A Brief on Bolton’s Visit to Russia and the South Caucasus
We asked two of the Caspian Policy Center’s Board members to provide their thoughts on the U.S. Adviser’s travels to the South Caucuses and Russia (pre-visit and post-visit).
What should John Bolton’s priorities be before he visits the Caspian region?
National Security Adviser John Bolton’s trip to Russia, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan is a welcome development. During the past two presidential administrations, Washington has tended to back-burner the highly strategic South Caucasus region that’s the land bridge between the Caspian and Black Seas. The region is strategic because it is currently drawing intense interest from both Russia and China (it’s essential real estate for Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative), because Turkey is a major player there, and because Iran hovers immediately to the south. In recent years, the United States has maintained correct, if not front-burner, relations with both Georgia and Armenia, but has kept Azerbaijan at arm’s length. Even so, Azerbaijan has been most helpful to U.S. national interests as it has quietly supported the U.S. and NATO effort in Afghanistan by allowing its air and sea ports to be used as essential transit points. Recently, Azerbaijan has signaled its desire for a new strategic relationship with the United States. Let’s hope that the Bolton visit to Baku will signal that the United States is ready for a new, realpolitik relationship with Azerbaijan. This would benefit U.S. national interests and the greater Caspian region, and it would further cement the long-standing U.S. policy to support the independence and sovereignty of the post-Soviet states.
-Ambassador (Ret.) Richard Hoagland[i]
Four of the five overarching threats to U.S. interests explicitly listed in the Trump Administration’s National Security Strategy play in the Caucasus – Russian, Chinese, and Iranian ambitions and international crime and terrorism – yet the Administration has really just continued the approach of the Obama years. Ambassador Bolton’s trip is the opportunity to demonstrate clearly the United States recognizes the dangerous factors at play in the Caucasus and wants them to work with Washington to address them. We want Azerbaijan and Georgia to strengthen their help in Afghanistan, including as a needed alternative to Pakistan for NATO access to the country. We want all three countries to pursue their own courses to develop peacefully, to become prosperous, democratic actors able as well as partners willing to withstand Russian or Iranian pressures and so be agents of international stability. And to help them further be factors stabilizing the region, stress it is time to look forward in addressing Nagorno-Karabakh and other long-standing disputes. Bolton’s visit can thus enlist each of the three Caucasus countries in writing a new page rather than continuing to focus on the past.
-Ambassador (Ret.) Robert Cekuta[ii]
The scheduled Bolton visit to Russia came at a time of heightened tensions between Washington and Moscow over Russian actions in Ukraine and Syria, as well as alleged Kremlin interference in U.S. elections. In August, Bolton told Secretary of the Security Council of the Russian Federation Patrushev that the United States "wouldn't tolerate meddling
" in the upcoming U.S. midterm elections.
When speaking with media, Bolton took a stance in response to the fears of the U.S. leaving the INF. “The threat is not American withdrawal from the treaty; the threat is the Russian missiles already deployed.” Bolton noted that he believes much of the rhetoric over the issue is “overheated.” He recalled being present when the U.S. withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2001, adding that current discussions
with Russia’s defense minister were “constructive.”
Bolton participated in a press conference with Putin, following the meeting. He affirmed that a formal notice of withdrawal from the INF “will be filed in due course
,” and that Russian violations of the treaty were a “major factor in [the U.S.] decision to withdraw.” During another press meeting in Russia, Bolton was asked what was next for the two nations if they find themselves free to leave the INF. “Are they going to be concerned about China? Are they going to be placing the missiles in Europe? Are they going to be agreeing on some sort of territorial deployment of the missiles? What’s next?” Bolton responded
saying, “I think we are a long way from any decisions on these kinds of questions.”
Election meddling was also brought up during the two parties’ talk. Bolton informed the Russian president that election meddling had no impact on U.S. elections, but rather worsened relations between the two nations. Consequently, the national security advisor announced that President Trump and President Putin are set to meet in Paris, during the Armistice Day celebration next month, to strengthen relations.
John Bolton and his delegation met with Azerbaijan’s Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov. The Foreign Minister discussed many of the sectors that the United States cooperates with Azerbaijan, highlighting their work together in the fight against terrorism—for which both parties are appreciative of. Energy and transportation projects were noted, most importantly the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway and the Southern Gas Corridor.
However, tensions with Armenia was also a cornerstone of discussion. Mammadyarov discussed current negotiation process on the peaceful settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict—emphasizing that the current status-quo is not sensible and must be revised
“Mammadyarov emphasized the illegal existence of the armed forces of Armenia in the occupied territories of Azerbaijan and stressed that in order to achieve sustainable and peaceful solution to the conflict, first of all the Armenian troops should be withdrawn from all occupied territories of Azerbaijan and the people who were forced to flee these territories should return to their homeland.
Speaking to Turan agency Bolton : It’s our view that the South Caucasus is a critically important region strategically for the United States. And exemplified by Azerbaijan being the only country that borders both Russia and Iran.”
U.S. President’s National Security Affairs Adviser John Bolton then spoke with Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev. The President agreed with Mammadyarov—emphasizing the need to end the conflict. As a co-chair of the OSCE Minsk Group, the U.S. plays a leading role in the search for solutions to the conflict. Touching upon relations in other areas, the Azerbaijan head of state underlined
that numerous U.S. companies have been successfully operating in energy and non-energy sectors in Azerbaijan as investors and contractors for many years.
Bolton left to Armenia after his visit to Azerbaijan. Bolton arrived in Armenia to meet with Acting Prime Minister of Armenia Nikol Pashinyan.
His discussions in Yerevan focused on Iran and changes in Armenia. As a co-chairman of the OSCE Minsk Group, the United States continuously confirms the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict to be dangerous to the region. He stressed necessity of resolving issues with Azerbaijan and thus opening the borders with both Azerbaijan and Turkey. Bolton had the following to say
“I think it is a really fundamental issue for Armenia, for it to fully use the sovereignty and not be dependent or not be subjected to foreign influence. I think the people will prefer to have wider opportunities in international arena and not be constrained by historic clichés.”
In an interview with RFE/RL after the meeting in Yerevan, John Bolton confirmed that the United States will be putting extensive pressure on Iran.
Upon arrival, Bolton met with Georgian Prime Minister Mamuka Bakhtadze, Foreign Minister Davit Zalkaliani, Defense Minister Levan Izoria, Interior Minister Giorgi Gakharia, and State Security Service chief Vakhtang Gomelaur. The meeting was on regional issues and U.S.-Georgian bilateral ties.
Bolton discussed territorial integrity and strengthening their military relationship, and additionally noted the importance of the two nations’ cooperation in the development of trade opportunities by increasing American investments. Zalkaliani stated that Bolton approved of the process
of preparations for Georgia’s upcoming elections, noting that they have met all the conditions for the arrival of international observation missions officials to evaluate the elections themselves as well as the environment.
The Foreign Minister continued on to say that he and Bolton also talked
about the occupied territories and the annexation by Russia, the kidnapping of people, the serious humanitarian situation, and how to address these issues in the agenda of the international community. Bolton commented that corruption levels are not seen as a serious obstacle in Georgia, and confirmed U.S. support for Georgia’s wish to join NATO.
Opinions on John Bolton’s visit to the Caspian region, post-tour?
U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton’s visit to Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia was strategic in several senses. His avowed purpose was to seek support for the Trump Administration’s goal of further isolating Iran, which shares borders with both Azerbaijan and Armenia. But it also cannot be ignored that his visit was on the very heels of his trip to Russia that considers these three newly independent states, right in Moscow’s back yard, as part of its “privileged sphere of influence.” In that sense, Bolton would have been bucking up these countries’ multi-vector foreign policies that consider the United States as a protective balance against excessive influence and pressure from Russia. Speaking to Turan agency in Baku, Bolton said, “It’s our view that the South Caucasus is a critically important region strategically for the United States … and exemplified by Azerbaijan being the only country that borders both Russia and Iran.
Each of the three countries had its own special interests to impress on Bolton. Georgia, sought continued firm Western support because of Russia’s backing for its breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Azerbaijan’s leadership pressed Bolton on Armenia’s continued occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh and its surrounding districts, calling for the United States, as one of co-chairs of the OSCE’s Minsk Group Process, to enhance efforts to resolve this issue rather than just manage it. The new leadership in Yerevan sought Washington’s support for its reform efforts as well as, implicitly, balance for its close relationship with Moscow. In seeking support to isolate Iran, Bolton had announced in advance that he would focus on the Armenia-Iran border. Bolton also reportedly discussed enhanced U.S. weapons sales to the region that currently relies to a great extent on Russian weapons. Moscow maintains a significant military presence in Armenia at the base of Gyumri.
--Ambassador (Ret.) Richard Hoagland
A long-standing gap in U.S. foreign policy has been effective engagement in the Caucasus. Russia, Iran, and increasingly China and others have aggressively sought influence there; the United States has let its influence wither. The U.S. National Security Advisor’s visit this week to the Caucasus, together with Vice President Pence’s recent speech on China and Assistant Secretary of State Mitchell’s remarks to the Atlantic Council, hopefully signal the Administration is now focusing on the region and that it will take the needed on-going follow-up to make it one of stability and prosperity, rather than leaving it to be one of conflict.
Top level visitors from Moscow and Iran are often in Baku and Yerevan. Ambassador Bolton’s visit is the first by a top-level U.S. official in years. His engagement on Russian, Chinese, and Iranian ambitions, on the need to address and move towards a settlement of Nagorno-Karabakh and other protracted conflicts, on the region’s key role in boosting European energy security, and on good governance was long-needed. His remarks suggesting possible reappraisal of certain policies, for example on military equipment sales, could show the region’s governments they need also to reappraise their policies to face current realities and to defend their sovereignty and independence.
However, while Ambassador Bolton’s visit to the region is highly welcome and important, what is crucial are the next steps. How will Washington follow-up? Will there be on-going exchanges or other actions that reinforce the U.S. presence? Will the governments use this week’s meetings as an opportunity to take steps to break out of some of the old nets of positions and policies that have brought no progress over the past years or even decades?
As useful for the United States and the three countries of Caucasus as this week’s meetings were, what is more important are the steps all sides take to build a future different from the past.
-Ambassador (Ret.) Robert Cekuta
Ambassador Richard E. Hoagland was U.S. Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, October 2013-August 2015. Before returning to Washington in September 2013, he spent a decade in South and Central Asia. He was U.S. Deputy Ambassador to Pakistan (2011-2013), U.S. Ambassador to Kazakhstan (2008-2011), and U.S. Ambassador to Tajikistan (2003-2006). He also served as U.S. Charge d’affaires to Turkmenistan (2007-2008).
Ambassador to the Republic of Azerbaijan (2015 – 2018), Bob Cekuta has long and extensive experience as a top level U.S. diplomat. Deeply engaged in advancing high-profile international energy projects, trade policy initiatives and agreements, commercial sales, and other complex international security matters, Amb. Cekuta’s positions in the State Department included Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Energy Resources as well as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Energy, Sanctions, and Commodities.