Wednesday, 28 November 2018 00:00

The West Has an Opportunity, Yet Again, to Push Back Against Russia Featured

By Mamuka Tsereteli

The West Has an Opportunity, Yet Again, to Push Back Against Russia

November 28, 2018

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The limited Western appetite to challenge Putin’s aggression led to the next one: Russia took over Crimea in 2014, thus radically transforming the strategic environment in the Black Sea and ensuring Russian military dominance across the region. 

Putin’s latest aggression took place in the Kerch Strait on November 25. Russian forces attacked and captured three Ukrainian naval vessels along with their crew, some of whom sustained injuries in the incident. The Kerch Strait connects the Sea of Azov to the Black Sea. It is a vital waterway for access of Ukrainian agricultural and industrial products to world markets. The fact that Russia did not object to a similar movement of Ukrainian vessels from Odesa to the Sea of Azov in the past indicates that there was a political decision to escalate the situation now.

The timing of this latest incident is important. Russia may want to provoke a Ukrainian military response—just as it did in Georgia—in order to justify the use of full-scale military power that would destabilize Ukraine. If Ukraine is reserved in its response, Russia may seek to promote the narrative that Ukraine’s leadership is incapable of defending the country and thus political change is necessary. 

If the international community—the United States, the European Union, and NATO, in particular—does not impose a cost on Russia, then Putin will feel further emboldened. 

Russia has for long maintained the narrative that an unstable Ukraine will be a major headache for Europe. In addition to the damage done by its annexation of Crimea and support for military conflict in eastern Ukraine, Russia has been targeting Ukraine’s economic assets in different ways. For example, Russia completed construction of the bridge across Kerch Strait earlier this year. The bridge’s low height limits entry of large vessels into the Sea of Azov. This has resulted in a 30 percent drop in cargo turnover in Ukraine’s Mariupol and Berdyansk ports. With frequent and unjustified checks of cargo ships entering the sea, the Russian navy has also increased the cost of doing business with Ukraine for international shipping and trading companies. 

Despite these Russian actions, Ukraine’s economy was growing faster during the first half of the year at a rate that was significantly higher than growth in Russia. Disrupting this growth may have been one of the triggers for Russia’s aggression in the Kerch Strait. 

The Black Sea is an important import and export gateway for Russia. The Novorossiysk Commercial Sea Port on the Black Sea is one of Russia’s largest transportation hubs. It has the largest cargo turnover among Russian ports and the fifth-largest in Europe. The port handles approximately 20 percent of all export and import cargoes shipped via Russian sea ports. The port cities of Novorossiysk and Tuapse are also major oil export outlets, with Novorossiysk playing a growing role in the export of Ural and Siberian light crude oil. 

Russia also exports about 13 billion cubic meters of gas to Turkey via the Blue Stream pipeline in the Black Sea. It plans to build another pipeline, Turkstream, by 2019, with initial capacity of 16 billion cubic meters. 

Russia has strong current and future commercial interests in the Black Sea. It cannot be interested in a radical escalation of a conflict with the West in the region, which could create the opportunity for Western pushback in case there is political will.

In the wake of the Sea of Azov crisis, there are now suggestions for more sectoral sanctions and a freeze of the assets of Russian financial institutions in the West. While such action would be significant, much more should be done. 

Western institutions and individual nation states continue to respect international obligations vis-à-vis Russia, including a commitment to limit the size of the military forces and equipment in the Black Sea area. Russia, on the other hand, has long been in violation of those agreements. Russia suspended its participation in the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) in 2007, but the United States and its allies are still in compliance with the treaty. The United States and NATO should make clear that unless Russia complies with CFE restrictions, and removes military equipment from Ukraine and Georgia, they will no longer consider themselves bound by existing agreements, allowing a much larger US/NATO military presence in different theaters. Russia’s deep commercial interests in the Black Sea provide a powerful leverage that the United States and its allies must be willing to use. 

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Published on: November 28, 2018 
Mamuka Tsereteli is a senior research fellow at Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, part of American Foreign Policy Council​​.  


Read 7982 times Last modified on Tuesday, 29 October 2019 19:16





  • New Article Series on Changing Geopolitics of Central Asia and the Caucasus
    Wednesday, 24 November 2021 11:53


  • CACI Initiative on Religion and the Secular State in Central Asia and the Caucasus
    Sunday, 24 January 2021 13:53

    In 2016, the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program launched an initiative on documenting the interrelationship of religion and the secular state in the region. This initiative departed from the fact that little systematic reserch had been undertaken on the subject thus far. While there was and remains much commentary and criticism of religious policy in the region, there was no comprehensive analysis available on the interrelationship of religion and the state in any regional state, let alone the region as a whole. The result of this initiative has been the publication of six Silk Road Papers studying the matter in regional states, with more to come. In addition, work is ongoing on a volume putting the regional situation in the context of the Muslim world as a whole.


    Case Studies

    Each study below can be freely downloaded in PDF format.


    Azerbaijan's Formula: Secular Governance and Civil Nationhood
    By Svante E. Cornell, Halil Karaveli, and Boris Ajeganov
    November 2016   

    2018-04-Kazakhstan-SecularismReligion and the Secular State in Kazakhstan
    By Svante E. Cornell, S. Frederick Starr and Julian Tucker
    April 2018




    1806-UZ-coverReligion and the Secular State in Uzbekistan
    Svante E. Cornell and Jacob Zenn
    June 2018




    2006-Engvall-coverReligion and the Secular State in Kyrgyzstan
    Johan Engvall
    June 2020

     Event video online


    2006-Clement-coverReligion and the Secular State in Turkmenistan
    Victoria Clement
    June 2020

    Event video online




    Articles and Analyses

    Svante E. Cornell, "Religion and the State in Central Asia," in Ilan Berman, ed., Wars of Ideas: Theology, Interpretation and Power in the Muslim World, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2021.

    Svante E. Cornell, "Central Asia: Where Did Islamic Radicalization Go?" in Religion, Conflict and Stability in the Former Soviet Union, eds. Katya Migacheva and Bryan Frederick, Arlington, VA: RAND Corporation, 2018.

  • Basic Principles for the Rehabilitation of Azerbaijan's Post-Conflict Territories
    Wednesday, 07 October 2020 09:01

    Rehab-coverIn 2010, the CACI-SRSP Joint Center cooperated with Eldar Ismailov and Nazim Muzaffarli of the Institute for Strategic Studies of the Caucasus to produce a study of the methodology and process for the rehabilitation of the occupied territories in Azerbaijan. The study was written in the hope that it would prove useful in the aftermath of a negotiated solution to the conflict.

    Such a resolution nevertheless did not materialize. At present, however, it appears that some of these territories are returning to Azerbaijani control as a result of the military conflict that began in late September, 2020. While it is regrettable that this did not come to pass as a result of negotiations, it is clear that the challenge of rehabilitating territories is as pressing today as it would be in the event of a peaceful resolution - if not more, given the likelihood that such a solution would have included a time-table and provided the Government of Azerbaijan and international institutions time for planning.

    It is clear that the study is a product of a different time, as much has changed since 2010. We fully expcect many updates and revisions to be needed should the recommendations in this study be implemented today. That said, we believe the methodoloy of the study and its conclusions remain relevant and would therefore like to call attention to this important study, published in English, Russian and Azerbaijani versions.

    Click to download:



  • Resources on the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict
    Monday, 05 October 2020 08:19

    Resources on the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict


    The Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program have a long track record of covering the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict. This page presents the key resources and most recent analysis. 

    In 2017, Palgrave published the first book-length study of the International Politics of the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict, edited by Svante Cornell. The book concluded by arguing that if international efforts to resolve the conflict are not stepped up, “the ‘four-day’ war of April 2016 will appear a minor skirmish compared to what is sure to follow”.

    In 2015, CACI & SRSP released the Silk Road Paper  “A Western Strategy for the South Caucasus”, which included a full page of recommendations for the U.S. and EU on the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict. These are reproduced below:


    Develop a substantial and prolonged Western initiative on the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict.

    o This initiative must be led by the United States, in close consultation with its European partners – primarily the EU Commission and External Action Service, and France. Barring some process to reinvigorate the Minsk Process – a doubtful proposition given Western-Russian relations in the foreseeable future – Western leaders must be prepared to bypass that process, utilizing it where appropriate but focusing their initiative on developing direct negotiations between the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders.

    o The U.S. and its European partners must abandon the practice of relying solely on the Minsk Group co-chairs to resolve the Karabakh conflict. These diplomats have contributed greatly to formulating a workable framework agreement. However, strong and sustained U.S. Government leadership from the top level is needed to complement or, failing that, to replace the Minsk Process. In practice, this means the expressed support of the President, involvement of the White House, and leadership manifested in the appointment of a distinguished citizen as Special Envoy for the resolution of the conflict.

    o The EU must take a more clearly defined and substantial role in the process, by integrating to the highest degree possible the French co-chairmanship of the Minsk Group with EU institutions. While Washington will need to take the lead on the political side, it would be natural for the EU to take the lead in organizing an international development program for the currently occupied Azerbaijani provinces and Karabakh itself. That effort, too, would need to be led by a senior EU figure.


    In 2011, CACI & SRSP helped launch an extensive study of the steps needed for the post-conflict rehabilitation of Azerbaijan's occupied territories, in cooperation with Eldar Ismailov and Nazim Muzaffarli of the Institute for Strategic Studies of the Caucasus. The monograph "Basic Principles for the Rehabilitation of Azerbaijan's Post-Conflict Territories" can be accessed here


    More background resources:

    Svante E. Cornell, "Can America Stop a Wider War Between Armenia and Azerbaijan?", The National Interest, October 2020

    Brenda Shaffer and Svante E. Cornell, Occupied Elsewhere: Selective Policies on Occupation, Foundation For Defense of Democracies, January 2020. 

    Brenda Shaffer and Svante E. Cornell, "The U.S. Needs to Declare War on Proxies", Foreign Policy, January 27, 2020

    Svante E. Cornell, “The Raucous Caucasus”, American Interest, May 2017

    Svante E. Cornell, Small Nations and Great Powers: A Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict in the Caucasus, RoutledgeCurzon, 2001.

    Svante E. Cornell, The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict, Uppsala University, 1999

    More recent analysis:

    Turkey Seeks to Counter Russia in the Black Sea-Caucasus Region,” Turkey Analyst, 10/5/20, Emil Avdaliani

    Turkey’s Commitment to Azerbaijan’s Defense Shows the Limits of Ankara’s Tilt to Moscow,” Turkey Analyst, 9/25/20, Turan Suleymanov & Bahruz Babayev

     “Cross-Border Escalation between Armenia and Azerbaijan,” Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 9/25/20, Natalia Konarzewska

    Russia and Turkey: Behind the Armenia-Azerbaijan Clashes?”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 8/31/20, Avinoam Idan

    Armenia and the U.S.: Time for New Thinking?”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 10/2/19, Eduard Abrahamyan.

    Why Washington Must Re-Engage the CaucasusCentral Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 7/8/19, Stephen Blank

    Azerbaijan’s Defense Industry Reform”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 5/7/19, Tamerlan Vahabov.

    Military Procurements on Armenia's and Azerbaijan's Defense Agendas”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 3/27/19, Ilgar Gurbanov

    Armenia's New Government Struggles with Domestic and External Opposition,” Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 3/20/19, Armen Grigorian.

    Bolton's Caucasian Tour and Russia's Reaction”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 12/17/18, Eduard Abrahamyan.