Gayane Novikova: The South Caucasus States are Trapped by the Ukrainian Crisis

ArmInfo’s interview with Gayane Novikova, Founding Director of the Center for Strategic Analysis SPECTRUM
Emmanuel Mkrtchian

April 21, 2015

Q: Against the background of the upcoming nation-wide events regarding the commemoration of the Armenian Genocide Centennial, all other events appear to have paled into insignificance. However, there are serious processes in the world which – to a different extent – influence the region and Armenia. Gayane, I am sure that you are following these developments closely. I’d like to start our interview referring to your speech at the Second South Caucasus Security Forum in Tbilisi in November, 2014. I was present there and I’d like to recall your statement suggesting that the Ukrainian crisis became a watershed in the EU-Russia relations, and the South Caucasus states have become hostages to that situation. Don’t you think that Europe has also become a hostage to the United States’ geopolitical ambitions?

A: Everyone has become a hostage of this  situation. Some European states follow in the footsteps of U.S. policy, which does not always serve its interests. Sanctions indirectly affect also the U.S. , restricting its space for political and diplomatic maneuvering in areas where cooperation with Russia is inevitable, at least in the foreseeable future. Moreover, each European state has its own political, historical, economic, social, and cultural reasons to cooperate or not to cooperate with Russia. Not everything can be drawn in black and white  All of these nations, or more precisely  those seriously affected by the sanctions against Russia, have begun to realize that the sanctions give an impetus to Russia –that is, they force the latter seriously to think about the diversification of  economy. If prompt and successful diversification occurs, the European states will lose a part of the huge Russian and, to some degree, Eurasian market at that moment when the EU will lift sanctions against Russia (and it will inevitably happen).  After all, Russia was one of the largest consumers of EU goods and services. Therefore, Europeans have begun to ask traditionally “Russian questions,”  such as “What to do?” and “Who is to blame?”

In  October, 2014, I participated in one of the fora organized by the Italian Institute of International Affairs. The theme was relations between the West and Russia in the context of processes in Ukraine. It was the only conference of its kind which did not provide any recommendations. The expert community, represented by well-known European, American, Russian, and Ukrainian analysts did not come to any conclusion. It was obvious that Russia cannot be isolated. Neither can it be ignored when it comes to settlement of some very important problems.

Q: Do you think they realize that?

A: Sure, the analysts (not politicians!) are well aware of this. They understand that the best option for all the parties, and first of all, for Europe and Russia, is to take a step back. The point is how to walk away from a confrontational model and to save face. Russia offered cooperation at different stages, but from its vantage point did not receive any proper response. The return of Crimea (as Russia calls it) or its annexation (according to international law) was simply  Russia’s response to the misunderstanding or neglect by the West of its strategic interests. President Putin also addressed this issue on Russian television’s “Direct Line” on April 16. Interestingly, at the conference in Rome, which I mentioned earlier, the experts did not focus on the Crimea issue. It appears that, at a psychological level, the Crimea issue has been settled, although conclusions regarding its legal status will  take decades.

Q: In spite of the West’s attempts to isolate Russia, it is still involved in many international processes. You advocate a further cooperation between the West and Russia, not least because there are many areas of common interest, for instance, in the resolution of the complex issues in the South Caucasus.

A: This is correct. I am trying to deliver this message to the expert community and to the political establishment of the European states. I am deeply convinced that in the global international agenda there are many serious issues where this cooperation must occur. They exist in our region as well. As you can observe, after Armenia’s geopolitical choice,  European organizations have not terminated their cooperation with Armenia and even intensified interaction in some areas. The recent economic agreement on further EU assistance is one of the piece of evidence. The Ukrainian crisis forced Europe to reconsider its cooperation with the South Caucasus states, particularly, with Armenia. In fact, Russia’s monopoly over  the management of all processes in our region was cracked  long ago, and this crack – if we take into consideration the  processes inside and outside the region – is becoming wider. Armenia, as a country with limited political, military, and economic maneuverability, in turn strives “to milk two cows at once” (Russia and EU). This is a pragmatic and strategically quite justified approach, especially if one takes into account the cancellation of some projects supported by the US government. Becoming  a member of the Eurasian Economic Union and at the same time maintaining quite serious ties with the EU, Armenia can and must restore its foreign policy balance and continue its complementary policy. The invitation of President Serzh Sargsyan to the NATO Summit in Wales should be considered in this very context.

Q: Some Russian analysts view the Eastern Partnership Project as a US-Polish provocation, as an attempt to weaken the geopolitical influence of Russia. Russia for a long time and, at first sight,  had observed  the pompous presentation of the EaP to the eastern partners of Europe indifferently. These  states, in turn, tried to adjust and synchronize  the European standards with the needs of their countries in a way that would not anger Russia. Why did they shift from that calm process to the burdened geo-strategic “either…or” choice? It became clear that the EaP initially pursued political goals and contained elements of a geopolitical game directly related to the interests of the Euro-Atlantic bloc. After all, some North African states and Turkey have Association Agreements with the EU, but no one in these countries highlights these AA as geopolitically very important.

A: Your observation regarding both the political component and the extreme pompousness of the EaP is correct. It is the normal posture owing to the fact that this program needed and sought huge funding. To receive such funds, Poland and Sweden had to demonstrate the importance of this project for the entire European Union – and most members were quite skeptical. Many of us realized then that Ukraine, as the most important of the three eastern European states, was the pivotal element in this game. Along with Moldova and Belarus, it should have become a “buffer zone” between Russia and Europe. According to the European experts,  such a buffer zone would increase European security. However, Russia’s response was quite predictable. European officials by pushing the partners to make a choice, miscalculated the consequences. They could have been more flexible and could have avoided a confrontation, especially in this situation: namely, it was obvious that the Russian president was prepared to further test the strength of the mentioned partnership relations.

Q: Anyway, Russia failed to hold Ukraine, and it “went” to the West.

A: In Ukraine the situation is very special. Ukraine is a very unique and diverse country –  and this cannot be neglected. Russia has powerful leverage there, such as the belonging of two nations to the same civilization. There are still heated debates about what state’s cradle – the Kievan Rus (Kievskaya Rus’) – was. For the Ukrainian people it is a very important question now. On the other hand, Russia puts the idea of “compatriot” at the top of its list of priorities and hence supports those groups in  Eastern Ukraine that advocate, on the basis of their Russian identity, for separation.

As for the idea that the security of the EU will be increased by the AA, it should be stressed that Ukraine’s move to the West, and the war that followed, actually thwarted these plans. Many  European countries, namely Poland and Sweden, followed by the Baltic States, began to demand an increase in their security not through soft power measures, but  through hard power: they demanded more and more military defense investment. In fact, we will probably face a serious round of militarization, with all its consequences.  The decisions of the recent NATO Summit and the frequency of military maneuvers held by the conflicting parties confirm this trend.

Q: To what frame of axes should the South Caucasus belong ?

A: On the one hand, the South Caucasus states have become the hostages of the Ukrainian crisis, which is absorbing all the “energy” of  the European institutions and Russia alike.  Ukraine is becoming the focus of their attention. On the other hand, the  South Caucasus, also viewed as a buffer zone, is becoming more important for the European states and for Russia. I am thinking of their common threat: the Islamic State. Turkey and Azerbaijan have become the main transit routes for Islamists of all nationalities. In this context, ensuring the stability of the Caucasus in general, and its southern part in particular, is the priority for regional as well as non-regional actors.

Q: NATO does not interfere in the settlement of South Caucasus conflicts, but it continues its efforts to involve the region’s countries in its programs. Despite the political decision on Georgia’s possible accession to NATO, Georgia has not been provided with the Membership Action Plan so far. There is a plan to set up a regional training center in Georgia to pave the way for cooperation between the Georgian armed forces and NATO. This accelerated rapprochement is directly connected with the developments in Ukraine. Don’t you think that NATO is making its way to the South Caucasus “on the sly” and that this movement is unlikely to maintain the fragile balance of forces?

A: I don’t think so. The developments in Ukraine have demonstrated that the West is not ready to fight for this key state. As the saying goes, every man must carry his own sack to the mill. Military advisers can continue to provide recommendations and to hope that someone will follow their counsel. Frankly speaking, the West wants all domestic processes in the buffer states – in Southeastern Europe and the South Caucasus – to be predictable and reasonable. One should not forget that Europe prefers to operate using soft power, which does not require significant financial investments, unlike the expensive programs of  NATO. The latter quickly shifts from soft power  measures to hard power.

Regarding developments in our region: The balance of power in the South Caucasus is achieved owing to the military parity (with intense Russian participation) between the parties to the Nagorno Karabakh conflict, as well as because of – paradoxically – the division lines existing and growing in the region. You have mentioned that NATO does not intervene in the resolution of the South Caucasus conflicts. However, these conflicts are one of the mechanisms to establish control in our region. Russia is a direct participant in the “Georgian” conflicts and a mediator (along with the United States and France) in the Nagorno Karabakh conflict. Furthermore, Russia uses this conflict against both Armenia and Azerbaijan, although “against” is probably irrelevant here. Perhaps it would be more correct to say that Russia is trying “to retain hold of” both Armenia and Azerbaijan. It is obvious that for Russia it is hard to make an unambiguous choice in favor of one or the other of the parties to the conflict.

Q: At one of the conferences organized by your analytical center in early 2014, the NATO representatives praised Armenia for its ability to sit on two chairs. They stressed that the republic is the only CSTO member which  participates in NATO peacekeeping operations. They emphasized  that Yerevan’s ability to combine two different approaches is an important factor taking into consideration the current discrepancies between the CSTO and NATO. In your opinion how sincere are  these statements through the prism of  developments in Ukraine and will we continue to hear such statements? NATO sent already its clear signal to Moscow, and the latter in turn began serious talk about the NATO threat to Russian interests.

A: First and foremost, Russia has been considering NATO as a direct threat to its interests for a long time. In August, 2008, in Georgia, and in March, 2014, in Ukraine it demonstrated its serious approach to this issue. In such a situation, Armenia  should act cautiously; hence, the praise of our state’s stand is absolutely well-grounded. Furthermore, Armenia has repeatedly expressed its willingness to be, and to serve, as a bridge or a platform between the European Union and the Eurasian Economic Union.

Q: Could you please forecast the further developments in the region?

A: Maintaining stability in the South Caucasus is becoming a priority for all non-regional actors.  Much will depend on the internal political situation in each of the regional states. Azerbaijan is still in the most advantageous situation: it contends, due to its oil revenues, at least for the role of a regional energy power (until the sanctions against Iran will be lifted) and it maintains quite successfully a balance in its relations with both Russia and the West. It will most likely enjoy also more support from them to the extent that, as likely, its role in the fight against the Islamic State grows.

Georgia is in a quite stable situation: its official pro-EU and pro-NATO policy no longer irritates Russia, and the emerging group holding pro-Russian sentiments in Georgia do not change anything.

Armenia is also experiencing stability, which is, however, of a different kind. It is still governable by its political authorities because on the one hand the negative example provided by Ukraine has tempered the strident voices of many. On the other hand, conflicts among the political elites have sparked a new wave of public disappointment. Against this background it is important to preserve the status quo in the area of the Nagorno Karabakh conflict. Major efforts  should be concentrated on returning Nagorno Karabakh to the negotiating table in order to continue discussion on the non-use of force agreement within a new format. This new format should include meetings between all three – Armenian, Azerbaijani, and Nagorno Karabakh – presidents.

Q: But it is impossible to apply the third international principle – non-use of force – until the problem of the future status of Nagorno Karabakh is settled. Azerbaijan is not interested in its implementation.

A: The  return of Nagorno Karabakh to the negotiation  table will itself create the necessary open space for all the parties concerned.  It will give a fresh and vigorous impetus to the peace process. I am sure that all parties, all of whom are genuinely interested in the conflict’s resolution, will benefit from it.