President Trump publicly proclaims that the United States and Russia should work together in policy areas few Americans have heard about since the U.S. and U.S.S.R. joined themselves at the military hip to defeat Nazi Germany. This is potentially a new important shift in global foreign policy.
This comes as a dangerous situation continues to brew south of Russia that Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson is well acquainted with – the South Caucasus (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia) region, where his former company ExxonMobil now operates. Specifically, Tillerson is likely very knowledgeable about the situation that surrounds the oil-producing Azerbaijan, where ExxonMobil has been working for decades.
Azerbaijan has an ongoing 25-year-long conflict with Armenia, which resulted in refugees (over 1 million) that were driven from their homes in Armenia as well as in western Azerbaijan that Armenia occupied in 1992-94. It has a southern neighbor, Iran, which objects to Azerbaijan’s close relations with the U.S. and the State of Israel with which Azerbaijan does billions in trade. Furthermore, while Azerbaijan’s relations and commerce with the West increase and improve every day, the next-door Islamic Republic of Iran works full-time at partnering with Armenia in various strategic fields.
Northern next-door neighbor Russia supplies Azerbaijan’s next-door Armenia with free arms, soldiers and money to keep the Armenian government alive. On the one hand, Russia wants business with Azerbaijan and sells it arms at full market price while totally supporting its poverty-stricken Armenian neighbor that occupies one-fifth of Azerbaijan in and around its Nagorno-Karabakh region, which the entire world recognizes as part of Azerbaijan.
2017 has come and recently, Russia officially merged and exerted control over the Armenian army into the Russian army. It already provides Armenia with air defense and border control. Azerbaijan lives and breathes in a volatile, tough and dangerous neighborhood… and does so independently.
As President Donald John Trump enters the White House and Rex Tillerson takes over the State Department, pending confirmation, will the new administration pay more attention to the South Caucasus region?
Relations with Russia and ongoing relations with Iran may be the number one and two problem countries that the new administration must deal with going forward. President Trump clearly advocates better relations with Russia. Tillerson is probably the best informed Secretary of State appointee on Russia and the former Soviet area in a long time. Maybe in establishing better relations with Russia, the U.S. can help settle the 25-year-long Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict?
Russia wants to station Russian soldiers as a “peacekeeping force” between its client state of Armenia and independent Azerbaijan. It co-chairs OSCE’s “Minsk” group with the United States that has been trying for years to settle of the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict.
OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation) is a 57-country organization designed to settle problems and conflicts. OSCE has helped Armenia and Azerbaijan maintain a ceasefire since 1994 and has tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to settle the conflict. If the U.S. can convince Russia to join in convincing Armenia to follow the December 8, 2016, OSCE proposal that Azerbaijan supports, a “Trump” like deal is possible; to wit:
We (OSCE) remind the sides that the settlement must be based on the core principles of the Helsinki Final Act, namely: non-use of force, territorial integrity, and the equal rights and self-determination of peoples, and additional elements as proposed by the Presidents of the Co-Chair countries, including return of the territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijani control; an interim status for Nagorno-Karabakh providing guarantees for security and self-governance; a corridor linking Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh; future determination of the final legal status of Nagorno-Karabakh through a legally binding expression of will; the right of all internally displaced persons and refugees to return to their former places of residence; and international security guarantees that would include a peacekeeping operation.
The April 2016 armed hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan that resulted in the death of hundreds of soldiers and civilians within just 4 days clearly showed the vulnerability of the current status quo (no war, no peace) in Nagorno-Karabakh. A new outbreak of violence in the conflict zone could easily escalate into full-blown combat with devastating consequences for the entire region as well as for the energy security interests of the West. It is enough to mention that the two strategic oil and gas pipelines run only a few miles from the conflict zone.
Will the new U.S. administration pay attention to the former Soviet Union’s longest-running conflict? Being as well-informed as they are of the region, they should. A resolution to such a protracted conflict that has killed 30,000, wounded 100,000 and made over 1 million people refugees would definitely make the region more stable and prove that President Trump’s “Art of the Deal” should not be underestimated.