The ongoing Syrian civil war in Eastern Ukraine and historical military exercises in the Baltics have caused many experts, pundits and media to overlook recent developments in the Caucasus. However, last month’s heavy exchange of fire threatened to reignite one of the oldest lasting frozen conflicts in the post-soviet world. Chapman University professor David Shafie explains, “When fighting broke out here last month, it was the most significant breach of the truce between Azerbaijan and Armenia since 1994.” The last cease-fire, brokered by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), lasted 22 years and fell short of providing any lasting compromise.
Aside from the major confrontation in the disputed territory of Nabarno-Karabagh, Georgia and Armenia have seen their relations deteriorate, as Armenia moves closer to Russia’s orbit. Meanwhile, Turkey’s influence in the region has significantly decreased due to its internal political problems and conflicting policies with its neighbours in Syria.
On May 2, South Ossetian President Leonid Tibilov declared his intention to hold a proposed referendum on joining Russia. This was a dire message for Tbilisi, as the 2008 war took away the largest economic corridor, the Roki tunnel. Severe economic drawbacks for Georgia were the result of the conflict.
As the most advanced post-soviet state, Georgia continues to seek accession to NATO. Despite current speculation on Russian troops in the Baltics and occupation of Ukraine, Georgia remains the most vulnerable target for Russia’s security goals. This is mainly due to its support base in South and North Ossetia, as well as the de facto integration of Armenia into the Russian economy through the Russian-led Eurasian Union. Albeit discreetly, Georgia has pursued military reforms and joint exercises with the U.S and the U.K. Unsurprisingly, Russia called joint UK-Georgian drills on June 1 wholly provocative, a reminder of the fragile state of affairs which continue to threaten regional stability.
Georgia has recently renewed its pledge to NATO. Georgian Defense Minister Tina Khidasheli stated to US government officials: “You need Georgia even more than we need membership in NATO today,” Khidasheli said at the Atlantic Council. “Why?” Khidasheli further explains, “Because Georgia is an opportunity for you to prove to (the) Russians that they do not have veto power, that they do not guide your policies, they do not make decisions instead of you.”
Shifting Continental Alliances
The admittance of Armenia into the Russian-led Eurasian Union has effectively reshuffled cards in the Southern Caucasus. At the same time, this rapprochement has revealed striking paradoxes in the Russian diplomacy, which continues to provide more than 85% of Azerbaijan’s total arms supply. The key issue is that Russia has effectively been supplying both sides, a fact that has significantly affected the trust of its Armenian ally. The result is an Armenian government growing increasingly close to Russia, and a mounting public opposition. Russia accounts for an intimidating share of Armenia’s economy with a considerable presence in the country’s mining, telecommunications and energy sectors.
Last month, Russia rushed the signature of a joint air defense system with Armenia, further isolating Armenia from Turkey and Azerbaijan. Turkey reacted by issuing a stern warning about risks of further escalating tensions in the Caucasus.
Despite the Turkish President’s unreserved support for Azerbaijan, the Turkish leadership has lost most of its momentum thanks to severe political drawbacks. With the arrival of nearly 3 million Syrian refugees, the rising number attacks by ISIL, and the state’s de facto war with the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, have taken a strong toll on the economy, with dozens of foreign companies leaving.
Lately, Germany has damaged German-Turkish relations by passing a resolution to call on the German acknowledgment of the Armenian Genocide, which has further isolated Turkey in a time of intense internal pressures. This signifies the importance of Turkey’s relation with its closest ally Azerbaijan. Severely hit by falling commodity prices, Azerbaijan can reasonably foresee a short-term escalation of violence in the Nagorno-Karabagh conflict.
This can have a significant impact on Turkey, which was thought of as a bastion of stability. To make matters worse, its diplomatic thaw with Russia after the downing of a Russian jet near its border has complicated any multilateral talks in the South Caucasus, where Russia has reverted to being the most influential power. As a result, we are seeing the emergence of two blocks in the Caucasus aiming in two opposing directions.
Sha Deniz and Nagarno-Karabah are vital
A crucial piece of the geopolitical quagmire opposing Russia and the U.S in the Caucasus is Azerbaijan’s strategic reserves of oil, as well as its strategic location on the Caspian Sea. As one of the first countries to massively extract oil, Azerbaijan turned to American and British oil majors as early as 1991, a move that has threatened the Russian gas and oil monopoly on Europe for the two past decades. The frozen conflict in Nagarno-Karabagh, through the establishment of a military base in Armenia, has allowed Moscow so far to retain a say in both Armenia and Azerbaijan, effectively ensuring Azerbaijan doesn’t become a competitor for oil transit into Europe.
Photo: “A Georgian sniper takes aim at Ossetian rebels” by Jonathan Alpeyrie via Wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.
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