The Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), of which Armenia is currently chairman decided in an early February summit in Moscow to establish a Rapid Reaction Force that would be deployed to counter military threats against members of that organization, among other purposes. This decision coincided with the creation of a Russian stability fund for CSTO members. Specifically, two financial gran’s were announced ‘s one with Kyrgyzstan and one to Armenia. Just days later, at the 45th Munich International Security Conference, US Vice President Joseph Biden spoke of a new framework for American foreign policy generally and for relations with Russia in particular.
The Munich Security Conference has become the place where new directions and intentions are unveiled, especially in US-Russia relations. Then-President Putin used that forum two years ago for a blistering attack on the US in the context of deteriorating American-Russian relations. This year, US Vice President Joseph Biden tried to reverse that downturn, and by speaking about ‘pushing the reset button’ he demonstrated a readiness to set new parameters for those all important relations. At the same time, however, he made clear that there were limits to US tolerance for Russia’s dominance in the Caucasus.
No surprise then that just days before the annual Munich event, the Russia’s moved skillfully to strengthen their hand. The Collective Security Treaty Organization, a Russia-dominated consortium which has provisions for a joint command structure, adopted a first-time decision on joint forces and the need to prepare for rapid deployment.
Since Putin’s accession, and especially in the Bush years, US Russia relations deteriorated despite the feel-good rhetoric and plentiful photo opportunities. It is natural that just as the whole world, the Russia’s, too, expected that the Obama Administration would bring with it a change in policy and in anticipation of those new approaches, wanted to reinforce their own negotiating position. There are a handful of major issues on the Russia-US agenda. One is the planned US nuclear missile shield on the one hand and the Russian plans for missile deployment in Kaliningrad on the other. Second is the still-divisive issue of NATO expansion. Third are the persisting differences in perspectives and policies on ethnic conflicts and recognition of self-determination movemen’s and breakaway regions, such as Kosovo, S. Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Finally, there is the inherited real-politik contest over spheres of influence. Inevitably, it is this race, together with the posturing over ethnic conflicts which will most seriously affect the region, and particularly, Armenia. Fortunately, in the Karabakh settlement process, Russia and the US are equally engaged in the Minsk Group and share surprisingly similar positions, despite their differences on other geopolitical knots.
The battle over sphere of influence however will continue, despite all the protestations to the contrary. In the Caucasus, that contest will be further complicated by the additional factor of an eager Turkey wanting to also play a role. Turkey will play its own card as with its effort to spearhead a Caucasus Stability Pact. In addition, as a US ally and NATO member, Turkey will in fact appear to be strengthening the American position, through the back door. Therefore, Russia, although initially in tacit agreement with the Turkish initiative, will wait and see how things develop.
Among the Caucasus countries, Georgia will doubtless be the one to most deeply strengthen its ties with the US, as the recently signed US-Georgia charter confirms. On the other hand, relations with Russia will remain difficult under Georgian President Saakashvili. This will present a serious bump in US-Russia relations.
Azerbaijan’s place in these emerging alliances remains unclear. Both Americans and Russia’s will continue to seek greater influence with this oil and gas supplier. Therefore, Azerbaijan’s hand is free to wheel and deal.
Armenia is the country whose limited room to maneuver is becoming slimmer still. With a $500 million loan from Russia and inclusion in the CSTO rapid deployment force, Armenia is already perceived to be even deeper in the Russian camp.
But neither Russia nor the US, and especially not Armenia itself, should think that Armenia’s place solidly within the Russian sphere is a done deal. On the contrary, this is certainly the time for the term complementarity to be reiterated not avoided. This is the time for a high-level visit to Washington. Armenia will become irrelevant to both camps if it is perceived by all to be unequivocally in one.
It is unclear how the four or five items on the common Russia-US agenda will play out. Most importantly, it is unclear how Russia-Georgia, US-Georgia relations will emerge. They alone can generate new dividing lines in the Caucasus. Armenia has no alternative to complementarity which remains essential for Armenia’s security and balanced development. The government cannot take the easy path both financially and for security. In the run-up to the tough horse-trading sure to take place, Russia’s place in the Caucasus appears unquestionable. Armenia’should re-affirm its own place firmly between the two in the new configuration that will develop between Russia and the West.