South Caucasus: Need for Moratorium on NATO's Expansion
Without doubt, NATO's rapid eastward expansion encircling Russia and posing a national security threat to Iran as well, given US's leadership of NATO and the Western superpower's hostility toward Iran, is not unrelated to the current crisis in South Caucasus that nowadays centers on the struggle for the control of Nagorno-Karabakh. Notwithstanding the imminent membership of Georgia, Azerbaijan's NATO membership is not too far off, explicitly envisioned by various Western officials articulating NATO 'desire machine's' quest for direct access to both Black Sea and Caspian Sea.
But such a development in Russia's "backyard" is further proof of the on-going violation of the basic US-Russia understanding after the collapse of Berlin Wall that NATO would not encroach into Eastern Europe and other parts of former Soviet Union. Betraying their promise, the Western leaders have engineered velvet revolutions in various countries to further their cause, have militarized extensive aspects of Eastern Europe, and have even inducted the Baltic states in their expansionist doctrine, irrespective of Russia's opposition, as if sky is the limit and no real barrier exists to deflate NATO's 'desire machine'; the latter operates in tandem with the Western energy security policy that, more and more, relies on Azerbaijan-origin export of oil and gas to Europe via Georgia, as an alternative to Russia's pipelines to Europe, thus combining a clear-eyed geostrategic and geoeconomic approach.
In countering this unwanted development, Russia has sought to maintain its territorial integrity through such means as the Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Eurasian Economic Union, encompassing Armenia, hoping to offset the Western logic of encroachment in its sphere of influence. Other steps include the annexation of Crimea and direct assistance to breakaway South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia, notwithstanding NATO's past weariness of inducting countries experiencing internal turmoil. These and the similar "frozen conflict" in Nagorno-Karabakh for nearly three decades have successfully put a lid on NATO's expansion, which may no longer be effective with the melting of the fragile 'no war, no peace' status quo in upper Karabakh that, if successful on the part of Azerbaijan, will likely end the energy vulnerability of the country, given the proximity of Ovus region to Karabakh, which is the focus of Azeri pipelines to Europe and within the reach of Armenian artillery and rocket attack, as witnessed in July 2020.
In other words, the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh has acquired a new level of strategic importance that was absent and existed in embryo when the Bishkek cease-fire agreement in 1994 was inked. Tremendous developments on both economic and strategic fronts aforementioned have changed the nature of the conflict, which has been understandably internationalized, thus raising the stakes in a more complicated conflict.
In addition, NATO Turkey's own ambitious "neo-Ottoman" agenda, relying on an eclectic army of jihadist mercenaries, has added to this complexity, and with it to Russia's misgivings about the intentions of other powers in the current war over Nagorno-Karabakh that transcend the mere issue of contested sovereignty, thus increasing Moscow's ambivalence with respect to its policy preferences for the outcome of the conflict(s) in South Caucasus. Even Israeli armament of Azerbaijan represents a new headache for Moscow irrespective of Moscow's friendly ties to Israel, simply because Israel, somewhat similar to Turkey, is now behaving much like a NATO spear in tandem with NATO's objectives. Irritated by reports of Georgia's assistance to opposition activists in Belarus, Moscow is not blind to the active machinations in its vicinity that can exponentially grow if Armenia is defeated and Azerbaijan's relentless turn toward the West continues in the aftermath of the Karabakh campaign. Deducing logically from Russia's national security interests, it is unlikely that President Putin will consent to a significant change of the status quo, deemed detrimental to Moscow in the long run. Chances are that Russia's 'spoiler role' will continue, irrespective of the Russia-inclusive Minsk process, which is probably more useful now as a forum for US-Russia security dialogue.
In hindsight, only through a productive and conclusive dialogue between Moscow and Washington, resulting in a firm Washington commitment to a long-term moratorium on NATO's expansion in Transcaucasia, we may witness a substantive breakthrough in the stalemated negotiations on Nagorno-Karabakh. Short of committing itself to such a pledge, Baku is unlikely to win over Russia's (moral) support in its quest to regain control of Nagorno-Karabakh, particularly now that Russia is deeply concerned by the incubation of jihadi terrorism in the region by a deliberate state policy on the part of Turkey, which has reportedly dispatched thousands of terrorists from Syria and Libya, thus distorting the conflict into a proxy conflict. As a result, Turkey's incremental distancing with the West pales in comparison to its own proxy NATO role in the region, thus causing a huge new rift with Russia and, simultaneously, rendering a just resolution of the Karabakh conflict more complicated.
The big question is, of course, whether or not Azerbaijan, as well as Georgia, are willing to forego their own pro-NATO predilections and consent to a mutually-agreed moratorium on NATO's expansion. After all, the latter can be a destabilizing development, by heightening the national security concerns of other states such as Russia and Iran, altogether reflecting a regional realignment featuring a prominent and unprecedented role by the proxy forces that, in turn, pose security risks to Muslim republics of Russia and elsewhere. So far, there is no evidence of any lessons learned (in Baku and Tblisi) from the present conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, which as stated above has been internationalized and morphed into a new type of conflict featuring the diversification of its stakeholders.
In conclusion, while there is no question about the legitimacy of Azerbaijan's demand for sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh. The subsidiary questions of methods of exercising this sovereignty in light of the majority population of Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh today, which enjoyed an autonomous administrative status before the country's independence, must be frontally addressed as there are tensions between the principles of sovereignty and autonomy. A self-declared neutral Azerbaijan, as well as Georgia, is a sine qua non for peace in the region, and yet both countries have embarked on the opposite NATO-process (essentially since the mid-1990s), which have brought things to a boil both directly and indirectly. In other words, the cause of peace in the region is inseparable from the larger geopolitical and geostrategic context that sadly fuels tension and conflict instead. Unless that polarizing context is somehow ameliorated, by a firm guarantee of a NATO-expansion moratorium, it is difficult to foresee how the logic of peace can prevail over the rapidly changing regional environment.