The goals of Russian policy in the Caucasus
Russia’s New Caucasus Initiatives
Few analysts have followed Putin’s new Caucasus initiatives. Given events in Syria, Ukraine, and East Asia, that neglect may be understandable, but it is a mistaken and harmful neglect because it causes us to overlook the overall strategic dimensions of Russian policy here. Moscow’s gambits in the Caucasus are inextricably bound up with its larger strategy and priorities of establishing an incontestable exclusive sphere of influence in the former Soviet Union and on that basis projecting its power and authority or status outward. Its strategy is also connected with suppressing any internal rumblings of disaffection in its client state Armenia.
In pursuing these three objectives: internal stability, regional hegemony, and on those bases, outward power projection, Putin and his government are employing every tool at their disposal, and also trying to avert three negative or antipathetic possibilities that have reared their heads this year. Putin, for the first time, has apparently offered genuine peace proposals to reduce tensions in the Nagorno-Karabakh “frozen conflict” between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Although Russia normally would be the only beneficiary of renewed fighting between them because it could then intervene with force to quell that new round of fighting and extend its military domination of the Caucasus even to Azerbaijan, at present that would not be the case given the multiplicity of crises Moscow must deal with and its constrained means for doing so. Moreover, in that context, renewed fighting might actually bring Western diplomacy back into the Caucasus in ways that are either uncomfortable for Russia or with which Moscow could not adequately contend. Therefore, Putin is trying to tamp down the conflict in order to be able to exercise leverage on both Baku and Yerevan.
At the same time, Moscow is mindful of growing unrest and anti-Russian sentiment in Armenia manifested in repeated demonstrations there against price hikes in electricity and the sentencing by a Russian judge of a Russian soldier who murdered an Armenian family while on duty there. In order to preserve its position in Armenia and maintain the strategic equilibrium there so that Baku does not again assume it can mount a limited operation to make gains at Armenian expense that could lead to a wider and uncontrollable war in Nagorno-Karabakh Putin not only issued proposed peace terms, but also resumed selling Armenia high-class Russian weapons under favorable conditions to preserve the local balance.
Putin’s balancing act in the Caucasus aims to moderate the potential for violence in Nagorno-Karabakh by making proposals that would return the parties to negotiations on the earlier Madrid Principles they had both accepted that included returning all 7 of the conquered territories to Azerbaijan because after that agreement Armenia had walked it back and stated it would only return five of those seven territories. Putin’s proposal calls for Armenia to return the two disputed territories in return for the opening of normal transit and economic links to Armenia while the parties continue to negotiate on the basis of the Madrid principles.
Acceptance of Putin’s proposals would moderate tensions and relieve much of the economic pressure on Armenia that underlies its domestic discontent. But beyond that gambit, to reduce both regional tensions and domestic unrest in Armenia, Putin also added another economic arrow to his quiver. In tripartite talks with Iran and Azerbaijan he proposed a trans-continental railroad from Russia to Iran through Azerbaijan, a proposal going back at least to 2014 if not earlier. This proposal fits with the larger tendencies at work in international trade to create trans-continental transit and trade links, e.g. China’s silk road or earlier Russian plans for a link from the Trans-Siberian to a projected trans-Korean railway, etc. This railroad project, for now offers Russia several advantages. First it shows that Moscow can still think big and assume the role of the integrator of diverse Eurasian territories. Second, it offers Russia the opportunity to gain another source of leverage – in this case economic –upon Azerbaijan since Moscow has never forsaken the goal of tying Azerbaijan to the Eurasian Economic Union and this railroad would be one avenue of doing so. Third, it not only takes advantage of improved ties between Azerbaijan and Iran, it casts Russia as the sponsor of Iran’s renewed presence in the Caucasus and strengthens the partnership if not alliance that Moscow is trying to build with Iran in regard to the Middle East. This would also enlist Iran as Russia’s Transcaucasian partner and thus mitigate Iran’s independent ties to Armenia and avert any Armenian effort to gain more freedom of action by using Iran against Russia.
Furthermore this railroad project conflicts with the idea of a railroad through Georgia to Armenia that was aimed against Azerbaijan so it fosters a softening of earlier antagonisms with Baku while pointing out to Yerevan that it has no patron other than Russia and if it causes too much trouble Russia will have the option of simply isolating it in the Caucasus. But Putin’s initiatives do not end here for at the same time he has intensified the construction of an air defense network subordinating all of Armenia’s air defense to the Russian air defense network operating out of the Russian air base in Gyumri, Armenia to create what Western specialists call an anti-access area denial (A2AD) bubble over the Caucasus from which Moscow can continue, as it intends to do to fire missiles at its enemies in Syria while excluding any Western capability to intervene in the Caucasus. That would not only strengthen its capabilities in Syria and the Middle East but also place the Caucasus wholly under its air defense umbrella. Russian efforts to obtain a base in Iran and to continue to fire upon Syria from the Caspian and to establish a broader air defense bubble from the Caucasus in the North and its naval and air bases in Syria from the south and west indicate the broader effort to tie the Caucasus and the Middle East together as a strategic air defense theater if not a larger theater of strategic military operations (the old Soviet concept Teatr’ Voyennykh Deistvii-Theater of military operations).
In addition, had Moscow been able to retain an air base in Iran it would have no doubt then extended this A2AD bubble to that base from which it could attack Western naval presence in the Persian Gulf and also strike at targets across the Middle East. These moves underscore how hegemony over the Caucasus is tied to both the coercive stabilization of domestic authoritarianism subordinate to Moscow there and to the exigencies of power projection abroad. These moves also show that Moscow’s orientation remains fundamentally strategic and imperial and that even its “win-win” economic proposals accrue disproportionate benefits to it at its partners’ expense and are also primarily geostrategic in their implications rather than mutually economically beneficial. They also underscore Russia’s continuing efforts to retain the strategic initiative in key regions by audacious proposals utilizing all the instruments of power at its disposal and its continuing addiction to hegemonic schemes in the Caucasus.
Russia may have a suffered a setback when domestic Iranian opposition forced it out of the Iranian base. But as long as Western neglect of the Caucasus continues, particularly Western disinclination to try and mediate the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the road to Russian hegemony in the Caucasus will be open to Russia even if poses as a sponsor of peace, as in Putin’s proposals for the war in Nagorno-Karabakh.
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