As the United States recuperates from Donald Trump's unexpected victory, commentators across the globe contemplate the prospects of a Trump presidency and its impact on U.S. and world politics. The future of U.S.-Russia relations will potentially have a substantial impact on the South Caucasus, a vulnerable region of strategic significance sandwiched between Russia, Turkey and Iran. While the features of Trump's foreign policy have still to materialize, promises and allusions made during his election campaign suggest a bleak scenario for this post-Soviet region.
A TROUBLED REGION
Few regions emerging from the ashes of the former Soviet Union have experienced as much turmoil as the South Caucasus. At strategic crossroads of Europe and Asia — on the edge of the Black Sea and the Caspian — the newly independent nations of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia have since the early 1990s experienced a series of coup d'états, civil wars, ethnic strife and interstate armed conflicts. At some points in the region's modern history, these conflicts threatened to drag in their powerful neighbors: Russia, Turkey and Iran. As the escalation of violence in South Ossetia in 2008 and in Nagorno-Karabakh in 2016 has illustrated, this possibility is still likely, given the volatility of some of the region's "frozen" conflicts.
ARMENIA AND AZERBAIJAN
Armenia and Azerbaijan, now tiny republics of three and nine million, respectively, have engaged in full-fledged armed conflict from the moment of their appearance on the political map in early 1992. The Armenian-Azerbaijani war over Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian-majority Baku-controlled enclave within Azerbaijani territory, lasted until 1994, when a ceasefire agreement was brokered by Moscow. Since then, no peace has been reached, and the state of war drags on. During the armed conflict, Moscow sought to present itself as an honest broker while using the war as leverage on both Yerevan and, especially, Baku in order to advance its interests. Fearing an emerging Turko-Azerbaijani alliance, Yerevan was quick to allow Moscow to deploy its troops in Armenia, entering a military-political alliance with Russia as early as 1992.1
This move turned Armenia into Moscow's key ally in the South Caucasus. The Azerbaijani elites, however, were loath to (re)enter Russia's political, economic and military sphere of influence, prompting the Kremlin to provide support to Armenia in order to force Baku into concessions. Azerbaijan's tense situation vis-à-vis Moscow was compounded by its rich oil and natural-gas resources, which the nationalist Azerbaijani elites were determined to use to keep Moscow at bay. In fact, the commitment of Azerbaijan's political leadership to replace Russian influence with that of the West and Turkey and to strengthen Azerbaijan's independence antagonized Moscow. These factors led Baku to resist Moscow's insistent attempts to gain a military foothold in Azerbaijan and to prevent Russian exploitation of Azerbaijan's oil.2
Iran, Azerbaijan's large neighbor to the south, generally allied itself with Moscow and Yerevan in an attempt to keep Azerbaijan from becoming a pro-Western stronghold in the region. Tehran also sought to limit Azerbaijan's success as an exporter of oil and natural gas to world markets. Iran's fears of having a wealthy pro-Turkish and pro-Western Azerbaijan on its border played an important role in the emerging Russo-Iranian-Armenian axis of the mid-1990s. At that time, Iranian strategists had become concerned about what they considered the gradual spread of separatist and irredentist sentiments amid its own populous Azerbaijani minority, located predominantly in the northwest, on the borders of Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan.3 Statements often reiterated by Azerbaijan's pan-Turkic political elites of their goal of "unifying South and North Azerbaijan" deepened Iranian fears. As a result of these and other factors, Russia and Iran provided support to Armenia in the Nagorno-Karabakh war.4 Azerbaijan lost control over seven territories it occupied in Azerbaijan proper and the Armenian-dominated Nagorno-Karabakh, where a de facto state with strong ties to neighboring Armenia had been established.
Since 1994, peace talks have been deadlocked. Ankara-backed Baku insists that Nagorno-Karabakh is part of its territory, and Moscow-backed Armenia (and Nagorno-Karabakh) claim a political status short of full independence.5 Since 1994, Nagorno-Karabakh and part of the Armenian-Azerbaijani border have been scenes of permanent low-intensity conflict, with frequent outbreaks of relatively large-scale hostilities, particularly since 2014. Tensions eventually resulted in a four-day war in April 2016 that claimed at least 200 military and civilian casualties.6 With Turkey backing Azerbaijanis (an ethno-linguistically people of Turkic heritage), Iran suspicious of pan-Turkic sentiment allegedly being disseminated among its own Azerbaijani population by Baku and Ankara, and Russia formally allied with Armenia — an escalation between Armenian and Azerbaijani armies could result in a regional war.
Georgia, a mountainous republic of four and a half million, is located on the eastern shores of the Black Sea, just south of the North Caucasus, Russia's restless Muslim-dominated frontier. It is the single South Caucasus republic that is not landlocked. Hence, Georgia's geopolitical importance has been enormous since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, with Russian strategists seeking to boost their standing in the area through regaining control. An opportunity loomed for Moscow in the early 1990s, when two of Georgia's autonomous regions — South Ossetia and Abkhazia — rebelled against Tbilisi. Backed by Moscow politically, economically and militarily, South Ossetians and Abkhazians eventually succeeded in repulsing Georgian troops and paramilitaries, forming de facto independent states as early as in 1992 and 1993, respectively.7 In the early 1990s, the establishment of four Russian military bases in the country's most vulnerable spots was imposed on Georgia's leadership. Following the Rose Revolution in 2003, which saw the ascent to power of a government led by the fiercely pro-Western Mikheil Saakashvili, these Russian military bases were withdrawn under strong U.S. pressure.8
After more than a decade of relative peace, armed conflict flared up again in August 2008, now in the form of a short and bloody war between Russia and Georgia in South Ossetia. What came to be known as the Five-Day War ended with Georgia's loss and the remainder of the Georgian population of South Ossetia expelled from their homes.9 Shortly thereafter, South Ossetia and Abkhazia cemented their independence when they were recognized by Russia as independent states. With the increased economic, military and political dependence of these separatist territories on Moscow, Tbilisi nearly abandoned its plans to regain control over them. Moreover, Georgia's post-Soviet dream of entering NATO and the European Union — its "return to the West" — has been hampered by Russia's de facto occupation of large portions of its territory, as well as by Moscow's unremitting efforts to prevent a formalized Western presence in the South Caucasus in general and in Georgia in particular. Besides, Russia is heavily invested in Georgia's internal politics, establishing power bases there, to reverse the local population's predominantly pro-Western attitudes.10
Washington has been involved in the affairs of the region since the mid-1990s, with two U.S. adiministrations considering the South Caucasus an important buffer zone against Russia's expansionism and a hot spot at the intersection of great powers. Indeed, throughout the 1990s and 2000s, the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations' relative interest in this energy-rich region helped Georgian and Azerbaijani governments withstand Russia's attempts to regain control. The Obama administration's general lack of interest in the South Caucasus contributed to the gradual strengthening of Moscow's standing.11
In fact, Azerbaijan's energy resources and its strategic location enabled Baku to first attract Western capital and then gain political support from the United States and other key Western nations to build the strategic Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline. This pipeline, opposed by Moscow, by-passed Russian territory to bring Azerbaijani oil to Turkey and Western markets. Moscow's monopoly over the exploitation, transit and exports of Caspian Sea crude oil was thus challenged. This led to a relative decrease in Moscow's clout in the area. Indeed, it was the increasing interest of the United States in this strategic crossroads that led to the gradual, if somewhat partial, emancipation from Moscow's once-uncontested dominance of the South Caucasus, with the particular exception of Armenia. Yet a possible U-turn toward Moscow by the Trump administration may bring about a dramatic Russian comeback in the South Caucasus, nullifying many of Washington's hard-won gains.
It is as yet unclear how the Trump presidency will affect U.S. foreign policy. While the president-elect made a number of surprising statements in the course of the presidential campaign, Trump's reversal on some key issues shortly after his win indicates his unwillingness to push through some of his key campaign promises. It is not clear whether and to what extent President Trump will be willing to strike a deal with Russia on a number of key foreign-political issues. Trump's campaign statements indicated his personal admiration for Putin and his political style, in addition to his strong motivation to get him on America's side in the fight against "radical Islamic terrorism" and other pressing issues.12 This prompted many American and international commentators to argue that the Russian president had much at stake in the U.S. presidential elections. Others speculated that Moscow was eager to provide explicit or implicit support for Trump — for instance, through hacking and publicizing Hillary Clinton's emails.13
A RUSSO-AMERICAN DEAL?
Two major scenarios exist for Russia-U.S. relations under a Trump presidency, each of which may significantly affect the future of the post-Soviet space, in general, and of the South Caucasus, in particular. The first assumes a closer relationship between Moscow and Washington. Due to mounting public discontent with Trump's domestic agenda as well as his own lack of enthusiasm for international involvement, he may be considering striking a deal with Putin on spheres of influence in areas that Trump or the American public does not consider vital to U.S. interests — Ukraine, the South Caucasus and Central Asia, for instance.14
Putin, in turn, if granted full control over the post-Soviet space, would likely refrain from threatening the Baltic states and Poland, to avoid needlessly antagonizing his new partner in Washington. In fact, it seems that Putin's gambit with regard to these easternmost NATO allies has been guided by his determination to force the West into concessions, particularly over Ukraine and Georgia, which Moscow regards as in its paramount sphere of interest. Acquiring control over Poland and the Baltic states per se has never been considered an objective of Russian foreign policy.15
While it is extremely unlikely that Trump would abandon U.S. commitments towards its NATO allies, an agreement with Moscow over areas around Russia may in the short run help ease concerns in Warsaw, Riga, Vilnius and Tallinn over Russia's expansionist plans. While certainly not an optimal solution, this may be the best possible option for Washington, given its lack of interest in a confrontation with Moscow. Against this backdrop, the Trump administration might seek to lift economic sanctions against Russia. Trump may also acknowledge, as a fait accompli, the legitimacy of Russia's rule over Crimea and the Russia-backed separatist entities in Eastern Ukraine.
Should this first — and, given recent developments, fairly likely — scenario prevail, the South Caucasus could see a decreasing U.S. and EU presence, accompanied by an unprecedented rise of Russian influence. This would certainly be unwelcome news for Azerbaijan and Georgia as well as, possibly, Armenia.
Georgia's long-term aspirations to membership in NATO and the EU would become even more illusory and perhaps have to be discarded completely. The public would consider this a betrayal by the West, as more than 50 Georgian servicemen have lost their lives since 2001 in U.S.-led missions in Afghanistan and Iraq. Georgians resent Western reluctance to back their country's efforts to join the Western alliances.16 Second, the international community has done nothing to challenge the fact of Georgia's territorial disintegration, with Abkhazia and South Ossetia becoming absorbed into Russia's legal, economic and political space.17 Moreover, given Moscow's increasingly assertive policy in its neighborhood and the now-favorable climate in Georgia, shaped by the pro-Russian ruling Georgian Dream party and the allied Georgian Orthodox Church, Russian elites may demand even more political, economic and military concessions from Tbilisi. Significantly, Moscow's investment in conservative Georgian circles has begun to pay off. Many in this South Caucasian republic have increasingly identified themselves in opposition to the "moral decadence" associated with and advocated by the West, sympathizing instead with Russia as a self-declared bastion of conservative values.18
If need be, Moscow could play the "disputed territories" card along Abkhazia's and South Ossetia's de facto borders with Georgia, areas claimed by part of the Abkhaz and South Ossetian elites after the Russo-Georgian War of 2008.19 Moscow could also fuel the currently latent irredentism among the Azerbaijani and Armenian minorities residing in Georgia's southern areas. This would provide an excuse to reinstall Russian military bases on the country's territory. In fact, Moscow already considers it important to strengthen its military and political presence in Georgia, as this key Black Sea nation borders on the increasingly assertive Turkey, with its neo-imperial aspirations.20
In this regard, regaining political, economic and military control over Azerbaijan, one of Moscow's top priorities in the South Caucasus since the breakup of the Soviet Union, may gain impetus should Washington and Moscow strike a deal over their respective spheres of influence in Eurasia. As in the recent past, Azerbaijani oil and natural gas are likely to be at the center of Russian efforts to regain dominance in this largest republic of the South Caucasus. Facing a drop in oil prices — likely to fall further should a Trump administration abandon the constraints on exploiting U.S. shale oil for environmental reasons — and the prospective depletion of Russia's intensively exploited oil fields, Moscow is eager to regain some control over the production and export of Azerbaijani Caspian crude oil and natural gas. Moreover, thwarting ambitious oil and natural-gas transportation projects may further strengthen Moscow's dominance in the southeastern European energy markets. With decreasing oil prices and burgeoning socioeconomic discontent, the increasingly dictatorial regime of Ilham Aliyev has been turning away from its Western critics and toward Moscow.21 This may pave the ground for a rapprochement between Moscow and Baku. In the absence of U.S. support and to cement its own survival, the Aliyev regime is likely to become increasingly unwilling to challenge Russia's aspirations.
For these efforts to be effective, Moscow needs to assert political control over Georgia. Moreover, Azerbaijan's energy industry, intertwined with regional geopolitics, is sufficiently important to prompt Moscow to use its leverage to force Baku into a deal over the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. While Yerevan will likely have to cede even greater control over its domestic, international and security agendas, Armenian elites might have to face Moscow's favoring of Baku on a number of sensitive issues, particularly Nagorno-Karabakh. It might be that Russia will sell increasingly sophisticated weaponry to Azerbaijan, much to Yerevan's chagrin.22 In fact, while Russian military, economic and political control over Armenia is uncontested, Moscow may seek to accommodate some of Baku's wishes over Nagorno-Karabakh without risking the loss of its Armenian ally.
With Georgia and Azerbaijan falling firmly under Moscow's sphere of influence, ambitious energy projects linking the Caspian Sea — and, prospectively, Central Asian oil and natural-gas fields — with the West would likely be abandoned. This could lead to Moscow's uncontested control over the transit and sale of the whole of post-Soviet oil and natural-gas exploitation. Azerbaijani, Kazakhstani and Turkmenistani oil and natural-gas imports to Europe — alternative sources of energy pushed forward by some Western governments since the 1990s in order to reduce Europe's current critical energy dependence on Russia — would either drop or fall under Moscow's complete control.23 In light of Moscow's use of energy resources as leverage on its European importers, Russia's economic and political influence in Europe, in general, and in the EU, in particular, would increase. Moscow's stronger position in the South Caucasus may prompt it to further push for alternative routes of expansion, refocusing on Ukraine, Central Asia or — in the medium term — the Baltic states. With Europe's energy dependence on Moscow increased and its bargaining position weakened, the EU will lose room for maneuver.
A RUSSO-AMERICAN CONFLICT?
A second scenario assumes increased conflict between Washington and Moscow. Due to the personalities of both Trump and Putin, with macho self-representation being the cornerstone of their long-cultivated images, and Trump's infamous impulsiveness, conflict would likely acquire a personal dimension. If Putin should threaten vital U.S. interests as Trump perceives them, the American may consider it a personal affront and possibly overreact. However, it is not feasible to predict how the Trump-Putin relationship will develop in the years to come. Yet, given Putin's notorious caution, his commitment to striking a compromise with the American president, and Trump's preoccupation with the Islamic world, Mexico and China, Washington will likely seek to avoid conflict with Moscow.24
Nevertheless, the South Caucasus, a rather marginal region of world politics, would probably not draw the two powers into a confrontation. A prospective Russo-American conflict is far more likely to evolve in other key areas, such as the Middle East. Still, should a confrontation materialize, a proxy conflict might revolve around the established front lines, with Washington supporting Azerbaijan against Russia-backed Armenia in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.25 However, Turkey's drift away from the United States and NATO and Washington's possibly deteriorating relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran might reduce hypothetical American willingness to engage in a bloody regional conflict with far-reaching consequences. Political confrontation between Russia and the United States would hardly be good news for Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia; their stability is intertwined with that of their large neighbors.
1 Taline Papazian, "From Ter-Petrossian to Kocharian: Explaining Continuity in Armenian Foreign Policy, 1991-2003," Demokratizatsiya 14, no. 2 (2006): 235-51; and Jeronim Perovic, "From Disengagement to Active Economic Competition: Russia's Return to the South Caucasus and Central Asia," Demokratizatsiya 13, no. 1 (2005): 61-85.
2 Svante E. Cornell, Azerbaijan since Independence (Routledge, 2015), 46-80; and Araz Aslanlı, "Azerbaijan-Russia Relations: Is the Foreign Policy Strategy of Azerbaijan Changing?" Turkish Policy Quarterly 9 (2010): 137-45.
3 Emil Souleimanov and Ondrej Ditrych, "Iran and Azerbaijan: A Contested Neighborhood," Middle East Policy 14, no. 2 (Summer 2007): 101-16; Emil Souleimanov, Kamil Pikal and Josef Kraus. "The Rise of Nationalism among Iranian Azerbaijanis: A Step toward Iran's Disintegration?" Middle East Review of International Affairs 17, no. 1 (2013): 71-91; and Emil Souleimanov, "Dealing with Azerbaijan: The Policies of Turkey and Iran toward the Karabakh War," Middle Eastern Journal of International Affairs 15, no. 3 (2011): 1-14.
4 Svante E. Cornell, "Iran and the Caucasus," Middle East Policy 5, no. 4 (1998): 51-67.
5 Emil Souleimanov, "The Conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh," in OSCE Yearbook 2004, ed., Ursel Schlichting (Hamburg: Nomos Verlaggesellschaft, 2005): 217-37; Rexane Dehdashti-Rasmussen, "The Conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh: Causes, the Status of Negotiations, and Prospects," in OSCE Yearbook 2006, ed. Ursel Schlicting (Hamburg: Nomos Verlagsgesellschaft, 2007): 188-209.
6 Audrey L. Alstadt, and Rajay Menon, "Unfrozen Conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. Why Violence Persists," April 12, 2016, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/armenia/2016-04-12/unfrozen-con…; and Emil Souleimanov, "What the Fighting in Karabakh Means for Azerbaijan and Armenia," Central Asia and Caucasus Analyst, May 10, 2016, http://cacianalyst.org/publications/analytical-articles/item/13361-what….
7 Charles King, "The Five-Day War. Managing Moscow after Georgia Crisis," Foreign Affairs, November/December 2008, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/russia-fsu/2008-11-01/five-day-…. See also Emil Souleimanov, Understanding Ethnopolitical Conflict: Karabakh, South Ossetia, and Abkhazia Wars Reconsidered (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013): 112-34.
8 Robert L. Larsson, "The Enemy Within: Russia's Military Withdrawal from Georgia," Journal of Slavic Military Studies 17, no. 3 (2004): 405-24; and Nikolai Sokov, "The Withdrawal of Russian Military Bases from Georgia: Not Solving Anything." PONARS Policy Memo 363 (2005), http://www.ponarseurasia.com/sites/default/files/policy-memos-pdf/pm_03….
9 Vladimir Kolossov and John O'Loughlin, "After the Wars in the South Caucasus State of Georgia: Economic Insecurities and Migration in the 'De Facto' States of Abkhazia and South Ossetia," Eurasian Geography and Economics 52, no. 5 (2011): 631-54.
10 Eka Chitinava, "Georgia's Politics of Piety," Open Democracy Report, September 30, 2016, https://www.opendemocracy.net/od-russia/eka-chitanava/georgia-s-politic….
11 Fariz Ismailzade, "U.S. Policy towards the South Caucasus: How To Move Forward," Caucasus Analytical Digest, no. 5 (April 16, 2009), http://www.css.ethz.ch/content/dam/ethz/special-interest/gess/cis/cente….
12 Karen DeYoung and David Filipov, "Trump and Putin: A Relationship Where Mutual Admiration Is Headed toward Reality," Washington Post, December 30, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/trump-and-putin-….
13 Kurt Eichenwald, "Why Vladimir Putin's Russia Is Backing Donald Trump," Newsweek, November 4, 2016, http://europe.newsweek.com/donald-trump-vladimir-putin-russia-hillary-c…; Ashley Parker and David E. Sanger, "Donald Trump Calls on Russia to Find Hillary Clinton's Missing Emails," New York Times, July 27, 2016; and Jim Sciutto, Nicole Gaouette and Ryan Browne, "U.S. Finds Growing Evidence Russia Feeding Emails to WikiLeaks," CNN Politics, October 14, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/28/us/politics/donald-trump-russia-clin…; http://edition.cnn.com/2016/10/13/politics/russia-us-election/.
14 Daniel B. Baer, "If Trump Tries to Make a Deal with Putin, He's Already Lost," Foreign Affairs, January 30, 2017, http://foreignpolicy.com/2017/01/30/if-trump-tries-to-make-a-deal-with-…; and Jeffrey Tayler, "The Deal Trump Should Strike with Putin," Quillette, February 17, 2017, http://quillette.com/2017/02/17/the-deal-trump-should-strike-with-putin/.
15 Author's discussions with Russian experts close to the Kremlin, 2014-17.
16 "Bodies of Three Georgian Soldiers Killed in Afghanistan Flown Home," Civil.ge, May 16, 2013, http://www.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=26061&search=.
17 Valeriy Dzutsev, "Russia Presses Ahead with Annexation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia," Central Asia and Caucasus Analyst, November 26, 2014, https://www.cacianalyst.org/publications/analytical-articles/item/13101…; and Valeriy Dzutsev, "Russia to Strip Abkhazia and South Ossetia of Their Limited Sovereignty," Central Asia and Caucasus Analyst, March 18, 2015, https://www.cacianalyst.org/publications/analytical-articles/item/13163….
18 Robert Coalson, "'Family Values' Congress Brings Pro-Moscow Message to Georgia," Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, May 17, 2016, http://www.rferl.org/a/georgia-confress-families-antigay-moscow-oligarc…; and Vasil Rukhadze, "Russia's Soft Power in Georgia: How Does It Work?" Eurasia Daily Monitor 13, no. 34 (February 19, 2016), https://www.ecoi.net/local_link/319561/444911_en.html.
19 Andrew Higgings, "In Russia's 'Frozen Zone,' a Creeping Border with Georgia," New York Times, October 23, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/24/world/europe/in-russias-frozen-zone-….
20 Roland Oliphant, "Russia 'Would Boost Military Presence' in Response to Georgia NATO Membership," The Telegraph, August 28, 2015, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/georgia/11831356/Russi….
21 Jack Farchy, "Azerbaijan Leader Enters Uncharted Territory as Oil Boom Ends," Financial Times, January 25, 2016, https://www.ft.com/content/6c3bd940-c357-11e5-808f-8231cd71622e; and Riccardo Dugulin, "Falling Oil Prices Raise Concerns over Azerbaijan Stability," Global Risk Insights, January 28, 2016, http://globalriskinsights.com/2016/01/falling-oil-prices-raise-concerns….
22 Marianna Grigoryan, "Angered at Arms Sales to Azerbaijan, Armenians Push Away from Russia's Embrace," Eurasianet, June 3, 2016, http://www.eurasianet.org/node/79066.
23 Mert Bilgin, "Geopolitics of European Natural Gas Demand: Supplies from Russia, Caspian and the Middle East," Energy Policy 37, no. 11 (2009): 4482-4492.
24 On Putin's attempts to strike a "package deal" over Syria and Ukraine, see, for instance, Emil Souleimanov, "Mission Accomplished? Russia's Withdrawal from Syria," Middle East Policy 23, no. 2 (2016): 108-18.
25 Given Russia's immense superiority vis-à-vis Georgia, renewed armed conflict is unlikely in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.