From Tajikistan to Turkey, major powers and key energy states are struggling to find their way forward in the emerging geopolitical dynamic imposed by Russia.

Until very recently, Turkey and Azerbaijan were both locked in long-standing and hostile struggles with Armenia, which makes it hard to believe reports about quickly improving relations and energy cooperation. However, the Russian intervention in Georgia could be changing relations among the three countries — or at least forcing them to re-examine their regional goals. 

The history of this is that, in June, Armenian President Serge Sarkisian accepted Ankara’s request to establish a joint committee of historians to assess ways to resolve extant bilateral disagreements. In July, back-channel bilateral negotiations were held in Geneva, and then Turkish President Abdullah Gul visited the border town of Ani, the old Armenian capital, to launch renovation work of the tourist site under the aegis of UNESCO. Gul’s Sept. 5 visit to Armenia was the culmination of months of extensive behind-the-scenes preparations, which entailed careful moves by Ankara meant to get Yerevan to agree to talk. 

Options for bringing Armenia into a more productive relationship are also limited. Turkey has been in a bit of a geopolitical coma since the Ottoman period and simply is out of practice in terms of threatening or invading neighbors, so outright conquering Armenia is out of the question. Turkey’s internal turmoil — between the Islamic-lite ruling party and the military-backed secularists — also precludes anything (such as a military campaign) that would require unflinching national unity. Ergo Gul’s attending a soccer match to at least attempt the difficult task of normalizing relations.
 

And Armenia and Azerbaijan contest control of Azerbaijan’s Nagorno-Karabakh enclave — but it is not only Turkey that is eyeing better relations. Armenia used to boast one of the strongest foreign lobbies in the United States, a feature that sent vast amounts of American aid Armenia’s way. But this policy twist was only possible as long as Washington thought Armenia was a backwater state. As Azerbaijani oil output increased and Russian power resurged, Washington took a greater and greater interest in Caucasus policy. Realizing Russia had a firm hold politically, socially, economically and militarily in Armenia, Armenia’s influence with the United States withered. 

So while Armenia is legitimately thrilled that its security guarantor — Russia — is becoming more active, Yerevan also knows that Russian protection is dependent on the Kremlin’s attention span. If Armenia is to survive in the pressure cooker that is the Caucasus, it will have to find a way to better manage its neighborhood. The best way to do that, as Armenia knows from experience, is to get on Washington’s good side. That is rather hard for a Russian client state to do. However there was a report yesterday, that Turkey, Armenia vow to end traditional enmity after Gul's visit.

Azerbaijan is very keen on knowing Armenia’s intentions before Baku heads into its Oct. 15 presidential elections. The Turkish side is optimistic that the Armenian-Azeri dispute over the Nagorno-Karabakh region can be settled provided Yerevan has enough incentives.

Pro-Armenian forces seized the ethnic Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh in a war in the 1990s. The two sides have remained in a tense deadlock over the territory ever since, but the conflict has been relatively dormant since a 1994 cease-fire. Technically, Nagorno-Karabakh is still part of Azerbaijan, even though Armenia controls it. International pressure, lack of support from every nation but Russia and Iran, and fear of Azeri retaliation have kept Armenia from annexing the territory. Azerbaijan has been held back from retaking the land due to pressure from the West and the Azeri military’s relative weakness. 

But the situation slowly has been changing as Azerbaijan has grown stronger and richer following the 2006 completion of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline, which Western companies developed to feed oil to Europe. The BTC led to a more pro-Western Azerbaijan, and the tremendous new wealth it generated has helped the country increase its defense spending from $175 million in 2004 to more than $1 billion at the start of 2008. 

The Azeris constantly speak about wanting to take Nagorno-Karabakh back by force, and now actually are closing in on the ability to do so. And there is another force pushing for a conflict: Russia. 

Following the 2004 eviction from its military bases in nearby Georgia after the Rose Revolution, Russia has been slowly withdrawing its vast military equipment from Azerbaijan’s and Armenia’s fellow country in the Caucasus. Officially, Russia said the last of its equipment was removed from Georgia in the summer of 2007 and much of the hardware was shipped back to Russia. But quite a bit of it was relocated to Russia’s large base in Gyumri, Armenia. Uncertainty remains about the relocation of 40 armored vehicles and 20 tanks; Russia says they are back home, but Azerbaijan suspects they are in Armenia. 

Armenia has accused Moscow of helping fuel Azerbaijan’s military buildup. It alleges that quite a bit of the military equipment from Georgia found its way to Azerbaijan.

Russia has myriad reasons to fuel another conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. First, the Kremlin is still smarting after the West recognized Kosovar independence from Serbia despite Russia’s and Serbia’s vigorous objections. In the run-up to Kosovar secession, Russia insisted that the breakaway province’s independence would cause flare-ups in other separatist regions. A renewed scuffle over Nagorno-Karabakh would represent a major told-you-so for Moscow. 

Second, Russia is very interested in destabilizing Azerbaijan and in having the West become displeased with Azerbaijan. The United States and Europe have warned Azerbaijan not to restart conflict with Armenia — especially the United States, which has a very large Armenian diaspora with a great deal of clout in Washington. During an election year, U.S. politicians cannot afford to offend constituencies, so they are liable not to ignore pressure from Armenian-Americans. The West worries that renewed conflict could destabilize their investments in Azeri energy infrastructure. 

Third and last, Russia would just relish the opportunity that renewed conflict would create for it to sweep in as the great mediator. Moscow repeatedly has said it wants to send troops, perhaps as part of a peacekeeping force, into Nagorno-Karabakh. More fighting would give it the perfect opportunity to do so. 

Ultimately, having the southern Caucasus in flames greatly increases Russia’s leverage with every player previously mentioned. However, Moscow does have one concern: what if Azerbaijan actually wins the fight against Armenia? A victory by Baku would be a palpable blow against Russian power, allowing Azerbaijan to continue on its Westward push without fear of Moscow. 

In order to improve relations, Ankara is willing to offer Armenian's Yerevan, full and immediate normalization of ties and could partially open up its border to trade as a sort of down payment. The Turks are also working out an arrangement for the United States and Europe to extend financial aid to Armenia in an effort to ensure that Yerevan breaks out of Russia’s orbit. Finally and most important, Turkey is willing to engage in energy projects in Armenia, especially if Russia decides to cut nuclear fuel to Armenian power plants to prevent it from aligning with the West.

A resurgent Russia in virtual control of Georgia has complicated matters for Turkey, which does not border Azerbaijan proper. If Turkey is to consolidate itself as an energy transit state and extend its influence among Central Asia’s Turkic states, it needs to have access to Azerbaijan. Ankara can increase its access to Azerbaijan through Armenian energy lines that bypass Russia. Another option for bypassing Russia is through Iran, but this would involve an indirect route fraught with geopolitical complications. Ergo, Ankara’s friendly outreach to Armenia.

Armenia has always been a free player in the region given that it has no ethnic, linguistic or religious affinity with any of the countries in the Caucasus. Yerevan has oscillated between Washington and Moscow, which means it is not completely opposed to the idea of cooperation with Ankara and Baku. Armenia is also a poor and landlocked country — a fact that can serve as a powerful motivator for burying the past and embracing a prosperous future. Partnering with the Turks and becoming a transit state for Caspian oil from Azerbaijan to pass through to Turkey and onto Europe is a great means by which the Armenians can develop a sound economy. Furthermore — though it is difficult for any Armenian leader to admit at this time — the Armenians have worked with the Turks before, when Armenia was an Ottoman province.

As far as Azerbaijan is concerned, until the Russian intervention in Georgia, Baku was slowly working toward defeating the Armenians and taking back Nagorno-Karabakh. To this end, it was relying on its oil exports, with which it had hoped to enhance its military capabilities for a final conflict with Armenia. The Kremlin’s moves into the Caucasus essentially threw a monkey wrench into Baku’s plans. Without the ability to export oil in an unencumbered manner, Azerbajian knows that it is just another country that does not border any of its allies — and a very poor and badly managed country at that.

In other words, each of the three players in this dynamic has a dire need to work with the others to find a better way of meeting its needs. That said, deep animosities are not easily forgotten. Yerevan claims that more than 1 million of its people were killed by Turkish forces when Armenia was trying to secede — with Russian help — from an imploding Ottoman Empire during World War I. Given that the Armenian leadership hails from the region of Nagorno-Karabakh, a compromise on this thorny issue will be very problematic.

Such bad blood renders any process toward normalization extremely difficult. But while they are largely avoiding the political dimensions of this process, it does appear that the three states have begun examining the operational aspects of a potential relationship, driven by their respective interests.  

 

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