Russia’s Carrots and Sticks

A number of very interesting aspects to this NY Times article on how the Goergia War has impacted Azerbaijan. First, it illustrates how the argument that Russia will pay a longterm cost for its belligerence, while valid, is limited to those countries (and investors) who have a choice as to whether or not they deal with Russia, or who have little to fear from Russia’s demonstrated willingness to use military force. As this article makes clear, Azerbaijan meets neither of those criteria, and so it’s not surprising that “the chess board has been tilted.”

Second, while many analysts have focused on the stick aspect and apparent unpredictability of Russia’s invasion, they overlook the calculated carrots Moscow has been very clearly offering over the past six months to a year. The effect is to offer vulnerable countries a reassuring rationalization for falling in line with what amounts to intimidation:

Azerbaijan will be under more pressure from Russia when undertaking energy contracts and pipeline routes that Russia opposes, said one Azeri official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the matter. Officials from Russia’s gas monopoly, Gazprom, on a trip here this spring, offered to buy Azerbaijan gas at European prices, rather than at the former reduced rate. That offer, if the Azeris chose to accept it, could sabotage a Western-backed gas pipeline project called Nabucco.

Rasim Musabayov, a political commentator in Baku, said that under the new conditions, many Azeris think that selling gas to Russia is not such a bad idea.

In the aftermath of the conflict, Russia has also taken the initiative to try to mediate Azerbaijan’s own frozen conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenian separatists:

“One of the positive effects of the Georgian crisis is that the Kremlin will try to show that they are not crazy guys,” an Azeri official said. “That they can be good neighbors, too.”

In the past, I’d predicted that Russia would show this kind of reasonableness by ultimately walking back its confrontational stance on Abkhazia and S. Ossetia. But remaining unreasonable in the resolution of Georgia’s territorial integrity might actually pay more dividends on being reasonable elsewhere.

Finally, this remark Musabayov jumped out at me:

“You can’t have a foreign policy that goes against your geography,” he added. “We have to get along with the Russians and the Iranians.”

That’s something America should probably take more into account, both with regards to calculating its demands of it friends, as well as in formulating more reasonable expectations of what we can achieve in different parts of the world.