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

None of the Big Players Is Inclined to Pick a Fight with Baku Right Now

Jeffrey Mankoff, senior associate, Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS)

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

It's viewed in the US with some degree of concern because of the potential for further violence and destabilisation in the Caucasus that potentially can draw in other actors. And that can also have negative humanitarian consequences for the civilian population in the region. As far as the war in Ukraine goes, of course, the violence in the South Caucasus broke out before the full-scale war in Ukraine. And Russia is not the primary protagonist in the Caucasus. Nevertheless, there is a connection in the sense that, the fact that Russia has devoted so many resources to the conflict in Ukraine, leaves less of those resources available in the Caucasus. And I think one of the reasons that the Azerbaijani offensive has continued is because Russia has less ability to constrain the actions of the forces on the ground, compared to a couple of years ago. The emergence of Turkey as an important regional player since 2020, and the tightening of the military and political and economic alliances between Ankara and Baku meant that Russia's role as the main regional power broker was already coming under pressure. And that pressure has only accelerated since the full-scale war in Ukraine started. The second thing I would say, as far as the US-Russia relationship goes, is that because US-Russia relations are so bad right now thanks largely to events in Ukraine, things that happen elsewhere, including in the South Caucasus have taken on more of a zero-sum significance in the US-Russia context. Previously, the OSCE Minsk Group was the main diplomatic form for managing (I won't say resolving) the conflict in the South Caucasus. And it was co-chaired by the United States, Russia and France. Those three countries had their own reasons for participating in that process. But they all sought at least to prevent the fighting from flaring up again. Now, the push for mediation since February 2022, has become more competitive. The US in tandem with the Europeans have been more visible as a mediator, and that has gone over badly in Moscow. And Moscow is trying now, in its own capacity, to take on the mediating role. Both sides see the South Caucasus as another front in a wider geopolitical competition that has gotten much fiercer since the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine.

- Currently, do Russia and Western countries share any common interests 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?

Ultimately both the US and Russia would like a settlement of some kind. They may have different views of the path to getting there and more or less support for different actors on the ground. I think both want to see an agreement of some kind, both believe that in the event that there is a settlement, they will be better placed to take advantage of it. As far as what is needed for a settlement. At this point, there are a couple of issues that remain unresolved, but at the end of the day, it comes down to the status of the ethnic Armenian population in Nagorno Karabakh or the former Soviet Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Oblast, and making sure that there is some kind of enforceable guarantees for their security and access to the Republic of Armenia. There also are issues over ensuring the Republic of Armenia’s security, more broadly because some of the fightings has in the last year been not only in and around Nagorno Karabakh but along the so-called undisputed borders of Armenia. And as long as that threat of cross-border violence exists, and as long as the security threats to the ethnic Armenian population in the former NKAO exist, there are going to be challenges. Of course, Azerbaijan was also concerned about its territorial integrity, which includes the Soviet era NKAO. And we've heard statements from the Armenian leadership that they accept Azerbaijan's territorial integrity. There is a path to resolving it, but then the question of security guarantees for the ethnic Armenian population that lives there remains. There also were problems around the East-West transit connecting to Nakhichevan that I think can be resolved a little bit more easily. Armenia, as opposed to extraterritoriality on the road connecting Azerbaijan proper with Nakhichevan. Iran has concerns about the so-called Zangezour Corridor which would reduce its own salience as a transit route. So there are these regional issues as well and the issues around the status of that road. But at the end of the day, I think it's really about territorial integrity and the security of the population in the former Soviet NKAO.

- 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?

Part of the reason that there is interest in the South Caucasus outside the region is because of its geography and where it sits among larger players. For the US and ultimately Europe the hope is that there will be stable, somewhat democratic Georgia and Armenia a region that can facilitate East-West transit of hydrocarbons, and other goods as well. And that can be bound to a wider European community through Eastern Partnership or similar arrangements, creating an institutional tie to the European Union. Last year, the EU Commission signed an energy agreement with President Aliyev. The EU and its member states see the South Caucasus critical for reducing their dependence on Russian energy, which has been one of the biggest shifts since the outbreak of the full-scale war in Ukraine. And that’s very fundamental to what their vision of the region in the future looks like. For Russia, of course, it's a different picture. I think Russia wants to limit the interest of these three states in integrating with or deepening their ties to the European Union.

In Georgia, we have seen that play out as far as support for anti-European, quasi NGOs, political parties, and various other kinds of organisations. And there is a government in Tbilisi right now that is very retrograde, I guess, in terms of its commitment to European standards, democracy and human rights. In Azerbaijan, that involves deepening military ties, working and supporting Azerbaijan's regional ambitions. Even though formally, Armenia is (allied is a too strong term) a partner state of Russia, and the Eurasian Economic Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, but maintaining Russian influence in Armenia at the same time the presence of its military forces and control of infrastructure and other economic levers. So using different tools in all three of these states to constrain their ability to pivot towards or to integrate with the EU and to act as that kind of East-West transit corridor. One of the other outcomes of the war in Ukraine has been a deepening of the relationship between Russia and Iran. And as part of that, Russia has been pushing for creating its own North-South transit corridor with Iran which already has transit connections to the South Caucasus, particularly Armenia. And so the Russian vision is really a kind of North-South axis, Russia through the South Caucasus to Iran, and then ultimately to India, the so-called International North-South transit corridor. Whereas the American and the European vision is East-West. This has implications for energy security, sanctions, and evasion, for both Russia and Iran as major targets of US and European sanctions. Being able to connect directly overland through the Caucasus is an important mechanism for them to deepen their trade and other relationships outside the global financial system that's dominated by the US, and where they would be subject to sanctions. So I think that's a big part of it, too.

- 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, and EU in this context?

The 2020 War was pivotal in terms of reshaping the dynamics between Armenia and Azerbaijan on the one hand and recalibrating the role of outside actors on the other. Paradoxically, I do think that the war in 2020 has opened up new possibilities for overcoming some of the fractures that have affected the region since the collapse of the Soviet Union. And that, of course, requires a political settlement of the issue surrounding Nagorno Karabakh. All sides have said in principle that this is what they want. Finding the actual modalities for getting to that kind of agreement are obviously hard. And we are not there yet. But there is a recognition of, what the parameters of that would look like, with the territory that was disputed since the collapse of the Soviet Union under Azerbaijani sovereignty, but with guarantees for the ethnic Armenian population that remains there. If we can get to an agreement, the outside powers would support that. Even if they have different ideas and different plans for connecting the South Caucasus to the world. The other difference, as far as relationships in the region go, has to do with the role of the outside actors. For a long time, Russia was the main power broker. Despite the trilateral Minsk Group, Russia was the main player in 2020. Turkey inserted itself in a pretty direct way through its military support for Azerbaijan, which was pretty comprehensive, it was a provision of weapons, but also training, and we heard some stories even of operational command.

So Turkey is forcing its way into the region in a way that it hadn't done before, taking up a position that was different from the one that Russia had preferred. But eventually, Russia and Turkey kind of come to the outlines of a modus vivendi that allowed both of them to pursue their respective interests in the South Caucasus similarly to what they're doing in Syria. But Turkey is not going away. And Turkey is an independent actor that is a member of NATO but is not implementing sanctions on Russia, and has a pretty deep and wide-ranging, bilateral relationship with Moscow too. And, again, we talked about Iran, because of Iran’s growing isolation and sanctions its relationship with Russia has become more important and Russia's relationship with Iran has become more important. And that leaves the Caucasus kind of in an awkward spot between them. The US and the EU: The US is far away, of course, and has lots of other concerns. But as a Minsk Group co-chair, a country where there is a significant especially Armenian American population is not alien to the region. For the EU, it's more of a direct interest in the energy ties and because all three of the South Caucasus countries are EU and NATO partner states and how those partnerships develop, how especially the EU is capable of bringing its expertise and its economic gravity through its markets, influencing developments in the region is going to be really important. Some of it will depend on the state of the US relationship with Turkey. Because again, Turkey is an independent player, but it is a member of NATO and at least in theory is a candidate for membership in the EU. So if the EU-Turkey relationship is better, then there is more scope for Turkey to act in the South Caucasus in ways that are aligned with what the European actors would like to see. And if that's not the case, there is more scope for Turkey to pursue an independent line sometimes in closer coordination with Russia.

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

The Ukraine conflict is a major ongoing war. It's the biggest interstate war in Europe since 1945. The Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict is ongoing at a low level. But it's a relatively small war. And it's gone through a hot phase in 2020 and is now kind of simmering. Obviously, the focus for US and European engagement is very much in Ukraine. In part, because Ukraine is a bigger state and in part because of where Ukraine is located. Its strategic significance for the EU and for bigger questions of international order are immense. And Russia views it in similar terms. I am not one of those people who will not refer to it as a proxy war. I do think it has effectively become a proxy war, where the US and the EU, on the one side, and Russia on the other, are fighting to establish their own models for European security order. It's about Ukraine, but it's a conflict about a lot more besides Ukraine. In the South Caucasus, it's an intra-regional conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Outside powers play a role, but they are not the principal actors here. And for the US and the EU, it's a concern for the reasons that we talked about, but it's a much lower priority than what's going on in Ukraine.

- Will there be consequences for Azerbaijan for not fulfilling the decision of the International Court of Justice?

It’s hard to say. Azerbaijan right now has won a military victory, recognizes that the balance of power has shifted in its favour and that the outside players that matter, are not willing to put a lot of pressure on it. Turkey because Azerbaijan is an ally, Russia because it's perfectly happy to play a playoff Armenia and Azerbaijan against one another. Europe because it is seeking to diversify its dependence on Russian energy, and Azerbaijan plays a big role in that. And the United States, because it's just not a major priority. The US not going to go against the Europeans on this issue. So the international conjunction of states or actors who would put pressure on Baku is not very strong right now. Of course, that could change at some point. There is obviously some sense in which things like ICJ rulings need to be enforced or it needs to be some effort or show that they are being enforced just to maintain the legitimacy of the ICJ as an institution. You may see some actions around the margins but at the end of the day, none of the big players is inclined to pick a fight with Baku right now.

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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