Authors: Ruslana Kochmar & Suddha Chakravartti*
The key point to bear in mind is that Russia cannot be in Europe without Ukraine also being in Europe, whereas Ukraine can be in Europe without Russia being in Europe. Zbigniew Brzezinski— Chapter 4, The Black Hole, p. 122
Arguably, few countries are at the crossroads of the grand chessboard of international politics like Ukraine. A prisoner of geography, few countries have had to historically adjust to great power politics as Ukraine, and very few countries have a more complicated relationship with their identity and their territory than Ukraine. Straddled in the heart of the Eurasian continent, Ukraine’s prospects, it’s identity, national consciousness, and sovereignty will depend upon how international and Eurasian politics shape in the area. Even the name Ukraine (Okraina), roughly translated as “borderlands,” “periphery” or “frontier region” in Slavic (Rywkin, 2014), bears testament to its historical legacy as a geopolitical pivot. In fact, the current geopolitical tug of war is not merely international, but it’s fraught with internal ambiguities originating from historical complications. The west of Ukraine, the lands which have been historically influenced by Poland as well as the Austro-Hungarian Empire, is the hotbed of Ukrainian nationalism; the eastern front is ethno-linguistically Russian; the area around Kyiv is the birthplace of the Kievan Rus, and hence, crucial to Ukraine’s identity; and Crimea, which was historically occupied by the Ottomans. The recent conflict in Ukraine has highlighted the fragmentation of this historical land, as the river Dneiper dissects the country into different spheres of influence (Rexhepi, 2016). On one side, as Ukraine inches towards the west, its integration is restrained because its modern territory falls within the crucial “near abroad” limits of Russian foreign policy.
The Paradox of Ukraine’s Sovereignty
The security challenges presented by Russia’s intervention in Crimea in 2014 are crystalised in Ukraine’s fight for sovereignty. Ukraine emerged as an independent state post-1991 with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The Budapest Memorandum signed at the OSCE conference in 1994, where Ukraine acceded to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, also saw the permanent members of the United Nations give security affirmations to Ukraine regarding its territorial integrity, the recognition of its autonomy, and its existing borders. In 1995, Russia and Ukraine consented to separate the Soviet Black Sea Fleet, whereas in 1997, Russia and Ukraine signed a Treaty on Friendship or also known as “Big Treaty.” Although Ukraine’s sovereignty and independence have been firmly embedded in an international framework, the multi-vector strategy is all but crumbling. The independence of Ukraine has been viewed as “the greatest geopolitical loss for Russia in the post-Cold War period” (Sarikaya, 2017). By Ukraine’s sovereignty, Russia had lost not just its influence over the Baltic States and Poland, but it also lost its capacity to lead the erstwhile Soviet Union’s southern and eastern non-Slavic population that Russia gained from the Ottomans under Catherine the Great (Marshall, 2016: 20). A neutral Ukraine is acceptable by Russia, and Ukraine has always been viewed by Russia as a buffer region till pro-Moscow regimes ruled from Kyiv (Ibid). This perspective also conveys the link to the important concept of “centre and periphery” in Russian Foreign Policy (Ferrari, 2020) that gained momentum under Vladimir Putin’s revisionist notion of Novorossiya (New Russia).
The fear of Russian interference in Ukraine’s sovereignty in 2013 led to the Euromaidan mass- protests in Kyiv which quickly engulfed the country, mainly its western parts. The protests resulted in the downfall of pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych’s government, resulting in his exile. Fearing the worst geostrategic outcome, Russia was left with little choice but to annex Crimea in order to safeguard Crimea’s Russian speaking majority, but vitally, to protect and bolster Russia’s naval port in Sevastopol (Marshall, 2016: 16). However, through its military annexation of Crimea, Russia pursued to recapture its earlier influence and to reignite its image as a superpower. The Crimean annexation was evidence of Russia’s strategic importance of the Black Sea region and its historical necessity for access to warm water seaports. The annexation also reinforced Russia’s zero tolerance for losing its sway in its “near abroad,” something clearly witnessed in recent decades during the Chechen wars (1994-1996 and 1999-2009) and the Russo-Georgian war (2008).
Despite the international accords that recognised Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty, Ukraine’s military and economic security began to deteriorate when Russia forced Ukraine to surrender the Association Agreement with the EU in 2013. Russia set up trade barriers against Ukraine, specifically by offering credit to Ukraine as a ‘carrot.’ Prior to the Crimean annexation, Russia supplied a large portion of Ukraine’s natural gas requirements, after which imports diminished and halted in 2016. Regardless, Russia drastically depends on Ukrainian pipelines for transporting its natural gas to Central and Eastern Europe and is contracted to continue transporting gas through Ukraine for a few additional years (Masters, 2020).
Nonetheless, Ukraine’s energy sector is changing, and its battle over energy independence has only begun. The debates with Russia over transit arrangements and revenues have been pushed into the spotlight. Russian Gazprom accelerated the construction of new bypass pipelines such as TurkStream. Another large-scale transit route of Russian gas through Ukraine to Europe is immersed in the dispatch of Gazprom’s $11 billion Nord Stream II undertaking, which joins Russia to one of Europe’s significant gas consumers – Germany (Bros, 2015). And although the viability of the project is questionable, this possesses a serious threat to Ukraine’s and EU’s energy autonomy. The European Union leaders are now examining the new “clean’ energy” policies, whilst reflecting on the disruption created by Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. This also mirrors the strategy of both EU and Ukraine to reduce its reliance on Russian gas to achieve greater energy independence and not be politically or economically diminished by Russia’s “big stick” foreign policy.
The Heartland Theory and the Strategic Weight of Western and Russian Manoeuvres
Halford Mackinder’s Heartland theory appears to be still relevant nowadays as evidenced in the growing geopolitical turmoil in Eastern Europe – the ‘Heartland.’ This theory conveys that the control of Eurasia and Africa could be only accomplished via control of the countries bordering the erstwhile Soviet Union, including Ukraine. In the 20th century, Mackinder assumed the ‘pivoting’ or controlling Eastern Europe as the locus of geostrategic access to the Heartland. By gaining influence in the pivot area, the controlling state would obtain the dominance of the global order (Alcenat, 2008). This geostrategic objective was further espoused in Zbigniew Brzezinski’s The Grand Chessboard (1997), whose implementation by the West resulted in the infiltration and spread of western influence and dominance into the erstwhile Soviet space. The western endgame, through these manoeuvres, were directed towards thwarting Russia’s ability to project power in Eurasia (Baldwin & Heartsong, 2015). Thus, the pivot area essentially provides further access and marks Ukraine as a primary geopolitical interest. However, it is mainly due to such hawkish neoconservative strategies that the hasty and unchecked spread of western influence has resulted in providing fodder for the resurgence of Russia as a dominant Eurasian and global superpower (Baldwin & Heartsong, 2015). Russia’s counter as a reactionary power has stymied the dominance of the West in Eurasia, where today its “near-abroad” strategy continues to threaten Ukraine’s national security.
The conflict in Ukraine has truly sabotaged the whole Euro-Atlantic security. The key for the normalisation of relations between NATO, Russia, and Ukraine balances on Russia’s acknowledgement of Ukraine’s independence, autonomy and territorial integrity. About seven years have passed since Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and its constant support to pro-Russian uprisings and destabilisation in the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine. This scenario has not only destabilised the military and national security of Ukraine, but also led to suspended cooperation with Russia that has undermined its economic security. It is evident that Russia seeks its security tactics through a delineation of spheres of influence among post-Soviet powers. Similarly, this aggressive stance endangers European security too. Therefore, it is in the interest of the EU and NATO to seriously consider the sanctity of Ukraine’s sovereignty, which is key to containing Russia and its sphere of influence.
Currently, Ukraine stands at the forefront as a “geopolitical pivot” of another great power politics, pitting Russia against West, resulting in diplomatic coldness and reigniting the fears of another Cold War. The US and European views are centred around a solid, autonomous Ukraine, which is “a significant piece of building a Europe entire, free, and at peace”(Kaddorah, 2014). While the rapid expansion of NATO and the EU post-1990 is intended to strengthen and secure Europe, its expansion today is dangerously close for Russian liking. This is because the expansion of NATO and the EU to Eastern Europe and the Baltic States have greatly diminished Russia’s strategic depth it once enjoyed under the Soviet Union. The current endeavours to consolidate Ukraine under the umbrella of a western economic and security associations has shifted the balance of power, with the expansion of western influence into Russia’s previously controlled neighbourhoods. Through the reactionary policies of Russia, we can clearly observe its resurgent attempts to recapture its influence on those post-Soviet Union regions. Moreover, it manifests Russia’s reluctance to permit the West to accomplish any further its targets in the east.
An Independent and Sovereign Ukraine as the Key to Euro-Atlantic Security
International transformations and growing military security threats in Ukraine directly or indirectly influence the security framework of Europe. Conferring to the ‘Western-Ukrainian Axis,’ we can notice the expansionist strategy of NATO and the EU with Ukraine. At first, NATO’s expansion towards the East remained frozen. However, after Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008, the Euro-Atlantic community took it as a sign of the Kremlin’s desire to restore its authoritative reach in Eastern Europe and over the post-soviet territory.
Russia has effectively utilised Europe’s energy reliance to frame its ‘energy groupings’ inside the EU, in order to establish greater influence. Hence, Russia has managed to turn the table and undermine the security not only in Ukraine but in the whole Euro-Atlantic region. Through its intervention in the Transcaucasia region (Zakavkazye), Moscow demonstrated to the West that they should reflect on their expansionist strategy.
The conditions for territorial security around Ukraine are vital due to the following reasons:
The accelerated ‘sphere of influence’ of major powers and the geopolitical position of Ukraine, which attracts the interest of major powers. This provokes external influences in the region and demands the preventive use of force to protect borders.
Further escalation of ‘frozen’ clashes in the Black Sea-Caspian Sea region is another threat, which challenges the internal instability of neighbouring countries. This highlights the lack of perspectives and a common vision of regional reconstruction processes.
The growing militarisation and foreign military presence in the region, added by the further risk of the deployment of new arsenal systems.
Uncertain issues identified within the constitutional regulations. There is an increasing trend in nationalism, which additionally implies the importance of cultural rights of ethnic minorities that could revive territorial claim issues in the regional agenda.
Ukraine directly falls under the developing tension of distinctively coordinated centres of influence: Russia, the US, and the EU. Currently, it is difficult to imagine Ukraine guarantee its security in the modern world independently due to its destabilised economy and energy dependency. With the realisation of the EU integration strategy and its incorporation within NATO, Ukraine must politically manoeuvre in moulding new pan-European balances of power and embrace deterrent capabilities concerning ongoing security issues. The 1994 Budapest Memorandum and other international security instruments concerning Ukraine should be reinforced. The best ultimate outcome could be viewed as establishing a network of legally binding instruments. These instruments would secure a certain scope to the UN Security Council member-states and other contracting parties if there should be an occurrence of armed aggression against Ukraine. Moreover, Ukraine has the right to acquire such affirmations, most importantly as a result of it being one of the few voluntarily states to abandon its nuclear potential (Adamenko, 2012).
Some present operations involving NATOs alliance with Ukraine include peace-support actions, defence and security sector reform, military-to-military cooperation and defence technology. Since 2014, Ukraine has been the largest recipient of NATO’s Science for Peace and Security (SPS) Programme in accordance with the decision of member states to increase the inclusion of Ukraine. For instance, in the previous five years, there were 69 SPS activities conducted with Ukrainian researchers and specialists. Nowadays, Ukraine remains the leading partner of NATO through the ongoing 32 SPS ventures that contributed to 17% of all SPS Programme in 2019 (NATO, 2020). From Ukraine’s perspective, the urgency of military security also includes the importance of safeguarding national interests in the Black Sea region. This entails the development of dialogues with key neighbouring regions and receiving technical assistance from NATO.
Hence, Ukraine has been broadly cooperating with NATO, especially at a strategic level. The apex point of the strategic cooperation with NATO was the Brussels Summit Declaration on July 11, 2018. During the summit, Ukraine’s alliance goals were formally recognised, as well as NATO enrolment (The Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine, n.d). Since then, Ukraine has been effectively integrating NATO norms in its Armed Forces, for instance, by redesigning military units of the General Staff of the Armed Forces around standards that are appropriate to NATO states. Due to this, Ukraine’s overall defence unit is experiencing improvements through the rebuilding of the infrastructure and mobilisation of training centres.
BLACK SEA SECURITY
The intensification of the struggle and competition for natural resources is a growing security challenge at both regional and global levels. Competition for natural resources exemplifies geopolitical tensions around the world. Since the Crimean annexation, the Black Sea region is experiencing a change in the balance of power. The Black Sea region is a strategic but a sensitive area, as it is located at the centre of regional tensions, natural resources and geopolitical competitions between Russia and Ukraine. The geopolitical transformation is not only about territorial integrity but also maritime security. After the Cold War, Russia diminished its leverage of influence over the Black Sea region. Subsequently, the prioritisation of geopolitical interest in the Black Sea Region was re-established due to the extensive transport network and energy reserves (Masters, 2020).
Ukraine has similarly adapted reforms of its armed forces to procedures that are NATO compatible in terms of the Ukrainian navy. Prior to 2014, Ukraine did not consider the Black Sea region as the key security threat, hence, the forces committed to maritime security were narrow, apart from Georgia (Wezeman & Kuimova, 2018). There was a lack of funding for the Ukrainian navy in comparison to the army and active personnel. Whereas the focus on land operations in eastern Ukraine was doubled, the number of naval personnel was halved since minor warships and non-combat ships were removed from the military service
Human Security and Human Rights in the Occupied Territories
The conflict in Ukraine has taken around 13,000 lives and has resulted in the ‘disappearances’ of hostages (UNIAN, 2019). Moreover, Ukraine’s security disputes have directly affected human security issues concerning the integration and adaptation of IDPs originating from eastern Ukraine. There are official reports that determined that the territory controlled by Russia-led forces exhibit life-threatening conditions in detention centres (US Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labour, 2019).
In regions that are dominated by Russian influence, the Justice for Peace in Donbas Coalition showed that sexual violence was used pervasively in ‘unofficial’ detention facilities (Khylko & Tytarchuk, 2017). There is clear oppression on the freedom of expression, including blocked media outlets and the use of violence against individual journalists that undermine the country’s sovereignty. Additionally, Russia-led forces forestalled the transmission of Ukrainian independent TV channels and radio programming in territories under their control.
Under such security circumstances, there is an impulse to delay and overlook human security issues to ‘better occasions’ and focus only on military issues and territorial integrity. In any case, it is wrong to consider human security as a sort of stabiliser that restricts state security. In democratic states, human and state security are interconnected aspects in the strengthening of national resilience.
Referring to the Finnish Foreign and Security Policy, improving communication between the various components of security apparatus with citizens is fundamental (Khylko & Tytarchuk, 2017). For instance, the German Armed Forces, Bundeswehr, styles itself as a pro-democratic unit by drawing closer to individual and civil society issues. This also signifies the role of public communication that contributes to the responsive systems of human security threats. The new National Security Strategy of Ukraine (2015) presents an updated arrangement between citizens and state based on democratic values. In this regard, the primary function in ensuring security is given to military and law enforcement bodies, while adding the dynamic inclusion of civil society and NGOs.
The current insecurity in Ukraine is a consequence of deep-rooted ideological, informational, geopolitical, and domestic fault-lines. A revisionist Russia that claims the heart and centre of Eurasia pushes both Ukraine and the EU to strengthen its military and economic security and bolster policies to reach post-conflict settlement objectives. A sovereign and stable Ukraine that is firmly committed to a democratic order is key to a successful Euro-Atlantic security system. The evolution of circumstances in Eastern Ukraine demonstrated that Ukraine was not prepared to forestall and react to Russia’s growing influence. Thus, it is important to establish solid long- term security strategies so that the cycle of interventions in Ukraine’s sovereign matters does not repeat. This calls for the revision of medium and long-term policy strategies via reinforcing energy and economic security of the state.
In the new geopolitical setting, the foreign policy of post-Soviet Russia has long been characterised as reactive rather than proactive. Historically, Russia has always felt trapped by the influences of its geography and geopolitical realities, which have prominently influenced its foreign policy to rely on catching up with other hegemonies and great powers to maintain its “sphere of influence.” Although Russian energy revenues are strong, it is a double-edged sword that is making Kremlin dependent on hydrocarbon exports. A partial switch to renewable energy is a great opening for Ukraine to become less energy-dependent and improve its economy. This transition and diversification would not just help Ukraine to advance its energy sovereignty, but would also bring more durable peace, self-reliance, and national security. If Ukraine would be able to resist its dependence on Russian hydrocarbons – energy and national security would be automatically strengthened. Russia’s deep economic isolation, which has only deepened since the beginning of the Crimean annexation and its intervention in the Donbas region, could be further used to destabilise Kremlin’s position. As the end goal for the achievement of military security, post-conflict reconstruction should be realised through the demobilisation of military groups in the non-government-controlled area. Conclusively, by reclaiming the control of the territory, the reintegration of society will be possible via the elimination of supplies of weapons.
Kremlin has used every opportunity to keep the Trilateral Contact Group paralysed on their commitments and has not shied away from using its proxies to destabilise Ukraine. Ukraine and Russia seem to interpret differently the execution of the arrangements of the Minsk Agreements. The key enquiry is now whether Russia can be convinced to accept a modernised version of the Minsk Agreements or a completely new framework. The OSCE delegates have raised this issue, as well as German and French interlocutors. It is likewise crucial that Ukraine is not standing by latently in negotiations. So far, the Minsk Agreements’ efforts have produced very limited results in the reintegration of the eastern regions that are under Russian occupation. On the optimistic side, Ukraine has discussed its second part of the Strategy for the Economic Development of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts (Ministry of Reintegration of the Temporarily Occupied Territories of Ukraine, 2020). The Ukrainian Cabinet of Ministers ratified this report on December 23, 2020, whereas by summer 2021 they expect to prepare a roadmap and a package of bills to execute economic initiatives in the occupied eastern locale.
From the very beginning, the Ukrainian conflict has developed on two converging planes: one inside Ukraine and the other between Russia and the West, where Ukraine was just a ‘stumbling block’ in the process of democratisation. The Kremlin’s proxies in Donbas are demanding a) goodwill on all sides, b) a concrete detailed roadmap, c) a group of additional selected intermediaries who could guarantee the peace-making process, d) the acceptance and presence of all parties required for the reintegration of the eastern region. Talks must include the representatives of the “People’s Republics” to drastically increase their self-government on the condition of preserving the common border and some conditions that would determine their legitimate status. Meanwhile, Ukraine should invite new members of the EU (predominantly from neutral states) and the US to act as guarantors in their talks with Kremlin. These conditions would increase the chances for Ukraine as the sovereign state to achieve its “best scenario” and oppose external and domestic radical nationalistic forces in the future.
* Suddha Chakravartti is the Head of Research, and Lecturer in International Relations at EU Business School.
The Solution to Ending the War in Ukraine Lies in the Ability to Get the Other Side’s Point of View
This is so simple, so obvious, that anyone ought to see the truth of it at a glance, yet we ignore it. The key to solving the conflict lies in the ability to see things from a person or nation’s angle as well as from your own. If there is any chance to end this bloody and devastating war where billions of treasures are spent to bend the arc of history and new military alliances are evolving and responsible to prolong the loss of life, then one ought to think in terms of the opposing side’s point of view.
So, the only way on earth to influence the opposing nations is to determine what each leader seeks and show them how to get it. Instead of the never-ending condemnation of each other, let’s try to understand and figure out why they do what they do. That is more beneficial and intriguing than criticism that only breeds resentment and pride rather than tolerance and perhaps a level of sympathy. Simply put, God himself does not propose to judge man until the end of his days. Why should you and me?
Taking a tip from Benjamin Franklin where his success in diplomacy was to speak ill of no man and to speak all the good, I know of everybody. Any fool can criticize, condemn, and complain -and most fools do. It takes character and self-control to be understanding.
First, it is important to understand the recently annexed Donbas regions in eastern Ukraine and the Crimea are just as much the historical homelands to both Russia as Ukraine over centuries of war, political upheaval, and shifting control. Fast forward to 1918, troops loyal to the Ukrainian People’s Republic took control of parts of the Donbas with the help of its German ally. Then in 1932, millions of Ukrainians died of starvation when Soviet leader Joseph Stalin confiscated their land.
WW II witnessed further upheaval when Germany occupied the region for resources and forced labor until the Red Army offensive in 1943 returned the Donbas to the Soviet Union. By 1959, there was 2.5 million Russians living in the Donbas; resulting in educational reforms and attempts to eliminate the Ukrainian language. More recently the economy collapsed through the 1990’s where divisions have since escalated with Ukrainians seeking closer ties to the West and Russian separatists taking over key government buildings and declaring a republic.
Furthermore, the history behind the annexation of Crimea by Russia is not short of its own upheavals. With NATO threatening to expand into Ukraine following missile systems set up in Poland and Romania within striking distance of Russian cities, President Putin made a national security decision to annex Crimea. Sevastopol, the Crimean port city where the Russian Black Sea Fleet calls home is a strategic harbor patrolling the shipping routes from Russia and the Don River to Turkey and Southeastern Europe. Russia reclaimed Crimea from Germany in 1944; and a decade afterwards in 1954; the Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev handed over Crimea to Ukraine on the 300-year anniversary of Russia’s annexation of Ukraine. Understandably, Putin reclaimed Crimea and its Russian speaking population; and could not permit the Sevastopol Naval base to fall into the control of NATO.
This current war in Ukraine is yet another pivotal moment in a lengthy and tumultuous history that will be added to a long list of regional conflicts that now has the added global component of NATO-creep with the American-led West injecting itself into the conflict followed by Iran, North Korea, and China bolstering the Russians.
So, what does Ukraine and President Zelensky want? Russia to pull its military from Ukrainian territory, they seek to join NATO, and assurances that Russia will not invade in the future. What does Russia and Putin want? No American offensive weapon systems in eastern NATO countries threatening Russia -not dissimilar to Soviet missiles staged in Cuba and minutes away from taking out major American cities. No NATO expansion to include Ukraine where the alliance would be knocking on the door of Moscow. Addressing the wellbeing and future of the ethnic Russians throughout the Donbass and maintaining sovereignty over Crimea which has been in Russian control for nearly a decade and was not a major point of contention prior to the war in Ukraine. Lastly, the lifting of sanctions against Russia.
What does Europe want at this time in the conflict. The ending of this war and a return to greater peace and security on the continent that includes the ongoing fear of nuclear weapons being used in region. The free flow of energy from Russia to provide for their needs, and assurances that Russia has no further intentions to escalate the war into neighboring EU countries. What does the United States and President Biden want? NATO expansion to include Ukraine, Putin put on trial, removed, and Russian forces decimated, and willing to spend hundreds of billions of dollars to fund the continuation of fighting to the last Ukrainian standing.
Perhaps it is a bit presumptuous to provide solutions to what each party seeks. Here’s what a framework might look like.
- No NATO membership for Ukraine in the near future and to be reviewed in ten years, however immediate enrollment if Russia decides to re-invade. Membership is not off the table and Russia can breathe.
- A total Russian military withdraws from eastern Ukrainian territory in the Donbas. A UN security force is inserted and has oversight of a regional referendum in three years to determine if the inhabitants in the Donbas want to remain in Ukraine or become part of Russia. Western leaders speak highly of preserving democracy, and self-determination upholds this claim.
- Energy needs of Europe to be addressed with a percentage of Russian oil and gas revenues being allocated as reparations to rebuild Ukraine’s destroyed infrastructure.
- The removal of offensive missile systems in Romania and Poland facing Russian cities in staged timelines to coincide with Russian alignment on the total package.
- An international effort to rebuild Ukraine under the lead of France, Saudi Arabia, Japan, and Turkey with the priority on grain and food shipments from Ukrainian ports; including oversight on the reduction of sanctions to coincide with Russia’s alignment and behavior. This would include the removal of arrest warrants for Putin.
- Crimea remains in Russian territory.
Each party should gain from the negotiations. We must demonstrate what can be accomplished and what can be avoided. Zelensky and Putin can both walk away with wins. Rest assured, the leaders in this conflict will all walk away lonely and perhaps despised in history if they cannot agree on a path forward. Scolding, threatening, shaming, and reiterating your final position without understanding the perspective from the opposite point of view will not stop this war.
The world’s leaders failed when they allowed this conflict to escalate out of control. We still have the opportunity to act before this crisis becomes wildly out of control and spreads further under the threat of nuclear war. Stay on the same path and we will only be fools in history and a great failure to the next generation over the pain and wasted treasure that could have been allocated to solutions on poverty, famine, and those truly in need in the most unfortunate circumstances such as the Moroccan earthquake and the victims clinging to life following the Libyan flood.
We can choose to continue to weaponize our scathing words, inundate the theatre of war with mass destruction, and witness young men and boys soaking the soil in their blood on our perches from afar or step forward to see things through the other side’s lenses and understand what each side wants. It would not seem sensible that people are afraid to say something sensible before the whole of humanity collapses.
How is Iran’s growing paranoia affect its relations with Azerbaijan?
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the former Soviet republics tried to search for their place in the new global structure. It was necessary to discover new neighbours who had been separated for many decades by the “Iron Curtain.” Hence, since regaining independence, Azerbaijan’s relations with nearly all regional states have undergone a tumultuous period. Although the diplomatic relations of Azerbaijan with other regional actors gradually stabilized, the dialogue with Shi’a Iran remained uneasy.
For Azerbaijan, the Islamic Republic of Iran is not just an ordinary country. First, Iran is one of the biggest neighbours in the south, with about 618 kilometres of land borders. Tehran’s long-standing destructive hybrid warfare strategy toward its immediate neighbourhood and beyond for many years has had a negative impact on relations with Baku and irritated the latter.
Nevertheless, Baku and Tehran established a pragmatic partnership entailing various regional infrastructure projects, particularly transit links. However, 2020-2023 marked the most heightened tensions in Iran-Azerbaijan relations, with deadly consequences for both sides.
Azerbaijan’s Threat balancing
Azerbaijani-Iranian relations have been strained since Azerbaijan’s victory in the 2020 war with Armenia, with both sides accusing each other of engaging in terrorism and espionage. The deteriorating relations between Iran and Azerbaijan garner significant attention, raising concerns about the potential impact on the South Caucasus region. The possible consequences of escalating tensions include economic disruptions and border clashes with the involvement of regional and non-regional actors like Turkey, Russia, Israel and possibly the West.
From the Iranian point of view, several important catalysts led to the deterioration of relations with Azerbaijan, such as the claims of Baku harbouring Israeli intelligence on its soil and the strengthening of the Baku-Ankara axis at its doorstep. As such, in an attempt by Tehran to flex its muscles and intimidate Azerbaijan, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps conducted large-scale military drills on the border with Azerbaijan in October 2022. Unlike previous years, the exercises provoked an uneasy reaction within Azerbaijan and triggered anti-Iranian sentiments throughout the country. During the military drills in October, codenamed Mighty Iran, Iranian forces practised setting up pontoon bridges and crossing the Aras River, part of which forms a section of the border between the two countries. It marked the first time that Iranian forces had conducted such exercises. Moreover, the tensions reached a critical level when the Azerbaijani embassy in Tehran came under attack by an armed man, leaving one dead and others injured. As a result, Azerbaijan put diplomatic relations on halt and shut down its embassy, and shortly after, expelled several Iranian diplomats from the country, citing their “undiplomatic activities” in the country.
Although Iran’s MFA denied that it bore responsibility for these incidents, Azerbaijan demonstrated that it would no longer buy Iran’s excuses and took action both rhetorically through official statements and with arrests. While Iran deemed the attack merely an individual acting on a personal vendetta, Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev rejected Iran’s explanation and called it a “terrorist attack.” With denials of involvement in all of these provocations from the Iranian government being flimsy at best, Azerbaijan has demonstrated that it will no longer give Iran the benefit of the doubt, and with this, has ushered in a new chapter of open tension between the two countries.
Notably, Iran’s main criticism of Azerbaijan can be attributed to its concerns regarding the potential border shifts in the South Caucasus, thus diminishing Iran’s already weakened soft power influence. In addition, Iranian aggression toward Azerbaijan is undoubtedly a symptom of a reshuffling of alliances in the region and a shifting of global dynamics, resulting in new partnership blocs.
Despite Tehran’s claims that it maintains the leading regional power, its influence over Azerbaijan and the region gradually declined even before the 2020 events. Moreover, Iran appeared to be comfortable with the long-term status quo on Azerbaijani borders and uncontrolled territories in Karabakh for three decades, as it actively used the war-torn region as a major corridor for drug trafficking, oil smuggling and other sanctions-busting activities that helped alleviate economic pressure on the Islamic Republic. It was also apparently used to send Russian weapons to Armenia via Iran.
Tehran is cautious that in the post-war period, the Azerbaijan-Turkey-Israel trio will do everything to fence off Iran from the region, thus establishing new red lines. As Baku and Ankara fill the void in the South Caucasus that Russia is leaving behind, Iran is left with Armenia as its key regional partner. For instance, in October 2022, Israel’s then-defence minister, Benny Gantz, visited Azerbaijan, and the two countries signed several military and security agreements, which angered Iran and caused a flood of criticism toward Baku in the Iranian state-run media.
The situation further ignited when Israel’s foreign minister, Eli Cohen, ahead of a trip to Turkmenistan, visited Azerbaijan in April 2023 to open Israel’s first embassy in the country, located just 20 km from the Iranian border. Cohen’s remarks regarding the “close partnership between Tel Aviv and Baku against Iran” inevitably triggered harsh rhetoric in Tehran. However, this time, official Baku largely ignored all threats from Iran. Baku’s attempt to reinvigorate regional alliances with the Turkic world in Central Asia and establish new transit routes bypassing Iran reinforced the latter’s preexistence fears about the potential irredentist minority groups. While Iran has many minorities, of greatest importance to regime stability are Azeris, Turkmens and Kurds. The ethnic Kurds are in a latent rebellion against the regime, while the Azeris and Turkmens have remained relatively pacified.
On the other hand, the potential shifting borders in the South Caucasus would come with a cost for Iran, as it may lose its leverage over Azerbaijan as the only land route linking it with Turkey. In the post-war period, Azerbaijan proposed establishing a land corridor with Nakhchivan via Armenia’s Syunik province, thus circumventing Iran. Undoubtedly, such perspectives angered isolated and politically unstable Iran.
Consequently, Iran gained very little from the deliberate escalation of diplomatic relations with Azerbaijan, as the latter is an important trade partner of Tehran and a key country in terms of connectivity and infrastructure projects, particularly within the North-South Transit Route.
Iran – Azerbaijan partnership: Trade amid war of words
The diplomatic standoff between Tehran and Baku came in light of the unprecedented violent riots against the Islamic regime after the security forces tortured and killed Mahsa Amini, an Iranian Kurd. The violent uprising reached nearly all Iranian provinces and still has not fully died down. Iran’s population comprises many ethnic minorities, and these protests have demonstrated the discontentment of many of these communities.
The political and economic instability ignited dramatically when conservative president Ebrahim Raisi assumed office in 2020. The absence of a pragmatic visionary and long-term strategy of Raisi’s hardliner government led to the deterioration of political relations with the immediate neighbourhood, including Azerbaijan. However, despite diplomatic escalation with the neighbourhood, Iran increased trade volumes with several countries in the region, highlighting the long-established IR system control that economic and political ties are developing separately. Thus, despite existing turmoil with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, in the 2022-2023 fiscal year, Iran traded 58.25 million tons of goods worth $35.11 billion with the Persian Gulf’s six littoral states, namely Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, the UAE, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, registering a 10.05% rise in value compared with the previous year’s corresponding period.
As in the case of Azerbaijan, Baku has long been standing as Tehran’s leading trade partner amid its struggle with harsh inflation and mounting unemployment rates. According to the Azerbaijani media, the trade turnover between Azerbaijan and Iran in January-May 2023 amounted to $212,612,000, up 7.6 per cent from the same period in 2022. During the reported period, the exports from Azerbaijan to Iran made up $7,558,000, and from Iran to Azerbaijan – $205,053,000, respectively.
Consequently, trade is not the only determinant factor in Azerbaijan-Iran relations, as both countries were intensively engaged in several regional infrastructure projects, particularly railway links and new highways at the border areas. In this vein, Azerbaijan played a crucial role in linking Iran to Russia within the INSTC framework. In May 2023, Russia and Iran agreed to complete a railroad that would link Russia with ports on the Persian Gulf, providing a transportation lifeline – via Azerbaijan as a critical link – for the two sanctions-hit countries. Due to insufficient funds, Russia is set to be the project’s main sponsor. However, in the wake of diplomatic tensions, the response from Azerbaijan has been quiet. The local governmental bodies preferred not to comment much on this deal, thus signalling that the INSTC-related projects are not a priority for Baku anymore, which instead touting its growing role on another key transit route – the Middle Corridor, shipping goods between Europe and Asia while bypassing Russia and Iran.
Indeed, the Republic of Azerbaijan is a vital part of the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC), Iran’s main route for transit and trade with the densely populated western regions of Russia, Georgia, and Belarus. The Astara border crossing is the main transit route between Iran, the Republic of Azerbaijan, and Russia; on average, a truck crosses the border at Astara every seven minutes. The Azerbaijan-Iran transit route has become even more important recently as a result of the Ukraine war, the extensive Western sanctions against Russia, and the preferential trade agreement between Iran and the Eurasian Economic Union that is being upgraded to a free trade agreement.
As this paper discussed, trade and communication occupied a central place in Iran – Azerbaijan partnership in recent years. Therefore, even at the beginning of diplomatic escalation in 2022, Baku and Tehran signed another important agreement that envisioned establishing a new transport and electricity supply link connecting mainland Azerbaijan to its exclave of Nakhchivan via Iran. According to the memorandum, the two countries planned to establish a new railway, highway, communication, and energy supply lines connecting Azerbaijan’s East Zangazur economic region and the Nakhchivan region through the territory of Iran. In addition, four bridges will be built over the Araz River, including two motorways and two railway lines on them.
Despite the significance of the agreement’s scope, the further deterioration of relations halted this agreement. Consequently, Tehran’s staunch anti-Azerbaijani rhetoric that became more vocal since 2021 caused costly delays and setbacks in terms of economic partnership and regional connectivity, while Baku established new interregional partnership formats to diversify its portfolio.
Hence, Iran decided to take a step back and return to the diplomacy track as a part of the broader strategy of reconciliation with the immediate neighbourhood. Thus, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian arrived in Baku on July 5, 2023, to attend the high-level meeting of the Non-Align Movement (NAM), where he managed to hold a vis-à-vis meeting with President Ilham Aliyev at the sidelines of the event. While the meeting was concluded with positive remarks, it became a good start for Baku and Tehran to rekindle the bilateral relations after months of confrontation.
Shortly after Abdollahian visited Baku, the Deputy of the Prime Minister of Azerbaijan, Shahin Mustafayev and Minister of Roads and Urban Development of Iran, Mehrdad Bazrpash, reached a new agreement to complete the construction of a road bridge across the Astarachay River and put into operation within the next four months. The foundation of a new bridge across the Astarachay River was laid on the border of Azerbaijan and Iran on January 25, 2022.
Moreover, on September 14, 2023, Prosecutor general of Iran paid an official visit to Baku and his Azerbaijani counterpart Kamran Aliyev to discuss the investigation into the armed attack on the Azerbaijani embassy in Tehran. The visit of a high ranking Iranian governmental official was also a positive signal in terms diplomatic thaw.
In this spite, the aide of President of Azerbaijan Hikmat Hajiyev acknowledged that Baku is receiving positive signals from Tehran, thus confirming the news of the ongoing diplomatic normalization.
Domestic turmoil in Iran, mounting international pressure and isolation, and the shifting geopolitical landscape in the South Caucasus have added further complexity to the tense relationship between Azerbaijan and Iran in the last three years. Although minor de-escalation recently occurred in Baku-Tehran relations, a smooth intraregional partnership based on mutual trust is yet to be achieved. As such, factors like economic and trade partnerships could be game-changer factors for re-establishing regional dialogue and restoring the pragmatic partnership.
However, if not successful, Iran’s bellicose rhetoric against Azerbaijan could force the latter to take additional strict measures in order to protect its borders and regional stability, which in turn could prompt a military response from Iran with the aim of securing its borderline with Armenia, as this is the only crucial leverage of Tehran over Baku.
Azerbaijan Takes Advantage of Armenia’s Strategic Isolation to Resume Hostilities in Nagorno-Karabakh
It was only a matter of time before hostilities would resume in Nagorno-Karabakh, a region contested by Azerbaijan and ethnic Armenians. A war was last fought just three years ago between Azerbaijan, Armenia, and the breakaway Armenian state of Artsakh resulting in an Azeri victory and a Russian-brokered ceasefire. However, due to Yerevan’s strategic isolation, it seemed inevitable that Baku would reinitiate military operations to take advantage of Armenia’s relative weakness.
Despite the implementation of a ceasefire in November 2020, Azerbaijan used ‘hybrid’ tactics to weaken the self-declared Republic of Artsakh. Most significantly, the Azeris blockaded Artsakh in December 2022, cutting it off from the outside world, making it difficult for residents to obtain electricity, fuel, and water reserves. By restricting access to the Lachin corridor, Azerbaijan was able to cut off Artsakh from Armenia and create better leverage to exact concessions. The routes were only reopened this month.
However, on 19 September, the Azeri Presidential Administration declared that it would carry out an ‘anti-terror’ operation in the region. Baku demanded that ‘the illegal Armenian military formations must raise the white flag, all the weapons must be handed over, and the illegal regime must be dissolved.’ The Azeri government statement coincided with reports from local Armenian media sources and state news that there had been artillery, missile, and drone strikes conducted by Azerbaijan. Five people have reportedly been killed and about 80 injured.
So, why is this happening now? In short, Armenia is isolated and weak without realistic prospects for substantial foreign assistance. Thus, Azerbaijan has made the realpolitik calculation that it should press its current advantage and assert its control over Nagorno-Karabakh sooner rather than later.
Armenia’s ally, Russia, does have a military presence in the region. In fact, about 2,000 Russian peacekeepers are deployed along the contact line in Nagorno-Karabakh and along the Lachin corridor. Historically, Armenia has viewed Russia as its security guarantor, but the Russian response to the most recent bouts of fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan has been tepid as far as Yerevan is concerned. Other members of the CSTO – the Russian-led alliance to which Armenia is a member – were even less resolved to assist Armenia during the previous Nagoro-Karabakh War in 2020.
With Russia currently embroiled in the war in Ukraine, it is highly unlikely that Moscow will divert resources to assist Yerevan, nor does it seem likely that the Kremlin would perceive much strategic value in doing so anyway. In recent years, Russia has maintained a complicated relationship with Azerbaijan and its staunch ally, Turkey. Russia does not stand to gain much strategically by assisting Armenia at this time and it can ill afford to further antagonise Turkey, which despite being a NATO member, has been fairly ambivalent towards the war in Ukraine.
Policymakers in Yerevan are aware that Russia is not a dependable ally and have made diplomatic overtures towards other potential security guarantors. Some political figures in Washington are sympathetic to Yerevan and Armenia does possess an outspoken and visible diaspora in the United States that it can leverage for soft power gains. Last year, former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi overtly blamed Azerbaijan for hostilities in Nagorno-Karabakh and in 2023 Armenian and American troops conducted joint military drills.
Closer ties with the Untied States may have buoyed hopes in Yerevan that the Americans might provide some form of assistance in the event of renewed hostilities. However, the United States has relatively limited strategic interests in the region. Military assistance is virtually out of the question but even the imposition of sanctions or diplomatic condemnations of Azerbaijan are unlikely.
There is an argument to be made that the United States could undermine Russian influence in the region by creating closer ties with Armenia, thus releasing Yerevan from dependency on Moscow. However, similar arguments have been made for enhancing American influence in the region vis a vis Azerbaijan. Moreover, Azerbaijan enjoys the advantages of being a major energy provider, with oil and natural gas reserves. It is unlikely that Washington will do anything much to damage relations with Baku at this time, given that the latter has the potential to become a major Eurasian energy hub.
The same can be said for the European Union, whose members are currently facing an energy crisis caused by the war in Ukraine and the decision to eschew Russian oil and gas. Brussels has already demonstrated its appetite for Azeri energy and will not act in a way to jeopardize its access.
To make matters worse for Armenia, Azerbaijan enjoys a quantitative military advantage, with greater manpower and resources at its disposal. Whilst its true that the Azeri and Armenian militaries are roughly peer competitors, with Armenia having won the First Nagoro-Karabakh War between 1988 and 1994; Azerbaijan demonstrated greater prowess in the most recent conflict. Moreover, Azerbaijan will likely again have the support of its close ally Turkey, in the form of weapon systems and equipment from its significant defence sector.
Ultimately, it remains to be seen how another conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh will play out. Armenia is not so outmatched at the tactical and operational levels that the result of another war is a foregone conclusion. Although a great deal of fuss was made over the Azeri military’s usage of drones in the previous round of fighting, they were not so decisive that the war was a cakewalk for Azerbaijan.
As explained by Eado Hecht of the Israel Defence Forces Tactical Command College, ‘The war was won by Azeri perseverance in the face of heavy casualties and many small defeats while gradually wearing-down Armenian forces no-less determined than the Azeris.’ What is potentially shaping up to be the Third Nagoro-Karabakh War may play out similarly – or it may not.
At the strategic level, however, Yerevan is playing with a bad hand. Armenia has few friends to call on for significant aid and will likely be forced to face this conflict largely alone.
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