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Walking a Delicate Geostrategic Line: Azerbaijan’s Role to the U.S. and Russia

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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.

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Eastern Europe

Did Russia Really Win in the 2008 August War?

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Eleven years have passed since the short Georgian-Russian war started on August 7-8 in 2008. As every discussion on who started the war generally is, the Georgian-Russian one too is about finding moral grounds for military actions which both sides took at the time.

Morality in geopolitics, and the Georgian-Russian conflict is indeed caused by pure geopolitical calculations, is at most times a superfluous thing. All these years the Russians have been trying to convince the world and the public inside the country that the Russian military moves actions and subsequent recognition of the independence of the Abkhazia and Tskhinvali regions were the only possible and correct actions to be taken. The Georgians also have their dilemmas: some marginal political figures still believe that it was the Georgian government that was most to blame for the catastrophe of 2008. Though close geographically, these diverging narratives and the constant need to prove one’s own truth says a lot about how far apart Georgia and Russia have grown in the past decade.

11 years since the war and it is still unclear what Russia has gained from its military and diplomatic actions since 2008. True, military build-up in Abkhazia and Tskhinvali Region limited Tbilisi’s ability to become an EU/NATO member state. Moreover, Russian intervention into Georgia in 2008 also showed the West how far Moscow can go if a strategic decision is made to draw Georgia into the alliances. At the time (August-September 2008) those seemed to be long-term (strategic) victories for Moscow. In international relations and geopolitical calculations, you can stop a country from attaining the aims harmful to you, but in the long run you will be unable to reverse the process by forceful actions alone: you have to provide a counter-policy to turn an unfriendly state into an amenable neighbor.

Put all of this into the Russian case. More than a decade has passed since 2008, only a few not-so-important states recognized Georgia’s territories as independent entities. The Georgian public is overwhelmingly anti-Russian, the last hopes of a grand geopolitical bargain – the return of the territories in exchange for reversing EU/NATO aspirations – have disappeared among the Georgian public, and support for western institutions so far has only increased.

In the end, though Moscow waged a reasonably costly war in 2008, took and still experiences a diplomatic burden for its moves against the West, and has yet to attain its grand geopolitical goal of reversing Georgia’s pro-western course. Politicians in Moscow, at least strategists behind the scenes, all understand that Georgia’s persistence, which seems naive today, might turn into serious business if Russia’s geopolitical positions worsen elsewhere in Eurasia.

Indeed, there are signs that Russian influence is set to diminish further in the former Soviet space as the country’s economy is unlikely to be attractive to the neighboring states. Imagine a scenario where Russian internal problems (Putin’s upcoming succession, economic downturns, China’s rise, stronger Ukraine, etc.) weigh ever stronger upon the Russian decision-makers in the 2020s, then Georgia’s western aspirations might become more concrete – it will be easier for the West to make a strategic decision to draw Tbilisi into EU/NATO.

Overall, Russia definitely gained significant results in 2008, but in the long run it did not change the strategic picture in the South Caucasus, though it did produce a grand design for geopolitical domination in north Eurasia: years after the war, Moscow initiated its Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) to draw its neighbors into one economic space – a prerequisite for building a world power. Ideally, it should have attracted Russia’s major neighbors and it would have served the people of the former Soviet space economically. But Moscow failed to get Ukraine and other states involved: without Kiev, the EEU, if not dead, is at least a marginal project. This means that Russian policies towards Georgia and the wider South Caucasus remain the same as before 2008 – keeping foreign powers out of the region, while failing to provide an alternative vision for Tbilisi.

Author’s note: first published in Georgia Today

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Eastern Europe

Lithuania’s new chief of defence has no chance

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Lithuania’s new chief of defence, Major General Valdemaras Rupsys calls himself a realist though it seems as if he is a fatalist with no hope to change anything in the national armed forces.

In a detailed interview with BNS Valdemaras Rupsys demonstrates his inability and even lack of hope to modify national military system. He distinctly reveals his plans.

Major General Valdemaras Rupsys says he will seek to accelerate new armored vehicle and artillery system purchases if the country’s defense spending makes this possible.

The key words here are “if the country’s defense spending makes this possible”. The matter is Lithuania itself can rely only on foreign financing and help to strengthen its defence. Thus, he informs that a number of Boxer IFVs are currently being delivered to Lithuania. Renamed “Vilkas”, or “wolf” in Lithuanian, the vehicles will be provided only to two battalions of the Iron Wolf mechanized infantry brigade, in Rukla and Alytus. It should be noted that Mechanized Infantry Brigade “Iron Wolf” is the core unit of the Lithuanian Army and forms the country’s contribution to NATO collective defence. But even this unit will not be provided with all necessary vehicles and equipment.

The brigade’s other two battalions, in Rukla and Panevezys, will continue to use old M113 armored personnel carriers, with plans to replace them with more advanced vehicles by 2030. No budget money – no vehicles!

Major General Valdemaras Rupsys admits that the only thing he can definitely do – to speak to the authorities. “We’ll definitely have to speak to the ministry about whether there are possibilities to replace their platform earlier than planned,” the general told in an interview. “Plans call for doing so in around 2030 but everything depends on financial resources. There won’t be any drastic decisions to replace the acquisitions that we are already planning now,” he added.

When he answers to the question if the Iron Wolf brigade needs tanks he is very flexible and says that “being aware of our means and financial capacity, I don’t dream about tanks right now. We don’t have such plans.

Another question is if he dreams about fighter jets in the Lithuanian army. And he again says – “No, I don’t today. I am a realist and don’t dream about things we cannot have.”

The worst thing is his full satisfaction with the existing situation. He will not even try to change things. In terms of conscription system he shifts the responsibility on the political leadership, on the whole, which should decide on that. And then what is his responsibility? Does Lithuania need such a chief of defence who decides nothing from the very beginning?

Obviously, Lithuania has no money, but according to Major General Valdemaras Rupsys Lithuania even lacks of ambitious either to be a strong country. Possibly, this aim could be reached at the expense of others. At least he is honest.

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Eastern Europe

Polonia: Poland’s diaspora policy

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In 2007, the Polish authorities for the first time adopted a government program to promote cooperation with the Polish diaspora (Polonia) and Poles abroad. In 2002, they introduced May 2 as Day of Polonia and Poles Abroad.

The strategic objectives of this program for 2015-2020 include support for the development of Polish language and culture among Poles abroad, strengthening Polish national identity among representatives of Polonia, contributing to the popularity of Polonian organizations abroad and the return of Poles living abroad to their homeland, establishing economic, scientific and cultural contacts between Poland and Polonia .

The Polish Foreign Ministry estimates the number of members of the Polish diaspora, including ethnic Poles and people of Polish descent, at 18-20 million, one third of them were born in Poland. Polonia and the Poles rank the sixth if we compare the proportion of members of the diaspora abroad with the population of the country of origin. 18% of tourists visiting Poland are members of Polish organizations abroad and ethnic Poles.

The largest Polish diasporas are in the USA (9.6 million according to 2012 reports), in Germany (1.5 million) and Canada (1 million). Poles are also living in France and the United Kingdom (0.8 million in each), the Netherlands (0.2 million), Ireland and Italy (0.15 million in each), the Czech Republic (0.12 million), Sweden and Norway ( 0.11 million in either), Belgium (0.1 million). In countries such as Austria, Spain, Denmark, and Iceland, members of the Polish diasporas number less than 100 thousand people.

According to the Polish Foreign Ministry, more than 1 million Poles and people of Polish descent live in post-Soviet countries. According to the ministry, these estimates are not accurate – for one,  in Belarus, the most “Polish” republic of the former USSR, the number of Poles and people of Polish origin could amount to up to 1 million (official reports estimate the number of Poles living in Belarus at 295 thousand).

Lithuania comes second by the number of Poles residing there – (250 thousand), the third is Ukraine (144 thousand), then Russia (47 thousand), Latvia (46 thousand) and Kazakhstan (34 thousand) – the fourth, fifth and sixth, respectively.

Polonia is conditionally divided by the Polish Foreign Ministry into ten functionality-based geographical groups: 1. Lithuania 2. Belarus 3. Ukraine 4. Latvia, Moldova, Romania, Slovakia, Hungary, the Czech Republic 5. Western European countries (Great Britain, Germany, France, Italy, Denmark, Switzerland, Sweden, etc.). 6. USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand 7. Other European countries 8. Russia, the Caucasus, Central Asia 9. Brazil, Argentina 10.Other countries of the world.

This division was carried out on the functional, rather than numerical basis and there is no universal approach as to how to categorize Poles living abroad – each of the above mentioned countries sets its own requirements for working with Polonia. People who have Polish roots but do not speak Polish and who reside in the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, and Brazil are regarded as Polish diaspora by Warsaw. In this case, there is a need to popularize Polish informational and ideological products for Polonia in these countries in the language of the country of residence with emphasis on the economic and cultural components and projects for the study of the Polish language.

The latter bears particular importance. In Brazil, for one, there are more than a dozen Polish language courses. People who go there are provided with social benefits and all the necessary documents – student ID passes for students, work certificates for teaching staff (teachers get discounts 33% to 49% on public and rail transport in Poland, etc.), certificates of Polish schools for distance learning, etc.

Given the presence of anti-Russian sentiment in Poland’s policy, it is not surprising that Russia, the republics of the Caucasus, and countries of Central Asia are among those that Warsaw accuses of breaching the rights of ethnic minorities, including Poles, which is not true. Working with Polonia in these regions carries a clear ideological touch, as historical grievances prevail over culture and economy. By intentionally inciting conflict, concocting accusations of violating the rights of ethnic minorities,Warsaw equips itself with ideological tools to justify its aggressive Eastern policy towards Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine.

In particular, there are noticeable attempts by Warsaw to force Polish organizations in Russia to participate in anti-Russian propaganda campaigns, especially regarding retrospective assessments of Russian-Polish and Soviet-Polish relations. Polish diplomacy cites the unsuccessful Polish uprisings of the 18th-19th centuries, exiled and repressed Poles of the tsarist and Stalinist times, return of Poland’s western lands to Soviet Ukraine and Soviet Belarus following the Red Army’s Polish campaign in 1939, etc.

The Polish Institute of National Memory (PINP), being an exclusively ideological structure, is on the list of state institutions and ministries that are responsible for cooperating with Polonia. A projecttitled “The Next Stop is History” has been launched in order to promote the historical and ideological heritage of Poland. Implemented within the framework of the Polish diaspora program of the Department of National Education of PINP in several countries at once (conferences, exhibitions, symposia, film screenings, lectures, military sports games), the project has no geographical restrictions and is conducted with the participation of certified teachers.

Let us focus on some characteristic features of the Polish diaspora policy:

– the prevalence of economic aspects while establishing cooperation with ethnic Poles living in the USA, EU and South America;

– a powerful propagandistic and political emphasis and a minimal presence of  economy while dealing with Polonia in countries of the former USSR;

– abandoning tactics of interaction with Polonia which presuppose acting through Polonian organizations only and which have proved ineffective;

– coverage by social, cultural and other projects of the largest possible number of ethnic Poles, in the first place, those who are not members of diaspora organizations;

– absence of heavy vertical hierarchy in disapora organizations in favor of horizontal links and shuttle diplomacy;

– contribute to the formation of a protest and opposition-minded stratum amongst the young in countries of the former USSR (Russia, Belarus, Lithuania, Ukraine) with further placement of its representatives in local government structures, the media and other socially important projects. 

Summing up, we can say that Warsaw’s diaspora politics abroad are focused on strengthening its positions in the Western community and pursuing unilateral and controversial goals in the eastern direction. From our partner International Affairs

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