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Oct 25, 2018 | 17:33 GMT

3 mins read

Azerbaijan, Armenia: Washington Turns Its Attention to the South Caucasus

The Big Picture

In its 2018 Annual Forecast, Stratfor wrote that the Caucasus region would become the subject of increased influence from larger powers pursuing strategic interests in the region. A key U.S. security official's decision to tour the region amid growing tensions with Russia and Iran reflects this trend.

What Happened

For the first time ever, U.S. national security adviser John Bolton is calling on the three countries of the South Caucasus. Bolton visited Azerbaijan on Oct. 24, where he met President Ilham Aliyev and highlighted the importance of Azerbaijan's role in the international energy market. One day later, Bolton visited Armenia to meet acting Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian and discuss the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The U.S. official will round out his tour with a visit to Georgia on Oct. 26.

Why It Matters

The Caucasus region is a major energy corridor and a geopolitical fault line where Russia, the West and the Middle East intersect, and where, unsurprisingly, numerous external powers have vied for influence. While the Trump administration has been relatively quiet on the region, a variety of factors have put the area on Washington's radar, including the United States' growing confrontation with Iran.

In his meetings with officials in Azerbaijan and Armenia, Bolton spoke of the need to "squeeze" Iran, noting that the United States wanted to exert "maximum pressure on Iran because it has not given up the pursuit of nuclear weapons." Bolton stressed that the United States would enforce sanctions on Iran "very vigorously" and that Washington intended to enlist the support of the Transcaucasian countries in doing so. Azerbaijan will be particularly important in this regard, as Baku has rarely enjoyed good relations with Tehran. What's more, the country is adept at adjusting its position based on the political climate in the United States and the region's evolving geopolitical conditions.

Russia, the most powerful external actor in the Caucasus region, is another important factor shaping Bolton's visit to the region. The national security adviser's tour comes immediately after his trip to Russia, where the United States' plan to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty dominated the agenda. Washington's planned pullout has raised tensions with Moscow, which are likely to manifest themselves in an intensified competition over contested borderlands such as the Caucasus region.

Bolton's visit has served to underline this competition. The Trump administration will also examine the possibility of weapons sales to Armenia, Bolton noted, adding, "I think it increases Armenia's options when it's not entirely dependent on one major power." Bolton's statements are significant, especially because Yerevan is strategically aligned with Moscow on military matters (Armenia hosts 5,000 Russian soldiers on its soil) and procures all of its weapons from Russia. Still, cracks have emerged in the relationship between Moscow and Yerevan since Armenia's recent protest movement, the dubbed the Velvet Revolution, catapulted Pashinian to power in May. 

What's Ahead

The tensions are unlikely to cause a rupture in strategic ties between Armenia and Russia, and Yerevan would face a number of obstacles if it sought to ramp up its security ties with Washington. Nevertheless, the United States has made an overt attempt to woo a key Russian ally — perhaps as part of an effort to capitalize on the emerging rift between the two countries. Against such a backdrop, the Caucasus region appears likely to emerge as an increasingly important factor in Washington's considerations, particularly when the area has the potential to impact the United States' quarrels with both Russia and Iran.

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