Since the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea, Western policymakers have worked earnestly to prevent Russian President Vladimir Putin from instigating new military campaigns in Eastern Europe and the post-Soviet region. Even though Western containment efforts have reduced the likelihood of Russian military aggression against NATO member states, US policymakers have made a critical mistake by paying little attention to Russia's destabilizing conduct in the South Caucasus.
Russia's frequent border adjustments in Georgia, strengthened hegemony over Armenia and diplomatic overtures towards Azerbaijan underscore the importance of the South Caucasus as a theater of power projection for Moscow. The United States' neutrality in the protracted conflict over the Armenia-Azerbaijan border region of Nagorno-Karabakh has further entrenched Russia's hegemony over the Caucasus. The absence of a permanent American presence in the South Caucasus has helped Putin emerge as the leading power broker in the region and has allowed Moscow to willfully inflame hostilities in Nagorno-Karabakh to advance its hegemonic aspirations.
To reduce Russia's influence in the South Caucasus, the United States should significantly increase its economic and military assistance provisions to Armenia. A strong pivot towards Yerevan will allow the United States to gain a geopolitical foothold in the South Caucasus. A strengthened US-Armenia alliance will also undercut Russian hegemony over the South Caucasus and CIS region in four important ways.
First, a stronger US-Armenia security partnership would give Washington a reliable ally in the South Caucasus that will defy the Kremlin when necessary. The realistic prospect of a US-Armenia alliance differs markedly from conventional wisdom. As Armenia is a member of the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) security bloc, US policymakers have viewed Armenia as a staunch Russian ally that has little interest in a strategic partnership with Washington.
The recent wave of anti-Russian protests in Armenia suggests that this assumption is no longer accurate. Some Armenian government officials have expressed strong opposition to Russia's growing arms sales to Azerbaijan. Many Armenians also believe that Moscow tacitly supported Azerbaijan's April 2-5 military incursions in Nagorno-Karabakh. These anti-Russian sentiments contrast markedly with Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan's 2013 argument that EEU membership would make Armenia more secure from Azerbaijani aggression.
The prevailing notion in Washington that Armenia is less receptive than Azerbaijan to a US alliance offer is also erroneous. During the 1990s, the US government provided extensive financial assistance to civil society movements in Armenia. These investments are still bearing fruit, as Armenia has a disproportionately large number of US-backed NGOs for its population size.
Even though many US policymakers have emphasized the strength of the Washington-Baku alliance, Areg Galstyan recently noted that the US government gave $23 million in military assistance to Armenia and only $11 million to Azerbaijan. This is unsurprising to those in the know. Numerous policy experts in Washington have argued that Armenia has historically been a more reliable US strategic partner than Azerbaijan. To substantiate these claims, pro-Armenia lobbyists have highlighted Armenia's participation in the US war in Afghanistan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev's links to Russia.
The strong foundations for a US-Armenia partnership that are already in place and rising anti-Russian sentiments in Armenia make Sargsyan more likely to accept a credible US economic and military assistance offer. If Sargsyan accepts US assistance, he can appease discontented young Armenians who supported Armenia's EU association agreement offer in 2013 and participated in the July 2015 Electric Yerevan protests. A decline in youth protests in Armenia would considerably boost the country's long-term political stability. A stable Armenian government will also more effectively resist Russia's meddling in Yerevan's internal affairs.
Second, the development of a US-Armenia strategic partnership could mark the end of Russian hegemony over the South Caucasus. Barring a massive change in the region's geopolitical alignments, Russia will struggle to find a new ally in the South Caucasus that is as reliable as Armenia. Even though Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili is less stridently anti-Kremlin than his predecessor Mikheil Saakashsvili, the Georgian government maintains a pro-Western foreign policy outlook and disdains Russia's arbitrary military incursions into Georgian territory.
Expanded economic and security cooperation between Moscow and Baku is also unlikely to transform Azerbaijan into an Armenian-style client of Russia. Azerbaijan's opposition to Russia's military intervention in Ukraine, and long history of counter-terrorism cooperation with the United States underscore Baku's desire to be independent from the Russian sphere of influence. If Russia offers Azerbaijan EEU membership to offset its deteriorating relationship with Armenia, Ilham Aliyev's rhetoric suggests that he will reject Russia's offer on national sovereignty grounds.
The creation of a bipolar South Caucasus characterized by a power struggle between Russia and the United States will have reverberations across the globe. Expanding American influence in the South Caucasus could cause China to change its long-standing view that Moscow is too dominant in the Caucasus for Beijing to gain genuine leverage. If China wants to expand its geopolitical influence in the South Caucasus, it has a strong foundation to build on. China's annual trade links with the region currently total over $2 billion.
If China builds on its increasingly pervasive presence in the petrochemical, automobile and banking industries of Caucasus countries, Russia's economic hegemony over the Caucasus will rapidly diminish. Therefore, by strengthening its relationship with Armenia, the United States could transform the South Caucasus into a multipolar arena of geopolitical competition and undercut Russia's great power status aspirations.
Third, a more robust US-Armenia partnership would severely weaken the CSTO security bloc's coherence. Even though Russia's trade partnership with Azerbaijan is more economically lucrative than its alliance with Armenia, Moscow has continued to sell arms to Armenia to demonstrate the reliability of the CSTO's security guarantees.
Russia's economic crisis has changed Putin's strategic calculus, however. Kremlin policymakers have allowed revenues generated from Moscow's Azerbaijan partnership to take precedence over Russia's security obligations to Armenia. Putin's belief that Armenia is dependent on Russia has caused him to conclude that his arms sales to Baku will not result in Armenia's defection from the Russian sphere.
Therefore, if the United States selling large quantities of arms to Armenia, Putin's balancing strategy in the Caucasus could become unstuck. Russia's looming budget crisis will make it difficult for Putin to justify a massive increase in military spending to counter a US-Armenia alliance. Russian attempts to incorporate Azerbaijan in the CSTO are also likely to fail. Azerbaijan is unlikely to join the CSTO unless Russia expels Armenia from the security bloc.
As an Armenian pivot to the United States would unequivocally demonstrate that Yerevan has lost confidence in Russia's security guarantees, a radical shift in Armenia's foreign policy could adversely affect Russia's relationships with other CIS countries. If Armenia's loss of confidence in Russia causes Kazakhstan's confidence in the CSTO to decline, President Nursultan Nazarbayev could strengthen Astana's burgeoning security partnership with China. Belarus could also step up its efforts to normalize relations with the European Union (EU). If Belarus and Kazakhstan scale back their security partnerships with Russia, the CSTO could deteriorate into little more than a symbolic alliance bloc. Therefore, a US embrace of Armenia could compromise Moscow's ambitions of converting the CSTO into a Russian-led security bloc that can genuinely compete with NATO and the SCO.
Fourth, US military assistance provisions to Armenia will reduce Russia's leverage over the dynamics of the frozen conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. By selling arms to both Armenia and Azerbaijan during periods of tension, Russia has been able to unilaterally alter the balance of capabilities between the two warring parties. This leverage has allowed Putin to exploit the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict to further Moscow's strategic interests. During the early April hostilities in Nagorno-Karabakh, Russia spearheaded the ceasefire between Armenia and Azerbaijan that ended the conflict. Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev's diplomatic resolution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict bolstered Russia's international status by highlighting Moscow's success as peacekeeper and conflict arbiter to the international community.
If the United States intervenes in the South Caucasus on Armenia's behalf, Russia's leverage over the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict will diminish greatly. If this scenario unfolds, Putin might sell more Russian arms to Azerbaijan in order to retaliate against US support for Armenia. If Azerbaijan can gain an overwhelming military advantage over Armenia, Russia will likely try to encourage Baku to instigate a war against Armenia to recapture complete control over Nagorno-Karabakh. An Azerbaijani victory in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict with Russian support would entrench an alliance between Russia and Azerbaijan, and humiliatingly derail the United States' bid to strengthen Armenia.
Putin is unlikely to achieve this outcome, however. Regardless of how much military assistance Russia ultimately provides to Baku, Putin will find it very difficult to convince Ilham Aliyev to launch a campaign of unilateral aggression against Armenia. In recent years, Azerbaijani policymakers have concluded that small-scale aggression in Nagorno-Karabakh is preferable to instigating a major war. This preference can be explained by domestic politics. Aliyev's regime security is benefited most by swift military campaigns that result in symbolically significant territorial gains and limited casualties. Azerbaijan's April 2 escalation of hostilities in Nagorno-Karabakh rallied anti-Armenian nationalists around Aliyev's government and provided a distraction from Azerbaijan's worsening economic malaise. If the United States provides Armenia with military technology that is more sophisticated than the Soviet-style weaponry that Russia has exported to Armenia, Azerbaijan will almost certainly refrain from escalating the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict into a full-scale war. Azerbaijani policymakers have vivid memories of the 1988-1994 war with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh. That war resulted in almost 30,000 Azerbaijani deaths. During a period of economic turmoil and heightened public unrest, Ilham Aliyev cannot afford to risk a repeat of the 1990s bloodshed.
Since the mid-1990s, Russia has consolidated its hegemony over the South Caucasus with little resistance from the United States. However, the US government now has an opportunity to reverse this trajectory, by significantly increasing its outlays of economic and military assistance to Armenia. By forging an alliance with Armenia, the United States can play an instrumental role in resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and leave Russia without a reliable ally in the South Caucasus. Despite these benefits, pro-Azerbaijan sentiments in Washington and US policymakers' indifference to political developments in the South Caucasus will likely prevent a US-Armenia alliance from emerging in the foreseeable future.
Samuel Ramani is a DPhil candidate in International Relations at St. Antony's College, University of Oxford. He is also a journalist who writes regularly for the Washington Post and Huffington Post. He can be followed on Twitter at samramani2 and on Facebook at Samuel Ramani.