Solving current conflicts is important, but stopping future ones is paramount to global security. While U.S. foreign policy has been preoccupied with conflicts in Syria, Ukraine, and disputes in the South China Sea, the changing geopolitical environment in the South Caucasus calls for more robust U.S. policy to promote security in the energy-rich region. On March 31 and April 1, 2016, President Obama will host the Fourth Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, D.C. in which leaders from Caucasus nations will be in attendance, including Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. Although preventing the spread of nuclear weapons will be the focus of the agenda, the opportunity to push for stability in the South Caucasus should not be missed. Prompting a peace deal regarding the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh territory would both downplay the divide between NATO and Russia and lead to greater security in the Caucasus. The U.S. must act now and do so diplomatically.
How the conflict could flare up
Nagorno-Karabakh is a landlocked, mountainous region of Azerbaijan that is claimed, supported, and populated by ethnic Armenians. The regional conflict has long been an issue of contention between Armenians and Azerbaijanis that accelerated after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and ended in a shaky ceasefire in 1994.
Currently, with increased weapons sales from Russia to Armenia and an unwillingness on Russia’s behalf to support a political solution, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict could explode into a regional South Caucasian conflict, destabilizing energy prices and threatening regional U.S. allies, Georgia and Turkey. With the rise in Russia’s overseas military involvements indicated by its annexation of Crimea and military engagements in eastern Ukraine and Syria, Washington should use its political leverage to alter Moscow’s increasingly militaristic behavior. While Russia is a part of the Minsk Group, a segment of the OSCE tasked with procuring a solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Russia has been more concerned about growing its global influence than about peace in the Caucasus. It has pursued deals to maximize its energy dominance in the region, recently made huge weapons sales to Armenia, and is increasing military activity at its bases on the Armenian-Turkish border. By doing this, Russia has increasingly marginalized energy-rich Azerbaijan, and is fueling its divisions with Turkey, who recently downed a Russian jet near the Syrian-Turkish border.
Global Energy Prices
The South Caucasus is geopolitically important in terms of energy. For decades, the U.S. and European Union have tried to promote the development of oil and gas resources in Azerbaijan and Central Asia as new European energy providers and break Russia’s energy monopoly in the region. Currently, Azerbaijan supplies 90 percent of Georgia’s gas demands. It is also speeding up a project to provide gas to Turkey, Greece, Italy, and other E.U countries via the TANAP (Trans-Anatolian Pipeline Project). Any conflict in the region between Armenia and Azerbaijan could destabilize prices by halting supplies to our allies in the region, thus driving up global prices and increasing Russia’s regional energy advantage. In addition, this would open the region to increased Iranian influence, which could also prove destabilizing until Iran show’s seriousness about carrying out its end of the nuclear deal.
With Iran coming off of U.S. sanctions, it is looking to increase its market share in the Caucasus, particularly to Georgia. Iran wants regional security, since renewed conflict over Karabakh would take place very close to home. However, in the past Iran has supported Azerbaijan against Armenia in the conflict. While this previous support was based on cultural ties, dynamics are changing. Iran trained Azeri troops and cared for the wounded in their medical centers and supported Azerbaijan by contributing troops to the conflict. However, it is now competing with Azerbaijan in a regional energy competition, and relations may seem cool between the two. Recently, Iran has tried to play both countries against each other like Russia, warming to Armenia as it engaged in energy disputes with Azerbaijan. Armenia and Iran have increased their energy cooperation in recent years, which could lead to Iranian support for Armenia should a future conflict take place.
Harmonization of Efforts
Although the conflict in Syria has killed hundreds of thousands of Syrians, so far a cease-fire brokered between the U.S. and Russia has held up. This cease-fire and hopeful peace deal could be a template for a solution in the Caucasus where unlikely parties such as the U.S., Iran, and Russia hash out the terms of the deal. The U.S. should not increase military activity in Georgia or saber-rattling rhetoric against Iran and Russia, but it should be forceful in its diplomatic efforts to convey the importance of a solution. It is crucial that President Obama set the stage for this future deal by hosting a meeting with the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan to ensure both leaders that the U.S. is committed to finding a solution, despite being involved with more pressing issues in the greater Middle East. Even after the nuclear summit, this meeting should be followed up with more diplomatic visits to the Caucasus to show the U.S.’ willingness and seriousness to make the Caucasus a priority.
Vital to this diplomatic effort would be a new task force formed to replace the Minsk Group, which has not produced any effective results for years. This task force should include the U.S.; major stakeholders such as Russia, Iran, Turkey; and the disputing countries, Armenia and Azerbaijan. It should include representation not only from prominent diplomats of all countries, but also from leading energy and security analysts and key businesses stakeholders who are either already active in the region or hope to once the conflict settles. Failure on the part of the U.S. to act now could be interpreted as a lack of seriousness, and the conflict could erupt into a major war which would undoubtedly draw in an unprepared and increasingly restrained U.S.
Photo attributed to: Սէրուժ Ուրիշեան (Serouj Ourishian)
Pharohl Charles is an intern at Open Society Foundations’ Eurasia Program. He received his B.A. in International Studies, double minoring in Political Science and Russian from California State University, Long Beach and is currently pursuing an M.S. in Global Affairs at New York University concentrating on energy and security policy. His interest area lies in energy and security issues in Russia, Central Asia, and the Caucasus and he has taken two recent trips to the region.