Clinton`s visit has raised some acute questions. The State Department stated that the primary goal of her trip was to discuss issues “of regional security, democracy, economic development and counterterrorism.” But rhetoric aside, to what degree is the Caucasus interesting for official Washington? What principle differences exist between U.S. and Russian approaches to the region? And how can Moscow and Washington harmonize these contradictions?
On the one hand, unlike Eurasian stakeholders Russia, Iran and Turkey, the geopolitics of the Caucasus are a much more remote problem for the United States. For Russia, any destabilization in the South Caucasus is fraught with concerns about heating up the already-volatile North Caucasus region. These fears—not nostalgia or imperial revival—define Moscow`s approach to the South Caucasus, whose challenges are perceived as a continuation of Russia`s domestic troubles.
For Turkey, the Caucasus is largely a test of a new foreign-policy doctrine in which Ankara considers itself not a “younger brother in the NATO family” but a sustainable Eurasian actor. As for Iran, the Caucasus region poses a potential threat of outside intervention near its borders, and Tehran considers the area a challenge to its status as a growing regional power.
U.S. policy towards the Caucasus has another motivation. The region is not valuable in isolation. Rather, it is of interest as a forum for working on broader security and foreign-policy puzzles. Georgia, for example, is seen by U.S. policy makers as the weak link of the former Soviet states, which Moscow could use as a tool to establish its dominance in Eurasia. Meanwhile, Russia`s dominance in the post-Soviet area is seen as part of a project of reintegration, a sort of “USSR lite.”
What is the significance of Armenia and Azerbaijan for official Washington? Aside from traditional diplomatic rhetoric, one could say that these two countries play a role in the broader context of U.S. Middle East policy. Having an extremely low (if not negative) rating in the Islamic world, Washington is interested in strengthening ties with Azerbaijan`s secular regime. It certainly does not replace Turkey (which in recent years has become distant from the United States on many issues), but it could be considered as a counterweight to Iran. The post-Soviet nation-building experience of Azerbaijan also is an example of an ideological model that could be applied to other Muslim republics.
Armenia has a different importance. It is considered an instrument of pressure on Ankara, which in recent years has turned away from the U.S. and Israel`s general foreign-policy course. In this regard, it was hardly a random event when Secretary of State Clinton visited the Armenian Genocide Memorial in Yerevan during her 2010 tour.
Washington`s interest in the Caucasus is clear. But it is not connected to any one issue. Rather, it is part of larger external political projects: a “reset” in relations with Russia, a resolution of the issues in the Middle East generally, and a solution to the problems of Iran and Turkey in particular. In this sense, it is possible to speak about varying perceptions of the Caucasus in Moscow, Tehran and Ankara on the one hand and in Washington on the other. Consequently, in order to be more successful, the Eurasian powers, primarily Russia, should overcome their nearsighted vision and learn to see the more sensitive Caucasian challenges within wider geopolitical contexts.”