Russia Profile, Russia
Nov 1 2008


A New Axis Forms

By Alan Kasaev
Special to Russia Profile

A Whole Array of Post-Soviet States Remain within the Sphere of
Russia's Influence

Following the events in South Ossetia, diplomatic exchanges between
the key players in the region have intensified.

After the `five-day war' in the Caucasus, the geopolitical and
geo-strategic alignment of forces in the world was fundamentally
altered. However, in this new environment, not everybody views
Russia's position in the same way.

The military conflict in South Ossetia unveiled serious schisms in
relations between the CIS countries. At first glance, Mikheil
Saakashvili's declaration that Georgia would withdraw from the
Commonwealth appeared to have threatened its continued
existence. Apparently, the current leadership of Ukraine is also
pondering such a move.

In practical terms, the institutions of the CIS countries distanced
themselves from the events in the Caucasus. Most of its member states
adopted a `wait-and-see' attitude. In regard to the Caucasian
problems, many of Russia's partner countries in the CIS confined
themselves to general statements on `the unacceptability of escalating
tensions.' For example, this applies to Kyrgyzstan and
Tajikistan. Only Astana and Minsk declared unambiguous support for
Russia's actions in the Caucasus.

Did the Caucasian conflict `blow up' the CIS? The answer is `probably
not.' The conflict has proved that many of Russia's traditional
partners, including a number of EU countries, Turkey, and Iran, remain
prepared to closely cooperate with Russia, both politically and
economically.

The Turkish guarantee

Within the bounds of the UN General Assembly session in New York, a
bilateral meeting was held between the foreign ministers of Azerbaijan
and Turkey, as well as representatives of the GUAM organization, which
includes Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Moldova. Shortly after the
military phase of the conflict in South Ossetia, the long-standing ice
in Turkish-Armenian relations finally cracked. President Serzh
Sargsyan invited his Turkish counterpart to a soccer match between the
teams of the two countries in Yerevan. The visit was not all about
sports, but had a political component as well. Shortly thereafter,
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan proposed to establish the Caucasus
Platform for Stability and Security, intended to be guided by the
principles of the OSCE and providing for participation by Armenia,
Georgia, Azerbaijan, Russia, the United States and Turkey itself.

Moreover, Ankara has expressed its willingness to actively participate
in the settlement of another famous `frozen' conflict'between Armenia
and Azerbaijan. Turkey received additional impetus in this direction
from the Georgian-Ossetian conflict. During the August events in the
Caucasus, Turkey maintained a neutral position and took the side of a
party interested in maintaining security in the region.

In further developing the Turkish-Armenian arrangements, Turkish Head
of State Abdullah Gul, speaking from the rostrum of the 63rd session
of the UN General Assembly, declared Ankara's readiness to establish a
platform of security in the Caucasus. According to Gul, this
geopolitical construction `has great purpose and vision, and the
realization of this idea will not only promote a settlement for the
Nagorno-Karabakh, but also for other frozen conflicts.'

Some other important diplomatic meetings also took place during the
recent UN General Assembly, broaching talk of a new geopolitical
reality in the Caucasus. The region's problems will no longer be
addressed solely in Washington, Brussels, and Moscow. Many of them
will now depend on the positions of Baku, Yerevan, Ankara, and
Tehran. There is reason to presume a diminished role for the United
States in the Caucasian countries, with the exception of Georgia, and
correspondingly an increasing influence from the traditional players
in the region'Turkey and Iran. Of course, a special place here will
belong to Russia, for which it is easier to find a common language
with the latter two than with the West.

In Ahmadinejad's interest

Given the long history of geopolitical, military-political,
socio-economic, and cultural ties between Iran and the countries of
Transcaucasia, this region is objectively among the foreign policy
priorities for the Iranian leadership. Iran's national interests and
objectives call for more active involvement in the affairs of the
Transcaucasian region, which given the political instability, economic
dislocation, and interethnic and international conflicts since 1991,
has become a locus for the ensuing competition among the various power
centers at both a regional and global level.

In the rapidly changing international situation, Iran's new strategy
for the Caucasus is not yet fully articulated, and is thus partially
inconsistent, but nevertheless it is the object of much interest.

Iranian leaders call the U.S. policy of strengthening its military and
political influence the main factor in the spread of instability in
the Caucasus, which negatively affects the development of the region
and hinders the objective process of forming its own security
system. This relates to the U.S. strategy of drawing Georgia and
Azerbaijan into NATO, participation in the establishment of military
and naval bases in these states, the revitalization of the American
special services and intelligence flights over Caucasian territory,
and Washington's lobbying for corresponding transport and pipeline
routes.

Tehran's strategy in the Caucasus region encompasses a whole range of
components, the foreign policy vision of creating a regional system of
security among them, as well as other objectives that are priorities
for Iran in the geopolitical, political, economic, humanitarian, and
cultural arenas. In this regard, due to Iran, it is possible that the
scope of the new alliance for stability and security, initiated by
Turkey, will be greatly expanded.

Russia needs Iran precisely with the geo-strategic aim of confronting
the United States. Given escalating confrontation with the West,
Russia cannot afford to lose such an important ally. Clearly, in the
given situation, it is imperative to change the format of the Platform
for Stability and Security in the Caucasus from the current `five' to
a `three plus three' model (Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan plus
Russia, Iran, and Turkey).

It is obvious to Tehran that the Caucasus is a zone of interest for
Russia. This is why Iran is not encroaching on any particular
(critical) influence in the region. According to analysts, its
activity here has been and will continue to be minimal. But in terms
of geopolitics, not inviting Iran into the Caucasian `platform' would
be akin to setting a time-bomb, which can blow up the security system
not only in the Caucasus, but also globally.

In addition, expanding the scope of the Platform for Stability and
Security in the Caucasus is first and foremost in the interests of
Armenia. Yerevan hopes to balance the growing influence of Turkey in
the Caucasus region through Iran. At the same time, connecting Tehran
to the settlement of the South Ossetian and Abkhazian issues would
partially alleviate the tension in Moscow-Tehran relations, which
emerged after the UN Security Council adopted three anti-Iranian
resolutions on the nuclear program in the country, with Russia's
approval. Now Russia has a chance to `reform' itself in the eyes of
Tehran, starting with a demonstration of its interest of getting Iran
involved in solving critical problems in the Caucasus.

Right now, more than ever before, it is critical for Moscow to restore
the shaken confidence of Tehran. Tehran's reaction to the war in South
Ossetia showed that Iran's resentment of Russia is quite
profound. Following the tragic assault on Tskhinvali by the Georgian
army and the ensuing Russian operation to coerce Georgia to peace, the
Iranian Foreign Ministry restricted itself to statements on its
willingness to `provide support, within the framework of basic
policies, to promote peace and stability in the region.' Contrary to
many predictions, Tehran is still in no hurry to make approving
statements about the Russian recognition of the independence of
Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Further chilling of Russian-Iranian relations and an increase in
distrust between the two countries could lead to serious
consequences. First of all, it deals a blow to Russia's
interests. After all, Iran is a key country in the Islamic world, and
a regional power. Tehran has sufficient influence on the processes
taking place on neighboring territories. Regional stability relies
heavily on Iran, including both in the Caucasus as well as in the new
states of Central Asia'a region strategically important for Russia's
interests. Moreover, Tehran can directly and indirectly affect the
attitude of Russian Muslims. In other words, Iran has plenty of
opportunities to cause damage to Russian interests in the Caucasus, or
on the contrary, to support them.

The loss of confidence on the part of Iran toward Russia would lead to
a collapse of the security project for the Caspian Sea region, which
would inevitably lead to further escalation of tensions in the
Caucasus. At the same time, any destabilization in Iran, which the
United States is striving for, would produce analogous processes in
these regions, and thus on the southern borders of Russia itself. This
would be very dangerous for Russia right now. Therefore, Russia has a
direct interest in an economically strong and stable
Iran. Developments in South Ossetia and the aggravation of relations
between Russia and the West will push Moscow and Tehran closer
together. In addition to this, Tehran remains an ally for Moscow in
its fight for the right to realize its own energy projects in the
Caspian region and in Central Asia.

The fight for potential

The central issue around which regional competition is building up
consists of control over the energy-producing potential of the Caspian
and the transit potential of the Black Sea regions. Today, the
higher-priority practical and tactical challenge for the West is the
realization of the Trans-Caspian pipeline project, which could supply
the pipeline artery through Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey, as well as
make use of the transshipment facilities of the Georgian ports. The
West is actively pushing Iran and Turkey out of the region, which
makes them situational partners of Russia. Turkey exerts enormous
influence on the political situation in Azerbaijan, utilizing, among
other things, a wide-reaching non-governmental network. In turn, Iran,
in parallel with Russia's weakening position, is expanding its
presence in Armenia, thus becoming a factor in guaranteeing the
security of the republic.

The regional line Iran is taking consists of supporting the contours
of the Moscow-Yerevan-Tehran axis, maneuvering the mutual relations
with Yerevan and Baku, and utilizing the Karabakh factor. If an active
U.S. policy in Transcaucasia leads to tension in relations between
Iran and Azerbaijan, then on the contrary, Tehran and Yerevan are
maintaining a pointedly constructive dialogue. For the Iranians,
relations with Armenia are important in terms of leverage toward Baku
and, in general, continuing their presence in the border region. At
the same time, Russia is being actively drawn into Armenian-Iranian
energy projects.

Currently, Iran, Russia, and Armenia have a number of large-scale
joint projects. This includes, among others, the construction of the
railway from Armenia to Iran with Russia's participation, the
construction of a refinery on the Armenian-Iranian border involving
Gazprom, the supply of gas from Iran to Armenia's
electricity-generating facilities located on Russian property, and the
reconstruction of the network of electricity transmission lines to
export electricity from Armenia to Iran, also carried out by Russian
specialists. With such specific economic steps, Russia is hoping to
achieve geopolitical success in the region and to consolidate its
influence there.

However, Georgia is acting as a significant geopolitical `buffer,'
interfering with Russia's efforts to enhance protection of its
regional interests in the Caucasus. By means of Tbilisi, the West
intends to weaken Russia's growing influence in the region. To some
degree, this effort is succeeding. The current Georgian-Russian
controversy gave the West great breadth of scope to increase its
influence on the political systems of the Caucasian countries. The
strategic dialogue of the West with Azerbaijan was built mainly around
the prospects of neutralizing Iran, and with Armenia'about the
possibility of moving the country out of Russia's orbit and unblocking
the border with Turkey. In the meantime, none of these goals can be
considered fully realized, since both Tehran and Ankara sought to
avoid an excessive strengthening of Washington's position.

In general, the policy of the United States in the Caucasus has taken
on an almost consolidated rejection of Russia, Iran, and
Turkey. Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia will eventually have to choose
their way based on the outcome of this positional battle.

It cannot be excluded that after these `tectonic shifts,' similar
changes will follow in other regions in the Caucasus. In particular,
states bordering the Caspian Sea may finally come to some agreement on
its status, which is interfering with the construction of the
Trans-Caspian pipeline that the United States has lobbied for and that
is so disadvantageous to Russia. But in this case, Moscow's interests
will come into conflict with Ankara and Tehran to a much lesser extent
than with Washington.

Alan Kasaev is the head of the CIS and Baltic States editorial
department at the RIA Novosti News Agency.

Photo: Sergey Guneev

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