The South Caucasus and the Importance of U.S. Interests

The fact that the South Caucasus region is in so many ways a meeting point – between Christianity and Islam, between Russia and the Middle East, and between Europe and Asia – has insured the recognition of its importance. In Russia’s relentless effort to reassert itself, the region is significant for a broad number of reasons, each of which is relevant for U.S. security and European stability.

By Stephen R. Bowers l June 19, 2013

When the American public learned the identities of the Boston Marathon terrorists, a nation which had relegated Caucasus issues to obscurity was forced to turn to maps and remind itself of the location and significance of this large and turbulent region. While long known for its violence and instability, the Caucasus has been a Russian concern as radical Islamists from the northern part of the Caucasus took their disputes into Russian cities and towns. The Moscow theater attack of 2002 and the even more painful Beslan incident, not to mention an assortment of lesser atrocities, emerged as symbols of the expanding significance of unrest in the Caucasus.

The southern or, as it is sometimes known, Trans-Caucasus region has experienced much less bloodshed but has nevertheless been a factor in international tensions. The possibility that the violence of the north might exacerbate tensions in the southern region has been a consistent concern of both policy makers and academic researchers. Such a development would greatly exacerbate the abundant problems with which the South Caucasus must already contend. Efforts to integrate the region into the European Union, if not NATO, have sparked specific controversies since the collapse of the USSR. The Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008 was a dramatic indication of the vital importance of the trans-Caucasus.

It is not surprising that the South Caucasus has been the focal point of considerable academic research in an effort to understand the emerging role of this portion of the former Soviet Union. The fact that it is in so many ways a meeting point – between Christianity and Islam, between Russia and the Middle East, and between Europe and Asia – has insured the recognition of its importance. Three recent studies have explored the full spectrum of issues facing this increasingly important region.

The first of these, Reassessing Security in the South Caucasus (Ashgate Publishing, 2011, Annie Jafalian, Editor) is an examination of the international relationships of Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Armenia. Divided into three parts, this volume looks first at the risks, threats and general conflicts of the region with a special emphasis on the causes of the Russian-Georgian war of 2008 and its possible consequences for each of the three nations of the South Caucasus. It continues with an examination of the broader region by considering prospects for regional cooperation involving the neighboring states of Russia, Turkey and Iran. The authors explore the impact of closed frontiers (Russian-Georgian and Armenian-Turkish) on the foreign policies of regional powers. Finally, Reassessing Security in the South Caucasus treats the wider question of foreign policy alignments within the Eurasian community.

Given recent and turbulent developments within the European Union, Laure Delcour’s chapter, “The European Union’s Policy in the South Caucasus: In Search of a Strategy,” is especially relevant for scholars interested in broader foreign policy alignments. Delcour’s analysis looks at the question of whether there is actually an EU policy toward the region and, if such a policy exists, what are its prospects for success. While there are EU initiatives for the South Caucasus, this analysis indicates that the EU’s emphasis is limited to traditional “soft power” measures and that its “Action Plans,” a component of the Europeans Neighborhood Policy, are little more than political documents offering no legal framework for addressing regional concerns. In short, the EU has been unable to address the pressing security issues of the South Caucasus and can site only limited prospects for success in encouraging meaningful development. Thus, EU influence continues to be limited. It is constrained both by intervention of Russia and other regional powers and the ongoing conflicts between the three South Caucasus nations.

The South Caucasus 2021: Oil, Democracy and Geopolitics (The Jamestown Foundation, 2012, Fariz Ismailzade and Glen E. Howard, editors) is more closely focused on security issues. In his brief but effective introduction to the volume, Professor S. Frederick Starr of Johns Hopkins University suggests that the region has been rocked by a series of geopolitical shocks. Those events are: (1) Russia’s 2008 war on Georgia; (2) an effort by major powers to change the nature of their involvement (in particular President Obama’s “ill-advised attempt to erase the legacy of the Armenian-Turkish tragedy of 1915); (3) the world economic crisis; and, (4) petroleum issues. Starr cites the significant U.S. failure to fulfill its verbal commitments to Georgia and the collapse of the Obama initiative to open Armenia’s border with Turkey, as an important indication of an “inadvertent disengagement” from the South Caucasus. The American failure in the region has been matched by the unsuccessful EU effort to create a new and coherent policy that would address security concerns.

Given the shortcomings of U.S. and EU policies, Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan have been unable to meet their security needs by aligning themselves with an external power. Thus, the authors of this volume explore alternatives for the three nations, including the prospect of their balancing relations with all major powers in a manner reminiscent of the 19th century notion of a “concert.” In the chapter entitled “Security Issues and U.S. Interests in the South Caucasus,” Dr. Ariel Cohen and Kevin DeCorla-Souza examine the American role in the region. The starting point for their analysis is that the U.S. is consistently demonstrating an inability to either protect its allies or to advance its own interests. It is vital that the U.S. limit the spread of Islamic radicalism in the South Caucasus, Islamist ideology has been gaining ground in recent years. The focal point for this development is northern Azerbaijan, where a radical Wahhabi movement has gained a foothold in the Lezgin ethnic community, a development that threatens the region’s energy infrastructure. U.S. energy interests also suffered in 2009 as Turkey extended permits enabling Russia’s Gazprom to exploit energy resources along the Turkish-controlled seabed of the Black Sea. This victory for the Russian South Stream project has been accompanied by progress in Moscow’s efforts to secure a major share of Azerbaijan’s natural gas supply beginning in 2010.

The U.S. has failed to respond to Russian ventures in the Caspian even though the Russian moves are a direct challenge to U.S. energy interests in the South Caucasus. Success of the South Stream project will likely enable Russia to consolidate its hold on Caspian gas for decades, thus enhancing Russian influence throughout Europe and giving it a major advantage in attracting customers who would otherwise be inclined to purchase energy from Western sources. Meanwhile, Russia is pushing against those nations seen as pro-U.S., such as Georgia and Azerbaijan, and threatening the U.S. energy position in a way that will further weaken American influence in dealing with Iran and Turkey.

The third work, Thomas DeWaal’s The Caucasus: An Introduction, enjoys the advantage of being written by only one author and therefore develops a consistent theme. DeWaal’s chief argument is that the South Caucasus does, in fact, constitute a discrete region and should be treated as such. Accordingly, he argues, international actors should avoid policy initiatives which concentrate on just one nation at a time. One result of piecemeal policies is that the three regional states are all too often pitted against each other. Therefore, an initiative that is helpful in dealing with one problem has the unintended consequence of exacerbating or even creating other crises.

While DeWaal treats the South Caucasus as a coherent entity, he notes the region’s decentralization, something which is a result of geographic factors, and the considerable animosities which pit the three nations against each other on numerous issues. Both internal and external questions highlight the diversity of interests in the South Caucasus. In 2009, an initiative to establish Armenian-Turkish diplomatic relations and open their common frontier illustrated this. While the move was seen as exceptionally good news by the standards of the South Caucasus, it generated opposition both within Armenia as well as Turkey. Neighboring Azerbaijan felt betrayed by its Turkish ally and promptly signed an agreement to start selling gas to Russia at a third of the world price, while Georgian officials complained that opening of the Armenian-Turkish frontier would divert trade away from Georgia. Meanwhile, the much heralded “re-set” of U.S.-Russian relations in 2009 sparked Georgian fears of a U.S. sell-out of Georgian interests, while doing little to improve U.S.-Russian relations.

DeWaal makes a strong case for the ungovernable nature of the South Caucasus by underscoring the extent to which it resisted and even undermined Soviet control when it was part of the USSR. While regional leaders such as Heidar Aliev and Karen Demirchian offered excessive flattery to Soviet leaders, the region itself was increasingly resistant to Russian influence. Use of the Russian language steadily declined, locals expressed contempt for Russia and things Russian, and “Soviet unity” was little more than a façade to mask the distinctive character of the South Caucasus.

While the authors of these volumes have taken different approaches in their examinations of the South Caucasus, they share a belief that this region is significant for a broad number of reasons, each of which is relevant for U.S. security and European stability. The complex pattern of South Caucasus relationships will impinge on energy issues, Russia’s relentless effort to reassert itself in what was once known as the “Near Abroad,” and the continuing U.S. struggle to develop a coherent and consistent posture toward the post-Soviet world and the wider European community.

Stephen R. Bowers, Ph.D. is a professor of government in the Helms School of Government at Liberty University. Dr. Bowers is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.