caucasus and Central Asian states openly supported the U.S. backed UN resolution on the Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and deemed the referendum that led to Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula illegal.
After Ukraine, what is President Putin’s next target? This is an alarming question. The collapse of both Azerbaijan and Georgia, as independent states, will have irreversible consequences on the whole post-Soviet space. The unstable Central Asian states also may become the next target for Russia. Russian hardliners like the Deputy Chairman of the Russian State Dumaand leader of the LDPR VladimirZhirinovsky already began urging to protect Russians in Kazakhstan and in other Central Asia states.
President Putin’s statement that Russia has the rights to protect Russians and Russian-speakers outside of Russia’s borders is a critical update for the Putin doctrine. This update opens a ‘door’ for the Russian military to intervene in the post-Soviet space, as well as in the Central and Eastern Europe.Russia’s annexation of the Ukraine’s Crimea challenges the post-Cold War order and America’s role as a global arbiter. It also provokes NATO’s defense strategies and challenges the vision that Europe is whole and free.
The United States needs to abandon the ‘reset’ policy. It has been exhausted and has failed to protect and advance U.S. interests. Moreover, President Obama’s ‘reset’ policy made America look weak, likely resulting in, President Putin’s miscalculations of America’s global responsibility and investment in foreign policy goals.The United States needs to reaffirm its commitments to its allies in Central and Eastern Europe, as well as increase its own engagement in the South Caucasus and Central Asia.
In this context, the United States should launch a new assistance program to replace the old and out-of-date Freedom Support Act (FSA) of 1992, which already does not reflect the new realities in the post-Soviet space. Unlike the FSA, which mainly concentrates on Russia, the new strategic program must be focused on Russia’s immediate neighbors to support their independence, territorial integrity, defense and economic capabilities. Since the Crimean crisis, Russia does not need America’s assistance any longer.
The United States and the European Union have to increase their direct assistance to the countries of the former Soviet Union. Regarding the South Caucasus, the United States needs to be re-engaged in the region’s affairs, and it also needs to develop a strategy aimed at strengthening the region’s links with Europe.In parallel, the European Union needs to update the Eastern Partnership program, and NATO has to update and expand upon the Individual Partnership Action Plan (IPAP) with Azerbaijan for 2015-2016. Meanwhile, Georgia should offer a NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP) at the September 2014 NATO summit in Wales.
There is no doubt that the doors at NATO and the EU must be open to new members. In parallel, Dr. George Friedman (Chairman of Stratfor, a US-based geopolitical intelligence firm) argues that containment alliances from Estonia to Azerbaijan should be created to enforce independence of the former Soviet republics and to stop Putin’s Russia.
Lastly, French President Francois Hollande’s three-day (May 11-13, 2014)visit to the South Caucasus, as well as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s intention to visit Azerbaijan and Georgia and announced plans related a new Southern Gas Corridor (led by BP, which will bring Caspian gas to Europe) create an understanding that the West and, particularly, the United States will enforce its presence and influence. It also reassures Washington’s intention to oppose to Russia’s imperial ambitions in this sensitive part of the world. If the United States forgets the South Caucasus countries, particularly Azerbaijan and Georgia (as Obama’s ‘reset’ policy creates such trend), and leaves them face-to-face with Russia’s military machine (as Britain did in 1919), there is no doubt Russia will “re-Sovietize” them again and the West will pay a huge price for such a wrong policy.
In December 2012, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned that the U.S. is trying to prevent Russia from recreating a new version of the Soviet Union. Thus, now is the time for America to abandon the ‘reset’ policy with Russia and to demonstrate America’s global power to enforce peace, stability and international borders. However, such a policy will likely not be established under the President Obama’s administration, which has invested a lot of political capital to reset its relations with Russia; rather this may be an undertaken for the next U.S. administration.
* is a political analyst based in Toronto (Canada). He is affiliated with the Montreal-based Center for Research on Globalization and is a member of the Canadian Political Science Association. He is also a Professor of Political Science at the Baku-based International Ecoenergy Academy (Azerbaijan) and regular contributor to international journals on global politics and security. His latest article is “Israeli-Azerbaijani Alliance and Iran” (CLORIA CENTER, MERIA, Israel, 2013).
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