US-Russia Relations: Implications for the South Caucasus

Editor’s Note: Continuing our initiative for international partnership, in the following we present an article written by the Vice President for Research from the Armenian National Defense Research University. The article discusses the geopolitical environment in the South Caucasus region from an Armenian perspective. For readers familiar with this region, the Geopolitical Context and Evolution of US-Russian Relations sections will be a review of the region’s political history. However these sections provide good foundational background for many readers not well-versed in this region’s politics. The final two sections of the article discuss the implications of the current environment and open the door to future political and diplomatic considerations.

By Dr. Benyamin Poghosyan

Introduction

As the US and Russia compete and maneuver for advantage in the arena of international politics, those nations connected to each are often affected by their shifting relations. The main purpose of this article is to analyze the dynamics of US–Russia relations and their implications for the South Caucasus. Since late 2011, US–Russia relations have deteriorated sharply and entered an acute crisis phase in spring 2014. Currently, bilateral relations are at their lowest point since the end of the Cold War with little hope for any significant improvement in the short-term. This comes with implications for nations like Armenia and other republics in the South Caucasus.

South Caucasus, as a part of the former Soviet Union, is perceived by Russia as a zone of its influence. Russia makes efforts to regain its control over the region and thwart any external player influence there. Russia mainly relies on Armenia, which hosts a Russian military base and is a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Eurasian Economic Union. Simultaneously, Armenia is trying to develop relations with the US, the EU, and NATO. Georgia pursues integration into the EU and NATO and postures itself as a key transit route to bring Azerbaijani energy resources to Europe via Turkey, circumventing Russia. Azerbaijan is trying to keep a balance between Russia and the West, using its oil and gas resources as a key asset to develop relations with the Euro-Atlantic community.

The US views the South Caucasus as an alternative energy source which may diminish EU reliance on Russian gas. As a part of the former Soviet Union, the region is also included in the US policy of bolstering a transition from a totalitarian past to a liberal democracy. However, the South Caucasus is not among the top US national security interests.

The sharp deterioration of US–Russia relations will negatively impact the regional security environment. This will complicate Armenia’s efforts to develop relations with the US, EU, and NATO and deepen Armenia’s overdependence on Russia. Russia will increase pressure on Georgia to circumscribe its relations with the Euro-Atlantic community. This scenario may transform the country into a point of contention between Russia and the US. Azerbaijan may find it much more difficult to keep a balanced policy towards both Russia and the US and may be forced to make a clear choice between the two actors.

Geopolitical context

The South Caucasus has a strategic location as a crossroad between Europe and Asia. As a part of the former Soviet Union, the region is included in the Russian self-declared zone of influence, as mentioned by then Russian President Dmitri Medvedev in August 2008.

Given its land borders with Turkey and Iran, as well as natural resources and transit capacities to bring Central Asian gas and oil to Europe while circumventing Russia, the region has a role in US foreign policy. However, the American approach towards the South Caucasus is largely influenced by developments in US–Russia relations.

Another key aspect shaping both US and Russian policy towards the region are unresolved conflicts in Karabakh, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. All three conflicts erupted during the last years of the Soviet Union. Karabakh was an Armenian inhabited territory that was included into Soviet Azerbaijan in 1921 and given autonomous region status. In September 1991, Nagorno Karabakh declared its independence in accordance with the Soviet Union and international laws. At the beginning of 1992 Azerbaijan started a military offensive against Karabakh. Hostilities ended in May 1994 and negotiations were launched between Azerbaijan, Karabakh and Armenia under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group co-chaired by the US, Russia and France, with no peace agreement signed yet.

Abkhazia was an autonomous republic and South Ossetia was an autonomous region within Soviet Georgia. Both declared their independence in the early 1990s and after a short period of hostilities Georgia lost control over most parts of the two republics. Hostilities resumed in South Ossetia in August 2008 and resulted in Russian forces entering Abkhazia and South Ossetia and defeating the Georgian army. On August 28, 2008 Russia recognized independence of both Abkhazia and South Ossetia and later deployed military bases there.

Russia exploits the above-mentioned conflicts as leverage to influence Armenian, Azerbaijani, and Georgian foreign and domestic policies. With military bases deployed in Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Armenia, Russia is a dominant military actor in the region with abilities to change the facts on the ground. Russia has shown no intention of stepping back from its recognition of Abkhazian and South Ossetian independence.

The US considers both Abkhazia and South Ossetia as a part of internationally recognized Georgian territory. As an OSCE Minsk Group co-chair state, the US has been actively involved in the Karabakh conflict resolution negotiation process. Despite sharp deteriorations in US–Russia relations since the start of the Ukraine crisis in 2014, both countries continue to agree on the main principles for settling the Karabakh conflict. These principles were articulated in several statements by the US, Russian and French Presidents.

Three internationally recognized states in the region – Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia – pursue different foreign policy goals. Alliance with Russia is the cornerstone of Armenian foreign and security policy. Armenia is a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization; a Russian military base is deployed in Armenia and will be there at least until 2044. Armenia has a joint air defense system with Russia, and in 2016 the two countries formed a joint military force. Russian border troops, along with Armenian counterparts, are responsible for the control of Armenia’s border with Turkey and Iran. Russian state and state-affiliated companies own almost all of Armenia’s strategic economic assets.

Armenia is also developing partnerships with the EU, NATO, and the US. In 2005 the first Individual Partnership Action Plan (IPAP) was signed between Armenia and NATO, ushering in a new era of bilateral relations. Despite the fact that in 2013 Armenia was forced to abandon its Association Agreement with the EU and enter the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union, in late 2015 negotiations were launched between Armenia and the EU to sign a new bilateral Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement. The agreement was initialed in March 2017 and is scheduled to be signed during the November 2017 Eastern Partnership Summit in Brussels. Armenia has friendly relations with the US partly due to the vibrant Armenian community there, but strategically Armenia is firmly anchored in the sphere of Russian influence.

Since the Rose revolution of 2003, Georgia has been actively pursuing membership into NATO and the EU and is cultivating a strategic partnership with the US; signing a bilateral Charter on strategic partnership in January 2009. Both Georgia and its Western partners have a clear understanding that due to the Russia–Georgia War of 2008, membership into NATO and the EU are not realistic options in the foreseeable future. However, the Euro-Atlantic community continues to support substantive reforms underway in Georgia through the employment of different tools. The new Georgian government, in power since 2012, is making efforts to mend relations with Russia while keeping strategic relations with the US, NATO, and the EU. However, key disagreements over the status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia are unsurmountable obstacles for any qualitative improvements in bilateral relations.

Azerbaijan is trying to keep a balance between Russia and the West, using its strategic location and energy resources as key instruments in its foreign policy. Baku (Azerbaijan’s capital) developed a strategic partnership with Russia through a multibillion dollar arms deals. Another key aspect of the Russia–Azerbaijan relations is the trilateral Azerbaijan–Iran–Russia negotiations to launch the North – South economic corridor which will connect India with Europe through Iran, Azerbaijan, and Russia.

Azerbaijan’s main assets in its relations with the Euro–Atlantic community are Azerbaijani oil and natural gas, which may be useful to the EU in its attempts to diversify energy supply sources. The construction of Trans–Anatolian and Trans–Adriatic pipelines envisages circumventing Russia with an annual delivery of 10 billion cubic meters (the equivalent of 63 billion barrels) of Azerbaijani gas to Southeastern Europe. Meanwhile, the deteriorating human rights situation and freedom of speech in Azerbaijan, as well as the recent scandal of money laundering circulated in Western media, may complicate Azerbaijan’s relations with the West.

Evolution of US–Russia relations

Since the end of the Cold War, US–Russia relations have gone through different and sometimes difficult ebbs and flows. The recent decade of relations was marked by high tensions starting with President Putin’s speech at the 2007 Munich Conference on Security, where he criticized the US led international order, observing that the unipolar world has nothing in common with democracy. The tensions culminated in the 2008 Georgia–Russia war followed by a short period of “Reset” during President Obama’s first term, which coincided with the Presidency of Dmitry Medvedev. However, several positive interactions transpired between 2009-2011, Such interactions include Russia and the US signing of a new treaty on the reduction of strategic weapons and Russia voting in favor of the 2010 UN Security Council resolution imposing sanctions on Iran. Additionally, in 2011 Russia abstained on the UN Security Council Libya resolution and the US supported the Russian bid to become a member of World Trade Organization.

The pattern has dramatically changed since late 2011 when then Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin made a decision to run for a third Presidential term in the Spring 2012 elections and put forward an idea to create the Eurasian Economic Union. The US establishment perceived this move as a clear sign of growing authoritarianism in Russia. The Eurasian Economic Union project was viewed as an effort to re-Sovietize the region under another name and to restore Russian zone of influence within the post-Soviet space.

The December 2011 Russian Duma elections, followed by mass protests in Moscow against alleged electoral frauds, only confirmed US suspicions of Russia drifting further away from liberal democracy. The Russian decision to grant asylum to Edward Snowden only exacerbated the situation. Despite the fact that US and Russia managed to overcome the crisis concerning the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government in late summer 2013, mutual distrust was only growing.

A new phase of crisis in bilateral relations was launched at the beginning of 2014 with the Euromaidan revolution in Ukraine. The ouster of Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovich in February 2014, the Referendum in Crimea and the decision to incorporate the peninsula into Russian territory, Russian support to the insurgency in  the Donetsk and Lugansk regions of Ukraine, and the US and EU sanctions imposed on Russia left bilateral relations at their lowest point since the end of the Cold War.

The US narrative surrounding these events is based on the vision that Russia, by its actions in Ukraine, has clearly breached the fundamental norms of international law. According to the US, Russia attempts to redraw borders by force and to change the post-Cold War security architecture in Europe. Russian actions are viewed as a violation of its commitments with the aim to create a zone of instability in Central and Eastern Europe. Since the Ukraine crisis, both the US and NATO made steps to strengthen their military posture in this part of the world through programs like European Reassurance Initiative. Additionally, during the Wales and Warsaw summits, NATO decided to strengthen the Alliance military capabilities on the Eastern Flank.

Russia views the situation from a different perspective. According to a recent study done by the RAND Corporation, Russia sees the logic of the current international order as U.S.-led hegemony, in which the United States is seeking to bring more countries under its control and influence under the guise of expanding democracy and free institutions.

Russia blames the Euro–Atlantic community for its policy of supporting NATO expansion and for allowing NATO to move military infrastructure closer to Russian borders. In December 2014, President Putin approved Russia’s new military doctrine that highlighted the threat of the growing NATO military capacity and classified NATO expansion as the primary external military threat to Russia. Approximately the same definitions were put into the new Russian National Security Strategy, adopted in December 2015, and in the new foreign policy concept of Russia, approved by President Putin in November 2016. In both documents the US and its allies were accused of implementing a policy of containment against Russia.

Moscow perceives the “Color Revolutions” in post-Soviet republics, including the 2003 Rose Revolution in Georgia, the 2004 Orange revolution in Ukraine, and the 2014 Euromaidan revolution, as Western-orchestrated unlawful actions with a clear goal of bringing into power pro-western forces to encircle Russia with a belt of unfriendly states.

In his December 2014 State of the Union address, President Putin emphasized that the strategic goal of the West was to punish and dismember Russia. Russia blamed the US of violating international laws by such actions as incursion into Iraq in 2003, recognition of Kosovo’s independence in 2008, ousting Muammar Kaddafi from Libya in 2011, and supporting the coup d’etat in Ukraine in 2014.

President Trump’s victory in the 2016 US elections created hope that rapprochement is possible in bilateral relations. But investigations into Russian meddling in the US election, the controversies surrounding former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort, and the firing of FBI director James Comey made any possible breakthroughs less likely. The new sanctions bill approved by US Congress and signed into law by President Trump, as well as Russia’s decision to expel 755 US diplomats, exacerbated bilateral relations even further.

Implications for the South Caucasus

The strategic rift between Russia and the US negatively impacts the South Caucasus. For Armenia, it complicates its efforts to develop relations with the US, NATO, and the EU while remaining within the Russian sphere of influence. Armenia understands that it urgently needs sweeping reforms to turn back its negative economic and demographic trends. And in this process, the best example and primary source for inspiration is not Russia, but the Euro–Atlantic community.

Within Armenian society, Armenia is perceived as a “small Russia” with the same domestic challenges seen in Russia. The only difference is in scale. Russia therefore cannot be the model for dramatically changing the current state of affairs in Armenia. Even more, some parts of Armenian society view Russia as an obstacle to implement successful and systemic domestic reforms.

The growing deterioration of US–Russia relations may further restrain Armenia’s ability to maneuver within its foreign policy. The potential decline in relations between Euro–Atlantic institutions and Armenia will only strengthen latter overdependence on Russia. This may have negative implications not only for Armenia but for the whole region as it will give more freedom of action to Russia.

US–Russia tensions are not welcomed in Georgia either. They may result in increased Russian pressure over Georgia to prevent increased cooperation between Georgia, the US, and NATO. The US itself may attempt to strengthen its relations with Georgia, viewing the country as an important spot to prevent Russia from regaining control over the South Caucasus. The US–Russia competition in Georgia will have negative impact on Georgia’s domestic and foreign security environment and may harm Georgia’s image as a reliable transit route. These developments will make less likely any improvement in Georgia’s relations with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, thus perpetuating the current status quo. Russia will act more aggressively in its efforts to thwart Georgia’s aspirations to align with the US, the EU, and NATO, which in its turn may complicate any advancement in Russia–Georgia relations.

As for Azerbaijan, both the US and Russia may put additional pressure on Baku demanding to clarify its position regarding its geopolitical orientation. Russia may try to preclude the implementation of Trans–Anatolian and Trans–Adriatic gas pipeline projects and further pull Azerbaijan into its orbit by hindering negotiations on Azerbaijan’s possible membership into Eurasian Economic Union. Given the growing dissatisfaction among Azerbaijani leadership with Western criticism of the country’s human rights situation and the government’s infringement on freedom of speech, Azerbaijan may choose to deepen relations with Russia, or at least use that possibility as a bargaining chip in its relations with the West.

Perspectives of the US Involvement in the region

The key spot defining the US–Russia relations in the post-Soviet space is and will remain Ukraine. The appointment of Kurt Volker as the US special representative for the Ukraine negotiations is an indicator of growing US involvement in the Ukraine crisis. The South Caucasus is not among top US national security and foreign policy issues. Given the other urgent issues for the US such as North Korea, Afghanistan, the Middle East, and Trans–Atlantic relations, fewer resources will be available for the US to pursue active policy in the South Caucasus and counter Russia’s growing influence. According to the recent Carnegie Endowment paper on US policy in the region, the US will prioritize conflict prevention, be more cautious in promoting US values, and make room for more EU involvement. Thus, the regional states should not overestimate Washington’s capabilities in their efforts to counter Russian influence.

Meanwhile, it would not be a wise option for the US to abandon the region. If Russia regains its full control over the South Caucasus, it may embolden Russia to pursue more assertive policy in other parts of the former Soviet Union. Given the region’s land borders with Iran and Turkey, Russia may well use the South Caucasus as a launch pad to increase its influence in the Middle East and deepen trilateral Russia–Iran–Turkey cooperation. Such developments will further complicate US policy in the Middle East and give Russia more leverage in its overall relations with the US. The right option for the US is to continue its support to the reforms underway in the region, aimed to raise the level of good governance and the rule of law. The states with developed institutions are less susceptible to foreign influences and manipulations and this is also true for the South Caucasus republics’ relations with Russia. Meanwhile, US assistance should be conditioned on real progress of the three South Caucasian republics on their path towards liberal democracies, not to allow local elites to take the US support for granted.

Thus, US–Russia strategic disagreements come with implications for the South Caucasus. All three republics are facing hard choices not to become a hot point of competition between Moscow and Washington. Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia are facing huge pressure on the flexibility of their foreign policy. However, key national interests of all three republics require balance and each should continue their efforts towards state modernization and political and economic reforms.

Dr. Benyamin Poghosyan is Vice President for Research – Head of the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defence Research University in Armenia, holding this position since August 2016 and Executive Director of Political Science Association of Armenia since 2011. In 2013 he was a Research Fellow at the US National Defense University. His primary research areas are geopolitics of the South Caucasus as well as US – Russian relations and their implications for the region. He joined the Institute for National Strategic Studies (predecessor of NDRU) in March 2009 as a Research Fellow and was appointed as INSS Deputy Director for research in November 2010. Before this, he was Foreign Policy Adviser of the Speaker of the National Assembly of Armenia. Dr. Poghosyan has also served as a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of History of the National Academy of Sciences and was an adjunct professor at Yerevan State University and the European Regional Educational Academy. He is the author of more than 40 academic papers in different leading Armenian and international journals. Dr. Poghosyan is a graduate from the US State Department Study of the US Institutes for Scholars Program on US National Security Policy Making. He holds a PhD in History from the Armenian National Academy of Sciences and is a graduate from the Tavitian Certificate Program on International Relations at Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.

Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the U.S. Government.

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