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

Britain Will Assist Any Country in the South Caucasus Which Wants to Reduce Russian Influence on Itself

Thomas de Waal, analyst

- 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?

On a governmental level, unfortunately, the South Caucasus does not rank very high in the priorities of the British foreign policy. We have quite a strong non-governmental presence in the UK, with several NGOs working on the South Caucasus, probably the best ones, some good experts. And this was always the case, but has got worse since Brexit. The European Union, which is now in Georgia, is the major player because of Georgia's hopes of joining the EU, and the European Union is also playing a leading role in the peace negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Britain, unfortunately, does not have the same kind of profile and influence. It has relations with all three countries, especially with Georgia, traditional energy relationship with Azerbaijan because of BP's presence in Azerbaijan. But that's no longer as important as it was. And quite a modest relationship has to be set with Armenia. So what are the priorities for the UK? Well, obviously, like most Western countries, wants to see regional stability. But I think the major kind of prism through which Britain views the South Caucasus is through Russia, it wants to limit the influence of Russia. Britain has been one of the strongest supporters, if not the strongest supporter in the west of Ukraine, and wants to hold the Russian aggression in Ukraine. In that sense, Britain will assist any country in the South Caucasus which also wants to reduce Russian influence on it. And that, of course, also includes Armenia. If Armenia makes this stronger move away from Russia, I guess, Britain will be supporting it.

Well, I guess that there is a perception of both the threat and of opportunity. The threat is obviously clearest to Georgia. If the trend continues and Russian influence weakens in the South Caucasus, this will be seen as an opportunity for greater engagement, more trade, and so on.

- 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?

The last few years have been seen the weakening of the role of international organizations in the South Caucasus, particularly OSCE, the United Nations, and the increase in the influence of regional powers: Russia - in 2020, in the second Karabakh conflict, and also Turkey. Iran wants to play a stronger role, but is a bit limited by many factors. There is a new configuration in the South Caucasus. The EU was more of an economic actor before, but is increasingly a geopolitical actor in the South Caucasus. The fear used to be that the South Caucasus would be (Armenia-Azerbaijani conflict, for example) a kind of proxy conflict between Russia and the West. That hasn't really happened so much. Russia and the West are both beating, but as negotiators, it's a fairly benign competition in that respect. But we are seeing this kind of proxy conflict spreading more to the Middle Eastern countries. Israel - stronger relationship with Azerbaijan, Iran - worried about the situation, more supportive of Armenia, even India and Pakistan - spreading to the South Caucasus. India, supporting Armenia, and Pakistan - Azerbaijan. I would say that we are seeing, and this is not a good phenomenon, the South Caucasus, in a way, joining the Middle East in the last few years.

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?

For those of us who study and watch the South Caucasus, it's quite frustrating what we see, at that these three small countries are geographically close together, with a lot of prospects for economic cooperation in the future, transport links, and so on. And yet it never happens. Even the famous 9th point of the November 2020 ceasefire agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan, which said all transport routes will be unblocked, is still unfulfilled two and a half years later. So that's quite frustrating. And I don't see, unfortunately, any prospects of a big cooperation regime in the South Caucasus. Partly it is is the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict. Partly it is the geopolitics, the proxy conflicts, and partly it is because the local economic players get so much income and rent. For them, closed borders and roadblocks, and customs are a plus. It means that they can earn more money. They are not interested in transparency of borders or free economic cooperation, because then your big oligarchs in places like Azerbaijan will rather lose than earn money.

The war in Ukraine, Russia's invasion of a sovereign country, means that the level of trust in Russia is extremely low in all three countries of the South Caucasus, including in Armenia, which is, as we know, formerly an ally of Russia, but feels that Russia is not fulfilling its obligations as an ally. So that is an extra complication because Russia is the guarantor of the November 2020 agreement, which says that transport links will be unblocked. But then it also says that the road to Nakhijevan through Armenia will be guarded by the Russian FSB. And that's, I think, problematic for almost everyone who is not Russian, that an international transport link would be guarded by FSB, and then we have the economic sanctions on Russia. There is a lot of Western concern that all three Caucasus countries are quite weak on sanctions, and that therefore they are kind of holes in the sanctioned regime that Russia can use. For all those reasons, it's harder to build a kind of economic cooperation regime in the South Caucasus.

- In your opinion, what countries, or organizations can have Azerbaijan stops the blockade of Nagorno Karabakh residents, which has been taking place for over 4 months? According to you, what are the main expectations of Azerbaijan from the blockade? And what has Azerbaijan achieved today?

Azerbaijan is using what someone described as coercive diplomacy. It's using both force and diplomacy to try and get what it wants, so it has a very maximalist position. What we see is forcing the Armenians of Karabakh to accept the Azerbaijani flag without really any offers of rights or autonomy to them. And this is obviously what the closure of the Lachin Corridor and the new checkpoint (in addition to the RMK checkpoint an Azerbaijani one - editor) are designed to squeeze to put pressure on the Armenians of Karabakh. This is a very serious situation and is likely to lead to a new conflict, maybe not on the scale that we saw in 2020, but on a smaller scale, for sure. I can't see this continuing without some kind of violence, unfortunately. What can stop this? Well, we saw the International Court of Justice ruling in February (2023 - editor), which many hoped would stop this, but clearly, that's just a court ruling. It doesn't have any force on the ground. So international organizations can try. But clearly, I think Russia is the first actor that can stop this. But Russia for four months has done almost nothing and sort of watched, was a kind of witness, a bystander as the new checkpoint was set up. We're seeing at the moment a quite serious level of talks in Washington with Secretary of State Blinken personally involved. So the United States, I think, is putting its influence and time and energy back into this, which is positive. But again, what kind of enforcement capacity does the United States have? Similarly, with the European Union, where Charles Michelle spent a lot of time and effort last year on this process. This will stop when Azerbaijan feels that it wants to have less coercion and more diplomacy and when it feels that the price of using force is too high. But that moment has not arrived, unfortunately.

- How efficient can the policy of equidistance from the parties to the Armenian-Azerbaijani and Russian-Ukrainian conflicts be?

It's often not very helpful to compare all these conflicts. They are all so different. We like to quote Tolstoy, that says "All happy families are alike, all unhappy families are different in their own way". And these conflicts too are different in their own way. Clearly what we are seeing at the moment is Azerbaijan using the opportunity to be extremely aggressive towards Armenia with operations across the border, with the closure of the Lachin Corridor, and so on. So the aggressive behavior is coming from Azerbaijan. But I wouldn't say that it puts Azerbaijan in the role of Russia and Ukraine. I think both sides (Armenia and Azerbaijan), in the last 30 years have been aggressive. So I would put them in different categories. I am certainly very clear that I want Azerbaijan's aggression on the corridor and on the Armenian border to be stopped. But I think it's not on the same level as Russia's behavior in Ukraine. Russia invaded the sovereign state, captured hundreds of towns and villages, and tens of thousands of people died. It's a different order of problem. It's a major European war. And I guess the Armenia - Azerbaijan conflict is serious, but it's not on the same level.

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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