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In this section, we publish the weekly analysis of the major events taking place in the Caucasus and beyond. The Caucasus Update is written by our Senior Editor Alexander Jackson. Click here to subscribe.

On April 20 the US State Department announced that Richard J. Morningstar had been appointed special envoy on Eurasian energy issues to Secretary Clinton (State Department, April 20). Morningstar will “provide the Secretary with strategic advice on policy issues relating to development, transit, and distribution of energy resources in Eurasia”. He is certainly well qualified for the job – he served as special advisor on Caspian basin energy diplomacy in 1998-1999, prior to which he served as a special advisor on assistance to the former Soviet Union.

The appointment of the special envoy suggests that the Obama Administration’s policy on the Caspian region is finally beginning to take shape. This should come as no surprise – the area does, after all, lie between two of President Obama’s biggest foreign-policy challenges, Russia and Iran, as well as Turkey, which has been highlighted as a key US ally in the drive to rebuild America’s image in the Muslim world.

But even in these critical areas the delay in appointing officials - which is so clear elsewhere in the US government, particularly the Treasury – is also visible. As of April 23, the position of Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Russia, Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine was still vacant. Although most of the headline-grabbing policies towards Moscow so far have been initiated by President Obama or Secretary Clinton, the lack of a dedicated high-level official for Russia is alarming.

The profile of the Administration’s other Eurasia specialists suggests that the Obama Administration does not intend to make a radical break with the Bush era. Heading the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs as a replacement to Daniel Fried will be Philip H. Gordon, a Europe and Turkey specialist (Joshua Kucera over at Eurasianet wrote an excellent profile of Gordon on March 18). However, Gordon’s confirmation has been held up in the Senate by John Ensign, a Republican with links to the Armenian lobby. Ensign has allegedly blocked the confirmation in response to Gordon’s refusal, in a hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to classify the tragic events of 1915 in the Ottoman Empire as ‘genocide’. This is not something new. Similar “refusals” prevented several other key appointments in the past including the appointment of an ambassador to Armenia for a couple of years up until 2008.

Gordon’s argument, which appears to be echoed by President Obama, is that use of the term would inflame Turkish public opinion and embolden hardliners, ruining the new Administration’s attempts to rebuild ties with Ankara. This suggests a new emphasis on pragmatism, a trend also clearly visible in efforts to rebuild relations with Russia even if this means toning down support for Georgia. 

However, a change in tone does not reflect a wholesale change in policy. This is to be expected. The parameters of US involvement in the Caspian region – energy, counter-terrorism, peaceful conflict resolution, containing Iran and providing a bridgehead for operational support in Central Asia, are not likely to change. It was therefore logical that Matthew Bryza, the State Department’s top official for the South Caucasus and co-chair from the US in the OSCE Minsk Group, remained at his post. He has built up a solid reputation in the region and possesses extensive experience of its problems.

As noted above, any shifts in the new Administration’s policy towards the Caspian and the South Caucasus are likely to come through changing policies towards Russia, Iran, or Turkey. President Obama’s desire to reset relations with Russia has had mixed results so far, with agreements, for instance on strategic arms reductions, alternating with aggressive rhetoric against continued cooperation between NATO and Georgia (BBC News, April 16). The US so far has shown rhetorical restraint, and has made little fuss about the retrial of the ex-Yukos boss Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

This pragmatism is also visible in the Caucasus: the Obama Administration has held back from the unequivocal declarations of support for Georgia’s President Saakashvili that he received during the Bush Administration. Seeing him replaced with someone less bombastic towards Russia would probably be a quiet relief for Washington. As for Georgia’s NATO aspirations, the Obama administration will probably stick to the line agreed at the December 2008 summit – Georgia will be a member of NATO, but not yet.

There are three big questions with regard to Georgia. Firstly, how much military assistance is the US willing to offer to rebuild the country’s shattered armed forces? The cost of irritating Russia is likely to outweigh the benefits of re-equipping the Georgian military with American kit. Secondly, how would the US treat a revolution in Georgia? Its reaction to 2003’s Rose Revolution was generally supportive: it strongly criticised the falsified election which triggered the protests and was quick to congratulate President Saakashvili. His replacement by a Russia hawk would provoke grave concern in Washington. Thirdly, what would the new Administration do in a new Russia-Georgia war? Speculating on such a chaotic event is of course fanciful, but the US would certainly not go any further than the Bush Administration did in last August’s war. If John McCain – a noted Russia hawk and supporter of President Saakashvili – had won the election, things might be different.

The second big issue is Nagorno-Karabakh. Matters are largely out of Washington’s hands here. Although it co-chairs the OSCE Minsk Group tasked with resolving the conflict, Russia is far more dominant in this framework and the US has been increasingly hedged out of the peace process by Moscow and, to an extent, Ankara. Turkey’s Caucasus Stability and Cooperation Platform, which is apparently already operating despite a lack of fanfare (RFE/RL, April 20), was specifically designed to minimise the impact of outside powers on the Karabakh process.

Nonetheless, Ankara remains Washington’s main way of leveraging the conflict, partly through its rapprochement with Armenia. President Obama’s high-profile visit to Turkey in March was an explicit attempt to enlist the assistance of Washington’s main Muslim partner in Eurasia and a key NATO member to improve the US’s standing in the Islamic world. The appointment of Gordon indicates the new importance of Turkey, as well as a clear-headed desire to solve the Armenian issue.

Finally, Caspian energy, Morningstar’s new portfolio. His appointment suggests that the Obama Administration is hoping for the Nabucco project to be a repeat of the successful BTC pipeline, whose inception was overseen by Morningstar in 1999. This is optimistic, but there are few people with a better chance. His European expertise (he was ambassador to the EU 1999-2001) may help to nudge Europe into more active support of Nabucco, but once again there is only so much that Washington can do here. At an energy conference in Bulgaria on April 25, Morningstar bluntly stated that Nabucco is not a panacea for Europe’s energy problems.

Although it is still early days, the outlines of Obama’s Caucasus policy are becoming clear. A renewed partnership with Turkey and a willingness to work with Russia are the core elements. The Armenian diaspora in the US will be a clear loser from this, but Washington’s support of the Turkish-Armenian thaw will certainly benefit Armenia itself. Georgia, or more specifically President Saakashvili, may also lose out. Azerbaijan may gain if the Administration invests more energy in the Karabakh conflict, notwithstanding its limited influence there. In any case, the big question mark remains the new period of détente with Russia: if ‘pressing the reset button’ fails, the Bush-era cycle of confrontation in the Caucasus could easily resume.

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by Gela on Mon Apr 27, 2009 9:35 am
Completely incompetent analysis--more what Russians would like to see, rather than the reality

by Mikheil on Tue Apr 28, 2009 2:11 am
It is quite obvious that the US support for Georgia is diminishing and it is due to several factors such as Obama's unwillingness to get into confrontation with Russia and Saakashvili's irresponsible attack on South Ossetia last year which embarassed not only Georgians but also Georgia's many friends in the West. And the current paper illustrates quite well the slowly forming changes in the US policy towards the Caucasus. If US wishes to have someone in power in Tbilisi who creates less headache than Saakashvili but who is also pro-Western, what is bad about it? US is not defying its interests in the region, but simply opts for a less confrontational course.

by Novkhany on Fri May 08, 2009 9:46 pm
From the statements and overall behavior of many a US official visiting Baku one can only conclude that US lacks not only a clearly-defined general policy on South Caucasus, but even a slightest desire to start drafting one

Its hard to see how, with all the problems outstanding, Obama team will invest much energy into the region


  Caspian Compromise Backfires for Russia and Iran, CU Issue 83, November 24, 2010
  Turkey in a Tight Spot on Missile Defense, CU Issue 82, November 11, 2010
  The OSCE and Kyrgyzstan’s Election, CU Issue 81, October 30, 2010
  Unblocking the US-Azerbaijan Relationship, CU Issue 80, October 07, 2010
  Nabucco Pipeline: Quo Vadis?, CU Issue 79, September 30, 2010
  Russia tightens its grip in the South Caucasus, CU Issue 78, August 23, 2010
  Armenian Politics: Rigidity Versus Flexibility, CU Issue 77, August 10, 2010
  Russia and Georgia: Ready To Talk?, CU Issue 76, July 21, 2010
  Can the US walk and chew gum at the same time?, CU Issue 75, July 9, 2010
  The Kyrgyzstan Crisis – A Qualified Success for Turkish Diplomacy?, CU Issue 74, June 24, 2010
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  The EU and Abkhazia: Between a rock and a hard place, CU Issue 65, March 16, 2010
  Fallout from the US ‘Genocide’ vote, CU Issue 64, March 9, 2010
  Ukraine's elections and future of GUAM, CU Issue 63, February 10, 2010
  Less Democracy, More Security: Kazakhstan and the OSCE, CU Issue 62, January 18, 2010
  Tackling the North Caucasus Insurgency: Development or Rhetoric?, CU Issue 61, January 11, 2010
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  The South Caucasian States and Afghanistan, CU Issue 54, November 11, 2009
  Is Turkey turning East?, CU Issue 53, November 2, 2009
  What is Russia’s Gameplan for Iran?, CU Issue 52, October 26, 2009
  Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan: Where Next?, CU Issue 51, October 19, 2009
  The Armenians of Georgia: A New Flashpoint in the Caucasus?, CU Issue 50, October 12, 2009
  Turkey’s EU Membership: Will The ‘Armenian Opening’ Help?, CU Issue 49, October 5, 2009
  The Missile Defence Shift: Implications for the Caucasus, CU Issue 48, September 22, 2009
  Rising Tensions in the Black Sea , CU Issue 47, September 14, 2009
  Armenia, Turkey, and Azerbaijan: The Clock Is Ticking, CU Issue 46, September 7, 2009
  The Battle of the Bases in Central Asia, CU Issue 45, August 31, 2009
  Russia, Israel, and the S-300s, CU Issue 44, August 24, 2009
  The motivations behind Turkey's 'Kurdish Initiative', CU Issue 43, August 17, 2009
  The Implications of the Turkmenistan-Azerbaijan Dispute, CU Issue 42, August 10, 2009
  What has changed since the August war?, CU Issue 41, August 3, 2009
  The Internal Dynamics of Armenia’s Karabakh Policy, CU Issue 40, July 20, 2009
  Gazprom’s Baku Triumph, CU Issue 39, July 06, 2009
  Ingushetia: The New Chechnya?, CU Issue 38, June 29, 2009
  Georgias Economy - A Matter for Diplomats, CU Issue 37, June 22, 2009
  ‘Progress’ In The Nagorno-Karabakh Peace Process, CU Issue 36, June 08, 2009
  Iran's Azerbaijanis and the presidential election, CU Issue 35, June 01, 2009
  Nabucco and South Stream - The Race Heats Up, CU Issue 34, May 25, 2009
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  Russia, Georgia, and NATO - A Bad Week, CU Issue 32, May 11, 2009
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  Integration and Division in the Caspian Sea, CU Issue 30, April 20, 2009
  The Turkish-Armenian Rapprochement - Implications for the South Caucasus, CU Issue 29, April 13, 2009
  Turkey's local elections and Armenian issue, CU Issue 28, April 6, 2009
  Is There Life Left In The Nabucco Project?, CU Issue 27, March 30, 2009
  Problems and Prospects for Russian Military Reform, CU Issue 26, March 23, 2009
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  Armenia: Heading towards crisis?, CU Issue 24, March 9, 2009
  Drug trafficking in the Caucasus, CU Issue 23, February 23, 2009
  Russian-led military block: A real counterweight to NATO?, CU Issue 22, February 16, 2009
  Are the International Missions in Georgia still relevant?, CU Issue 21, February 9, 2009
  Israel and Azerbaijan: Baku’s Balancing Act, CU Issue 20, February 2, 2009
  The North Caucasus in 2009: A Bleak Forecast, CU Issue 19, January 26, 2009
  The Military Balance in Nagorno-Karabakh, CU Issue 18, January 19, 2009
  Russia, Iran, and Barack Obama in 2009, Part II, CU Issue 17, January 12, 2009
  Looking forward to 2009 in the Caucasus and beyond, Part I, CU Issue 16, January 5, 2009
  The opportunities and the risks of NATO’s new supply routes, CU Issue 15, December 22, 2008
  The Black Sea Ambitions of Armenia, CU Issue 14, December 15, 2008
  Another Small Step for Nabucco, CU Issue 13, December 8, 2008
  Will Saakashvili survive politically?, CU Issue 12, December 1, 2008
  The latest fashion: conflict mediation, CU Issue 11, November 24, 2008
  The Baku Energy Summit, CU Issue 10, November 17, 2008
  Obama and the Caucasus, CU Issue 9, November 10, 2008
  Kazakhstan's oil options, CU Issue 8, November 3, 2008
  Is the Minsk Group being sidelined?, CU Issue 7, October 27, 2008
  Gas and oil developments in the Caspian region, CU Issue 6, October 20, 2008
  Where next for the Georgian peace process?, CU Issue 5, October 8, 2008
  Unrest in the North Caucasus, CU Issue 4, September 29, 2008
  Saakashvili's future, CU Issue 3, September 22, 2008
  Iran after the Georgian War, CU Issue 2, September 15, 2008
  Football diplomacy, CU Issue 1, September 8, 2008
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