Russia, the United States, and the Caucasus
Authored by Dr. R. Craig Nation.
In the post-Soviet period, the Caucasus region has been a source of chronic instability and conflict. Many factors have ensured that the region would become a source of significant international engagement and concern. Conflicting interests that have made Russian-American relations in the region highly competitive are addressed as well as areas of shared priorities and mutual advantage that may provide a foundation for containing conflict and heading off further regional disintegration. However they are resolved, regional issues emerging from the Caucasus will have a significant impact upon the larger climate of U.S.-Russian relations in the years to come.
The Caucasus region consists of the new independent states of the Southern Caucasus (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia) and the Russian federal region of the Northern Caucasus, including war-torn Chechnya. In the post-Soviet period, it has become one of the most volatile and potentially unstable regions in world politics. Fragile state structures, a series of unresolved or “frozen” secessionist conflicts, and widespread poverty generate popular dissatisfaction and political instability. The region covers a major “fault line” between Christian and Islamic civilizations, and confessional rivalry, together with the rise of Islamic radicalism, have become sources of friction. Despite these inherent challenges, the hydrocarbon reserves of the Caspian basin also have attracted significant great power competitive engagement.
The United States and the Russian Federation pursue assertive regional policies in the Caucasus. At present, both Washington and Moscow tend to define their interests in such a way as to ensure that their relationship in the region will be contentious. The questions of access to the oil and natural gas reserves of the Caspian, Russia’s role in the geopolitical space of the former Soviet Union, the Western military role in the unstable regions along the Russian Federation’s southern flank, and strategies for pursuing a war on terrorism in Inner Asia all have the potential to become serious apples of discord.
A zero-sum “Great Game” for leverage in so fragile an area, however, is not in the best interests of either major external actors or the region’s peoples. Nor does it accurately reflect the dynamics that could be working to redefine the U.S.-Russian relationship beyond the Cold War. Washington and Moscow should seek to find a modus vivendi that will recast their regional roles within a broader framework that allows for mutually beneficial cooperation in areas of joint interest as well as healthy competition.
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