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The Washington Quarterly 25.1 (2002) 221-234

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The Caucasus:
Ten Years after Independence

Zeyno Baran

In light of the security concerns underscored by the September 11 terrorist attacks, the Caucasus--the sovereign states of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia in the south, and the Russian territories of Chechnya and Dagestan in the north--has risen in strategic importance beyond energy issues, 1 which themselves continue to be significant. Empires have vied for control over the oil and gas riches of this region for centuries. In today's world, the stability of the Caucasus, necessary to keep the transport of Caspian oil and gas uninterrupted, is even more essential to world markets and strategic interests. Based on the latest estimates, the Caspian Sea region has about 3 percent of the world's oil reserves (compared to the North Sea with 2 percent and the Middle East with 65 percent) and 4 percent of the world's gas reserves (compared to the North Sea with 27 percent and the Middle East with 34 percent). 2 Given the uncertainty over the reliability of Persian Gulf supplies, the incremental oil coming out of the Caspian region will become increasingly relevant for U.S. national security interests.

In addition to energy needs, the Caucasus countries are becoming more important as security allies in the U.S.-led campaign against terrorism. Azerbaijan and Georgia offered their unequivocal support to the United States immediately after the attacks. Armenia has shied away from total support but joined the other two in opening up its airspace. Thus, the United States has acquired unlimited air corridor access from Western Europe and Turkey--the southern flank of NATO--through the Caucasus into Afghanistan.

Although these contributions are minor when compared to what traditional U.S. allies are offering, they are significant when considering the political [End Page 221] and security challenges these states face. This mountainous region could easily become a hideout for terrorists, and given recent history, any disturbance could reignite several long lasting conflicts in the region. From a military and strategic point of view, an escalation of preexisting regional conflicts could lead to a breakdown in essential communication in this east-west corridor in the campaign against terrorism. Therefore, the United States will have to cooperate closely with all three Caucasus countries to secure both their short-term support and long-term stability.

The Influence of Great Powers

Hindering cooperation on these fronts will be Iran's and Russia's long-standing perceptions that U.S. policies and activities in the Caucasus have been imperialistic, largely because of close U.S. ties with Turkey, its NATO ally. To comprehend the magnitude of the effects of the political perceptions in the region, a review of U.S. policy in the Caucasus, as well as Russian, Iranian, Turkish, and European Union (EU) policy, is necessary.

United States

Although U.S. policymakers have denied any imperialistic approaches at every opportunity, Iran and Russia nonetheless have perceived U.S. policy in the region to be otherwise. In the early 1990s, the United States did not have a coherent Caucasus policy, in part because most policymakers and researchers were unfamiliar to this region. Students of the Soviet Union tended to look at the Caucasus from Russia's perspective and were preoccupied with pleasing Russia first when developing policy toward the region.

In recent years, three priorities--oil, democracy, and political stability--have driven U.S. policy toward the Caucasus. Growing awareness of the rich hydrocarbon resources of the Caspian Sea and the rising profile of regional conflicts gradually dragged the United States into a more proactive role in the Caucasus. U.S. policy since the mid-1990s has supported multiple Caspian pipelines and specifically an east-west energy corridor. Washington adopted this strategy to achieve broader foreign policy objectives that were repeatedly outlined as "strengthening the independence and prosperity of the new Caspian states, bolstering regional cooperation, enhancing global energy security through the free flow of Caspian oil and gas to world markets, and increasing investment opportunities for companies from the United States and other countries...


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