Trump, change and the new level of militarization in the South Caucasus 9K720 Iskander "SS-26 Stone"
A
fter Donald J. Trump has become a president-elect of the United States of America there has been an ongoing debate about largely anything connected to that fact and not least about the President's vision of the U.S. foreign policy. While there is no lack of arguments from different experts, most of them agree that the change is coming to that particular area of the functioning of the state.

The differences in opinions expressed usually cover details of what may actually change. Max Boot even argues in his recent article that Mr. Trump's foreign policy might not be that different from that of Mr. Obama's by nature, however quite different in style. If Obama wanted to withdraw from the world very carefully, Trump may not be so subtle and gentle to the existing order and that may lead to the post-American age sooner than later.

True enough also for the South Caucasus, where eight years of the Obama administration have brought a clear sense of withdrawal of the U.S. from the region both in terms of its geopolitical influence and its general presence as a global power. Today, countries of the region, as well as the vast majority of other states in the world are trying to evaluate the consequences of the recent U.S. elections and predict what that would mean for the policy of the U.S. towards their small but very strategically located region, surrounded by bigger states such as Russia, Iran and Turkey.

As the U.S. presidential transition period is progressing, the states of the South Caucasus are watching and analyzing the transition through the prism of their own interests. A recent announcement of the Ambassador of the United States and Co-Chair of the Minsk Group of OSCE James Warlick on his Twitter account that he would be stepping down from his position and leaving the State Department has made all the regional news' headlines in the South Caucasus. This news generated a lot of interest due to the fact that James Warlick is an American representative in the Minsk Group that is charged with the meditation and resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan with two other Co-Chairs from France and Russia. Moreover, at the same time news hit that Ambassador Warlick will join the Egorov Puginsky Afanasiev & Partners law firm. He himself described this company as "...Russia's largest and most prestigious law firm" in a tweet, that he apparently later deleted.

Egorov Puginsky Afanasiev & Partners law firm (or EPA&P) has been established in 1993 with offices in Moscow, St. Petersburg and associated office in London. It specializes in representation of foreign companies in Russia and Russian companies abroad. Reportedly it is also quite connected to the Russian government and businesses. The soon-to-be-former U.S. diplomat is planning to join this law firm as a partner.

Ambassador Warlick has taken the position of the Co-Chair of the Minsk Group in September 2013 and will remain in this position until the end of this year. His appointment was made during the second term of the Obama administration and if the position he is going to take after should be viewed as any indicator, the attitude of Obama’s foreign policy advisors towards the main security threat in the South Caucasus becomes quite clear.

Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has reaffirmed its position as the main security threat in the South Caucasus region after the recent escalation in April 2016. That escalation led to both the short-lived re-intensification of negotiations process in this conflict and the arms race between Armenia and Azerbaijan reaching new levels with Armenia having demonstrated that it acquired 9K720 "Iskander" (known in NATO terminology as SS-26 Stone) mobile short-range ballistic missile systems from Russia in September 2016. The acquisition of such sophisticated and modern weaponry by one of the sides of this unstable conflict brings on the pressure to the other side to keep up and procure equal capabilities both in terms of offense and defense. 9K720 are capable of a very accurate targeting on the distance of up to 500 km (approx. 311 miles). In comparison, the distance between capitals of Armenia and Azerbaijan is around 400 km.

Acquisition of missile systems by Armenia followed the aforementioned re-intensification of negotiations. This dynamics in negotiation process have been very visible during the summer and then gradually went down right after Armenia have demonstrated the systems in the beginning of fall. Another feature of the said summer was the crisis that Yerevan have lived through with hostage situation and "Sasna Tsrer" terrorist group. The pattern clearly indicates that there was a possibility of the processes around Nagorno-Karabakh conflict to develop in more peaceful way. Instead, Armenia chose to move on with show of strength and incite even more serious arms race, simultaneously backing off in negotiations.

Hence, after the two consecutive terms of the Obama administration, the peak year of 2016 resulted in both the unprecedented military escalation and gradually new levels of arms race in the South Caucasus - a general outcome of a foreign policy that aims at withdrawing from the world and pivoting towards isolationism. If Trump's administration is to continue within the same general direction in the U.S. foreign policy, it is quite possible that the processes of militarization and intensification of the hostilities in the region will pick up a new pace with the more aggressive withdrawal policies of the new administration. The South Caucasus may see post-American era much sooner than many other regions in the world.

This may be very harmful to the U.S. interests due to the fact that South Caucasus is seen as a region that plays an important part in energy security of Europe that is provided by Azerbaijan via Georgia and Turkey. The instability that could be brought by the militarization and hostilities in the region may harm this important energy security framework. In this context the region awaits the appointment of a new Secretary of State in Trump's administration and that of a new U.S. Co-Chair of the Minsk Group as to indicate how things are likely to develop for the region.

The election of Mr. Trump as the next President of the U.S. has truly brought a lot of change. There is a chance that if Mr. Trump appoints such people to the aforementioned positions that will be quite aware of risk factors for South Caucasus and will be able to adopt a realistic view on current processes and in retrospective, the described dangerous trend can be stopped or even reversed. The negative stance of Mr. Trump on lobbying organizations is another factor that may prevent the Armenian-American lobby from intervening into U.S. foreign policy shaping process. So change may turn out good after all.

Dr. habil. Kamal Makili-Aliyev is an independent analyst and scholar specializing in international relations, armed conflicts, security and defense, previously working as Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Strategic Studies (sam.az) as an expert on U.S. foreign policy and Ministry of Defense  (Azerbaijan).
makili-aliyev.com

Top