BAKU, Azerbaijan: The Hungarian-born US geopolitical forecaster and strategist on international affairs George Friedman has said that Azerbaijan has emerged as the leading power; however, its challenge remains to avoid being trapped in power struggles between other powers in the South Caucasus region.
In an Exclusive Interview with the Editor-in-Chief of Baku Tribune Seymur Mammadov, George Friedman – who also the Founder and Chairman of Geopolitical Futures – said that since Azerbaijan clearly intends to preserve its sovereignty it must maintain close relations to Russia.
The following is the interview:
– How do you see the future of the South Caucasus against the background of the increased presence of Russian troops in Karabakh?
– There are two strategically essential areas for Russia. The first and most important is the North European plain, which is where Russia has historically been invaded. The second is the Caucasus, which is another gateway to Russia but a difficult one due to terrain. Historically this has been an area of competition with Turkey and to some degree it still is. Russia must control the north Caucasus, and controlling or at least preventing major powers from being present is vital. Events in Belarus has increased Russian security there. Events in the south Caucasus has increased Russia’s strength as well both by inserting forces and also by excluding Turkey. Armenia, always the weakest player, has been further weakened. Azerbaijan strengthened. Georgia’s future remains to be defined and here American action is central. But Azerbaijan has emerged as the leading power. Still not fully clear is its precise relationship with Russia.
– What new risks and challenges may Azerbaijan face in the post-war period?
– The most important risk is arriving at a stable relationship with Russia. For Azerbaijan a balance of power strategy is essential, and the balancer is either the United States or Turkey. At the moment the US sees Russia as a lesser matter, compared to the Chinese. That means that its willingness to balance Russia in the Caucasus is at the moment uncertain, although that could change rapidly as the US has the resources to confront both China and Russia simultaneously. The more immediate balancer is Turkey, and Turkey’s internal problems are merely growing pains but Turkey is weak right now. And if Turkey strengthens, Russia will want to strengthen its control in the Caucasus. Therefore, Azerbaijan’s challenge is to avoid being controlled by any power or being trapped in power struggles between other powers. This is historically a difficult task but it is the one facing Azerbaijan.
– What further steps can be expected from Russia in the near or medium term in the South Caucasus?
– I think Russia is for the moment satisfied with its position. No one in the region will challenge Russian presence and the quiet insertion of more forces if Russia chooses to strengthen its position. In the long run Russia, reasonably, wants to return to its old borders. But for now, Russia has excluded Turkey. As always, the United States is the unpredictable force because it views the region as a peripheral interest but depending on events, particularly a threat to Georgia, might quickly elevate the region’s importance on a temporary basis. And of course Turkey will be much stronger in the coming decade so that can become a threat to Russian interests.
– After the end of the Karabakh war, the Biden administration began to take a strong interest in the South Caucasus region, which was not observed either under Trump or under Obama. How will the Biden administration build relations with Azerbaijan and Armenia in the post-war period? What, in your opinion, are the plans of the new administration regarding the South Caucasus?
– Biden has expressed many things but as President he must deal with America’s primary interests such as East Asia, Russia and Europe. Therefore, planning for South Caucasus are unclear or there may be plans but they may not drive US policy. That makes US actions volatile. But this is the time for smaller nations to shape the Administration’s perceptions so that in crisis, the US would feel the cost and risk of involvement might be worth it. In other words, managing the United States is always a problem but always necessary.
– As you know, during the Second Karabakh War, Azerbaijan liberated 7 regions around Karabakh, part of the Karabakh region is Hadrut, Shusha and some villages of the Khojavend and Khojaly regions. A certain part of Karabakh is now temporarily under the control of Russian peacekeepers. In your opinion, how will the further fate of Karabakh develop?
– Karabakh has become a borderland. The Russian presence currently allows Azerbaijan to exclude Armenia. If the Russians achieve their long term plans Russian troops will remain and expand. If not all three regional nations will be maneuvering. Since Azerbaijan clearly intends to preserve its sovereignty it must maintain close relations to Russia now and prepare for a peaceful transition and exit of Russian force. This will be delicate.
– What role and place will Turkey play in the future development of the South Caucasus region? Will Turkey’s influence in the region grow?
– Over the coming decades, Turkish power will surge in my opinion. Its current economic problems like the Great Depression in the United States is a temporary part of the process of its emergence. There is ample time to prepare, but as it has been for centuries, the Caucasus are the place where Russia and Turkey compete with each other. So there is now a window for establishing robust realities by powers in the Caucasus. The Caucasus are always a place where great powers clash but native powers endure. Preparing for endurance is the key and forming relations with major powers in the rest of the world is an insurance policy.