Although the Cold War is long over there has still been a large degree of geopolitical competition between the West and Russia. This geopolitical battle is now being waged on the coast of the Caspian Sea in Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan is in a unique position in that the West and Russia are both vying to gain influence in it. The desire for this influence goes far beyond the potential for access to natural gas. The West is seeking to deny Russia any allies in the area while Russia is trying to retain its traditional sphere of influence. Through Azerbaijan the West will also significantly reduce its energy dependence upon Russia. Through an analysis of recent Azeri relations with the West and Russia, the West has an opportunity to gain this new geostrategic ally.
After the end of the Cold War, Western states immediately began expanding their influence eastward into traditional Russian-allied states and former Soviet Republics. This was meant to provide two geostrategic benefits to both Western states and their new allies in the east. The ‘West’ benefited by gaining access to these new economies and by shortening the list of Russian allies. The ‘East’ benefited by being able to integrate economically with the West and begin gaining security guarantees, particularly Eastern states trying to join NATO, not dependent on Russia. Over 20 years since the dissolution of the Soviet Union this has been the standard Western policy position. Therefore it is logical that this policy would be aimed into the Caspian Sea region with Azerbaijan.
Despite the policy of geopolitically isolating Russia, European countries have become somewhat dependent on Russian natural resources. This is in reference to large-scale Russian gas exports to Europe which represent around a third of its natural gas needs. This economic interdependence with Russia has made responding to Russian initiatives such as the Ukraine crisis very difficult. With new resources ripe for extraction in the Azeri Caspian, Azerbaijan is a prime target for courting by the West to reduce energy dependence with Russia and continue the policy of denying Russia regional influence.
The West already has its foot in the door in regards to building a security relationship with Azerbaijan. As with many other former East European Soviet states which joined NATO, this could be the beginning step of Azeri entry into NATO as well as closer economic relationships with the EU, both of which Russia naturally opposes. Azerbaijan has participated in various NATO military operations with troop deployments in Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Azerbaijan has also hosted NATO military exercises despite not being an official member. The US in particular has begun aiding the Azeri military with new supplies from small arms all the way to upgrading its navy.
Perhaps the most substantial future extension of the West’s military foot in the Azeri door comes from Turkey’s relationship with the country. Turkey has its own ambitions in the Caucasus region, trying to expand its influence into Azerbaijan. This is in alignment with overarching Western policy, which seeks to deny Russian influence and expand economically. Turkey would greatly benefit from access to Azeri natural resources in the Caspian Sea. Turkey, Georgia, and Azerbaijan recently joined in a military alliance with one another which includes joint exercises. Being that Turkey is vying for influence in this region, its clear targets are the other two major regional powers, Russia and Iran. With Turkey being a member of NATO and now militarily-linked with Azerbaijan, the West has a new foot in the door, gaining access perhaps to Azeri natural resources in return for lessening its dependence on Russian ‘security.’
The West is also trying to bring Azerbaijan closer to its economic orbit and away from Russian monetary/trade influence. Many Western companies are already in the Azeri Caspian region extracting natural gas. The major energy player, BP, just expanded its scope and length of stay in Azeri Caspian waters. Although there are already numerous and diverse Western companies involved in Azerbaijan, the main economic goal is the creation of a pipeline from Azerbaijan to the West, with the West willing to foot the bill for it. However, despite this shared benefit and interest, there is much resistance from Azerbaijan’s former benefactor as it seeks to keep it away from Western influence. Azerbaijan is of high importance to Russia due to the economic benefits it provides. Keeping Azerbaijan in its orbit will result in these Caspian Sea resources going towards the Russian economy and will prevent them from benefitting the West, thereby keeping Europe mostly dependent upon Russian natural gas. However, disputes over the legality of and boundaries within the Caspian Sea, plus the attractiveness of the West overall, makes Russia’s attempt to retain exclusive influence in Azerbaijan quite difficult.
The 2008 Georgia War, with its ongoing disputes, and the Ukraine crisis presently highlights the dangers when leaving Russia’s orbit to move towards the West. However, Russia’s relationship with the former Soviet Republic Armenia is of particular concern to Azerbaijan. Armenia was supported militarily by Russia during a brutal war with Azerbaijan from the late 1980s until the mid 1990s. Russia continues to maintain a large military presence in Armenia, even as tensions and skirmishes persist to this day. Russia’s support of Azerbaijan’s old problem (and the concern it may one day again be a ‘new’ problem) will undoubtedly be taken into consideration as it decides how much to align with the West or not and how much to keep Russia within its interests and objectives.
Post-Cold War Western policy has and continues to seek to deny Russia its traditional allies militarily and economically, which in turn benefits the West by militarily softening Russian coercion and economically steering these Caspian economies away. Azerbaijan is in the West’s sights exactly for this reason. It will also hurt the Russian economy through loss of access to Azeri resources and the loss of Western business. The West has much to offer Azerbaijan, which it has thus far readily accepted with military ties, equipment, and even a security guarantee from NATO-member Turkey. Russia on the other hand is somewhat feeling backed into a corner with little to offer Azerbaijan other than not taking military action. The one foreseeable problem with this trend, however, could be what happened in Ukraine: not the idea of military aggression or civil unrest, but the under-emphasized aspect of EU promises to Ukraine being far more long-term and unrealized when compared to Russian proposals that were more immediately lucrative and short-term. Russia may not have as many diverse resources for negotiation with Azerbaijan compared to the West, but it likely does have a higher motivation level to make those negotiations more favorable in the present-day to Azeris. This could prove quite impactful, as Azerbaijan tries to steer a very delicate middle balance between the two: wanting to be more part of the West economically while still in Russia’s good favor geostrategically. This might end up being the REAL Azeri foreign policy, one that neither Russia nor the West is ready to fully engage but will likely have to before long.
The new border geopolitics of the Islamic Republic of Iran and Azerbaijan
Borders are spatial-political phenomena that have a prominent importance and place in the global political sphere because they have divided the world arena into countries and put them together as actors. This importance and prominent position of borders has caused various fields of study such as political science, political geography, international law, etc. to study them from their point of view and continuously to follow and monitor their developments and changes. In the meantime, it seems that after the acceptance of the ceasefire between Azerbaijan and Armenia along the northwestern borders of the Islamic Republic of Iran, some developments have happened that need to examine. So, we examine these developments with a geopolitical perspective. The geopolitical attitude towards the border developments of Iran and Azerbaijan can analyze in the form of the following angles:
Border geopolitics in terms of location is the knowledge, acquisition, exploitation and preservation of geographical sources of power in border areas and related areas in transnational, national, regional and global relations. In other words, designing and reviewing the strategies of actors to achieve benefits and goals based on the geographical resources of power in the border areas called border geopolitics. The developments along the Iran-Azerbaijan border after the ceasefire show these developments cause the geographical sources of Iran's power: alliance with Armenia; severance of Iran's position as Azerbaijan-Nakhchivan communication bridge; reducing Azerbaijan's dependence on Iran for access to the high seas; reducing the possibility of transferring Iranian gas to Europe, etc. that along the borders should significantly reduce. On the other hand, the increase of geographical sources of power: increasing the size of the territory; establishing a connection with the Nakhchivan sector; forming a new opportunity to connect with the high seas through Turkey, etc. has brought about for the country of Azerbaijan. Based on this, it seems that in designing the forthcoming strategies of Iran and Azerbaijan, we will see changes in the geographical sources of power due to these changes.
Border geopolitics from a functional point of view is the knowledge, acquisition, exploitation and preservation of geographical sources of power in transnational, national, regional and global relations to achieve protection, control, management, security and other objectives in the length of borders and border areas. In other words, designing and reviewing the strategies of actors to achieve protection, control, management, security and other goals based on the geographical sources of power in the border areas called border geopolitics. If we examine the developments along the Iranian-Azerbaijani border after the ceasefire from this point of view, we will see that the importance and value of Azerbaijan's geographical resources along the border with Iran is increasing compared to Iran's geographical sources of power. It seems to put more effective and successful strategies in front of Azerbaijan to achieve goals such as control, security, etc. along the common borders. On the contrary, it will change the strategies facing Iran to some extent.
Border geopolitics from a player point is the knowledge, acquisition, exploitation and preservation of geographical resources of power in the border areas of the two countries, by Iran and Azerbaijan to achieve their goals and aspirations in transnational, national, regional and global. In other words, the use and exploitation of the geographical sources of power in the common border areas of Iran and Azerbaijan to achieve their goals and aspirations in transnational, national, regional and global relations called geopolitical borders.If we examine the developments along the Iranian-Azerbaijani border after ceasefire from this point of view, we will see that these changes have made Azerbaijan, as a geopolitical player compared to Iran, more powerful than geographical sources. On the other hand, variety of actors such as Turkey, Russia, etc. are present directly along the borders of the two countries.
In general, the changes that have taken place along the borders of Iran and Azerbaijan from a geopolitical point of view of the border seem to have been in favor of Azerbaijan and the geographical sources of power along the border between two countries in favor of this country. It has changed and thus increased the efficiency of the strategies facing Azerbaijan against the strategies of Iran based on the geographical sources of power in the border areas.
The Emerging Nakhchivan Corridor
As the details of the Karabakh deal are being fleshed out, the stipulation on the new corridor through Armenian territory has caused great debate. Beyond the signatories of the deal, Iran and Georgia are particularly worried as any meaningful change to the connectivity patterns in the South Caucasus could harm their transit capabilities.
The 2020 Karabakh war ended with major Russian diplomatic success on November 9 when a tripartite agreement between Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia was signed. The surrounding seven regions were to be returned to Baku, while Russian peacekeepers would guarantee the security of the truncated Nagorno-Karabakh. Though the exact role is yet to be confirmed, based on the rhetoric from Ankara and Baku, some sort of direct Turkish military involvement on Azeri soil is likely to materialize.
More importantly, however, Turkey gained a land corridor to Azerbaijan’s exclave of Nakhchivan. The stipulation in the document reads: “Armenia guarantees the security of transport links … for unimpeded movement of citizens, vehicles, and cargo in both directions” between mainland Azerbaijan and the exclave of Nakhchivan, which are separated by Armenian territory. Moreover, “Transport control is exercised by the Border Service of the Federal Security Service of Russia. By agreement of the parties, the construction of new transport communications connecting the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic and Azerbaijan’s western regions will be provided.”
The stipulation is a major breakthrough for Turkey as it would allow the country to anchor its influence on the Caspian Sea and perhaps, in the longer term, look even further towards its Central Asia kinsmen.
This would create a major dilemma for Iran and Russia, as Tehran and Moscow have historically perceived the Caspian Sea as a condominium between themselves (plus the littoral states since the end of the Soviet Union). Potential Turkish involvement could disrupt this equilibrium and especially Iran’s standing. However, this is highly hypothetical. After all, it would need years if not decades for this scenario to be realized and even then Turkish influence could not be as large as Chinese or Russian – two major forces in the region.
What bothers Iran is a potentially major shift in the region’s transportation routes. For decades Azerbaijan has been dependent on Iran for transiting energy and other supplies to Nakhchivan. The new Karabakh deal could change it. Armenia will now guarantee the opening up of a corridor through its territory to allow Azerbaijan to transport goods directly to Nakhichevan. Quite naturally, this limits Tehran’s leverage over Baku.
However, Javad Hedayati, who heads transit operations in the Iranian transportation ministry, announced that Iran is likely to stay a favorable route for trade despite the planned opening of the new corridor. “It is likely that this corridor will merely accommodate local traffic between the Republic of Azerbaijan and Nakhchivan,” said Hedayati.
Ankara has long been working on using the Nakhchivan corridor for geopolitical purposes. This is proved by the quickness with which the Turkish government announced the plans to build a railway to Nakhchivan following the November agreement. This comes on top of an earlier announcement of a gas pipeline construction to the exclave, and underlines the seriousness behind the Turkish intention, at least regarding the section from the Turkish territory to the exclave itself.
Much, however, remains unclear about the new corridor on the Armenia territory itself. First of all, will the road be used by the Turks and Azerbaijanis only? Considering the level of mistrust in Ankara and Baku towards Moscow, whose forces will be controlling this corridor, it is highly unlikely that Azerbaijan and Turkey will be willing to commit large financial resources to rebuild links on the Armenian land. After all, will the corridor be the Armenian territory, or will it fall under the tripartite administrative regime? These are arguably the defining questions which remain unanswered. One could also imagine constant incidents along the corridor as Armenia will remain unhappy with the stipulation. Transit fees could soften Yerevan’s position, but why should Russia be interested in the operation of the corridor? If the corridor is operational, these troublesome questions will have to be managed between the two sides sharing no trust in the other. These dilemmas were well summed up in the words of the Iranian official Hedayati. He stressed that Armenia could prevent Turkey’s access to the corridor for transfer of freight or passengers through Nakhchivan to Azerbaijan and further to countries to the east of the Caspian Sea.
Georgia is worried
One country which is particularly worried with the potential development of the new corridor is Georgia. Various pipelines, roads and a major railway transit the country from Azerbaijan on to Turkey. This has been a backbone of Georgia’s regional importance since the end of the Soviet Union and indeed served as a major attraction for larger players such as Europe and the US.
Quite naturally many in Tbilisi have begun to think whether this enviable position could be challenged. The consensus thought is that in the short and medium term no reshuffling in the region’s connectivity patterns is likely to take place. Even in the longer term, if the above mentioned uncertainties around the new corridor are resolved, many still believe that Baku and Ankara would not trade the already built and functioning railway and pipeline infrastructure, which runs through Georgia, for the Nakhchivan alternative. Perhaps the corridor will serve for ensuring local connections, perhaps limited trade (though highly unlikely).
After all, Georgia has been officially engaged in the trilateral partnership with Turkey and Azerbaijan for nearly a decade. The endurance of the format has been tested by changes of governments and region-wide geopolitical transformations over the last decade. Each country of the three needs the others. Turkey wants a more stable Georgia with deeper economic and energy relations, while Azerbaijan needs Turkey’s backing. Georgia, under pressure from Russia and, given that it is located between its two fellow members of the cooperation, dependent on transit, in turn needs both Turkey and Azerbaijan.
Georgia also sees its position as straddling between two large regions – Europe and Central Asia. The 826-kilometre Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway unveiled in 2017 enables the delivery of cargo between China and Europe with a haulage duration of approximately two weeks. Up to eight million tons of cargo may be carried via the railway by 2025.
Abandoning this transit corridor would undermine the efficacy of the South Caucasus transportation and energy corridor. This makes the extent of the Nakhchevan corridor quite limited. Perhaps, what the region is likely to see is the growing interconnectedness of the exclave with the Turkish territory. The emergence of a major corridor through the Nakhchivan is likely to happen if, at minimum, a meaningful improvement of Turkey-Armenia relations takes place.
Author’s note: first published in caucasuswatch.de
«Crimean Platform»: Kiev set on opening a new diplomatic front
Even though the so-called “Crimean Platform”, as a new unrealistic project to retrieve Crimea, arouses no questions and the agenda of the Kiev initiators is clear, further developments require a close scrutiny, the more so since the political situation is versatile, given the impact of presidential elections in the USA and the activity of Turkey. Although the «Platform» will do nothing to translate the declared agenda into life, it will contribute to finding solutions to a number of issues on Kiev’s diplomatic agenda, or so they hope .
Kiev’s plans for the “platform” are extensive enough – it will operate on different levels. The first level is a high one with the participation of heads of state and government, the second level embraces foreign and defense ministers, the third- incorporates interparliamentary level, the fourth – brings together non-governmental experts.
Kiev is planning to re-set former initiatives and create a new instrument of pressure on Russia, this time against the Russian status of Kiev.
Among the most significant details is that the “platform” was launched by the Kiev Mejlis of Crimean Tatars (banned in Russia). For those lost in contemporary Mejlis policy the Crimean Platform is a new pillar and an upcoming political springboard which will make it possible for Kiev to boot its international activity.
A statement about the project was made by Ukraine’s First Deputy Foreign Minister Emine Djaparova, a de facto Mejlis representative, and possibly, a creation of the Turkish lobby. She is now presenting the “platform” in the media, having proclaimed the key agenda – “to return the issue to thehigher level of international attention”. What is behind such wording?
The Crimean Platform is yet another distractor from the Minsk Agreements, which Kiev has no intention of implementing. All these games – the change in the composition of the three-party contact group, injections of some ideas, even armistice – all these go into use but have nothing to do with promoting and fulfilling the agreements, since nothing has been put into practice of the agreements of the Normandy Four summit in December 2019. For this reason, there can be no meeting in the Normandy format, without which the Minsk process will be stuck and will not move towards implementing the agreements. According to Ukrainian political analyst, Ruslan Bortnik, the current situation has certain bonuses for Zelensky: «Yes, there is a steady armistice inside Ukraine, which the authorities are trying to sell as peace. I think that the authorities are quite content about this situation, that is, freezing of conflict for the Zelensky team marks huge success. On the one hand, this means absence of war, which draws a heavy burden on the public conscience, on the other hand – this is no-return of the disloyal electorate of Donbass in case of reintegration». In the opinion of the expert, this situation suits Europe as well. How interested Europe is in delaying the Minsk process will become clear by its activity within the Crimean Platform, which is why the project deserves attention.
But the most important thing why it all came into being is, to my mind, Kiev’s need for a new platform in order to see its old dream come true – to drag the USA into the participants in the proceed. Washington, if it is quick enough to return to international politics, which will be the case if Joe Biden wins, will likely be interested in taking a closer look at Russian interests, the more so in the Black Sea Region, possibly in cooperation with Turkey. It’s in this way that the project may allow Kiev to guarantee the inclusion of countries such as Turkey and the USA – something the Minsk format will never endorse.
Kiev has already announced the approximate date of the Crimean Platform big summit. Not accidentally, the event has been set for May 2021, Foreign Minister Dmitry Kuleba said, adding that involvement in the Platform of the USA is a key issue, but while elections in the USA are still under way, Washington’s vision of Ukraine is unclear. In case of Biden’s victory we can expect a renaissance of American attention to Ukraine, while Trump may remain pragmatically indifferent. The possible summit, its forma and participants will become the first indicator of the level of the Platform, though the prospects for this project, considering the position of Russia, are more than vague.
It is interesting to know what issues the participants in the Platform will raise. Even though the main points could be predicted right now, it is interesting to know how the participants in the Platform will formulate the water blockade of Crimea. Above-menioned Djaparova, speaking on October 21 at an international conference on “the issues of water supply and use of water resources of Crimea in the eonditions of Russian occupation”, coined an incredulous explanation to the water genocide: “Deputy Minister reported that Crimean ran into water shortages because of militarization of the peninsula following the occupation, and also, the artificial change of demographic composition. Due to the arrival of Russian troops and ordinary Russians, she said, the demand for freshwater increased dramatically. As a result, the existing resources were used up in 6 years».A unbelievably cynical statemenet!
Meanwhile, Ukrainian experts are already pointing to risks and the uselessness of the project.
«The first of the risks stipulates that this Platform may turn into Crimean “Minsk” – a useless and ineffective venue» (but who can stop Kiev from making it effective?)
«The second risk is a complete loss of Crimea in a third country, for example, in Turkey. Ukraine and Turkey share their interest in terms of liberating Crimea, but they may overdo it and Crimea may find itself a Turkish metropolis and part of Ukraine». Here comes the importance of Mejlis again. If Kiev takes the Turkish threat seriously, which will see Mejlis as an instrument of fictitious transformation of Crimea into a Turkish metropolis, we will witness one of the lines of struggle inside the Platform. Part of this struggle will be efforts to reduce the influence of Mejlis and the blockade of Turkey.
The Third risk is formulated in the following way: If Zelensky starts to aggressively advance in the direction of implementation of the project, there is a threat of new combat operations in Donbass. A strange assumption, but let it be on them.
The fourth risk – the Platform will become yet another venue maintained by the Ukrainian side the only outcome of its work being the creation of certain information. In my view, this is the most realistic scenario.
To expect that the Crimean Platform will help Ukraine retrieve Crimea is unrealistic, to say the least. But at the same time, it could serve as a political instrument, in case of support of the EU, Turkey and the USA, which could create extra tension on the border between Russian Federation and Crimea.
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