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Blowback Diplomacy: How the US was Locked Out of the Caspian

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It has been almost one year since the IV Caspian Summit in Astrakhan, Russia, where the presidents of the five Caspian states signed a political declaration that denied any foreign military presence in the Caspian Sea.

This means that possible future deployment of NATO forces in the area will not be allowed. According to Russian President Vladimir Putin, this declaration “sets out a fundamental principle for guaranteeing stability and security, namely, that only the Caspian littoral states have the right to have their armed forces present on the Caspian.” While this is a threat to the United States, the decision may not have been as much of a shock. It may have been US policies that pushed this decision to the forefront.

Looking back to the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States was careful not to make it seem as though it was siding with the new states in their efforts to achieve independence from Russia. This was important because the United States did not want to give the impression that a “cordon sanitaire” was being created around Russia in order to isolate it from Europe. The new states and Russia were given the opportunity to create arrangements amongst themselves that were acceptable to both sides. The United States was to basically stay out of it. This policy was a way to allow the United States to slowly and strategically become involved in these new states in the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union without bothering or irritating or worrying Russia.

After giving the newly independent states some time, the United States became increasingly active in its diplomatic efforts in the region. It started out with official visits, first by the leaders of the region to the United States: President Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan visited the White House in 1996; President Eduard Shevardnadze of Georgia, President Heidar Aliyev of Azerbaijan, President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan in 1997; and President Saparmurat Niyazov of Turkmenistan in 1998.   These visits were then followed by US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright touring the region in 2000.

To add to this, possibly one of the most significant US policy decisions in the Caspian region, the Clinton Administration appointed a “special envoy”, or a special inter-agency working group, which focused on Caspian policy. This was interesting because so much focus was placed on this remote region, even though there was no significant trade relationship between the Caspian littorals and the United States, no real threat of major war, and no immediate threat to regional or international peace and stability. The United States military also began to pay attention to the region. Many training sessions and programs were conducted in the area and between 1992 and 1999. The United States also provided the Caspian area with nearly $1.9 billion under the Freedom Support Act to promote democratization, market reforms, health care, and housing.

However, not all good deeds go unpunished. While supporting the region, the United States also addressed the importance of Central Asia and the Caucasus. A mistake the United States may have made in addressing the importance of this region was emphasizing the region’s oil and gas wealth. In an address before the Senate Appropriations Committee’s Foreign Operations Subcommittee, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright noted that it was of national interest to support states in the Caspian Basin because they were strategically located and energy-rich. This may have planted a seed of suspicion in Russia toward US motives in the area, which could have led long-term to the decision to lock them out of the region militarily in last year’s summit.

Thus, the very policy that was meant to help the United States gain the littoral states’ trust and future access to the Caspian’s resources and strategic location may have backfired. The US invested so much time, money, and energy working to build the navies and strengthen the military in Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan. However, all of that training and arms supplied were ultimately manipulated by Russia and Iran, cajoling the states that they could protect their interests themselves without more direct foreign military aid and involvement. The littoral states bought into the idea that their bolstered militaries, along with Russia and Iran’s supplementally pledged military support, would be enough to protect themselves. It seems apparent that the idea of needing protection from Russia and Iran in the future was not considered a relevant threat. This concept is something loudly crowed about in the West but these decisions show it is not shared by the ‘lesser’ Caspian littorals.

Another policy of the United States that may have contributed to this lockout decision was the imposition of sanctions on Russia and Iran. Russia not only has soft power influence throughout the region, many of the littoral states are fearful of a belligerent Iran. The United States imposed sanctions on Russia in response to the annexation of Crimea and subsequent involvement in the war in Ukraine. The sanctions have caused severe economic harm to Russia causing food prices to soar, the exchange rate to weaken, inflation to increase, and incomes to decrease. The United States also imposed further sanctions on Iran due to its illicit nuclear activities. Like in Russia, the sanctions severely affected Iran’s economy, causing incredibly high inflation, unemployment, and food prices. Thus, Russia and Iran’s distrust and anger toward the United States, along with their own national security interests, fueled their actions to push the littoral states to agree with the lockout.

The decision to block foreign militaries from the Caspian Sea is a threat to the strategic interests of America and, to a lesser extent, the EU. Potentially, it could have negative repercussions on energy security. By removing any Western military influence in the region, Russia will be able to maintain the regional hegemony it considers its natural birthright. In addition to that, Iran will be able to ensure greater strategic flexibility moving forward with the JCPOA nuclear accord. It is now clear that there were policy decisions made by the US that negatively affected its relationship with Russia and Iran and fueled the push for the military lockout. Additionally, the United States’ discussion of the strategic location and energy wealth of the Caspian Basin undoubtedly caused an air of doubt by the ‘greater’ Caspian littorals and clearly motivated them to improve their relations with Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and Turkmenistan enough so that those three could legitimately believe in the wisdom and efficacy of relying on their own regional securitization. In short, the biggest decision that came from the IV Caspian Summit was the product of a long and gradual process of ‘blowback diplomacy,’ where the United States was forced to reap a bitter harvest from its earlier sowing season.

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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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