The new US administration may decide to challenge Russia in the South Caucasus, but this will not work in Armenia's interest, and will not address Armenian concerns on the post-war situation in Karabakh, argues Benyamin Poghosyan in this op-ed for commonspace.eu
The election of Joe Biden as President of the United States has raised many hopes around the world that the era of American isolationism launched by President Trump, has finally ended. Almost all are looking forward to the new American drive towards multilateralism, and for the US to resume its leadership role of the "liberal world order". America’s EU and NATO allies hope for more US engagement in Europe, and more consistent policy towards Russia, while the US Asian allies expect a more coordinated approach towards Asia. One of the first steps of the new administration was the decision to bring back the US into the Paris climate agreements, raising expectations of an upcoming multilateralist agenda. The South Caucasus is not an exception in this context. Given the strategic shake-up in the region as a result of the 2020 Karabakh war, regional experts seek to understand what will be the US policy towards the new status quo that emerged after the November 10 trilateral statement of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Russia.
Of course, much will depend on what will happen in US – Russia relations. The Biden administration's willingness to extend the new START treaty for five years, which otherwise is due to expire in February 2021, may be an indication that the new US administration will seek to find common ground with the Kremlin. Some experts argue that the extension of the new START is probably the only issue where US and Russian interests overlap, whilst in all other spheres the new administration will push forward a tougher policy towards Russia. Among the Armenian expert community there is however a general understanding, that regardless of the ups and downs in the US – Russia relations, the US is dissatisfied with the outcome of the new Karabakh war, which saw the US and OSCE Minsk Group sidelined, increased the Russian influence in both Armenia and Azerbaijan, and made Turkey an influential player in the region.
According to this logic, the US will seek to challenge the new status quo in Karabakh, to reinvigorate the Minsk Group activities, and to end the Russian monopoly over the conflict resolution process. The US will seek to replace Russian peacekeepers with international forces with OSCE or UN mandate and will demand to determine the NK final status through the organization of a legally binding expression of will, as was elaborated in the Madrid document. Meanwhile, Russia will do everything to, in practice, prevent the resumption of the OSCE Minsk Group activities and to restrict the US and France's influence over future developments in Nagorno Karabakh. However, this perception of reality has some flaws.
The first problem with this narrative concerns the presumption of Russian actions to restrict the activities of the Minsk Group. In reality, the Kremlin may be the most interested player to see Minsk Group back to center stage. As a result of the 2020 Karabakh war, Azerbaijan gained more than was envisaged by any settlement option under discussion, while Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh lost almost everything. This means that Armenia will in the future be constantly complaining and putting forward demands – the return of the Armenian POWs many of whom Azerbaijan has now declared as terrorists, determining the status of Nagorno Karabakh, a process which the Azerbaijan President and Ministry of Foreign Affairs officially declared as having been thrown to the dustbin of history, at least partly return to Armenian control some of the territories taken by Azerbaijan during the war, etc. In the current situation, complaints and demands on all these issues are sent to Moscow, and the failure of the Kremlin to satisfy these demands will raise new anti-Russian feelings among Armenians. We already face a situation in Armenia where an MP of the ruling faction publicly declares that the return of all Armenian POWs requires only one phone call from president Putin to president Aliyev, and if President Putin does not make this call, it is a sign of contempt towards Armenia and Armenians. Obviously, the Kremlin is not happy with this situation as it does not want to be perceived as the sole actor responsible for dealing with Armenian grievances, and the Kremlin appears fatigued by constant Armenian complaints. Thus, the Kremlin is interested to re-launch the Minsk Group activities. It will enable Russia to tell Armenians to speak about their problems also with President Biden and President Macron, asking them also to call President Aliyev, and put pressure on him. By doing this Russia will share the responsibilities with the US and France for future developments.
The suggestion that the US will seek to organise a referendum in Nagorno-Karabakh to determine the final legal status of the region, and will oblige Azerbaijan to organize such a referendum and to accept the results, does not sound realistic too. First of all, the US has no incentive to ruin its relations with Azerbaijan especially after the launch of the Southern gas corridor, a project firmly supported by President Obama administration of which Biden was the Vice President. After a decisive victory in the 2020 Karabakh war, Azerbaijan solidified its position as the most important state of the South Caucasus, and the new US administration will take this into account while shaping its policy towards the region. Besides the above-mentioned considerations, it is obvious that within its current borders (approximately 3000 square km), Nagorno Karabakh cannot be a viable independent state, and it will require a constant and significant military deployment to deter new attacks by Azerbaijan.
The US may start the discussion within the Minsk Group to replace Russian peacekeepers with a multination force, but this may not happen at least until November 2025, as any such decision either within the UN Security Council, or within the OSCE, requires Russian approval. Most probably the US will increase its humanitarian assistance to Armenia to overcome the implications of the war and to support refugees from Karabakh who now live in Armenia, but nothing more.
As for the US policy towards the entire region, this will depend on US – Russia relations. If a decision will be made in Washington to decrease Russian influence in the region as a part of a Russia containment policy, the main target will not be Karabakh but Armenia itself, since now Yerevan is more dependent on Russia than at any other time since the collapse of the Soviet Union, while Azerbaijan at least has Turkey to balance Russian influence. However, in this case, no bright future waits for Armenia. Regardless of numerous disagreements and tensions between the US and Turkey, the only leverage for the US to fight Russia in the South Caucasus is Turkey. This means that the US will seek to use Turkey in its anti-Russia policy, which itself predicts nothing good for Armenia. Yerevan currently is virtually squeezed between Azerbaijan and Turkey, and will be squeezed more if transport links from Turkey to Azerbaijan via the Nakhijevan Autonomous Republic and Armenia's Syunik region will be opened. Despite all rhetoric that this will bring advantages to Armenia, as Azerbaijani and Turkish investments will pour into the country – along with rich Turkish and Azerbaijani tourists who will spend money in Armenian hotels, clubs, and restaurants – the strategic goal of Azerbaijan and Turkey is to weaken Armenia as much as possible. Baku and Ankara are determined to force Armenians to forget about Nagorno Karabakh, and essentially be transformed into a bigger Adjara where Turkish and Azerbaijani businesses will have equal or even more rights than Armenians, and the local population will only serve as a low-cost working force.
Thus, one may conclude that the US will not make any moves to significantly change the current status quo in Nagorno Karabakh to the benefit of Armenians, while a possible American containment policy of Russia may end up transforming Armenia into a client state of Turkey and Azerbaijan.
Related content on commonspace.eu: The elusive quest for peace in the South Caucasus
Source: This op-ed was prepared for and originally published on commonspace.eu by Benyamin Poghosyan, Founder and Chairman of the Center for Political and Economic Strategic Studies in Yerevan.
Photo: Joe Biden speaking with attendees at the 2019 Iowa Federation of Labor Convention; Gage Skidmore
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