Over the past several weeks geopolitical experts have been talking a lot about what the surprise U.S. drone attack on Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) – Quds Force, on Jan. 3 means for the Middle East and relations between the major powers. What has received considerably less attention, however, is what Soleimani’s killing means for the South Caucasus, a region whose small size belies its strategic importance.
Located at the crossroads of Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, the South Caucasus is a major energy supplier and an increasingly important arena for competition between regional powers, like Turkey and Iran, and great powers, like the U.S. and Russia.
Washington believed that taking out Soleimani would restore the leverage it had lost to Iran and Russia’s growing role in the region. Although U.S. sanctions have hurt Iran’s economy, sparking anti-government demonstrations, Russia, China, much of Europe, and even many American political leaders have railed against the Soleimani strike.
The assassination was more than just a bid to eliminate a military leader who had planned attacks that killed thousands of American troops in Iraq and Syria. It was also aimed at weakening the “Axis of Resistance” — comprising Iran, Russia, Syria, and groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon — and undermining Iran’s broader geopolitical strategy, under which Tehran has increased its stature in the Middle East at Washington’s expense. Oxumağa davam et US-Iran escalation and its implications for the South Caucasus→
On October 3, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev paid an official visit to Russia to attend the 16th annual meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club, in Sochi (President.az, October 3). Aliyev’s speech at the high-level event touched on multiple topics, including Azerbaijan’s partnership with Russia, the unresolved issue of Karabakh, and regional security in the South Caucasus region, to name a few. Notably, during his remarks, Aliyev declared, “Nagorno-Karabakh is Azerbaijan—exclamation point!” which sparked heated discussions in both Azerbaijani and Armenian mass media and online (Turan Agency, October 4). But Russian officials kept conspicuously silent regarding President Aliyev’s statement, leading some local observers to claim that this signified the Russian-Azerbaijani strategic partnership had entered a new phase. Allegedly, the muted reaction reflected Russia’s pursuit of a more pro-Azerbaijani policy in light of deteriorating relations with its long-time partner, Armenia. Oxumağa davam et Russia Proposes to Build Nuclear Power Plant in Azerbaijan→
Often forgotten among the many post-Soviet border disputes in the Caucasus is one pitting two strategic partners against each other, Georgia and Azerbaijan. The two states have enjoyed a bilateral partnership since the beginning of the 2000s that has shaped the geopolitical landscape of the South Caucasus region. Being at the East-West crossroads, the Baku–Tbilisi axis is of geostrategic importance not only for regional countries but also for the West, Central Asia, and now China. Nevertheless, the pair recently witnessed an escalation of border disputes and tensions over the David Gareja (Keshikchidagh) monastery complex that sprawls between Azerbaijan’s Agstafa district and Georgia’s Sagarejo district.
Earlier this year, Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili discussed the problem with her Baku counterpart and later paid a visit to the complex. While the top leadership on both sides expressed restraint, there was strong clamoring in Georgia about the negative consequences of her approach—often in reference to the “Russian factor.” Indeed, Russia has increased its soft power in Azerbaijan since 2008 and Russian-Georgian tensions have risen, leading analysts to determine that only Moscow principally benefits from any diplomatic discord between Baku and Tbilisi. Friction between the two would cause immense damage to regional development, namely energy and transport projects. Fortunately, taking into account their long-term decent relationship, the two states resumed their joint commission on the border demarcation process, which requires an open, comprehensive, and mutually beneficial action plan. Local provocateurs (Georgian and Azerbaijani) should be impeded and unnecessary geopolitical interference from the Kremlin must be sidestepped in order for the inherently pragmatic—albeit stalled—settlement process to prevail. Oxumağa davam et The Georgian–Azerbaijani Monastery Dispute and Implications for the South Caucasus Region (Policy Memo: 612)→
On April 24, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev arrived in China to attend the second Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation (Report.az, April 24). This was Aliyev’s second official visit to the world’s most populous country, since 2015. In light of growing Chinese involvement in the South Caucasus region more generally, the Azerbaijani leader’s attendance at the summit sought to further boost bilateral cooperation.
The ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI—formerly called One Belt, One Road or OBOR), unveiled by Beijing in 2013, will link China and Europe via new or expanded overland and maritime transit corridors. The aim, the Chinese authorities proclaim, is to bolster trade and economic growth among all countries involved. Since BRI’s inception, China has invested roughly $90 billion in overseas loans for major infrastructure projects, including the construction of roads, railways and ports throughout Eurasia (Global Risk Intelligence, April 26). The South Caucasus region, with its important transit routes linking East and West, holds great geostrategic importance. Therefore, China has sought new opportunities to deepen its engagement with the South Caucasus countries, in turn providing additional impetus for the development of strategic regional transit projects like the Baku–Tbilisi–Kars railway, the Trans-Caspian International Transit Route, the South–West Transit Corridor, and others (see EDM, April 12, 2017; October 16, 2017; November 6, 2018; April 3, 2019). Oxumağa davam et Azerbaijan Eyes More Cooperation With China Within Belt and Road Initiative→
On November 19, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev paid a long-awaited official visit to Belarus, where he met with his counterpart, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. On this occasion, the Belarusian and Azerbaijani state news agencies praised the level of bilateral strategic cooperation, widely citing Lukashenka’s words to Aliyev: “Belarus has been waiting for you” (Belta, November 19).
The Azerbaijani president’s trip to Minsk coincided with “growing frictions” between Belarus and Armenia, two formal allies within the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). The latest diplomatic row was sparked by Lukashenka’s recent meeting with Azerbaijani ambassador to Belarus, Latif Gandilov. During their talks, the Belarusian leader ended up revealing the content of confidential conversations among CSTO member countries (Azerbaijan is not a member of the alliance) regarding the choice of the organization’s next secretary general (Turan.az, November 12). These revelations infuriated the authorities in Yerevan (see EDM, November 29). “It is strange that Belarus reveals closed-door conversations to [Armenia’s] adversary, Azerbaijan,” Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan angrily stated (News.am, November 20). Oxumağa davam et Belarus and Azerbaijan Enhance Their Strategic Military Partnership→
United States National Security Advisor John Bolton visited Azerbaijan on October 24, and held meetings with President Ilham Aliyev and other high-level state officials. Bolton appeared in Baku immediately following his visit to Moscow (Trend.az, October 24). The US National Security Advisor’s Russian agenda and his meeting with President Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin suggested that Washington will not be rekindling relations with Moscow under the current circumstances.
Bolton’s ensuing trip to the South Caucasus included stops not only in Azerbaijan but also Armenia and Georgia. As the highest US official from the Donald Trump administration to come to the region since Vice President Michael Pence’s visit to Tbilisi last year (Whitehouse.gov, August 1, 2017), Bolton’s three-country tour raised questions of whether the White House is interested in more seriously reengaging the region, which had been neglected under the previous US administration. During Barrack Obama’s presidency, US influence in the South Caucasus had declined as the White House paid more attention to bilateral relations with Russia. Oxumağa davam et John Bolton’s Caucasus Trip: Growing US Influence in Region?→
On August 16, the Azerbaijani MP and head of the Azerbaijan-Russia interparliamentary group Ali Huseynli told local media that “It would be advisable to consider Azerbaijan’s participation in the Collective Security Treaty Organization” (CSTO). The sensational statement triggered a public discussion on Azerbaijan’s possible membership in the Russia-led CSTO and its consequences for the region. While some state officials described this prospect as a logical extension of Baku’s cooperation with Moscow, others strictly opposed the idea, stating that it would pose dangerous challenges to the country. Oxumağa davam et What Would Membership in the CSTO Mean for Azerbaijan and the South Caucasus?→