Russia and Turkish-Armenian Normalization: Competing Interests in the South Caucasus

Article excerpt

No one wants to be associated with failure--least of all assertive countries with leadership ambitions. So it should come as no surprise that Russia appears to be distancing itself from the Turkish-Armenian reconciliation process which, many analysts say, is on the brink of collapse.

One could get a sense of Moscow's aloofness at a news conference given by Sergei Lavrov, Russia's minister of foreign affairs. When he was asked to give his perspective on the fate of the Turkish-Armenian protocols he bluntly said that it was "not his business" to comment on this matter as it is "primarily a bilateral issue concerning Armenia and Turkey." The two countries launched this process themselves without prompting by anyone, Lavrov said, adding that "the only thing that associates us, Russia," with the Turkish-Armenian normalization has been his personal participation--at the request of the two sides--in the Zurich ceremony of the signing of the protocols last October along with some other international bigwigs from the U.S., France, the EU and the Council of Europe. (1) That's it. But of course, Lavrov concluded, Russia wants to see Turkish-Armenian relations fully normalized and wishes both countries good luck.

To be sure, Mr. Lavrov is a consummate diplomat of the old Soviet school who uses his tongue, as the old quip has it, largely for the purposes of obfuscation. So the really big and pertinent question is this: what are Russia's true intentions and designs in the South Caucasus and how do the attempts to normalize Turkish-Armenian relations fit into Moscow's strategic outlook?

The South Caucasus' Changing Dynamics

Following the Soviet Union's disintegration, the South Caucasus became a troubled region plagued by multiple conflicts, rivalries, and competing policies of the outside powers. Throughout the last two decades, regional integration--arguably the only way to bring stability and prosperity to the region--has remained an unattainable goal as both regional countries and outside players have been pursuing egotistical policies and narrow objectives. (2)

There appears to be a consensus within the analytic community that the 2008 Russia-Georgia war marked an important watershed in the geopolitics of the Caucasus. The five-day armed conflict shattered the erstwhile precarious status quo in the region and dramatically reshaped the geopolitical landscape. (3)

The Caucasus war has affected all regional countries, albeit in different ways. At first glance, Russia, the "victor," has significantly strengthened its geopolitical position in the region. By humiliating its pesky adversary, by exposing the West's seeming inability to protect its Eurasian allies, by recognizing the independence of Georgia's two break-away regions and by stationing its troops in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Moscow appears to have enhanced its strategic footprint in the South Caucasus. At the same time, however, Russia's resorting to brute force and violating the territorial integrity of a post-Soviet country and a member of the Commonwealth of Independent States has significantly tarnished Moscow's image and undermined its claim to being an unbiased arbiter and efficient mediator in regional conflicts.

For its part, Georgia, the "loser," has found itself in the aftermath of the hostilities being a hapless victim of, in the words of its leadership, "brazen foreign aggression" and "partition." Not only was its war machine smashed and military infrastructure largely destroyed in the course of the five-day war, but--potentially even more important--the hostilities exposed its vulnerability as a transit country, thus calling into question its prized location as the key gateway to world markets for Caspian and Central Asian hydrocarbons.

For Azerbaijan, the outcome of the Caucasus war represents a mixed bag. Perceiving itself as the victim of the Armenian aggression, Baku was clearly not satisfied with the pre-August 2008 status quo. …