Will Trump's Presidency Overturn the Fragile Peace in Russia's Backyard?

U.S. Marines demonstrate their firepower on the range with M240 and .50 caliber machine guns during Exercise Agile Spirit in Georgia. DVIDSHUB/Public domain

The next U.S. administration should be careful with Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan.

After the collapse of the USSR, the Transcaucasian countries became a focus for American political and economic elites. This region was attractive to the United States for several reasons. First, Washington understood that Russia would use the Caucasus as a geostrategic bridge to the Middle East. Many outstanding experts noted that the United States needed to expand relations with the countries of the region in order to prevent excessive strengthening of the Russian factor. In this regard, the administrations of both Bushes, Clinton and Obama considered the Caucasus an important element of the long-term Middle East policy. Second, U.S. oil corporations sought to gain access to the oil fields of the Caspian Sea. America, seeking to reduce its European allies’ energy dependence on Russian gas, lobbied for the construction of energy projects that bypassed Moscow. In addition, Washington was involved in the settlement of ethnopolitical conflicts, becoming a permanent member of the OSCE Minsk Group on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Over the past twenty years, U.S. leaders have said that the South Caucasus is an important element in American foreign policy in the greater Middle East. Will America’s attitude change with the new president?

First of all, it should be noted that the United States considers each country of the region, namely Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan, not only in the context of the region-wide policy in Caucasus, but also in terms of bilateral relations. Thus, Georgia plays the role of an agent of America’s political interests in the region. The United States supported Georgia’s territorial integrity, and condemned Russia’s recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Every year, Congress increases its external allocations for Tbilisi’s humanitarian, economic and military needs. Moreover, next year, Georgia will receive up to $90 million, which is twice the total amount of equivalent assistance to Armenia, Azerbaijan and Turkey. Besides that, Tbilisi has made the greatest progress in the process of European integration. It is also the region’s most active country in terms of military-technical cooperation with the United States. In July of this year, U.S. secretary of state John Kerry and Georgian prime minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili signed a memorandum on deepening of partnerships in the field of defense and security between the two countries. It provides cooperation in border, maritime and airspace security.

Cooperation with NATO is the most troubling element. Over the years, Georgian authorities have declared their intention to become a member of the alliance. The United States, as NATO’s leading power, has also stated that it wishes to see Georgia as a full member. However, a number of reasons obstruct the process. First, NATO has no right to accept a state with unresolved conflicts. Thus, Tbilisi has to abandon South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which threatens to destabilize the political situation in the country. Such a scenario is unlikely to take place in the nearest future, so it minimizes Georgia’s possibility of becoming a NATO member. Second, full integration may lead to a confrontation with Russia, which does not want to see the alliance encroaching on the Caucasian frontier. Many NATO members understand the importance of cooperation with Tbilisi, but they also realize the limits of their capabilities in the case of a new Russian-Georgian war.

Meanwhile, joint military exercises have been held more frequently. Earlier this month, NATO-Georgia Exercise 2016 took place near Tbilisi. Moscow called it a threat to peace in the region. Moreover, as of 2016, Georgia ranks fourth overall and first among non–NATO member countries in terms of the number of troops participating in NATO’s “Resolute Support” mission in Afghanistan. We should not forget that Georgia is an ideological mirror of American policy for other countries in the region. Many experts point out that the United States’ support led Georgian authorities to launch an effective fight against corruption and hold a series of major reforms that changed people’s lives for the better. Thus, U.S. policy toward Georgia is unlikely to be radically revised during Donald Trump’s presidency. Official Tbilisi will continue to deepen relations with NATO, maneuvering between Washington, Brussels and Moscow. In turn, pro-Georgian Republicans in Congress are unlikely to allow the White House to cut allocations for Tbilisi and cancel a number of strategic agreements that determine the general nature of U.S.-Georgian relations.

Unlike Georgia, relations with Azerbaijan have sharply deteriorated over the past eight years. During the presidency of George W. Bush, Azerbaijan was regarded not only as an energy donor, but also as a logistic bridgehead for operations in Afghanistan and carrying out intelligence activities against Iran. Practical necessities forced the Bush administration to overlook systematic violations of human rights in Azerbaijan, as well as mass arrests of journalists and members of the opposition. The neoliberal Obama team saw dialogue with the government of President Ilham Aliyev differently. In the very first year, America cut its financial assistance program to Azerbaijan significantly, compared to an increase in allocation for other countries in the region. The White House, Congress and leading human-rights organizations started criticizing President Aliyev for the arrests of journalists and political activists who opposed the regime’s policies.