Unlike the United States, Russia has few genuine allies. The handful of countries that enter Moscow-led organizations or engage in joint military exercises are either intimidated or enticed to participate. Washington needs to take a closer look at these fragile alliances to see where it can develop ties with countries that seek closer Western links and diminish Russia’s onslaught on their sovereignty.
Moscow projects its regional power through two main organizations – the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). The EEU includes five states (Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan) and is depicted as an alternative to the EU. Its real purpose is to prevent neighbors from qualifying for the EU while intensifying Russia’s economic dominance.
The CSTO consists of six members (Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan) and is portrayed by the Kremlin as an equivalent to NATO. Azerbaijan and Georgia withdrew from this body, as its actual goals are to increase Russia’s military presence and prevent members from moving closer to the Alliance. Even current CSTO members remain weary of being trapped in collective defense arrangement that would permit Moscow to station troops on their soil.
After witnessing Russia’s “brotherly assistance” to Ukraine and Georgia, three European countries – Belarus, Armenia, Azerbaijan — are now on the front line defending their sovereignty. In the economic realm, they are steadily reorienting toward China and other markets as Russia’s economy steadily deteriorates. The US and EU have an opportunity to expand trade and investment links with all three states and help wean them away from dependence on Moscow.
On the diplomatic arena, Russia’s allies have refused to recognize the occupied Georgia’s territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states despite Moscow’s coaxing. They also adopted an ambiguous stance towards Russia’s forcible annexation of Crimea, torn between appeasing Moscow and not legitimizing a precedent that would threaten their own territorial integrity.
In the security arena, Belarus is on the front line between Russia and three NATO neighbors. Moscow uses the carrot of economic assistance and the stick of replacing the government to keep Minsk in line. The Zapad exercises on Belarusian territory in September are an illustration of Minsk’s predicament, as they entangle Belarus in the Kremlin deception that NATO is a threat to both countries.
Minsk stresses that it does not want to make a choice between Russia and the West, but to demonstrate real balance it needs to be included in future NATO exercises. The Alliance hosts several drills in the Baltic and Central European regions throughout the year and Belarus should be welcomed to participate once all necessary agreements are signed. This would help build mutual confidence and undercut the narrative that NATO is a threat to Belarus’s sovereignty.
Belarus needs to extricate itself from Russia’s politically-motivated economic assistance. The Trump administration should therefore unblock the remaining economic sanctions and finally dispatch an ambassador to Minsk, as the current status quo only helps Putin. Washington can consolidate regional security by enabling Belarus to develop closer ties with its NATO neighbors – Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia..
In the South Caucasus, Armenia and Azerbaijan are in an even more exposed position than Belarus. Armenia has no diplomatic relations with its neighbors Azerbaijan and Turkey, while Azerbaijan is squeezed between Russia and Iran and needs Georgia to maintain access to Europe. However, both countries have agreed to participate in the NATO-backed Noble Partner-2017 multinational drills scheduled for July 30, together with eleven allies and partners. Noble Partner will inaugurate the first substantial NATO initiative including Georgian, Armenian, and Azerbaijani troops.
The South Caucasus states seek to intensify cooperation with the Alliance and emerge from their insecure isolation. Armenia hosts a Russian base and is pressured by Moscow to incorporate its armed forces into Russia’s military structures. Azerbaijan is threatened by the prospect that Moscow will emplace its “peace-keepers” on Azeri territories currently occupied by Armenia.
Moscow deliberately sustains the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict to keep both governments dependent on Russia’s diplomatic decisions and military involvement. Russian troops stationed in Armenia are a security threat for all South Caucasus countries and Yerevan could still be coerced by the Kremlin to reverse its decision to dispatch troops to the Noble Partner-2017 exercises.
Armenia and Azerbaijan have asserted their sovereignty by expanding links with NATO, even though neither country, unlike Georgia, has petitioned for membership. Both states have participated in NATO-led operations, including in Afghanistan. Yerevan has obtained a new NATO Individual Partnership Action Plan (IPAP) for 2017-2019 that will enhance its interoperability with the Alliance, while Azerbaijan fulfills its bi-annual IPAPS with NATO. These connections can be bolstered to benefit all sides.
While diplomatic and military interactions with Russia perpetuate the state of conflict between Baku and Yerevan, closer links with the West and participation in NATO exercises will reduce tensions between them. Military cooperation can contribute to a political resolution of the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh and initiate the process of returning Azerbaijan’s occupied territories while enhancing Armenia’s connectivity with Europe and the US. In stark contrast to Russia’s threatening military posture in the South Caucasus, NATO’s multi-national involvement can strengthen regional security.