What Washington Wants in the Caucasus

How a smart policy for Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia can help solve a number of U.S. problems.

Hillary Clinton’s recent short but intense visit to the South Caucasus was being widely discussed in political and think-tank circles long before it began. Such substantial interest had serious grounds: this was the secretary’s second visit to the region since 2010. It was also her last Caucasian tour before the U.S. presidential elections and the end of her tenure at the State Department.

Clinton’s final trip to the Caucasus followed Vladimir Putin’s absence at the G-8 Summit at Camp David; the Russian president instead visited Belarus to demonstrate his Eurasian concerns. Putin’s behavior provided a concrete way to discuss the difficulties of the Russian-American “reset” and its prospects, especially taking into account the special U.S.-Georgian strategic partnership.

Clinton’s visit has raised some acute questions. The State Department stated that the primary goal of her trip was to discuss issues “of regional security, democracy, economic development and counterterrorism.” But rhetoric aside, to what degree is the Caucasus interesting for official Washington? What principle differences exist between U.S. and Russian approaches to the region? And how can Moscow and Washington harmonize these contradictions?

Not In My Backyard

On the one hand, unlike Eurasian stakeholders Russia, Iran and Turkey, the geopolitics of the Caucasus are a much more remote problem for the United States. For Russia, any destabilization in the South Caucasus is fraught with concerns about heating up the already-volatile North Caucasus region. These fears—not nostalgia or imperial revival—define Moscow’s approach to the South Caucasus, whose challenges are perceived as a continuation of Russia’s domestic troubles.

For Turkey, the Caucasus is largely a test of a new foreign-policy doctrine in which Ankara considers itself not a “younger brother in the NATO family” but a sustainable Eurasian actor. As for Iran, the Caucasus region poses a potential threat of outside intervention near its borders, and Tehran considers the area a challenge to its status as a growing regional power.

U.S. policy towards the Caucasus has another motivation. The region is not valuable in isolation. Rather, it is of interest as a forum for working on broader security and foreign-policy puzzles. Georgia, for example, is seen by U.S. policy makers as the weak link of the former Soviet states, which Moscow could use as a tool to establish its dominance in Eurasia. Meanwhile, Russia’s dominance in the post-Soviet area is seen as part of a project of reintegration, a sort of “USSR lite.”

The increasingly geopolitical activity of Moscow in its “near abroad” is often identified with the strengthening of authoritarian tendencies in Russia itself. Considering such activity a challenge to the United States—and perhaps symbolic of a return to Cold War ways—is disputable. But regardless of the validity of this idea, it is nonetheless a part of the American political and expert discourse. Thus, the recognition that Abkhazia and South Ossetia are neither results of the ethno-political self-determination of small nations from the former Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic nor a precedent for the total revision of the borders established between the former Soviet republics prior to 1991—which would later become the official interstate borders after the Soviet Union dissolved. Consider the paradox: while it lambasts communism and its legacy, the United States is meanwhile ready to defend the borders created and formed by the Bolsheviks, including Stalin's personal involvement. This misses the obvious dilemma for Washington: Moscow’s passivity in Eurasia now faces the growing popularity of nationalists within Russia’s domestic politics, as well as anti-Western sentiment as a whole, which presents a challenge to the positive character of the bilateral relationship.

What is the significance of Armenia and Azerbaijan for official Washington? Aside from traditional diplomatic rhetoric, one could say that these two countries play a role in the broader context of U.S. Middle East policy. Having an extremely low (if not negative) rating in the Islamic world, Washington is interested in strengthening ties with Azerbaijan’s secular regime. It certainly does not replace Turkey (which in recent years has become distant from the United States on many issues), but it could be considered as a counterweight to Iran. The post-Soviet nation-building experience of Azerbaijan also is an example of an ideological model that could be applied to other Muslim republics.

It’s notable that the White House and the State Department use particular rhetoric towards Baku. Human-rights issues, though mentioned, were ultimately overshadowed by two issues considered to be greater priorities: energy and military-technical partnerships. Democratization issues are addressed but displaced to the periphery of bilateral relations with Azerbaijan, especially when compared to U.S. relations with other Eurasian states.

Armenia has a different importance. It is considered an instrument of pressure on Ankara, which in recent years has turned away from the U.S. and Israel’s general foreign-policy course. In this regard, it was hardly a random event when Secretary of State Clinton visited the Armenian Genocide Memorial in Yerevan during her 2010 tour.

There there is the long-standing Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Baku and Yerevan. Unlike in Georgia, Washington sees the potential for broad cooperation with Moscow on this issue, and this is beneficial for more ambitious goals—such as Afghanistan and Iran—for which Russia's support is very important. In fact, Russian policy vis-à-vis the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process focuses on mediation, in contrast to its one-sided support for the breakaway republics in Georgia. Not seeing this situation as a threat of neo-Soviet reintegration, Washington is prepared to share with Moscow the responsibilities of assisting in the resolution of the Armenian-Azerbaijani confrontation.

Washington's interest in the Caucasus is clear. But it is not connected to any one issue. Rather, it is part of larger external political projects: a “reset” in relations with Russia, a resolution of the issues in the Middle East generally, and a solution to the problems of Iran and Turkey in particular. In this sense, it is possible to speak about varying perceptions of the Caucasus in Moscow, Tehran and Ankara on the one hand and in Washington on the other. Consequently, in order to be more successful, the Eurasian powers, primarily Russia, should overcome their nearsighted vision and learn to see the more sensitive Caucasian challenges within wider geopolitical contexts.

Sergey Markedonov is visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Russia and Eurasia Program, in Washington, DC.