Thursday, November 20, 2014

A Small Exercise in Speculation: In the Caucasus, All Roads Lead through Tbilisi

The unresolved conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan experienced a sudden flare-up in tensions last week when the Azeri armed forces shot down an Armenian Mi-24 attack helicopter engaged in military exercises near the ‘line of contact’.  A video published by Azerbaijan’s defence ministry showed what appeared to be a shoulder-fired ground-to-air missile homing into one of two low-flying aircraft, resulting in a fiery explosion and subsequent crash.  As of yet, continued shelling has reportedly prevented the Armenian side from retrieving the bodies of the three crew members presumed to have died in the incident. 

Whatever the exact circumstances, the downing of a helicopter represents an unprecedented escalation in the more than twenty-year long confrontation between Baku and Yerevan concerning the mainly Armenian-populated enclave, and seven adjacent, once overwhelmingly Azeri-inhabited districts.  Deaths and injuries from shelling and sniper fire have become an almost daily occurrence in recent years, and there have been occasional flare-ups involving incursions and direct engagement, with one particularly intense episode during this summer; none of these precedents have, however, involved the destruction of heavy military hardware, let alone combat aircraft.

Some have suggested that the current spate of tensions is part of a Russian plot.  Under this scenario, Moscow would allow the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan to thaw – that is, erupt into unbridled violent conflict – only to present itself as the all-benevolent and indispensable peacemaker in the South Caucasus when things spiral entirely out of control.  In what comes below, I will try to speculate – and I do stress speculate – on a somewhat different possible scenario.

To Russia, Karabakh is undoubtedly a geopolitical boon, keeping the South Caucasus divided and ensuring its susceptibility to Russian pressure. It is the crucial stress-point preventing any tri-lateral co-operation between Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia.  It is, moreover, a disciplining mechanism that can be used against Yerevan and Baku as circumstances demand, apart from generating billions of dollars in arms exports to both belligerents as a particularly cynical bonus.  An escalation every now and then only serves to reinforce all of the above points, including the all-important notion that the South Caucasus cannot be stable without the restoration of Russian hegemony.  But a fully-blown conflict is quite another matter: the consequences of such a scenario would be unpredictable and uncontrollable, and, therefore, of limited use for Moscow.

In fact, the road to the restoration of Russian hegemony over the South Caucasus may very well lead through Tbilisi, not Yerevan or Baku.  Georgia’s geographic blessings are also its main curses, and, given the multiple advantages such a scenario would provide, chances are that the Kremlin would try its utmost to reinsert Georgia into its orbit before tackling the Karabakh conflict, should it decide to reassert regional control.  The country lies in between Central Asia’s energy reserves and the outside world as the only feasible Southern alternative to Russian pipeline routes; in the overall scheme of things, this is probably an even greater motive than its oft-cited position between Russia and fellow Eurasian Union/CSTO member Armenia, which, like arch-rival Azerbaijan, remains existentially dependent on Georgia for trade with the outside world.

Conflict or unrest in Georgia would be more controllable, and geopolitically useful than in Nagorno-Karabakh: any advantages would start accruing immediately, as soon as Georgia is destabilised through, say, manufactured political crises, a concocted conflict between Tbilisi and the Kremlin's separatist proxies, or provocations in the Armenian-populated region of Javakheti.  Moscow would have the luxury of time to pressure, coax, bully a subverted Georgia into submission while Armenia and Azerbaijan, cut off for the duration of any conflict, would be quite dramatically reminded of their dependence on Russian goodwill for access to the outside world, as they were in 2008.  Abandoned by NATO – and there is no reason for the Kremlin to believe the Alliance would act any differently than it did in 2008, and intervene – Tbilisi would have no choice but to give in and bandwagon with its northern neighbour.  At that point, and only at that point, Moscow would turn its attention to Nagorno-Karabakh, its position as supreme adjudicator bolstered by its control over both countries’ Westward access.

For Armenia – already clinging on to the last remnants of its independence – this would imply little change.  Baku, on the other hand, would face a series of very difficult choices: with Georgia under Russian control, and crucial energy exports dependent on Georgia, maintaining a ‘multi-vectoral’ policy would become much more difficult.  In the end, both Baku and Yerevan would have wasted their effective statehood through their short-sighted bickering over Nagorno-Karabakh, whose fate would now be entirely in Moscow's hands, as it was in 1988:  Russia would be left as the last man laughing.

But thank God this is just speculation, no?

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