Cyber security

As Geopolitical Confrontation Deepens, South Caucasus Nations Need To Make Strategic Choices

Fuad Muxtarlı Analysis 28 November 2018
As Geopolitical Confrontation Deepens, South Caucasus Nations Need To Make Strategic Choices

The geopolitical confrontation has entered a crucial stage both on a global scale and at a regional level. On the one hand, the United States and its allies, on the other hand, Russia and Iran, want their neutral at first sight neighbors to make a choice.

Primarily, the U.S. and Russia want the South Caucasus nations to decide who they want to side with. That is, every regional state should already make its strategic choice. To be specific, the South Caucasus, in general, Georgia has already made a strategic choice and has embarked on membership of the European Union and NATO.

The political developments and changes in Armenia in 2018, the velvet revolution, a government change and the upcoming parliamentary elections are indications that they promise nothing good for Russia and its future interests in the region. Chances are high that pro-Western forces in Armenia will win the December 2018 parliamentary elections though Armenia is already going towards the West.

Thus, Azerbaijan remains, at first sight, in between the competing sides and this is motivated by official Baku’s cautious policies not to tip the balance of forces with unresolved Karabakh problem hindering Azerbaijan bold and strategic decisions. Since both sides – Russia and the U.S. – key actors in efforts to have the Karabakh conflict resolved in line with international laws and the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan, official Baku has to walk on the tips of its toes not to aggravate as was the case with Georgia.

On the other hand, the calls for strategic choices are ascribed to transregional projects. In fact, both issues are geopolitical and geostrategic. But one of the details is related to the region's geopolitical, geostrategic choices and the overall regional development as a whole. On the other hand, there is a third issue there, that is., the development of China’s belt and road initiative.

The South Caucasus and the Central Asian region are also pivotal for China’s new belt and road strategy and Beijing is already successfully penetrating into the Central Asia and Caucasus with promising economic projects and the Caspian Sea region and the South Caucasus are integral parts of China’s mega projects designed to facilitate the economic prosperity of dozens of the regional states, creating new infrastructure and jobs and cut short delivery period of commodities to Europe.

That is, China has already joined the geopolitical confrontation and has become a third party. The geopolitical conflict in our region is no longer just between the West and Russia, and the third player is China. Therefore, it is already a decisive moment for all regional states, including Azerbaijan, which must make a strategic choice.

In this context, former U.S ambassador to Azerbaijan Robert Cekuta's article needs to be evaluated from this aspect. On the one hand, what the former ambassador said is no doubt backed by U.S. intelligence information. On the other hand, we should remember proposals made recently by U.S. President's Security Adviser John Bolton during his visit to the region.

Bolton offered two directions - a favorable agreement to the parties for the settlement of the Karabakh conflict, at the same time, the U.S. readiness to sell weapons to Armenia and Azerbaijan at favorable prices; Georgia already purchases American weapons. Now, Cekuta's article draws attention to another U.S. offer, that is, America is ready to defend the sensitive infrastructure of the region, including Azerbaijan.

By the way, U.S. readiness to get involved in protection of crucial facilities is not new. So far, this type of proposal was made when the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline was on the agenda. At that time, Turkey, Azerbaijan and Georgia held command and headquarters drills in Turkey. For the first time, units of the armed forces of Turkey, Azerbaijan and Georgia also participated in the exercises. Their primary purpose was to study the protection of this vulnerable infrastructure. That is, the scenario was about the protection of sensitive infrastructure.

Apparently, geopolitical confrontation has already entered a crucial stage in our region and Azerbaijan is already aware of this and the former envoy’s remarks on threats to the vital infrastructure facilities are that official Baku should make a choice, too.

Ambassador (Rtd.) Robert Cekuta’s article “Protecting Critical Infrastructure in the Greater Caspian Region – Needs and Opportunities” sheds light on crucial issues and he it is:

Protecting a country’s critical infrastructure is essential to its security, economic prosperity, and the well-being of its public. Protection of critical infrastructure is just as important as the construction of these systems, but too often the protective/restorative work on these systems is deferred, under-funded, or ignored. The results can range from inconvenience to death, from public grumbling to severe political disruption. Companies, as well as governments, must play a role in identifying threats and needs in designing and installing protective solutions.

The critical infrastructure systems in the Caucasus and Central Asia – the Greater Caspian Region – are taking on international importance with the reemergence of the Silk Road as well as with the reemergence of the countries in the region. There is increasing attention being paid to this part of the world in terms of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and in terms of connectivity for military and civilian traffic with Afghanistan. New rail and other surface links offer quicker options for trade between China and western and central Europe. Oil and gas pipelines moving the Caspian region’s hydrocarbons to customers in China and in Europe are important to maintaining global energy security.

The numbers cited in discussions of these emerging infrastructure systems are staggering. Exact numbers are hard to pin down, but at its most expansive the programs could involve trillions of dollars in spending, touching perhaps as many as two-thirds of the world’s people, a population that is responsible for as much as a third of global GDP. Some reports note China alone was underwriting nearly $150 billion annually in investments in BRI-related projects as of mid-2017. National governments and others are expending additional amounts in building new infrastructure, including to further their own national development. Opportunities for international business as well as for the region’s own companies are diverse, lucrative, and noteworthy.

However, upgrading, maintaining, and protecting critical infrastructure systems, is as critical as building new networks and structures. Moreover, while there is considerable discussion of governments’ roles in critical infrastructure protection, the private sector also has an integral role to play. The private sector can offer a different perspective in identifying needs and offering solutions, often in the form of products and services.

The Caspian Policy Center has undertaken a review of key aspects of the Greater Caspian Region’s critical infrastructure to flag the need for active measures – by governments and the private sector – to protect existing and emerging critical infrastructure systems. Looking closely at four key, indicative sectors, the Center is identifying areas where the action is required and beginning work to consider approaches that can boost the protection of critical infrastructure.

The four sectors – electricity grids, IT and telecommunications systems, the region’s oil and gas pipelines, and the new rail, ferry, and other surface transportation networks – also underline how critical infrastructure systems are interconnected; a breakdown in one damage the integrity and operations of others.

Recent developments show that critical infrastructure in the region is not immune from problems besetting systems elsewhere, including in the United States and western Europe. The region’s basic electrical grid, for example, goes back to Soviet times and is aging, poorly maintained, and inadequate for the needs of the countries’ growing economies and populations. The July 3 blackout in Azerbaijan shows the impact a breakdown can have.

Ironically, new critical infrastructure systems can have inherent weaknesses from the start. For example, vulnerabilities exist in the growing IT and telecom systems which are essential for modern life and economies. IT and telecom systems play just as vital of a role to the region’s new connectivity as the new surface transportation links. China has played a major role in developing a new trans-Eurasia web and has also worked with Russia in building fiber optic and other systems. However, there are concerns about these governments monitoring the bits and bytes moving through the networks they lay or stored on their servers. The region’s national governments may lose their ability to have desired oversight and come under increasing pressure from Beijing for data localization. Citizens, the private sector, and governments could all suffer as a result.

The Caspian Policy Center’s initial work finds a number of areas where action by governments, in the region and beyond, and by the private sector is needed. One important step is improved, on-going communication within and among governments and between the region’s governments and the private sector. Such communication can identify evolving weaknesses and threats as well as new means to address them. Engagement with the U.S. and European governments, whose countries have a stake in the success and integrity of the evolving new Silk Road, can benefit all concerned. For governments, these and other steps can shore up independence, security, and prosperity. For the private sector, many of these steps equal business opportunities as well as an improved operating environment.