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The Balance of Power in the Caucasus Is Changing

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The Balance of Power in the Caucasus Is Changing

Written by Nikolay Nikolaev; Originally appeared at A-specto, translated  by Borislav exclusively for SouthFront

The meeting between the leaders of Russia, Iran and Azerbaijan in Baku outlined the contours of a new strategic balance in the Caucasus region. The implementation of the ambitious transport corridor project “North-South” and an enhanced cooperation on energy and security are among the most significant joint initiatives of the three countries.

After the Cold War, the region of the Caucasus became one of the hottest points of conflicts in Eurasia, due to the control of production and transit of energy resources from the rich Caspian basin. In his book “The Grand Chessboard” Zbigniew Brzezinski emphasizes the strategic plans of USA’s economic and military expulsion of Russia from the Caucasus. These key role to be played Azerbaijan. This process which started with the conflict in Chechnya and the North Caucasus, gained real geo-economic importance due to the realization the oil pipeline Baku – Tbilisi – Ceyhan, that connects Caspian Azeri fields to the Turkish Mediterranean coast. In this strategic line there were also initiatives to redirect the energy supply to Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, so that it passes through the territory of Azerbaijan, as well as the establishment of a system of pipelines in Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan and Turkey (Trans-Caspian, Trans and Trans-Adriatic pipeline). For the purposes of controlling the cargo the project was offered with an international transport corridor Kars – Akhalkalaki – Tbilisi – Baku and Georgia headed by Saakashvili, was expecting its bright Euro-Atlantic future as a pillar of NATO in the region, providing military and political control. That was the peak moment of strategic offensive of the US and NATO in the Caucasus, and the isolated by sanctions Iran and obedient Turkey did not impede in any way the expulsion of Russia from the region. But this months conference of the leaders of Russia, Iran and Azerbaijan in Baku, revealed categorically that the strategic initiative is no longer in the hands of the West.

The US failed to ensure security in the region

Despite occasional participation of US troops in military exercises in Georgia, and the country’s efforts to be included in NATO, Moscow practically did not allow the Caucasus to become a NATO bridgehead in the region. Russia relied on the 7th united military base in Abkhazia, the 4th base in South Ossetia, and 102nd base in Gyumri, Armenia, as well as a strengthened military cooperation with Iran. A concrete manifestation of the strategic weakness of the Western military bloc, became its inability to ensure the safety of routes to transport energy that consistently falls victim to the instability in southeast Turkey and the conflict in Georgia.

Gradually the energy front has undergone a turnaround. US diplomacy’s efforts to divert energy routes through Azerbaijan and Turkey proved insufficient. The ideas of expanding the capacity of the pipeline to Ceyhan in Turkmen, Uzbek and Kazakh oil were dropped one by one. And a failed idea to build a pipeline under the Caspian Sea, undermines the future of serious gas supply to Turkey and Europe. The change of the energy map of the region resulted from the ongoing strategic partnership between leading companies in the Russian energy sector and “BP” (the company is a major shareholder in “Shah Deniz” oil and gas fields in Azerbaijan and operator of the oil pipeline Baku – Tbilisi – Ceyhan). The corporation’s partnership with the Russian “Rosneft” in the development of deposits in the Arctic and Western Siberia, and the exchange of shares between the two companies indicate the strategic importance that the British company attaches to the partnership with Russia. This inevitably has an impact on the energy map of the Caucasus.

The Russian Energy strategic initiative in the region is related to the integration of the countries of the Caucasus and Central Asia, into the system of electricity supply. The most significant initiative might still be planned for 2025 – a single market for oil and gas within the Eurasian Union. The meeting in Baku displayed an enhanced partnership between key countries in the Caucasus – Russia, Azerbaijan and Iran. According to a contract with Russia, the energy system of Azerbaijan, functions in parallel with the Russian power system, and in the words of President Ilham Aliyev, the objective is to jointly create a reliable energy corridor that would ensure the exchange of electricity between the three countries and the launch of new markets.

On the sidelines of the meeting in Baku, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin announced the sale of 10 of the latest passenger aircraft Irkut MC-21 to Azerbaijan in February 2017, along with the opening of a helicopter factory and a facility for assembly of aircraft in the capital of the former Soviet republic. On the occasion of the meeting, Iranian media announced rumors of preparations for the conclusion of trade agreements between the two countries and the Eurasian economic Union.

The strengthening of security cooperation is especially vital for the Russian side, given the crawling fundamentalism in the North Caucasus and Central Asia. “We think it is necessary to establish a more active exchange of information on the activities of international terrorist organizations” stated the Russian president after meeting with the president of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev and Iran’s Hassan Rouhani.

The most significant response from the meeting in Baku was the declared political support for the construction of the ambitious transport corridor project “North-South” representing an intercontinental multimodal road that will connect St. Petersburg to Mumbai. It will include mainly freight from India, Iran, Azerbaijan and Russia, by ships, roads and rails. The realization of the rail component of the project will connect Iran to the ports of the Baltic Sea, and will give Russia access to the Persian Gulf and the Indian rail network. This will seriously affect the geopolitical order in the Caucasus. The rail link between Azerbaijan and Iran is under way with the construction of a bridge over the river Astara. Of particular interest is the short message on the website of the Asian Development Bank immediately after the meeting, which considers the possibility of financing Azerbaijan with 200 million USD for the rehabilitation and restoration of the 441-kilometer stretch between Baku and Yalama at the Russian border. For this purpose, a mission of the bank will arrive to the capital of the former Soviet republic in mid November.

The head of the department for external relations at the Presidential Administration, Novruz Mamedov even said that the transport corridor “North-South” is one of the biggest projects of the century. The urgency of Azerbaijan for the realization of the project is explained by their concerns about competition of similar project to connect Russia and Iran through the territory of South Ossetia and Armenia. Baku does not want the construction of a direct rail link between Russia and Armenia, which goes around Azerbaijan, not only due to economic reasons, but also because of fears of a military nature. Connecting large quantities of cargo to the Azerbaijani Railways will further isolate Armenia, and give a trump card in the hands Baku before Russia in the process of solving the crisis in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Regardless to which project Moscow gives priority, the dynamics of events strongly suggests that the strategic balance in Caucasus weighs on its Eurasian center with all the ensuing consequences. The Caucasus countries increase the demand for support from Russia in solving economic, military, political and energy issues.

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