NATO is planning to increase its cooperation with Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Moldova as a result of the crisis in Ukraine. But regional experts say that NATO is nevertheless likely to remain a marginal factor in the security and geopolitics of the Caucasus.
The German newspaper Der Spiegel originally reported NATO's plans, which then were largely confirmed by NATO's special representative for the Caucasus and Central Asia James Appathurai in an interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (available only in Azeri and Romanian). They include boosting training with all three countries, increasing the interoperability of the countries' militaries with NATO, and, in the case of Azerbaijan, helping to protect oil and gas fields in the Caspian Sea.
Armenia's government appreciates its cooperation with NATO both as a balance against Russia and as a way to improve its armed forces, but it's skeptical that the cooperation will amount to much, said Yerevan-based analyst Sergey Minasyan. "After the Ukrainian events ... Armenia should be worried that closer cooperation with NATO would anger Russia, especially if the West-East tensions continue," he said in an email interview with The Bug Pit. "At least in the South Caucasus the West, including NATO, is too far while the 'angry Russians' are already here," he said. "If Brussels think it can offer Armenia something more serious as a real addition to the current level of security cooperation, that would be very welcomed by Yerevan, but it seems too unrealistic from here."
In the case of Azerbaijan, the "threat" of joining NATO is not enough to bother Moscow, Baku-based analyst Zaur Shiriyev told The Bug Pit. "Especially after the Obama administration declaration that NATO will not respond to Russia's Crimea annexation by making Georgia and Ukraine members of NATO, Moscow isn't worried," Shiriyev said. (Appathurai, in his RFE/RL interview, emphasized that none of the three countries involved in this plan had any perspective for joining NATO.) Azerbaijan is thus confidently continuing its cooperation with NATO, including a commitment to stay involved in the NATO Afghanistan training mission after combat forces are withdrawn this year. "It is also possible that Azerbaijan will make Azerbaijan's troops available for NATO's rapid reaction force beyond 2015," Shiriyev said.
As if to underscore Moscow's lack of concern, the chief of general staff of the Russian armed forces, Valery Gerasimov, visited Baku this week amid suggestions that more Russian arms sales to Azerbaijan were in the works. And any hard feelings that may have resulted from Azerbaijan's anti-Russia vote on the United Nations Crimea resolution seemed to have been smoothed over:
“We discussed with the chief of the [Azerbaijani] General Staff further military-technical cooperation. There are prospects for stepping it up,” Gerasimov told Hasanov, according to the Russian Defense Ministry.
Hasanov was reported to praise the “high level” of that cooperation. “In recent years, a lot of work has been done in this direction,” he said. “Today Azerbaijan’s armed forces receive modern weapons from Russia. That helps to boost our country’s defense capability.”