By Wes Martin , January 07, 2021
As long as Moscow grips Europe’s supplies of gas and oil, NATO will always be compromised in the face of Russian aggression. Yet the dispute between Azerbaijan and Armenia in Nagorno-Karabakh threatens to damage Europe’s new alternative energy connection – the Southern Gas Corridor (SGC). If the US is to secure this supply, and NATO unity, it must do more to promote regional stability through renewed diplomatic and economic efforts.
Moscow has repeatedly used its energy for geopolitical leverage in the past. In the 2006 Russia-Ukraine gas crisis, the 50% government owned energy supplier Gazprom cut off its supply to Europe in response to Ukraine siphoning for its domestic needs. The move sent shockwaves throughout Europe. Italy lost 3.2 million cubic metres of gas between the 1st and the 3rd of January, triggering a series of regional and national crises. The episode highlighted how much of a chokehold Moscow had on the continent, and that it wasn’t afraid to squeeze it tighter.
Consequently, Europe rightly recognized the need to diversify Europe’s energy sources. The Ukrainian crisis, combined with the discovery of the new gas fields in the Caspian Sea, (70km from Azerbaijan’s capital Baku), led to the construction of the SGC. Seven years since work began, the first commercial sale of gas took place on New Year’s Eve.
A 3,500km long pipeline now runs to Italy via Turkey, Greece and Albania. Although the SGC has required a joint investment of approximately $40 billion from international gas companies, the significance of it is not just economic. The project has required the crossing of cultural and political lines: a symbol of resistance against the Russian energy monopoly.
The final leg of the SGC, the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline, became commercially operational on November 15, 2020. It holds the door open to a European continent that isn’t dependent upon Russia for its energy supply. An energy-independent Europe in turn creates a stronger, more unified NATO that can resist Russian intent to reclaim former Soviet territory.
The recent clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the contested Nagorno-Karabakh region threaten to disrupt this new-found energy independence afforded by SGC. Tensions have risen to some of the highest levels since its height in 1994. Damaging Azerbaijan’s energy infrastructure is a core component to the Armenian conflict strategy, as illustrated by an Armenian parliamentarian calling for the targeting of Azerbaijan’s oil and gas pipelines. These are not empty threats: on October 4th attacks on the famous ‘Ganja Gap’ threatened not only civilian fatalities but the destruction of key energy infrastructure. A missile strike on the SGC could have fatally destabilizing consequences on the region, and would undermine Europe’s wider energy independence efforts.
There is peace in the region, for now. A Moscow-driven ceasefire has been brokered, and this has led to 2000 Russian ‘peace-keeping’ boots being stationed on the ground on sovereign Azerbaijani territory. The Russian motive is far from humanitarian. Moscow knows it needs to keep its backyard relatively stable, whilst enforcing the ‘idea of Russia’ upon its neighbors. This weak form of peace is not enough to deter future instability, and has reinforced Russian control of one Europe’s most strategically important regions. There should be no doubt these 2000 troops have an additional duty of developing contingencies and resources for a reinforcement surge should Putin launch further offensive operations.
Russia has been able to assert itself on what was previously a bi-partisan peace process. The Russian-brokered ceasefire sits in stark contravention to the original mission of the Minsk group, the organization involving Russia, France and the US, tasked with coming to a peace-agreement in the region. The organization, established in 1992, has had extremely limited success in resolving the dispute.
The Minsk group had previously received praise for articulating a road to peace in the 2007 Madrid agreement. The principles included negotiating a resolution on the status of Nagorno-Karabakh, creating a corridor between Armenia and the region as well as re-establishing the rights of internally displaced persons. However, as talks proceeded, legal fixity and accountability gave way to a more informal, soft-law approach. Incompatible strategic objectives and ineffective diplomacy meant the Minsk group allowed itself to get stuck into a form of diplomatic rigor mortis. Azerbaijan has gained nothing from the process.
Not being helpful, France directly contravened one of the key principles of the Minsk group: neutrality. Last month, the French senate passed a resolution calling for the government to recognize Nagorno-Karabakh’s independence. Though the Macron administration has ignored it, France has lost credibility as a result. However, the US is not guiltless in the stasis of the peace process.
With American focus on the pandemic, social disorder and the election, it has opened the door to a new Russian status-quo which threatens once again to destabilize European energy security.
America needs to shift its focus back onto the South Caucasus and regain its credibility at the negotiation table. It cannot, and should not, hope to match Russia’s military presence. Instead, it should drive reconciliation between Azerbaijan and Armenia through economic engagement. Only then can the bear’s grip be loosened in the Southern Caucasus and NATO’s energy security.