As the US and EU experience major internal problems and China, Russia, Turkey and Iran become more cooperative on crucial Eurasian affairs, geopolitical reshuffle would result in a larger Russian economic and military influence in the South Caucasus region.
The geopolitical situation in and around the South Caucasus is in flux. This fits well into the global disorder we have been seeing over the past several years across the Eurasian landmass where the US has reversed its decades-long policy of specific alliances which in turn gave rise to various partnerships, namely between Russia and Turkey, Russia and China, Russia and Iran. Since the South Caucasus borders on most of this Eurasian powers, the changing geopolitical landscape has a direct influence on internal as well as foreign policy development of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia.
Perhaps the most serious problem for the three countries is the nascent rapprochement between the West and Russia. Political statements as well as various practical moves show that there is a serious discussion going on in the EU on reinstating at least some parts of erstwhile relations with Moscow. Though Armenia and Azerbaijan are not openly seeking western integration, Yerevan and and Baku have always been interested in balancing Russian influence with more of the EU in the region. In the long run, Europe’s changed rhetoric towards Moscow would likely mean increased Russian influence in the South Caucasus and diminution of the three countries’ ability to navigate Russia’s actions.
This geopolitical change has already been visible in the rhetoric and practical steps of the South Caucasian countries. In Georgia, the government, very sensitive to reverberations among its western allies, has already initiated a political novelty. The first ever high level meeting between Georgian and Russian officials since Russian invasion in 2008 took place several weeks ago.
While many castigated the ruling party for re-establishing a high-level contact with the Russians, a larger geopolitical perspective has been missed: the need to secure its positions in an increasingly destabilized region drove Tbilisi to act at this specific moment. In Armenia and Azerbaijan there is a growing consensus among the political elites that EU/NATO expansion to the South Caucasus is effectively stalled and to hedge their positions it would rather be expedient to build more amicable relations with Moscow.
This trend in the South Caucasus also fits into a wider Eurasian context where various states now seek closer cooperation with Moscow or at least have lowered their anti-Russian sentiment. For example, in Ukraine the Ukrainian President’s made significant efforts to reach even partial progress in eastern Ukraine agreeing to holding elections in the eastern Ukraine. In Moldova western powers have cooperated with Moscow on removing the corrupt government of Vladimir Plahotniuc. In Central Asia, Uzbekistan is likely to join the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) thus reversing the odds of the integration project. Moreover, in Belarus Moscow, it seems, has reached a considerable progress over financial and juridical merger with Minsk by 2022. Thus there is a clear trend of Europe trying to stabilize its strained relations with Russia.
There are large destabilizers too. The war in Syria too would serve as a primary example as it can potentially affect the region’s three countries. Potential spread of terrorist fighters from Syrian prisons to the wider Eurasia is especially troubling for Georgia as many from its region, Pankisi Gorge, travelled to Syria-Iraq throughout the Syrian conflict. Similar fears exist in Azerbaijan, while in Armenia an influx of refugees of Armenian descent is expected.
Thus a long-term perspective for the South Caucasus is not positive. The region would be surrounded by geopolitically expansive Iran, Turkey and Russia. Moreover, Western stance would be diminished. Surely, Georgia would continue its pro-western path and economic, cultural and military cooperation with Europe and the US will increase, though the country will stay short of NATO/EU membership. In fact, a look at the map of the South Caucasus shows that it would be difficult for the West to get Georgia into NATO/EU in the current geopolitical context. Tbilisi is almost surrounded by Russian troops. Military bases in Abkhazia, Tskhinvali region and in Gyumri, Armenia, would serve as a strong disincentive for the West. Making a move in a militarily highly-congested region would require a much stronger and stable leadership in the West, similar to what we saw in the post-World War II period when US troops were facing the Soviet in various parts of the world, risking global warfare. From the Russian perspective militarization of the South Caucasus thus creates an insecure region that precludes an already hesitant West from active political and military involvement.
Considering major geopolitical trends in Russia-Turkey, Russia-West relations, it is likely that Azerbaijan will drift closer to Moscow. This might materialize into Baku actively seeking CSTO or EEU membership, which will constitute a major shift in the regional geopolitics as the country serves as a gateway to East-West economic corridor which connects the Caspian and Black Seas. Georgia is important strategically, but without Azerbaijan, western influence in the region would be diminished. Armenia as well will increase its strategic partnership with Russia both in military, security and economic spheres. Differences which surfaced between Yerevan and Moscow after the Velvet Revolution would mostly be minimized.
Thus in the coming years we are likely to see the South Caucasus with a much larger Russian influence and a decreased western role in economic, military and security issues.
Author’s note: first published in caucasuswatch.de
Lithuanians fight for silence
The Ministry of Defence of Denmark has made an important decision supporting human rights of Danish citizens.
Thus, Denmark’s new fleet of F-35s, which are to replace the F-16s currently in use, will arrive at Skrydstrup air base in South Jutland starting in 2023. When the new air force is finally ready, far more neighbours will be bothered by the noise exceeding limit values, calculations by the Danish Defence Ministry show. The 100 worst-affected homes will have to suffer noise levels of over 100 decibels, which is comparable to a rock concert or a busy motorway.
The noise pollution from F-35s is projected to exceed that of the F-16s, though noise pollution from F-16 also bother locals. Discontent of citizens reduced their confidence not only in the Ministry of Defence but in their current government and NATO as well.
Thus decided to compensate the victims.This step has improved the image of the armed forces and showed the population the care that the Ministry of Defense shows to a residents of the country.
A similar situation has developed in Lithuania. Lithuanian citizens demand compensation from the Ministry of National Defense due to high noise level made by fighter flights from Šiauliai airbase as part of NATO’s Baltic Air Policing.
Lithuania is a NATO member state and contribute to the collective defence of the Alliance. Thus, Šiauliai airbase hosts fighter jets that conduct missions of the NATO’s Baltic Air Policing.
Citizens also initiated on-line petitions in order to attract supporters and demonstrate their strong will to fight violation of human rights in Lithuania.
According to peticijos.lt, the petition was viewed more than 5 thousand times. This shows great interest of Lithuanian society in the subject.At the same time existing control over any political activity, as well as silence of current government and Ministry of National Defence don’t allow people openly support such idea. All websites with petitions demand the provision of personal data. Nobody wants to be punished and executed.
The lack of response is not a very good position of the Lithuanian Ministry of Defence in case Lithuania wants to prove the existence of democracy. Denmark is a prime example of a democratic society caring for its people.
Georgia Returns to the Old New Silk Road
Georgia has historically been at the edge of empires. This has been both an asset and a hindrance to the development of the country. Hindrance because Georgia’s geography requires major investments to override its mountains, gorges and rivers. An asset because Georgia’s location allowed the country from time to time to position itself as a major transit territory between Europe and the Central Asia, and China further away.
This geographic paradigm has been well in play in shaping Georgia’s geopolitical position even since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the rise of modern technologies. Thereafter, Georgia has been playing a rebalancing game by turning to other regional powers to counter the resurgent Russia. Turkey, Azerbaijan, Iran (partly) and bigger players such as the EU and the US are those which have their own interest in the South Caucasus. However, over the past several years yet another power, China, with its still evolving Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), has been slowly emerging in the South Caucasus.
This how a new Silk Road concept gradually emerged at the borders of Georgia. In fact, a closer look at historical sources from the ancient, medieval or even 15th-19th cc. history of Georgia shows an unchanged pattern of major trade routes running to the south, west, east and north of Georgia. Those routes were usually connected to outer Middle East, Central Asia, and the Russian hinterland.
Only rarely did the routes include parts of the Georgian land and, when it happened, it lasted for merely a short period of time as geography precluded transit through Georgia: the Caucasus Mountains and seas constrained movement, while general geographic knowledge for centuries remained limited.
It was only in the 11th-12th cc. that Georgian kings, David IV, Giorgi III and Queen Tamar, spent decades of their rule trying to gain control over neighboring territories with the goal to control the famous Silk Roads. Since, foreign invasions (Mongols, Ottomans, Persians, Russians) have largely prevented Georgia from playing a major transit role for transcontinental trade.
This lasted until the break-up of the Soviet Union. After 1991, Georgia has returned to its positioning between the Black and Caspian seas, between Central Asia and Eastern Europe. Major roads, pipelines and railway lines go through Georgian territory. Moreover, major works are being done to expand and build existing and new Georgian ports on the Black Sea with the potential to transform Georgia into a sea trade hub.
A good representation of Georgia’s rising position on the Silk Road was a major event held in Tbilisi on October 22-23 when up to 2000 politicians, potential investors from all over the world, visited the Georgian capital. The event was held for the third time since 2015 and attracted due attention. In total, 300 different meetings were held during the event.
The hosting of the event underscores how Georgia has recently upped its historical role as a regional hub connecting Europe and Asia. On the map, it is in fact the shortest route between China and Europe. There is a revitalization of the ancient Silk Road taking place in Georgia. This could in turn make the country an increasingly attractive destination for foreign investment. Indeed, the regional context also helps Tbilisi to position itself, as Georgia has Free Trade Agreements with Turkey, the CIS countries, the EFTA and China and a DCFTA with the European Union, comprising a 2.3 billion consumer market.
Thus, from a historical perspective, the modern Silk Road concept emanating from China arguably represents the biggest opportunity Georgia has had since the dissolution of the unified Georgian monarchy in 1490 when major roads criss-crossed the Georgian territory. In the future, when/if successive Georgian governments continue to carry out large infrastructural projects (roads, railways, sea ports), Tbilisi will be able to use those modern ‘Silk Roads’ to its geopolitical benefit, namely, gain bigger security guarantees from various global and regional powers to uphold its territorial integrity.
Author’s note: First published in Georgia Today
Strategic Black Sea falls by the wayside in impeachment controversy
Presidents Donald J. Trump and Recep Tayyip Erdogan had a plateful of thorny issues on their agenda when they met in the White House this week.
None of the issues, including Turkey’s recent invasion of northern Syria, its acquisition of a Russian anti-missile system and its close ties to Russia and Iran, appear to have been resolved during the meeting between the two men in which five Republican senators critical of Turkey participated.
The failure to narrow differences didn’t stop Mr. Trump from declaring that “we’ve been friends for a long time, almost from day-one. We understand each other’s country. We understand where we are coming from.”
Mr. Trump’s display of empathy for an illiberal leader was however not the only tell-tale sign of the president’s instincts. So was what was not on the two men’s agenda: security in the Black Sea that lies at the crossroads of Russia, Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and NATO member Turkey.
The Black Sea is a flashpoint in multiple disputes involving Russia and its civilizationalist definition of a Russian world that stretches far beyond the country’s internationally recognized borders and justifies its interventions in Black Sea littoral states like Ukraine and Georgia.
The significance of the absence of the Black Sea on the White House agenda is magnified by the disclosure days earlier that Mr. Trump had initially cancelled a US freedom of navigation naval mission in the Black Sea after CNN had portrayed it as American pushback in the region.
The disclosure came in a transcript of closed-door testimony in the US House of Representatives’ impeachment inquiry of Mr. Trump’s policy towards Ukraine by Christopher Anderson, a former advisor to Kurt Volker, the US special representative to Ukraine until he resigned in September.
Mr. Anderson testified that Mr. Trump phoned his then national security advisor, John Bolton, at home to complain about the CNN story. He said the story prompted the president to cancel the routine operation of which Turkey had already been notified.
The cancellation occurred at a moment that reports were circulating in the State Department about an effort to review US assistance to Ukraine.
“We met with Ambassador Bolton and discussed this, and he made it clear that the president had called him to complain about that news report… I can’t speculate as to why…but that…operation was cancelled, but then we were able to get a second one for later in February. And we had an Arleigh-class destroyer arrive in Odessa on the fifth anniversary of the Crimea invasion,” Mr. Anderson said.
The operation was cancelled weeks after the Russian coast guard fired on Ukrainian vessels transiting the Strait of Kerch that connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Azov and separates Russian-annexed Crimea from Russian mainland. ‘This was a dramatic escalation,” Mr. Anderson said.
Mr. Trump at the time put a temporary hold on a condemnatory statement similar to ones that had been issued by America’s European allies. Ultimately, statements were issued by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley but not by the White House.
The Black Sea’s absence in Mr. Trump’s talks with the Turkish leader coupled with the initial cancellation of the freedom of navigation operation, the initially meek US response to the Strait of Kerch incident, and the fallout of the impeachment inquiry do little to inspire confidence in US policy in key Black Sea countries that include not only Turkey, Ukraine and Georgia, a strategic gateway to Central Asia, but also NATO members Bulgaria and Romania.
In Georgia, protesters gathered this week outside of parliament after lawmakers failed to pass a constitutional amendment that would have introduced a proportional election system in advance of elections scheduled for next year.
The amendment was one demand of protesters that have taken to the streets in Georgia since June in demonstrations that at times included anti-Russian slogans.
Russia and Georgia fought a brief war in 2008 and Russia has since recognized the self-declared independence of two Georgian regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Some 1500 US troops participated in June in annual joint exercises with the Georgian military that were originally initiated to prepare Georgian units for service in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The absence of the Black Sea in Mr. Trump’s talks with Mr. Erdogan raises the spectre that the region could become a victim of the partisan divide in Washington and/or Mr. Trump’s political priorities.
The Republican-dominated US Senate has yet to consider a bipartisan Georgia Support Act that was last month passed by the House of Representatives. The act would significantly strengthen US defense, economic, and cyber security ties with Georgia.
A Chinese delegation that included representatives of several Chinese-led business associations as well as mobile operator China Unicom visited the breakaway republic of Abkhazia this week to discuss the creation of a special trade zone to manufacture cell phones as well as electric cars.
The Black Sea is one region where the United States cannot afford to sow doubt. The damage, however, may already have been done.
Warned Black Sea security scholar Iulia-Sabina Joja in a recent study: “The region is (already) inhospitable for Western countries as they struggle to provide security… The primary cause of this insecurity is the Russian Federation… Today, Russia uses its enhanced Black Sea capabilities not only to destabilize the region militarily, politically, and economically, but also to move borders, acquire territory, and project power into the Mediterranean.”
Ms. Joja went on to suggest that “a common threat assessment of NATO members and partners is the key to a stable Black Sea. Only by exploring common ground and working towards shared deterrence can they enhance regional security.”
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