Russia: Trying To Maintain a Balance in the Caucasus - December, 2009

The following are two recent analytical pieces written by Stratfor and Jamestown. It is no secret today that the northern grandmasters of geopolitics have commenced an elaborate game of chess upon the landscape of the Caucasus. With a series of brilliant moves Moscow has managed to place a wedge between Turkey, NATO, Georgia and Azerbaijan while securing the dependence of both Ankara and Baku. As a result, Turkey today finds itself forced to abandon its belligerent stance on Nagorno Karabagh and sit at the negotiating table with Yerevan. Once aloof, Tbilisi today is more-or-less isolated, abandoned to its fate by the forces of "freedom and democracy". Baku suddenly finds itself at the mercy of Moscow. And after years of political isolation and economic stagnation Yerevan finds itself on center stage. Moscow is using Armenia to project its political, economic and military power into the south Caucasus and beyond. What's at stake here are major regional economic projects: oil refineries, atomic power plants, superhighways, transnational oil/gas pipelines and transnational rail commerce.

Arevordi

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Russia: Trying To Maintain a Balance in the Caucasus

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November 2009

Summary

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev met Nov. 24, the same day that leaders of the Armenian and Turkish parliaments met in Moscow. Two days earlier, Aliyev met with his Armenian counterpart Serzh Sarkisian to discuss the ongoing dispute between their countries over Nagorno-Karabakh. Before his meeting with Sarkisian, Aliyev said that his country was prepared to use military force against Armenia if negotiations failed to produce results. Aliyev’s threat shows how frustrated Baku is growing with the negotiation process. It could also endanger the delicate balance Russia has been trying to strike in the Caucasus.

Analysis

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev met with his Russian counterpart Dmitri Medvedev Nov. 24 in the Russian city of Ulyanovsk to discuss key regional issues. The same day, the heads of the Armenian and Turkish parliaments met in Moscow. Two days earlier, Aliyev met with Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian in Munich to continue negotiations in the countries’ dispute over the Nagorno-Karabakh region. These meetings represent the continuation of a new diplomatic framework being established in the Caucasus — a process primarily involving Azerbaijan, Armenia, Turkey and Russia. But the ongoing and complex negotiations recently changed direction just before the Munich meeting, when Aliyev said Azerbaijan was “ready to use military force” against Armenia if the negotiations did not make progress soon. If it were to materialize, that threat could shift the regional dynamic substantially. However, Russia will speak out before any serious moves are made.

Aliyev’s statement indicates Baku’s frustration over the negotiation process and highlights the delicate situation in the Caucasus. Turkey and Armenia are holding talks on normalizing ties and opening their shared border. The talks have gone through several rounds and produced protocols to be signed by both countries’ parliaments. But these negotiations are closely linked to the talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan, with Baku (traditionally an ally of Turkey and wary of Armenia) stating that it would only support such normalization if the longstanding Nagorno-Karabakh dispute is settled first. Russia, as a regional power with ties to Armenia and Azerbaijan, has been mediating both sets of negotiations. But neither set of talks has produced much in terms of concrete results. Armenia and Azerbaijan have not been able to agree on the status of Nagorno-Karabakh, and though the Turkish and Armenian foreign ministers signed protocols on normalization and opening their countries’ shared border, those protocols are stuck in the Turkish and Armenian parliaments and face substantial resistance, particularly in Armenia.

Russia has continued encouraging all parties to work toward an agreement, but Moscow’s interests in the region would actually be better served by prolonged negotiations without any substantial change, other than for each country to grow closer to and more dependent on Moscow. From Moscow’s perspective, Azerbaijan’s frustration with the Turkish-Armenian negotiations forces Baku into Moscow’s waiting embrace. Therefore, the Kremlin has encouraged the Turkish-Armenian negotiations while quietly supporting Baku in its indignation over the developments.

Azerbaijan now fears that Armenia and Turkey could take matters into their own hands. Baku feels the talks with Yerevan are fruitless and, despite Ankara’s assurances, is worried that Turkey could choose to normalize relations with Armenia without a resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh issue. Azerbaijan also believes that Russia has been using every country involved in these negotiations to its own advantage, which is not far from the truth. So Azerbaijan has shifted its stance and heightened its rhetoric, saying that not only is it willing to go to war with Armenia (which it has said many times before), it is ready for the conflict. Talks have yielded few results, and Azerbaijan knows it is in a difficult position where its interests are not being served by alignment with either Russia or Turkey. By threatening war, Azerbaijan is hoping to make Turkey pay more attention to Baku’s demands — particularly, Baku wants Ankara to support a resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh issue.

A key question is whether Azerbaijan’s military is indeed ready for war with Armenia. When the countries fought over Nagorno-Karabakh from 1998-1994, Azerbaijan was defeated. But since then, Azerbaijan has been able to increase its defense budget from $250 million to $1 billion due to strong oil prices and generous energy revenues from the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline. Baku has steadily built up its military forces and has received training from the likes of Russia, Turkey and the United States, while Armenia’s economy and military have remained relatively stagnant. But according to STRATFOR sources in Baku, Azerbaijan’s military feels it needs a few more years to become fully ready to face Armenia. This is not to say, however, that Azerbaijan will not initiate war if it feels it needs to.

Whether or not Azerbaijan is militarily prepared for war with Armenia, Aliyev’s rhetoric presents a problem for Russia. From Moscow’s perspective, Azerbaijan’s military threats complicate the balancing act Russia has been trying to maintain in the region. This consists of keeping Armenia beholden to Russia, building up ties with Azerbaijan by fostering the split between Turkey and Azerbaijan over the Armenia issue, strengthening cooperation with Turkey in regional and energy issues, and keeping the United States from getting too involved in the negotiations — all while appearing like the region’s benevolent mediator. Not only do Baku’s threats change the relations Moscow has with Azerbaijan, they could also damage the strategic relationship Russia has built with Turkey.

Were Azerbaijan to actually follow through with its military threats, Russia would be forced to abandon this balancing act and likely would get involved militarily. That is because Russia has deemed Armenia a military ally — the country gives Russia a crucial foothold south of Georgia and between Turkey and Iran — and has 5,000 troops stationed within Armenian territory. But Russia wants to avoid military intervention at all costs for the moment. After its war with Georgia in 2008, Moscow knows another regional projection of force would not only cause it to lose credibility on the international stage, it would also destroy the ties Moscow has built with Baku.

The Nov. 24 meeting between Aliyev and Medvedev in Russia was scheduled primarily to allow Moscow to urge Azerbaijan not to follow through with these threats. And to make sure Aliyev gets the message, Medvedev likely reminded him of two things. First, in the event of a war between Azerbaijan and Armenia, Russia will not only get involved but it could occupy the Nagorno-Karabakh region in defense of the Armenians, which would be a nightmare for Azerbaijan. Second, if Azerbaijan goes to war with Armenia, it will lose its primary cooperative partner in the region. Traditionally Turkey has played that role, but Azerbaijan has grown disillusioned over Turkey’s strengthening relations with Armenia. As a result, Azerbaijan has lately relied more on Russia, though Azerbaijan has grown tired of Moscow’s power plays in the region.

In light of these developments, Azerbaijan reached out to another outside power — the United States — in recent days. On Nov. 23, Aliyev met with a U.S. delegation led by Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Celeste Wallander, and there is no doubt that Aliyev tried to elicit U.S. military cooperation over the Nagorno-Karabakh situation. However, the United States is simply not able or willing to get involved right now, as it is tied up with wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and a possible confrontation looming with Iran. Furthermore, the Armenian lobby in Washington is one of the most powerful lobbying groups in the United States — arguably more powerful than the Israeli lobby. The United States, in effect, is actually Azerbaijan’s worst bet for assistance in its current situation. Azerbaijan feels like it needs to make a move but has little outside support for doing so. Russia has warned Baku to tone down its rhetoric and proceed very carefully. The question now is whether Azerbaijan will adhere to that warning.

Source: http://www.stratfor.com/node/149439

Turkish-Azerbaijani “Cold War:” Moscow Benefits from Washington’s Indecisiveness

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Recent weeks have seen unprecedented and potentially far reaching damage to the Turkish-Azerbaijani strategic partnership. Ever since Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) announced its intension to normalize relations with Azerbaijan’s arch-rival Armenia, the relationship between Ankara and Baku has cooled. The Azerbaijani leadership sent a strong message to Ankara in April, when President Ilham Aliyev refused to accept Turkish President Abdulah Gul’s invitation to attend the U.N. conference “Alliance of civilizations,” held in Istanbul. Yet, it was after the signing of the protocols on the establishment of diplomatic relations between Turkey and Armenia that Baku’s outrage spiraled. Both the Azerbaijani public and its political leadership openly condemned this one-sided Turkish policy. Indeed, the Azeri foreign ministry immediately issued a press release in which it said that the signing of the protocols “directly contradicts the national interests of Azerbaijan and overshadows the spirit of brotherly relations between Azerbaijan and Turkey built on deep historical roots” (www.mfa.gov.az, October 12).

That apparent cooling of the bilateral relationship, moved toward a cold war when Azerbaijani flags were banned during the Turkish-Armenian soccer match in Bursa on October 14 and Azerbaijani media outlets broadcast images of the Azerbaijani flag being torn apart and thrown into trash bins by Turkish police officers. In addition, the Azeri public was outraged by reports that the Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan, whom Azerbaijanis view as one of the main organizers of the Khojali massacre in 1992, was warmly embraced by President Gul and his wife during the soccer match. Gul’s wife, reportedly, even cooked for Sargsyan and Gul offered his bedroom to his Armenian counterpart. Such news has caused deep anti-Turkish sentiments to flourish in Baku. Traditionally an ally, brother and last resort of hope, Turkey is no longer trusted in the Azerbaijani capital. In an effort to gain an additional friendly neighbor, Ankara seems to have overstretched and nearly ruined its strategic relations with Azerbaijan.

The reaction in Baku was swift. Turkish flags, hanging in the memorial for martyred Turkish soldiers, were lowered. Youth groups and opposition parties lashed out at the Turkish leadership for the humiliation and disrespect shown to the Azerbaijani flag in Bursa. And parliament held heated debates about the “flag incident,” during which Vice-Speaker Ziyafat Asgarov said, “I take the disrespect shown against the Azerbaijani flag as a personal insult” (AZTV, October 16). Moreover, on October 16 Aliyev announced during his cabinet meeting that Azerbaijan would consider alternative options to export its gas, since Turkish-Azerbaijani talks on gas transit have not produced concrete results (www.day.az, October 16). He accused Turkey of stalling these negotiations by offering unacceptably low prices for Azerbaijani gas and did not hesitate to mention that until now, Azerbaijan has been selling natural gas to Turkey at 30 percent of its value on international markets. Aliyev also mentioned Russia, Iran and the Black sea as alternatives routes for Azeri gas and coincidently, in the same week, Gazprom and Azerbaijan’s State Oil Company SOCAR signed an agreement in Baku for the export of 500 million cubic meters of Azeri gas to Russia at the price Aliyev described as “mutually beneficial” (Trend News Agency, October 16).

It is clear that the recent developments in the South Caucasus and the Turkish-Armenian rapprochement have seriously damaged the Turkish-Azerbaijani strategic partnership. This partnership has been the backbone of East-West energy and its future transportation corridors, security, political and geostrategic balance in the region as well as the overall Turkish (or Western) entrance into the Caspian region. Without this strategic partnership, the Turkish, E.U. and U.S. axis of influence in the South Caucasus and further into the Central Asian region is at risk. This geopolitical miscalculation on the part of Turkish, E.U. and U.S. officials, all of whom have actively pushed for a one-sided normalization of Turkish-Armenian relations without the consideration of Azerbaijan’s interests and the resolution of the Karabakh conflict will see a boomerang effect.

Russia may utilize this excellent opportunity to further advance its political agenda in the region: the isolation of Georgia by cutting it off from new transit routes; shelving the E.U. and U.S.-backed Nabucco gas pipeline project by destroying the Azerbaijani-Turkish strategic partnership and thus forcing Azerbaijan to sell its gas to Russia; drawing Turkey into its own orbit of influence undermining the E.U.-U.S.-Turkey axis of influence in the region. Before Washington realizes, it will be too late to protect the South Caucasus as a sovereign and independent region. For the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the U.S. appears to underestimate what is unfolding in the region. A lack of clear vision on the part of the U.S. administration clearly plays into Russian hands. It is perhaps no coincidence that the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov so actively pushed his Armenian counterpart to sign the protocol with Turkey.

Source: http://www.jamestown.org/single/?no_cache=1&tx_ttnews[tt_news]=35684

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