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Integrating U.S. Policy in the Caucasus

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The recently filled graves of Armenian soldiers are shown at Yereblur Military Cemetery on October 26, 2020, in Yerevan, Armenia. (Photo by Alex McBride/Getty Images)

Diplomatic and security challenges remain in Nagorno-Karabakh in the wake of hostilities between Azerbaijan and Armenia, but the United States also has an opportunity for increased diplomatic and economic engagement by carefully integrating its foreign policy in the region with its policies on Georgia, Turkey, and Russia.

The recent conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the breakaway territory of Nagorno-Karabakh has substantially reshaped the geopolitical landscape of the South Caucasus region. The conflict not only has redrawn the map of the Caucasus but also has increased the direct presence of two key players: Russia and Turkey. As the Caucasus will continue to be a flashpoint and as external players carve out influence, the U.S. should take a more integrative approach to the region to prevent it from slipping into a security vacuum or falling under greater Russian sway. In doing so, U.S. strategic interests would be best served by layering and synthesizing its policies when it comes to three main regional issues in the Caucasus: Nagorno-Karabakh, Georgia, and the Russian and Turkish positions in the region overall.

Following Azerbaijan’s Turkish-backed military offensive launched in late September 2020 and a subsequent cease-fire between Armenia and Azerbaijan in early November, the map of the Caucasus has been significantly redrawn. Azerbaijan has taken back control of much of the territory it had lost to Armenia in the initial 1988-1994 conflict between the countries, while Russia, Armenia’s primary security guarantor, has deployed 2,000 peacekeepers in and around Nagorno-Karabakh to enforce the cease-fire. In addition, Russia and Turkey have established a joint monitoring center in the region, reflecting the growing importance of the Caucasus as a theater for great-power engagement and competition.

While many challenges remain in Nagorno-Karabakh, the new dynamics have also created a window of opportunity for large-scale infrastructure and energy projects to take shape in the region. Due to its position along the strategic Southern Corridor route, which allows energy resources to transit through the Caucasus and Turkey and into Europe while bypassing Russia, the development potential of the region could have significant geopolitical consequences. However, this potential remains vulnerable to political and security dynamics in not only Armenia and Azerbaijan but also in neighboring Georgia, a NATO-aligned state that has also been prone to geopolitical competition and conflict. The proximity of both conflict zones thus has the potential for escalation and spillover, just as new economic opportunities are emerging.  

These factors necessitate a broader re-evaluation of U.S. policy in the Caucasus region, which plays an important role in U.S. interests due to its strategic location in between Russia, Turkey, and Iran and its significant oil and natural gas resources. U.S. imperatives include reducing the region’s dependence on Russian energy, preventing the outbreak of conflict or other destabilizing behavior, and more broadly preventing a hegemonic power, especially Russia, from dominating the Caucasus. The region thus serves as both an important energy hub and a geopolitical pivot point for multiple powers. 

Given the growing roles of Russia and Turkey in the Nagorno-Karabakh theater, as well as the connection of this theater to Georgia, the U.S. should adjust its policies in the Caucasus to reflect the changing dynamics. The previous U.S. strategy on NATO engagement with regard to this region has been insufficient in meeting the evolving and increasingly interconnected security challenges there. Thus, U.S. policy requires a more holistic approach to the region that takes into account the linkages between Nagorno-Karabakh, Georgia, and the Russian and Turkish positions in both theaters. Below is a breakdown of policy recommendations for each theater and how they can be integrated to form a more coherent U.S. regional strategy in the Caucasus.  

U.S. Policy in Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Nagorno-Karabakh 

Prior to the latest outbreak of fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh, the U.S. had aimed to resolve the conflict through a peaceful and diplomatically negotiated settlement. It did so primarily via the OSCE Minsk Group, consisting of the U.S. as a co-chair, along with Russia and France. When it came to Armenia and Azerbaijan more broadly, the U.S. objective had been to strengthen cooperation and integration of Armenia and Azerbaijan with the West — especially via initiatives like the EU’s Eastern Partnership program and NATO’s Partnership for Peace program — and to weaken Russia’s political and economic influence in these countries. The U.S. also sought to strengthen the domestic institutions of Armenia and Azerbaijan via reforms and anti-corruption measures to promote democracy in these countries and make them less vulnerable to foreign influence that contradicted U.S. interests.  

Now, with a new military and political reality in place in Nagorno-Karabakh and Russia and Turkey taking on bigger roles in this theater, the U.S. needs to shift its Nagorno-Karabakh policies and its broader relationship with Armenia and Azerbaijan. The U.S. should prioritize diplomatic and economic initiatives in both Armenia and Azerbaijan in order to distinguish itself from the more forceful Russian/Turkish military presence. This can be done by increasing humanitarian assistance via USAID to support the conflict’s refugees and internally displaced persons, as well as increasing diplomatic involvement to ensure the continued implementation of the cease-fire agreement (via the OSCE Minsk Group and unilaterally). In addition, the U.S. can increase trade ties with both Armenia and Azerbaijan while promoting participation by U.S. private companies in joint infrastructure/transit projects in the region along with Turkey

To be sure, the U.S. faces significant constraints in the extent to which it can engage with Azerbaijan on this issue. This is particularly the case as it relates to political pressure from within the U.S., most notably from the influential Armenian-American lobby. Given that Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has maintained aggressive rhetoric following the cease-fire agreement and that he has come under criticism from democratic groups over authoritarian concerns, this will influence the extent to which both Armenia and the U.S. can cooperate with Azerbaijan. Furthermore, the Armenian government is under immense pressure due to its loss of territory in the latest conflict, forcing Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan to call for early elections in June and adding another element of political uncertainty in the region. However, the more that the U.S. can pursue economic and trade projects with Armenia and Azerbaijan in a joint fashion and use its diplomatic weight to stress the mutual benefit of such projects while not explicitly endorsing either side politically at the expense of the other, the more likely that such political pressures can be lessened and mitigated. 

U.S. Policy on Georgia  

Since the 2008 conflict between Russia and Georgia, which came in response to Georgia’s aspirations to join NATO and produced two Russian-backed breakaway territories in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, U.S. policy in Georgia has been carried out with three primary objectives. These include ending Russia’s occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and restoring Georgia’s territorial integrity; strengthening Georgia’s cooperation and integration with the West via institutions like the EU and NATO while weakening Russia’s political and economic influence in the country; and strengthening the domestic institutions of Georgia to promote democracy and a free-market economy. These objectives have been carried out primarily through U.S. security and military support for Georgia, including joint training with U.S. and NATO forces; sanctions against Russia for its occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia; and political support for Georgia’s reforms and Western integration efforts.  

Until now, U.S. policy on Georgia has been conducted primarily from the prism of the 2008 Russia-Georgia war and has been focused on Georgia’s relationship with NATO and the EU. This misses the fact that the situation in Georgia and the Armenia/Azerbaijan/Nagorno-Karabakh theater are connected in two important ways. First is the potential for spillover from one conflict to another, as they are in close geographic proximity and Russian military personnel are involved in both. Secondly, Georgia is a crucial component of the Southern Corridor, with key pipelines and energy infrastructure transiting through the country from Azerbaijan to Turkey and on to Europe. 

The recent cease-fire agreement in Nagorno-Karabakh could pave the way for further connectivity in the Caucasus via the Southern Corridor route, and the U.S. should integrate its policies in Armenia/Azerbaijan/Nagorno-Karabakh with that of Georgia accordingly. The U.S. should establish a 3+1 dialogue format between its State Department and the foreign ministries of the three Caucasus countries (akin to the C5+1 format in Central Asia to integrate diplomatic and economic initiatives and coordinate responses to cease-fire monitoring and implementation in each conflict area. The U.S. should also promote infrastructure connectivity between Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan in order to strengthen and expand the Southern Corridor. Finally, the U.S. should increase humanitarian and other economic assistance to Georgia and coordinate those initiatives with its programs in Armenia and Azerbaijan. Such measures will create a more enhanced and integrated approach for the U.S. in the Caucasus as a whole.  

U.S. Policy on Russia and Turkey  

Alongside the need to increase and coordinate diplomatic and economic support for Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, the U.S. must also consider such policy adjustments in the context of its relationship with Russia and Turkey. The U.S. approach to both countries has been largely punitive, with the U.S. passing sanctions not only against Russia but also against Turkey for its purchase of Russian S-400 air defense systems as part of the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act. Turkey has also come under pressure from the West over its drilling activities in the Eastern Mediterranean. While the U.S. acknowledges Turkey’s desire to reduce its energy dependence on Russia, this has raised tensions between the U.S. and Turkey and has only pushed Ankara closer to Moscow, with Turkey standing by its S-400 purchase and exploring further Russian weapons and energy purchases.  

Given that Turkey is a NATO ally and that Russia threatens U.S. interests in a number of areas including Ukraine, Syria, and the Eastern Mediterranean, the U.S. should increase cooperation with Turkey to act as a force multiplier in the Caucasus. This is especially the case as the U.S. has shared interests with Turkey in the region in the development of the Southern Corridor as an alternative to Russian energy supplies, as well as a shared interest in containing Iran as an influential player in the region. For the U.S., supporting Turkey in such efforts could serve as a check on Russia’s influence in the Caucasus, while re-examining its sanctions policy could temper further alignment between Ankara and Moscow.  

As a result, the U.S. should provide economic and diplomatic support for Turkish initiatives to expand Southern Corridor energy projects, including the proposed Trans-Caspian natural gas pipeline between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan. The U.S. should also review sanctions on Turkey and make lifting/easing them contingent upon Turkish cooperation with the U.S. in the economic, energy, and security spheres. Meanwhile, the U.S. should coordinate with Turkey on reducing its reliance on Russian energy sources and cooperating in the Eastern Mediterranean. Finally, the U.S. should liaise with Turkey in the newly created 3+1 format between the U.S. and Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia to coordinate regional initiatives and de-escalate tensions.  

As with the limitations of its outreach to Azerbaijan and Armenia, the U.S. also faces constraints when it comes to Turkey, particularly regarding domestic pressures from within Congress, democracy and human rights groups, and multiple lobby groups, including the aforementioned Armenian lobby, as well as the Greek lobby and the pro-Israel lobby. President Joe Biden’s recent recognition of the Armenian genocide is an example of these limitations. Furthermore, Ankara has shown that it is an assertive actor that is willing to go beyond its traditional alliance structure and more significantly engage with Russia. But this is all the more reason for the U.S. to take a more creative, pragmatic, and integrated approach when it comes to the Caucasus, requiring delicate maneuvering with both Russia and Turkey and on the home front. If the U.S. can successfully navigate between these domestic and external constraints, such challenges can be transformed into significant long-term geopolitical opportunities for Washington.  

Eugene Chausovsky is a Nonresident Fellow with the Newlines Institute. Previously, he served as Senior Eurasia Analyst at Stratfor for 10 years. His work focuses on political, economic, and security issues pertaining to the former Soviet Union, Europe, and Latin America. He Tweets at @EugeneChausovsk

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not an official policy or position of the Newlines Institute.

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