As the world tries to decipher what Trump presidency means for the global world order and security in Europe, the same questions are asked in Armenia. The US continues not to have a clear-cut policy towards the South Caucasus, and Trump’s tenure is unlikely to change this. Instead, Washington’s relations with Yerevan, Tbilisi and Baku are likely to remain an undertone to the larger dynamics of US relations with Russia, Turkey and Iran, as well as developments in the Middle East. In this context, some potential pitfalls might affect the overall geopolitical environment in which Armenia operates with implications for Armenian foreign policy.
While in theory Yerevan would benefit from improved Washington-Moscow ties, this argument does not hold if that improvement were a result of a transaction where Russia’s power projection in its ‘near abroad’ limits the sovereignty of the post-Soviet states. Conversely, further deterioration of US-Russia (and Western-Russia) relations would continue to constrain the manoeuvring space for Armenia’s foreign policy. As Russia’s economy declines as a result of sanctions, the oil price and a failure to reform, Armenia’s economic performance will slide with it.
The second pitfall for Armenia is President Trump’s collision course with Iran and his support for the Saudi-led coalition’s antagonism with Tehran. The nuclear deal of 2015 and lifting of sanctions against Iran have opened new opportunities for Armenia for deepened ties with its neighbour and diversification in foreign, security and energy policies. Although the multilateral nuclear deal is unlikely to collapse as other parties to the deal remain committed to it, Trump’s hawkish rhetoric on Iran is stirring regional rivalries, which is not in Armenia’s interest. This factor is likely to reopen floor for various lobby groups in Washington to campaign against Armenia–US cooperation on grounds of the former’s cooperation with Iran. Such narratives usually juxtapose Armenia’s standing with Azerbaijan’s and Turkey’s antagonism with Iran. With Azerbaijan’s hydrocarbon resources as an added incentive, these can be seen as an attempt to draw US sympathies towards Azerbaijan and Turkey, and away from Armenia.
Factors beyond the Trump presidency
These factors were largely in place prior to Trump’s presidency, and the government in Armenia has had to deal with these fallouts before. There is also an overall uncertainty as to how far Trump’s approaches will be reflected in actual US foreign and security policy against pushback from Democrats and Trump-sceptic Republicans. The new batch of sanctions against Russia imposed by Congress to Trump’s dismay sets a precedent in this regard. The contours of US engagement in the South Caucasus are likely to be maintained through the State Department and Congress.
Another important factor is that the overall dynamic in Armenia-US relations is based on historical bonds and the 1.5 million-strong Armenian Diaspora in the US. Their interests –which mostly overlap with those of the Armenian state’s – are reflected in US decision-making through elected representatives as well as institutionalized lobby groups. The influential Armenian lobby will continue to affect US policy towards issues concerning Armenia through Congress and push for expanded cooperation between Yerevan and Washington.
Prospects for US regional engagement
Washington’s most recent engagement in the region was its support for the Armenia-Turkey rapprochement during 2008–10, eventually ruined by geopolitics and resulting in US disengagement from the region ever since. Now, Washington might try to step up its profile in the region by taking a larger US role within the OSCE Minsk Group format in the Nagorny Karabakh conflict resolution process. An increased US role would decrease the likelihood of war and balance Moscow’s current lead. Yerevan should start consultations with Washington to ensure that if and when the US re-engages, Washington’s involvement is commensurate with that of Moscow and balanced vis- à-vis Yerevan and Baku.
Recharging Armenia-US relations
For Yerevan, the absence of a US strategy towards Armenia and uncertainty in US foreign policy is not necessarily bad. It gives Yerevan a chance to take the initiative in developing tactical cooperation with Washington.
Over the last couple of years Armenia–US relations have already seen development in areas beyond the traditional topics of the Armenian genocide recognition and Nagorny Karabakh security. The 2015 signing of the Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) has opened new prospects for increased mutual trade and US investment, especially in the IT and energy sectors.
In May, the US ambassador to Armenia announced of the possibility of an $8 billion US investment into renewable energy development in Armenia. If realized, this will have an extraordinary impact on Armenia’s energy diversification and independence, energy cooperation with Iran and Georgia, and its regional standing in general. It is also likely to attract more investment to Armenia, as ensuing French and German commitments suggest. Because the long-term results may bear geopolitical significance in reducing Armenia’s energy dependence on Russia, Moscow may demonstrate uneasiness. But Russian state-owned companies have no means to invest in Armenia’s energy sector and are slowly pulling away. Yerevan should work on removing both domestic and foreign barriers and pave the way for such investment.
The uncertainty over Trump administration’s policies is likely to linger. Rather than wait for a clearer US approach towards the region to emerge, Yerevan must pro-actively engage with Armenia-savvy officials in the State Department, Congress and White House. Over the past quarter of a century, the Armenian-American community has invested huge amount of efforts and resources in deepening Armenia–US ties against geostrategic constraints. The ball is now in Armenia’s court to try to take these relations to the next level.
Despite the Azerbaijani elites’ preference for Hillary Clinton due to her first-hand experience in the South Caucasus region, the Azerbaijani government was not overly worried by a Republican win. US–Azerbaijan relations had been more prosperous under the Bush administration, and it was perceived that Republicans had a better understanding of the Nagorny Karabakh conflict because Washington re-energized the resolution process. The main question mark over Trump was his anti-Muslim rhetoric, and the unpredictability of his approach towards Iran, Russia and the other post-Soviet countries.
Baku’s attitude towards the new administration has grown more positive as US–Azerbaijan tensions have gradually decreased since Trump’s inauguration. Previously human rights issues had cast a shadow over the relationship, culminating in a bipartisan sanctions bill that would make Azerbaijan accountable on human rights issues. While the Azerbaijan Democracy Act of 2015 was never passed, it created concern among political elites.
The Obama-era focus on democracy and human rights was perceived by Baku as interference in its internal affairs. This is in contrast to Trump’s declaration that ‘the US will no longer interfere in the internal affairs of Muslim countries’ – a welcome development and ‘the only right policy', according to President Aliyev.
However, the proposal to slash funding for USAID – one of the last remaining Western government development departments working in Azerbaijan, keeping the remnants of civil society alive – from $7.716 million to zero, if approved, would send a clear signal about Washington’s lack of interest in Azerbaijan aside from its elite.
A selectively proactive policy
However, Baku does want US support in two key areas – Nagorny Karabakh and energy policy.
The US is a co-chair of the mediating Minsk Group. The previous administration’s approach entailed maintaining the status quo and supporting the Russian-led ‘revitalization’ process. Baku did not like this approach, especially given the strong US role in the unfinished Madrid Principles. Through these, a number of questions on resolution of Nagorny Karabakh conflict were agreed by Azerbaijan and Armenia, but it has never become a basic document for a peace agreement, as several of the most difficult questions remain unresolved. Nonetheless this was a major US achievement during the Bush era, a complex process which both challenged the Russia’s historical lead in this area and forced Moscow to treat US as an equal, given its status a Minsk Group co-chair.
However, until recently US only had a temporary appointee in the Minsk Group – a much reduced presence – and the appointment of a new permanent co-chair does not in itself constitute a serious commitment to re-energize the process and challenge Moscow. In the past few years, US co-chairs of the Minsk Group have preferred to focus on low-level technical cooperation with Russia and were happy to let Moscow take the initiative in ad-hoc mediation. This is partly because the other conflicts – primarily Ukraine – have emerged as the decisive issue in US/West–Russian relations. The US will not, of course, devote the same level of attention to Nagorny Karabakh as to Ukraine, for which they have recently appointed a special representative on conflict resolution. But any move in this direction would strengthen Baku’s rapprochement with Washington.
Baku also wants US involvement in financing oil and gas projects and involving US energy firms. Azerbaijan’s existing energy pipelines are largely the result of Washington’s more attentive policies in the 1990s. But that has long since ended and Baku cannot bring itself to acknowledge it. Moreover, there are now concerns that sanctions have been expanded to cover Russian energy companies’ involvement in Azerbaijani energy projects. Lukoil has a 10 per cent stake in the Shah Deniz consortium, threatening to paralyze the Southern Gas Corridor. The sanctions were later changed, raising the threshold for sanctionable involvement to at least a 33 per cent stake.
Complicated regional dynamics
During the Obama era, Baku’s strategic importance for Washington diminished as soon as the Iran nuclear deal was concluded. This was also beneficial for Baku–Tehran relations in terms of changing perceptions of confrontation to cooperation. Similarly, Baku’s significance as a route for humanitarian supplies to Afghanistan for NATO and US forces no longer holds the same importance. Although the Trump administration has announced the deployment of several thousand additional US troops to Afghanistan, the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Joseph Dunford has confirmed that the US doesn't see a ‘necessity to increase the access through Azerbaijan’.
The Trump administration’s challenge to the Iranian nuclear deal could be problematic for Baku, jeopardizing regional dynamics and bringing back the period of confrontation with Tehran without getting anything worthwhile from the US. What Baku would like to see is a bit more engagement in the region by the US, in order to challenge the extensive Russian influence. Baku’s own attempt to pacify Russia at the expense of its relations with the West backfired last year; a big Azerbaijani diaspora entity closed in Moscow and Russian foreign policy elites became harsher in their statements about Azerbaijan.
Part of the problem also stems from Azerbaijan’s attempted investment in better bilateral relations with Moscow at the expense of its relations with West. Baku's antagonism towards the US and EU were part of an attempt to court Russia since 2014, but this led to exaggerated expectations for Moscow’s support over Nagorny Karabakh conflict resolution. These hopes collapsed a few months after the four-day war in April 2016, when Moscow clearly indicated that it would not be re-energizing negotiations.
In the absence of a comprehensive approach, patchy US support for Azerbaijan on specific issues will only endanger Baku’s relatively stable engagement with Tehran and Moscow. Both countries see support for Washington’s rhetoric as unacceptable.
Since Trump’s inauguration, what Baku has been most eager to receive is a clear message on US policy towards Azerbaijan, and the establishment of a mechanism for discussing and shaping bilateral relations. Nothing decisive has happened yet, aside from the retreat on human rights and aid funding. The US retreat is unlikely to change unless a clear approach emerges aimed at countering Russian influence and balancing Tehran’s pro-activeness in the region. Therefore Baku does not see alternative to the US, as the EU is not perceived as a strong player in regional security affairs, while Turkey plays a balancing role on some security issues, but follows Moscow on other regional issues such as energy policy. Turkish elites have adopted anti-Western rhetoric in recent years, marking a clear shift from the previous role as bridge to the West. Trump’s approach to the Iranian nuclear deal and the tightening of sanctions on Russia in the absence of its involvement in regional security injects a new risk to the regional dynamic. This is likely to further limit Washington’s role in the region at the expense of Russian and/or Iranian influence.
Georgia is the only truly pro-Western and democratic country of the South Caucasus three. In some aspects of democratization, such as transparency and corruption, Georgia ranks better than some new EU member states. Its pro-Western foreign policy orientation endears Georgia to the US and Europe, but also renders it a target of Moscow’s wrath, since Putin’s Russia is committed to derailing any of its neighboring states from a western quest.
Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential election sent Georgia into disquiet. For Tbilisi, Washington is the main counterbalance to Russia and decisive American engagement is the most efficient guarantor (more even than NATO) of Georgia’s very existence.
Trump’s lack of international policy experience, rendered him a distinctly second-best choice from Georgia’s standpoint (although the same was said of Barack Obama against John McCain in 2008).
The winter of discontent
One of the principal early apprehensions in Georgia was the perceived businesslike approach of Trump and his administration to international relations. Due to its small size and weak economy, Georgia is not a prized asset for Trump, and therefore could conceivably be ‘sacrificed’ for the sake of better relations with Russia.
The apparent mutual sympathy between Trump and Putin was further compounded by Trump’s demonstrable ignorance in international affairs with no visible signs to fill the knowledge gap.
Moreover, Trump’s vacillating statements on NATO were an additional source of nervousness, since historically the policies of Washington toward the South Caucasus region have been most successful when conducted in coordination with Brussels and major European capitals. Strong American backing of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline project contributed to its successful implementation, halting the Russian aggression against Georgia in 2008 and providing institutional and economic assistance that helped transform Georgia into a democratizing modernizing state are just few examples that underline the beneficial implications of strong transatlantic relations for the region.
Not as bad as it seemed
The first months of Trump’s presidency have suggest that Trump, whatever his rhetoric, is not in control of US–Russia – and by extension South Caucasus – policy. If anything, Russia policy has hardened as a response to Russia’s alleged electoral manipulation. Washington, it seems, is not going to be more accommodating to Russia’s interests.
In bilateral formats, Tbilisi has deployed considerable diplomatic effort to ensure that the prime-minister and foreign minister were among the first to meet US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Vice President Mike Pence, key senators and members of Congress, and the new president himself. Pence visited Tbilisi in July. His visit coincided with the commencement of the two week long, 2,800-strong large-scale US-led military ‘Noble Partner’ exercises, which Pence attended and where he addressed Georgian soldiers with a blunt statement on Russian aggression. The two countries signed the General Security of Information Agreement, which constitutes a legal foundation for bilateral intelligence sharing and has a potential for counterterrorism cooperation – a genuine milestone in security cooperation between the two countries.
Congress, currently noted for its strong bipartisan backing of Georgia, adopted a number of legislative acts, one of which prevents the US administration from providing financial assistance to governments that would recognize Russia-occupied Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states but several of which are more akin to ‘hush money’.
Washington has also reacted to Russia’s most recent aggressive moves along the occupation line moving deeper into the Georgian territory; the latest case of border shifting on means the line at some places comes is just 400 metres away from the vital east-west highway.
Not all quiet on the eastern front
Despite some hopeful signs, there remain causes for concern. Scores of important posts in the State Department are yet to be filled, and it is unclear what the political orientation of key players will be: will they be Georgia supporters or grand bargain seekers?
America’s domestic woes have tarnished its image, rendering Georgia, its weak but one-time firm ally, ever more vulnerable.
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