If war resumed between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Armenia’s recent military and diplomatic exercises have served notice that no doubt with Moscow’s and Tehran’s encouragement and help, that it would attack Azeri pipelines that carry much-needed oil and gas to America’s European allies. Azerbaijan’s domestic policies, while not perfect, are also under attack from Iran. In 2012 alone, three separate Iranian plots involving incitement through religious agitation to terrorism, gun running and plots to assassinate Israelis in Azerbaijan were uncovered and thwarted. Iran also regularly calls Azerbaijan’s religious policies anti-Islamic and regularly threatens to attack Azerbaijan if it hosted a U.S. base. Thus, Iran presents Azerbaijan with a constant and genuine threat.
Moreover, Syria’s civil war and Iran’s deteriorating situation will probably increase Azerbaijan’s strategic importance to the West. Also, Syria’s civil war is putting enormous pressure on Turkey to intervene. Numerous incidents between Turkey and Syria have already occurred while this war has also spurred the deterioration of Turkey’s partnership with Russia. Should Turkey intervene, Russia could conceivably block gas sales to Turkey since Turkey receives 2/3 of its gas from Russia. Azerbaijan, thanks to its recently improved ties with Turkey and the 2011 bilateral decision to build a gas pipeline from Azerbaijan through Turkey to Europe (the Trans-Anatolian or TANAP pipeine), could offer Turkey and Europe alternative gas sources to resist Russian threats and blackmail.
Since 2010, if not earlier, Russia has steadily deployed large numbers of combined forces in the Caucasus, allegedly to defend against a projected Iranian counter offensive against the Caucasus should the U.S. or Israel attack Iran due to its nuclear program. This argument sounds illogical, for why should Iran add to its enemies if it is attacked? But it represents a plausible pretext for threatening both Azerbaijan and Georgia while entrenching Russia’s military there as Russia strives to resubordinate the Caucasus to its dictates. Meanwhile, Russia arms Armenia and continually pressures Azerbaijan to deflect it from its pro-Western trajectory.
Under these circumstances, what should be done? In general, the U.S. should make clear to Azerbaijan that it has its back.
First, in the domestic sphere, we should encourage Baku to undertake the necessary liberalizing political, social, and economic reforms that would strengthen its internal defenses against subversion under the guise of religious agitation and increase the government’s legitimacy and U.S. support for it.
Second, we must make clear to Moscow and Tehran that if they launch a new aggressive conflict in the Caucasus, the costs they incur thereby will be much more tangible and greater than in 2008. Since Russian President Putin has admitted that the 2008 war with Georgia, widely billed as an act of self-defense, was actually a preplanned war of aggression from 2006 on, mere verbal warnings to Russia do not suffice to deter further mischief here.
Third, the U.S. must inspire the EU to intensify its quest for a dedicated pipeline to bring gas from the Caspian basin and Central Asia to Europe and counter Moscow’s widely documented efforts to use the gas weapon to subvert European unity, democracy, and the independence of post-Soviet states. Whether it is the EU’s projected Nabucco pipeline, the TANAP, or another worthwhile alternative there is no time to lose.
Fourth, Washington should simultaneously give unstinting support to the Azeri-Turkish rapprochement, both for its own sake and because of its implications for the Middle East and the Caucasus. This support must, as a fifth point, coincides with a new, coordinated, and truly vigorous effort to bring Armenia and Azerbaijan into a genuine negotiation leading to an acceptable resolution of all the issues growing out of the Nagorno-Karabakh war. All the interested parties could guarantee this accord to reinforce regional stability. This process, if successful, would stabilize the Caucasus, defuse Iranian intrigues and Russian threats, open up Armenia to the world and give it an option beyond Russia, while preventing hotheads from inadvertently or deliberately inciting a war to impose their vision of a resolution of Nagorno-Karabakah’s many issues.
The administration has hitherto treated the South Caucasus as an afterthought or as an overflight issue on the road to Afghanistan. Such neglect is dangerous and misconceived. The mounting threats in the Middle East, Iran, and the Caucasus show how vital it is that the U.S. strengthen pro-Western regimes like Azerbaijan. For if we continue to neglect the Caucasus, this neglect will quickly become malign. And malign neglect invariably generates not only instability but also protracted violence.
Blank is a professor at the U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute at the Carlisle Barracks, Pa. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect those of the U.S. Army or the Department of Defense.