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Nov 24, 2009 | 22:22 GMT

7 mins read

Russia: Trying To Maintain a Balance in the Caucasus

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev met Nov. 24, the same day that leaders of the Armenian and Turkish parliaments met in Moscow. Two days earlier, Aliyev met with his Armenian counterpart Serzh Sarkisian to discuss the ongoing dispute between their countries over Nagorno-Karabakh. Before his meeting with Sarkisian, Aliyev said that his country was prepared to use military force against Armenia if negotiations failed to produce results. Aliyev's threat shows how frustrated Baku is growing with the negotiation process. It could also endanger the delicate balance Russia has been trying to strike in the Caucasus.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev met with his Russian counterpart Dmitri Medvedev Nov. 24 in the Russian city of Ulyanovsk to discuss key regional issues. The same day, the heads of the Armenian and Turkish parliaments met in Moscow. Two days earlier, Aliyev met with Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian in Munich to continue negotiations in the countries' dispute over the Nagorno-Karabakh region. These meetings represent the continuation of a new diplomatic framework being established in the Caucasus — a process primarily involving Azerbaijan, Armenia, Turkey and Russia. But the ongoing and complex negotiations recently changed direction just before the Munich meeting, when Aliyev said Azerbaijan was "ready to use military force" against Armenia if the negotiations did not make progress soon. If it were to materialize, that threat could shift the regional dynamic substantially. However, Russia will speak out before any serious moves are made. Aliyev's statement indicates Baku's frustration over the negotiation process and highlights the delicate situation in the Caucasus. Turkey and Armenia are holding talks on normalizing ties and opening their shared border. The talks have gone through several rounds and produced protocols to be signed by both countries' parliaments. But these negotiations are closely linked to the talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan, with Baku (traditionally an ally of Turkey and wary of Armenia) stating that it would only support such normalization if the longstanding Nagorno-Karabakh dispute is settled first. Russia, as a regional power with ties to Armenia and Azerbaijan, has been mediating both sets of negotiations. But neither set of talks has produced much in terms of concrete results. Armenia and Azerbaijan have not been able to agree on the status of Nagorno-Karabakh, and though the Turkish and Armenian foreign ministers signed protocols on normalization and opening their countries' shared border, those protocols are stuck in the Turkish and Armenian parliaments and face substantial resistance, particularly in Armenia. Russia has continued encouraging all parties to work toward an agreement, but Moscow's interests in the region would actually be better served by prolonged negotiations without any substantial change, other than for each country to grow closer to and more dependent on Moscow. From Moscow's perspective, Azerbaijan's frustration with the Turkish-Armenian negotiations forces Baku into Moscow's waiting embrace. Therefore, the Kremlin has encouraged the Turkish-Armenian negotiations while quietly supporting Baku in its indignation over the developments. Azerbaijan now fears that Armenia and Turkey could take matters into their own hands. Baku feels the talks with Yerevan are fruitless and, despite Ankara's assurances, is worried that Turkey could choose to normalize relations with Armenia without a resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh issue. Azerbaijan also believes that Russia has been using every country involved in these negotiations to its own advantage, which is not far from the truth. So Azerbaijan has shifted its stance and heightened its rhetoric, saying that not only is it willing to go to war with Armenia (which it has said many times before), it is ready for the conflict. Talks have yielded few results, and Azerbaijan knows it is in a difficult position where its interests are not being served by alignment with either Russia or Turkey. By threatening war, Azerbaijan is hoping to make Turkey pay more attention to Baku's demands — particularly, Baku wants Ankara to support a resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh issue. A key question is whether Azerbaijan's military is indeed ready for war with Armenia. When the countries fought over Nagorno-Karabakh from 1988-1994, Azerbaijan was defeated. But since then, Azerbaijan has been able to increase its defense budget from $250 million to $1 billion due to strong oil prices and generous energy revenues from the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline. Baku has steadily built up its military forces and has received training from the likes of Russia, Turkey and the United States, while Armenia's economy and military have remained relatively stagnant. But according to STRATFOR sources in Baku, Azerbaijan's military feels it needs a few more years to become fully ready to face Armenia. This is not to say, however, that Azerbaijan will not initiate war if it feels it needs to. Whether or not Azerbaijan is militarily prepared for war with Armenia, Aliyev's rhetoric presents a problem for Russia. From Moscow's perspective, Azerbaijan's military threats complicate the balancing act Russia has been trying to maintain in the region. This consists of keeping Armenia beholden to Russia, building up ties with Azerbaijan by fostering the split between Turkey and Azerbaijan over the Armenia issue, strengthening cooperation with Turkey in regional and energy issues, and keeping the United States from getting too involved in the negotiations — all while appearing like the region's benevolent mediator. Not only do Baku's threats change the relations Moscow has with Azerbaijan, they could also damage the strategic relationship Russia has built with Turkey. Were Azerbaijan to actually follow through with its military threats, Russia would be forced to abandon this balancing act and likely would get involved militarily. That is because Russia has deemed Armenia a military ally — the country gives Russia a crucial foothold south of Georgia and between Turkey and Iran — and has 5,000 troops stationed within Armenian territory. But Russia wants to avoid military intervention at all costs for the moment. After its war with Georgia in 2008, Moscow knows another regional projection of force would not only cause it to lose credibility on the international stage, it would also destroy the ties Moscow has built with Baku. The Nov. 24 meeting between Aliyev and Medvedev in Russia was scheduled primarily to allow Moscow to urge Azerbaijan not to follow through with these threats. And to make sure Aliyev gets the message, Medvedev likely reminded him of two things. First, in the event of a war between Azerbaijan and Armenia, Russia will not only get involved but it could occupy the Nagorno-Karabakh region in defense of the Armenians, which would be a nightmare for Azerbaijan. Second, if Azerbaijan goes to war with Armenia, it will lose its primary cooperative partner in the region. Traditionally Turkey has played that role, but Azerbaijan has grown disillusioned over Turkey's strengthening relations with Armenia. As a result, Azerbaijan has lately relied more on Russia, though Azerbaijan has grown tired of Moscow's power plays in the region. In light of these developments, Azerbaijan reached out to another outside power — the United States — in recent days. On Nov. 23, Aliyev met with a U.S. delegation led by Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Celeste Wallander, and there is no doubt that Aliyev tried to elicit U.S. military cooperation over the Nagorno-Karabakh situation. However, the United States is simply not able or willing to get involved right now, as it is tied up with wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and a possible confrontation looming with Iran. Furthermore, the Armenian lobby in Washington is one of the most powerful lobbying groups in the United States — arguably more powerful than the Israeli lobby. The United States, in effect, is actually Azerbaijan's worst bet for assistance in its current situation. Azerbaijan feels like it needs to make a move but has little outside support for doing so. Russia has warned Baku to tone down its rhetoric and proceed very carefully. The question now is whether Azerbaijan will adhere to that warning.

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