Is the US Positioning Itself in the Caucasus?


A cloak-and-dagger story is currently unfolding in and around Armenia, as the security chiefs of three major powers have visited Yerevan in quick succession.

First came Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council. The next was Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director William Burns, followed immediately by Sergei Naryshkin, Russia’s director of Foreign Intelligence Services.

So many visits by foreign dignitaries have created confusion in the news media and political circles; the question was whether Armenia had become such an important country to deserve so much attention, or whether there was a calamity brewing in the region.

Information about the meetings has been scant, as boilerplate news releases were issued by representative parties about corresponding Armenian-Iranian, Armenian-American and Armenian-Russian relations. One has to be naïve to believe that statesmen of that caliber could travel such distances for insignificant issues. There were certainly major developments behind the smokescreen of generic news releases.

All involved parties have been tightlipped, allowing analysts to hazard speculations.

Major events under consideration were the phone conversation of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in July, as well as the impromptu meeting of Foreign Ministers Ararat Mirzoyan in Tbilisi, at the invitation of Georgian Foreign Minister Illia Darchiashvili, with Azerbaijan’s Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov, without intermediaries.

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The US State Department had been following these developments and reacted immediately and publicly after each event.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressed his delight with the Pashinyan-Erdogan phone call, while Assistant Secretary of State Karen Donfried was briefed by Mirzoyan and Bayramov upon the conclusion of the Tbilisi meeting, which in turn was followed by Blinken’s phone calls with his Armenian and Azerbaijani counterparts. Incidentally, Donfried had visited Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan a month ago.

The US involvement in these contacts — and the corresponding absence of Russia — call for some speculation, especially when contrasted with the fact that there was no mention whatsoever of the November 9, 2020 declaration crafted by Russia at the conclusion of the war.

It is the open policy of the US and the West in general to push out Russia from the Caucasus and these moves are the practical consequences of that policy.

The initiatives by Canada and Spain to open their embassies in Yerevan and the return of Armenia’s ambassador to Israel enhance Armenia’s significance in the region.

The other, broader dimensions of the current dynamics in the region are the war in Ukraine and resulting sanctions on Russia, as well as the Tehran summit on July 18 between Vladimir Putin, Erdogan and Iran’s leader, Ebrahim Raisi.

It is believed that the main topic on its agenda was Syria, where the three powers are at loggerheads. Mr. Erdogan has been planning another confrontation in northern Syria against the Kurdish forces allied with the US (YGP). During the recent NATO summit in Madrid, Mr. Erdogan was not able to make a deal with President Biden, or Russia and Iran about the raid, as that will further foment instability in an already volatile region. He did manage, however, to score some victories, in return for not blocking the memberships of Sweden and Finland, namely the lifting of arms embargoes and the deportation by the latter two countries of Kurdish immigrants Turkey considers dangerous.

But certainly there are other issues on the summit’s agenda, such as sanctions. Russia and Iran are both under heavy sanctions by the West, and Turkey, despite being a NATO member, has refused to participate in applying these sanctions. Thus, Turkey remains the most convenient route to go around those prohibitions and Mr. Erdogan is willing to offer that chance, but for a price. It remains to be seen how that compensation will shape up at the conclusion of that summit.

Russia and Azerbaijan have expressed deep concerns about Burns’ visit to Armenia. Naryshkin’s surprise visit to Yerevan proves that. Incidentally, that visit is a bad omen as Mr. Naryshkin is believed to be beholden to Azerbaijan’s lobby. His association with Azerbaijani oligarch God Nisanov contributed to Moscow’s duplicity during the 44-Day War.

During Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s last visit to Baku, he proclaimed his support for Azerbaijan’s policy, to Armenia’s chagrin. He repeated verbatim what Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev had been pushing, stating that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group, which for decades had been tasked with finding a final peaceful resolution for Karabakh, is now dead and that new realities have emerged on the ground following the 44-Day War; Armenia has been pinning its hopes on that group which still maintains that the status issue of Karabakh has not been settled and it should be done so through peaceful negotiations, indirectly implying that Azerbaijan’s use of force has been contrary to the Minsk Group’s principles, mandated by the United Nations.

For all practical purposes, the Kremlin intends to deep freeze the Karabakh issue, because any solution will undermine its position in the Caucasus. Whether the issue is settled in Armenia’s favor or Azerbaijan’s, the outcome is the same for Moscow; in both cases, its military presence on Azerbaijan’s soil will be nullified.

Thus far, Moscow has taken Armenia for granted. Nominally, the two countries are allies, but Moscow has failed to fulfill its security obligations time and again.

Now, as the US demonstrates some activity in the region, Moscow has been watching those movements with apprehension. At this point, Armenia has to wield its diplomacy skillfully to take advantage of the situation, in view of the US’s increased activity there. Some politicians, like the president of the European Party, Tigran Khzmalyan, believe that “Armenia’s decolonization has begun.”

Despite Armenia’s miniscule size and clout in the region, it can play a pivotal role within the context of rivalry among major powers and the recent prominent visits are a testimony to that.

Since many theories are advanced in the absence of solid news about recent momentous developments, every commentator is entitled to venture proposing their own theory. The eruption of a second crisis, while a major one is already raging around the globe, is not uncommon in international politics. Therefore, we cannot discount any other eruption in the Middle East, following President Biden’s visit there. His major goal, through that visit, was to rally forces against Iran. After the failure of negotiations in Qatar, over Iran’s nuclear deal, President Biden stated that a military option was on the table, if his patience runs out. President Biden’s policy of refraining from perpetual war and engaging in perpetual diplomacy may act in Armenia’s favor, now that Washington is trying to revive the OSCE Minsk process.

All along, Israel has considered it its prerogative to make preemptive strikes at any perceived threats. Washington’s role has been to restrain Israel and assume responsibility for that action, because Israel may launch an effective preemptive strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities but it cannot contain the ensuing conflagration all around the Middle East, where Tehran maintains proxy forces. But Washington can certainly and can even announce an exit strategy.

It seems that Mr. Burns’ visit to Armenia is in that context to touch base with Armenian leadership. In such a scenario, Armenia has these two options: either to maintain strict neutrality or partner with Azerbaijan for a short period in serving as a launching pad for US-Israeli striking forces against Iran, for a substantial reward, and then cynically condemn the aggression and express sympathy to Tehran, as the latter did during the 44-day war, congratulating Baku after announcing that any territorial change in the region was a red line for Tehran.

No one should wish that such a grim scenario might develop in the region but world politics are primed now for all sorts of crazy actions throughout the globe.

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