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Energy and Security in Transcaucasia

Authored by Dr. Stephen J. Blank. | September 1994

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With the collapse of the Soviet Union, new states, regions, and security issues entered into international affairs. One of these regions is the Transcaucasus or Transcaucasia. It comprises Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaidzhan and is a zone of centuries-old international rivalry between Turkey and its supporters and Russia and its friends. At stake today is the international economic life, and thus the politics, of Transcaucasia. This rivalry now engages Turkey, the United States, Great Britain, and France against Russia in the struggle to control (or at least leverage) Azerbaidzhan's energy exploration and pipeline programs. This competition interacts with the international effort to bring about peace in the Armenian-Azerbaidzhani war over Nagorno-Karabakh. (See Figure 1.)

Thus, in Transcaucasia energy or economic issues and security are closely linked; almost indistinguishable. This study examines that linkage. It relates Russia's efforts to impose a peace on the area to its aim of securing a stake in the local energy economy. Russia's stated goal of 10-20 percent of the revenues from that energy is wildly disproportionate to its economic investment (which is nil) . But Russian policies reflect its tactics and strategies for reintegrating the former Soviet space.

At the same time, this assessment of Russian and international efforts to gain influence is conducted in the context of Azerbaidzhan's efforts to escape unilateral dependence upon Russia by involving Western firms and governments, and Turkey's efforts to keep Russia from gaining hegemony over Transcaucasia. By tracing the complex international maneuvers of the parties, and relating energy and economics to defense and security issues, we can see the strategic issues and importance of the area in a clearer context.

What then becomes clear is that Russia seeks to coerce Azerbaidzhan, Georgia, and Armenia into a return to some form of economic-military-political union under its auspices, but is meeting considerable political opposition from Baku, Ankara, and the Western powers. This opposition recently led Russia to issue a demarche to Great Britain (significantly not to Azerbaidzhan) concerning its rights to veto anything having to do with the disposition of the energy resources of the Caspian Sea that borders Azerbaidzhan and Kazakhstan. This demarche validates Western reports of Russia's belief that it has a proprietary relationship to energy resources throughout the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and of its efforts to "blackmail" (The Washington Post's word) the new republics into surrendering control over those resources to Russia. It also illustrates that Russia still believes in the diminished sovereignty of Transcaucasian and Central Asian states.

However, Russia's demarche and other actions also reflect its weakness when confronted by steadfast Western opposition to its neo-colonialist policies. The claims it makes on Azerbaidzhan and its Western supporters reflect that weakness and the fear that Western influence might supplant Russian influence in these borderlands. While the local situation is one of unresolved war and Russian efforts to impose a one-sided settlement, the great strength residing in the Western position (should the West seek to engage both Russia and the other CIS members in a comprehensive engagement) is also visible.

Concluding Observations.

All these moves and the deliberate strategy to internationalize the war or at least the negotiations' environment have clearly succeeded in reducing Russian pressure on Azerbaidzhan by using Western leverage against Moscow. Therefore, Russia had to go public in its argument with Great Britain. There is a risk, however that such internationalization will involve too many big political interests in a solution process. That would make it harder to reach a mutually acceptable accord while broadening the agenda or increasing the number of players involved in rivalry with Russia. Undoubtedly any solution, like all other issues involving confirmation in fact of Russian imperial retreat, will also be lengthy, bitter, and nasty, if not sporadically violent.

While the combatants fight for land and sovereignty, the great powers and regional actors jockey for economic leverage over the region's vital assets. Nor do the belligerents and the outside interests refrain from economic warfare, blockades, and sanctions. Here, as elsewhere, economic warfare has become a standard feature of world politics. While those who see economics as taking priority over military issues may be right for the G-7's mutual relationships, in the Caucasus economics and war go together. The naive belief that nobody wishes to start a new cold war or at least a new round of traditional political maneuvering collapses here. For all the talk of alliances and multilateralism, we find even allies competing furiously with each other and with Russia for leverage as Russia employs strong-arm tactics.

In Transcaucasia, control of energy is security and vice versa. While the belligerents in the Nagorno-Karabakh war know their integrity and survival are on the line, an equally serious struggle involving many players goes on behind the scenes with equally portentous consequences. For now this conflict remains a "local war." But tomorrow the whole region may be on fire and its oil is just one of many available flammable materials. On the other hand, it also is clear that local and Western resistance, coupled with Russia's financial exhaustion, can defeat Russian imperial pressure and produce the international pressure needed to bring this war to a halt. Clearly Azerbaidzhan is no pushover for Russia and a Russian empire is not an inevitable result of Muscovite pressures. But the absence of peace means that this pressure will be constant.

These considerations open the door to a U.S. initiative, assuming Washington will take seriously the ramifications of continued fighting for all the states involved; the belligerents, Russia, Turkey, Great Britain, Iran, and the oil interests. Indeed, President Clinton's recent letter to Aliyev is a sign of shifting U.S. intentions and desire to play a more active political role there.105 No unilateral U.S. military commitment isneeded or recommended to bring about a solution and enforce it over time. Indeed, that would be counterproductive. But a postwar involvement of U.S. personnel (preferably civilian but military support units could be tasked for this) in purely humanitarian intervention to rebuild infrastructure and house and/or maintain refugees on both sides might be a worthwhile investment in peace.

More immediately however, it is desirable that the White House pressure Congress to amend the Freedom Support Act to allow it to send support to both Armenia and Azerbaidzhan. The United States must also create a coalition of Western and other states behind a peace plan that could satisfy both sides and leave their sovereignty intact at least de jure, and keep Russia out. In one example, Professor Ronald Grigor Suny of the University of Michigan testified to Congress that the Karabakh Armenians have to accept de facto Azeri sovereignty over their land, while Baku must come to terms with those Armenians' de jure freedom and autonomy in a not so unitary Azerbaidzhan.106 The alternative, of course, is continued war which benefits nobody. Such a solution might well stabilize the area, especially if oil and external assistance could start flowing. It also would gradually reduce and terminate the conditions that allow Moscow to exploit ethnic, national, and religious rivalries to regain its empire.

In no way has Russia started this war or been responsible for it. But its policies have deliberately contributed to its prolongation and aggravation with the clear aim of exploiting it for traditional imperial objectives. On the other hand, it is also clear that empire and democracy in Russia are incompatible and that Russia can neither sustain imperial adventures at home or risk them abroad lest it fracture its own fragile domestic consensus or be dragged in to endless wars on its borders.

If Washington and its allies have to become like a broken record, endlessly invoking this refrain, even as they assist Russia, so be it. U.S. interests are not incompatible with an enlightened Russian sense of self-interest that recognizes legitimate Russian regional interests but eschews imperial adventures and Mafia tactics in the name of peacemaking. In fact U.S. and Russian interests are parallel or complementary to each other should that enlightenment take root in Russia. But for it to take place, U.S. policy must not only address itself to Moscow but to Azerbaidzhan and other post-Soviet states. Comprehensive engagement with them is needed because only then can they begin reforming themselves and thereby reduce the opportunities and temptation for Russia or other would-be imperial powers to meddle in their affairs.107

This recommendation holds true for all the regions of the former Soviet Union. Reform can contribute to domestic tranquility that ultimately can stabilize the area. But for that reform to work, a long-term process of engagement is essential and indispensable. Otherwise, across the entire Eurasian expanse from Gdansk to Vladivostok, insecurity, violence, and authoritarian regimes will be the order of the day. The conflicts and linkages described here are not unique to Transcaucasia. Rather, they mirror the state system's current winter of discontent. In Transcaucasia as elsewhere, since economic reform, energy, and security are linked together, as long as peace is lacking, there will be neither security nor energy for anyone seeking this or other regions' oil or gold.


105.Baku, Azerbaycan Radio Televisiyasi Television Network, in Azeri, May 21, 1994 in FBIS-SOV-94-101, May 25, 1994, p. 62.

106. Ronald Grigor Suny, "Russia's Relations with the States of the `Near Abroad': The End of Retreat and Its Implications for American Policy," paper prepared for the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, Congress of the United States, Washington, DC, May 24, 1994, pp. 5-7.

107. These are the conclusions of an SSI Roundtable on Russia in Washington, DC, on January 31, 1994. See Stephen J. Blank and Earl H. Tilford Jr., eds., Does Russian Democracy Have a Future?, Carlisle Barracks, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, 1994.