Sunday

25th Feb 2024

Opinion

South Caucasus needs West to stop greater conflicts

  • Former US commander Ben Hodges (c) during a military drill in Germany in 2014 (Photo: defense.gov.us)

The Nagorno-Karabakh peace agreement brokered by Turkey and Russia last week temporarily ends a bloody war and brings some hope for a brighter future for the mountainous enclave.

This agreement will see Russian peacekeepers deployed in the region for at least five years, with a built-in apparatus for an additional five years.

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Moscow now has troops in all three countries in the South Caucasus - Georgia (20 percent of its sovereign territory is occupied since 2008), Armenia (in bases left over from the collapse of the Soviet Union), and, now, in Azerbaijan.

Meanwhile, the US is a co-chair of Minsk Group, together with France and Russia - an offshoot of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Professional diplomats have worked hard in the Minsk Group to resolve the conflict since 1993, but the governments of the US and France, together with the rest of Europe, were 'missing in action' in recent weeks.

The people in and around Nagorno-Karabakh are now paying the price.

And their plight also raises questions about the wider South Caucasus, which has been long-neglected by most in the West.

We are in an era of great-power competition, and I believe that great-power competition prevents great-power conflict.

By demonstrating that we are interested in a region or place or event, we are conveying to a potential adversary that we care about it, are putting resources into it, and will defend that strategic interest.

It helps prevent conflict because it reduces the chance of miscalculation by the potential adversary about our interest.

The competition must encompass all domains: diplomacy, information, military, and economy.

Our failure to fully and consistently compete in the greater Black Sea region in all domains, including the South Caucasus, allowed this bloody conflict to reignite, resulting in the deaths of thousands.

We yielded the initiative to the Kremlin and so today we are on the sidelines, observing the result.

For the United States and Europe, standing on the sidelines is no longer a viable option.

The Nagorno-Karabakh region, internationally recognised as a part of Azerbaijan, is the only east-west land corridor connecting Europe and Eurasia which doesn't go through Russia or Iran.

As such it is key to developing the economic potential of the greater Black Sea region and the West should not drag its feet any longer.

We must step up efforts to protect international law and work more closely with stakeholders on the ground to create some of the conditions for a lasting peace between Azerbaijanis and Armenians.

This will require sustained diplomatic effort as well as economic support and private investment opportunities.

To stay relevant in the region and help keep the peace, the West must work together with Turkey to repair and renew a fraught relationship.

Time for Turkey 2.0

It's time for Turkey-US and a Turkey-Nato 2.0 - we need to repair and update these relationships.

Nato needs Turkey as its focal point of defence and security in that part of the world for the coming century.

A revitalised working relationship with Turkey represents a crucial opportunity through which to reaffirm and reanimate Ankara's role as a respected and reliable member of the Western alliance.

This is vital if Nato members want to compete successfully in the greater Black Sea region.

The West must also monitor closely the deployment and activities of the Russian peacekeepers.

This will mean taking stock of their rules of engagement and, in cooperation with Turkey, to assuage Armenian humanitarian concerns and ensure that human rights are respected.

For example, the reopening of the border between Turkey and Armenia could generate a range of trade and investment opportunities that could help restore trust and confidence and encourage both Armenia and Azerbaijan to come closer to the transatlantic family.

The Azerbaijanis have committed to protecting the safety of Armenian communities in the region, as well as the integrity of their cultural landmarks and artefacts.

The West should help Baku uphold its side of the deal, especially as they have international law on their side.

The peace agreement, despite the presence of Russian "peacekeepers", presents an opportunity which the West should seize, while remaining vigilant about Russia's role on the ground.

We have reason to be hopeful. Today over 30,000 Armenians - excluding the occupied region - already call Azerbaijan home.

A peaceful Nagorno-Karabakh, as a sovereign part of Azerbaijan, is a critical part of achieving stability in the region.

Nato needs Georgia

Let's build new, stronger relationships with Armenia and Azerbaijan, reinforce our long-standing alliance with Turkey, and strengthen our presence in Georgia, to include infrastructure there for the US air force and navy.

We should also extend an invitation to Georgia to immediately join Nato.

These measures will convey to the Kremlin that this region is of strategic interest to us.

The West must compete in the Southern Caucasus while we still have the opportunity, if we want to prevent great-power conflict.

Author bio

Lieutenant general (retired) Ben Hodges is the former commander of the United States army in Europe, and the current Pershing Chair in Strategic Studies at the Centre for European Policy Analysis, a think tank in Washington.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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