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News & Analysis

Russia-NATO Tussle in Central Asia and The Caucasus

Akhmet Makhmoudov

Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev alleged on April 27 that Azerbaijan Republic hosts foreign funded biological labs which may be used against Russia. The Aliyev regime naturally denied the claim.

Patrushev’s allegation is difficult to verify at present. However, his statement is a clear warning to Russian dependent autocratic regimes in Azerbaijan and Central Asia to not join NATO’s campaign to choke Russia economically.

Patrushev was sending a subtle signal that Moscow can always create a pretext for strong-arm tactics against them. This would mirror the western regimes’ use of “terrorism” allegation to meddle in West Asia and Africa.

Seasoned analysts familiar with the mechanics of politics in the region are of the opinion that these regimes will act cautiously and not cross Russia’s political, economic or security redlines. However, it cannot be ruled out entirely that they won’t. Some of these regimes may be tempted to challenge Russia’s writ complicating the situation.

Based on this uncertainty, the likely behaviour of Russia and NATO in Central Asia and the Caucasus to increase economic, political and security pressure against the other must be analyzed. Observation of key regional issues over the years shows that destabilization benefits NATO regimes more than Russia.

The latter’s proximity means that it will bear the brunt of any economic downturn and conflict that may erupt. However, the war in Ukraine has injected new variables into the geopolitical theatre of the Caucasus and Central Asia.

First, these regimes understand that in order to out-maneuver western sanctions, Moscow needs them. The same applies to NATO regimes which would require some participation of Azerbaijan and Central Asia to inflict significant economic pain on Russia. In this scenario, these regimes will be caught in a difficult predicament. Between Russia and NATO, whichever side demonstrates greater pragmatism and flexibility will gain the upper hand.

Hitherto, Russia had tolerated these regimes’ dealings with the west. The redline was that they not undermine Russia’s strategic interests. As long as such dealings revolved around enriching the corrupt regimes in Azerbaijan and Central Asia, Russia tolerated them. If Moscow continues to maintain this position, it is likely to retain its influence.

However, since NATO regimes led by the US are determined to weaken Russia strategically, it poses a serious challenge to Moscow. It is now likely to react much more harshly against regional vassals if they cross Russia’s redlines. In this scenario, Moscow can easily overplay its hand. This is something Washington is counting on.

Second, while the west can destabilize Azerbaijan and Central Asia to a certain degree, considering how its economic war on Russia is not going as planned, destabilization of these regions does not benefit NATO either. One of the key energy alternatives to Russia is Central Asia, and Azerbaijan can serve as an important pipeline corridor. Also, stability in Central Asia can be utilized to incentivize China to purchase energy resources from there rather than Russia.

Thus, like Russia, the west also needs stability. This will depend on policy-making centers in both Russia and the west approaching the region’s political theater as a chess game rather than poker or checkers.

Third, while Russia commands immense political and military say in the post-Soviet regions, Moscow’s allies are unprincipled autocrats. They preside over family-based regimes. Like Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler Mohammed bin Salman is demonstrating cockiness towards his bosses in Washington and other western capitals, these regimes may also exhibit similar behaviour towards Moscow. Russia, however, is sensitivity to such conduct as is evident from its policies in Georgia and Ukraine. It may be tempted to take decisive action against them but that could easily backfire and may lead to unintended consequences.

With the above variables in mind, the future of many regimes in post-Soviet regions will remain uncertain and dependent on elements outside their control. They have not faced such a situation in recent history.

With the turbulent historical relationship between Russia and its former possessions in mind and in light of Putin’s actions in Ukraine, if he acts aggressively in the Caucasus and Central Asia, it will open the way for NATO regimes to mobilize local resistance against Moscow. This factor inhibits Russia’s power in the region. If Azerbaijan or any of the Central Asian republics are destabilized, the socio-political forces that are likely to emerge will be favorable to neither Russia or the west.

This will deter both sides from taking drastic action. History, however, shows that empires in decline become particularly vicious and act irrationally. As the US is clearly an empire in decline it is more prone to acting recklessly in order to retain its eroding status. Central Asia and the Caucasus are, therefore, likely to experience a significant degree of political and economic volatility.

Among regional players, Tajikistan and Azerbaijan are the most likely locales where tensions between Russia and NATO could escalate. This is due to the internal leverages that both Russia and NATO can utilize against the other.

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 51, No. 4

Dhu al-Qa'dah 01, 14432022-06-01

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