The Caucasus as Russia’s Achille’s heel

"File:Ilham Aliyev attended inauguration of SOCAR carbamide plant in Sumgayit 05.jpg" by The Presidential Press and Information Office's of Azerbaijan is licensed under CC BY 4.0

Dr. Yusuf Siyret Aktan 

January 19, 2021 

Image credit: “File:Ilham Aliyev attended inauguration of SOCAR carbamide plant in Sumgayit 05.jpg” by The Presidential Press and Information Office’s of Azerbaijan is licensed under CC BY 4.0

Azerbaijan is famous for its robust state oil trade. Oil is a politically-motivating commodity for Russia’s world political power agenda. 

The Soviet Union left behind a significant change in the regions they dominated. They ethnically, infrastructural, and commercially transformed areas under their rule such as Central Asia and some regions of East Asia. Even now, these regions still have not left the Soviet ‘’cage’’ because their options and mobility are limited. 

The exception to this situation is the Balkan countries, which had relations with the west, written culture, and science in the pre-Soviet period. We can also add ancient Caucasian states such as Georgia and Azerbaijan to this situation. 

In fact, the Soviets have never fully penetrated the mind and culture of the Caucasus. This region has been constructed on similar ethnic, religious, and commercial dynamics for centuries. The fact that Balkan countries such as Romania, Bulgaria, and Ukraine are the first countries to move away from Russia is due to this diversity of options. These countries do not have to move between the Chinese-Russian dilemma like the countries in Central Asia. 

I would like to point out that the Soviets meant a “new philosophy” and “new ideals” that would unite people. However, today Russia cannot build its dominance in the region on such a philosophical basis. Russia aims to protect what is meant to be. Certainly, they have always the power to do this, but they don’t have a philosophical base. To keep their position they rely on the advantageous oil deals made with the countries of Central Asia and that it is still the best commercial alternative for this region.  

Why is the Caucasus so important and seen as Russia’s Achilles tendon? 

Firstly, Russia is very cautious about Azerbaijan and cares about Iran, as these countries act as a buffer zone to prevent Sunni terrorist organizations from entering Russia. Otherwise, Central Asia is very suitable for their rapid expansion. Russia wants to stop terrorism in Syria because they can foresee that it will spread to the Caucasus. 

On the other hand, the Caucasus region is not isolated from the west. Azerbaijan is one of the oldest energy providers for western Europe. Georgia, in the center of the Caucasus, sees itself as a part of the west, both with its culture and its philosophical acceptance. As a member of the Council of Europe, Azerbaijan today wants to act as an actor in ensuring Europe’s energy independence. These two countries are clearly different from the ex-Soviet countries of Central Asia.  

As two Turkish states, Azerbaijan and Turkey are natural allies. This was not surprising for Russia. And Turkey has a strong presence in Nakhchivan even during the 1992-1994 war. The transfer of goods between Turkey and Azerbaijan through Georgia is already provided, so the importance of opening a corridor under the control of Russia in Nakhichevan is meaningful but not essential.

Today Turkey and Azerbaijan’s cooperation has gained speed in both military and information technology fields. Considering the self-confidence gained with the last war, this relationship will continue without slowing down in the future. In today’s world, “relations paradigms” must be redefined and old definitions must be abandoned. We are in the age of information. Ancient infrastructures consider only the transport of goods, but this is not the sole opportunity for today’s countries.  

We have seen a proxy war in the past months, and if Russia had been transformed into a physical actor of this conflict, that would cause a fundamental questioning of its dominance. So already a natural alliance with Turkey Azerbaijan is not the primary threat to him. However, the involvement of Israeli and Western forces that were not involved in the region before, in the literal sense, is a “threat” to the “realm” that they have created.

Today, Russia’s military presence is a “general control” rather than creating a buffer zone in the region. Interestingly, they made no concessions to establish a definite control over the Lachin corridor, which was a critical point for the 1992-1994 war. However, Armenia does not have the energy to fulfill Russian dreams in terms of demographic volume and economy. 

Despite the presence of such dynamic actors, still trying to control a region with endless conflict, has not yielded positive results as we can see in the last example. As a consequence, that out-dated power-based politics rendered possible the intervention of Israel, in a place where the Russians and Iran saw their “backyard”. Perhaps they still believe that the permanent survival of the conflict or the “threat of war” is favorable for this policy of post-Soviet protectionism. 

The Russian military presence has created uncertainty and tension in the Karabag region, rather than a final solution. The agreement made, contains many gaps. 

Despite all, there is the fact that Azerbaijan has broken the glass of the realm, and stepped outside the region. They are different from Georgia because they have Turkey as an ally and they have also important energy resources in the Caspian Sea. Today Azerbaijan is also aware that they are a threat to Iran’s integrity. In today’s world, the only obstacles are intellectual barriers. Physical obstacles are now secondary. Azerbaijan is aware of its role in becoming an actor of the Free World. 

Projects related to the export of Azerbaijani oil to the west, for example in the Nabucco project, are not in the interests of Russia. In fact, Azerbaijani oil is not of critical importance for Europe in terms of volume, but the free movement of money and ideas creates new markets, which activates the financial system and makes money appreciate.

In the long run, this situation is necessarily pregnant with radical political changes. Instead of seeing Israel and Western powers in this region Russia and Iran will prefer Turkey’s rising political influence. Today, Turkey and Russia are not allied but we can describe them as “partners”. Even if they have different aims they can move together, sometimes as two allies and sometimes as two parts of a proxy war.