“Frozen conflicts” hinder NATO's enlargement to South Caucasus

Thu 29 Sep 2011 00:30 GMT | 04:30 Local Time

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News.Az interviews research fellow at Saint Petersburg State University, political expert Andrei Belonogov.

What changes can Vladimir Putin’s return to presidential post cause in Russia’s foreign policy and relations with certain states, including those in the South Caucasus?

Most likely, Putin will continue to pursue the policy Russia has pursued with respect to the South Caucasus in recent years. It would probably be the most pragmatic policy line, as Moscow at this stage is not interested in violating the status quo in the neighboring states. Putin, in my opinion, will try to keep the allied relations with Armenia and the friendliest relations with Azerbaijan as much as possible.

Certainly, the Russian Federation is interested in cooperation with Baku as a key partner in production and transit of energy resources, as well as development of missile defense systems. As to relations with Georgia, it is likely they will remain tense until the change of political elites both in Moscow and Tbilisi. One does not need to expect big surprises from Vladimir Putin’s policy in this respect. Russia's relations with Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia, of course, may vary, but Moscow is unlikely initiate these changes. It seems that Russia is quite happy with the current state of affairs and any sudden action could lead to destabilization in the region, which is fraught with unpredictable consequences for Moscow.

Are the Kremlin’s South Caucasus policies effective enough for Russia to ensure its security?

In recent years, one of the tasks of Russia in the sphere of security was to prevent NATO's expansion eastward. This task was successfully accomplished in the South Caucasus - neither Azerbaijan nor Armenia nor Georgia can even be hypothetically considered as candidates for NATO membership until problems of Nagorno-Karabakh, South Ossetia and Abkhazia are resolved.

As cynical as it may sound, presence of territorial disputes and "frozen conflicts" in the region is some kind of guarantee for NATO’s non-expansion in the South Caucasus, which is beneficial to Moscow. Of course, process of "reset" of Russia-America relations is going on at the moment while relations with NATO are improving.

However, it is unlikely that these processes will go so far that Russia will abandon its objections to NATO expansion. And if so, Russia is interested in maintaining conflicts in South Caucasus in a "frozen" state, because the countries that have territorial disputes can not join NATO.

Do South Caucasus countries, Azerbaijan in particular, have an opportunity to draw Russia’s attention to resolution of its strategic problems, namely, territorial dispute?


It would be very important for Azerbaijan to achieve not support, but at least neutrality of Russia in the event of military conflict with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh. In this case, given the significant military superiority over Armenia, Baku would likely be able to solve the problem of the occupied territories by force.

However, the Kremlin apparently is not ready to guarantee even neutrality to Azerbaijan. Theoretically, Azerbaijan could take a commitment not to join NATO and not to get involved in construction of Nabucco gas pipeline in exchange for Russia's consent to resolution of Nagorno-Karabakh conflict by force. However, such an agreement would be extremely difficult to implement in practice. In case pro-Western politicians come to power in Baku (this can not be excluded as an option, too), the new leaders may abandon the commitments undertaken by the current leadership of Azerbaijan.

Therefore, the most efficient option from standpoint of Russia is to preserve the status quo in Nagorno-Karabakh. In this case, Azerbaijan will not become a NATO member whoever comes to power in Baku. As for the construction of Nabucco, it seems, Russia will hardly be able to prevent it.

In other words, can we expect Putin’s return to presidential post to increase chances for the Karabakh conflict resolution?

Chances to find a political solution to this problem which would satisfy both sides, despite all efforts, are practically equal to zero. If we talk about the military scenario, Russia will have to make very difficult choices in case of resumption of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict.

After all, if the fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh on certain stage affects the territory of Armenia itself (and this possibility also exists), Moscow will have to choose between friendly relations with Azerbaijan on one hand and the commitments to Armenia under the Collective Security Treaty (CST) on the other. In any case, escalation of the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh can harm CSTO, and the authority of this organization is already put into question by many in the West and former Soviet Union.

Therefore, Russia's actions in this case will be very difficult to predict. NATO, recognizing the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan, is apparently still not ready to support the military option and to provide military assistance to Baku. So, it would be the most sensible solution not to renew full-scale hostilities in Nagorno-Karabakh if Azerbaijan does not get explicit guarantees of non-interference from Moscow.

Putin's return to presidency will not lead to any sharp bends in Russian foreign policy and is likely to change little in Russia’s approaches to the conflict.

N.H.
News.Az

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