Trenin: "The Armenians Will Have to Eat their Bitter Humble Pie" & Georgia Draw Lessons

EXCLUSIVE interview

The second Karabakh War is seemingly over, and as one side celebrates and another mourns, experts, opinion makers and their ilk are trying to gauge what the Kremlin-brokered, Erdogan-approved truce might bring. How will the power balance change in the region, who are the winners and losers, and, finally, what impact will it have on Georgia? These are the topics GEORGIA TODAY put to one of the Moscow Carnegie Center's most prominent faces, Dmitri Trenin.

By far the most important and basic question is how does this new deal change the power balance in the region?

It establishes a new balance in the region, a new regional order if you like, which is supported by two of three principal powers outside the region: one is Russia, the other Turkey. I think this new order legitimizes Turkey's inclusion in the South Caucasus balance. Turkey has certainly increased its profile in the South Caucasus, while Russia has reconfigured its role in the region, becoming the one power that can act as a mediator between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Turkey will not be able to perform that role. Then again, we have to realize that Moscow is no longer the dominant power in the South Caucasus, has not been for a long time now, in fact, and I don't think Moscow will recover that position. Azerbaijan will be very much aligned with Turkey, Armenia is under a question mark, but Russia has rediscovered its role as the only power that is accepted both in Yerevan and Baku, and that provides it with potent leverage. Let us not forget that Russia is very worried about the stability of the of the northern Caucasus, an area where it fears, should the war in Karabakh continue, there will be more jihadis, more outsiders from outside the region who come to Karabakh and stay in the Caucasus. An influx of jihadis from outside the region would be bitter irony for Russia- to have fought the jihadists in Syria only to see them much closer to home.

Why did Russia remain so inactive and only now manage to broker a truce? Was it premeditated?

I would disagree that Russia played a waiting game to mediate a truce between Armenia and Azerbaijan. They tried to broker a truce exactly a month ago, when the situation was very different, and no-one can say that it was a pro-forma exercise. I think the motivation of the Russian side was to stop the conflict as soon as possible. My chief argument is that Russia cares more about the northern Caucasus than it does about the southern.

A counter argument to that would be that genuine ceasefires brokered by Russia are not usually violated in 7 hours, as happened here. This new one does not look like it will be violated anytime soon.

No, because continuation of the war would lead to the utter and complete defeat of Armenia, very likely the total banishment of Armenians from Karabakh, and the total seizure of the entire territory by Azerbaijani forces. That is what essentially made the Armenian side agree to the ceasefire.

Azerbaijan has been exercising this policy of strategic patience and militarization for 26 years, and it has been enjoying military superiority over Yerevan for more than a decade. Why act now?

There was a confluence of several factors, one of which was the Turkish factor. Turkey played a major role and, as we know, in the months preceding the war, supplied Azerbaijan with lots of hardware, lots of expertise that the Azerbaijanis used in this war. It was also the time when the United States is distracted with its own election and then the transfer of power. Thirdly, President Aliyev benefited from Russia’s displeasure and distrust of Pashinyan and his government. He kept stressing in interviews with the Russian media “you have a Soros-appointed prime minister in Armenia who is not really your friend.” The moment was opportune for Aliyev. I think he decided to launch what they call a counter-offensive against the offensive that stopped 26 years ago.

Do you see Russia using the peacekeepers, who will control the Lachine corridor, as a leverage to keep Armenia under its thumb?

They will control the Lachine corridor, and that will give them leverage, no question about that. Russians are looking at their alliances, and one school of thought in Moscow is that “if people want our protection, they have to be good allies; they have to stand with us; they shouldn't be ashamed by being closer to us because you know you cannot expect Russia to bail you out and at the same time try to impress the West how pro-Western you are: you need to choose.” If Russia holds the keys to important Armenian positions, then it indeed has leverage, and if Armenians want to reject that kind of arrangement, they are free to do so as a separate country. The pro-Western part of Armenian society could ask themselves why the US hasn’t done more for them, and if the US is not available for whatever reason as your protector, then even though you may have reservations, you have to be a good and honest ally to Russia.

Are we talking about alliances here, or vassalage?

I don’t think the term vassalage belongs in today's world, it doesn't belong in an analytical vocabulary, it belongs in the vocabulary of calling names. Mr Putin calls European countries “American vassals.” What it means is that you have to be seriously and honestly friendly toward Russia; have a genuine, sincere alliance with Russia. It's more like a wedding: if you wed somebody, it doesn't mean that you are somebody's vassal, but it certainly means that there are certain rules to be observed, there are certain things that you will not do as long as you want to keep that marriage going. Of course, you can get out of that marriage, and even marry somebody else: it's a free choice.

How is that different from creating the spheres of influence that are so derided today?

Russia’s sphere of influence in reality is very small: it includes very close to Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Donbas. Russia is working very hard to reconfigure its relationship with Belarus as we speak, that's very important. What Belarus is being offered is not a sphere of influence, it's something different, it's very close to integration.

What about Armenia? Will it remain Pro-Russian?

Armenia is not a Russian sphere of influence. I think the Armenians will have to eat their humble pie, which is very bitter, and I think there's a tremendous disappointment. I hope that Armenia will use this: defeat is always an opportunity, as when you are defeated, you become self-critical. I hope it doesn't turn the Armenian political class into a bunch of revanchists.

On to Turkey. How does its increased presence in the South Caucasus change things?

I think we’re living in a world now in which regional powers are more empowered than ever. Turkey has not become the dominant power in the South Caucasus as a result of the second Karabakh War, but they have gained not only a foothold, but a legitimized presence with another great power. Moscow will have to take Ankara more into account, that's for sure. Moscow and Ankara are rivals, but they are also partners in a limited sense of the word. They managed to compete, and they managed to negotiate and reach deals, and it gives you a promise that Turkey and Russia will not clash. I hope that they don’t clash.

After trying the diplomacy approach for 26 years without luck, Baku achieved what it wanted in month and half through military might. Will it lead onlookers to think this is the only way to get back what you think is rightfully yours in Post-Soviet conflicts?

An interesting question. All supposedly frozen conflicts can unfreeze at some point, and this is something that I'm saying here to the Russian audience: watch Karabakh and come to the conclusion that other conflicts can suddenly unfreeze and then confront you with a real security issue. Here, I’m talking primarily about Transnistria, but also about others.

There are also situations when Moscow itself unfreezes conflicts. Do you see Russia trying to unfreeze the conflicts in Georgia?

I think Russia is satisfied today, having Abkhazia and South Ossetia as its military bases. Does Russia want more? I don't think so. I mean, Russia in 2008 could have sent its military into Tbilisi. They chose not to do that not because of the French or the Western efforts; they exercised restraint based on their calculus of the negatives that would have surely followed after the Russian military's entry into Tbilisi. in 2014, there were people who argued that Russia should not stop with Crimea and Donbas and should march on Kiev and keep Ukraine under control. I think Putin chose wisely not to do so. Even today, Russia could have sent forces into Belarus to prop up Lukashenko, but they didn't. There are certain things you can do, but you would rather not because the negatives of doing so far outweigh the positives.

What are the negatives?

In Georgia, Russia doesn't really need Georgia: it needs Abkhazia to protect Sochi, which is Russia's de facto third capital; with Georgia very friendly with the US and potentially an American base in the future, they would want to have some protection from that side. South Ossetia places the Russian military within an hour's drive of Tbilisi; it's like a gun to your temple. Russia doesn't need more. Does it want to fight to make Georgia…what? To make it another Armenia? There are so many people in Georgia who are anti-Russian, what would you do with them? Once you step into such a territory, it would require a massive infusion of capital and money. Russia doesn't have that money to spend on Georgia, and even with Abkhazia and South Ossetia there are issues. The empire that could afford that, glorious as it was for many Russians, is history.

Does the Nakhichevan corridor which has been speculated, if it materializes, threaten Georgia's transit country status?

I would doubt it would play a very important role. There will be a competitor to the transit lines that run through Georgia, yes, but I don't think Azerbaijan will place so much of its transit in the hands of the Russians who will patrol the corridor. The status of Georgia as a transit country is not in danger.

Any other impact this second Karabakh war could have on Georgia?

It’s a useful warning that it's better to have conflicts resolved diplomatically; I think it applies to Georgia. there are two things I’ll say: the Abkhaz would not want to live under Georgian rule, and I think that it applies vice versa; I don't think the Georgian people who live in Abkhazia are happy to live under Abkhaz rule. The second thing I think is true is that South Ossetia will never be a full-fledged state. In happier times, before the Russian-Georgian war. I often mused about the future status of South Ossetia as some sort of Andorra that is a separate state but both Spain and France regard it as part of its own territory and it can function, with three statuses merged into one. You can do these things, I mean, there's no limit to how resourceful diplomats can be.

That would be a kind of marriage between Russia and Georgia?

Yes. Whether that’s still on the cards is another question though. It’s something that perhaps needs to be given more thought.

By Vazha Tavberidze

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12 November 2020 19:15