By Hrachya ARZOUMANYAN
Reformatting of the Middle East, initiated by the Arab awakening, has spilled over beyond the frontiers of the Arab World, influencing the processes along the whole arc of instability from the North African countries up to Afghanistan and Pakistan. However, the logic of the ongoing geopolitical processes not always coincides with the publicly articulated goals and intentions. For example, the settlement of the Syrian problems or the Iranian nuclear program is not just a goal, but rather a means, with the help of which geopolitical goals are achieved, in particular, the limitation of Iran’s sphere of influence.
In the 2000s, Iran, for the first time in many centuries, has found itself close to creation of the geographically uninterrupted sphere of influence, spreading from Afghanistan in the east to Beirut in the West. The creation of such a sphere will principally change the balance of forces in the Middle East, making Iran a dominating regional power in the Persian Gulf and forcing geopolitical actors, first of all USA, to give up the idea of eliminating Iran as a regional center of power. In addition, Iran has got the opportunity to directly impacting the policy of the Persian Gulf countries with support of its natural allies: the Shiite population. Being forced to solve the problem of survival of their own regimes, the Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states will become more compliant.
Turkey is also in the transition period, while it has become more than just a satellite of the West, but also not a regional superpower yet. Now Turkey is already not satisfied with playing the part that it had during the Cold War, as a member of NATO. At the same time it cannot be a hegemony, shaping the regional picture, unable to ignore the current processes, which can be clearly seen on the example with Syria. Turkey’s interests are immediately concerned with what is going on in Syria, but Ankara cannot afford openly interfering into the Syrian affairs, to say nothing of the idea of heading an international coalition to “introduce” proper order in Syria. As a result, the Turkish foreign policy and strategy still remain ambiguous and transitional in all directions. So today Turkey does not shape the regional balance of forces, as it would be befitting to a mature regional power; instead, it rather creates a Turkish balance of forces, balancing between the subordination to the United States and its own policy. So what we see is a paradox. The stronger Turkey will be, the less comfortable a number of geopolitical centers and the states of the region will feel themselves, and as a result, the more vulnerable it will be. It is necessary to remember that the instability at the southern borders of Turkey, the growth of the Iranian sphere of influence, the dynamics in the Caucasus and the probability that the United States would change its Middle Eastern policy, do not let Turkey hope that the transitional policy and strategy might become permanent.
Thus, we can state that the processes, reformatting the Middle East, have reached closely to the borders of the Caucasus and Armenian states, and they are ready to break through the regional borders, that is so poriferous now. The Caucasus is becoming an important element of the geopolitical contention, spreading all over the Eurasian space, which makes us more carefully treat the problem of the Artsakh settlement not just in the context of the South Caucasus, but rather the Greater Caucasus. The Caucasus is shaping the multifaceted and controversial reality, for which the Persian, Ottoman and Russian empires were in the traditional competition. The British Empire joined that struggle within the frameworks of the Big Game in late 1800s- early 1900s. The disintegration of the Soviet Union exposed the Caucasus to new actors, i.e. the United States of America and the states of the South Caucasus, in addition to the traditional ones. The struggle for the Caucasus in the 21st century is becoming more complicated, as far as the number of actors has been increased, just as the areas, where their contention is in progress. In the past it was a struggle between the empires, but today, we can mention at least three arenas.
The first, local arena is the recognized and non-recognized states of the South Caucasus, as well as the state entities of the North Caucasian peoples, struggling for the national interests. The second, regional arena is where the successors of the traditional empires, i.e. Russia, Turkey and Iran, compete with each other. And the third one, the global or geopolitical arena, where the geopolitical centers of power (first of all, Russia and USA, and indirectly EU and China) are available. It is necessary to note that the Caucasus for the other geopolitical actors and, first of the West, is an area for projecting their military and political power, and they can let themselves some indifference and detachment from the fates of the local peoples, but as for Russia it lacks such an opportunity, so it should conduct a more complicated and nuanced policy. The Caucasus is an area, through which the communications, providing the access to the critically important resources of the Caspian and Eurasia as a whole, are lying. So the main geopolitical function of the Caucasus is to be a connecting link between the East and West, North and South, and maintaining such a function creates the main geopolitical problems.
The first and traditional geopolitical problem of the Caucasus is the energy resources of the Caspian and the Central Asia. The system of gas and oil pipelines, created within the Soviet Union, firmly “locked” the new Eurasian states and let Russia keep the control over the energy resources of Eurasia in the post-Soviet period. But when Baku-Ceyhan oil pipeline appeared, it broke down Russia’s monopoly in such an important sphere. Today new projects are discussed and designed consolidate that breakthrough.
Another problem, used as an element of the geopolitical game, is the radical Islam and terrorism. The West attaches significant importance to this factor. Religious, ethnic and other differences create a fertile soil for tensions and interference of the Jihadist and Wahhabite ideology into the region. Using the Caucasus as a base, the radical Islam is aiming toward the whole Russian territory.
And the third geopolitical issue should be considered the Artsakh problem. The role and importance of Artsakh for centuries have been mainly related to the geopolitical functions that shaped the specific psycho-type of the Artsakh Armenian, traditionally inclined to the military and state services. The evaluations and prognoses concerning the Nagorno-Karabakh settlement do not pay a proper attention to those principal changes in the international security environment that have taken place in the recent period. Experts prefer speaking about Artsakh and the Artsakh problem, remaining within the familiar and very-well studied confrontation between Armenia (the Republic of Armenia and NKR) and Azerbaijan.
Such an approach is true for the realities of early 1990s, when Russia as a successor of the Soviet Union, had enough weight to suppress the attempts of the military and political pressure from outside against the parties to the conflict. The Soviet borders, having ceased to be a political phenomenon, however, remained a geopolitical reality, constraining the activity of the other geopolitical centers. But quite a lot has been changed in the region and the whole surrounding world in the last 20 years.
Artsakh has passed an evolutional path of establishment of its statehood, full of many events. Yes, this process seems quite unusual and unfamiliar for the outside world, as far as the formation of the NKR has been going on without the participation of the international community, but, unlike the other crisis areas, here it has been successful. The attempts to ignore Artsakh in the new conditions or to treat it just as the “Nagorno-Karabakh problem” are apparently erroneous.
As for the international context, then the five-day war of 2008, that laid the final line of the post-Soviet period, and the Arab revival of 2011 completely change the geopolitical landscape. And in the new situation, no matter what sort of scenarios, envisaging isolation of the Caucasus from the global process, might be, they become not just inadequate, but even dangerous. The stability in the Caucasus, although it sounds quite paradoxal, is related to the existence of the Artsakh problem, which is beginning to play a stabilizing role. Against the background of the extensive dynamics along the instability arc, the destabilization of the Caucasus as a result of the Armenian-Azerbaijani war, becomes a too risky step. It has all chances to escalate from a local conflict into a regional war, which will lead to the loss of control over the geopolitical processes on the critically important Eurasian “isthmus.”
Thus, the borders of the post-Soviet space in the Caucasus are becoming poriferous and do not rule out projecting a military and political power in both directions. In such conditions, the consideration of scenarios of the limited Armenian-Azerbaijani war seems unserious, if not irresponsible. Apparently, the military and political activity around Artsakh is an element of some much larger picture. So discussing any initiative of the South-Caucasus states to unleash a war out of some narrow national interests can be acceptable only in case if the undertaken steps are in line with a larger international context.
Existence of so many geopolitical, to say nothing of the regional or local problems, impacting each other many ways, makes the competition for the Caucasus a non-trivial goal. It is necessary to note that the confrontation is spreading out in all arenas. The attempts to ignore any of the mentioned arenas will have sad consequences, and the not-so-well designed steps will have the results that were not expected at all. We can remember the example of how Georgia behaved in 2008, when decided that it was possible to use the factor of the geopolitical contention between USA and Russia to solve its local national problem: to re-establish control over Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The ambitions and the youth of Saakashvili, who thought that it was possible for him to solve the problems of the Georgian statehood by taking part in the geopolitical game, had a very predictable result for Georgia: the five-day war ended with the heavy defeat from Russia, which, not entering the capital city, demonstrated to the world and Georgia its helplessness.
Thus, working on the Caucasian strategy of the 21st century, the actors are forced to shape a reaction to a whole number of challenges and threats. Meanwhile, critically important is the distinction of the main arena, where the confrontation is unfolding, the ability to find out the arena (local, regional or global) a new phase of the confrontation and contention for the Caucasus would take place. How will the projection of the geopolitical power take place and in which forms? These are the questions, the answers to which are becoming critically important for all states of the Greater Caucasus.