Russia and Eurasia

What will NATO’s new Strategic Concept adopt?

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By Zaur Shiriyev | 14 November 2010


NATO’s next summit in Lisbon, scheduled for Nov. 19-21, will highlight five pertinent topics: the adoption of a new Strategic Concept, operations in Afghanistan, missile defense, Iran’s nuclear program and NATO-Russian relations.

The latest two issues will draw close attention to the South Caucasus countries. Recent developments over the Iranian nuclear program, the fragile situation between the Nagorno-Karabakh problem, some regress in the NATO-Russian relationship and its influence on the South Caucasian context, will make this summit more compelling for the South Caucasus’ strategic position, and its importance to escalate. In other words, NATO’s Lisbon agenda for implementation is liable to affect the broader Black Sea and Caucasus basin area. As such, if the Lisbon Summit “opens” new perspectives to the NATO-Russian dialogue, then it may positively affect the future of NATO-Georgian and Georgian-Russian relations.

  • Optimism versus reality

All three countries of the Southern Caucasus have been developing their engagement with NATO, although on different levels of obligation. Contrary Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia have more expectation, as they are active members of the antiterrorist coalition in the aftermath of 9/11, and contribute troops to NATO-led peacekeeping operations in the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq. They further provide crucial over-flight support to the U.S. and to allied operations, they are responsible for the security of vital routes for energy transit to the West, and they have successfully suppressed terrorist or fundamentalist infiltration of their territories.

Azerbaijan is not yet involved in any institutionalized military alliance. The country only undertook the revival of GUAM, the Organization for Democracy and Economic Development. These steps are meant to show the country’s economic and political-military independence. Azerbaijan has also made significant steps towards the Euro-Atlantic structures, without asking for membership in NATO or the EU. The reaction of the EU and the U.S. was to immediately include Azerbaijan into the Nabucco project, in order to allow Baku to expand his energy routes. In this perspective, NATO’s reliance upon Azerbaijan is increasing, and Azerbaijan’s partnership is growing ever more viable: NATO-Azerbaijan military cooperation does not harm Russia’s interests in Azerbaijan as it could in Georgia’s case. Allied with NATO’s partner, Turkey, Azerbaijan enjoys cooperation with NATO with more ease and flexibility.

Predominantly, Georgia’s pro-Western orientation was substantially increased by cultivating a stronger relationship with NATO. Although Georgia’s deep commitment to its Euro-Atlantic ambitions seemed to be reciprocated, the Russian-Georgian armed confrontation in the summer of 2008 reflected a low level of cohesion and a high level of defection in the framework of Georgia’s military cooperation with NATO. At the same time, NATO’s degree of commitment and the level of its motivations in the Georgian context were not on the same page with Georgia. NATO and, by extension, the West, including the U.S., was not willing to be entrapped in a direct conflict with Russia with which it was trying to build a friendly relationship, rather than a Cold War-style relationship.

Paradoxically, in Armenia, society in general, does not seem to be very enthusiastic about NATO membership. Most people are not even aware of this program and some even feel that as being CSTO member – for them NATO is an aggressive military bloc. However, in the context of a strong military alliance with Russia, who amalgamates all components of Armenia’s security and those of its economic and political growth, Armenia’s partnership with NATO is viable and operational as long as they do not harm Armenia-Russia relationship. Russia is a relentlessly jealous partner who does not appreciate Armenia bandwagoning with other alliances, or adopting covert behaviors vis-à-vis Russia.

  • Antagonism versus perspective

As it is understandable that Azerbaijan and Georgia are expected to see more intervention from NATO in their regional conflicts, NATO has no official plan to do so. In the Caucasian region, before the “new strategic concept,” NATO’s future tenses in an area of antagonistic regional and international dynamics. Beside the regional antagonisms deriving from the unresolved conflicts and the fundamentally poisoned relationship between Georgia and Russia, NATO’s possible move into region arose “antagonism” as well. If the Lisbon Summit “opens” new perspectives to the NATO-Russian dialogue, then it may positively affect the future of NATO-Georgian and Georgian-Russian relations. As Mikheil Saakashvili, the president of Georgian stated on June 5 in Le Monde, “Georgians are neither foolish nor suicidal: having Russia as an enemy can be fatal.” Accordingly, under conditions of very low levels of threats between Russia and NATO, the South Caucasus region can benefit more from either side of NATO’s Partnership for Peace and it’s Individual Action Plan; both programs are excellent institutional tools in achieving a high level of cooperation without facing mutually threatening frameworks. Unfortunately, it seems that Russia does not want NATO as an enemy, nor does it want it as an ally. This paradoxical stance complicates efforts for cooperation and normalization of such issues as the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, for example, and augments issues in the energy sector.

Azerbaijan must focus on the developments of how NATO will define its collective response to “terrorism” and other regional security issues. Separatist-ruled Nagorno-Karabakh poses threats to Azerbaijan’s sovereignty, as well as the whole of Euro-Atlantic security. The “Safe Haven” status of Nagorno-Karabakh region, which harbors narcotic transfers and armament issues, poses serious risks for whole Caucasus. This issue is not only important for Azerbaijan, but also for Russia regarding its security of Northern Caucasus. The links between the Northern Caucasus and other “gray zones” in Caucasus are undefined, but reliable information on the matter is ignored. It is impossible, for NATO and the EU on the one hand, to laud Azerbaijan as an indispensable strategic ally in the quest to improve Europe’s energy security while, while on the other hand, to fail to support Azerbaijan in its efforts to regain control over its territory and give “security assurances.” As deputy minister of MFA Azerbaijan, Araz Azimov stressed on Nov. 2, in this “insecurity environment” NATO could offer Azerbaijan “security assurances” and he called for a formula allowing NATO to “stand ready” should his country face a security threat.

In conclusion, unresolved regional conflicts and their braking impact on the security of Southern Caucasus, creates a challenge to both the EU and NATO. For the security of the South Caucasus, political actions are needed to be seen by the EU and soft military actions by NATO. As such, this hard-soft power cooperation would open new challenges and could deter Russia’s “unimaginable” steps without confidence in a “good relationship” between NATO-Russia. At the same time, the Russian-led CSTO and NATO could further be “separate but friendly enemies,” not more.


Zaur Shiriyev is foreign policy analyst at Center for Strategic Studies in Baku, Azerbaijan.


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