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India Shows Caucasus Diplomacy Isn’t Just for Russia and Turkey Anymore

Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi at an informal meeting of heads of state and government of the BRICS countries. Image Credit: Creative Commons.
Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi at an informal meeting of heads of state and government of the BRICS countries.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, the Caucasus became a playground for Russian, Turkish, and Iranian intrigue. Russia sought to regain the influence it enjoyed when Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia were Soviet republics. Turkey embraced Azerbaijan as an extension of itself under the mantra of “one nation, two states.” Iranian nationalists considered influence over the entire region as a birthright, since they had controlled it centuries earlier. Decisions about war or peace in the region often originated less in Yerevan, Baku, or Tbilisi, and more in Moscow, Ankara, and Tehran.

Changing Priorities

Over the past five years, each Caucasian country has flipped its geopolitical orientation, and now India senses opportunity. As it solidifies ties with Yerevan, New Delhi is set to become a new diplomatic heavyweight in the region.

Consider how much the Caucasus region has changed. In the wake of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks, Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliyev, a former local KGB chief and Moscow-based politburo member, embraced the West. At that time, just 18 months before Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s rise, the United States and Europe saw Turkey as an ally and accepted at face value that Azerbaijan would be secular and Western-oriented. Under Aliyev’s son Ilham, however, Azerbaijan is erratic. Baku is willing to work fist-in-glove with Islamist terrorists and to pivot closer to Russia, for whom it is now a money-laundering lifeline.

Iran’s regional role is similar. For Armenia, Iran is less an ally of choice than one of necessity, a lifeline through which to export goods impossible to ship elsewhere because of Turkish and Azerbaijani blockades. For Azerbaijan, the opposite is true. Behind its recent antagonistic rhetoric toward Tehran, Azerbaijan helps Iran evade sanctions for the right price. 

Perhaps no country has changed as much as Armenia. Armenians are frustrated with Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, but they show no desire to return to the Russia-dominated status quo that prevailed before the large-scale protests of 2018. Georgia and Armenia have traded places. Georgia is backsliding into Russia’s orbit while Armenia breaks away.

The Ally Democracies Need

The 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War confirmed this reorientation. Armenians turned on Russia for the failure of its peacekeepers to enforce the ceasefire. Armenians will never forgive the fact that, as Azerbaijan starves 120,000 Christians in Nagorno-Karabakh, Russian forces stand less than 50 meters from an illegal Azerbaijani checkpoint that blocks relief supplies. America, meanwhile, confuses statements with substance and disqualifies itself with bothsiderism against the backdrop of genocide.

Enter India, the world’s most populous country. Whereas India once focused its diplomatic efforts regionally or into the Non-Aligned Movement, today it is a diplomatic heavyweight farther afield.  

In 2019, Pashinyan met Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. Both promised greater ties, and they meant it. Pashinyan declared Armenia would side unequivocally with India on the Kashmir question. Law is on India’s side, but diplomatically Pakistan has no one to blame but itself. Out of religious animus and a desire to ingratiate itself to Turkey and Azerbaijan, Pakistan refuses even to recognize Armenia’s existence. India, meanwhile, accepts the nuances and complexities of the Nagorno-Karabakh problem.

As Armenia untangles its legacy military ties to Russia, India fills the gap. In March 2020, Yerevan signed a $40 million deal with India for four SWATHI radars to track incoming artillery, mortars, and rockets and pinpoint their launch sites. In June 2022, India agreed to sell Armenia drones. The U.S. should celebrate such purchases as Armenia bypasses Iran. 

Negotiations meanwhile continue for Pinaka multi-barrel rocket launchers, Nag anti-tank missiles, and anti-tank guided missiles. Armenian Defense Minister Suren Papikyan also visited his Indian counterpart Shri Rajnath Singh on the sidelines of India’s DefExpo 2022. 

The relationship is symbiotic, and extends beyond the military realm. Armenia provides India with a commercial hub from which India can ship goods through Georgia west to Europe or into Russia, and then eastward into Central Asia. Access to that region had been interrupted by the Taliban’s conquest of Afghanistan. Both countries have become IT powerhouses, and Armenia’s investment in its pharmaceutical sector increasingly interests India’s investors. 

A common lamentation among democrats in the region is why the United States is effectively absent. Washington makes excuses, and remains absent when it counts. India’s presence now provides a new option for the region, one that Washington should encourage. A choice between Russia, Turkey, and Iran is akin to choosing between a heart attack, stroke, or cancer. India provides an antidote to dictatorship, rentierism, and extremism. The Caucasus are in flux. India could be the ally its democrats need.

Now a 19FortyFive Contributing Editor, Dr. Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).

Written By

Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).

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