BACKGROUND: Armenia surrendered to Russia even though it had previously indicated that joining the Union was not its preference and that a customs union made no sense between states that do not share borders. President Sargsyan hinted as much by referring to Armenia’s security dependence on Russia. But earlier this year, when Putin revealed that Russia had also been arming Azerbaijan, Sargsyan made it clear that Armenia, if it wanted to retain the territories conquered in Nagorno-Karabakh, had nowhere to go but Moscow. Thus Armenia’s quest for territorial and ethnic homogeneity has paradoxically led it to undermine its own economic and foreign policy sovereignty. Armenia has become a prisoner of its own policies towards the Nagorno-Karabakh issue.
In Georgia’s case, Russia conquered Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008 and declared them independent. Few other states accepted this and the U.S. formally regards them as being under occupation. Even though the new Georgian government is improving ties with Russia, it cannot accept that these territories are lost forever and it has previously stated that it will not renounce Georgian sovereignty over them. Moscow’s declaration of an impending treaty to demarcate borders thus represents further pressure on Georgia to surrender its sovereignty and integrity to Russian dictates. More broadly, it exemplifies Moscow’s frequently asserted statements and actions implying that the sovereignty and integrity of other CIS member states is, in fact, provisional and not a subject of international law.
The Georgian territories in particular are illustrative of Russia’s policy. We should remember that Putin in 2012 openly admitted that Russia had been planning this war since 2006, and had done so with the use of separatists as part of the plan. Thus, Moscow’s assertion that the citizens of these Georgian territories, though in revolt against Georgia, were somehow Russian citizens as well and thus entitled to Russian defense under Article 51 of the UN charter, shows not only the hypocrisy of Russian policy in 2008. It also undermines the credibility of Russia’s current arguments regarding Syria and the primacy of the UN, and that the use of force is legitimate only if sanctioned by the UN. This was not Russia’s view in 2008. In addition, the Russian government, as Prime Minister Medvedev stated recently, sees no reason to rethink its actions in 2008 including the severing of these territories from Georgia.
But we also know that Russia, even as it was part of the Minsk group, charged along with France and the U.S., with superintending efforts to get Armenia and Azerbaijan to negotiate an end to the war, was simultaneously playing both sides off against each other to heighten tensions and ratchet up the danger of renewed escalation. That danger has grown as both sides have acquired new and more sophisticated weapons systems from Russia and elsewhere. For example, since 2010, 38 flights of Il-76s loaded with weapons have taken off from Podgorica airport in Montenegro – a country labeled as a playground for Russian organized crime – to Stepanakert airport in Nagorno-Karabakh. Moscow has thus succeeded in essentially freezing the U.S. and France out of this conflict resolution process and remains the principal supplier of weapons to both sides, a situation that benefits Russia’s policy to sustain a situation of controlled tension in the conflict that allows it to extend its defense, political, and now economic hegemony over Armenia and keep Azerbaijan under constant pressure.
IMPLICATIONS: Moscow also disposes of many instruments by which to threaten or pressure Azerbaijan, including a cutoff of arms sales, attempts to stop it from selling gas and oil in European markets, threats to its energy platforms in the Caspian Sea, potential collusion with Iran against it, and the ever-present possibility of attempts to organize disaffected ethnic or religious minorities to destabilize Azerbaijan from within. Moscow has also over the years made efforts to impede trade and migrants’ remittances from Russia back to these countries. Those actions remain constant and readily available weapons in Moscow’s arsenal of instruments of pressure against its neighbors.
These recent moves in the Caucasus, coupled with acts of economic warfare and pressure against Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, underscore the speed and urgency in Moscow’s attempt to create a customs union and Eurasian Union around itself, regardless of the economic logic of such an endeavor. These two institutions are, in the Caucasus and elsewhere, primarily political phenomena – efforts to subordinate Russia’s neighbors and, as then-Secretary of State Hilary Clinton said in December 2012, restore the Soviet Union in some form. Not least, the Eurasian Union is intended to recreate a visible manifestation that Russia truly is a great power that can compete with China and the U.S. with a continental bloc behind it. The Eurasian Union remains a vital necessity for Russia vis-a-vis those large economies as well as the EU with whom it could otherwise not compete, and whose influence would then radiate to states between the EU and Russia and then through them into Russia, creating pressures for economic if not political reform in Russia itself. This is an additional reason why events in the South Caucasus have a direct bearing on European security organizations.
These activities confirm that Russia steadfastly pursues a neo-imperial policy in the CIS. As the late John Erickson observed, this labeling is not pejorative but rather recognition of the consistent geopolitical or geostrategic explanation for Russian strategic behavior. Nevertheless this neo-imperialism has several dangerous consequences, because it rests on a presumption that Russia’s interests are now served not only by the diminution of its neighbors’ sovereignty and if necessary their territorial integrity, itself a conflict producing situation. In fact, beyond those inherently dangerous tendencies, these new turns in Russian policy demonstrate clearly that Russia sees an advantage in maintaining “a state of siege” or ongoing unresolved conflicts in the Caucasus in order to ensure its hegemony. Given the high degree of tension in Nagorno-Karabakh, this policy, as displayed in the provision of modern weapons to both sides, could lead to new rounds of conflict arising out of the many skirmishes that have occurred with alarming frequency since 2010. Miscalculation or even deliberate calculation could trigger a process that would engulf this region with violence.
This is perhaps why President Obama finally wrote to President Sargsyan of Armenia, urging him to make peace. But one reason Moscow has been able to get away with these policies is precisely the tepid EU and U.S. responses to its encroachments in the Caucasus. Mere protests are not enough, as John Hudson reported in Foreign Policy. The implication of Russian policy is a heightened possibility for long-term or recurrent, or so called frozen conflicts even though we have now seen how fast these conflicts can become hot ones, especially if Russia incites them.
CONCLUSIONS: An objective analysis of the South Caucasus reveals the necessity for sustained, long-term, and direct involvement of the West and comprehensive efforts to bring the existing conflict situations to negotiated resolution. The current ostrich-like policy, apparently based on the idea that the West needs Russian cooperation on larger issues in the Middle East and elsewhere and that involvement in “Russia’s backyard” will only antagonize Russia and prevent cooperation, has only stimulated Russia’s perception of Western weakness and disinterest in the CIS. Thus it emboldens Moscow to take the steps described here and those taken against other CIS states. Yet it has not produced effective crisis resolution in the Middle East or elsewhere. There are now rumors of an impending rethinking of U.S. policy towards Russia. Such a rethink is not only desirable, it is long overdue. If there is going to be such a policy review, the Obama administration should start by looking at the South Caucasus. We have already seen the dramatic and global scale of the repercussions of the Russo-Georgian war. Surely that fact alone should encourage us to grasp the nettle and prevent more conflicts in the South Caucasus. A second failure to do so would have immense implications for international security.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Stephen Blank is a Senior Fellow of the American Foreign Policy Council.