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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

Unhappy Iran Battles for Lost Influence in South Caucasus

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Events that might not matter elsewhere in the world matter quite a lot in the South Caucasus. Given a recent history of conflict, with all the bad feelings that generates, plus outside powers playing geostrategic games, and its growing importance as an energy corridor between Europe and Central Asia, the region is vulnerable. 

This has been worsened by the two-year-long Western absence of engagement. In 2020, Europe and the U.S. were barely involved as the second Nagorno-Karabakh war broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan, leaving about 7,000 dead. With tensions now on the rise between Azerbaijan and Iran, Western uninterest is again evident, even though this might have wider ramifications for future re-alignment in the South Caucasus. 

The drumbeat of Iranian activity against Azerbaijan has been consistent in recent months. Iran is getting increasingly edgy about Israel’s presence in the South Caucasus — hardly surprising given Israel’s painfully well-targeted assassination and computer hacking campaigns against nuclear staff and facilities — and especially its growing security and military ties with Azerbaijan, with whom Iran shares a 765km (430 mile) border. Iran has also voiced concern about the presence in the region of Turkish-backed Syrian mercenaries, who were used as Azeri assault troops last year.  

Much of the anger has been played out in military exercises. The Azeri military has been busy since its victory, exercising near the strategic Lachin corridor which connects the separatist region to Armenia, and in the Caspian Sea, where it has jointly exercised with Turkish personnel. Iran, in turn, sent units to the border region this month for drills of an unstated scale. 

This week, the Azeri and Iranian foreign ministers agreed to dial down the rhetoric amid much talk of mutual understanding. Whether that involved promises regarding the Israeli presence or a pledge by Iran to abandon a newly promised road to Armenia was not stated. 

Iran’s behavior is a recognition of the long-term strategic changes caused by the Armenian defeat last year. Iran has been sidelined. Its diplomatic initiatives have failed, and it has been unwelcome in post-conflict discussions. 

It is true that Iran was never a dominant power in the South Caucasus. Unlike Russia or Turkey, the traditional power brokers, it has not had a true ally. Iran was certainly part of the calculus for states in the region, but it was not feared, like Russia or Turkey. And yet, the South Caucasus represents an area of key influence, based on millennia of close political and cultural contacts. 

Seen in this light, it is unsurprising that Iran ratcheted up tensions with Azerbaijan. Firstly, this reasserted the involvement of the Islamic Republic in the geopolitics of the South Caucasus. It was also a thinly-veiled warning to Turkey that its growing ambitions and presence in the region are seen as a threat. In Iran’s view, Turkey’s key role as an enabler of Azeri irridentism is unmistakable. 

Turkish involvement has disrupted the foundations of the South Caucasian status quo established in the 1990s. To expect Turkey to become a major power there is an overstretch, but it nevertheless worries Iran. For example, the recent Caspian Sea exercises between Azerbaijan and Turkey appear to run counter to a 2018 agreement among the sea’s littoral states stipulating no external military involvement. 

The Caspian Sea has always been regarded by Iranians as an exclusive zone shared first with the Russian Empire, later the Soviets, and presently the Russian Federation. Other littoral states play a minor role. This makes Turkish moves in the basin and the recent improvement of ties between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan an unpleasant development for Iran — fewer barriers to the Trans-Caspian Pipeline threatens the Islamic Republic’s ability to block the project.  

This is where Iranian views align almost squarely with the Kremlin’s. Both fear Turkish progress and new energy routes. The new Iranian leadership might now lean strongly toward Russia. With Russia’s backing, opposition to Turkey would become more serious; Iran’s foreign minister said this month that his country was seeking a “big jump” in relations with Russia. 

The fact is that the region is increasingly fractured and is being pulled in different directions by the greater powers around it. This state of affairs essentially dooms the prospects of pan-regional peace and cooperation initiatives. Take the latest effort by Russia and Turkey to introduce a 3+3 platform with Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, as well as Iran. Beyond excluding the West, disagreements will eventually preclude any meaningful progress. There is no unity of purpose between the six states and there are profound disagreements. 

Thus, trouble will at some point recur between Iran and Azerbaijan, and by extension Turkey. Given the current situation, and Iran’s visible discontent, it is likely it will take some kind of initiative lest it loses completely its position to Turkey and Russia. 

Author’s note: first published in cepa

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Eastern Europe

Right-wing extremist soldiers pose threat to Lithuania

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It is no secret that Lithuania has become a victim of German army’s radicalization. Could this country count on its partners further or foreign military criminals threaten locals?

It is well known that Germany is one of the largest provider of troops in NATO. There are about 600 German troops in Lithuania, leading a Nato battlegroup. According to Lithuanian authorities, Lithuania needs their support to train national military and to protect NATO’s Central and Northern European member states on NATO’s eastern flank.

Two sides of the same coin should be mentioned when we look at foreign troops in Lithuania.

Though Russian threat fortunately remains hypothetical, foreign soldiers deployed in the country cause serious trouble. Thus, the German defence minister admitted that reported this year cases of racist and sexual abuse in a German platoon based in Lithuania was unacceptable.

Members of the platoon allegedly filmed an incident of sexual assault against another soldier and sang anti-Semitic songs. Later more allegations emerged of sexual and racial abuse in the platoon, including soldiers singing a song to mark Adolf Hitler’s birthday on 20 April this year.

It turned out that German media report that far-right abuses among the Lithuania-based troops had already surfaced last year. In one case, a soldier allegedly racially abused a non-white fellow soldier. In another case, four German soldiers smoking outside a Lithuanian barracks made animal noises when a black soldier walked past.

Lithuania’s Defence Minister Arvydas Anušauskas said later that the investigation was carried out by Germany and that Lithuania was not privy to its details. The more so, Lithuania is not privy to its details even now. “We are not being informed about the details of the investigation. […] The Lithuanian military is not involved in the investigation, nor can it be,” Anušauskas told reporters, stressing that Germany was in charge of the matter.

Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer, German defence minister, said that these misdeeds would be severely prosecuted and punished. Time has passed, and the details are not still known.

It should be said Germany has for years struggled to modernize its military as it becomes more involved in Nato operations. Nevertheless problems existed and have not been solved yet. According to the annual report on the state of the Bundeswehr made in 2020 by Hans-Peter Bartel, then armed forces commissioner for the German Bundestag, Germany’s army “has too little materiel, too few personnel and too much bureaucracy despite a big budget increase.” Mr Bartels’ report made clear that the Bundeswehr continues to be plagued by deep-seated problems. Recruitment remains a key problem. Mr Bartels said 20,000 army posts remained unfilled, and last year the number of newly recruited soldiers stood at just over 20,000, 3,000 fewer than in 2017. The other problem is radicalization of the armed forces.

Apparently, moral requirements for those wishing to serve in the German army have been reduced. Federal Volunteer Military Service Candidate must be subjected to a thorough medical examination. Desirable to play sports, have a driver’s license and be able to eliminate minor malfunctions in the motor, to speak at least one foreign language, have experience of communicating with representatives of other nationalities, be initiative and independent. After the general the interview follows the establishment of the candidate’s suitability for service in certain types of armed forces, taking into account his wishes. Further candidate passes a test on a computer. He will be asked if he wants study a foreign language and attend courses, then serve in German French, German-Dutch formations or institutions NATO.

So, any strong and healthy person could be admitted, even though he or she could adhere to far-right views or even belong to neo-Nazi groups. Such persons served in Lithuania and, probably, serve now and pose a real threat to Lithuanian military, local population. Neo-Nazism leads to cultivating racial inequalities. The main goal of the neo-Nazis is to cause disorder and chaos in the country, as well as to take over the army and security organs. Lithuanian authorities should fully realize this threat and do not turn a blind eye to the criminal behaviour of foreign military in Lithuania. There is no room to excessive loyalty in this case.

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Eastern Europe

Lithuanian foreign policy: Image is everything

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It seems as if Lithuanian government takes care of its image in the eyes of EU and NATO partners much more than of its population. Over the past year Lithuania managed to quarrel with such important for its economy states like China and Belarus, condemned Hungary for the ban on the distribution of images of LGBT relationships among minors, Latvia and Estonia for refusing to completely cut energy from Belarus. Judging by the actions of the authorities, Lithuania has few tools to achieve its political goals. So, it failed to find a compromise and to maintain mutually beneficial relations with economic partners and neighbours. The authorities decided to achieve the desired results by demanding from EU and NATO member states various sanctions for those countries that, in their opinion, are misbehaving.

Calling for sanctions and demonstrating its “enduring political will”, Lithuania exposed the welfare of its own population. Thus, district heating prices will surge by around 30 percent on average across Lithuania.

The more so, prices for biofuels, which make up 70 percent of heat production on average, are now about 40 higher than last year, Taparauskas, a member of the National Energy Regulatory Council (VERT) said.

“Such a huge jump in prices at such a tense time could threaten a social crisis and an even greater increase in tensions in society. We believe that the state must take responsibility for managing rising prices, especially given the situation of the most vulnerable members of society and the potential consequences for them. All the more so as companies such as Ignitis or Vilnius heating networks “has not only financial resources, but also a certain duty again,” sums up Lukas Tamulynas, the chairman of the LSDP Momentum Vilnius movement.

It should be said, that according to the Lithuanian Department of Statistics, prices for consumer goods and services have been rising for the eighth month in a row. According to the latest figures, the annual inflation rate is five percent.

Earlier it became known that in 2020 every fifth inhabitant of Lithuania was below the poverty risk line.

Pensioners are considered one of the most vulnerable groups in Lithuania. In 2019, Lithuania was included in the top five EU anti-leaders in terms of poverty risk for pensioners. The share of people over 65 at risk of poverty was 18.7 percent.

In such situation sanctions imposed on neighbouring countries which tightly connected to Lithuanian economy and directly influence the welfare of people in Lithuania are at least damaging. The more so, according Vladimir Andreichenko, the speaker of the House of Representatives of the Belarus parliament, “the unification of the economic potentials of Minsk and Moscow would be a good response to sanctions.” It turned out that Lithuania itself makes its opponents stronger. Such counter-productiveness is obvious to everyone in Lithuania except for its authorities.

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