If U.S. policymakers see Russia as a strategic threat, many overlook the shadows of empire. Predators Russia and Turkey are meddling in the South Caucasus, an oil-rich region that constitutes a key piece on the wider chessboard, in a game for global influence from which the United States has been entirely absent in recent years.
If the Kremlin thought it had restored stability in the South Caucasus through its mediation of last fall’s renewed fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, a territory controlled by Azerbaijan but populated mainly by Armenians, it was mistaken—unless instability was what Russian President Vladimir Putin wanted. While the fighting in the forty-four-day war has subsided, the political fallout still reverberates.
Armenia’s prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan, came to power in 2018 after the popular Velvet Revolution. The replacement of Serzh Sargsyan—authoritarian, unpopular, and increasingly corrupt—with Pashinyan raised hopes of closer ties between Armenia and the West. When the fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh began, Russia did not rush to give Armenia military aid; it stood by while Turkey provided support and encouragement, if not soldiers, to Azerbaijan. The fighting, which produced thousands of victims on both sides, left Pashinyan little choice but to agree to return to Azerbaijan a big chunk of the territory that Armenia had gained in the first Nagorno-Karabakh war (1988–94), including all the internationally recognized territories outside the enclave itself. Pashinyan also agreed to give back most of the southern part of Nagorno-Karabakh, including the ancient city of Shusha, which overlooks the region’s de facto capital, Stepanakert.
The Armenians have kept control over the northern and central parts of the enclave, including the capital. But the Lachin corridor, five kilometers wide and the only road linking Armenia itself to the remaining Armenian-controlled parts of Nagorno-Karabakh, is controlled by Russian peacekeepers.
Armenia’s dissatisfaction with its situation has put Pashinyan’s political future in serious jeopardy. Seventeen opposition parties, joined in a “Homeland Salvation Movement,” are backing Vazgen Manukyan, Armenia’s first prime minister, to replace him. This movement, in contrast with Pashinyan, harbors anti-Western sentiments and sees Russia as the only major power that has acted as Armenia’s benefactor. However, Manukyan recently announced that he won’t run. He has been charged with violating article 301 of Armenia’s Criminal Code—breaching the country’s constitutional order—standing accused of inciting a violent overthrow of the government during a public address on February 20, when he said that the opposition must be ready to take power by “rebelling with lightning speed.” He considers these charges to be politically motivated and vowed to continue working toward ousting Pashinyan, who faces growing calls to resign. The Armenian military, unhappy with the outcome of the fighting, has hinted it might participate in removing him from power. Pashinyan has called this behavior an attempted coup.
Under Armenian law, a snap election can be called if a prime minister resigns and Parliament fails twice in attempting to choose a new one. Pashinyan announced his resignation last month to pave the way for an early election on June 20. Among those planning to run against him are former President Robert Kocharyan, whose popularity has increased as Pashinyan’s has dropped. Kocharyan, who served as president of Armenia from 1998 to 2008 and as first president of Nagorno-Karabakh from 1994 to 1997, also has had good ties to the Russian government and to Putin personally over the years, something that Armenians may view as a positive after what happened last fall. On May 9 Kocharyan formed a new alliance called “Hayastan” (the Armenian word for the country), comprised of the Reviving Armenia party and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation Dashnaktsutyun, which will run in early parliamentary elections. This development has been a setback to the progress of democracy. It doubtless makes Putin happy.
Political crisis has also consumed neighboring Georgia—the most pro-American country in the region, often described as an island of democracy in a sea of authoritarianism—where a showdown between the party in power, Georgian Dream, and the main opposition party, the United National Movement, has reached a critical point. Tensions took a dramatically bad turn in the summer of 2019 after a Russian legislator named Sergei Gavrilov, who had supported Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008, appeared in the Georgian Parliament building, sat in the speaker’s chair, and spoke in Russian. Many Georgians viewed this as a serious affront.
Last fall’s Georgian parliamentary elections made matters worse. Domestic and international observers have judged that there were problems with the process, though not big enough to have radically changed the results. The opposition parties, however, have claimed that the results were riddled with fraud, arguing that Georgian Dream inflated its results in order to exceed the 40 percent threshold needed to form a government without a coalition. The opposition parties boycotted the new Parliament, leaving Georgia with a one-party legislature.
In an effort to break the stalemate, ambassadors from the United States and the EU tried to broker negotiations, but the Georgian government turned a political impasse into a crisis when it arrested the main opposition leader, Nika Melia, in February. It also threatened to raid the offices of the opposition TV outlet Pirveli over a recording involving the son of oligarch and former Georgian Dream leader Bidzina Ivanishvili. All this represents yet another setback for democracy in the region and provoked criticism from the international community.
In early March, European Council President Charles Michel visited Georgia to offer the EU’s and his personal services to mediate between the opposing parties. Michel’s envoy, Christian Danielsson, visited later in the month and his efforts seemed to stall, until a breakthrough reached last month that produced an agreement signed by Georgian Dream and some members of the opposition. Left out of the agreement was the biggest opposition party, United National Movement. Giorgi Rurua, the main shareholder in opposition network Mtavari Arkhi TV, was pardoned as part of the agreement by Georgia’s president, Salome Zurabishvili.
On Monday the EU decided to pay Melia’s bail—some $11,600—and he was released from pre-trial detention. While the situation should have never reached this point, his release should pave the way for United National Movement to take its seats in the parliament and end its boycott. As with Nagorno-Karabakh, the United States, aside from the role played by the American ambassador in Tbilisi, has taken a back seat for the most part, despite the fact that Washington has outsized influence in Georgia.
In Azerbaijan, by contrast, the situation is relatively stable; but much of the stability reflects President Ilham Aliyev’s firm grip on his authoritarian power. After the November 9 ceasefire, Aliyev staged a victory parade in the Azerbaijani capital, where he announced that Armenian “fascism” had been defeated. On April 12, Aliyev opened “a military trophy park” in Baku, an arch made from the helmets of killed and captured Armenian soldiers, in a move reminiscent of Saddam Hussein, whose 1989 Victory Arch—two enormous sets of crossed swords clutched in hands modeled after his very own—was cast out of the melted rifles of dead Iraqi soldiers. It is estimated that around 5,000 Armenian soldiers died in the second Nagorno-Karabakh war and 3,500 went missing. About 260 prisoners of war and kidnapped civilians are held illegally by the Azerbaijani government even after the Russian-brokered ceasefire, belying Putin’s claims that “a peaceful agreement” ended hostilities.
Tensions in the region remain high, and hopes for democracy now teeter on the edge. After the Russian mediation that ended the fall fighting, Putin can boast of having troops in all three South Caucasus countries—Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia—even if those in Georgia are uninvited and unwelcome. To police the ceasefire, Russian troops have returned to Azerbaijan for the first time since 1991. In Armenia, Russia maintains a military base and is viewed as the country’s security guarantor. Meanwhile, Turkey has a troop presence in the region for the first time in a century.
After almost thirty years of Armenian control, the Moscow-brokered ceasefire puts a large part of Nagorno-Karabakh and all seven districts around it under Azerbaijani administration. Nagorno-Karabakh is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, but as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has reported, the ethnic Armenians who make up most of the region’s population reject Azerbaijani rule.
Meanwhile, Putin, Azerbaijan’s Aliyev, and Armenia’s Pashinyan signed an agreement in January to develop economic ties and infrastructure projects to unblock the region’s closed borders. The agreement is meant to facilitate unrestricted movement of citizens, vehicles, and goods through Armenia and Azerbaijan via transportation lines that were used during Soviet times but have not been in operation for the last three decades. It is not yet clear what the specific projects will be, but it is clear that Armenia and Azerbaijan will not be fully independent players in the Caspian region’s renowned Great Game.
Both Russia and Turkey are exploiting the opportunities they saw to expand their control and influence in the region. In contrast, the West was almost completely absent from the recent goings-on in Nagorno-Karabakh. The Minsk Group—which includes the United States and France, along with Russia—monitors a trilateral ceasefire agreement that was signed in 1994 by Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Nagorno-Karabakh; but the group played no role in the new ceasefire. This means that the new agreement signed last fall was negotiated on Russia’s and Turkey’s terms, without any regard for the Minsk Group’s twenty-eight-plus years of effort (albeit unsuccessful) to achieve a comprehensive settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
The United States, not currently a major player in the region, needs to expand its role quickly. The South Caucasus and the Black Sea area are important to America and Europe; but recent developments, especially the elevation of Russian and Turkish influence in the region, risk marginalizing America’s role.
Turkey, with the second-largest military force in NATO, has been cozying up to Russia for quite some time, though Moscow recently canceled all direct flights to Turkey until June 1, ostensibly out of concerns for the pandemic but in reality out of anger over President Erdogan’s renewed support for Ukraine. Turkey and Russia clashed in November 2015 when the Turks shot down a Russian military plane that had crossed into Turkish airspace, but the two countries reconciled enough to launch a joint observation center to monitor the Armenia-Azerbaijan ceasefire.
Moreover, Turkey has acquired Russia’s S-400 missile defense system, an action technically requiring that Turkey be sanctioned under U.S. law. While Moscow and Ankara have different positions on Syria and Libya, Presidents Putin and Erdogan seem to have developed warm ties. They occasionally include Iran in their circle. This, too, should worry Washington. At the same time, differences between Ankara and Moscow over Ukraine might test the relationship once again.
The Biden Administration needs to appoint, and get confirmed, people at the State Department and Defense Department to oversee this region. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has been joined by Undersecretary for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland, who knows the region very well, and hopefully will have Karen Donfried, nominated to be Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs, on board soon as well to bolster the career people who have stayed on through the previous administration. Getting respected members of Congress to travel to the region would be a useful, albeit temporary, way to show the American flag.
The United States should send more ships to the Black Sea on a regular basis as a reminder of American security interests there; this is important for showing solidarity with Ukraine, too. Washington should also make clear to Georgian officials that their prospects for Euro-Atlantic integration are not boosted by endless internal fighting. The only ones who benefit from that live in Moscow.
President Biden did weigh in on a longstanding and thorny issue involving Armenia and Turkey when he declared on April 24 for the first time since Ronald Reagan that the Ottoman Empire’s massacres of Armenians during World War I constituted genocide. Erdogan, not surprisingly, was unhappy with this declaration, but it is unlikely to lead to a major shake-up in U.S.-Turkish relations or in the U.S. standing in the region more broadly.
Whether through the Minsk Group process, close ties with the Georgian government, or energy interests in Azerbaijan, the United States has in the past been a significant player in the region. But recent developments, especially the active roles played by Russia and Turkey, threaten to undermine America’s position there. Inroads by both Putin and Erdogan may feed their ambitions and encourage them in their thinking that they can marginalize the American role. Their appetites may well grow with the eating.
Lilia A. Arakelyan is a research fellow of the European and Eurasian Center at Florida International University and a consultant for the United Nations Development Programme. David J. Kramer, a contributing editor of American Purpose, is director of European & Eurasian Studies at Florida International University’s Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs. He served as Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor in the George W. Bush Administration.
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