The Tripartite’s Big Barter In The “Eurasian Balkans”: The Southern Caucasus
State Of Play
Russia’s lynchpin in the Southern Caucasus has been its historic relationship with Armenia, which has nowadays manifested itself in the two countries’ shared participation in the Eurasian Union and CSTO. Moscow has been making tremendously commemorable progress in strengthening its relations with Baku, something which might have seemed unforeseeable several years ago. Nowhere was the success of the last few years of diplomatic engagement more apparent than in the Trilateral Summit between the Russian, Azeri, and Iranian leaders in hashing out the details of the North-South Transport Corridor, which will run through each of them and link all the parties together to the Western European and South Asian marketplaces. Ties with Tbilisi are noticeably different, however, as they’re overshadowed by the Five-Day Way that American-allied former Georgian President Saakashvili unleashed on Abkhazia and South Ossetia and which consequently led to Russia’s military response and recognition of these two territories’ independence. That being said, while Georgia is indisputably lunging towards its desired NATO and EU membership, its present leadership is showing signs of pragmatism in wanting to stabilize relations with Moscow and enhance the crucial bilateral trading relationship between them.
Iran’s strongest bilateral relationship in the Southern Caucasus is with Armenia, however strange that may seem to some who had fallen for the American disinformation campaign that the country is some kind of “Islamo-facsist terrorist state” irreconcilably at war with Christianity. Iranian-Azeri ties are much more complicated, and it’s actually mostly due to their complex nature that Iran has developed such positive relations with Armenia. Some estimates state that up to a quarter of the Iranian population is ethnic Azeri (which in absolute terms is around twice as many which live in Azerbaijan), residing mostly in the northwestern part of the country though mostly integrated and assimilated into Iran’s cosmopolitan identity. Nevertheless, hyper-nationalist voices in Azerbaijan occasionally refer to these parts of Iran as “Southern Azerbaijan”, playing to Tehran’s fears that an American/”Israeli” covert operation could be initiated to wrest this region away from the country through the flexibly adaptive weapon of Hybrid War. Also, Azerbaijan and Iran have an unresolved maritime dispute on the Caspian Sean over which they almost went to war in 2001. Contrastingly, because it’s not in any way linked to the Azeri-Iranian-Armenian nexus of controversy, Georgia has what can be described as the most ‘neutral’ relations with Iran, untainted by regional considerations though nonetheless vulnerable to US-EU pressure.
Turkey’s geostrategic alignment in the Southern Caucasus is traditionally the opposite of Russia and Iran’s, being anchored in Azerbaijan and with full antagonism towards Armenia. Azeris and Turks are ethnically very similar and speak a closely related language, hence their fraternal ties, while the Armenians were slaughtered during World War I during a tragedy that Russia and many others have labelled as genocide. Turkey closed its border with Armenia in a sign of solidarity with Azerbaijan during the early 1990s, and the debilitating blockade has been in place ever since then. Although Ankara and Yerevan made moves towards restarting their relations in the recent past, this plan stumbled and ultimately led to nothing as Turkey instead turned its “zero problems with neighbors” into one of “many problems with most neighbors”. One of the few countries untouched by Neo-Ottoman aggression over the past half a decade has been Georgia, which has very pragmatic relations with Turkey because of the BTC pipeline. Turkey has also been supportive of Georgia’s NATO and EU membership bids, seeing the country as a geographic gateway to extending these membership ‘privileges’ to Azerbaijan one day. Just as the geostrategic calculus is now changing, however, so too might Ankara’s determinations, and while it remains on very friendly terms with Tbilisi, it might no longer have the same interest in seeing it join these institutions as it did before, to say nothing of its fraternal Azeri ally.
The US has ensconced itself in the Georgian establishment and uses the country as its regional base for projecting influence throughout the Southern Caucasus, with its latest tangible manifestation being the NATO ‘training base’ that was set up there last year. Washington made many overtures to energy-rich Baku over the past two decades, most of which were very successful in bringing it on board as a partner of the unipolar establishment, but all of this suddenly unraveled when the EU began pushing “democratic” and “human rights” rhetoric on Azerbaijan. Within the past two years, Azerbaijan has sharply turned away from the Western establishment and started weighing the options that it could have with the Multipolar Community, having ultimately decided to pivot in this latter direction after the trilateral summit that it hosted with Russia and Iran. Azerbaijan is not a “rogue state” in the sense that it wiykd use its energy sources as leverage against the West, but the US certainly knows that this is always a possibility regardless, even if it’s not realistic in the current context. Nevertheless, because of the mutually beneficial nature of the energy relationship between both sides, it’s not forecasted by any serious observers that Baku would ever take this approach. In response to Azerbaijan’s multipolar reorientation, the US and EU have been courting the Armenian government and hyper-nationalist Pravy Sektor-like ‘opposition’, seeking to replace any perceived ‘zero-sum’ losses relating to Azerbaijan with strategic advances in Armenia, whether by co-opting the government like it’s presently trying to do in Serbia or overthrowing it like it did in Ukraine.
The main problem in the Southern Caucasus is the unresolved conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. There is no way that a functionally sustainable multipolar future can ever be achieved in the region if this problem is not responsibly dealt with by all stakeholders. The lack of peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan holds Yerevan back from agreeing to Baku’s inclusion in the Eurasian Union, while at the same time Azerbaijan’s adamant resistance to ever countenancing the separation of its internationally recognized territory contributes to this cyclical state of instability. Both countries have to conclusively deal with this disagreement before multipolarity can ever fully flourish in the region, since the lopsided nature of Armenia already being a member of these relevant military-economic institutions gives Yerevan disproportionate weight to enforce its demands. Likewise, Azerbaijan is much more integral to both of them in all practical terms, so this in and of itself gives Baku its own negotiating leverage. The situation with Azerbaijan’s inclusion in these groups is unlike its interest in the SCO since Armenia is not a preexisting member of that organization, and therefore both sides became dialogue partners in parallel with the other last year at the same time as rivals India and Pakistan began their joint accession as formal members. No such balancing arrangement is possible in the CSTO and Eurasian Union because of Armenia’s formal position within both blocs, which again underlines the urgency with which the Nagorno-Karabakh frozen conflict must be settled before any further mutually beneficial multilateral progress can be made in securing Azerbaijan’s position in the Multipolar Community.
Understanding the complex interplays between all actors and interests in the Southern Caucasus, and cognizant of the pressing need to rectify relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan in order to assist the greater multipolar good, it’s absolutely imperative that a new diplomatic initiative be proposed for Nagorno-Karabakh, with the most pragmatic and neutral of these being the “Katehon Plan” suggested in the recent article about “The Art Of The Possible: Armenia And The New Eurasian Alliance”. The starting point for any future discussions must be the UN Resolutions that condemn Armenia’s “occupation” of Azerbaijan’s territory and Yerevan’s own legal lack of recognition of Nagorno-Karabakh’s de-facto and self-proclaimed independence. The novel twist is that the “Safety Belt” of territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh and which act as a bridge between it and Armenia should be demilitarized by all parties as a necessary trust-building step, which is a reasonable suggestion considering how Stepanakert itself doesn’t even constitutionally recognize this land as being part of the breakaway province. In response to this bold step, the Katehon Plan suggests that Turkey lift its embargo on Armenia in order to help save its neighbor’s struggling economy. Details about the right of return for ethnic Azeris could then be discussed afterwards, but what’s needed is for Armenia and the Nagorno-Karabakh authorities to take this first move in tangibly changing the military-political situation on the ground, though of course in coordination with their Russian and Iranian partners’ countermoves in engaging/restraining Azerbaijan and perhaps even deploying peacekeepers in order to maintain the Safety Belt’s demilitarized status between Yerevan and Baku.
The most likely thing to go wrong in the abovementioned reconciliation scenario is that the so-called “Karabakh Clan” running the Armenian “deep state” (permanent military-intelligence-diplomatic bureaucracies) right now wouldn’t allow any compromise whatsoever on the Nagorno-Karabakh issue. Not only could they take direct action themselves to pressure President Sargsyan to step down if he took even the slightest pragmatic step in this direction, but they’d sit back idly and allow the US-based Pravy Sektor-like diaspora to pull the hyper-nationalist ‘opposition’s’ strings from abroad and orchestrate a Color Revolution. For as lousy of a domestic politician as he may seem to many, Sargsyan is the most moderate political voice of significance in modern-day Armenian politics, and his removal from the equation would do to Armenia what Yanukovich’s did to Ukraine after EuroMaidan. Far-right nationalists would prevail and take immediate control of the government, reorienting all state apparatuses towards preparing for a Continuation War with Azerbaijan under whatever pretenses can fortuitously be found or premeditatedly trumped up. The whole point of this would be for the radicals to please their Atlanticist patrons by reigniting the Nagorno-Karabakh tinderbox and pushing back Armenian-Azeri multipolar reconciliation for another generation.
As a reward for their usurpation of power, the US would grant its newly empowered proxy elite the personal ‘privileges’ that come with enhanced EU and NATO relations, though being contingent of course on them either kicking the Russian military out of the country or embroiling Moscow in an inescapable and completely counterproductive quagmire. The last thing that Russia wants to do is be forced to choose between Armenia and Azerbaijan, hence why it has refrained from encouraging either of them and has always steadfastly stuck to its policy of peace. In the event of any future hostilities, Russia is not obliged by the CSTO to defend Armenian forces located in Azerbaijan’s internationally recognized territory, which would of course lead to immediate problems between Yerevan and Moscow the moment that the Russian leadership refuses the nationalists’ calls for an intervention here. It seems ever more likely that the developing scenario is for Armenia to engineer a new war with Azerbaijan which could then serve as an excuse for expelling Russia from the country when it doesn’t heed the call for war in Nagorno-Karabakh. Regardless of the sneaky tactics engineered to achieve this goal, the removal of Russian forces would instantly open the gates for an accelerated partnership with the EU and NATO, thereby linking Armenia up with Georgia and turning Moscow’s by-then former ally into a Western dagger aimed straight at the heart of the Southern Caucasus, strategically wedged right between Turkey and Iran.
Russia wouldn’t really have a fallback plan for dealing with the geopolitical aftermath that this could result in, but the best that it could do is ask Iran to allow it to indefinitely retain its air presence in Hamadan so as to compensate for the military reversal in Armenia. The consequent Azeri-Turkish-Iranian joint coordination in defending against the appearance of a suddenly pro-Western Armenian state in between them would be manipulated by the unipolar media into a new ‘Clash of Civilizations’, playing off of the fact that these three states are Muslims while the two Western-aligned ones are Christian. Russia’s participation in the “Muslim Bloc” would be spun as a sign that Moscow has “sold out” its civilizational heritage for “energy interests”, despite all of this being nothing more than provocative disinformation. With Armenia firmly in its grasp to go along with the advances that it’s made over the years in Georgia, NATO could then quickly capitalize off of this turnaround in order to turn the tiny country into its regional beachhead for rapidly bringing in more military assets from the bloc. None of the targeted states would allow this to happen, and the most likely ‘solution’ to stopping this Western plot from getting out of control would be for a major war to break out which destroys the Georgian and Armenian states (which are separate than the people, it should be emphasized) while neither of them are yet in NATO and before they become serious long-term threats to the entire region.