The danger of ignoring Russian interference abroad
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Recent meetings between the heads of Georgia and Azerbaijan with the most senior American officials should alert Washington to the importance of strengthening peace and security in the troubled South Caucasus. 

For over 20 years, the Minsk Group (created by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe) that was established in the wake of the war over Nagorno-Karabakh between Armenia and Azerbaijan, has accomplished virtually nothing while the risk of a renewed war grows steadily along with the quality of weapons that both sides possess. 

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Recently Russian-made missiles locked on to an Azerbaijani helicopter carrying the Defense Minister and Azerbaijan hit these launchers with an Israeli-made missile. But it was the missiles, not the initial locking onto the helicopter, that aroused this group’s consternation. Indeed, the U.S. does not even appoint a senior-level individual to the Minsk Group — not even at the ambassadorial level — so it clearly does not rate highly in Washington.

 

Nevertheless, preventing renewed hostilities is very much in America’s interest. Since Moscow not only sells high-grade weapons to both sides, it pressures Azerbaijan to renounce its independence and join Moscow’s Eurasian Economic Union, while it obtains a 99-year lease for bases in Armenia. It is clear that Russia seeks to manage, not resolve, this conflict.

Meanwhile the threat of war grows with thousands of casualties and refugees because both sides now possess high-tech weapons. Moreover, Azerbaijan is rebuilding its forces in Nakhichevan, the province that is both the ancestral seat of the ruling Aliyev family and the territory closest to Armenia, in growing anticipation of a potential war.

A war would almost certainly lead to the full Russian takeover of the Armenian forces as Yerevan and Moscow have agreed to create joint forces that Russia will control in case of war. Since Russia already has a major base at Gyumri and has fortified it with troops and advanced weapons, a war would amount to Russian occupation of Armenia as well as a likely Russian military intervention against Azerbaijan, perhaps even an invasion. And given the closeness and long-standing historical and cultural affinities between Turkey and Azerbaijan this war would also raise the specter of Turkish involvement. 

These are not idle speculations. The level of violence and number of incidents in and around Nagorno-Karabakh have steadily risen over the last few years while nothing has been done to arrest the drift to a new war that benefits only Moscow. But preserving peace and security in an increasingly important zone is not our only interest here. Moscow has steadily encroached upon Georgia’s territories and relentlessly tried to subvert both Azerbaijan and Georgia from within. Russian influence has led to new political parties based on diaspora figures in Russia to stand in those countries’ elections, while inciting ethnic minorities against the governments in Tbilisi and Baku.

Apart from Russia’s ingrained imperialism, the West has concrete strategic interests here. In Georgia, Russia is sending a message not to join NATO lest Georgia’s integrity and sovereignty be destroyed. Meanwhile Russian troops are annexing parts of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and planning these territories’ incorporation into the Russian Federation.

Furthermore, as Azerbaijan’s joint pipeline with Turkey from Baku through Anatolia to the Balkans and the Adriatic Sea approaches completion, Russia is pulling every trick in the book to prevent an energy rival from competing with it in the Balkans.

Thus, Russia’s aggressive policies are as evident here as they are elsewhere. And its tactics are the same everywhere. Russia creates “frozen conflicts”, invades states that resist its pressure, prevents them from exercising their sovereign right to look to Europe, occupies their territory and declares “independent states” there that then are incorporated into Russia. It also continues to use its energy as a weapon, which is precisely why Secretary of State Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonTrump cannot blame policy of separating children on Obama North Korea looked to set up communications back channel through Kushner: report North America wins 2026 bid to host World Cup after lobbying from Trump MORE met with Azerbaijan’s President, Ilham Aliyev in Istanbul. Therefore, it is clear what we need to do to advance our own interests and those of states who wish to work with us.

Rather than tolerate the Minsk Group’s inactivity, Washington should launch a mediation of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Since our stated policy is to cooperate with Russia wherever feasible, and Russia reiterates its desire for peace there (even if its actions are contradictory) this is an excellent opportunity to call Putin’s bluff. And if he shuns mediation, we should do it ourselves and show our interest in regional peace. Second, we should make clear our support for unhampered flow of Azerbaijan’s energy to Europe and freer and more diversified routes of energy supply for Europe. Third, if we wish to encourage democratization in Azerbaijan as we have in Georgia we ought to take Baku’s security concerns seriously for that is the only way to achieve progress on human rights. Fourth, we ought to bolster Georgia’s security with action — rather than verbal proposals.

Moscow’s aggressive and imperial tactics in the Caucasus are just as visible as they are in Ukraine and equally dangerous to international security. Neglect, which can only be malign neglect here, does not advance American interests or promote regional security. Therefore, we should not continue contributing to that neglect because as the signs already show, that means not only more wars. But the ones to come will have greater repercussions and are likely to spread to Europe and our allies.

Stephen Blank is a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council. He is the author of numerous foreign policy-related articles, white papers and monographs, specifically focused on the geopolitics and geostrategy of the former Soviet Union, Russia and Eurasia. He is a former MacArthur fellow at the U.S. Army War College. 


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