Intense Caucasus

News today reaches the United States from the Caucasus, most of them are not the most joyful. We hear of reports of widespread corruption, human rights violations or clashes between warring countries. In the case of the Russian North Caucasus jihadists are fighting with the regional governments, headed the Pro-Russian thugs. Why, then, this piece of land, with a population of about 20 million people, deserves to be the object of study of the Department of General assessments of the U.S. Department of defense?

Answer: the importance of the Caucasus has always been determined not so much his quantitative indicators or dimensions, as the role of geographical, cultural and geopolitical crossroads. As in the days of the Mongols, or Tamerlane, or in the period of rivalry between the Tsarist, Ottoman and Safavid empires, and today the Caucasus is a meeting point, a bridge or barrier between East and West, North and South, between Europe and Asia and between Russia and the Middle East.

The Caucasus under Russian rule since the beginning of the XIX century, slowly but surely fights for his place on the world stage. This process, as before, involves a series of unresolved conflicts between the region’s countries. The impression that these conflicts often erupt at the most inopportune moment and, given the growing instability in neighbouring regions, is gradually becoming an integral part of the policy of major powers: not only Russia, Turkey and Iran, but also Europe and America.

Despite serious disagreement and divergence, three Caucasian States — Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia are seeking closer relations with the United States. Indeed, for 15 and a half years after the September 11 attacks, these countries have provided a reliable route for access to Central Asia and beyond. Today, the region is at the crossroads of several key issues that are transforming the European security environment: this refers to the aggressive expansionism of Russia, coming from the Levant Islamic radicalism, the active intervention of Iran in the middle East and Turkey tearing turmoil. Of course, all this should encourage the United States to draw attention to the region and to develop his attitude of consistent policy.

However, in the last decades, the opposite occurs. If ten years ago the United States had significant influence in all three countries, today, moving from era to Obama era trump, Washington can not boast of anything that even remotely resembled policy in the Caucasus. As a consequence, the interests and needs of US no longer occupy a prominent place in the decision-making by regional leaders.

The results speak for themselves: in 2013 Armenia rejected the draft agreement, which brought her out West, exchanging it for the Eurasian Union of Vladimir Putin. As for Azerbaijan, US relations with the only country bordering Russia and Iran at the same time, in 2015, has deteriorated almost to the limit. Even in Georgia, which has only recently been a success story and was the brainchild of American Democrats and Republicans, the leader of the country no longer considers it necessary to include in its electoral coalition, a reliable and trusted Pro-Western figure.

Simply put, the United States essentially left the Caucasus. As one would expect from this region, nothing has improved, and many things got worse. The most striking example of large-scale fighting that broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan in April 2016, had resulted in several hundred casualties and fears start a new total war. Indeed, if the current trajectory will not change, no one in Washington should not be surprised if the events in the Caucasus will entail new problems, influencing the stability and long-standing American interests in the wider region.

The strategic approach of America, 1991-2007

Although at times the Caucasus seems a hopeless quagmire, the events of twenty years ago us to draw contrasts with the current situation of the picture — to understand this, a brief excursion into the past. At that time the region went from a whole series of bloody wars, which resulted in thousands of dead and nearly two million displaced. the Military confrontation between Armenia and Azerbaijan eventually stalled, as a result, more than a million people remained without roof over the head, and the sixth part of the territory of Azerbaijan was occupied. The Georgian Autonomous territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia moved to Russia-backed separatists and the country had to deal with a quarter of a million refugees.

Both Azerbaijan and Georgia, besieged by rampant militias, witnessed the overthrow of a number of governments with varying degrees of violence. Russia itself tried, but failed to subdue separatist Chechnya in 1996 after losing the war with local militants, but not before killing about 50 thousand Chechens. In the mid-1990s, years the Caucasus has been a truth group in a more or less failed States.

However, a decade later, after many troubled years, Georgia experienced the peaceful revolution that led to the government reformers with Western education. They showed that the fight against deeply ingrained corruption and to make changes in post-Soviet society, in fact, possible. At the same time, Azerbaijan experienced an oil boom, which, despite the typical problems associated with unexpected abundance, significantly lowered the level of poverty and provided the country with a strong position in the region with which to defend their own independence.

Armenia, despite its largely voluntary isolation from regional developments, continued to grow at a moderate pace, trying artfully to balance its dependence on Russia in security and European aspirations. The Caucasus States are real States. (The only exception was the North Caucasus, which status was denied).

This progress has largely been possible thanks to the leadership of the United States. Administrations of both parties, with the active participation of the Congress developed a series of policy initiatives aimed at promoting a prosperous, Pro-Western and gradually gives way to democracy the post-Soviet States, paying considerable attention to the Caucasus. Most importantly, this policy was regional in nature: the Caucasus was considered in the broader context of Central Asia in the East and the Black sea basin in the West.

This policy supported the independence and sovereignty of States, protecting their right to choose their own foreign policy priorities. She contributed to the development of accountable democratic institutions and the emergence of a free market economy, maintain ties with the West. More precisely, us policy actively worked on in order to ensure export to world markets of the most valuable resources of the region — hydrocarbons.

The development of energy resources of the Caspian basin began in earnest in the mid 1990-ies. The expansion of oil and gas of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan played a crucial role in the economic and political self-sufficiency of States of the wider region, providing an independent income stream, through which these countries could strengthen their sovereignty. The new pipeline through Georgia, connecting the energy resources of Azerbaijan to Turkey, was held outside the former colonial lords, Russia.

Although most of this won Azerbaijan, for Georgia, the pipeline was also of great value, as well as for the Central Asian States. The diplomatic efforts of the Clinton administration along with support for the export-import Bank encouraged local leaders to decide on multibillion-dollar projects, which had a view of disapproval of Russia’s key strategic importance.

It would be a mistake to assume that US relations with the region were built solely on oil. In fact, in the early 1990’s, the Pentagon was the main focus of interest in Central Asia and the Caucasus; military planners, the US was unaware of the importance of the new States appearing in the heart of Eurasia, a region where the United States hitherto has been closed. Their efforts will not be in vain: after the attacks of 11 September 2001 the us military had to wage war thousands of miles from the nearest military bases and they had very serious logistical challenges. Quick response, the United States, in which Afghanistan managed to neutralize the Taliban and al-Qaeda (a terrorist organization banned in Russia — approx. ed.) became possible only with the introduction of the military contingent of the USA in Afghanistan through the Caucasus and Central Asia.

Ten years later, when U.S. forces increased the number in Afghanistan, Caucasus corridor guaranteed a lower degree of dependence on routes of the Northern distribution network (NDN), which took place on the territory of Russia. Given the subsequent deterioration in Russian-American relations Caucasian corridor is crucial for any presence of the West in Afghanistan or Central Asia in the future.

Transportation is a key issue not only in the military sphere: the Caucasus became the most important artery in the emerging system of continental land trade which connects the markets of Europe and Asia. In the construction of port facilities in Georgia, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, as well as railroads across the region have already been invested considerable funds. As a result, the stability of the South Caucasus will be a long-term goal not only for major Western oil and gas companies, but also for China and India who are interested in uninterrupted trade between Asia and Europe.

Finally, the reformist government of Georgia is an example for countries far from understanding how focused and strong leadership able to defeat entrenched corruption. This reform agenda is really the salvation from complete collapse of the state could not take place if the United States has provided support to thousands of young Georgians, who have been educated in American universities. She wouldn’t have moved forward if the government of Mikhail Saakashvili could not count on the intervention of the United States, when Russian leaders have tried to undermine the reform program, which feared the Kremlin kleptocrats, if successful, would pose a threat to their own system of government.

Of course, in some areas of the United States did not dare to intervene in some enterprises they failed. Looking back, we regret that the United States has generally neglected issues of conflict resolution. Only from time to time, Washington has played an active role in resolving the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict; however, he did almost nothing to put an end to the separatist conflicts in Georgia, in which Moscow was much stronger and managed to cause harm. But even with these caveats US policy in the Caucasus in the 1990s and early 2000-ies in General, it can be called a definite success.

The decline

In retrospect, a turning point, when political and economic progress in the region has given way to a gradual deterioration of the situation, became on 11 February 2007, when Vladimir Putin delivered his infamous Munich speech, citing the threat of “global superiority of the USA”. In fact, it is in the Caucasus, Putin felt that the war in Iraq has weakened the United States first began to oppose American interests. Since then, a series of Russian measures the steps the United States and responses of the regional States in the Caucasus became clearly less stable region than it was before this speech.

The most immediate factor, of course, was Russia’s invasion of Georgia in August 2008. It changed not only all the predictions about the intentions and determination, but also ideas about the usefulness of Western orientation. Until then, Azerbaijan and Georgia relied on covert Western containment of Russia, which does not cause a widespread illusion that the war in Europe gone. Provocation of Russia has exposed the West’s reluctance to challenge the supremacy of Moscow in the former Soviet Union specific actions. European sanctions lasted only a few months, and the new Obama administration even rewarded Russia for its ill-fated policy of “reset”, which Moscow perceived as tacit recognition by the United States own weaknesses.

Just six weeks after the war in Georgia broke out in the West the financial crisis that shook the foundations of the world economy and forced. The United States and Europe to delve into internal Affairs. This further undermined the credibility of the West and became an important reason for his gradual removal from participation in security issues in the Caucasus. More broadly, the Caucasus has become yet another victim of the General withdrawal from the Middle East and Eastern Europe, which President Obama acknowledged part of their long-term strategy.

The war in Georgia and the financial crisis was a double blow which radically changed the correlation of forces in the Caucasus to the detriment of the West. In subsequent years, in each of the countries in the region have been important but not always visible changes.

Armenia has long tried to combine the support which it obtained from Russia in the field of defense, with hopes of rapprochement with the West. She stood under the Russian “security umbrella” to keep the conquered Nagorno-Karabakh, but that the conquest had devastated the country’s economy. As a result, Armenia has accumulated a huge debt to Russia that Moscow gladly agreed to forgive in exchange for control over packages of strategic assets of the Armenian economy.

All this time, Yerevan has sought to maintain the most favorable relations with the United States and Europe. But his membership in the organization of the collective security Treaty made it impossible for closer relations with NATO, Armenia is focused on the European Union. In 2010, she started the negotiations on the Association agreement, including Deep and comprehensive free trade agreement (DCFTA). But when Moscow fell out with the EU policy of Yerevan has become untenable. In September 2013, President Sargsyan announced that Armenia will refuse the agreement on EU membership in favor of the Eurasian economic Union (EEU).

The circumstances in which this decision was made, can not but cause bewilderment. Sargsyan made his statement in Moscow after meeting with Putin; he did not consult neither his government nor the Parliament. Similarly, Putin did not deign to consult with other members of EEC, the leaders of Belarus and Kazakhstan. This event not only says a lot about the nature of the Eurasian Union, it also strengthened Moscow’s control over Armenia. However, the submission did not bring Armenia expected benefits: when in April 2016 between Armenia and Azerbaijan began large-scale hostilities, Moscow, instead of coming to the aid of Armenia, chose to take a neutral stance. This infuriated many Armenians, who had to overestimate their twenty-year political course towards Russia.

As for Azerbaijan, high oil prices helped the country to successfully conduct business until, while in 2014 there was a collapse of prices. However, storm clouds began to gather on the horizon yet. The Georgian war was the Baku deep shock, because oil and gas exports to Europe, he almost completely relies on Georgia. The Azerbaijani leadership realized that if the United States failed to protect Georgia, a symbol of reform in the region, Azerbaijan will certainly have to rely only on themselves. With the fading prospect of closer ties with the West was lost and the impetus for internal reforms.

Worse, the Azerbaijan felt that the Western countries quite interesting questions that are paramount: safety, energy policy and, most importantly, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Meanwhile, Moscow using the method of “carrot and stick”, decided to “pull” the country on his side. As a result, Baku has revised his position: although he has not jumped on the Russian bandwagon, but began to avoid explicitly Pro-Western positions. Despite this, Moscow has tried to interfere directly in the presidential elections in 2013. This, as well as suspicion of supporting “regime change” the United States has led to the fact that the country’s leaders have tightened control over the bureaucracy and civil society, which in turn contributed to the increasing tensions in us-Azerbaijani relations.

Meanwhile, in Georgia in 2012, something happened: the peaceful and democratic transfer of power. Although it has not led to obvious changes in Georgian foreign policy, its result was the gradual weakening of the influence of the United States. Unlike the leaders of the “rose revolution” the new autocratic leader of the country, business magnate Bidzina Ivanishvili, formed entirely under the influence of the Soviet experience and professional career in Moscow in 1990-ies. His governing coalition included as a reliable Pro-Western forces, and openly anti-American groups.

Ivanishvili made it clear that will not allow the West to determine the direction of his actions. He retired from politics at the end of 2013, but continues to address the key issues behind the scenes. Between 2014 and 2016 years he was gradually removed from his coalition’s two main Pro-Western political groups: first, the Free Democrats, then the Republican party of Georgia. The de facto leader of Georgia obviously thinks that this kind of political figures are not needed; however, anti-Western groups financed by Moscow, are sown among the Georgian population of the doubt in relation to the Western orientation of the country.

And who has the right to blame them for these kind of doubts? When Ivanishvili came to power and began to put former officials in General on trumped up charges, Brussels was subjected to more severe criticism than Washington. The Obama administration continued until the end to deny the right of Georgia to acquire the defensive weapons systems. NATO refuses to take more than cosmetic measures to support Georgia’s security. But the EU is in no hurry to enter for Georgians visa-free regime, although the country has fulfilled all the necessary conditions for this. In these circumstances it is not surprising if in the next few years, Georgia will also choose the position of the non-aligned between Russia and the West.

The growing volatility of the region urged the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders to the escalation of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, which in the period from 2008 to 2016, there was an almost linear increasing military clashes. Although the basic logic of the conflict retains a local character, it also turned into a tool of pressure for those foreign powers — primarily Russia, but also Iran — that seek to stop the West to strengthen its position in the Caucasus and develop the East-West artery of communication.

Simply put, the rates increased: while Armenia and Azerbaijan are in this conflict the main actors in international politics, they no longer play an essential or possibly even the primary role. Now the conflict involved the major powers pursuing their own interests in the region, each of which has an impressive ability to disrupt any decision the newcomer is she does not like. As an example, it is sufficient to take the past year or two: when in 2015 between Turkey and Russia have created serious tensions in Syria, the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict began to acquire the features of a proxy war between the two powers.

When in the summer of 2016 Moscow and Ankara established relations, as Yerevan and Baku was confused because I didn’t know how the policy of the great powers can affect their interests and the conflict. Meanwhile, the U.S. position on all these issues remained uncertain, and Washington has gradually lost its relevance for the main protagonists to the conflict. To top it off, Washington has allowed the Minister of foreign Affairs of Russia Sergey Lavrov, to take the initiative in the peace process that was worse than let the Fox to manage the henhouse.

First, the Caucasus countries have become hostages of a new conflict between Russia and the West in Ukraine; then, in addition, they found that their geopolitics intertwined with the geopolitics of the Middle East countries. Only a few hundred miles South-West of the Caucasus, at a distance equal to the flight range Russian cruise missiles, the three major powers surrounding the South Caucasus, involved in the Syrian civil war on opposite sides. This can not but affect the region, playing the role of the accelerator of unresolved local conflicts.

Of course, the situation was compounded by the incident with Turkey metamorphosis. In 1990-e years Turkey has been a key US partner in the Caucasus, but in fact this interaction ended with the controversy over the invasion of Iraq in March 2003. Recep Tayyip Erdogan vozglavlyaet increasingly authoritarian and Islamist Turkey, putting themselves at a bizarre goal to establish itself as a leading force in middle East politics. It turned out that the events in Syria, Iraq and Egypt favored the opponents of Turkey and did not give effect to the ambitions of Ankara. Domestic instability in Turkey, which became evident after a failed coup attempt in 2016, made the country another source of instability in the Caucasus.

Meanwhile, the equally challenging was the rapprochement between the West and Iran. One of the main advantages of the Caucasus, from the US perspective, was his role of a Pro-Western Bastion under the nose of Iran. What it means for the region, the rapprochement between the U.S. and Iran, the outward sign of which was the nuclear deal? A further decline in US interest in the Caucasus.

The role of American policy

Just as the success of the Caucasus in 1990-e and 2000-ies can be partly attributed to the policy of the United States, and the decline of the region in the past decade is inextricably linked with changes in the global strategy of the United States, mainly in the age of Obama. It has nothing to do with the shortage of resources caused by internal economic difficulties. American influence in the Caucasus region does not depend on expendable resources, and is being developed and established in the life of a concerted strategy for the region and at the same time paid adequate attention to the interests of the United States. In other words, US policy in the Caucasus is suffering from the shortcomings of both analytical and strategic, and they are all fixable.

First, it is becoming increasingly clear that the U.S. government has no regional policy in the Caucasus. The Obama administration cared too much about how to think about the region in a broader context, whether it is post-Soviet or middle East; it is still too early to say whether will take this administration is trump. The Obama administration is clearly focused on “big issues” and “big States”, as I said one official at policy planning in the state Department in 2009. In practice, this meant a departure from the past twenty years of bipartisan policy in the Caucasus and Central Asia, where these regions were considered regions — at least until the war in Afghanistan gradually turned into simple instruments of military policy.

Under the Obama administration gone any visibility of the regional approach. Attention to the Caucasus at the highest level were completely missing, causing the region to become a perfect example of what happens when the American bureaucracy began to carry out policies without proper guidance and coordination. As an exception to the rule, an attempt to contribute to the normalization of Armenian-Turkish relations have indeed found support at the highest level, but the lack of a regional approach has also proved fatal for her: initiative implemented by officials from the White house, which focused on domestic policy and did not pay due attention to the regional context of Turkish-Armenian relations. The last was inseparable from the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict is communication, which the administration first tried to ignore, and then broke. As a result, all the participants were in a worse position than they were previously.

Do not be an exaggeration to say that in the age of Obama all the countries of the Caucasus region was a kind of add-ons to more meaningful and specific political circumstances. Armenia became attached to the policy of Turkey and Georgia — in addition to the policy of Russia. As for Azerbaijan, depending on the particular branches of power, he was seen either as a problem in the field of human rights, either as a transit corridor to Afghanistan. In the absence of leadership these competing views are never consistent, which contributed to the gradual deterioration of relations between USA and Azerbaijan in the period from 2010 to 2015.

Really, there is no diplomatic situation in the Caucasus does not produce such a strong and disturbing impression, as the downward spiral of the Azerbaijani-American relations. To the once effective strategic partnership became admixed with bitterness and anger. Something responsible for Azerbaijan, but the main fault lies with the Obama administration. The reason for the deterioration of relations was the situation with human rights in Azerbaijan, however, the Obama administration has estimated this figure, without taking into account the relationship between the internal actions of Azerbaijan and the situation in the field of security, in particular, with the increasing pressure from Russia, the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict and the maneuvers of Russia in this conflict. It also did not take into account significant internal rivalry within Azerbaijan.

The deterioration of relations between the US and Azerbaijan also illustrates the second key issue of American politics: the inability to coordinate the various areas of interest. Thanks to “Act in support of freedom” 1992 U.S. relations with the former Soviet States largely retain the logic of the Helsinki Final act of 1975. This agreement regulated the relationship between the West and the Soviet Union, dividing them into politics and security, economy and trade, and on regulatory issues, including human rights.

An effective balance between the spheres of interest existed in the late 1990s and early 2000-ies. The development of energy resources provided to the private sector and the Ministry of energy and trade, his interest in the partnership. The fight against terrorism and the war in Afghanistan attracted to the Affairs of the Pentagon and the Ministry of Finance, while the NGO community and the Bureau of democracy, human rights and labor relations of the Department of State engaged in human rights issues. But after was built the largest pipeline infrastructure, and the war in Afghanistan receded into the background, human rights advocates, by default, become the focal points of the agenda, both inside and outside government. Their superiority — a cautionary tale: the more U.S. policy focused on human rights, the worse the situation in Azerbaijan.

The lesson is clear: the United States only then can you achieve success in the protection of human rights, when they consider the scope of the respective countries of key importance. In the post-Soviet space, for example, American policymakers too often do not understand the complex relationship between security and democratization. The leaders of the United States calling for a liberalization of political systems, arguing that such steps will improve security and sovereignty.

However, they refuse to take concrete steps to maintain the security of States that face threats to its sovereignty, steps that could make leaders increasingly willing to conduct internal reforms. This puzzle is widespread, including in Georgia, where every threat from Russia met with the recommendations of the United States to accelerate the process of political liberalization — despite that in the short term, they made Georgia more vulnerable to Russian hybrid war.

Policy alternatives for the administration to trump

Will the administration trump to take care of all these issues? A month or two ago due to Moscow’s serious concerns, the entire discussion may seem unnecessary. But the administration seems to recognize that the Moscow leadership of seeking to undermine American interests all over the world. And on the contrary, Moscow appears to be losing hope for the new “reboot” and could decide to test the strength of the steadfastness of the administration trump. Such testing may occur in the Caucasus, where it is possible to crank out cost-effectively.

Therefore, the key political figures in the United States it is important to develop for the Caucasus the primary strategy. Here are a few simple conclusions from the discussion above.

First, the whole policy in the Caucasus should be based on regional rather than bilateral approach. Implementation of the policy will differ from country to country, but the strategy underlying the must be the same.

Secondly, political leadership must coordinate their actions. In other words, it is necessary to reconcile the above-described region of interest, to make the interaction more positive and to minimize potential conflicts.

Thus, American leaders should pay more attention to the issues of sovereignty, conflict resolution and security. Otherwise, the likelihood of progress in other areas will remain low. Meanwhile, the achievement of mutual understanding on security issues with regional States, as nothing else, will help pave the way for progress in other areas.

American diplomats should return to his former practice: on each occasion to reiterate United States support the independence and territorial integrity of the countries of the region. But verbal statements are not enough: the United States should strongly oppose the ongoing Russian provocations along the ceasefire line in Georgia. The most apparent signal of Washington can serve as a selling Georgia defensive weapons and close cooperation with Georgia on security issues.

The administration will also need to develop meaningful long-term project, intended to manage and ultimately settle the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict. In contrast to Obama’s policy, Washington should not allow the Russian to take this process into their own hands, it needs to expand the U.S. role in the OSCE Minsk group. In the case of objections from the Russian side the administration should be willing even to go beyond this format.

The appeal of the Obama administration to democratization and human rights clearly has not worked. She failed to learn a lesson from the Georgian “rose revolution”, namely the fact that the democratic progress is possible only when adequate control. Thus, in future steps the United States should focus on concrete issues of effective management: improving efficiencies and accountability of public institutions, serving the needs of citizens, as well as the reduction of corruption and mismanagement. In all this the U.S. government should coordinate with governments, not to oppose them.

Reviewing American policy in the Caucasus, the strategy developers will be required to perform regional realities and to objectively assess the extent of influence of the United States. The result of Western mistakes, and change the perception of the global balance of power, leverage of the U.S. and even credibility in the Caucasus today is lower than ever since these countries gained independence. Management should recognize that in order to change the perception of the West in the region required not only financial resources, but pay the Caucasus, time and political attention. If it will undertake this task, it is possible to expect strengthening the position of the West in this small, but nevertheless important area that will affect the position of America in the middle East, Central Asia and Eastern Europe.

Svante Cornell, Director of the Institute of Central Asia and the Caucasus (USA) and co-founder of the Institute of security policy and development (Stockholm).