The Caucasus has long been one of the most important regions in the world. Many states had the desire and plan to rule this region from time to time. For centuries Russia has a great influence in the Caucasus and the main reason for the importance of the Caucasus region for Russia is its geostrategic location on important trade routes. Because by passing through this region Russia can reach the Balkans, the Black Sea and the White Sea, the Persian Gulf, as well as the Indian Ocean. The other important reason is the Caucasus is a great source of raw materials for the Russian economy. North Caucasus regions, such as Chechnya, Dagestan and Tatarstan, cover almost half of Russia’s energy needs. Also, the Caucasus region has significant strategic importance in terms of the routes that aimed to bring the Caspian Sea resources to the West and controlling these routes.
After the dissolution of the USSR, relations between Russia and Armenia intensified since 1992. There are numerous agreements have been signed between Russia and Armenia in various fields. The most important agreement was signed in Moscow a Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance by Presidents Boris Yeltsin of Russia and Levon Ter-Petrosian of Armenia. The treaty also envisages consultations and mutual military support if either side is attacked or considers itself threatened by a third party. Despite Russian and Armenian officials denied this, it was one of Russia’s interference in the South Caucasus through Armenia. This agreement has made Russia’s presence stronger in the region. Russia has military bases in Armenia and the main purpose of these bases is to protect Russia’s interests and Armenia’s national security. After the recent crisis in Georgia and the withdrawal of Russian military bases, Armenia became a more important actor for Russia.
Russia has a significant impact on the processes in the region by using the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The conflict started with Armenian occupation of Azerbaijani lands and as a result of Russia’s efforts, a ceasefire was declared and negotiations started. The Kremlin supports the peaceful settlement of the conflict within the OSCE Minsk Group, as well as in bilateral meetings. Consequently, Russia provides political and military support to Armenia as an important ally in the region, as well as prevents Azerbaijan moving away from it by being as a guarantor of the peaceful settlement of the conflict. Time to time Russia uses this conflict to make political pressure on both countries which makes it another most important factor for Russia. Georgia’s attack on North Ossetia and later on Russian intervention in Georgia and recognition of North Ossetia and Abkhazia, have led to thinking whether there will be a change in the status of Nagorno-Karabakh. Also, Russian intervention in Georgia has shown that the problems in the CIS region cannot be solved without Russia. Therefore, it is possible to say that resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute is highly dependent on Russian presence. However, the growing interest of the West in this region and proposing new solutions to the conflict, make Azerbaijan and Armenia use this dispute card against Russia. The possibility of Western-South Caucasus rapprochement in the future may lead to not only a political, but even a serious economic impact on Russia. Russia’s economy is heavily dependent on energy resources and the European energy market is the most important, profitable, and stable market for Russia. At the same time, the EU tries to diversify its energy routes and to reduce its dependency on Russian energy exports. The South Caucasus, especially the Caspian region has rich oil and gas sources. Hence, in the light of the Western-Caucasus relations, the role of Azerbaijan becomes more significant and strategic. In addition, strengthening and developing relations between Armenia and the EU is important in terms of ensuring the security of supply. Such a significant reduction of the EU’s dependence on Russia will have a great impact on Russia’s economy. Considering the fact that there are numerous sanctions on Russia, the weakening of the Russian economy may hamper its regional power. Even more likely, this may lead to domestic riots in Russia, and Russia may face the threat of a division of the country.
The Kremlin and Moscow have a special control over the region to prevent this scenario and creates barriers to the South Caucasian countries’ integration into the European Union. For instance, abandoning the Nabucco project, Russia’s military intervention in Georgia, and being a shareholder in projects in this region (excluding TAP and TANAP) are some examples of these barriers.
Diasporas also play an important role in Russia’s Caucasus policy. They are most influential tools in key areas of government and are closely involved in political activities. Moreover, the existence of many Russian citizens in Armenia, the wider use of Russian language in the country, and the broadcasting of Russian radio and television channels are the core elements of Russian presence in Armenia. Some Russians living in Armenia also have the opportunity to participate actively political and cultural relations due to their Armenian language knowledge.
After the collapse of the USSR, Armenia became Russia’s main ally in the South Caucasus. Integration of Georgia into West, conflicts and problems with Turkey and Azerbaijan, threats to national security urge Armenia to be closer to Russia. At the same time, large-scale projects implemented by Azerbaijan and Georgia with Turkey and Western countries, integration into the Western markets, and problems with Armenia hinder Armenia’s regional, political and economic development. To ensure this development, Armenia sees Russia as its biggest ally and closely cooperates with Russia.
The basis for the national security of Armenia relies on military cooperation between Russia and Armenia, however, the dependence on Russia in the economic sphere and the fact that all the strategic enterprises are controlled by the Russians is contrary to Armenia’s interests. Therefore, Armenia is in search for ways to integrate into the West without undermining its relations with Russia. However, Armenia’s political and economic dependence on Russia and tensions with Azerbaijan and Turkey make difficult to integrate into the West. in order to get rid of isolation, it is important for Armenia to step back in disputes with Turkey and Azerbaijan and mitigate relations.
In the near future, it is impossible for Armenia to completely break the dependency on Russia and integrate into the EU and the West. The grounds for this integration, which depend on Russia’s foreign policy strategies, have not yet been established. Today, the Armenian authorities understand that it is impossible for Armenia without Russia to exist in these conditions. While the integration into the West is on the agenda, the isolation of Armenia in the region prevents the achievement of political and economic prosperity. Russia’s active involvement in the region is important for Armenia, both for internal and external stability. Armenia’s integration to the West will continue in the frame of Russia’s interests, but from now on the Armenian government will pursue a more discreet policy towards Russia. Russia, on the other hand, can take two actions; to take a step which can lead to the end of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and Armenia’s defeat, or to control Armenia without military intervention by making some concessions to current or future authorities. The first option is dangerous for Russia in terms of losing Armenia and reputation in South Caucasus, however, in the second variant, Russia can maintain its influence in the region by ensuring its long-term interests.
What UK defense minister was doing in Odessa, or a taste for farce
History repeats itself. This popular maxim also rings very true today. Many episodes of the Crimean War are still fresh on the memory of Russians, French and the British. Disregarding the sanctions and “annexation,” Britons and French nationals keep coming to Sevastopol to take part in a historical festival, donning period costumes and engaging in mock battles.
And yet, the distant successors of those who fought Russia during that war still remember, on a genetic level, how Russian soldiers kept fighting on against the tallest of odds (during one of the battles fought in Sevastopol, mortally wounded and bleeding members of a Russian regiment still refused to plead for mercy and, instead, continued fighting the enemy with their bayonets) even at lunch, after five in the evening, and, most unpleasantly, at night. The war fought not by the book, the freezing cold of the Crimean winter and the well-known “balaclava” headdress is something Russia’s foreign guests will never forget.
It still looks like the lessons of history have been lost on some representatives of the British elite. In December 2018, Britain’s Defense Minister Gavin Williamson arrived in Odessa in southern Ukraine to vent his outrage about the detention by Russia’s Coast Guards of three Ukrainian boats at the approaches to the Kerch Strait, and express London’s support for a second Ukrainian naval foray into the Sea of Azov. It was not Williamson’s first visit to Ukraine though – in September 2018, he bravely spent a whole 20 minutes on the line of disengagement in Donbass.
London is backing up its military-diplomatic efforts with real action.
“At 20:30 local time, on December 17, 2018, the Royal hydrographic survey ship HMS Echo sailed into the Black Sea via the Bosporus Strait. This modern reconnaissance ship is designed to conduct operations in support of submarines and amphibious operations. It can share adapted information almost in real time. (…) This is the first NATO warship to enter the Black Sea in the wake of the Azov crisis to demonstrate the UK’s support for ensuring freedom of navigation in the region,” Ukrainian expert Andrei Klimenko happily wrote.
In the mid-19th century, Britain regarded Russia as an enemy in the Big Game, and opposed it using political and economic means available to it. Simultaneously, it was the case of an empire facing off against another empire – in the Balkans, in the Caucasus and over the straits (Bosporus and Dardanelles). Britain no longer rules the seas, but its keen interest in strategic straits, such the Kerch Strait, is still very much alive.
London’s strategy, being implemented as part of the anti-Russian bloc, can best be described as “I’m doing all I can.” However, the former empire is playing an ever increasing role now that Ukraine is not being viewed by US President Donald Trump as an object worth of any effort. Still, there are powerful anti-Russian forces out there, which will not just sit and watch the presidential elections in Ukraine and, even though they have lost their patron in the person of the US president, they remain hell-bent on making Ukraine instrumental in their efforts to ramp up the conflict with Moscow.
Washington is reviewing international agreements and withdrawing its forces from Syria focusing instead on playing spy games, but now on its own territory, to fight the “Russian threat,” “Russian aggression,” and most importantly – “Russian intervention.” The central events and characters here are the Mueller investigation, the case of Maria Butina, and the recent detention in Moscow of a former US Marine, Paul Whelan, on charges of espionage.
But this is not enough, so you need something else, more dramatic and attention-grabbing, preferably done by someone else.
No matter how opposed to Trump’s policies some top officials in the US government may be, they still can’t afford to openly defy the president and thus destroy the country’s power institutions. And here political analysts come up with a very interesting version: “Therefore, England takes the burden of orchestrating the Ukrainian-Russian war in its own hands. Well, not England as such, but, rather, the real masters of both England and the United States (…) Poroshenko may not venture a provocation, and to make sure that he gets no ideas about giving up on the war, the British defense minister arrived in Ukraine. (…) Britain is bringing pressure to bear on Kiev to go to war with Russia in the coming week, period.”
Although a second foray into the Kerch Strait planned for the coming week never happened, the plan itself hasn’t gone anywhere. A follow-up to the provocation in the Kerch Strait has gone beyond the time frame outlined by the martial law President Poroshenko imposed ahead of the presidential election, but the threat of new provocations fraught with a confrontation lingers on nonetheless.
The law “On the adjacent zone of Ukraine,” signed by Petro Poroshenko in December 2018, provides a legal basis for actions by the Ukrainian military and diplomats by expanding Kiev’s border and customs control in the Black Sea.
“In the adjacent zone, the State Border Service of Ukraine will prevent violations of national immigration and sanitary legislation. Border guards will be able to stop vessels, inspect them, detain or seize vessels or their crew members, with the exception of warships and other state ships used for non-commercial purposes.”
The new law sets the stage for further provocations against Russia by portraying it as “an aggressor and invader,” backing this up with “irrefutable evidence” and showing it on TV.
The coordinated nature of the actions and intentions by the “friends” of Russia in ensuring “free navigation in international waters” is too obvious to ignore. Following the provocation in the Kerch Strait, the US guided-missile destroyer McCampbell was allegedly spotted in the vicinity of a Russian naval base in Vladivostok.
US Pacific Fleet spokeswoman Rachel McMarr said that the ship had carried out a “freedom of navigation” operation.
“The USS McCampbell sailed in the vicinity of Peter the Great Bay to challenge Russia’s excessive maritime claims and uphold the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea enjoyed by the United States and other Nations,” McMarr told CNN.
She emphasized that “the United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows.”
Britain’s policy of the past few years has been pretty strange. Execution-wise, its actions are perceived as a farce and essentially as a tragedy for the country’s political elite. London is taking cue from Kiev, with its actions and “projects” (the Skripal case and the Salisbury subproject) very much resembling Ukrainian projects. London came up with the “Skripal poisoning,” and Kiev – with the day-long “Babchenko’s murder” circus.
Sadly, this anti-Russian trend translates into a real policy based on farce and fakes, which does not change the essence of London’s foreign policy projects based on fakes.
Ukraine, for its part, continues its attempts at “coercion to conflict,” which may bring about a clash of civilizations, since this is an attempt to influence the decisions of the “core states of civilization (Samuel Huntington). However, the conflicts that Ukraine has been involved in and has initiated are the result of outside bidding and made possible thanks to the support from and sanctions by external forces.
Ukraine’s foreign policy is by and large determined by the logic of its policy at home. Ending up as a zone of inter-civilization conflict, Kiev is willy-nilly trying to rebuild the cultural foundations of the Ukrainian state and society.
The West appears all set to extract Ukraine from the sphere of the political, economic and socio-cultural influence of Russia. It is within this framework that Kiev and all sorts of other actors are working as they try to achieve their domestic goals thus stoking up tensions and radicalizing both the country’s political forces and some elements of the Ukrainian society.
All this farce and grandstanding by European and overseas leaders and politicians still fails to smokescreen the potential threats to the security of the Russian Federation. In this sense, the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait should be viewed as a place where the West may attempt a series of “tests” similar to the November 2018 attempt by Ukrainian naval boats to break into the Sea of Azov. The recent “heroic” cruise by US naval ships 100 kilometers off Vladivostok, presumably to “challenge Russia’s excessive maritime claims and uphold the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea enjoyed by the United States and other nations,” could be repeated also in the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait, along the Northern Sea Route, in the Arctic and the Baltic Sea.
The Black Sea region thus becomes a model of counteracting the “sea claims of Russia.” Indeed, it is a really volatile region with an unstable Ukraine ready for any provocations, Crimea, reunited with Russia (plus the Crimean Bridge), a high-handed NATO member, Turkey, which maintains close contacts with both Russia and the West, and the Caucasus region. It poses a problem for Russia due to the flurry of potential and real threats existing there, but it is also a problem for Russia’s “friends,” because of the high degree of security of the Crimean border and other borders of the Russian Federation. This combination of security and threats makes the Black Sea region an ideal place for all sorts of provocations and endurance tests.
Well aware of Russia’s strength, the West is trying to test Moscow’s determination with small, albeit significant, provocations, such as the Ukrainian naval ships’ attempt to enter the Sea of Azov on November 25, 2018. The West is equally aware of Russia’s response to such provocations by Kiev. What is not so clear to the West, however, and London’s activity attests to this, is how Russia will respond to similar passages by multinational flotillas. This uncertainty could only stem from a desire to trigger a conflict or from misguided thoughts about Russia’s indecisiveness to enter into a serious confrontation with the West.
Whatever grounds London or Washington may have for organizing a second cruise to the Crimean Bridge, no matter how many ships will take part and the flags they will sail under, Russia will do all it takes to protect its territory, border, water area, and important infrastructure.
The question London has to answer now is how will the former empire get out of this situation? There are only two options available: either to stage ever new provocations or continue grandstanding and firing verbal broadsides.
First published in our partner International Affairs
2019: A difficult political year in Lithuania
2019 will be a big political year in Lithuania, with elections in national focus. Lithuania will hold presidential, municipal and European Parliament elections this year.
Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite in her traditional New Year congratulation message was very restrained and short-spoken. She clearly understands that she did nothing outstanding to be proud of. This message looked more as a warning. It could be read between the lines that she warned of a new difficult year with the same unsolved problems.
The outgoing president said that “there are many challenges ahead next year – on the international arena and domestically.” It is hard to disagree. Lithuanian politics in 2018 has not been shaped by brilliant economic, social or military policy decisions or results.
Thus, Lithuanian politician, Kęstutis Girnius, is also sure that the coming year will not be easy. He said that the prolonged massive teacher strikes at the end of the year is a very important thing to remember in 2019. “Teachers and medics are those professional groups in Lithuania that always stand up and speak up. Neither this government nor the previous ones were able to solve their issues.”
The authorities did not consider those groups’ problems important in due course and as a result they faced national defiance. Much more seriously the authorities treated the Russian threat, though yet only potential.
In the past year, the military budgets of the Baltic countries swiftly overcame the two percent barrier. The region’s political elite concentrated on anti-Russian rhetoric, very often to the detriment of their economic interests. Though authorities need to recognize the impossibility to change the political course of the giant Russia. For example, Lithuania’s 2 percent of GDP on defence expenditures will not stop Russia, but could seriously harm the welfare of its people. Supporting the US’ idea of increasing defence expending, at the same time Lithuanian government overlooked the real problems of teachers and doctors putting them at risk of poverty.
The more so, the authorities believe in vain that ordinary people do not understand the threat of an armed conflict between Russia and the US on the territory of the Baltics. Providing the territory for conducting large-scale maneuvers the Baltic States irritate Russia and necessitate her to deploy troops closer to their borders. Closed circle: even small increasing of defence capabilities in the Baltic States causes huge increasing of defence capabilities in Russia.
A new old minister of defense in Latvia
The process of forming a new government in Latvia has become an exciting political show. And show must go on. And it really goes on. After three unsuccessful attempts to find a candidate for the prime-minister post who could overcome disagreement between political parties, President Vejonis hopes that Krišjānis Kariņš after all will gain support and will be able to form the government.
Though this question remains open, it is already known that For Development/For alliance (after 2018 Latvian parliamentary election it is the 4th largest party in Latvia) has decided to support a government proposed by the New Unity’s Krišjānis Kariņš and is delegating Artis Pabriks, Juris Pūce and Ilze Viņķele for ministerial positions, told the alliance’s representative Laila Spaliņa.
For Development/For proposes Pabriks for the position of defence minister, Puce for environmental protection and regional development minister and Viņķele for health minister.
For Development/For co-chairman Pūce believes that Pabriks’ previous job experience as minister of foreign affairs and defence makes him a good candidate for defence minister and vice-premier. Pabriks would be able to “successfully introduce a comprehensive defence system in Latvia, coordinating the work of various institutions and cooperation between the public and private sector.”
It must be noted, that Artis Pabriks is a controversial person in Latvian politics. Though he has some political support, Latvians do not like him. His statements very often became headlines and were severely criticised by his colleges and ordinary people.
For example in 2006 he had an idea to create movies and documentaries that objectively would reflect the history of the country. Another question is how this objectiveness was understood. “I think, that Latvia is not so poor and we could allocate at least two million euros …”, said Pabriks in the interview to Neatkarīgā. Latvians did not like the idea to spend money on its realization.
He also has not achieved yet one of his aims: to persuade Russia to accept the fact of Latvia’s occupation. He wanted public recognition, and he insisted that Russia conduct public survey or referendum where he hopes people admit Latvia’s occupation.
His political incompetence is visible to the naked eye. Russia will never rewrite its history and will never admit something that downplays its significance on the international arena. But the worst thing in the internal affairs in Latvia is lack of new politicians, lack of new ideas and thus lack of new possibilities to male life better.
Latvians who want to see new faces in politics could not really expect changes in the defence system because of a new “old” minister. Everything will remain the same. Why then a new government?
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