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CAUCASUS UPDATE

In this section, we publish the weekly analysis of the major events taking place in the Caucasus and beyond. The Caucasus Update is written by our Senior Editor Alexander Jackson. Click here to subscribe.


The Times reported on December 13 that, in the next two months, NATO will begin transporting supplies to Afghanistan through Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Alliance officials, unsurprisingly spearheaded by the US, have also allegedly been planning a supply route through the Caucasus, across the Caspian Sea and through Turkmenistan onto Afghanistan. The new routes will reduce NATO’s reliance on routes through Pakistan, which have come under heavy attack from Taliban militants in recent weeks.

 

This shift is more significant than its limited media coverage would suggest, for a number of reasons. Firstly, and most obviously, it signals that NATO is now back to business with Russia after the Georgian war. The EU and the OSCE have returned to normal dealings with the Kremlin in recent weeks, quietly dropping objections to its continued military presence in Georgia. The deteriorating security situation along the Pakistani supply routes, and President-elect Obama’s determination to launch a ‘surge’ of up to 30,000 additional US troops to Afghanistan, have compelled NATO to follow suit and go back to the negotiating table with Russia. For Moscow, allowing supplies to be routed through its territory is a small price to pay to put the Alliance in its debt, especially since it is ultimately in the Kremlin’s interest to have a stable Afghanistan. An agreement was initially struck at the Bucharest summit in April, but has not yet been implemented due to negotiations with the Central Asian states.

Secondly, the possibility of the so-called ‘Central Corridor’ is a signal that NATO still requires the co-operation of Caucasian states to support its operations, despite its rapprochement with Moscow. It also marks a major development in that co-operation, which has previously been limited to airlifting supplies. Road and rail transit provides a much more durable and continuous link. Rail transit would link both Georgia and Azerbaijan to the alliance to a degree previously unknown. For Tbilisi, this would be a convenient informal security guarantee against further Russian attacks: Moscow would not be willing to bomb infrastructure routes and bases in a country through which NATO equipment was passing. Alongside a proposed bilateral security pact with Washington, news of which leaked this week, the NATO transit agreement would shore up Georgia’s security and rebuild Western support, which had faded after the war with Russia.

For Baku, the link would be a tacit sign of support against Armenia and a re-affirmation of the West’s interest in Azerbaijan’s strategic location. Nonetheless, President Aliyev is apparently cautious on signing the deal, which reflects his concern that such engagement with NATO would undermine his balanced foreign policy. Unlike Georgia he has refused to commit to eventual NATO membership and has denied US requests for military bases in the country. It is reasonable to assume that he will back the plan once assured that neither Russia nor Iran will vocally oppose it.

Turkmenistan has been part of the logistics corridor to Afghanistan since the Bucharest summit, which President Berdimuhammedov attended: NATO supplies are airlifted to Afghanistan via bases in his country. Expanding into a rail or road transit link carrying more supplies, is nonetheless a qualitative as well as a quantative shift. It would mark the first time that equipment for a foreign military force would be moved across the territory of this secretive state (rather than merely airspace) since the fall of the USSR. Since shipping more supplies will require upgrading road and rail networks, the agreement will also lead to Western assistance for infrastructure plans. Along with interest in Turkmenistan’s contribution to the Nabucco gas project (see Caucasus Update, Issue 13), this marks what could be the next stage of close co-operation between Ashgabat and the West.

Excluded from the possibility of a transit agreement, due to its isolation by the US and the wider international community, is Iran. The Islamic Republic is already unhappy about American forces to its west, south, and east. A formalized supply corridor running across its northern border is further cause for concern, especially since Iran repeatedly pressured Azerbaijan to refuse US forces basing rights there. Of course, the supplies being delivered via the Central Corridor are nonmilitary in nature (according to public sources), and there is no real threat from NATO, whose European members have no interest in fighting Iran and are in any case overstretched by Afghanistan.  Fears will nevertheless be raised in Tehran that Washington is using the corridor as a cover to store military supplies in Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan. Similar suspicions may be behind President Aliyev’s cautious approach to the deal. NATO’s Deputy Secretary General, Claudio Bisogniero, visited Baku on December 16, where he expressed appreciation for Azerbaijan’s support of NATO’s Afghan mission. This suggests that one purpose of his visit was to encourage Baku into extending that support.

If the Northern and Central Corridors prove successful, and if the dire security situation in western Pakistan does not improve soon, they will become an entrenched part of NATO’s Afghanistan strategy. This will bind the Caucasus and Central Asia to the Alliance more than ever before and make the success of the Afghanistan war conditional upon their co-operation, as well as on the dynamics of the wider relationship between Russia and the West. All of this, of course, leaves Russia with one more card to play through its position in the Northern Corridor. It threatened to block NATO material from transiting Russian soil after the Georgian war, although the corridor was not yet up and running. If it chose to do so once the route was fully operational, the result would be a crippling logistical jam for NATO as the majority of supplies were re-routed through the Central Corridor. It is quite conceivable, in this situation, that Moscow would put heavy pressure on Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan to suspend their involvement. This would raise the stakes between NATO and Russia to dangerous levels.

The new routes are politically risky, logistically taxing and place the Alliance’s Afghan mission at Moscow’s mercy: directly in the case of the Northern Corridor, indirectly in the Central Corridor. But it could also be an opportunity to open up the Caucasus and Central Asia to greater co-operation with NATO, and allow the Alliance to begin building a long-term presence in the region. Whether this opportunity can outweigh the costs of relying so heavily on the Kremlin is another matter. But without a drastic improvement in the security situation in Pakistan, NATO has few other options.



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PREVIOUS ISSUES

  Caspian Compromise Backfires for Russia and Iran, CU Issue 83, November 24, 2010
  Turkey in a Tight Spot on Missile Defense, CU Issue 82, November 11, 2010
  The OSCE and Kyrgyzstan’s Election, CU Issue 81, October 30, 2010
  Unblocking the US-Azerbaijan Relationship, CU Issue 80, October 07, 2010
  Nabucco Pipeline: Quo Vadis?, CU Issue 79, September 30, 2010
  Russia tightens its grip in the South Caucasus, CU Issue 78, August 23, 2010
  Armenian Politics: Rigidity Versus Flexibility, CU Issue 77, August 10, 2010
  Russia and Georgia: Ready To Talk?, CU Issue 76, July 21, 2010
  Can the US walk and chew gum at the same time?, CU Issue 75, July 9, 2010
  The Kyrgyzstan Crisis – A Qualified Success for Turkish Diplomacy?, CU Issue 74, June 24, 2010
  Brussels downgrades the Caucasus, CU Issue 73, June 07, 2010
  NATO’s New Strategic Concept and the Caspian Region, CU Issue 72, June 01, 2010
  Joe Biden and European Security, CU Issue 71, May 13, 2010
  Behind the US-Azerbaijan row, CU Issue 70, May 6, 2010
  Turkey and Iran: The risks of failure, CU Issue 69, April 30, 2010
  Kazakhstan, the OSCE, and the crisis in Kyrgyzstan, CU Issue 68, April 19, 2010
  The Implications of the Moscow Bombings, CU Issue 67, April 12, 2010
  Iran Manoeuvres for a role in Karabakh, CU Issue 66, April 5, 2010
  The EU and Abkhazia: Between a rock and a hard place, CU Issue 65, March 16, 2010
  Fallout from the US ‘Genocide’ vote, CU Issue 64, March 9, 2010
  Ukraine's elections and future of GUAM, CU Issue 63, February 10, 2010
  Less Democracy, More Security: Kazakhstan and the OSCE, CU Issue 62, January 18, 2010
  Tackling the North Caucasus Insurgency: Development or Rhetoric?, CU Issue 61, January 11, 2010
  The Caspian Region in 2010, CU Issue 60, January 4, 2010
  The Caspian Region in 2010, CU Issue 59, December 31, 2009
  The Turkmenistan-China Pipeline Changes the Energy Balance, CU Issue 58, December 21, 2009
  Russia’s European Security Treaty, CU Issue 57, December 7, 2009
  The ‘Kidnapping War’ in Georgia and its Implications, CU Issue 56, December 3, 2009
  Azerbaijan Shifts its Energy Priorities, CU Issue 55, November 23, 2009
  The South Caucasian States and Afghanistan, CU Issue 54, November 11, 2009
  Is Turkey turning East?, CU Issue 53, November 2, 2009
  What is Russia’s Gameplan for Iran?, CU Issue 52, October 26, 2009
  Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan: Where Next?, CU Issue 51, October 19, 2009
  The Armenians of Georgia: A New Flashpoint in the Caucasus?, CU Issue 50, October 12, 2009
  Turkey’s EU Membership: Will The ‘Armenian Opening’ Help?, CU Issue 49, October 5, 2009
  The Missile Defence Shift: Implications for the Caucasus, CU Issue 48, September 22, 2009
  Rising Tensions in the Black Sea , CU Issue 47, September 14, 2009
  Armenia, Turkey, and Azerbaijan: The Clock Is Ticking, CU Issue 46, September 7, 2009
  The Battle of the Bases in Central Asia, CU Issue 45, August 31, 2009
  Russia, Israel, and the S-300s, CU Issue 44, August 24, 2009
  The motivations behind Turkey's 'Kurdish Initiative', CU Issue 43, August 17, 2009
  The Implications of the Turkmenistan-Azerbaijan Dispute, CU Issue 42, August 10, 2009
  What has changed since the August war?, CU Issue 41, August 3, 2009
  The Internal Dynamics of Armenia’s Karabakh Policy, CU Issue 40, July 20, 2009
  Gazprom’s Baku Triumph, CU Issue 39, July 06, 2009
  Ingushetia: The New Chechnya?, CU Issue 38, June 29, 2009
  Georgias Economy - A Matter for Diplomats, CU Issue 37, June 22, 2009
  ‘Progress’ In The Nagorno-Karabakh Peace Process, CU Issue 36, June 08, 2009
  Iran's Azerbaijanis and the presidential election, CU Issue 35, June 01, 2009
  Nabucco and South Stream - The Race Heats Up, CU Issue 34, May 25, 2009
  China and Central Asia, CU Issue 33, May 19, 2009
  Russia, Georgia, and NATO - A Bad Week, CU Issue 32, May 11, 2009
  The Obama Administration’s Emerging Caucasus Policy, CU Issue 31, April 27, 2009
  Integration and Division in the Caspian Sea, CU Issue 30, April 20, 2009
  The Turkish-Armenian Rapprochement - Implications for the South Caucasus, CU Issue 29, April 13, 2009
  Turkey's local elections and Armenian issue, CU Issue 28, April 6, 2009
  Is There Life Left In The Nabucco Project?, CU Issue 27, March 30, 2009
  Problems and Prospects for Russian Military Reform, CU Issue 26, March 23, 2009
  Russia and Georgia: Not back to war, CU Issue 25, March 16, 2009
  Armenia: Heading towards crisis?, CU Issue 24, March 9, 2009
  Drug trafficking in the Caucasus, CU Issue 23, February 23, 2009
  Russian-led military block: A real counterweight to NATO?, CU Issue 22, February 16, 2009
  Are the International Missions in Georgia still relevant?, CU Issue 21, February 9, 2009
  Israel and Azerbaijan: Baku’s Balancing Act, CU Issue 20, February 2, 2009
  The North Caucasus in 2009: A Bleak Forecast, CU Issue 19, January 26, 2009
  The Military Balance in Nagorno-Karabakh, CU Issue 18, January 19, 2009
  Russia, Iran, and Barack Obama in 2009, Part II, CU Issue 17, January 12, 2009
  Looking forward to 2009 in the Caucasus and beyond, Part I, CU Issue 16, January 5, 2009
  The opportunities and the risks of NATO’s new supply routes, CU Issue 15, December 22, 2008
  The Black Sea Ambitions of Armenia, CU Issue 14, December 15, 2008
  Another Small Step for Nabucco, CU Issue 13, December 8, 2008
  Will Saakashvili survive politically?, CU Issue 12, December 1, 2008
  The latest fashion: conflict mediation, CU Issue 11, November 24, 2008
  The Baku Energy Summit, CU Issue 10, November 17, 2008
  Obama and the Caucasus, CU Issue 9, November 10, 2008
  Kazakhstan's oil options, CU Issue 8, November 3, 2008
  Is the Minsk Group being sidelined?, CU Issue 7, October 27, 2008
  Gas and oil developments in the Caspian region, CU Issue 6, October 20, 2008
  Where next for the Georgian peace process?, CU Issue 5, October 8, 2008
  Unrest in the North Caucasus, CU Issue 4, September 29, 2008
  Saakashvili's future, CU Issue 3, September 22, 2008
  Iran after the Georgian War, CU Issue 2, September 15, 2008
  Football diplomacy, CU Issue 1, September 8, 2008
       
 
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