Turkey’s normalization of relations with Armenia should normally be an occasion for rejoicing. However, due to inept Turkish and U.S. diplomacy, this reconciliation is not only incomplete; it could also easily fall apart, leading to a reversal of hopes for stabilization of the security situation in the Caucasus. A breakdown of this process could be devastating for the region. Ankara’s and Washington’s mistakes have already reversed Baku’s ties with both governments and could cause further reorientation of its foreign policy from which only Moscow would benefit. As Azerbaijan is critical for both access to Central Asia and overflights to Afghanistan and is the linchpin for any possibility of the Nabucco pipeline’s materialization, a reorientation towards Russia would have serious repercussions for Europe and the U.S..
BACKGROUND: The Armeno-Turkish normalization grew out of Turkey’s alarm, if not panic, at the Russian war with Georgia in 2008 that threatened to marginalize Turkey as a player in the Caucasus. Accordingly, this process obtained strong U.S. backing to the degree that Secretary of State Clinton was the midwife of the final agreement. However, it remained incomplete and not part of a grand strategic bargain. Already in 2005, this author and other analysts observed that the stars were in alignment then for just such a grand bargain. This normalization would include an end to the Turkish embargo of Armenia and to Armenian efforts at obtaining recognition of the 1915 massacres of Armenians in Turkey as genocide, and would enable Armenia and Azerbaijan would resolve the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh and would help Turkey’s attempt to join the EU.
None of this has happened, and the Armeno-Turkish reconciliation of 2008-09 occurred without any mention of Nagorno-Karabakh. This oversight, or omission, came about with clear U.S. support. Although Secretary of State Clinton claims the U.S. supports the Minsk process for peace in Nagorno-Karabakh, she also insists that these issues are unrelated, a view that ensures that peace will not come any time soon. Needless to say, this omission quickly drew Azerbaijan’s ire and is leading to the reversal of its formerly pro-American policies. Moreover, at home Ankara’s “concessions” and silence over the occupation of Azerbaijani lands has drawn enormous opposition in Turkey’s Parliament, which threatens to block ratification of the Turkish-Armenian protocols, leading to their collapse.
While Turkey’s domestic political standoff is serious enough, it has no immediate strategic repercussions beyond Turkey and Armenia. But Azerbaijan’s anger does. It has already indicated it will no longer give Turkey preferential pricing on oil and gas supplies, thus striking at Turkey’s obsession with being an energy hub even though it produces little or no energy of its own. But beyond that strike at Turkey, Baku’s anger has also forced Turkey to go back to Armenia and demand resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh issues to retrieve its standing with Azerbaijan. Not surprisingly, Armenia has refused to do so and has threatened to annul the accords if this pressure continues, leaving Turkey with nothing but mutual embitterment from both Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Worse yet, Azerbaijan has also made clear its growing unhappiness with U.S. policy. For the first time, it has publicly protested U.S. aid to Nagorno-Karabakh. Beyond that, Azerbaijan has come out against the new U.S. policy in Afghanistan and will not send troops there, as have many other U.S. allies. More recently, Azerbaijan has signed oil or gas deals with Russia and Iran and is reportedly considering to sell energy to China. These moves clearly betoken a reorientation of Baku’s foreign policies. In response, Iranian President Ahmadinejad has called for the resolution of Nagorno-Karabakh in the fastest possible way and Russia has made clear that it is willing to buy all of Azerbaijan’s gas. If that deal is made, the Nabucco project is finished, and Europe will be at the mercy of Russia’s gas network.
IMPLICATIONS: Another no less consequential danger is that those voices inside Azerbaijan who think they can launch a military operation, like Defense Minister Safar Abiyev, might grow in power because of Azerbaijan’s frustration with the lack of progress on Nagorno-Karabakh. Such political forces might come to believe that there is no alternative save a military one and that somehow they could win or force a more favorable political outcome. However, the overwhelming majority of experts believe that a renewed outbreak of fighting would end in disaster for Azerbaijan. Such a war would also ignite a major political crisis.
As the 1993 fighting showed, there is nothing Turkey or the U.S. could do to stop Armenia from victory in such a conflict, especially as long as Moscow is on its side. While Russia almost certainly does not want such a war to occur, Armenia has recently made clear that it expects its treaty partners in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) to come to its aid, specifically meaning Russia. Failure to do so would undermine Russia’s claim to leadership in the CIS. And if Azerbaijan were to be the attacker, Russia might be doubly impelled to come to Armenia’s assistance, but it would do so in such a manner that reinforces its standing as the dominant force in the Caucasus, which would lead to the ouster of the vacillating and ineffectual U.S. and EU influence there. Needless to say, either outcome, Azerbaijan’s reorientation to Russia or a war, are anathema to U.S. and Western interests.
Yet despite these quite obvious facts, the U.S. persists in separating Nagorno-Karabakh from a resolution of Turkish-Armenia relations, a policy that makes no strategic sense and puts critical interests at risk. Why this should be the case is not clear, but U.S. actions clearly fit a pattern and could result in the loss of a key partner in the region for no offsetting gain. Whether or not it is the power of the U.S.’ Armenian lobby, or a belief that the reset policy with Russia means not playing an active role in the Caucasus, or some other motive that drives the policy, it should be clear to objective analysts that such a policy undermines U.S. and Western interests and makes a new war more rather than less likely. In such a war, it is clear that the U.S. would have little or no leverage upon the combatants.
More broadly speaking, there does not seem to be a coherent U.S. policy for Central Asia other than to strengthen the Northern Distribution Network through those states to Afghanistan. Could it be that a kind of strategic myopia connected to the war in Afghanistan has crowded out other considerations of foreign policy and strategic interests in the Caucasus and Central Asia? One hopes that this is not the case and that the U.S. and Turkey will quickly come to see that neither of them can play a significant role in the Caucasus if they are not prepared to address the outstanding issue of the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh.
We have seen how in Georgia, the label frozen conflict quickly proved to be a misreading of reality and the same could happen in the case of Nagorno-Karabakh as well and equally quickly. Should Azerbaijan reorient its policy towards Moscow or attempt military action, there will be no shortage of analysts here and elsewhere that will castigate it for doing so. But that will mean the final erosion of the U.S. position and any leverage it might have in the Caucasus. Meanwhile, Azerbaijani analysts might say that given their sense of abandonment by both Ankara and Washington, they felt they had no choice but to do so.
CONCLUSIONS: A sound U.S. and Turkish policy needs to be reestablished quickly. Such a policy should be mindful of their common interests in the Caucasus; of their overriding interest in not letting Russia return to unchallenged dominance in the region, from where it can threaten both Turkey and Europe; of preserving Azerbaijan as a pro-Western state, while answering Armenia’s need to end the embargo and gain a peaceful relationship with its neighbors. Otherwise, as we have seen in Georgia, the results of bad policy can only benefit powers like Russia and Iran who seek to exclude the West from the Caucasus while both the Georgian and Azerbaijani people want to be affiliated with it. Failure to act upon this understanding will sooner, rather than later, result in a disaster for both them and the U.S.AUTHOR’S BIO: Stephen Blank is Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College. The views expressed here do not represent those of the U.S. Army, Defense Department, or the U.S. Government.