South Caucasus: a Security Gamble


After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the newly independent South Caucasian countries of Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan became once again the battleground for world powers to spread their geopolitical influence and to maximally use for their own strategic and economic advantage. Today South Caucasus is one of the world’s most volatile regions, where economic, cultural, and political interests of Russia, Turkey, Iran, European Union and the United States intersect, making it into an explosive and fascinating case to study. Situated right under the EU’s nose, South Caucasus is where East meets West, NATO faced the USSR, and where important gas and oil pipelines connect Europe with the Caspian Sea. The main issue that characterizes the regional politics today is the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, which has most recently entered the stage of a vicious arms race, making the resumption of war a possibility.

A clearly defined pattern with two geopolitical alliances forms the political landscape of the Caucasus today: horizontal axis linking Turkey, Azerbaijan and sometimes Georgia from East to West, and the vertical axis of Iran, Armenia and Russia from North to South. A renewed conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh is going to have spillover effect and invariably drug in the aforementioned giants into it.

Nagorno-Karabakh is a historically Armenian land, which was annexed to Azerbaijan as an autonomous region by Stalin in 1920. In 1991, after a referendum, the region, with its 95% Armenian population, declared itself independent. A war broke out, which ended in 1994 by the victory of the Armenian forces and a ceasefire. The “Minsk Group” co-chaired by France, Russia and the US was established through OSCE in 1992 to negotiate a peace settlement and a resolution. However the conflict remains unresolved and the negotiations are at a standstill. 2012 and 2013 witnessed a heightened level of ceasefire violations and large number of casualties on both sides alongside the line of contact. Increased tensions, as well as enhanced aggressive rhetoric by both countries, give rise to a very legitimate concern that the war is not behind the mountain.

Spending almost twice as much ($3.7 billion) on its defense as Armenia spends on its entire government budget, Azerbaijan uses its oil money to buy military equipment from Russia, Israel, Ukraine, Belarus, Pakistan, Turkey and South Africa. Armenia, on the other hand, relies heavily on its ally Russia and chooses to deepen the military cooperation to keep the balance. A new military agreement was signed in 2011 by which Russia committed to help Armenia acquire “modern and compatible weaponry and [special] military hardware.” In March of 2012, Azerbaijan signed a $1.6 billion arms deal with Israel, which consisted largely of advanced drones and of an air defense system. The $1 billion arms deal with Russia in 2013, however, incited negative reactions in Armenia, creating basis for the country to question the Russian friendship. Moreover, staying true to the Cold-War-Era tradition, these two small countries took the arms race to the space race level, with Azerbaijan launching its first satellite in 2013, and Armenia planning to launch its own.

Thus, Azerbaijan with its continuous military acquisitions, aggressive rhetoric and arms deals on one hand, and Armenia with its economic, political (Eurasian Union) and military (Russian base in Gyumri) ties to Russia, create a pattern in which all the intertwined relations of the regional actors come together to define it.

A recent report by International Crisis Group brings to light the increased instability and militarization of the South Caucasus region, arguing that this may lead to an “accidental war”. With the international organizations, as well as the EU, less then active on this issue, and with Russia currently being the sole actor which has the ability to affect the conflict positively, and which, instead, uses the opportunity to arm both sides, does not promise a change in the current situation. It would be interesting to see a new, more inclusive framework for reconciliation being adopted, which will look at the broader picture, observe the deep running regional dynamics and create a more productive forum for conflict resolution.

Much has been said on the Russian role in the region, and particularly on this conflict. With Putin’s ambitious goal of forming a Eurasian Customs Union as the heart of recent political developments in Eastern Europe, European Union has the utmost interest in paying a closer attention to its near abroad. With Ukraine still in turmoil over it’s leadership’s decision to side with Russia and ECU rather than sign an Association Agreement with the EU, September 2, 2013 pressured decision by Armenia to do the same once again brings the country and its frozen conflict into the center of EU-Russia relations. It is argued that if EU continues on its less than active foreign policy course and halts its enlargement process, Russia with its ECU is going to bring the post-soviet sphere under its dominance once again. Another interesting point to the equation is added when the EU-Azerbaijan energy partnership is taken into account, which is deemed to be the first step on the road to achieve energy independence of Europe from Russia. With the Azerbaijan-Armenia relations on one hand, newly flaring competition between EU-Russia on the other, and with old situation of Azerbaijan being the NATO puppet while Armenia housing a Russian military base, the implications of a renewed war over Karabakh can easily be defined as dangerous in more ways than just a simple war between two minor players.

The last ingredient to add to this already complicated dynamic is the Iran-Armenia-Turkey-Azerbaijan relations, with particular attention given to the continuous support for Armenia by Iran and for Azerbaijan by Turkey as important factors shaping the regional status quo.
1991 marked the beginning of the “Euphoria” period for Turkish foreign policy in regards to the region. Western governments encouraged the adaptation of the “Turkish Model” by the newly independent Muslim countries. Moreover, Turkey was seen by the U.S. as the most effective obstacle on Iran’s way to fill the power vacuum and attain regional supremacy. Turkey cemented its unbreakable ties with Azerbaijan, a Shia country, the population of which is Turkic, by building the Baku – Ceyhan pipeline and taking the economic cooperation to a new level. “One nation – two countries” became the motto adopted by the Azerbaijani and Turkish leaders to promote kinship and cooperation in the 1990s. Substantial military, political, economic, and humanitarian assistance to Azerbaijan by Turkey, as well as the realization of important regional economic and energy projects strengthened already existing linguistic and cultural ties. After closing its borders with Armenia in 1993 because of its war with Azerbaijan, Turkey effectively adopted Azerbaijan as its own. An important aspect that shaped the Turkish –Azeri relations, and made Azerbaijan choose Turkey over Iran as a patron and a model, was the idea of Pan-Turkism, which identified the threat of the Russian and the Iranian “empires” to Azerbaijan, and set the pro-Ankara course of the Azeri foreign policy. Moreover, taking into account the fact that Azerbaijan now owns the second largest fleet in Caspian Sea after Russia, such incidents become even more interesting and noteworthy in the context of regional politics and Iran-Azerbaijan relations. Turkish patronship of Azerbaijan and the consequent influence of Azerbaijan on Turkish foreign policy in regards to Nagorno-Karabakh was well illustrated over the “Armenian-Turkish Protocols” back in 2008, and by Turkish inability to normalize its relations with neighboring Armenia because of Azeri pressure.

Hard feelings between Armenia and Turkey are nothing new. The main reason is the Turkish denial of the Armenian Genocide committed during the World War I by the Ottoman government, and the issue has become a torn on Turkey’s side. The closed border between the two countries, however, is not solely the result of the denial of the Armenian Genocide, but also of the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict. Some attempts were made for reconciliation, the most famous one being the ill-formed and ill-fated Armenia – Turkey Protocols within the framework of “Zero problems with neighbors policy”. The protocols aimed to open the border and establish diplomatic relations between the two countries. However, the initiative had encountered strong opposition in both countries, and was not successful.

Armenian –Iranian relationship goes back for centuries. Having closed borders with two of its four neighbors incited Armenia to seek closer economic ties with Iran; a move, which was welcomed and encouraged by the other side. Iran promoted close economic relations with Armenia, as a balancing act to its strained relations with Azerbaijan over religious and territorial disagreements, and its regional rivalry with Russia and Turkey. The two countries enjoy close cooperation; barriers for respective goods were dismantled a few years ago causing a steady grow of bilateral trade, particularly in energy and gas sectors. The fact that Iranian gas is being exchanged with the Armenian electricity is a notable factor for both countries’ economies. The highlight of the Armenia – Iran partnership is Iran’s continuous support of Armenia over Shia Azerbaijan on the Nagorno Kharabakh issue.

The Iran – Azerbaijan strained relations over Azerbaijan’s rejection of the Islamic order, and unresolved conflict over Northern Iran, contribute to the strengthening of the Armenian – Iran cooperation. 2012 marked another milestone in the alienation between Iran and Azerbaijan. In February Iran accused Azerbaijan of harboring and sponsoring Israeli intelligence agents, while Azerbaijan retaliated by killing the Iranians suspected of being terrorists who were arrested back in 2008. By the end of February Azerbaijan openly accepted the fact that it had a large arms sales deal with Israel, and rejected the idea that it was aimed against Iran, but rather to fight with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh. Nevertheless, this set Iran on edge and contributed to the idea that Azerbaijan against NKR, and the status quo, is almost the same as Azerbaijan against Iranian regional interests. More than 15 million Azeris, twice as much as Azerbaijan’s population, live in Northern Iran. The Azerbaijani rhetoric on this contributes to the Iranian fear of a possible secessionist movement. Consequently, a strong Azerbaijan is against Iranian interests and regional ambitions.

In the case of a renewed conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh there is no doubt that Turkey will get involved on the side of Azerbaijan as surly, as Russia on the side of Armenia. Moreover, Iran may use the opportunity to “settle accounts” with Azerbaijan and act more enthusiastically than it usually does. Renewed role of the EU in the region is an indication of yet another actor taking more than a passing notice in this particular conflict in order to further its own geopolitical interests. With such fast-paced developments on all sides of the region, it seems that the knot is tightening over the conflict itself.

The widely spread skepticism towards the Minsk Group to deliver results, increased number of attacks and casualties on the line of contact, the absence of a crisis hotline, the fact that these attacks happen further and further away from the Nagorno-Karabakh frontier and more at the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan, are extremely worrisome. The situation in the region can be characterized as a pre-war rather than a post-war one, hence, the current mediation-style approach should be complimented with a more forceful and direct involvement. Furthermore, taking into account the internal political unrest and instability in both countries that may incite the leaders to be more aggressive in their foreign policy choices, it becomes obvious that there exists a security deficit in the region that needs the immediate attention of the international community.

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the ERA Institute. 

This article is produced by the Eurasian Research and Analysis Institute, Inc. (ERA Institute), a public, 501(c)(3) nonprofit institution devoted to studying Eurasian affairs. All views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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