- - Thursday, November 22, 2018


National Security Adviser John R. Bolton’s recent visit to the South Caucasus did a good deal to restore America’s presence in this critical region and to advance vital U.S. interests. The presence of Mr. Bolton was particularly central, for U.S policymakers have all but ignored the South Caucasus for more than a decade, essentially leaving it to Moscow’s tender mercies.

Throughout his visit, Mr. Bolton met with the leaders of each of the South Caucasus states, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. While discussions were mainly seen as positive, even hopeful by staunch U.S. allies Azerbaijan and Georgia — Armenia expressed mainly through state-run media their displeasure and irritation.

The situation speaks for itself. Armenia, a perennially unstable state, an economic fiasco beset by war and generations of corrupt authoritarian rule, is effectively a Russian vassal and is undergoing an intense constitutional crisis that is unlikely to result in a democratic outcome but could further destabilize it.

Azerbaijan — modern, successful, a state with a strong leader yet moving forward at paces as an emerging democracy even while fighting corruption — nonetheless would prefer to look squarely west. But it is also hamstrung by the unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh war and constant awareness of Russian and Iranian pressure. It is therefore unable to maximize its potential contribution, primarily through hydrocarbon exports, technology, regional security and integration, not to mention Western security.

Georgia faces constant external and internal pressure from Moscow, and Russian troops are steadily encroaching upon its territory by unilaterally moving border signposts whenever the spirit moves them.

In all three cases, the absence of any sign of a coherent U.S. policy has significantly contributed to the domestic and interstate pathologies that make this region a seemingly intractable one for policymakers to deal with.

Indeed, many American experts complain that there are no big ideas left regarding the Caucasus. More prosaically this means they are tired of this region’s seemingly intractable problems. They are not. Changes are afoot that an American policymaker vigilantly attuned to the advancement of U.S. interests like Mr. Bolton are taking advantage of to advance those interests.

While Armenia has wrong-footed itself by continuing to look excessively to Moscow and Tehran and ignore the United States, Mr. Bolton’s visit suggests that some policymakers in Yerevan may have awoken to the need to find alternatives to Moscow. If they are so inclined, Mr. Bolton made clear that the United States would assist them to end hostilities with Azerbaijan, build some economic success and attempt real sovereignty. Mr. Bolton made clear that the way to Armenian accomplishment and independence was for a major diplomatic initiative to break the logjam on Nagorno-Karabakh — namely the return of occupied territory to Baku — and thus reduce by an order of magnitude Moscow’s leverage over the region.

A resolution of this war is also a necessary precondition for any democratic progress in Armenia rather than renewed stagnation, a mere settling of scores or a lurch toward a kind of Caucasian Peronism and/or populism. Any of those outcomes inevitably strengthens Moscow’s ability to impede progress in each country’s domestic governance let alone their capacity to work together and conduct responsible domestic and foreign policies. But the United States appears willing to expend the political and real capital necessary to make peace.

Certainly, it is now possible, thanks to the Caspian Sea convention of August, to complete the Southern Gas Corridor (SGC), build the Trans Caspian Gas Pipeline (TCGP) connecting Central Asian energy producers with Azerbaijan — a tremendous boost to major U.S. policy goals. Access to energy from suppliers other than Iran reduces Armenia’s vulnerability to both Tehran and Moscow while bringing it closer to the West. At the same time a shared interest in energy (as in the Israeli-Egyptian Camp David accord) helps cement a peace agreement around a tangible mutually beneficial major interest.

Mr. Bolton could demonstrate adamantly he is reorienting the United States to the assumption of a strong and enduring presence in Caucasus’ affairs. Only such a U.S. and European presence can contribute to the improvement of these countries’ domestic governance and chances for peace. Those are the preconditions for the attainment of vital U.S. interests not only in the Caucasus but in Europe as well. For if we have learned anything about the Caucasus, it is that its security and European security, a truly vital U.S. interest, are inextricable from each other. An even somewhat united South Caucasus, with the support and assistance of the United States, would go far to protecting citizens, infrastructure and government institutions from the influence and encroachment of Moscow and Tehran.

Armenia, however, must do what for the last 25 years it has deemed unthinkable — return that which is not theirs.

• Stephen Blank is a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council. He is a former MacArthur Fellow at the United States Army War College.

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