Agendas and New Algorithms of Policies in the South Caucasus - 2023: Great Britain

There Are Wider Sources of Destabilization and Competition across the Region

Neil Melvin, Director, International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI)

- How exactly do the Armenian-Azerbaijani post-war processes and Russia's war against Ukraine affect Great Britain 's foreign policy interests? Are there more threats or opportunities for Great Britain today? How are these threats and opportunities manifested?

Lots of different aspects to it, but we look at this issue from the point of London. The UK has had a strong engagement in the South Caucasus, since the end of the Soviet Union, and that continues today. Much of that engagement was framed increasingly through the European Union. But three years ago, the UK left the European Union. So there has been a bit of rethinking about those particular issues. And that also has played very much into the whole situation that has developed around the Ukraine war, which has opened up a lot of very big questions. It's clearly had an impact on the South Caucasus, but it has also transformed European security. So the UK has remained engaged in the South Caucuses. It's given a lot of support over the years to various efforts to try to resolve some of the long-running conflicts in the region. But I think most likely the interesting moment is going to come really when the Ukraine war comes to a conclusion because that will likely be a new moment for European security.

And one of the challenges, not just for the UK, but for other countries in Europe, is that gradually the South Caucasus, if it hasn't exited European security, then European security has ceased to be the only framework for dealing with the region's problems. We've seen other actors come into the region, we've seen the Middle East in the way, spilling into the South Caucasus. We've seen the US interest in the region wane over the last decade or so. So the question is then going to be, how can the Europeans and how does the UK going to approach this region?

I think the UK has always wanted to make sure on a number of issues. First of all, it's been committed to the post Cold War settlement on a territorial basis. And we saw that this principle in Ukraine is obviously being challenged by Russia, it wants to uphold that principle and the peaceful resolution of disputes in the region. So any moves to actually resolve the long-term conflicts and the movement at the moment does seem to be around the Armenia-Azerbaijan relationship and Nagorno Karabakh, and how it fits into that. Because the UK feels that would be a way of stabilizing not just the South Caucasus, but the wider region around Russia, where Russia has used some of those conflicts. Russia isn't the source of all the conflicts, but it used them to its advantage. So any efforts that can stabilize the South Caucasus, also help in moving Russia in a more positive direction.

Secondly, I think the UK has always been very interested in the economic development of the South Caucasus, both in terms of the economies of the countries of the region, but also the region's importance as a transit route. Particularly an important point at the moment is whether a resolution of the Karabakh crisis and some kind of peace agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan open up the region, particularly for transit, transport, increased energy resources (not just hydrocarbons, but also we've seen discussions about electricity) coming from the region and transiting the Black Sea. So I think that all of those issues would be important.

And the third area, is to make sure that not just Russia, but other countries which are increasingly taking a role in the region are doing so in a positive way. Particularly here we're looking at other regional powers like Iran and Turkey to make sure that we don't just focus on the Russia question because there are wider sources of destabilization and competition across the region.

- Can we say that today new algorithms of relations are being shaped in the South Caucasus? How exactly are these algorithms manifested? Which countries (Russia, western countries, Turkey, Iran) are the most active in promoting them?

We are in some ways at a crossroads in post-Soviet history. I think probably left the post-Soviet history of the South Caucuses behind. And with that also, as I mentioned in my earlier on, the idea that the South Caucasus is exclusively part of European security. So this was the idea that emerged in the 1990s that with the collapse of the Soviet bloc from Vancouver to Vladivostok would be a common security space with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe providing one of the principal frameworks for dealing with those issues in that space. But then the Euro-Atlantic community has a central role. The South Caucasus has obviously gone beyond that paradigm now, and European security is part of the South Caucasus, but it's certainly not the only part. That's a reality that is not going to change. At the heart of that, we see Russia has continued to do its policies in the region, but it is being challenged primarily not by the transatlantic community, but by Turkey, I would say, in the first place, who has inserted itself into the region quite effectively and has become a leading regional actor.

And then Iran thirdly behind those two. And with China playing a more economic role, not really a political and security role, and then we're getting all sorts of other actors engaging around the selling of arms: we got India and Pakistan, Israel. So the region has really become more and more interlinked to the wider world, in particular some key regions. It no longer fits in the Euro-Atlantic architecture precisely. And this is why we are struggling on the European side to find an effective way to engage in the region. And we've seen various initiatives over the recent years which have tried to play a role there. But on the whole, the Transatlantic Community has seen a weakening of its role over the last decade. There is now an uptake around the possibility of a settlement of the Karabakh conflict. We've seen the United States re-engaging in a more active way and that has been crucial for the Europeans to come in and with US leadership, of course, it's possible. But my fear is that the US engagement is relatively limited, both in terms of how much they are willing to commit to the region, but also in the terms of time because US priorities lie elsewhere. And this is partly a challenge of the Euro-Atlantic engagement in the region because most of what we do ultimately sits on US power and the US has not seen a deep engagement in the Eurasian landmass as its priority. So this puts a real limit on how far Euro-Atlantic institutions can penetrate the region.

- What is Great Britain 's agenda regarding the post-war Armenian-Azerbaijani confrontation, and the agendas of which countries is it most aligned with?

The UK doesn't necessarily have a blueprint for the solution. What it wants is: fundamentally the solution needs to be based upon the broader principles of European security that all the countries have committed to as part of being member states of the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe. So certainly no changes of borders on the basis of military power or without agreement. Certainly protection of human rights and respect for democracy. So the solution obviously needs to lie on top of that, and the precise scope of that certainly seems to be there. What the 2020-2022 Karabakh war has changed the equation in the region, is that now Azerbaijan is the agenda setter. The balance of power has obviously shifted to Azerbaijan and away from Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh, which means, the responsibility to propose a solution that respects those principles really lies with Azerbaijan because it needs to find a way that it can offer not just the integration of Karabakh into Azerbaijan, but also the security and protection of the Armenian community there and the chance for them also to flourish. That their rights would be protected, that they would be able to protect their culture, that they would advance and develop their language and be able to use it. The children could receive education in the Armenian language, and the local media and local administration would be in Armenian.

While at the same time, they would also become presumably under the solution Azerbaijan has proposed citizens of Azerbaijan and would have to take on the responsibilities in that way. So what I don't really see yet is that that is happening in a clear way from Baku. From the UK's perspective, we would like to see much greater clarity about how Azerbaijan is going to ensure a peaceful, sustainable development that can reflect all of those values. And certainly what the UK doesn't want is further destabilization. And we have seen some rather wild language sometimes by not mainstream politicians, but sometimes even a few mainstream politicians in Azerbaijan talking about wider territorial ambitions, particularly regarding Armenia's lands. This is not very helpful, and it does seem to me that there are ways of addressing these questions in a non-zero-sum way. It doesn't have all to be about what country is sovoreign, there are cooperative ways to address that. So I think the UK is definitely supporting discussions that take place around those kinds of agendas. But then largely, to be more positive, clearly there are very substantial hurdles still to be resolved. But if there can be movement, and perhaps for the first time in many years, there is a sense that in the right circumstances, there could be a durable solution to some of these big questions that have plagued Armenia and Azerbaijan, for three decades or more, then actually that would help open up the region in a quite fundamentally different way. And that could be something that certainly the UK, with its interest in energy in the Caspian basin, would certainly be interested in supporting.

- Is there any prospect of establishing a cooperation regime in the South Caucasus region, given the Armenian-Azerbaijani confrontation and higher levels of conflict between Russia and western countries due to the Russian-Ukrainian war?

There is some strategic thinking happening in London about what the end of the war looks like and how then to address security across this region. A lot of this thinking is really about the Black Sea as a key security space where the focus will be on how to contain Russia in a way to stop it from doing the kind of things it has done in 2014 with Crimea and then getting the conflict going in East Ukraine. And then since February of 2022, with a full-scale invasion, and also we saw what Russia did in 2008 with Georgia and the way that it has been meddling in the Karabakh conflict by providing both sides with weapons, and also blocking sometimes opportunities for solutions. So the question then is how can a new balance of power be constructed in the region that would limit Russia's ability to do that? So, the biggest question in some ways is for Armenia. Since Armenia has built a lot of its security on its bilateral relationship with Russia. And of course, I don't think anyone will necessarily be advocating that our media has to completely change that relationship because there are, of course, important aspects such as economic ties, remittances, migrant labor, and just the long-running history of that close relationship.

But now is the moment for Armenia to look beyond its historically close relationship with Russia, to try and balance that with other types of links, and in particular to look at what is going to happen with the end of the Ukraine war. Because we're going to see quite a different kind of security space begin to emerge. Not necessarily that we would see NATO or EU enlargement, but we are going to see a lot of support for Ukraine and not just to defend Ukraine, but Ukraine potentially as a regional security provider across the region and the Black Sea as a forum to do that. So I think from the UK side, it's less a question in the future about the South Caucasus and more a question about the Black Sea, and how the countries of the South Caucasus can fit into that agenda. And then it is really about this stability across the region but transport energy corridors and opening up the economies of potential investments and a wider political sets of relationships.

- Number of countries, and international organizations have many times condemned the blockade of the residents of Nagorno-Karabakh by Azerbaijan. But the blockade continues. Why, and what's next? How does this fit in with plans to unblock communication routes in the South Caucasus?

The blockade has had a number of purposes. Fundamentally, it has been about trying to put pressure on Armenia on the wider agenda that Azerbaijan is trying to promote, including this idea of creating a mutual link between the Lachin Corridor and Azerbaijan's ambitions to have the Zangezour corridor to its exclave in Nakhichevan. Secondly, I think it has been about trying to put pressure to further break and just highlight the weakness of the link between Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh. And thirdly, there has been an aspect in which Azerbaijan has taken the moment to position itself to also highlight the weakness of Russia in terms of being a guarantor for the Armenians of Nagorno Karabakh, and indeed more widely for Armenia as a whole. As we saw in September last year when Azerbaijan attacked Armenia, Russia was unprepared to actually provide the mutual security that it promised in terms of its treaty with Armenia. So all of those have been in play within the context of the post-2020 ambition of Azerbaijan to reset the region according to its own agenda. So I think we've seen Azerbaijan press on different aspects of those three since the blockade has begun. Recently, we started to see them perhaps being less assertive in linking two corridors and more moving towards the final settlement of the Karabakh issue. And then, I think where we end up is that Azerbaijan will move that question to eventually have a final settlement with Armenia. But we should be cautious of this agenda end so that it wouldn't become hijacked by extremist elements in Azerbaijan who want to push maybe a wider goal. There is an opportunity for wise leadership on both sides to find a settlement that can actually bring some kind of, if not necessarily friendly relations, at least relations where everyone can coexist for some future, and perhaps that will eventually pave the way for more positive bilateral ties.

Series of interviews "Agendas and New Algorithms of Policies in the South Caucasus - 2023" has been organized within the framework of the Region Research Center's project "New Agendas for Peace and Stability in the South Caucasus after the Karabakh 2020 War". The project is being implemented with the support of the Black Sea Trust for Regional Cooperation. The opinions expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the opinions and positions of the Black See Trust for Regional Cooperation or its partners.



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