Vol. 2, No. 4 (February 15, 2009)

The South Caucasus reordered: New challenges to Baku’s foreign policy assumptions

Paul Goble
Publications Advisor
Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy

Since Russia invaded Georgia the geopolitics of the South Caucasus has been transformed, with new players entering the scene and old ones changing their position on the board.  And despite the often dizzying pace of the last six months, events over the last few weeks suggest that the pace of change may be on the increase, a trend that, if it continues, is certain to lead to some radical discontinuities in the policies and actions of all the governments involved in the region.

No country has been more profoundly affected by these most recent changes than Azerbaijan and no changes have been more striking than in three of the traditional players in the region.  Thanks to enhanced Russian security assistance to Armenia, Azerbaijan’s main adversary, and to expanding ties between Turkey, Azerbaijan’s closest ally, on the one hand, and Russia and Armenia, on the other, many of the assumptions that have guided Baku’s policies for more than a decade are now being called into question.  

And such questioning which seems certain to spread from the pages of Baku’s major news outlets to that country’s parliament and foreign ministry could result in some equally dramatic discontinuities in Azerbaijani foreign policy, not only with regard to these three countries – that is almost a certainty – but also concerning other states with which Baku regularly interacts but who may assume that the transformation of the geopolitical situation in the South Caucasus will not affect them. 
Russia has always been Armenia’s chief ally and provider of military equipment, but Moscow has taken two steps in the last six weeks that raise the stakes in that relationship.  On the one hand, in early January, evidence came to light that the Russian government has supplied 800 million US dollars of military equipment to Yerevan, a transfer that Moscow officials have denied just as they have denied earlier supplies and just as unconvincingly.  And on the other, on February 13, Nikolai Bordyuzha, the secretary general of the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization announced that Russia and Armenia have agreed to establish “an integrated air defense network” on the model of the Russian-Belarus net.

Many in Moscow would argue that these steps simply restore the balance in the South Caucasus given Azerbaijan’s increasing expenditure on its military and occasional statements by Azerbaijani leaders that they are prepared to use force to solve the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute if nothing else works.  But in fact, a more balanced assessment suggests that Moscow, after its successful (in its eyes) intervention in Georgia, is prepared to use force either directly or indirectly to support those countries in the Commonwealth of Independent States which back Russian positions and to put pressure on all others in its “near abroad” which seek greater independence from Moscow.
This enhanced Russian security assistance to Armenia has both immediate and longer term consequences.  In the short term, it reduces pressure on Armenia to settle the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute: After all, given Russian involvement, Azerbaijan would be unlikely to challenge Armenia because it would be challenging Russia as well.  But in the longer term, it means that Baku will have ever greater difficulty in viewing Moscow as an honest broker concerning that conflict, and it means, as some in Azerbaijan have already suggested, that Baku should revisit its commitment to the OSCE Minsk Group, which is now the primary place for negotiations about Nagorno-Karabakh, or even its membership in the Russian-dominated CIS.  Given the broader constellation of forces, neither of those steps is likely to occur soon, but the fact that questions of this kind are now being asked in Azerbaijan is a product of the changed geopolitical map of the South Caucasus.
The second major shift in this region in recent months has been Turkey’s rapprochement with Russia, a reflection of Ankara’s desire to play a larger role in the Caucasus and elsewhere as well but a development that is helping Moscow to expand its role in the region after the Georgian war.  That new order of things was highlighted by the visit to Moscow February 12-13 by Turkish President Abdulla Gul during which he and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed what Kremlin press officers described as “a strategic document” pointing to closer ties in the future.
Since last summer, Gul has been pushing the idea of a Platform for Security and Stability in the Caucasus, a program still in the process of definition but one that he has indicated will be open to all countries in the region, including Armenia and quite possibly Iran, and will give Russia a special role.  On the one hand, Baku can only welcome Turkey’s new activism in the Caucasus, something Azerbaijanis have long counted on given their own view of Turkey as the country with which they have the closest cultural and even political ties. 
But on the other, Turkey’s rapprochement with Russia raises questions about Ankara’s continued declarations of a special relationship with Azerbaijan.  If Ankara wants to play an expanded regional role, its moves with regard to Russia raise questions about whether it will downgrade, at least relatively, the importance it attaches to Azerbaijan.  And that at the very least is raising questions in the Azerbaijani media about what is going on.  If Azerbaijan cannot count on Turkey being always in its corner, then Azerbaijan’s leadership will have to think long and hard about how it can pursue a balanced foreign policy between Ankara and the West and Moscow and the CIS.
That is all the more so because of the third tectonic shift in the region: Turkey’s exploration of closer ties with Armenia.  Since the “football” diplomacy of last summer when President Gul visited Yerevan, contacts between Armenia and Turkey have expanded with a series of meetings in both countries and in international settings like Davos.  Although Turkish officials continue to insist that their commitment to Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity remains unchanged and although Ankara has its own reasons for pursuing these ties – including not unimportantly the reduction of the influence of the Armenian diaspora’s push for international recognition of 1915 as a genocide – Ankara’s actions are changing the geopolitical framework in the Caucasus as well.
On the one hand, if these contacts lead to a greater opening of the already partially porous Armenian-Turkish border, Armenia will be under significantly less pressure to settle the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute.  Not only will it have more opportunities for trade, but its geographic isolation will be reduced.  (Some would say that this would reduce Armenia’s dependence on Russia as well, but it seems clear that Yerevan is unlikely to downgrade that tie whatever happens in its relations with Turkey).
And on the other, to the extent that Turkey expands its ties with Yerevan, Ankara may feel less compelled to line up with Azerbaijan on all issues.  At the very least, that means that Azerbaijan will feel less certain that it can count on Turkey and that very uncertainty will produce greater insecurity in the minds of many.  Consequently, Turkey’s rapprochement with Armenia will reinforce the view that Ankara’s growing ties with Moscow undermine rather than help Azerbaijan.
One of the reasons for these rather dire conclusions is that the rhetoric coming out of Moscow about the Nabucco project in which Azerbaijan has invested so much effort is truly hyperbolic.  At the end of January, Moscow’s Kommersant-Vlast suggested that Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is in fact considering provoking a war between Armenia and Azerbaijan not only to block the flow of Caspian Basin gas westward bypassing Russia but to increase Russian influence in the South Caucasus.
That report was reinforced by the remarks of Aleksandr Dugin, the Eurasian Party leader who is known to be close to the Russian leadership.  He told Novosti on January 31 that Nabucco has to be wrecked at any cost because “we are talking about the geopolitics of gas.”  Consequently, if Russia needs to use military tools to do so, Dugin continued, Moscow “should [take that step] without any hesitation.”
Such language is almost certainly intended less as a prediction of what Russia will do than as a way of putting additional pressure on regional actors like Azerbaijan.  But given Moscow’s intervention in Georgia last summer and the geopolitical shifts in the South Caucasus since that time, such words in and of themselves seem certain to cause more people in Baku to rethink Azerbaijan’s approach to foreign policy and thus at the very least to spark a new debate about many things that most analysts had thought settled long ago.