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Geopolitics and crisis in the Caucasus: A report

Map of the Caucasus region (1994)

The Caucasus have, for the greater part, entered a period of political crisis since and because of the collapse and dissolution of the Soviet Union. According to a report written by Iran’s Center for Strategic Research, “in general, the Soviet Union’s collapse has been critical in creating new crises by influencing three factors including the resurgent of national identities, change in the geopolitics of power and change in the economic importance and nature of various geopolitical zones in the former Soviet Union.”

Below are are some notable excerpts from the report, or short synopsis and the inclusion of maps on my part. The report is entitled ‘Geopolitical Changes and Crises in the Caucasus,’ and written by Dr. Mahmoud Vaezi. The Center for Strategic Research is, according to its own website, attached with the Iran government’s “Expediency Council as research arm of the Council. Another mission of the Center for Strategic Research is to study and research those issues which are among duties of the Expediency Council according to law (including drawing up large-scale policies of the system, providing consultation services to the Leader, possible revision of the constitution, presenting solutions for large-scale problems, arbitration with regard to differences between legal entities, etc.). Since the Expediency Council formulates general strategy of the Islamic system, research activities of the Center are mainly of a strategic nature.”

Resurging national identities in the Caucasus region

Ethnic, cultural, and tribal differences coupled with the relative liberty of the region’s peoples to reestablish control over their homelands resulted in a number of national and regional tensions, in some cases leading to conflicts. This was exacerbated by the artificial boundaries established under the Soviet Union, often cutting through communities of peoples, so leaving room for tensions resulting from the need to address externally defined borders that did not correspond to ethnic and cultural communities.

Map of ethnolinguistic groups in the Caucasus (2009)

A power vacuum that enables new power dynamics

[I]n the early years after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, given Russia’s preoccupation with its domestic problems, regional and trans-regional powers found an opportunity to compete with one another to realize their goals and to fill the power vacuum while considering factors such as the geopolitical and geo-strategic value of different regions,” writes the report’s author, Dr. Mahmoud Vaezi.

Essentially, the Soviet collapse ended the relative status quo of the region and opened it to the possibility of significant changes in the dynamics of regional and international engagement and interference. For example, NATO countries saw this period as an opportunity to increase their influence and potential expand the breadth of their power base.

Administrative map of the USSR's Caucasus region

Change in the nature of economies and the introduction of fresh opportunities

The newly independent states of the Caucasus provide new economic opportunities, many tied to natural resources, for countries of the region and beyond, which might seek to make new political and economic gains by tapping into these new economies.

One of the other natural and geographical implications of the Soviet collapse has been the volatility of the situation of routes connecting the former Soviet Republics to the outside world. The land-locked situation of countries in Central Asia and Caucasus (except for Georgia), and their lack of access to the high seas, as well the separation of some regions from their mainland, (such as Nakhchivan), have had various impacts on the economic and political structures of the newly independent countries. To compensate for these geographical shortcomings, these countries have become dependent on some of their neighboring countries in order to access the high seas.

What’s special about the Caucasus?

Strategic studies maintain that any region that attracts the interest of the great powers is of geopolitical and geo-strategic significance. However, these regions are divided into two categories: 1) regions that create only strategic, geopolitical and economic advantages for the great powers and 2) regions that are apt to pose threats to one or more of the great powers. Between these two categories, the second holds greater potential for creating crises.

The Caucasus has displayed both of the above characteristics in the post-Soviet era. On the one hand, this region has had strategic geopolitical and economic advantages for the U.S. and to some extent Europe, and on the other hand, it has had the potential for posing threats against Russia.

Energy security

Caspian oil and gas and its transit routes to markets have increasingly attracted the attention of great powers due to the world’s growing dependence on the import of hydrocarbon energy resources, the growing of tensions in the Middle East and the rise of Russia as a major player in the energy politics of the 21st Century. Nonetheless, although great powers such as Russia, the United States and the European Union share political interests in preventing the Caspian Sea from becoming a crisis-ridden zone, these actors have behaved competitively in this region. For more than a decade, controversy over the transit routes of energy from the region has been one of the main areas of contest among some regional and trans-regional powers.

Currently, a set of pipelines transport Azerbaijan’s and Caspian oil and gas to the world markets. The 1700-kilometer Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline with a capacity of one million barrels per day was inaugurated on May 25, 2005 with a $4.2 billion investment. This pipeline was intended to bypass Iran, Russia and Armenia. Before the construction of this pipeline, another one transported oil from the Baku port to Supsa port in Georgia near the Black Sea. To build this 515-mile pipeline, which began in April 1999, nearly 600 million dollars were spent. The oil transported to Supsa is conveyed to Europe with vessels through the Black Sea and Bosphorus strait.

The Baku-Tbilisi-Erzrum gas pipeline with a capacity of 20 billion cubic meters transports Caspian gas to the West and Europe. Furthermore, railroads for the transit of crude oil from Tbilisi to the Puti and Batumi ports transport 100,000 barrels of crude oil from Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan to foreign markets. These two transit routes of oil and gas have turned Georgia to an important hub for energy transit, even more important than Turkey for Europe.

The interest of world powers

Although military confrontation between Russia and the Western great powers in the Caucasus is unlikely, current power projection by both sides will create an unstable situation in the region, threatening peace and security in one of the mostly volatile regions of the contemporary world. Indeed, one point is certain: Russia will no longer tolerate any security arrangements between the Caucasian states and the outside powers as it sees such arrangements as an encroachment of its immediate security environment. However, it seems that Russia will stop short of open and an all-out hostility toward the West reminiscent of the Cold War.

…Moscow regards the Caucasus as its backyard and considers controlling the Caucasus very important and strategic in order to keep its hold on the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea. For this reason, whenever the central government in Moscow enjoys enough power, it has shown its interest in dominating this region. Given the fragile nature of ethnic issues in the Caucasus and its neighboring regions in the Russian territory, the reluctance of many nationalities to accept Russia’s domination, and the likelihood that they could be intrigued by outside forces, Russia regards the republics of Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia as its strategic depth and considers any influence exerted by foreign powers in these regions as a threat to its national security.

…At the same time, the U.S. is also interested in expanding its influence in this region because it knows well that the Caucasus holds many strategic prizes for U.S. global position. The region can provide the U.S. with an energy supply, an access route to energy resources located in Central Asia and the Caspian Sea, and strategic superiority needed to confront Russia and Iran.

A persistent situation of crisis

…attempts at shifting the balance of power and privileging one’s own interests have given rise to new crises and conflicts in the region. Indeed, the new stage of crisis in the Caucasus broke out when the West, by encouraging the Rose Revolution in Georgia, tried to ignore Russia rather than collaborating with it in regional affairs. This attitude which was also followed in the Orange Revolution in Ukraine convinced the Russians that the West was not ready to recognize Russian interests in the former Soviet sphere.”

…The will and interest of both the U.S. and Russia combined with the region’s political and geopolitical situation have given the dialectical relationship between geopolitical changes and crisis a prominent role in shaping future political and strategic contours of the region. Under these conditions, it seems that as long as all regional and trans-regional powers do not pay attention to the interests of other powers or be perceived as threats against them, this situation will continue.

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