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Shifting conflict and security dynamics in the Caucasus: The role of regional powers

Map of the Caucasus region
Dr Neil John Melvin and Ekaterina Klimenko

The problem of Nagorno-Karabakh is arguably the most acute issue in the Caucasus today. The outbreak of fighting in April 2016 is the worst since the 1994 ceasefire. Without a political shift in Armenia and Azerbaijan, and in the absence of peacekeepers or effective international monitoring on the ground, maintenance of the new ceasefire agreement will be difficult.

The onset of a full-fledged war between Armenia and Azerbaijan will be much more destructive than the original conflict in the 1990s. Over the last 5 years Armenia and Azerbaijan have heavily militarized the border areas and built up substantial arsenals. In the event of a major conflict, the war would take on a regional dimension with the possible involvement of Russia and Turkey. Georgia, too, would likely be drawn into the conflict due to its large Armenian and Azerbaijani minorities. The region’s shifting security dynamics and the role of regional powers, particularly Russia, Iran, Turkey, the EU and the USA, deserve close examination as possible alternatives are explored.

On 29 April SIPRI, together with the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies (GFSIS), organized the workshop 'Shifting Conflict and Security Dynamics in the Caucasus: the Role of Regional Powers' in Tbilisi, Georgia. The workshop explored recent developments in the conflicts of the Caucasus region and this blog is based on discussions from the workshop.

 

Russia’s struggle to maintain regional control

Driven by broader foreign policy goals and security objectives, Russia’s engagement in the South Caucasus is heavily focused on protecting its sovereignty and the practice of non-interference in its domestic affairs, maintaining border security and securing its interests in the ‘near abroad’. Moscow’s resistance to NATO and EU efforts to promote liberal norms and external models of security governance in the eastern neighbourhood is an effort to assert itself in what Russia’s elites consider an unstable and inhospitable security environment. Despite trying to maintain stability and order in its neighbourhood, Russia lacks a clear strategy to underpin its approach to the region.

Recently, Moscow has tried to promote constructive narratives, both in terms of trade and development and its role as a security provider. For example, Russian President Vladimir Putin suggested the creation of a Eurasian Union—a multilateral economic organization modelled after the EU—as a means of increasing regional prosperity. At the same time, Russia’s efforts to promote itself as a security provider and a negotiator are apparent both in its engagement in the Geneva talks (on Georgia’s protracted conflicts) and in its brokerage of a ceasefire between Armenia and Azerbaijan with regard to the newly revitalized Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

In the region, however, Russia is neither viewed as a reliable security actor nor as a viable leader of a new model of economic integration. To this end, its perception limits Russia’s ability to enforce its agenda. In August 2014, President Putin invited the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan to talks in Sochi over growing tensions in Nagorno-Karabakh, but the meeting failed to produce a final joint statement, indicating an inability to move the sides towards a peace agreement. Similarly, after the upsurge in violence around Nagorno-Karabakh in April 2016, Russia’s largescale supply of arms to Azerbaijan created a strong anti-Russian backlash in Armenia, thwarting President Putin’s plans to persuade the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents to meet in Moscow.

Despite the impediments to Russia extending its position within the South Caucasus, two factors stand to increase its influence. First, a ramp up of Russian ‘soft power’, which counters the West’s liberal values in favour of promoting the pro-Russian world and its conservative Orthodox and Eurasian values, might be more effective than hard power alternatives. Second, largely as result of the RussiaGeorgia war of 2008, integration with the EU and NATO is not seen as a realistic prospect for the countries of the South Caucasus. With EuroAtlantic integration off the table, Russia’s influence in the region could grow.

 

Iran and Turkey efforts to re-engage

Iran strives to overcome years of isolation and disengagement in order to become a third power in the region, together with Turkey and Russia. Although Iran’s borders with the South Caucasus states have been relatively stable, unlike its borders with Afghanistan and Iraq, Tehran has security concerns in the region. Any intensification of violence in the South Caucasus, for example over Nagorno-Krabakh, would have important repercussions for Iran in terms of border security, refugee flows and damage to energy infrastructure it has constructed together with Armenia.

Turkey, which has substantial economic and security interests in the region, is tangentially engaged in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Russia’s military build-up in Armenia, which grew out of its intervention in Syria, remains a significant concern for Turkey and has ensured the latter’s support for Baku. Turkey’s close relations with Azerbaijan are also partially the product of ethno-linguistic ties, mutual economic and energy interests and domestic politics.

Nevertheless, the Caucasus is not the primary strategic security arena either for Turkey or for Iran. Iran’s engagement in the South Caucasus is only marginally related to its primary objectives of returning to the world stage and re-entering the global economy. Meanwhile, Turkey is occupied by other theaters, namely Syria, as well as internal security concerns related to the refugee crisis, attacks near its borders and domestic terrorism in its urban centers. Both countries, however, are worried by and wary of Russia.

Following the 2015 international agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme, Russia’s importance to Iran has diminished and the latter has an opportunity to diversify its geopolitical relations. Tehran continues to work with Russia on certain issues (including Syria), but has little interest in security cooperation in the Caucasus. Since a Russian military plane was shot down in the autumn of 2015, RussianTurkish relations have become progressively more hostile and Turkish domestic rhetoric increasingly underlines the ‘Russian threat’.

Escalation of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict poses a threat both to Iran and Turkey. The former was directly affected by the resumption of fighting in April 2016, with mortar shells falling on Iranian villages. Although Turkey has been reluctant to intervene directly in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict—despite the Agreement on Strategic Partnership and Mutual Support with Azerbaijan—it may find continued non-intervention difficult since Armenia would likely take action to target Azerbaijan’s energy infrastructure in the event that the conflict escalates to full scale warfare.

On the flip side, Iran and Turkey could contribute constructively to the region’s security by offering to host peace processes and dialogue. In fact, until the late 1990s, Iran was linked informally to the OSCE Minsk group. Re-establishing Tehran’s role in the peace process could well have a positive effect. Turkey, which is already part of the Minsk group, could play an important twin-track role by normalizing relations between Armenia and Turkey on one hand and facilitating back-channel communications between Armenia and Azerbaijan on the other.

 

EU involvement and the revised European Neighbourhood Policy

Realizing the weakness of EU political leverage and the limitations of its influence in the South Caucasus, the EU reviewed its European Neighborhood Policy (ENP) in 2015. A call for change in the ENP was also borne out of an understanding that partner countries often have different motivations for developing a relationship with the EU, and different levels of political will to implement domestic reforms.

As part of the revised ENP, the differentiation principle was introduced to provide a basis to craft different kinds of relationships with individual countries. The second major shift in the ENP approach relates to stability and security. With regards to the South Caucasus, the ENP would be employed in an effort to stabilize the region through a transformation of institutional frameworks (e.g. judiciary system).

Since Armenian’s U-turn away from concluding an EU association agreement in 2013, following Russian President Putin’s intervention, the debate regarding other forms of agreement with Armenia has been ongoing. For its part, Azerbaijan has been reluctant to engage with the EU due to significant disagreements on human rights and political freedoms. However, Russia’s assertive stance in the neighbourhood ensures Azerbaijan’s continued openness to a relationship with the EU as a means of balancing Moscow’s influence.

EU cooperation with Armenia and Azerbaijan is being developed in the areas of border management, the security sector and judiciary reform. While the EU has not been a direct part of the conflict resolution process over Nagorno-Karabakh, it does support the Minsk group through diplomacy and civil society support. By contrast, the EU has had some success facilitating conflict management in Georgia by providing a relatively neutral forum for the parties to the conflict to communicate with one another. The EU Monitoring Mission has proved a good tool to identify early warning signs of an escalation in the protracted conflicts of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

 

Ambiguous US interests

The USA has reduced its level of engagement in the South Caucasus in recent years principally due to structural and political circumstances in foreign and domestic politics. The Obama administration’s relative disinterest in the post-9/11 ‘democracy promotion’ agenda as a feature of US security policy, the development of alternative energy supply channels from the Caspian Sea and a scale-down of US operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, to which the Caucasus states contributed, have together ensured the region’s diminished importance to the USA.

Ambitions to expand NATO have also waned since the RussiaGeorgia war of 2008 and the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. Due to its low probability of success, there is little US appetite to advocate for NATO expansion (and particularly Georgian membership) among existing European Member States. Instead, acknowledging progress in Georgia, the USA prefers to compensate Tbilisi through bilateral mechanisms outside of the NATO framework, which has resulted in increasing military cooperation and security assistance to Georgia, through European Reassurance Initiative funding.

The USA’s ‘hands-off’ approach to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has allowed Russia to take the lead on diplomacy. The USA sees Russia as having more leverage and thus prefers to engage via the Minsk Group. Despite Washington’s generally laissez-faire attitude toward the region, the summit of the Presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan, convened in Vienna in May 2016, was largely the result of US Secretary Kerry’s initiative and may indicate an increased willingness by the USA to work with Russia on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

 

The path ahead

In recent years, relative disinterest from the international community in the conflicts of the South Caucasus has resulted in a regional security vacuum. Moreover, increased political polarization among the various regional players means that almost all international and multilateral organizations engaged in the region, including the EU, have become viewed as ‘partisan’ by one party to the conflict or another. These trends have slowed the momentum towards conflict resolution in Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia and South Ossetia and transformed existing peace processes into conflict management mechanisms.

Without adequate security architecture, it will be difficult to achieve any measure of progress toward resolving these conflicts. It is, therefore, necessary to use the potential of the OSCE, which is perhaps the ‘last man standing’ in the region, to improve international diplomacy in the region around the peace processes. For all its limitations, the OSCE’s capacities need to be used and developed in the South Caucasus and in Nagorno-Karabakh in particular. The international community must recognize that it is the parties to the conflicts themselves who ultimately hold the key to peace. Regional powers can engage in conflict management and resolution but unless there is an equal commitment from actors at the local level, sustainable peace will not be achieved.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)

Dr Neil John Melvin is Director of SIPRI's Russia and Euro-Eurasian Security Programme.
Ekaterina Klimenko is a Researcher in the Russia and Euro-Eurasian Security Programme and the Coordinator for Conflict and Peace at SIPRI.