IN THE GEOPOLITICS OF THE SOUTH CAUCASUS
Benyamin POGHOSYAN, PhD
Key words: NATO, Russia, US, EU, South Caucasus, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Geopolitics
NATO’S RELATIONS WITH REGIONAL STATES
NATO has been involved in the South Caucasus after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In 1990s the South Caucasian republics have been included in the Partnership for Peace Program, in mid 2000s the new tool – Individual Partnership Action Plan – was put forward to manage relations with the regional states. In 1990s and 2000s the main goal of NATO in the South Caucasus was to support newly independent states in their path towards democratic reforms, and foster their efforts aimed at defense institution building, democratic control over armed forces, as well as to modernize defense education system and increase nations’ peacekeeping capabilities.
The three internationally recognized states of the region pursue different policy towards the Alliance. Armenia has never expressed any intention to become a NATO member and is firmly anchored into the Russian sphere of influence through its membership into Collective Security Treaty Organization and Eurasian Economic Union. The Russian military base is deployed in Armenia, and Russia controls some key areas of Armenian economy. Despite these facts, Armenia actively cooperates with NATO through IPAPs contributing with its peacekeeping forces to different NATO-led operations in Kosovo and Afghanistan. NATO supports defense reforms currently underway in Armenia with particular attention to the improvements in defense education through its Defense Education Enhancement Program1.
Azerbaijan actively cultivates its relations with the Alliance mainly relying on Turkey’s support. As energy-rich country supplying oil and planning to supply natural gas into the European markets, Azerbaijan is seeking NATO’s support in securing the transit routes attempting to use this factor as a leverage to gain NATO’s support for its position in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict resolution. At least for now, these attempts have produced little if no results, and NATO supports the OSCE Minsk group efforts emphasizing that no military solution exist for Karabakh. The NATO Secretary General in his recent meeting with Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan once more emphasized this position.2
Georgia was one of the most active South Caucasian states in its efforts to join Euro-Atlantic institutions, and these efforts have been doubled after 2003 Rose revolution. The turning point for NATO involvement in the region was the NATO Bucharest Summit of April 2008, when decision was made that Georgia would be a NATO member. After 2008
Russia – Georgia war, NATO intensified its cooperation with Georgia launching NATO – Georgia Commission in September 2008.
At the NATO Wales Summit of September 2014, a substantial package of measures was launched to strengthen Georgia’s ability to defend itself and advance its preparations for membership. Further steps to intensify cooperation to help strengthen Georgia’s defense capabilities, interoperability and resilience capabilities were taken at the NATO Summit in Warsaw in July 2016.3 As a part of these efforts the first ever NATO Training Centre in the South Caucasus was opened in Georgia in August 2015.4 Meanwhile, NATO fell short of granting Georgia a Membership Action Plan, and prospects for Georgia to become a NATO member are extremely vague primarily due to the Russian explicit negative stance, as well as to the fact that Georgia de facto lost control over some parts of its internationally recognized territories: Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
THE SHIFTING REGIONAL GEOPOLITICS
To properly analyze the role of NATO in the regional geopolitics we need to grasp the strategic interests of the main players active in the region. The South Caucasus is the nexus of competing interests between Russia, Turkey, Iran, and the US. Other players in the region are the EU and NATO as two pillars of the Euro-Atlantic community.
Since mid-2000s Russia’s strategic goal in the post-Soviet space including the South Caucasus is to regain its influence over former Soviet republics. Russia puts the notion of ”sphere of influence” or regions ”where Russia has privileged interests” as a theoretical base for its assertive policy in the post-Soviet space5.
The two intertwined processes are feeding Russian policy – the deep-rooted perception among Russian elites and wider population that after USSR collapse Russia was treated unfairly and humiliated by the West, which used the chaos of 1990s to encroach into the Russian natural sphere of influence through both EU and NATO enlargement. The inclusion of former Baltic Soviet republics into the EU and NATO and 2008 NATO Bucharest Summits’ decision on eventual Ukraine and Georgia membership into the Alliance were both ”alarming bells and red lines” for Russia.
It should be underscored that this view is shared not only by Russian current political elite but also by the large part of population, which has negative view on West in general, and on NATO and US in particular. The ”Color Revolutions” in Georgia and Ukraine in 2003-2004 and the forceful ouster of Yanukovich in 2014 only underscored Russia’s concerns about Western intentions in promoting democracy and liberal international order deeper into former Soviet Union. This perception was thoroughly presented by President Putin in his March 2014 Crimea speech.6
Western actions are mainly perceived as an effective deployment of ”Soft Power” tools to interfere into the domestic politics of sovereign states and shape the necessary results sometimes by imposing forceful changes. Thus, regaining control over the post-Soviet space is deemed as vital preemptive action for securing Russian core national interests by creating a buffer zone between Russia and the West and thwarting any potential Western meddling into the Russian domestic politics.
In this regard, the US / EU / NATO support in institution building process within former Soviet republics emphasizing the need for good governance, rule of law, political and economic reforms through different state and non-state programs are perceived as a direct action to gain control over the legitimate sphere of the Russian influence.
Another factor heavily influencing Russian policy in the South Caucasus is domestic politics. Current relatively high level support of Russian political elites among population is mainly based on the perception that political – military leadership has been able to reverse the course of Russia losing its positions in the world and near abroad and to restore the great power status of the state. This narrative is actively circulated through national media outlets as a main tool for Russian leadership domestic standing. The tough Russian foreign policy especially in the dealings with the US and NATO are being used as proof of Russia’s regaining its righteous place within international order.7
Thus, both Russian vital national security interests and the need to maintain high levels of popular support within the state are main drivers of Russian policy in the former Soviet space including the South Caucasus with two clear goals: rebuff and diminish Western influence and restore Russia’s control. As for now, Russia has secured Armenia and almost lost Georgia – though after 2012 there are some mutual attempts to normalize bilateral relations but with little effect. Azerbaijan tries to keep balance using its geographic position and vast natural resources and strategic alliance with Turkey as a tool to keep Russian pressure simultaneously cultivating active cooperation through large scale arm purchases. Among the tools for Russia to influence the region are the unresolved conflicts: Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
US / EU / NATO
The US and in general Western interests in the region are based on two interdependent main pillars – to secure oil and gas transportation from and transit via the South Caucasus to the European markets circumventing Iran and Russia, and to reduce the dependence on Russia by facilitating the state building process through promoting political and economic reforms and fostering the level of independence of newly established states.
The first goal has been reached through the creation of Azerbaijan – Georgia – Turkey oil and gas pipeline routes and exporting Azerbaijani oil to international market and Azerbaijani gas to Georgia and Turkey. The next goal is the launching of the Southern Gas corridor and transporting Azerbaijani natural gas via Turkey to the EU, which is scheduled to start in 2019.8 As for support in the state / institution building the US / EU / NATO are using different tools – bilateral support through USAID and other organizations, offering closer cooperation through integration projects such as the Eastern Partnership, membership into Council of Europe and supporting states through mechanisms as Individual Partnership Action Plans for NATO.
The three South Caucasian republics have made different improvements in this process with Georgia positioning itself as a leader of democracy and Azerbaijan going deeper into opposite direction as identified by key international watchdogs9.
Turkey is a member of NATO and the strategic ally of the US. This puts some restraints on Turkey’s ability for fully independent policy in the region. Simultaneously, the ”Neo Ottoman” foreign policy concept put forward by Turkish former Prime Minister Ahmed Davutoglu views the South Caucasus as a traditional Turkish sphere of influence. The recent deterioration of Turkish – American relations mainly due to the US support for Syrian Kurds has diminished the US influence over Turkish foreign policy but in any case, Turkey continue to be firmly anchored in Euro-Atlantic security system.10
The close ethnic and language ties with Azerbaijan are another factor influencing Turkish policy. Meanwhile, the Turkey’s decision to close its borders with Armenia due the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh and refusal to ratify the 2009 Turkish – Armenian protocols on restoration of diplomatic relations connecting it with resolution of Karabakh conflict are effectively thwarting any possibility for Turkey to normalize relations with Armenia and thus preventing it from being a truly regional power. The Turkish denial of the Armenian Genocide complicates the situation even more. Turkey also plays a transit role for transportation of region’s energy resources into the international market.
Taking into account its complicated relations with the US and Israel, Iran’s strategic goal in the South Caucasus is to prevent the use of the region as a launching pad for anti-Iran activities. Iran also views region as a transit route towards Russia and Europe. Iran is involved in two such projects: ”North – South” which aims to connects India and South East Asia via Iran, Azerbaijan and Russia with the Northern Europe11 and ”Persian Gulf – Black Sea” which will connect India and Persian Gulf states with Europe via Iran, Armenia and Georgian Black sea ports. The historical connections with the region – most of the South Caucasus was part of the Persian Empire till the beginning of 19th century, also affects Iranian regional policy. Taking into account the presence of multimillion Azeri speaking population in Iran and shia majority population in Azerbaijan, Iran puts special emphasize on Iran – Azerbaijan relations which was once more emphasized during Azerbaijani President’s March 2017 visit to Iran12. The regional competition with Turkey makes friendly relations with Armenia a key asset for Iran.
NEW TRENDS AFFECTING NATO’S INVOLVEMENT IN REGIONAL GEOPOLITICS
The election of Donald Trump brought high level of uncertainty for the US foreign policy including its relations with Russia and its approach towards NATO. During the campaign, Trump reiterated many times that he would like to normalize relations with Russia simultaneously marking NATO as an obsolete organization with an unfair level of burden sharing. After Trump’s inauguration, his national security team is trying to mend fences with America’s allies with mixed messaging. Both US Vice President Pence and Secretary of Defense Mattis in their speeches in 2017 Munich Security Conference as well as in their meetings with EU and NATO leaders in Brussels, emphasized firm commitment of the US to NATO, criticized Russia for its actions, but simultaneously stressed the importance of equal burden sharing among Alliance members13.
As for US – Russia relations, the resignation of Trump’s national security advisor Michael Flynn over accusations of unreported conversations with the Russian Ambassador in the US, as well as recent controversy on Attorney General Session’s contacts with the Russian Ambassador prior to Trump’s inauguration at least for a short-term perspective complicated the prospects for US – Russia rapprochement.
The meetings held between the Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov and the US Secretary of State Tillerson, as well as negotiations between the US Chief of Joint Staff General Dunford and the Russian Chief of General Staff Gerasimov held first in Baku on 16 February 2017, and then in Antalya on 7 March 2017, shed little light on the possibility of improvements in the US – Russia relations.14
Following NATO Warsaw summit’s decisions at the last days of Obama administration, the US launched American troops redeployment in the Eastern Europe with the pictures of American soldiers and the armored vehicles entering Poland circulated in the mass media as a proof of US commitment to Eastern Europe security.15
Meanwhile Trump’s emphasize on ”America First” and his public comments on ”not representing the Globe, but representing the US” may be the signs of putting less importance on international agenda for the new administration.16 Taking into account the leading role of the US within NATO this may further constrain Alliance’s ability to be actively involved in the areas beyond its core zone of responsibility.
PERSPECTIVES OF NATO’S INVOLVEMENT IN THE SOUTH CAUCASUS
In the last decade, the main theme in the post-Soviet geopolitics was the Russian efforts to regain its influence and control over post-Soviet space and the West’s persistent resistance to the Russian actions especially in the European part of former Soviet Union, as well as China’s economy focused targeted penetration into the Central Asia.
The West’s policy was mainly driven by the US with Obama administration in the leading role especially since 2012 Putin’s returns to Kremlin. The US tough reaction on events in Ukraine and sanctions against Russia were the main vivid example of that policy. In this chess game both the EU and NATO were sided with the US as additional supportive actors in the field. In the South Caucasus, the West’s strategic goal was to keep Georgia firmly anchored in the Euro-Atlantic institutions, not to let Russia’s influence growing over Azerbaijan and keep channels open with Armenia through implementation of different programs supporting institutional building and political, economy and military reforms to prevent total subjugation of Armenia by Russia. All the South Caucasian republics were adjusting their policies in accordance with this main geopolitical trend.
The vital issue facing the South Caucasus is the continuity of the US policy aimed at containing Russia. If this policy will be wrapped up due to either improvements in US – Russia relations or due to lack of the US interest in the region the rules of the game may eventually be changed, which will inevitably affect NATO’s role in the regional geopolitics rendering the Alliance with less relevant posture in the South Caucasus. In that case NATO will most probably continue its cooperation with regional states through existing mechanisms but no major increase of Alliance involvement is possible.
In case of lack of any tangible improvements in US – Russia relations with American new Administration emphasizing the need for robust containment policy in its relations with Russia, NATO may play more active role in the region by strengthening its positions in Georgia and making efforts to deepen its cooperation with both Azerbaijan and Georgia.
The views and opinions expressed in this paper are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense Research University or the Ministry of Defense.
Vice President for Research, National Defense Research University, Armenia
1 Relations with Armenia, http://nato.int/cps/en/natohq/topics_48893.htm?selectedLocale=en#.
2 Secretary General welcomes Armenian President to NATO Headquarters, http://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/ news_141839.htm?selectedLocale=en.
3 Relations with Georgia, http://www.nato.int/cps/en/natolive/topics_38988.htm.
4 NATO Georgia Open Joint Training Centre, http://www.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=28528.
5 Interview given by Dmitry Medvedev to Television Channels Channel One, Rossia, NTV, http://en. kremlin.ru/events/president/transcripts/48301. On Russia’s foreign policy imperatives in Post Soviet space see Leon Aron, The Putin Doctrine, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/russian-federation/2013-03-08/putin-doctrine.
6 Address by the President of the Russian Federation, http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/20603.
7 Leon Aron, Changing Putin’s Mind, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/russia-fsu/2016-12-15/changing-putin-s-mind
8 Shah Deniz Final Investment Decision paves way for Southern Corridor gas link with Europe, http://www. bp.com/en_az/caspian/press/pressreleases/Shah-Deniz-Final-Investment-Decision-paves-way-.html.
9 Azerbaijan’s Constitutional Referendum Creates Crisis of Legitimacy, https://www.csce.gov/international-impact/press-and-media/press-releases/azerbaijan-s-constitutional-referendum-creates?&&&&sort_by=field_date_value&page=3.
10 Turkey expects improved relations with Trump Administration, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/ national-security/turkey-expects-improved-relations-with-the-trump-administration/2017/01/19/fa8cfffc-de87-11e6-918c-99ede3c8cafa_story.html?utm_term=.c2a453a9e5f8.
11 Presidents of Azerbaijan, Iran, and Russia meet in Baku, http://www.rferl.org/a/azerbaijan-iran-russia-presidents-meet-baku/27909041.html.
12 Dr. Rouhani in a joint press conference with the President of Azerbaijan, http://president.ir/en/98114
13 Remarks by the Vice President at the Munich security Conference, https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/ 2017/02/18/remarks-vice-president-munich-security-conference, Remarks by Secretary Mattis and Secretary-General Stoltenberg at NATO Headquarters, Brussels, Belgium, https://www.defense.gov/News/ Speeches/Speech-View/Article/1085050/remarks-by-secretary-mattis-and-secretary-general-stoltenberg-at-nato-headquart.
14 Dunford Discusses Syria with Turkish, Russian Counterparts, https://www.defense.gov/News/Article/Article/ 1104400/dunford-discusses-syria-with-turkish-russian-counterparts.
15 Poland welcomes thousands of US troops in NATO show of force, http://edition.cnn.com/2017/01/14/ europe/poland-us-troops-nato-welcome/.
16 Remarks by President Trump at the Conservative Political Action Conference, https://www.whitehouse.gov/ the-press-office/2017/02/24/remarks-president-trump-conservative-political-action-conference.