How the United States Should Cooperate with Russia in the Caucasus

Tucked away just south of Russia is a region that often goes under the radar when it comes to the foreign policy of the United States. The Caucasus region consists of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, as well as some regions of the Russian Federation. Further complicating the area are three breakaway republics with little international recognition (Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and South Ossetia). All of these countries were part of the former Soviet Union, and thus, remain an important aspect in Russian foreign affairs – for security as well as cultural and economic reasons.

The Caucasus area itself is a major area for oil production and supplies a great deal of gasoline for both Russian domestic use as well as for exportation. The oil fields of the Caucasus are so vast and abundant, that the region was a prime target for occupation by German forces during World War II. In addition, the mountainous terrain of parts of the Caucasus provides a natural barrier for Southern Russia, north of which are mainly plains and fields which are not easily defendable.

Notwithstanding the crucial importance of the area, it is not known for its peaceful existence.

Despite these country’s close proximity to one another and cultural similarities, the international relationships between them are rather complicated. Russia and Georgia fought an all-out war back in 2007, and just last month tensions escalated into a skirmish between Armenian and Azerbaijani armed forces over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. Abkhazia and South Ossetia broke off from Georgia at different points following the collapse of the Soviet Union, both of them claiming the right to self-determination. Meanwhile, Armenia is backing the majority-Armenian breakaway republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, recognized by the vast majority of the international community as part of Azerbaijan. Even some of Russia’s regions in the Caucasus, Chechnya, and Dagestan most notably, have a history of instability, albeit less so in the previous two decades.

Many in the West would be content to relegate this region as “Russia’s problem,” and to only ever mention the Caucasus in the context of anti-Russian propaganda. It should be understood that the Caucasus is not an isolated region. What happens there has far-reaching implications far beyond the borders of the three republics and the three breakaway republics.

Given the state of Russian-American relations in the past decade, it would even be expected that some major influencers of US Foreign Policy might even try to sow more chaos in the region to hinder Russia. However, the tragic occurrences at the Boston Marathon in 2013 showed that any conflict in this area is not only Russia’s problem. The two responsible for the catastrophe, Tamerlan and Dzokhar Tsarnaev, were ethnic Chechens, both of whom had recently visited the area and were known to the FSB, Russia’s internal security service. The FSB had even previously contacted the FBI in order to warn them that the Tsarnaev brothers had traveled to Chechnya and had likely met with radical Islamists.

In order to benefit both the United States and Russia, the two superpowers should work with one another in order to promote stability and growth in the area.

The United States and Russia could begin their cooperation with the following steps:

First, none of the countries of the Caucasus, whether they are widely internationally recognized or only recognized by a handful of states, should be considered for NATO membership, nor would NATO members attempt to interfere within the internal affairs of the Caucasus nations. This would show a commitment to the poorly-kept promise made to the Russian Federation shortly after the dissolution of the Soviet Union: that aside from the then-newly reunified Germany, none of the countries that made up the former Warsaw Pact or the USSR would be admitted into NATO. This promise was broken shortly thereafter with the addition of Poland, Hungary, the Baltic States, and various others.

Upholding this promise would include reigning in Turkey from intervening in the region via its close ally: Azerbaijan. While it would be a gross violation of the sovereignty of both Turkey and Azerbaijan to dictate which countries they may and may not get along with, Turkey is a NATO member, and its “Two states, one nation” policy that it maintains with Azerbaijan gives NATO a clear way into the Caucasus, regardless of whether Azerbaijan officially becomes a member or not. In addition, Turkey’s continued military and economic support of Azerbaijan allows for the further destabilization of the region by fueling its war efforts against Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. Thus, the absence of NATO through either direct membership or indirect assistance via outside countries such as Turkey would decrease the chance of escalating the conflict.

Secondly, the issue of the breakaway republics must be solved. These areas will not be able to reach their full potential if only a handful of the world’s nations recognize them as legitimate. The USA and Russia should, with the cooperation of the original parent nations of these breakaways, assist with the organization of referendums to determine if these regions want independence, to be integrated back into the parent country, or some other third option should it be wanted by a substantial proportion of the population.

Finally, the USA and Russia must focus on combating Radical Islamic influence in the area, which has at times threatened the stability of countries within the Caucasus. In fact, this region of the world has seen many fighters join ISIS and other radical Islamic movements in the past, and those fighters have the potential to undermine progress. Both the United States and Russia should pour resources into the further education of the population in order to deal a heavy blow to the Islamic fundamentalist ideology in the region.

In addition, as the area borders Iran, which has less than stellar relations with the United States and has had lukewarm and steadily declining relations with Russia over the past few years, it holds a unique geopolitical position. Knowing that one superpower – Russia – wields considerable influence in the Caucasus with the assistance and further backing of another superpower – the United States – could influence Iran to roll back its ambitions in the Middle East.

Given the current state of Russian-American relations, it does not seem likely that the two will be cooperating over any region in the world, much less the Caucasus. This is a regrettable situation, but collaboration between the United States and Russia in the Caucasus would support the improvement of relations between the two superpowers, as well as have positive implications for the region and adjacent regions such as Central Asia and the Middle East. We can only hope that as relations between the United States and Russia continue to flounder that the stability of the Caucasus does not follow suit.