Tensions between Iran and the West were exacerbated even further by Israel’s sale of sophisticated weapons to Baku in February this year. The regional states hold differing views on the crisis depending on their interests and geopolitical outlook. In Russia’s case, the objectives are clear. On the one hand, Russia is not interested in a full-fledged war which would hold unpredictable consequences for all parties involved, including Russia itself. On the other hand, it is in Moscow’s interest to keep the area unsafe and unstable as this will improve Moscow’s chances of monopolizing the supply of gas to Europe.
BACKGROUND: Hydrocarbon exports are of key importance to Russian foreign policy. Exporting oil and gas is vital not only for a few interested “oligarchs,” but for the stability of the regime. Indeed, Russia’s economic rise over the last decade is limited and there is little industrial development in spite of Putin’s assertions that Russia has made a great leap forward after the end of what Moscow terms the “troubling 1990s” (likhie devianostye). Instead, money obtained through energy exports have provided most of the cash for the regime coffers, and has ensured the regime’s comparative stability and Putin’s reelection. The high gas and oil prices are therefore crucial for Moscow, which has worked hard to monopolize Europe’s gas supply.
Accordingly, Moscow has sought to secure agreements with Central Asian states, of which Turkmenistan is of paramount importance due to its large reserves, implying that their gas is transferred to the European market through the Russian pipeline system inherited from the USSR. Turkmenistan, however, soon lost interest in Moscow as an intermediary and turned to China which has increasingly emerged as a major consumer of Turkmen gas. Moscow was undoubtedly upset with China’s emergence as alternative customer. Still, its major goal remains the prevention of alternate routes to Europe, and major problems have emerged in this regard.
Azerbaijan has emerged as one of the major potential sources of gas for Nabucco or similar gas pipelines designed to deliver Caspian gas to European markets, which is clearly disturbing to Moscow. Consequently, Moscow has focused its attention on Azerbaijan and the adjacent region, and has employed a variety of tactics in dealing with Baku. The first was an attempt to convince Baku to sell all its gas to Russia, which was the main objective of Medvedev’s unsuccessful visit to Baku on September 2-3, 2010. Just after Medvedev’s visit, the EU Commission President José Manuel Barroso visited Azerbaijan and signed an agreement stipulating that Baku would provide gas for Nabucco or other similar gas pipelines which would deliver gas directly to Europe.
Baku could also potentially upset other strategic goals on Moscow’s part. Moscow has sought to monopolize control over gas pipelines transiting Belarus and Ukraine, which are essential for Moscow’s control of gas deliveries to Europe. While such designs proved successful in Belarus, problems still exist in Moscow’s dealings with Kiev which resists foreign control over its pipeline system. Moscow has raised the prices of exported gas and oil to force Kiev into submission. However, Kiev has engaged in negotiations with Baku, which is a potential source of alternative gas and oil also for Ukraine.
One potential strategy for Moscow to prevent the construction of new, unwanted gas pipelines is contributing to the fear of regional instability and rising tensions in the region which would likely scare off potential investors.
IMPLICATIONS: Moscow has sought to maintain a level of regional instability in several ways. First, on 9-26 September, 2011, Moscow engaged in military maneuvers in the Caspian Sea. Russian officials stated that Russia will sustain a military presence there and will not think twice about using it if nearby states – implying a direct message to Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan – would attempt to construct pipelines along the Caspian Sea without the approval of all littoral states, including Russia. This is a risky enterprise and Moscow has no interest in instigating any real military confrontation in the region since such developments would have most unpredictable consequences. However, the increased tension centered on Azerbaijan serves Moscow well.
Azerbaijan also has a tense relationship with Iran. While this conflict is rooted historically in conflicting nationalistic and territorial claims between the two states, it has recently been actualized by Iranian concerns that Azerbaijan could constitute a launch pad for a U.S./Israeli strike against Iran. Adding to the complex picture of regional tension is Azerbaijan’s conflict with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh.
Israel’s decision in February 2012 to sell sophisticated weaponry – anti aircraft missiles and drones – to Baku immediately raised concerns in both Iran and Armenia, who perceived it as preparation for war. Moscow could easily have assured Iran that it would not allow this to happen, by providing Iran with the S-300 anti-missile/anti-aircraft system which Teheran clamors or at least sell it other weapons which are not covered by sanctions. Alternatively, Moscow could have delivered weapons through Belarus, which maintains a closer relationship with Iran. Minsk would hardly fear international sanctions in addition to the ones already in force. In 2007, Moscow actually signed an agreement with Teheran to supply these missiles, and Teheran even made an advance payment. Yet, Moscow procrastinated and finally joined the Iran sanctions which preclude sales of advanced weaponry to Iran, the S-300 system included. Moscow has neither condemned nor approved of the arms deal between Israel and Azerbaijan. As many other foreign policy actions, the implications of these moves can have different interpretations. They could be taken to indicate Moscow’s desire to remain neutral, but could also imply that Moscow is actually interested in exploiting the increased instability in the area.
Russia also maintains a military presence in Azerbaijan through its radar station in Gabala and keeps Baku and Teheran in the dark about what it would do in case of increased hostilities between the two, in which the station would most certainly be affected. Moscow continues to play the same game with Armenia. The relationship between Yerevan, which is Moscow’s most reliable ally in the region and also enjoys a cordial relationship with Teheran, and Baku is extremely tense due not only to Armenia’s support of Nagorno-Karabakh, legally still a part of Azerbaijan.
Yerevan was alarmed by the Israel-Azerbaijan arms deal. However, as in the case with Teheran and Baku, Moscow has retained an ambivalent stance. On the one hand, it keeps a strong military presence in Armenia through its military base in Gyumri. On the other hand, Armenia can hardly trust Moscow’s security guarantees in case of war with Azerbaijan. The very fact that Moscow did not criticize Azerbaijan’s weapons purchase from Israel contained a message to both Teheran and Yerevan. This message implied that in the case of war between Azerbaijan and Armenia, it remains unclear whether Moscow would choose to intervene or not, which certainly increases uncertainty and tensions in the region. This, in turn, works in Moscow’s favor, helping to construct an image of the recent interactions between Azerbaijan, Iran and Armenia as signifying the increasing instability of the Caspian region, making it unreliable as a source of gas for Europe. The implication is very simple: Europe has no other stable supplier than Russia.
The instability also provides Moscow with opportunities for maintaining its military presence in the region and assures both Baku and Yerevan, and possibly Teheran, that a strong Russian presence is the only true guarantee for their territorial integrity and possibly their very existence, provided that they observe Russian interests. In addition, the setup not only provides Russia with the opportunity to act as a geopolitical kingmaker but also generates additional income by sales of weapons to all sides, as well as keeping the prices of gas and oil at a high level.
CONCLUSIONS: Israel’s sale of sophisticated weapons to Azerbaijan increased the tension between Baku, Teheran and Yerevan. Russia retains an ambivalent position the regional conflict dynamics; it does not want a full-scale war in the region which would hold unpredictable consequences. At the same time, the rise in tensions around Azerbaijan and Iran serve Russia well, as it reduces the prospects for emerging alternative gas pipelines to Europe. Consequently, Moscow has no desire to reduce the tensions. Moreover, it has shown a capacity for fueling regional conflict dynamics either directly by threatening the use of force if pipelines are constructed across the Caspian Sea without Russian approval, or indirectly by engaging all sides. One of the major reasons for such Russian behavior is to raise the stakes in the construction of alternative gas pipelines to Europe.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Dmitry Shlapentokh is Associate Professor of History, Indiana University at South Bend.