Stoltenberg's visit to South Caucasus amid global turmoil (Op-Ed)

  27 March 2024    Read: 900

Daily Sabah, a Turkish daily newspaper, has published an article entitled “Stoltenberg's visit to South Caucasus amid global turmoil”. reprints the article by Javid Valiyev, Head of Department at the Baku-based think tank Center of Analysis of International Relations (AIR Center).

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg's three-day visit to the South Caucasus on March 17 took place at a highly critical period, coinciding with significant regional and global challenges. These include the Russia-Ukraine war, the Israel-Palestine conflict, and the ongoing peace negotiations between Azerbaijan and Armenia.

There is a clear division between Western and Eastern perspectives on all three matters, each directly impacting the security of the South Caucasus and the stance of its states. NATO's pre-visit statement outlined the agenda, encompassing the Ukraine-Russia war, Armenia-Azerbaijan peace negotiations and energy concerns.

It's noteworthy that three days before Stoltenberg visited the South Caucasus, he announced NATO's 2023 report, and the report details the alliance's work and achievements last year. The main focus of the document is the Russia-Ukraine war, as well as the war in the Middle East and increasing competition with China. The report also devoted separate sections to NATO's relations with the South Caucasus states. According to the report, the evolving security environment has had a significant impact on NATO's partners in the South Caucasus. The report expressed NATO`s support for the territorial integrity, political independence and sovereignty of each of these three partners.

Azerbaijan agenda: Energy, peace process and Ukraine

Stoltenberg made his first visit to Azerbaijan and met separately with President Ilham Aliyev, Defense Minister Zakir Hasanov and Foreign Minister Ceyhun Bayramov. In his joint news conference with Aliyev and in his statement to the official state news agency, Stoltenberg drew attention to the importance of Azerbaijan for NATO by emphasizing three issues: humanitarian aid for Ukraine, Azerbaijan's contribution to the energy security of NATO member states and the signing of the Armenia-Azerbaijan peace agreement.

According to Stoltenberg, the situation in Ukraine is quite critical and the outcome of the war is closely related to the security of the South Caucasian states. Azerbaijan supported Ukraine's territorial integrity from the beginning and provided constant humanitarian aid. The total amount of aid provided by Azerbaijan for Ukraine, including funds for rehabilitation and reconstruction, amounted to more than $33 million. Some 154 Ukrainian children who suffered from the war and lost relatives received medical and socio-psychological rehabilitation process in Azerbaijan.

According to the communique adopted at the NATO summit held in Vilnius on July 11, “Energy security plays an important role in common security and the energy crisis has underlined the importance of a stable and reliable energy supply and the diversification of routes, suppliers, and sources.” In this context, in his statement to the Azerbaijani state news agency, Stoltenberg explained that the natural gas coming from Azerbaijan is very important for the allies. Azerbaijan is an alternative energy source since six member states of NATO (Türkiye, Italy, Greece, Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary) import natural gas from Azerbaijan. When we consider the political consequences of energy dependence for states, it can be said that energy diversification plays an important role in NATO's security. With the agreement signed with the EU in July 2022, Azerbaijan decided to increase the amount of natural gas it will export to Europe from 12 billion cubic meters (bcm) to 20 bcm in 2027.

Azerbaijan has the power to play an important role in the energy security of NATO ally countries, not only in the field of natural gas but also in the field of alternative energy. With 135 GW of onshore and 157 GW of offshore renewable energy sources, Azerbaijan has substantial economic potential. On Dec. 17, 2022, Azerbaijan signed the Agreement on Strategic Partnership in the Development and Transmission of Green Energy with Georgia, and NATO members like Romania and Hungary in Bucharest. The main objective of Azerbaijan is to increase the domestic share of renewable energy sources within the installed electricity generation capacity up to 30 % by 2030.

In his statement to the official news agency, Stoltenberg noted that work is being carried out to reach an agreement on a new framework document regarding cooperation between NATO and Azerbaijan. According to him, the purpose of this framework document is to adapt the Azerbaijani Armed Forces to NATO standards by focusing on mutual cooperation issues. NATO considers that the close cooperation between the Azerbaijani army and the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) will greatly contribute to the deepening of Azerbaijan's relations with NATO.

Armenian agenda: Alienate from Russia

Stoltenberg's visit to Armenia took place during a period of critical developments in Armenia's foreign policy. Armenia aims to improve its relations with the Western Alliance by changing its 30-year-old foreign policy strategy, and the visit took place at a time when there were discussions about Armenia`s moving away from Russia. However, it is noteworthy that Armenia-Russia trade increased during the Russia-Ukraine war. It is noteworthy that while the Western alliance imposes sanctions on trade gateway countries for Russia, it exempts Armenia from this.

Within the framework of Armenia-West rapprochement, there is a possibility that Armenia will become the second front in the Russia-Ukraine war. Commenting on Stoltenberg’s visit, a Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson said: the West aims to open a second front against Russia.

One of the most important discussions within the framework of this visit is what kind of guarantor the West will give to Armenia against threats from Russia in the face of efforts to distance itself from Moscow. During the visit, it was revealed that an agreement on this issue would be signed between Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen on April 5.

Georgia agenda: Political reforms for membership bid

Georgia is the only South Caucasian country that applied for NATO membership. The NATO Liaison Office was established in Georgia in 2010 to support the country's reform efforts and its program of cooperation with NATO. At the 2008 Bucharest summit, it was decided by NATO members that Georgia would become a member of the alliance with the Membership Action Plan (MAP). But in Vilnius Summit Communique it was stated that to advance its Euro-Atlantic aspirations, Georgia must make progress on reforms, including key democratic reforms, and make the best use of the Annual National Program (ANP).

On Nov. 8, the European Commission officially recommended granting candidate status to Georgia, a decision confirmed on Dec. 14. Stoltenberg highlighted that progress in this regard would significantly impact the path toward full membership in the alliance. Irakli Kobakhidze, elected as prime minister of Georgia in February of that year, conducted his inaugural foreign visit to Brussels on Feb. 21, where he met with Stoltenberg. During the meeting, Stoltenberg encouraged Georgia to continue and intensify domestic reforms while upholding democratic values on its journey toward full membership in the Euro-Atlantic community.

As a result, when we consider that the war in Ukraine is in a critical situation, it can be said that the main agenda of Stoltenberg’s visit to the South Caucasus is Ukraine and the geopolitical consequences created by this war. However, Stoltenberg had a different agenda in each of the three countries during his visit to the South Caucasus. The most important agenda for Azerbaijan is energy, for Armenia, supporting the move away from Russia, and for Georgia, carrying out political reforms in the name of full membership.

An important issue on the agenda of Stoltenberg's visit to the South Caucasus was supporting the Armenia-Azerbaijan peace process. The West wants to take an active role in this peace process. However, while some Western leaders support Armenia's theses in this process, Stoltenberg merely declared that they only supported peace.


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