Donald Trump and the Caucasian knot

The US President-elect’s ‘no problem’ attitude isn’t going to work everywhere

BY Chad Nagle   /  22 December 2016

In a recent op-ed, former US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld made the case for increased American support to the ex-Soviet republic of Georgia, citing US ‘vital interests’ at stake. His solution for protecting Georgia’s impressive commitment to democracy and Western values: fast-track admission to the NATO alliance.

Georgia today does appear to be doing better than ever since independence. The capital, Tbilisi (though still pedestrian-unfriendly with far too many cars), has transformed wondrously. Those who remember the place twenty years ago can’t help but feel encouraged. No decent person wants Georgia’s progress to come to a screeching halt.

Yet Mr. Rumsfeld’s solution might be problematic. Even assuming NATO could induct a country with ongoing territorial disputes (Moscow recognizes two Georgian regions – Abkhazia and South Ossetia – as independent states), would it jibe with a Trump presidency’s new definition of American interests?

The new ‘nativism’ sweeping the West (mostly a pejorative for rediscovering national roots) undeniably involves reaffirming religious identity, and Donald Trump has made no bones about ‘putting the Christ back into Christmas’ and so forth. Drawing attention to the appalling treatment of Christian minorities in parts of the Islamic world, he signals his intent to defend Christians confronting ‘radical Islam’. Since Trump expresses open admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin – a man who, for many Westerners, symbolizes zero tolerance for Islamic supremacism – why admit Christian Georgia to NATO? Just team up with Vlad Putin. No problem.

Indeed, talk candidly to Georgians about their country today and you’ll hear frustration with the Muslim influx, not only from neighboring Azerbaijan and Turkey, but also Iran and Arab states, in most cases visa-free. Foreign Muslims, they say, come to Tbilisi and do things they can’t do in their own societies: gamble, binge-drink, pick up hookers, etc. But what Georgians most detest is their ‘uncultured’ and rude behavior. It’s as if they own the place.

Bust of former Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliyev in the Azerbaijani quarter of Tbiisi, Georgia
Bust of former Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliyev in the Azerbaijani quarter of Tbiisi, Georgia

Since Russia’s fed up with all that Muslim presumptuousness too, Trump might ask, what’s Rumsfeld’s problem? After all, we’ll all be one big ‘Christian family’ – Americans, Russians, Georgians and others. Everything will be just fine. No need for NATO expansion, no need to provoke Putin, no problem.

But a look further south reveals a more delicate situation. The south Caucasus countries of Armenia (Christian) and Azerbaijan (Muslim) have been in a political and military standoff since 1994, when a ceasefire was declared in a war over Armenian-inhabited territory that had cost perhaps 30,000 lives and created about a million refugees, mostly Muslims.

The territory in question, Nagorno-Karabakh (literally ‘Mountainous Black Garden’), used to be part of Soviet Azerbaijan. But before the USSR collapsed, the Armenians living there petitioned Moscow en masse for transfer from the jurisdiction of the Muslim-majority Azerbaijani SSR to that of the Armenian Soviet republic. Sensing creeping ‘Azerification’ over decades, the Karabakh Armenians preempted the difficult scenario of seceding from an internationally recognized, independent, Muslim-majority Azerbaijani state. Had they waited, no sovereign authority above Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital, would have exercised de jure power over them. At least in the USSR, Moscow had always had the last word. So they acted while the Soviet Union still existed, claiming their right under Soviet law.

Azerbaijani forces responded with force, war broke out, and by the time the USSR disintegrated, two de facto states existed on the territory of the former Soviet Azerbaijani republic: the independent Republic of Azerbaijan and the self-proclaimed ‘Nagorno-Karabakh Republic’ (NKR), also known as ‘Artsakh’ by Armenians. So matters stand today.

Landscape in Nagorno-Karabakh
Landscape in Nagorno-Karabakh

Intellectual consistency may be the preserve of academics, and President-elect Donald J. ‘No Problem’ Trump might see no reason to make his convictions plain on this sensitive region. After all, if there’s a US-Russian rapprochement, the US will respect Russia’s ‘vital interests’ just as we’ll expect Russia to respect ours. Armenia and Azerbaijan will both be in Russia’s ‘sphere,’ and Nagorno-Karabakh will be safe inside Azerbaijan with (Christian) Moscow looking out for it again. The lavish Trump International Hotel & Tower in Baku can really ‘rake it in,’ and with the Russians as friends, maybe America can benefit even more from the oil and gas flowing out of Azerbaijan. No war, no problem.

Except that there is a problem. Free Russian rein in the Caucasus is a grim prospect for Nagorno-Karabakh, a small, landlocked, Christian-populated enclave. Russia doesn’t recognize Artsakh legally as anything but part of Azerbaijan, and in the last few years, Putin has sold so much military hardware to the Azeris that Baku’s defense expenditures are now bigger than the Republic of Armenia’s entire state budget, which supports Artsakh. It’s all a bit confusing, especially since Azeris attribute their loss in the Karabakh war to Russian military aid to the Armenians. Now, apparently, Russia is making Artsakh increasingly vulnerable to its Muslim neighbor. Unfriendly Turkey – boxing Armenia in from the west – only makes matters worse, and closer Russo-Turkish ties aren’t necessarily reassuring.

Putin hasn’t been terribly consistent in advancing the ‘Christian’ cause. In April, the Azeris attacked a village in Artsakh using Russian-supplied helicopter gunships and artillery, infiltrated Armenian-controlled territory, and killed locals before being driven out. Armenians say Azerbaijani attacks have increased and intensified since the summer of 2014.

In emboldening Azerbaijan with supplies of military hardware, Russia looks to be playing a game similar to America’s in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, when Rumsfeld met with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein as Ronald Reagan’s special envoy. In providing Saddam with US military support, the goal was not to see the Islamic Republic of Iran vanquished by Baathist Iraq. It was, rather, to make sure neither side won. So it is with Russia in the Caucasus, a region Moscow certainly sees as part of its own ‘vital interests.’

Unfortunately, the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict is not analogous to the Iran-Iraq war. Although most observers deny the religious component of the Karabakh dispute (citing only ‘nationalism’ as a cause), this is either deluded or disingenuous. Azerbaijan has pursued an overtly ‘pan-Turkist’ foreign policy since independence, declaring Turkey its natural big brother, and generating valid alarm among Armenians. In late 1991, Karabakh Armenians understandably rejected the new ‘pan-Turkic’ Azerbaijani state.

The Dadivank monastery in Artsakh dates to the 9th century
The Dadivank monastery in Artsakh dates to the 9th century

In 1915, the Ottoman Turkish imperial regime began ridding Anatolia of its non-Muslim population in furtherance of the ‘jihad proclamation’ of November 1914, issued in the name of the sultan, and read out in all the empire’s provinces. If that sounds vaguely like Islamic supremacism, it should. It prompted the first genocide of the 20th century, a genocide of Christians by Muslims. Yet ‘secular’ Azerbaijan has nothing to say on the subject.

And blame for the ‘Great Crime’ doesn’t end with Turkey. History reveals the ‘hot air’ quality of Russia’s commitment to Christian ‘brethren’ facing Islamism abroad. Having recruited Ottoman Armenians to fight Turkey, Russia proved remarkably unwilling to save its allies once Istanbul branded all Armenian subjects as a potential ‘fifth column.’

This time, there’s an added dimension. Israel has actively courted Azerbaijan as an ally. Tel-Aviv believes Azerbaijan’s secular hereditary dictatorship can help isolate the Islamic Republic, which borders Azerbaijan to the south. Home to perhaps three times as many ethnic Azeris in its northern provinces, Iran sees Azerbaijan as a magnet for separatism, thus viewing Baku with great suspicion, if not hostility. Israel recently agreed to sell Azerbaijan its ‘Iron Dome’ missile system, further emboldening Baku to attack Artsakh.

While Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev courts Israel as an ally and cozies up to Moscow, Artsakh – to whom neighboring Iran supplies basic necessities – exists in perpetual unease. Because Israel is the only country Trump has so far explicitly labeled an ‘ally’, where would the President-elect’s loyalties lie in renewed war between Armenians and Azeris?

If the United States abandons the Caucasus to Russian control, is Trump confident another mass atrocity won’t occur? The Karabakh war of 1988-94 happened against the backdrop of pogroms versus Armenians in Soviet Azerbaijan. The zeal with which Azeris murdered and mutilated Armenian strangers reminded the world of the horror stories emanating from the Islamic Ottoman state’s mass ethnic cleansing of Armenians from 1915-23, an operation that probably claimed over a million lives. How does Trump feel about this?

Vice President-elect Mike Pence is on public record as classifying the Ottoman atrocities of 1915 as ‘genocide,’ and though the US government has taken no official position, most state legislatures have. However, while several countries have issued parliamentary resolutions affirming the events as ‘genocide,’ and others have taken no stance either way, only two nation-states have assumed a stance of official, public denial: Azerbaijan and Turkey. These just happen to be the immediate neighbors of Armenia and Artsakh to the east and west.

There is no evidence that Putin – whose regime is looking forward to détente under Trump – possesses the degree of conscience necessary to prevent another tragedy. Maybe Trump should consult the accomplished and respected Armenian-American community soon on this problematic policy area. Vice President-elect Pence should attend the meeting too.

Christmas decorations in Nagorno-Karabakh
Christmas decorations in Nagorno-Karabakh

Chad Nagle is an attorney and freelance writer based in the Washington, DC area. He is currently traveling in the former Soviet Union.


     linkedin      Email