Russia's Contest With the West Heats Up in the Caucasus

5 MINS READAug 19, 2015 | 01:02 GMT

Just as signs indicate that the conflict in Ukraine is escalating, the standoff between Russia and the West also appears to be intensifying farther east in the former Soviet periphery. On Tuesday, Georgian Defense Minister Tina Khidasheli met with U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter at the Pentagon, ahead of the inauguration of a new NATO training center in Georgia before the end of August. The day before the meeting, reports emerged that Russia is planning on opening a new military radar station in Azerbaijan in 2017. Though these reports are unconfirmed and may not be entirely reliable, coupled with the opening of a NATO training center, they suggest the Caucasus could soon experience some important changes.

The Southern Caucasus region — comprising the states of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan — is no stranger to the standoff between Moscow and the West. Indeed, it was the Russo-Georgian War of August 2008 that marked Russia's resurgence as a regional power and exposed the West's unwillingness to defend a country that was formally aligned with both the European Union and NATO. After the war, Russia was able to use divisions within NATO and the U.S. preoccupation with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to re-establish influence throughout much of the former Soviet periphery, from Central and Eastern Europe to Central Asia.

This was particularly true in the Caucasus, where Russia used the war with Georgia as a means to formalize and strengthen its military and political influence in the breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russia also shored up its military presence in Armenia and gained an even stronger economic and political position there. The one weak spot for Russia was Azerbaijan, which instead of aligning with Moscow chose to use its wealth of energy resources and strategic location to gain concessions from several regional powers, including Russia, Turkey and the West. But Russia's military presence in both Georgia and Armenia effectively served as a check against Azerbaijan, and Baku was well aware that Moscow was the dominant external power in the region.

However, the West would not give Russia a free hand to keep expanding its influence in the former Soviet periphery. In the Euromaidan uprising in Ukraine, the United States and European Union supported the removal of a pro-Russian government in Kiev in favor of one that was oriented toward the West. And Western powers made clear that their support would not be limited to Ukraine: Particularly after Russia annexed Crimea and opted to support a separatist rebellion in eastern Ukraine, the West began to build up militarily in Central and Eastern Europe and expand security cooperation with several other countries in the former Soviet periphery.

This expansion has been most obvious in Ukraine, but it has not ended there. Georgian troops have participated in significantly more joint military exercises with NATO and U.S. forces since the Ukraine conflict began. And although Georgia has not been granted the NATO membership it has so actively sought, the alliance will open a military training center in the country during a visit from NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg at the end of August. The opening of the center is bound to be as unpalatable to Russia as it is a welcome vindication for Georgia, a country that felt abandoned by the alliance during its own war with Russia just seven years ago. 

Moscow will be particularly displeased because Russia's once-dominant position in the Caucasus has been tested during the Ukraine crisis. Since the start of the fighting in Ukraine, the territorial conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh — which had been relatively dormant for the past two decades — has intensified. This is probably not a coincidence; Russia's ability to arbitrate and shape the conflict to its liking has been strained. Normally, Russia's military presence in Armenia and strong position in the Caucasus overall was enough to maintain the peace. However, the Europeans have been courting Azerbaijan more ardently as an alternative energy supplier, allowing Azerbaijan to gain leverage even as Russia is losing economic and political standing. This could explain why Azerbaijan has, over the past year, become much more aggressive in testing the status quo on the line of contact with the Armenians and why Yerevan and its backers in Moscow have done relatively little to respond.

Normally, we would expect Russia to lambast Azerbaijan for its aggressive actions and boost support for its ally, Armenia, but it has done neither. Instead, Russia has called on Armenia and Azerbaijan to maintain a dialogue over Nagorno-Karabak, and Russian officials have said Moscow will maintain weapons supplies to both countries. At the same time, Russia has increased its security cooperation with Azerbaijan; Russian artillery ships paid a friendly visit to the Baku port from Aug. 13-16, and defense officials from Russia and Azerbaijan have held numerous bilateral meetings in recent months.

Given this context, an Aug. 17 report from TV Zvezda claiming that Russia plans to deploy a Voronezh-DM early warning radar in Azerbaijan in 2017 caught our attention. There are numerous reasons to seriously question this report; neither Russian nor Azerbaijani officials have confirmed it. Moreover, Zvezda, a radio and television station operated by the Russian Ministry of Defense, has been known to broadcast Russian propaganda and occasional disinformation. In fact, the Russians have little practical need for a military radar station in Azerbaijan since they have built up other early warning assets covering the Caucasus region since they lost the use of Azerbaijan's Gabala station in 2012.

This is not to say that the radar deployment or other forms of military cooperation between Moscow and Baku are out of the question. The situation in the Caucasus is fluid and complex. The recent developments in the Caucasus raise more questions than answers, but they are undoubtedly meaningful components in the evolution of the broader standoff between Russia and the West.

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