South Caucasus: Should US Deep Engagement Apply to the Post-Soviet Region?

The South Caucasus region has been filled with various ethnic conflicts and political complications since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The current economic and political situation in the region is more unstable now than ever before. The region is battling with progressing anti-Russian sentiment, shifting power structures, and ethnic confusion, alongside the fallout of ethnic conflicts that developed at the brink of Soviet collapse. 

Currently, the main contributing factor behind the growing instability in the region is the war in Ukraine. The war has had rippling effects on former Soviet territories in South Caucasus — from the 44-day war between Armenia and Azerbaijan in 2020, to Azerbaijan’s September attacks against Armenia to, escalating tensions between Georgia and Russia.  

The first major event contributing to the rise of instability in the South Caucasus was the 44-day war between Armenia and Azerbaijan in Sept. 2020. During that time, the de-facto independent republic of Nagorno-Karabakh was attacked by Azerbaijan, a neighboring country that funds its enlarging military might through oil exports. By the war’s end, Azerbaijan’s military superiority led them toward victory,  including control of most of the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast and its surrounding buffer zones.

Even though Russian peacekeepers were deployed in the portion of Nagorno-Karabakh that remains under Armenian control, Azerbaijan has since increased the intensity of its post-war demands. 

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s regime is now demanding the creation of a corridor through Armenia that would bridge the gap between Azerbaijan and Turkey, connecting the two Turkic states. Naturally, Armenia was hesitant to provide such a corridor, as it would create major concerns for its national security and would impede on Armenian sovereignty. Talks of such a corridor amid Azerbaijan’s post-war leverage have increased its influence in the region, making it an even more powerful entity, and leaving room for potential conflict escalation in the future. 

To this point, on Sep. 13, 2022, increasing demands for an Armenia-Turkey corridor led to attacks on Armenia by Azerbaijan which left the country in an even more vulnerable position considering a lack of response from Armenian military ally Russia. 

Since ceding part of its sovereign territory is a hard line for Armenia, Azerbaijan attacked the un-demarcated post-war southeastern border between the two countries to send a cautionary message to Yerevan. 

These attacks caused major casualties on the Armenian side, and also significantly shifted the relationship between Armenia and Russia. Russia, who was legally obligated to come to Armenia’s defense due to a previously signed treaty, did not do anything to stop the Azerbaijani aggression, which some experts attribute to its preoccupation with the war in Ukraine. 

Moreover, Russia’s non-response to the Azerbaijani and Armenian conflict has created an ever-growing anti-Russian sentiment among Armenian government officials. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan publicly criticized Russia and the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization military organization for not responding to the threats to Armenian security. 

In addition to government-level criticism, there has been an ever-growing anti-Russian and anti-CSTO sentiment within the Armenian public. Anti-Russian sentiments are, in part, propelling the creation of a framework for stronger Armenia-United States relations. 

In terms of action by the United States, Washington has utilized these growing anti-Russian sentiments to push for more diplomatic relations with Armenia. As the war in Ukraine continues, the U.S. State Department has taken the opportunity to diligently establish stronger ties with former Soviet states, such as Armenia. 

Due to the Russian preoccupation on the war front, Moscow has not been able to effectively protect its spheres of influence, as evidenced by its unwillingness to engage in the defense of  Armenia. Thus, Russia has inaction created the perfect opportunity for Western Allies to engage in diplomatic ties and increase soft power relations with Moscow-dependent countries. 

Such efforts have been especially prominent under the Biden administration, as Biden became the first U.S. President to recognize the Armenian Genocide. Other shows of support under the Biden Administration include Former Speak of the House Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Armenia and Secretary Blinken’s direct diplomatic mediation for the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

The war in Ukraine has also increased anti-Russian sentiment among Georgians which, similar  to Armenia, creates a potential framework of Western development in the country. Georgia has seen first-hand what Russia is capable of during the separatist movements in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. 

However, with the war in Ukraine, the invasion of an entire sovereign country has created an even heightened sense of Russian ‘hatred’ among Georgians, as they see the possibility of Russia’s invasion.  If things go in the opposite direction of Moscow’s interests, Georgia could be next. From the endless Ukrainian flags protesting the war to border protests calling for the Georgian government to stop the influx of Russians in the midst of Russian partial military mobilization, it has become increasingly evident that Georgia does not feel welcome nor safe in its geopolitical positioning. 

Similar to Armenia, the United States has been utilizing this anti-Russian momentum to spread its influence in the country.

On August 8, 2022, the Embassy of the United States in Georgia fulfilled a $1 billion pledge to promote democratic institutions in Georgia. Democratic institutions are key to the success of such corruption-filled countries that have experienced government efficiency flaws since the beginning of the collapse of the USSR. 

Since there is an ever-so-heightened sense of anti-Russian sentiments, Georgia is very open to investment from the United States. In addition to investments, the United States also pledged to assist Georgia in the defense sector. As the 2022 U.S. integrated Country Strategy in Georgia report indicates, the United States “will continue to assist Georgia to modernize its defense and security sector and divest Soviet-era equipment, structures, and organizations.” 

The U.S. State Department is cautious not to reignite anti-NATO feelings from Russia through its involvement in Georgia, as it does not want to repeat the crisis of 2008. With this caution, the United States has mostly engaged in diplomatic-style relationship building as, “On May 20, 2022, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia Laura Cooper co-chaired the U.S.-Georgia Bilateral Defense Consultations in Tbilisi with Georgian First Deputy Defense Minister Lela Chikovani.”

The best course of action the United States can take to advance its relations with these two critically important South Caucasus countries would be democratic development, which would plant seeds for future reduction of Russian influence. Other foreign policy actions the U.S. could take include subsidizing private foreign direct investment (FDI) in Armenia to gain more control over the economic sector and reduce Russian influence over Armenia and encourage an Armenia-Turkey border opening to bolster economic growth and partnership. 

Additionally, the United States needs to take a lead role in the mediation of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict to undermine the CSTO and combat Russian influence over both countries. This policy is a continuation of the status quo but in a more substantial manner. Since the status quo does not do enough to achieve meaningful change, pursuing these policies would create the best framework in the current conditions to promote our American soft power and achieve regional stability. 

Improving democratic institutions in Georgia is critical to reaching stability in the region,   stabilizing the South Caucasus region, and spreading U.S. influence without any major road bumps. That stability, in the Georgian context, requires an absence of Russian tampering with Georgian politics. The most efficient way the U.S. can ensure government efficiency is by growing Georgian democratic institutions, which would reduce Russian influence and corruption and would help boost economic development in the country. 

The U.S. has so far allocated $1 billion towards that cause; however, it needs to provide more financial support to further propel Georgia’s democratic development. A policy initiative like this requires a cautious approach, considering the military backlash Georgia received from Russia amid prospects of NATO membership. Democratic development would also benefit neighboring countries by promoting a free-market economy, which would boost trade between the three countries, as well as Turkey. 

In relation to Armenia, the United States needs to use ever-increasing anti-Russian sentiments to its advantage. One of the ways the United States can do this is by influencing and Americanizing the economic sector. Since “in exchange for a write-off of its around $100 million debt incurred since 1991, Armenia agreed to transfer strategic state-owned assets to Russia, including six hydroelectric power plants,” a large portion of the Armenian economic sector is owned by either Russian state-owned or private companies. 

With the waning Russian influence in the region, the United States should engage in creating economic ties with Armenia, as a form of Westernizing the country and promoting democratic stability. Rather than providing aid programs through  USAID, the U.S. government should subsidize private investment in the Armenian economy to create more tangible results and gain influence over the various sectors, which would add further pressure and decrease Russia’s influence over Armenia. 

Another major point of U.S. foreign policy would be encouraging the opening of borders between Turkey and Armenia, which would help normalize historically conflicted relations between the two countries and connect the South Caucasus to the Turkish and European markets. 

Armenia and Turkey have had ongoing conversations about opening their conflicted borders and, for the first time in history, they reached an agreement of partial opening of their shared border for “third country nationals.” Normalizing relations between Armenia and Turkey is key for this region, and would resolve a century-old conflict in the South Caucasus. If friendly relations continue between Turkey and Armenia, it would be an important lesson for other countries in South Caucasus that peaceful solutions to issues, no matter what the ethnic histories are, can be achieved. 

Opening the Armenia-Turkey border would also create more economic inflow and outflow from South Caucasus, creating a bridge for European communication with the region. To ensure this outcome, the U.S. needs to lobby both Ankara and Yerevan. Turkey has also been open to the idea of open borders, and thus, the U.S. State Department has a positive foundation to help realize an open-border policy. 

Moreover, Russia, preoccupied with the war in Ukraine, is not paying as much attention to the mediation process as it did before, which creates the perfect opportunity for the United States to fulfill its role. 

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has already begun spearheading such efforts. As the U.S. Integrated Country Strategy on Armenia reflects, “The threats to Armenia’s physical security may leave it with no option but accede to the further influence of Russia—its security guarantor—in a manner that weakens its ability to withstand malign influence and undercuts its sovereignty.” 

Russia was able to gain much influence over Armenia just through its mediation process, as it became the main mediator of the conflict due to the lack of activity of the OSCE Minsk Group. However, Russia’s role as a security guarantor was never fully realized and, as a result,  Armenia is critical of Moscow’s role in conflict mediation. 

Thus, the United States should not be concerned with Armenia turning to Russia as a security guarantor. The United States, given the current constraints on Russia, should try to take Russia’s role in the mediation process of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, which would increase American soft power on Armenia. 

This mediation activity would also influence Azerbaijan in a similar way. Although Russia is not the main security guarantor for Azerbaijan, as they do not have many security issues as an aggressor state, Russia was still able to expand its influence over the country through the familiarity aspect. Given the current situation in Europe, Azerbaijan can become a critical ally for Western nations by providing alternative sources of gas. 

However, the United States would need to refrain from waiving Section 507 of the Freedom Act, which would mean not selling weapons to Azerbaijan, in order to show Azerbaijan that their aggression is not tolerated by Washington. 

The main pushback in this policy of mediation would most likely be from Azerbaijan, as they are not dependent on American support, unlike Armenia. Azerbaijan’s response is unpredictable due to the authoritarian nature of its current regime. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev would likely see that as a threat to his regime, and would move to further consolidate his power. 

Given the current circumstances of growing Azeri power in the South Caucasus and further destabilization due to the war in Ukraine, the U.S. should engage in a democratic development policy in order to achieve stability and increase  U.S. soft power at a time when Russian hegemonic influence is rapidly waning.

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