Chaos in the Caucasus: Could a ‘Biden Doctrine’ Contain Russia and Turkey?

The National Interest

The Biden administration’s rhetorical willingness to confront both Turkey and Russia has been reassuring but policy needs to extend beyond promises.

by Ara Papian

Crafting a China strategy dominates the Biden administration’s foreign policy agenda, but Russia remains America’s most active adversary, challenging the West from Ukraine to Central Asia. Western inaction—more than Russian enterprise—has allowed this to happen.  In effect, the White House consistently folds with a full house when the Kremlin holds only a pair of twos.  

Russia has also benefited from the failure of Turkey to act as a counterweight to its ambitions. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has acted more as a liability to NATO than an asset. The most recent example of this is when Turkey purchased Russian S-400 missiles and provocations of Greece and Cyprus. Indeed, Russia and Turkey cooperated during the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh last year in which Turkey helped its satellite state, Azerbaijan, to wrestle parts of Nagorno-Karabakh from Armenian control in fulfillment of Erdoğan’s neo-Ottoman aspirations. Turkey also muted NATO’s response to the recent aviation piracy incident in Belarus. 

The Biden administration’s rhetorical willingness to confront both Turkey and Russia has been reassuring but policy needs to extend beyond promises. The key to an effective policy in this direction is in Armenia. The 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War shook up the status quo. Russia tied Armenia’s hands and allowed Azerbaijan and Turkey a victory on the battlefield. It even turned a blind eye to Turkey’s deployment of thousands of Syrian jihadists against Armenian forces. Russia then used the ceasefire agreement to shred the Minsk Group status quo and impose its forces as “peacekeepers” in the region. 

The Azeri elite, historically close to the Kremlin oligarchy, secured political capital by winning the war, tightening their grip on power. But it was a Pyrrhic victory. Russian troops now sit close to pipelines traversing Azerbaijan. At a minimum, Moscow can make offers Baku cannot refuse as Russia leverages its military presence into contracts for Russian energy, transport, and infrastructure companies.  

While Armenia has close cultural ties to Russia, much like in 1921 when the Lenin-Ataturk pact divided the young independent Armenian Republic between Soviet Russia and Turkey, Russia continues to backstab Armenia and curtail its independence. Russia’s current military presence in Armenia was never meant to serve its declared objective of protecting its host from a Turkish aggression and was merely a way for Russia to maintain its presence in a vital region. However, Armenia remains Russia’s Achilles heel. Its freedom movement helped catalyze the Soviet Union’s dissolution. The present-day aspirations of the Armenian public to be governed independently and democratically pose a threat for the Kremlin and may have demographic implications for Russia’s south. 

The United States has a unique opportunity. The Armenian public understands Russia’s betrayal. Anti-Russian sentiment in Armenia is at the highest level since independence from the Soviet Union. The Kremlin also knows that the country is now a low-hanging fruit for the West. 

The United States has a choice: it can capitalize on the situation or remain passive and let Russia take over Armenia and subsequently Georgia. Inaction has consequences. Successful Russian-sponsored aggression damages U.S. credibility and ultimately erodes the embrace of the West and its values.  

President Joe Biden’s Armenian Remembrance Day statement, which he delivered on April 24, was a great start. But it is not enough. The United States needs to be present. The United States should sponsor new bilateral and multilateral arrangements. A U.S.-French-Greek alliance, for example, would bolster Armenia’s security against Turkish and Azeri threats, and help solidify Armenia’s place in the West. In effect, Biden should seek a revised Eisenhower doctrine.  

Sixty-five years ago, President Dwight D. Eisenhower promised that a country could request American economic or military assistance if threatened by armed aggression, especially from the Soviet Union. An updated American strategy—a Biden Doctrine—could tame the geopolitical ambitions of Russia and Turkey. Supporting Armenia is further consistent with Biden’s declared objective of putting human rights at the center of U.S. foreign policy.  

Washington silence, however, will send the wrong signal to potential allies and undermine America’s ability to advance human rights and its global security agenda. It will also embolden dictators from Vladimir Putin to Aleksandr Lukashenko in their transnational repression and state terrorism.  

Ara Papian is Armenia’s former Ambassador to Canada and a governing board member of the National-Democratic Axis (NDA), a pro-Western political movement in Armenia that advocates for a Major Non-NATO U.S. Ally status for Armenia. 

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