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

Russia-US and Russia-Europe Relations Now Are the Worst I Have Ever Seen

Paul Stronski, Carnegie Foundation

- How do the Armenian-Azerbaijani post-war processes affect US's foreign policy interests? Are these processes viewed in US separately from the Russian-Ukrainian war?

The United States has long been engaged in trying to mediate between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Nagorno Karabakh crisis. It dates back to the Minsk group, to President Bush's efforts at Key West, to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's efforts in the Turkey-Armenian reconciliation process back to 13 years ago. It isn't directly tied (with the Karabakh conflict – editor), but it is a part of the broader reconciliation process in the region. US has close partnership and friendship with both countries. It is very different in how that partnership functions. Yes, the dynamics have shifted. The Minsk Group is no longer the center of this, but the Biden administration has increased its engagement over its predecessor - the Trump administration.

When you look at the North Caucasus, at the region below the South Caucasus - the broader Middle East, the South Caucasus generally has been stable for much of the last 30 years. Ukraine has added greater urgency to this process. The United States recognizes that the Russia-Ukraine war and Russia's aggression against Ukraine, its violation of Ukrainian territorial sovereignty, and its denial of Ukraine's right to exist, is a troubling precedent for the entire region. We have seen over the past year some Russians questioning Azerbaijan's right to exist, they have questioned Kazakhstan's and even Armenia’s right to exist. Not the Armenian nation's right to exist as a nation, but as an independent Armenia as it exists today. So I think Russian aggression certainly has unnerved the United States. We have stepped up our engagement over the last year because we do not want to see further instability growing. We also recognize that Azerbaijan has been using Russia's distraction and using the last year to be a little bit more coercive in both its military and diplomatic actions against Armenia. And so the United States sees a role in trying to mediate and trying to tone that down, recognizing that Russia doesn't have the interests liked it used to have and that Russia also is a very difficult partner for all of these countries. And it is a difficult partner for the United States.

- Currently, do Russia and Western countries share any common interest regarding the Armenian-Azerbaijani settlement? What factors need to be in place for a possible settlement between Armenia and Azerbaijan to become realistic? What can external actors do in this regard?

First of all, Russia has long been able to take advantage of the frozen conflicts in the region. So while Russia has been part of the negotiations, we also see that it has tried to play an even broker. Russia is really playing both sides, trying to cultivate both Armenia and Azerbaijan. And it is a big part of the problem in Georgia. It is occupying Georgian territory. In general, US-Russian relations, Russian-Europe relations have collapsed. They've collapsed to a level that I have never anticipated. They are the worst I have ever seen. I was in the US government ten years ago when I thought they were going down the hill, becoming very bad. They are far worse now. And the worrying aspect of this is that all of the mechanisms that have been used by the international community, and all the mechanisms that Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia have used to try to stabilize their countries and deal with both internal and external threats have atrophied over the last year as US-Russian relations and generally Russia-West relations have collapsed.

The OSCE used to be a place where we could talk. The Minsk group has fallen apart, and even in the Georgia-Geneva discussions Russia doesn't play a very positive role. It is a very challenging moment for Russia, the US and the West in general, to help in stabilizing the region. I really don't think Russia wants more instability on its border. Russia sees the Caucasus as a vital southern flank. The Russian North Caucasus is very volatile. And as I previously noted, the South Caucasus is one of the last buffers between Russia and the instability of the Middle East. And so I think neither the United States, nor Europe, nor Russia, really wants to see any broad-based instability in the region. I certainly see that Russian influence and capabilities in the region are declining. I think Armenia has seen that over the past year. We have seen incursions into Armenian territory, and Russia is not able to do or chose not to do much about it. We've also seen the Lachin corridor blockade, where Russia is the peacekeeping force that was empowered to keep the peace there. And its peacekeepers and its diplomatic pressure are not able to do that. So I think Russia certainly provides avenues for the West to come in and try to help. The West recognizes, though, that we can either be helpful, but sometimes being too present can also be detrimental, given some of the Russia's reactions, particularly Russia's reaction to the deployment of the EU Civilian Mission Monitor group in Armenia. I think Russia's reaction to that was way over the top. It was quite frightening, questioning both the right of these Monitors to be there, but also the right of the Armenian government to invite these Monitors into their own country

Russia has recognized that the Ukraine war has brought multipolarity. It's weakened Russia's position throughout the entire Eurasian landmass. And that other powers (that could be China, the Gulf States, Turkey, European Union, Iran, Pakistan, Azerbaijan) are all increasing their presence there. And Russia now would prefer to deal with Turkey and Iran in trying to figure out how this region can be stabilized, and to keep the United States and others at a distance here. It's very complicated and unlikely that the US and Russia can work together. That said, processes (conflict resolution - editor) are going in Moscow, Washington and Brussels, and I certainly hope for the people of the South Caucasus, for the people of Armenia and Azerbaijan, one of those processes will prevent another conflict, because that is the last thing the people need. We have had too much human suffering in and around the broader Black Sea region, certainly in Ukraine, but also this just comes less than three years now after the 2020 war.

From what I understand, from my conversations with Armenian friends, Armenians are tired of war and they are scared about the future of not just Karabakh, but the future of the Armenian state in general, whether that are threats from Azerbaijan, or Russia, questioning Armenia's right to be independent, whether that is Turkey. Armenian's position and the Armenian government's position are shifting. I always thought that Armenians would try to defend Karabakh to the end. I think Armenia is showing some flexibility on Karabakh. The big question now has moved from Karabakh to Syunik, Zangezur corridor. From what I understand, there are numerous different ways that corridor could actually go, and Armenia and Azerbaijan can probably agree on that.

The devil right now is in all of those details, in the original proposal, that the FSB would control it. I think Armenia recognizes that Russia is perhaps not as capable of playing its roles as it used to be. And I think Armenia is questioning Russia, and its alliance in general, because it hasn't paid off in the past year, at least for Armenia. Also, the fact that this runs right along the Iranian border. I think the two sides have been getting closer. The big question right now is the Zangezur corridor. And then tied to that, unfortunately, is also the Lachin corridor blockade. That has really put back the peace agreement and any potential for peace. It has highlighted to Armenians the threat that they perceive from there. It has highlighted Russia's inability to do much about it. 

The Lachin corridor needs to be reopened, and the Zangezur corridor needs to be worked out. I also think Turkey-Armenia relations are a component of this. The one positive thing over the last several months is that we have been moving closer on that. From what I understand, the talks are continuing. We have seen some flights go forward. I know that Armenia did a feasibility study on opening up the border, was unsure whether Turkey had done that feasibility study. Well, we all know that Turkey did do that feasibility study because they were able to open the border to deliver humanitarian supplies across to the devastated areas of Turkey and Syria after the earthquake. All that is positive. But at the same point, Azerbaijan is quite assertive right now. And Azerbaijan has a lot of control and influence in Turkey, and particularly after this earthquake in Turkey, Turkish politics have been upended. It is unclear how this next election will go. And what we have seen is that while there might be more openness generally on the Turkish side to Armenia, sometimes the influence can cause the Turks to pause a little bit.

- What agenda and proposals does the USA have regarding the settlement of the post-war Armenian-Azerbaijani confrontation? Do these strategies differ from those of other mediators - the EU and Russia? (especially in light of the recent statement by Russian Foreign Minister S. Lavrov regarding Russia's vision). And why are so many mediators involved in this conflict?

The United States and Europe are working quite closely together. The United States firmly backs everything that Europe is doing both on the negotiations and border security fronts.
Russia is certainly watching everything that the United States and Europe are doing, pushing back and really trying to move the process, as I mentioned before, away from something where the West is involved to something, where Turkey and Iran are involved. I think that is quite complicated, though, because the Azerbaijanis and the Iranians have their own lots of political, lots of historical baggage of mistrust and tension. That also creates problems simply because of the Armenian-Turkish issue. China and the other players are really far away and probably not interested in getting involved in the nitty-gritty of this.

- Can we say that today new algorithms of relations in the South Caucasus region are being shaped? How are they manifested, and what is the role of the US, EU in this context?

I definitely see a huge geopolitical shift in this region. This region, generally since the 1990s, has been oriented in three different ways. Georgia, particularly after Mr. Saakashvili came to power, but even before then, with Mr. Shevarnadze, was definitely looking westward. Armenia, really was oriented towards Russia as both an economic partner and a security ally. And we had Azerbaijan hedging in between, knowing that at least economically it was important to have ties with the West, as it was the major purchaser of Azerbaijani hydrocarbon, also the Azerbaijani-Turkish relationship oriented Azerbaijan to the West, but at the same time, its model of governance was more geared towards Russia. Azerbaijan isn't hedging as much anymore. Azerbaijan sees itself in a superior position to both of its neighbors and is trying to use Russia's distraction and Russia's limited capabilities. Russia is having a lot of trouble in Ukraine. It is not able to supply its own troops in Ukraine. It is not really able to help Armenia, even if and whether it wants to help Armenia is unclear. So I think Azerbaijan is being backed a little bit with Turkey, is being more provocative in the region, and is also willing to challenge Russia in the region, and we see that in the Lachin corridor. Armenia, on the other hand, is recognizing that Russia has not come to its defense. I don’t think Armenia really hoped during the Nagorno Karabakh war that Russia would. Russia's military alliance with Armenia did not cover the Karabakh territory. But what we saw over the past year was incursions into Armenia itself, including Jermuk, which is clearly not disputed by anyone. There has been some questioning, particularly after September of this year, about Russia and the alliance with Russia. I think also many of the problems that Russia is experiencing today, it should have looked at what Armenia experienced a couple of years before, the command and control, equipment not working, supplying difficulties. It is also questioning not only of Russia's willingness to be a partner, but also Russian capabilities to be an ally.

So now Armenia is looking for other options. It might be too late, I don't know. But at least we see them reaching out to the West: to France, to Greece, somewhat to the United States. We also see them reaching out to India and other places to try to diversify its foreign policy and security options. And then we see Georgia, at least the Georgian Government, actually moving in the total opposite direction. The Georgian Government, unlike Armenian's Government, is becoming far more authoritarian than it was before and becoming much more friendly with Russia. I don’t have problem if Georgia wants to have good relations with Russia, but it seems to be blaming Ukraine. It is claiming that the US is trying to push Georgia into this war. They are attacking Western governments, Western partners, and clamping down on their own civil society in a way that we have not seen in many, many years. This government, I think, is veering off its western trajectory, the population of Georgia might still be there, but we are seeing growing friction between Georgia and the West. We saw that in the EU's decision not to grant them the same status as Ukraine and Moldova. And so we see Georgia in limbo. So we are seeing a huge shift.

We are seeing a democratic Armenia that solved its own political problems a couple of years ago after the war with the snap election, where there is a very vibrant civil society. On the democratic front, Armenia is certainly looking to the West, but doing it at the time when it is questioning its relationship with Russia. That, however, is quite dangerous. We know what Russia does in Ukraine, we have seen what Russia did in Georgia and the threats a few weeks ago against the Georgian people.

And then we have Azerbaijan, which power is growing. Turkey also wants to use Azerbaijan to project power into Central Asia.

- What does equidistance from the parties to the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict and Russian-Ukrainian confrontation imply? To what extent can these processes be compared?

I think the Ukrainian war is the Caucasus war. The Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict started at the beginning of the post-Soviet era. Now we are seeing huge shifts in geopolitics. We are seeing shifts in how these countries (post-Soviet countries – editor) are trying to rearrange their relationship with Moscow, with the West, with their neighbors. We are entering into a different era. What we are seeing in Ukraine is tragic. What we saw in Karabakh three years ago was tragic. Everything that happened in the 1990s is tragic as well. I would have thought and would have hoped that we would have learned from that process. I am hopeful that both the Armenian and Azerbaijani governments would recognize the threat and recognize that greater instability are not something that they need. Particularly at a time when neither Russia nor the West could really get them to sort of back off. And I sadly see some of the processes that we have seen. There is tremendous stereotypes, tremendous hatred, ethnic grievances, historical grievances that continue between the Armenian and Azerbaijani populations.

That was not the case traditionally between the Ukrainian and Russian populations. But I think the sheer brutality of this war, the kidnapping of Ukrainian children from orphanages… the Ukrainian population, including the Russian speakers in Eastern Ukraine that the Russians are supposedly defending, have very much turned away from Russia. I think that it is going to be a long, long process. It is going to be stamped in history for a very long time and it is going to vex the Russian-Ukrainian in relationship for years. Just as this very tortured history between Armenia, Azerbaijan and Turkey which as well is a problem in reconciliation and mediation prospects. I do see at least the Azerbaijanis and the Armenians are talking. I think that it is positive for the Ukrainians and the Russians. There is really not a whole lot that they can talk about right now. I hope at some point that will be different, but what we are seeing right now is a very aggressive Russia, and a Ukraine that is fighting for its survival. And we don't know how this war is going to pan out. There is a lot of unknowns, just like there have been unknowns in the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict. And the lesson is that the diplomacy, the peace building are more important. In the United States, we have a long history of trying to promote peace building in Africa, in Asia. Some of those tools that we have used elsewhere might be applicable to the South Caucasus. But I certainly hope that we as a government, but also we as a society, can play a role in peace building at some point.

- In your view, what hinders the US from using more efficient means of pressure on Azerbaijan to end the blockade of Nagorno-Karabakh residents, which has been in place for over 100 days? What comes next, and what has Azerbaijan gained through this blockade?

First of all, Azerbaijan has gained a lot through this blockade, but it also cost a lot for its image, particularly at a time when Russia is destroying civilian communities, using food as a weapon in its war in Ukraine, starving people out, really is not good for an image. The Azerbaijani government will say these are independent actors, but it is clear that if Azerbaijan wanted them to stop, Azerbaijan could do that. But also Azerbaijan is certainly showing Russia that Azerbaijan has had leverage, an agency of its own, and can sideline Russia in ways that I would not have imagined a few years ago. As far as what the United States can do, the United States has been very vocal from the State Department level, from the Secretary of State level. We've heard some very vocal also coming out of the White House, and there is pressure on Azerbaijan. I certainly would hope that the United States is also putting some more pressure on Turkey, because Turkey really is the interlocutor that has more influence in Azerbaijan. The US and Turkey, we have a very complicated relationship, but we are still allies.

But also we have seen a lot of proactive things coming out of the new US Ambassador in Yerevan. What I think is important, though, is that the United States is very far away. We Americans, we are concerned about a whole variety of issues. A lot of them are our own domestic problems. A lot of them are issues at our Southern border. A lot of them are dealing with China. The United States public does not want any more US troops deployed anywhere. After 20 years in Afghanistan, they made that very clear. And the US is not going to get directly involved in the Ukraine. We might be supporting Ukraine, but I don't see troops getting there. So I don't see a deployment of any sort as US help. Everybody turns to the United States to help deal with problem X or problem Y. So this is one of the many issues that the United States is dealing with. I think, unlike others, it has been raised to the highest level of the government. They are working on it. The Europeans are working on it. I know that in all the calls that go on between Baku and Washington, between Baku, Washington and Yerevan, these issues are addressed, we see clear statements out of Washington that the Lachin blockade is pushing peace back.

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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