The United States Policies in the Caucasus Could Lead To Further Russian Influence

The United States Policies in the Caucasus Could Lead To Further Russian Influence

Journal of Turkish Weekly (JTW)

written by
Stacy Maruskin

Russia has always been a powerhouse in the global community and the Caucasus. Throughout the centuries Russians have occupied vast lands, and today their influence can still be seen and felt in many countries. Despite the end of the Cold War, it has not translated into warm, friendly relations devoid of strain between Russia and the rest of the world. Russia still poses a threat to Western interests in the region and the Obama administration’s hesitancy to give actual and continual support for the pro-western countries of the Caucasus could be explained by the large, influential Armenian Diaspora of the United States. The Diaspora has influenced policies in the U.S. and if they continue to seep further into foreign policy making, it will not only be Armenia who relies on Russia for support, but Azerbaijan could fall victim as well.

Throughout the years following Armenian independence, Russia and Armenia have remained close consorts while Azerbaijan and Georgia have sought Turkish and American support as their key to the West. There is a cultural bridge which links Turkey to these countries. Turkey and Azerbaijan share a common language and religion while strong social links exist between Turkey and Georgia. For instance, millions of Georgians live in Turkey and Georgia has always seen Turkey as a friendly country that balances Russian antagonism. Armenia views Russia as its protector from over 100 million Turks that surround its borders: 72 million within Turkey, around eight million Azeri Turks in Azerbaijan and nearly 30 million Azeri Turks in Iran. While the other former Soviet Republics have tried to expand their foreign relations outside of Moscow, Armenians have headed in the opposite direction, increasing their diplomatic and economic ties with the country. Armenia’s lack of natural resources and relative poverty has led to further dependence on Russia, and much of the infrastructure within Armenia is owned by Russian companies.

The oil and gas rich region of the Southern Caucasus serve both Europe and the United States’ economic interests. Russia’s recent attachment to the region is due to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s desire to show that Russia is back as an international actor. Habibe Ozdal, a Russian and Black Seas researcher at the International Strategic Research Organization (USAK) based in Ankara, says, “After the dissolution of the USSR, the power of the Southern Caucasus belonged to the United States as well as Turkey, due to the latter’s brotherly image for the Turkic peoples; however, since 2000, Russia has strongly emphasized that the Caucasus region is its backyard and is pushing for a pro-Russian agenda.” Ozdal also reiterates sentiments that Russia now wants to strengthen its energy monopoly in the region; if it can assert its influence in the Caucasus and in Central Asia, international actors like the United States will become dependent upon Russia and risk falling victim to the activities of the Armenian Diaspora in the U.S. Recent policy implementations pushed by the Armenian Diaspora which are not favorable to Georgia or Azerbaijan will deteriorate closer relations between the U.S. and the Caucasus and damage any hopes for less energy dependency on Russia. If for this reason alone, the U.S. needs to work on turning its words into action for a strategic partnership in the Caucasus.

The Energy and Oil Pipelines

As energy economist John Foster writes in his article, Afghanistan and the New Great Game, “Pipelines are important today in the same way that railway building was important in the 19th century. They connect trading partners and influence the regional balance of power.”[i]

Aside from the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum pipeline which transfers gas from the Shah Deniz-I field to Turkey via Georgia and the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan Crude Oil Pipeline which lies between Turkey and Azerbaijan; there is the Nabucco Project which aims to decrease Europe’s energy dependence on Russia.[ii]

Europe’s need for energy diversification has become apparent through pipeline projects like Nabucco. However, due to the recent conflict in Georgia, the European Union has expressed concerns over whether Georgia should play as large a role as it was initially given. The conflict between Russia and Georgia last summer has left a bitter aftertaste and with the signing of the Nabucco pipeline deal in July, some are wondering if Georgia can handle its role in the project. In the article, Tbilisi’s Energy Future Dims, Peter Doran writes that Georgia had previously enjoyed a privileged seat at the Nabucco table due to their status as a strategic non Russian energy transport link between the Caspian Sea and Europe. However, with the announcement of plans to produce 31 billion cubic meters of natural gas a year from a new joint-venture in Iraqi Kurdistan, Georgia would be bypassed.[iii] Each of those pipelines have one thing in common: they have all ignored Armenia as a passageway which has not pleased the Armenian Diaspora in the States and has most likely led to the contradictory rhetoric of Vice President Joe Biden and President Barack Obama. In his article, Doran touches on the inconsistency of their statements and points out that Georgia’s strategic importance to the EU and the United States as a transport corridor will only grow less critical with every cubic meter of Iraqi natural gas supplied to Europe. Although Armenia claims economically that it makes no sense for their country to be bypassed and they should be incorporated into the pipeline routes, the EU and the United States both seem to favor avoiding the all together troubled Caucasus region if possible.

The Armenian Diaspora and Caucasus Policies

Turkey was one of the first states to recognize Armenian independence in 1991; however, Turkey shortly closed its territorial borders with Armenia due to the latter’s occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh. The Nagorno-Karabakh region is 20% of Azerbaijan’s territory. In 1993, with the passage of UN Security Council Resolution 822, Nagorno-Karabakh was declared part of Azerbaijan, and the resolution insisted that Armenian forces withdraw from the region. A withdrawal has yet to occur and as a result, the Turkey-Armenia and Azerbaijan-Armenia land borders have remained closed. At present, Turkey is insisting that before the border can be re-opened, the conflict must be settled, and this pre-condition has upset the United States, who is currently sponsoring the normalization talks between Turkey and Armenia.

It is possible that the Armenian Diaspora has become more influential in politics than those living within the country itself, especially when it comes to domestic Armenian politics. Their influence also has a firm grip on U.S. policy making. Although the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has recently declared unconstitutional, a law which allowed descendents of Armenians killed during the 1915 incidents access to their ancestors’ bank accounts and insurance policies, it is still a prime example of their reach. The presiding Judge David Thompson said, “The conflict is clear on the face of the statute: by using the phrase, ‘Armenian Genocide,’ California has defied the President’s foreign policy preferences.”

Forty states have passed resolutions which recognize the incidents of 1915 as the Armenian ‘genocide.’ and the Diaspora has initiated a smear campaign against Turkey in the United States which, naturally, has not pleased Ankara.

These events are a testament to the Diaspora’s power and influence within the American political system and the effects it has on U.S. policies, both domestic and foreign. The Diaspora does not approve of Armenia being sidestepped in the pipeline issue, it does not want Turkey to carry out a successful plan to open up the borders through the use of preconditions and it wants the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict to be resolved in Armenia’s favor. The Diaspora also does not wish to see Armenia surrounded by a Turkic bloc and it is aware of Azerbaijan’s vital importance to the West if it wishes to continue with energy, transportation and military projects within the country. All of this culminates in a further desire to steer favorable U.S. policies away from Azerbaijan and Georgia, something the U.S. cannot afford to continue doing.

Biden and Obama have each gone back and forth in their rhetoric which offers something between mediocre and strong support in terms of a strategic partnership with Azerbaijan and Georgia; it is no wonder they back peddle with such a large and wealthy Armenian voter constituency to remind them when they offer too much backing. However, if this strategic partnership does not come to fruition soon, Georgia might move on, especially since its defense has yet to be bolstered despite U.S. promises.

The Roles of Turkey and the United States in the Caucasus

The United States has pushed for Turkey to open its land borders and throw out the precondition that the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict be resolved before restoring diplomatic relations with Armenia. They believe that friendlier relations with Turkey could encourage Armenia to back away from Russian support and join its neighbors in their Western ambitions. Unfortunately, this is unlikely to occur, and Dr. Sedat Laciner, director of USAK believes, “It is not possible for them to leave the Russian bloc due to bilateral agreements and the mass Russian ownership of infrastructure within the country. They will not turn away from Russia and now the United States could lose Azerbaijan and Georgia because of the Armenian Diaspora.”

The United States’ prodding for Turkey to remove preconditions or accelerate the opening of its Armenian border is a lost cause. The Karabakh problem might never be solved since the population is now 100% Armenian due to nearly one million Azeris being forced from their homes over the years. Recently, Representative Frank Pallone, the co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on Armenian Issues, stated that, “I believe personally that the United States should recognize Nagorno-Karabakh. I certainly would be willing to do whatever I can to have that happen.” He also declared that the region had a right to be an independent nation and that, “…what you really need to do is to have the State Department change its position.” This is yet another example of the influence the Armenian Diaspora and lobby have in the United States.

Turkey has worked hard to build a foundation with Azerbaijan and Georgia so that they can look to Turkey for support rather than their former occupier, Russia. Turkey has tried to unite the three through economic and transportation projects and their ultimate aim has been to aid these two in their efforts for NATO accession. However, Azerbaijan and Georgia both know that Turkey cannot protect them in the wake of a Russian threat without subjecting itself to the turmoil of war, a risk it would not take. Therefore, by striking preemptively and accepting what they might believe is an inevitable future, a forced partnership with Russia if they are rejected by the West, they can reduce this threat by turning to the former before any looming threats become a reality. After last summer’s conflict between Russia, Georgia, and the separatist groups from South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Russia recognized those regions of Georgia as independent states and Georgia’s Parliament passed a resolution which declared both regions Russian-occupied territories. With Russia’s support, these territories are already under their influence.

The Obama administration should further nurture the desire of Azerbaijan and Georgia to be integrated with the West through their admittance into NATO and friendly relations with Turkey. They need to contribute to the strategic partnership with action and not only words. Since their independence, Azerbaijan and Georgia have expressed those wishes by pulling back on their ties with Moscow and strengthening their relations with Ankara. If ignored, Azerbaijan might feel it must go back into the arms of Russia for stability and security. The West has no interest in watching Russia expand its sphere of influence so why ignore the aspirations of these two countries. The Armenian Diaspora has overwhelming numbers in the United States and amazingly, there are more Armenians living abroad than in the country itself. Its influence in U.S. policy making has reached deeper and deeper into foreign relations in recent years and has the ability to strain U.S. relations with Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey. It has already pushed for the U.S. Congress to recognize the events of 1915 as genocide and it continues to influence foreign policy as can be seen with the case of Georgia and Azerbaijan. The lobby’s influence has also prevented the U.S. from giving credits to the proposed railway projects which would unite the Caucasus with Turkey. The U.S. should show further support for initiatives in the region, specifically those regarding the pipelines.

If the United States is not careful, Russia could expand its influence in the region, creating a pro-Russian bloc. If Russia wins the hearts of the Azeris and with Georgia’s breakaway territories already in Russia’s back pocket, a chain of countries would be formed linking Russia directly by border to its close friend, Iran. The recent sentiments announced by newly-elected NATO Secretary General Anders Rasmussen that Georgia (and Ukraine as well) was not ready to become a member and its accession was “hypothetical” at the moment, does not help the situation. Azerbaijan asserts that its policies are independent from the influence of the West and Russia; however, if Azerbaijan forms closer relations with Russia, this will not bode well for the United States and Europe in the long run. They have been looking for alternatives to Russian power and influence in energy and with burgeoning relations between Russia and its former satellites, Western influence in the Caucasus could be displaced. The Obama administration must turn rhetoric into action and strengthen the strategic alliance between itself and the Caucasus while offering support and aid before the U.S. distances itself from viable interests and let the Caucasus fall straight into the lap of Russia.

Stacy Maruskin (JTW)

[i] Foster, John. "Afghanistan and the New Great Game." Common Dreams. 13 Aug. 2009. Web.

[ii] Laciner, Sedat. "Turkey’s Pipeline Politics." USAK Gundem. 23 June 2009. Web.

[iii] Doran, Peter, and Christina Andronescu. "Tbilisi’s Energy Future Dims." The Center for European Policy Analysis. 3 Aug. 2009. Web.