Brussels, Vienna (27/9 – 37)
An ancient Chinese curse contains a curious “blessing”: “May you come to the attention of wealthy and powerful people”. While that might seem to be a lucky turn of events, it could easily end in disaster, as the elite can be cruel and ruthless if it serves their ends.
The same thing could be said for nations. “Coming to the attention…” of a superpower can be devastating. Ask Ukraine. Ask Venezuela. Ask Vietnam. Better to be ignored, left alone, allowed to go your own way in peace.
Alas, in a world of heightening superpower competition and scramble for scarce resources this is next to impossible. If you are little Uruguay or big Bulgaria, you may thankfully be ignored. But if you happen to have rare metal ore, diamonds, gold or attractive hydrocarbon resources, then you are out of luck.
People everywhere are sick and tired of hearing about the Armenia-Azerbaijan low-level war. But it simply will not go away, particularly since the latter country reportedly has tasty oil reserves for the thirsty western multinationals to exploit.
Armenians are mostly Christians, while Azerbaijan is a primarily-Muslim republic. This means that while Russia (also a Christian nation, though Orthodox) would naturally tend to side with Armenia, the Azeris woo the Islamic bloc of the Middle East – primarily Türkiye, a prominent player in today’s “Great Game” of regional rivalries.
Recent military setbacks in the long conflict favor Azerbaijan: no one any long longer disputes that the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region is part of Azerbaijan, even though it is populated primarily by Armenians. This complex situation, with external players supporting a brutal conflict with no end in sight, is over – for the moment anyway. Ethnic cleansing may be next.
Any settlement over Nagorno-Karabakh that leads to peace and reconciliation could open the way for Armenia’s (and potentially Azerbaijan’s) entry into the EU and NATO, and here we go again. While Armenian lobbies in European capitals and Washington wield considerable political influence, oil-rich Azerbaijan has its own appeal for the Europeans.
Naturally, Russia will resist the “mission creep” of EU and NATO expansion into Transcaucasia, a highly strategic geographical region on the border of Eastern Europe and West Asia, straddling the southern Caucasus Mountains and bridging the Black Sea and the Caspian. While Armenia has concluded a military alliance with Russia, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan is flirting with the West, and the EU in particular, as a source of future wealth and development for his embattled land.
The EU signed a gas supply deal with Baku last year, and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen praised Azerbaijan as a “crucial partner” in mitigating Europe’s energy crisis; nevertheless, no firm commitments have been made, especially since the example of Ukraine would dissuade rebellious former satellites from getting into tangled alliances with the West: NATO is defending Ukraine to the last Ukrainian, no matter how you see the matter.
The EU strategic interest is to undercut Russian influence in Transcaucasia; with so many powerful geopolitical players jostling for influence in the Caucasus, the situation is delicate. Russia may have its hands full with the rebellious Ukrainians; that does not mean they would allow NATO nukes to snuggle up to their southern border.
Russia is historically wary of its Muslim republics in the Caucasus, a volatile region with a violent history. They have not forgotten that the US was a player behind the scenes in Moscow’s two Chechen Wars (1994-2000). Imagine Moscow meddling with Mexican politics, with an eye to setting up missile batteries along the Rio Grande. Unimaginable? Maybe.
Taking advantage of Russia’s preoccupations in Ukraine, the US and the EU have inserted themselves aggressively into the Black Sea region and the Caucasus, with Armenia being a “low-hanging fruit”. A “Velvet Revolution’’ in 2018 gave Armenia the opportunity to snuggle up to Europe with a realigned foreign policy – without overtly opposing Russia.
The Armenian diaspora in Europe has considerable political pull; France is attuned to the plays of Pashinyan, with French President Emmanuel Macron, the Biden Administration and EU applauding his realistic decision to decouple Armenia from Nagorno-Karabakh. They perceive this as the West’s first necessary step in the journey toward an “Atlantic system” in the Caucasus.
Russia is not amused, particularly as Armenia wants to wiggle out of the CSTO and shut down the Russian base in Gyumri. Moscow is alarmed by NATO’s plan to expand its presence in Caucasus and then to leap into the Central Asian steppes.
Earlier this week, the US made a diplomatic breakthrough, with the inaugural presidential meeting of the so-called “C5+1 Leaders’ Forum, consisting of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and the US, chaired by wobbly President Joe Biden on the margins of the United Nations General Assembly in New York. The Russian SMO in Ukraine is clearly pushing other former satellites into closer cooperation with the West – even though all Central Asian countries have sizable ethnic Russian populations.
A White House release said the six presidents discussed “a range of issues, including security, trade and investment, regional connectivity, the need to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all nations, and ongoing reforms to improve governance and the rule of law.” It underscored that Biden “welcomed his counterparts’ views on how our nations can work together to further strengthen the Central Asian nations’ sovereignty, resilience, and prosperity while also advancing human rights.” When Washington says “…rule of law…” what they mean of course – as any Latin American republic will sadly confirm – is “…my way or the highway.” The PRC nods gravely. They understand the would-be objective of a “sole dominating power”.
USAID says it will convene a C5+1 Regional Connectivity Ministerial in Central Asia in October “to discuss concrete actions”; launch of a C5+1 Critical Minerals Dialogue “to develop Central Asia’s vast mineral wealth and advance critical minerals security”; US support for investment to develop a Trans-Caspian Trade Route (so-called “Middle Corridor”) through the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment (a collaborative effort by Group of Seven to fund infrastructure projects in developing countries.)
A tectonic shift in Caucasus geopolitics of the figured in President Putin’s meeting on Wednesday with the visiting Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi at St. Petersburg, as well as during the talks in Tehran between the visiting Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Iranian military officials. Everything is up for grabs, especially as oil-rich Azerbaijan is Moscow’s fair-weather friend and Tehran’s potential enemy. Will the EU and the US promote Armenian- Azeri rapprochement? Will Türkiye play that card too? Up for grabs.
There is a convergence of interests between Russia and Iran over area denial to the US in the strategic Caspian hub. Thus the paradox: while the West is failing miserably to defeat Russia in Ukraine, with its military being decimated, it may benefit instead by gaining ascendancy on Russia’s “near abroad” in an arc of encirclement.
And how far will China commit itself in this geopolitical contestation?
Interestingly enough, the PRC may even find a way to exploit the proposed US-backed Trans-Caspian Transportation Corridor — Kazakhstan’s Silk Road. Stay tuned.