U.S. policy toward the Caucasus has undergone a reassessment over the past few years. Charles King, professor of international affairs and government at Georgetown University, spoke at the Carnegie Moscow Center about the intricacies in the North and South Caucasus, the place of the Caucasus in the wider relationship between the United States and Russia, and Washington’s perspectives on the issue of the Caucasus. Carnegie Moscow Center’s Natalia Bubnova moderated.

Shift in the U.S.-Caucasus Relationship

In King’s opinion, the relationship between the United States and the countries of the Caucasus has evolved in recent years:

  • Declining Importance of the Caucasus on the U.S. Agenda: Overall, the importance of the Caucasus on the U.S. agenda has slipped, King said. The region has settled into a kind of stability—although not necessarily a good one—that the United States has decided it can live with, especially as there are other issues of greater importance on the U.S. agenda. King believes the United States now has a more sober, realistic, and pragmatic image of the Caucasus than perhaps it had in the past.
  • The Eurasian “Chessboard” Model Is No Longer Valid: There is no longer talk about winners and the losers in the region, King added. The major external actors in Eurasia have developed their own balanced approaches.
  • Domestic Politics by “Remote Control”: Today, the relationship between the United States and South Caucasus countries seems to be an extension of the Caucasus’ domestic politics, King asserted. The United States functions as an alternative venue or arena where the domestic politics of the South Caucasus republics are being played out.
  • Increasing Separation Between U.S. Foreign Policy Features: King explained that two features of U.S. foreign policy—strategic interests and the promotion of a particular kind of democratization agenda—are no longer promoted hand in hand. The gap between the two has widened, and the strategic approach is winning.

Reasons Behind This Shift

  • Disappointing Fate of the “Color Revolutions”: The importance of the Caucasus on the U.S. agenda slipped not only because of the deteriorating situation in Syria or the reset of U.S.-Russia relations that began in 2008, King argued. Although a number of reasons were internal to the United States, the principal reason for the shift in the U.S. foreign policy was the disappointing result of the “color revolutions”—the series of peaceful uprisings in the countries of the former Soviet Union. Instead of constituting watershed moments, none of these revolts produced the fundamental transformations expected by their backers in the United States, he added.
  • 2008 Russian-Georgian Five-Day War: The decline of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s image in the United States has also contributed to this shift, King contended. Saakashvili’s handling of the 2008 war with Russia had a strong impact on the way the United States perceived Georgian politics. At the same time, the restraint shown by Russia’s limited operations during the conflict seemed to contradict the belief that Russia was out to regain its former territories. Moreover, it is very hard to determine what Georgia’s foreign policy is these days.
  • Failure of Rapprochement Between Turkey and Armenia: When rapprochement between these two countries—in which the United States had invested a fair amount of energy and political capital—failed, the enthusiasm for engaging with the South Caucasus began to dissipate, he said.
  • The Relative Success of Putin’s Policy of “Chechenization”: With Russia’s relative success in pacifying the Chechen Republic while attaining a degree of regional stability, King argued that it has become more difficult for the United States to comment on the events in the region.
  • A Degree of Balance Between South Caucasus and Russia: There has been a rapprochement between Russia and Georgia, King said, as well as between Russia and Azerbaijan, including cooperation in the field of oil and gas exploration and exports.
  • Discussion in the United States on the Issue of Recognizing the 1915 Armenian Genocide by Turks: There has been a tendency to shift the ongoing conversation about the Armenian genocide to a local level in the United States, he added.
  • Pushback in Azerbaijan on an American Human Rights Agenda: Baku feels it is in a position of an increased power vis-à-vis the United States as it has become possible to “scotch” or stop conversations about human rights issues in the country, King said. There is an important constituency within the U.S. policymaking establishment that strongly feels that pushing hard on human rights in Azerbaijan is contrary to long-term U.S. interests.

Relations Between Moscow and Washington: Strategy of Equivalence

  • Rise of “Raison d’État”: King described the situation in Caucasus as an important dynamic driving the U.S.-Russia relationship today. The rise of Putin’s strategy of equivalence, or “raison d’état,” can be seen as a defining feature of Russian foreign policy in the region today, he argued. This strategy is based on the allegation that states sometimes have to do unsavory things in the interest of order and stability at home. However, as King stressed, similar logic drives U.S. foreign policy in the region; countries have their own “raisons d’état” and pursue specific interests.
  • Fundamental Disconnect no Longer Exists: In light of issues related to the April 2013 Boston bombings, the U.S. National Security Agency, and Edward Snowden that affect both Moscow and Washington, it has become more difficult for the United States to continue to argue that there exists a fundamental disconnect between Russian and American perspectives and between the ways U.S. and Russian foreign policies are marketed with regard to the Caucasus, King said.
  • Deleterious Consequences over the Long Term: King expressed his concern that although relatively successful, the strategy of equivalence may have deleterious consequences over the long term. It has become much more difficult for the United States to intervene in a muscular way on behalf of the kinds of values that are supposed to drive U.S. foreign policy in other parts of the world—namely the promotion of democracy, human rights, or the rule of law.

Turkey’s Role in the South Caucasus

Turkish foreign policy underwent an evolution over the last fifteen years, King concluded. Although Turkish firms will likely remain important players in local economies, King does not see Turkey playing a significant geostrategic role in the region over the long term. On the Turkish domestic scene, there are more important issues on the agenda. Relations between Turkey and Azerbaijan have cooled, and Georgia and Armenia, despite the reduced Turkish role, will likely continue to be worried about Turkish meddling in the region.