Putin Continues to Stir the South Caucasus

Putin Continues to Stir the South CaucasusAt the G-20 summit earlier this month in Germany Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and US President Donald Trump reportedly agreed to restrict intervention in the affairs of third countries. This agreement, however, contradicts Russian foreign policy in every turn.

And it is not just about Ukraine. In Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, Russia seeks to curtail the ability of these governments to pursue independent foreign policies. A series of recent probes in the region demonstrate that the sovereignty and territorial integrity of these states are meaningless from Moscow’s standpoint. Russia feels free to intervene in their affairs at any time, threaten their compatriots in Russia, and regularly brandish military and other forms of power to intimidate them. Unless Washington, Brussels, and NATO step up their game, this region will either explode or be compelled to shelter under Russian power.

In Armenia, Russia curtailed Yerevan’s ability to conduct independent foreign and economic policy years ago. It has forced Armenia into the Moscow’s Eurasian Economic Union, reserves the right to veto any Armenian agreement with the EU, and obtained army and air bases in virtual perpetuity at Gyumri and Erebuni. These bases are supposed to defend Armenia against Turkey or Azerbaijan, but they also ensure Moscow’s de facto protectorate over Armenia and are vital to the projection of Russian power into the Black Sea and the Middle East.

Russia has recently stepped up its pressure on Azerbaijan. In Nagorno-Karabakh, Russian border troops have abandoned any pretense of neutrality and have held drills with Armenian troops in July 2017. At the same time, Russia and Iran jointly launched drills in the Caspian Sea, which threaten Azeri energy installations there. These drills take place in the context of other signs of Moscow’s efforts to pressure Azerbaijan into joining the Eurasian Economic Union, refrain from becoming a pro-Western outpost, and block it from becoming an energy competitor to Russia in the Balkans. As is typical in such campaigns, Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has fabricated charges of discrimination by Azerbaijan against Russians. Russia’s courts also closed the main lobby organization of Azeris in Russia, the All-Russian Azerbaijan Congress, while Russian officials appear to be paying heed to Armenian diaspora organizations in Russia, and Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova publicly humiliated journalists from Azerbaijan in her familiar brutal manner.

The recent tragic killing of an Azerbaijani woman and her infant granddaughter by Armenian troops firing upon supposed Azeri targets in Nagorno-Karabakh underscores the fact that this conflict is a simmering one that may catch fire at any time. The broader point is this: what happens in Nagorno-Karabakh will not stay in Nagorno-Karabakh. As we saw from the 2008 Russo-Georgian war the security of the Caucasus is inextricably linked to European security. Another conflagration in the region will have serious repercussions across Europe, the Middle East, and on the international order.

In Georgia, Russia continues to press Tbilisi to accept the abridgment of its territorial integrity, stonewalls Georgian efforts to negotiate, and insists that the country renounces its NATO and EU aspirations. In early July, Russian forces unilaterally moved 700 meters deeper into Georgia in a process called “borderization.” Russian troops are now less than a kilometer from the Baku-Tbilisi-Poti highway, one of the main regional highways according to Yahoo News UK.

Georgia's security agency said the land grab was "illegal," according to The Independent.

“This is a continuation of the illegal process of the so-called borderization, which not only violates the fundamental rights of local residents but directly damages the security situation,” the Georgian security agency said in a statement. Russia invaded Georgia in 2008 and shortly thereafter recognized two parts of Georgia, South Ossetia, and Abkhazia, as independent states. But most of the world still views these territories as part of Georgia.

Russia started using these "borderization" tactics in June 2008 when it set up a "military demarcation line" between Abkhazia and Georgia. The latest move came just days before a meeting between President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G20 summit in Germany.

Borderization, also known as "creeping," usually involves Russian troops setting up barbed-wire fences, signs, or other obstacles to occupy Georgian land in small enough increments that Georgia and the West do nothing more than verbally condemn the action.

The ongoing expansion appears to have intimidated Georgia, which "apparently bought into Moscow’s logic that Georgia would be blamed for "provocation and escalation," Vladimir Socor, an analyst for the Jamestown Foundation, wrote in 2013.

Over the last nine years, these creeping tactics have split up villages and farms, as did the move in early July, which, the Georgian government said, affected local farmers.

A representative for Georgian embassy in Washington told Business Insider it is too difficult to estimate how much land Russia has seized since 2008 but that Moscow's main goal in such seizures is to hurt Georgia's efforts to join the EU and NATO, as countries seeking to join NATO cannot have any outstanding territorial disputes.

The good news is that things are changing in Washington. The Obama administration essentially ignored the Caucasus and trouble spots like Nagorno-Karabakh, while US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recently met with Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev in Istanbul. The new administration has an opportunity to display a stronger presence in helping Baku and Yerevan negotiate a peace settlement that meets both countries needs and reduces the likelihood of future military intervention. It is critically important for Tillerson, Vice President Mike Pence, Trump, and their European counterparts to make clear to Russia through regular visits to Baku, Tbilisi, and Yerevan that the West will defend these states’ sovereignty and integrity and actively play a role in the peace process.

Of course, none of these countries have suffered the depredations loosed upon them by Moscow to the extent that Ukraine has, but the same principles are at work. For the Russian president, these are not real states and he alone decides to what degree they may “pretend” to act as such. The continuation of Russian foreign policy in the South Caucasus may entail war since these states will not indefinitely renounce their statehood. Moreover Moscow, by fanning the flames of conflict in South Ossetia and Abkhazia against Georgia and in Nagorno-Karabakh by selling high-performance weapons to both sides,
encourages the very outcome it professes to abhor. Russia’s policies all but ensure that ancient grudges will lead to new wars—an outcome that neither Washington nor Europe can passively accept. As Tillerson’s visit suggests, the time for neglect is over and the time for engagement is now.

Sergiy Korsunskyi
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