RUSSIAN POLICY IN THE BLACK SEA/CAUCASUS REGION AND ARMENIAN SECURITY

At its current stage, Russia’s foreign policy is characterized by an absence of confidence and determination in the political elites, a lack of understanding of the perspectives of the relations with Western and Eastern powers. The current Russian leadership is suffering from a disconnect, or rather – a lack of connection around a certain irrational, patriotic idea. Russian politicians are too mercantile in their pursuit, in many regards, of personal and group interests. For many other states this would have been a normal condition, but Russia’s declarations in the areas of foreign policy, security and the socio-economic sphere require a different type of leadership. Vladimir Putin turned out to be the most adequate choice, the one who matched the criteria dictated by Russia’s national interests, but he does not have a strong enough team or a comprehension of global and national development trends. With the ascendancy of Dmitri Medvedev to the post of the president, the voices of functionaries trying to send signals of readiness for closer and better-coordinated collaboration with the West became stronger among the Russian leadership. It would be an exaggeration to speak of the existence of two political “poles” in the sphere of leadership: a more accurate statement would be to say that what the prevalent perception of the solution to the problem among Russia’s elite is a pragmatic one. In the context of modern Russia, it implies a rather rough “economization” of politics and a prioritization of major corporate interests in national and foreign politics. Those corporations are potent enough to create their own security, intelligence, information management and consulting bodies, strongly influencing key agencies along with external and, especially, regional politics.

Russia’s foreign policy has a characteristic “pendulum” pattern of preferences that are dependent — or more frequently independent  — upon the emerging context. After a long period of futile attempts of integrating with the West, Russia finally gravitated towards establishing strategic relations with China and prominent Islamic states.  Failing to find a perspective niche in “Eastern” politics, Russia turned its hopes back to the West, while trying to maintain a balance between its “Western” and “Eastern” politics by using its relations with eastern powers as leverage in the dialogue with the West. Russia and the United States are trying to regulate their strategies, to give them an overall positive tone, especially when it comes to regional matters.

At the same time Russia prefers to carry out its dialogue with the United States from the position of stable relations with leading European nations. While doing this, Russia tries to coordinate its regional policies with Europe, although in practice the Europeans will hardly support them; but overall, the “reliance” on France and Germany will help Russians to gain more trust with Americans and to act with more confidence. Russia sacrificed its long-time relationship with Iran (although it was never a trusting one) to reach a common denominator with the Europeans, hoping for an alliance over the Iranian dilemma, aiming to propose a “European,” rather than “American” plan of solution to Iran’s nuclear problem.

Quoting French diplomats, “it is important to resist U.S. plans over the Iranian problem, but on the contrary, to bring the United States closer to an understanding of the European solutions to the problem.” Russia, one way or another, continues mistrusting the United States in a fundamental way, and prefers to maintain a policy of strengthening its regional positions, using every opportunity to oppress the American influence in those regions. In any case, even if the United States and Russia are capable of reaching principal agreements on global issues, their competition continues on a regional level and may lead to a serious standoff.

The United States is too involved in its Afghanistan operation, and despite its interest both in Central Asia and the Caucasus, the role of the latter in Washington politics has significantly diminished. As before, the United States continues viewing the Caucasus, more specifically – Southern Caucasus, from the perspective of two functions: energy routes and military transit. However, the importance of those functions was been re-evaluated, with a resulting reassignment of a more local and restricted role to the region. The United States is trying to avoid involvement with problems that are not directly or indirectly related to their key foreign policy issues. This is not news for the U.S. policy style that maintained a similar line during the Bush administration, and now places an even stronger emphasis on this course in the policies of the Obama administration. Currently the United States is perfectly content with the status quo and the balance of interests established in the Southern Caucasus, and Washington inevitably signals Moscow about its desire for some stagnation in the Southern Caucasus, as well as the need for avoiding any steps that might shatter the balance of interests, resulting in a confrontation that interests neither Moscow nor Washington. During the Russian-Georgian conflict in August 2008, Russia demonstrated a “politically correct” attitude towards U.S. interests in the region by securing strategically important communication infrastructures for the United States and NATO. The Russian armed forces retreated to their former positions, which caused a division of the Western parts of Southern Caucasus into U.S. and Russian spheres of influence. Soon Russia accepted the United States’ proposal to use their routes for military transit into Afghanistan, which further diminished the weight of Southern Caucasus, so if this practice of U.S.-Russian cooperation continues, which Russia seems to be increasingly interested in, then the role of the region will become not only more significant, but more “fixed” in the logical scheme or U.S. regional politics.

There are significant debates around the place of Southern Caucasus in the policies and goals of the United States regarding Iran. There is no doubt that a more stable U.S. position in the region would be preferable, but, in essence, the United States does not need the Southern Caucasus as a tactical platform in order to assert a radical influence on Iran. Even if Iran strengthened it reactionary resources, the United States would be fully satisfied with potential bases in the Middle East. Observing the political lines adopted by the leading functionaries in the Obama administration, the nature of their statements and the gist of their reactions to events taking place on wider regional arenas, one can assume with sufficient confidence that the United States will sustain its current policies for the time being.

This assumption was fully supported when Pentagon leader Robert Gates and State Secretary Hillary Clinton visited the region. Meanwhile, Moscow is carefully following Obama’s policies towards Russia and Eurasia, and their assessment by his opponents who are harshly criticizing those policies. Neither the United States nor Russia is ready for a thorough and comprehensive discussion of the balance of interests in those regions, and many bargains and agreement happen practically by default. As a result, the geopolitical situation in Southern Caucasus has become rather predictable, but the prognoses are not quite auspicious.

The latest intentions of the European Union and the leading European powers have been significantly adjusted by global economic tendencies and major disagreements in Europe, caused by the desire of the great tandem – France and Germany – to dictate its vision of the priorities of European policies to the entire union. The Europeans are trying, even in this situation, to activate their regional policies, which would, of course, mean a principal advancement of European policies and their overall affirmation as such. Europeans never succeeded in winning new positions in the Balkans or Ukraine, so their only hope is to strengthen their influence in the Mediterranean basin.

Europe has made significant progress in influencing the Iranian nuclear problem. Much will depend on the position of Great Britain, which skillfully undermined the European military project and now struggles desperately to destroy European politics, or rather the attempts to shape it. The current U.S. administration’s policy helps strengthen the positions of France and Germany, but not Great Britain. This tendency has shaped the expectations of a certain increase in Europe’s influence over Southern Caucasus, but in any event, Europe remains an outsider on the political arena of the Caucasus.

Currently the most urgent and fundamental trends in South Caucasus politics are:

  1. The Russian-Georgian conflict and the involvement of the international community in it, the stagnation of this problem to a certain degree, and the transformation of this conflict into a chronic one, with changing groups of political players.
  2. The issue of Turkish-Armenian relations that emerged on U.S. and European agendas has been included in U.S. strategy and partially that of Europe, as an attempt to tame Turkey’s ambitions and keep its regional expansion under control.
  3. The Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict, which happens to be the most important element of the U.S., Russian and partially French foreign politics in the region, maintains a balance of interests in the region and transcends the category of local intra-regional into a regional matter.

Turkey and Iran are attempting to activate their policies in the Southern Caucasus, to re-create a regional alliance while overtly attempting to push the United States out of the region, and take maximal advantage of the cooperation with Russia, to use its interest in minimizing the U.S. influence and winning new positions for Turkey and Iran. The Caucasus region has many other characteristic problems and plotlines that hardly allow to differentiate between Northern and Southern Caucasus, but these very scenarios are key in defining Russia’s policies and roles in Armenia’s security. In the late 80’s and early 90’s Russia caused significant damage to the Armenian people by denounced their strive to reclaim their historical territories. However, mutual interests lead to forming a close partnership between Russia and Armenia, which largely shaped the current geopolitical situation in the region. Russia played a definitive role in the military and economic development of Armenia, and intends to further strengthen these ties. At the same time, there have always been doubts about Russia’s long-term plans in Southern Caucasus, where it aims at total domination over the region.

Undoubtedly, Moscow views such a unilateral partnership as an obstacle to Russia’s potential to some day include Azerbaijan, and even Georgia into its sphere of influence. The “bet” on Armenia was justified because otherwise Russia would lack any hope for partnership with Azerbaijan, the most solvent nation in the region. Simultaneously, Russia is using the “Armenian factor” as leverage both in its relations with Azerbaijan and Turkey.

Russia is trying to play a leading role in the regulation of Turkish-Armenian relations, which requires serious political compromises on behalf of Armenia, including an impact on its relationship with Azerbaijan. Russia watched the failure of the American initiatives in regulating Turkish-Armenian relations with satisfaction, hoping to replace the United States in that process some day. It has to be understood that the “Armenian factor” is used by Russia in the framework of its strategic policies to solve key issues in Russian-Turkish relations, to achieve a Russian-Turkish alliance that would become a base solution in the policy of final withdrawal of the U.S. from the regions of Caucasus and the Black Sea basin. The intentions of the United States to strengthen its military and political presence in the Black Sea region has significantly concerned both Russia and Turkey, showing them that they are unable to resist the realization of those U.S. plans on their own. Those American intentions have caused an historically unprecedented unification of Russian and Turkish efforts in the region. This circumstance, of course, has played an important role in the refusal by the U.S. to realize its intentions in the Black Sea regions, although in general, the curtailment of those goals can be largely explained by a cutback of U.S. plans due to a reluctance to divert its military and political resources from seeking solution to high-priority issues.

The Russian-Turkish relations involve significant political problems that are mainly stemming from Turkey’s policy of strengthening its influence on multiple regions of Russia, of its wide undermining efforts to involve those regions in establishing control over strategically important “hot spots.” Russia cannot comply with it, and reacts rather decisively to those systemic attempts by Turkey. Among the most informed and integrated government structures in both Russia and Turkey an opinion has formed about the impossibility of creating an alliance between these two powers. Besides, despite its challenging behavior and its attempts of global blackmail of the Western community, Turkey fears the perspective of seriously distancing itself from the West, because its livelihood and security depend on NATO, its cooperation with the United States and the European Union, as well as international finance organizations.

However, the threat to Armenia is not only in he creation of a permanent long-term Russian-Turkish alliance or not even the results of certain agreements between Turkey and Russia. It has been reported that immediately after the fall 2008 talks between Russia and Turkey on the topic of new developments and new processes in the Black Sea region and the Caucasus, Turkey presented Russia with a number of demands regarding compromises from Armenia that involved the international recognition of the Genocide and the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh. Moscow has realized the volatility of such forced relations with Turkey and preferred to view Turkey’s initiatives in a “slower” regime.

However, it must be noted that potential cardinal changes in Russian-Turkish relationships are already on the agendas of Moscow and Ankara. Leaders in Moscow are hoping for a development of relations with Turkey in the framework of development of priority relations with Russia and European states, which means nothing else but the utilization of the “Turkish factor” in an alliance with Europeans in a global competitive game against the Americans. Today’s Russia does not possess neither the economic, nor political resources needed to carry out such policies, because Turkey itself is striving for a fairly independent line towards each and every power center of the world. Meanwhile, the most dangerous ones for Armenia are Russia’s intentions regarding Azerbaijan. Russia tries to materialize a certain plan of returning some vital parts of the territory of Lowland Karabakh, which would be catastrophic for Armenia, without resolving the problem of Karabakh’s political status, and maintaining the initial conditions of the conflict. While doing so, Russia is skillfully manipulating the initiatives of the “big three” – the co-chairs of the Minsk group of OSCE. As we know, the United States, Russia and France have proposed a completely demagogical plan for regulating the Karabakh problem through a withdrawal of Armenian forces, an exclusive right to resettlement for ethnic Azerbaijani refugees, thus returning the situation to its 1980s status when Nagorno-Karabakh was an isolated, highly vulnerable enclave without any perspective of an independent status. It has to be noted that the United States and France, while maintaining a line of blocking and taming Turkey, are absolutely uninterested in such catastrophic weakening of Armenia and a de-facto elimination of the “Armenian factor.” Besides, while realizing this project, Armenia falls under even stronger dependency from Russia and, in essence, loses its sovereignty.

Russia is a different case: it hopes to not only utilize this project in its own interest, but also to bring its troops into the region under the status of peacemakers. That is one of the goals of Russia in Southern Caucasus, but the Armenian population remembers very well how Russia sent two punitive expeditions of Russian troops and established a regime of terror against the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh in 1990-1992. Russia, an essential ally of Armenia, has been supplying Azerbaijan with various forms of weaponry, and encourages similar deliveries from Ukraine and Belarus.

Currently, there is information about Russia’s intentions of supplying Azerbaijan with C-300 missile-launching complexes, which will denote its partiality in politics towards Armenia and Azerbaijan, and Azerbaijan will expect to become a priority for Russia in the region. Until that time, while problems in relations between the United States and Turkey have not become too acute, the United States has more or less regarded Armenia in the light of Turkish interests, although Armenia has always been viewed by the Americans as a political “reserve” that can be used some day in the future. That day has arrived: the United States and Turkey have entered a phase of confrontation, and the United States cannot ignore the importance of Armenia and the “Armenian factor” in this process. To a certain degree, the United States and Russia have swapped places in the regional geopolitical construct ever since the United States started viewing Armenia as a “bastion,” and Russia – as a lenient “partner” in resolving issues related to the development of the Russian-Turkish “alliance.”

However, there are too many words that need to be placed between sneer quotation marks. Aside from a desire for a balance in U.S.-Russian relations within the Black Sea – Caucasus region, a more complicated problem and a fairly real threat arises with regards to Turkey’s increasing foreign policy ambitions. If Turkey perceives the current tendencies as dangerous for itself and accepts the U.S. and EU policies of blocking it as a hostile entity, it may utilize the potential tactic of sending signals to Azerbaijan about launching a full-scale military action against Armenia. Thus Turkey will demonstrate that it has the power to decide when to begin a war and when to end it, which implies the power of naming itself as the “master” of the region. It should be noted that Azerbaijan cannot afford making decisions about launching military actions without coordinating them with Turkey. A question arises about the continued potency of the United States and Russia as powers capable of restraining Turkey.

Another question that arises here is how does Russia foresee such a scenario, and what compromises it is ready to make in order to curtail Turkey’s expansion. For now, Russia’s policy towards Turkey benefits its economic and political influence, restrains the U.S. influence on it, thus strengthening its own position. History has shown that Russia’s games against Turkey have always resulted in catastrophes for many other nations of the region. But the Western society has also repeatedly used Turkey as a tool for constraining Russia against its policies in the region.

Has the political context changed enough to allow the Western community and Russia to revise their game plans in the region? Lately Great Britain demonstrated its “classic” political style in an attempt to disorganize a newly forming European strategy towards Turkey while pursuing a number of goals both in Europe and the Middle East, but mainly towards Russia and Eurasia.

That is how, as a result of a weakening U.S. influence over the Black Sea region, Armenia is becoming subject to serious threats in the framework of tightening ties between Russia, Turkey and Azerbaijan. Along with that, the threat against Armenia worsens also as a result of a weakening influence of the United States over Turkey, which strives for independence from the United States. One way or another, the United States would react to a Turkish policy in the regions of the Middle East, the Balkans, the Black Sea, the Caucasus and Central Asia. The United States has enough political potential in its reserve to block Turkey’s regional ambitions.

Turkey is facing a rapid overthrow in the Middle East and Central Asia, but the powers in some other regions are not ready to reflect a Turkish expansion, which is why they need the support and understanding of the United States. A new “Ottoman Empire” will face a fiasco in the Arab world, but other states in these and other regions will have to adopt a more reasonable policy in the face of a possible resurrection of an “Ottoman” space. Russia will never be able to create anything resembling a partnership with Turkey, but its current policies may lead to serious problems and real threats in the region.

It has to be noted that Iran, which has lately enjoyed Turkey’s considerable service on the international arena, has never returned the favor properly because it understands the real goals and consequences of a Turkish political service. The United States and Russia have gained some grounds in bilateral relations, and if they could bring themselves to overcome certain stereotypes, the two powers could prevent new phases of confrontation and reach mutual understanding in curtailing the unreasonable ambitions of a number of major nations in Asia.

Igor Muradyan

(original Russian language version can be found here)

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