The new Russian periphery in Europe: Azerbaijan and U.S. policy

Of the three Caucasian countries, Azerbaijan, located in the South Caucasus, is the most important to America and the West because of its strategic location between Europe and Asia and, moreover, because of its energy resources.

By Nicholas Dima | July 17, 2013

The new periphery of Russia in Europe consists of the Baltic republics (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania), Moldova, and the South Caucasus republics of Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia. Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union this so-called “near abroad” has constituted a bone of contention between Russia and the West. Although the Baltic republics have achieved worldwide recognition and Moscow has grudgingly renounced them, Moldova continues to exist in a state of limbo, while the South Caucasian republics remain a bitterly disputed area. As for Belarus and Ukraine, for the time being they remain under Russian control.

The immediate contending powers in the Caucasus are Russia, Turkey and Iran, but on a global level the real struggle for dominance is between Moscow and Washington. For now, Armenia has chosen to remain in Russia’s sphere of influence, but based on its Diaspora, it has also cultivated good relations with America and Western Europe. Georgia, with its important geostrategic location on the Black Sea, has been victimized the most during the post-Soviet years and its territory was mutilated in 2008 by a direct Russian military intervention. Of the three Caucasian countries, Azerbaijan, located in the South Caucasus, is the most important to America and the West because of its strategic location between Europe and Asia and, moreover because of its energy resources. Arguable, Georgia maintains its strategic importance as an energy export route, critical to keeping Russian ambitions in check. However, America’s policy toward Azerbaijan, as well as toward most of the post Soviet newly independent republics, especially under the Obama administration, is perceived as confusing and incoherent. Thus, from the outset, one is confronted with some rather philosophical questions. Do superpowers have any moral obligations toward small countries? Should the United States, for example, pursue only its interests; or, should it also pursue overall humanitarian goals? In this regard, the U.S. and Azerbaijan offer a good case study.

In his article of June 11, 2013, “Geopolitical Journey: Azerbaijan and America,” George Friedman of STRATFOR focuses on the importance of Azerbaijan from a geopolitical and energy perspective, while emphasizing the difference of perception between Washington and Baku and the resulting confusion. In Azerbaijan, writes the author, you “listen to their desire to be friends with the United States and bewilderment at American indifference…Everyone is unhappy with the United States either for doing something or not doing something. In either case, they feel let down by the United States.” This is certainly a commentary on President Obama’s foreign policy contradicting established relations with Azerbaijan, as presented by the State Department. And, Azerbaijan is not the only post-Soviet republic that feels let down by Washington. Consequently, America is losing friends and supporters.

The reality is that the stakes are very high in Azerbaijan. Russia is working hard to extend its grasp over the country. If Moscow could control the flow of Azeri gas and oil towards Europe, it would acquire a higher degree of influence over the old continent to the detriment of the United States. Turkey, an increasingly stronger regional power which depends on Azeri oil, would like to recreate Azerbaijan in its secular image and tie it to the West. At the same time, Iran with its very sizable Azeri minority, is set on turning Azerbaijan into an Islamic republic in its own image, meaning another anti-American outpost. And this is not unlikely, given that 96 percent of the Azeri population is Islamic, of which 85 percent is Shi’a, the primary faith of Iran.

And then what will America do? Washington is caught in a geopolitical game with Moscow, in a play of interests with American private corporations, and in a web of complicated moral/humanitarian issues. As a result, America’s policy is perceived as weak and indecisive, with Moscow gaining the advantage.

The Nabucco project, for example, a pipeline designed to bring energy to Central and Western Europe thus reducing Russia’s influence over the continent, is being abandoned in favor of a smaller Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) much less threatening to Moscow’s dominant energy interests. At the same time, after implementing the so-called “reset” of U.S.-Russia relations, the 2008 Russian aggression against Georgia and the occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh of Azerbaijan by Armenia, with Russian help, have already been forgotten. In this uneasy situation, Azerbaijan is begging for American friendship and understanding. Baku needs moral and political support and wishes to buy American arms to strengthen its position. Yet, the United States remains uncommitted. In his article, Friedman admits that nations have no friends and “the United States must pursue its interests.” But, can Washington pursue its interests, in this case, without hurting the Azeri people and, in the end, without hurting its own interests? Where does this leave the United States?

Source: Liquida.It

According to Friedman, in the future, the European Union will become weaker and Russia will get stronger and will try to regain its previous control over Eastern Europe. Nevertheless, he adds, America’s foreign policy remains cautious, uncertain, and without foresight. It is indeed a skill and an art to combine objective national interests with subjective friendships with smaller countries that need America’s help. But a friend in need is a friend indeed, and this is the core of the matter. Last year I was interviewed by a Romanian TV station and the interviewer, a known pro-Western journalist, presented me with the sad reality of today’s Romanian economy and asked me whether it would not have been better for the country to remain with Russia. My answer was short and to the point. “Knowing the Russian-Romanian relationship, ever since the two countries made their first contact, would you trust Russia?” His answer, sadly, was no!

The change of heart of several persons may not alter the attitude of a nation, but the change of heart of many people, may lead to radical changes. The strongly pro-American former government of Georgia, for example, has been replaced by a new one inclined toward Russia. And this trend may be repeated in other countries at the Russian periphery, as well, if America continues to ignore the pleas for friendship and assistance of these countries. It is important to pursue national interests, but is also important to cultivate and maintain friendships. U.S. policy makers are divided between realists and idealists, with the former pursuing national interests and the latter emphasizing friendship and humanitarian aims, but the two approaches are not mutually exclusive. Can it be done in this instance?

Mr. Friedman argues that “sometimes the United States does inexplicable things. Sometimes it fails to do necessary things. When the United States makes a mistake it is mostly other countries that suffer or are placed at risk.” Azerbaijan is a case in point, but it is hardly the only one. Georgia and Moldova are in a similar situation. Their people expect American support, but except for friendly declarations the awaited support does not really come. George Friedman claims “the United States can afford to support only countries that take primary responsibility for their national security on themselves.” Yet, how can small countries like Georgia, Azerbaijan or even Moldova help themselves against the Russian giant? They do need a friend like America, but for the most part they see Washington as only pursuing American interests. And, Mr. Friedman’s conclusion is worth stressing. “The United States must adopt a strategy of early and low-risk support for strategic partners rather than sudden, spasmodic military responses to unanticipated crises.” The implied advice for Washington, as well as my own opinion as an American of Romanian origin, is to “follow your interests, but do not overlook the extended hand of friendship of those who need you. Otherwise, one day the mighty America may face the world virtually alone.”

Nicholas Dima, Ph.D., is a former professor and author of numerous books and articles including the autobiographical memoir, Journey to Freedom, a description of the effects of communist dictatorship on a nation, a family and an individual. He currently lectures and is a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.