Russia and Iran want to return to an era where the great powers decide: Op-ed

Russia and Iran want to return to an era where the great powers decide: Op-ed

Taras Kuzio
Russia and Iran want to return to an era where the great powers decide: Op-ed

Russian identity in the USSR was always the same as Soviet, and the Russian SFSR was the only republic of fifteen that did not have its own institutions. Russian nationalism has always therefore been unsure of what constitutes “Russia.” Is the territory of the former USSR the same as “historic Russia” as President Vladimir Putin recently said, or is “Russia” the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), Russian-Belarusian union, Russian World, or Eurasia Economic Union? Most likely Russian nationalists see all of them as “Russia.”

Russian identity has important ramifications not only for Ukraine but also for the South Caucasus. Russia’s proposals for a 3+3 initiative and its draft “security guarantees” proposed to the U.S. reflect nostalgia for an era when the Soviet Union and the U.S. carved out spheres of influence.

Russia’s “security guarantees” also reflect the Kremlin’s Soviet stereotypes of NATO as a U.S.-puppet organization. In the same manner that Russia believes the former Soviet republics do not possess “sovereignty” and are de facto fake or weak states, so too does the Kremlin believe European members of NATO are pawns in the hands of Washington.

Russia is demanding “security guarantees” from the U.S. at the same time as it tore up the security assurances given by itself to Ukraine when it occupied Crimea and launched military aggression against the country. In 1994, Russia, the U.S. and the U.K. signed the Budapest Memorandum where they “reaffirm their commitment to Ukraine, in accordance with the principles of the CSCE Final Act, to respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine.” Ukraine gave up the world’s third-largest nuclear arsenal and signed the NPT.

The Kremlin is completely dismissive of the EU. In 1943, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin asked U.K. Prime Minister Winston Churchill “How many divisions does the Pope have?” The Kremlin is undoubtedly being asked the same question about the EU. When asked if the EU could become involved in discussions with Russia on security questions, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov dismissed the organization and re-stated Russia was only interested in negotiating with the U.S. “We propose that the United States should conduct bilateral negotiations on this topic,” Ryabkov said, adding, “We will simply drown it all in debate and verbiage” if the EU took part.

Russia’s 3+3 initiative has four goals. The first would exclude be to cement the South Caucasus as a Russian-led sphere of influence shared with Turkey and Iran which would be partners but not equals.

The second would be to draw Turkey away from NATO and the U.S. in the pursuit of a long-standing Soviet and Russian goal of sowing divisions in NATO and the EU. The third goal, like the “security guarantees” ultimatum, is to reduce the ability of Azerbaijan and Georgia to independently ensure their military security by holding military exercises with the country or organization of their choice. This has no applicability to Armenia which is already, like Belarus, a Russian satellite state.

One can understand why Turkey and Azerbaijan are to some degree attracted by the 3+3 initiative. The U.S. has been AWOL from the South Caucasus for over a decade, and this does not seem likely to change under President Joseph Biden. In addition, Washington has foolishly gone out of its way to worsen relations with Turkey, a strategically important country with the second-largest army in NATO and important U.S. military bases. The West should calculate how the three South Caucasian states can be integrated into NATO and EU initiatives rather than creating dividing lines which allow Russia to formulate spheres of influence.

Azerbaijan and Turkey have given their tentative support to the 3+3 initiative because the West, and especially the U.S., exclude us from their initiatives. The recent summit for democracy did not invite Turkey and yet its democratic development is no worse than, for example, Ukraine, with the opposition allowed to stand in elections and in control of many cities across the country.

Iran will use the 3+3 framework to demand Azerbaijan no longer hold military drills with Turkey. Iranian leader Hossein Amir-Abdollahian repeated the common refrain from Tehran it would “not tolerate geopolitical and map changes in the Caucasus” – a similar demand made by Russia. Amir-Abdollahian also expressed “serious concerns about the presence of terrorists and Zionists” in the South Caucasus in an attack on Azerbaijan’s strategic partnership with Israel.

The fourth goal, which is tied to the proposed “security guarantees,” is to exclude NATO (and the EU) from the South Caucasus. Russia has opposed for three decades the use of U.N. peacekeepers and NATO enlargement into Eurasia. Since the launch of the Eastern Partnership in 2010, Russia has added the “EU enlargement” to its Eurasian exclusion zone.

Russia’s “security guarantees” demand the U.S. “deny accession to the alliance to the states of the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.” In the South Caucasus, only Georgia has sought NATO membership. Outside the Baltic states who joined NATO in 2002, only Ukraine has sought membership. With NATO membership only sought by two out of 12 Eurasian states, the Kremlin’s fixated with the issue is an outgrowth of Russia’s three-decade demand for Eurasia to be recognized as its exclusive sphere of influence.

Russian “security guarantees” also demand the U.S. not “establish military bases on the territory of the states of the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics that are not members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.” This ultimatum is an outgrowth of the Kremlin’s paranoia and conspiracy thinking as the U.S. or NATO have never planned to establish military bases in any Eurasian country.

The Kremlin’s “security guarantees” also demand that new central-eastern European and Baltic NATO members and Eurasian countries do not “use their infrastructure for any military activities or develop bilateral military cooperation with them.” This part of Russia’s “security guarantees” ultimatum is more disconcerting as Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan and some Central Asian states have long undertaken military cooperation with NATO. In the case of Ukraine, Georgia and Azerbaijan, this military cooperation has existed since the Partnership for Peace Programme was launched in 1994. NATO members cooperated with Central Asian states after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the fight against Al-Qaida and the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Iran would use Russia’s proposed 3+3 initiative to demand Azerbaijan reduce the number of its military exercises. Amir-Abdollahian said, “Azerbaijan has held six military exercises with foreign countries, I think these are provocative actions. Such a volume of exercises does not cause positive emotions. Iran held only one exercise inside its own territory and informed all countries of the region through diplomatic channels.” In the same way that the Kremlin claims Ukraine is the security threat, not Russia, which occupies Crimea, so too does Iran claims Azerbaijan is the security threat and not the theocratic regime in Tehran.

Also reflecting the Kremlin’s paranoia, its “security guarantees” ultimatum demands eastern European and Baltic NATO members and Eurasian states to “refrain from deploying their armed forces and armaments” in such a way as it would be viewed as a threat to its national security. Further, “the parties shall not use the territories of other states with a view to preparing or carrying out an armed attack against the other party or other actions affecting core security interests of the other party.”

In the 1990s Azerbaijan, Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova created the GUAM group to defend their new sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity. In all four countries, Russia managed separatist crises using Armenian or local proxies to destabilize the states, keep them weak and hinder their integration into structures outside Eurasia.

On the 30th anniversary of the disintegration of the USSR, Russia under Putin seeks to reverse the path to independence of its neighbors using direct military threats, as on the Russian-Ukrainian border, proxy states such as Armenia and Belarus, terrorist groups and the issuing of extreme ultimatums to the West. Dean of the Diplomatic Academy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation Alexander Yakovenko warned, “As before, in the event of a negative reaction from our partners, we will have to act unilaterally in defense of our security interests, which we have the right to formulate independently.”

Russia and Iran’s approaches to the 3+3 initiative and “security guarantees” are more befitting the imperialist era of the 19th century and the Yalta summit of great powers in 1945 – and not the 21st. Unlike Russia and Iran, modern-day Turkey is no longer the Ottoman Empire. This initiative and ultimatum would reduce the sovereignty and independence of Ukraine, Georgia and Azerbaijan.

*Taras Kuzio is a professor in political science at the National University of Kyiv Mohyla Academy.