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Putin Faces Geopolitical Setback in South Caucasus

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By Robbie Gramer 

Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s SitRep! Robbie here, flying solo as Jack takes some well-deserved time off. Happy Thursday! We’ve got news on lots of stuff today, including what the Pentagon knows about UFOs, so keep on scrolling.

Alright, here’s what’s on tap for the day: Putin loses ground in the South Caucasus, a blockade on Pentagon nominees in Congress continues, Russia gets caught recruiting mercenaries in Cuba for the war in Ukraine, and more.

There’s a geopolitical shift afoot in the South Caucasus that has U.S. officials (quietly) grinning from ear to ear and their rivals in Moscow fuming.

Armenia is having second thoughts about its longtime partnership with Russia and is beginning to shift in not-so-subtle ways toward the West, signaling an embarrassing setback for the Kremlin in the strategic region.

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said in an interview with Italian newspaper La Repubblica this week that his country’s reliance on Russia wasn’t paying off, particularly as Moscow struggles to supply its own military, let alone partnering militaries. “Dependence on just one partner in security matters is a strategic mistake,” he said.

Armenia followed up by announcing its first-ever tranche of humanitarian assistance to Ukraine, which Pashinyan’s wife personally handed over during a visit to Kyiv this week.

Then, just to add some salt to the Kremlin’s wounds, Armenia announced a new joint military exercise with the United States, dubbed “Eagle Partner 2023,” to be held in the coming weeks.

Hell hath no fury like a partner scorned. The volte-face comes after mounting frustration in Armenia that Russia has done too little to address the crisis between Armenia and neighboring Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, an enclave at the heart of a decades-old dispute between the two countries. (Russia deployed “peacekeeping troops” to the region after a deadly conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan in 2020.)

But Armenia’s decision also reflects mounting unease in the country over the costs of maintaining its close ties to Russia after its deadly war in Ukraine, four U.S. officials and regional analysts told SitRep.

And that, in turn, has led to an intriguing geopolitical opportunity for Washington and its allies to make inroads in a country that Russia considered one of its last reliable partners, in a region Russia claims to be its own strategically important backyard. (As an interesting sidebar for Washington insiders, the former top U.S. envoy for Ukraine from 2020 to 2022, Kristina Kvien, is now ambassador to Armenia, and the current U.S. ambassador to Russia, Lynne Tracy, was the previous ambassador to Armenia.)

The taming of the Russian shrew. Armenia, a longtime partner of Moscow’s, has been careful not to openly condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine but has distanced itself from the war and become increasingly wary of the costs of staying in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s orbit.

For years, Armenia prioritized its relationship with Russia, mainly because it was the only game in town for security on Nagorno-Karabakh. But that partnership with Moscow turned out to be a paper tiger during the costly 2020 Armenia-Azerbaijan war. Armenia lost that war badly, and the feeling in Yerevan was that Moscow didn’t lift a finger to help until it brokered a costly cease-fire that heavily favored Azerbaijan’s territorial gains.

Azerbaijan gained control of more territory adjacent to the Nagorno-Karabakh region and has launched a new concerted campaign to wrest back the disputed territory from Armenia.

Azerbaijan has in recent months tightened the screws on Nagorno-Karabakh with a full-scale blockade that has pushed the small Armenian enclave into a humanitarian crisis and to the brink of famine. Armenian officials have publicly accused Russian peacekeepers of abetting, or at the least not doing enough to halt, the Azerbaijani blockade on Nagorno-Karabakh.

Armenia’s government isn’t being very subtle with how it feels about Russia now.

A big yikes moment for the Kremlin’s foreign policy. It’s too early to tell whether this represents a permanent shift away from Russia by Armenia, or a temporary one serving as a shot across the bow to Moscow to get its act together.

But either way, Armenia’s diplomatic moves constitute an embarrassing setback for Putin, who is running very short on friends these days after his unprovoked invasion of Ukraine in 2022 unleashed a campaign by Western powers to isolate Moscow on the world stage.

“Of course, such news causes concern, especially in the current situation,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said in response to the news of the Armenian-U.S. military exercises.

The South Caucasus has immense strategic and symbolic value for Moscow, and limiting the West’s influence there remains a key priority for the Kremlin. (Recall that Russia launched an invasion of Georgia in 2008 as the country pivoted toward the West and NATO, in grim foreshadowing for the war to come in Ukraine.)

In your face. “There is no way to interpret this in any other way but [an] ‘in your face’ signal to Russia,” said Volodymyr Dubovyk, director of the Center for International Studies at Odesa Mechnikov National University in Ukraine.

Armenia’s turn against Russia is an important symbolic win for Ukraine, too, even if the amount of aid it can provide Ukraine is limited, Dubovyk said.

“We do not expect Armenia to take our side openly vis-à-vis Russia,” he said. “But the very fact that one of the most loyal allies of Moscow in the entire post-Soviet space is drifting away is something that is pleasing Kyiv,” he added. “This illustrates how Russia’s invasion backfired terribly. This is important for Ukraine: that Russia’s isolation strengthens.”

The Netherlands has a new top diplomat, as Hanke Bruins Slot becomes the new foreign minister. (Notably, Bruins Slot is a former artillery officer who was previously deployed to Afghanistan as commander of a self-propelled howitzer platoon before she entered politics.)

Former Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin has joined the Tony Blair Institute, an international nonprofit group, as a strategic advisor. (But she hasn’t ruled out her own return to politics.)

Defense expert Dara Massicot is leaving the Rand Corporation to join the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think tank as a senior fellow on Russia and Eurasia.

Oana Lungescu, the former longtime NATO spokesperson, has joined the Royal United Services Institute think tank as a distinguished fellow.

And last but not least, a kudos to ace CNN reporter Alex Marquardt, who was named CNN’s chief national security correspondent this week.

What should be high on your radar, if it isn’t already.

Tuberville vs. the Pentagon. Top Pentagon officials have launched a new PR salvo condemning Republican Alabama Sen. Tommy Tuberville over his monthslong blockade of senior military nominations and promotions. Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro accused Tuberville of “aiding and abetting” communists in an interview as the impasse drags on. (Del Toro is a Cuban-born Navy veteran.)

Tuberville has held up an estimated 300-plus military nominations that require Senate confirmation over a dispute with the Biden administration on its policy of providing leave and a travel allowance for service members seeking abortions and other reproductive health services. He says he won’t lift the blockade until the Biden administration changes its policy.

The standoff has frozen a whole chain of military promotions, leaving officers and their families in limbo and leaving three U.S. military service branches without confirmed chiefs for the first time in U.S. history.

“This has gone on too long,” Mark Esper, Trump’s former defense secretary, said on Twitter. “It politicizes uniformed officers & hurts readiness. Both sides are guilty. [Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck] Schumer should be clearing noms individually while GOP senators whip votes to end the bloc hold.”

Aliens? For anyone interested in what the U.S. military knows about UFOs (let’s face it, who isn’t?), we’ve got good news for you. The Pentagon just unveiled its new website dedicated to publicly disclosing what it can about unidentified flying objects, following some concerted lobbying by Congress.

Of course, it’s the Pentagon, so it has to make something that cool sound mind-numbingly dull with unnecessary acronyms. So, without further ado, here is the website for the All-Domain Anomaly Resolution Office, or AARO, whose mission is: “Minimize technical and intelligence surprise by synchronizing scientific, intelligence, and operational detection identification, attribution, and mitigation of unidentified anomalous phenomena in the vicinity of national security areas.” Yawn. But still. UFOs.

Caught in the act. Speaking of Russia alienating friends, let’s move on to Cuba. The Cuban government, another important ally of Moscow’s, has issued a rare statement accusing a “human trafficking ring” that just so happens to involve Russian military officials of secretly trying to recruit Cuban mercenaries to fight in Ukraine. The Intercept obtained hacked documents from a Russian military officer detailing how the recruiting campaign worked, from processing passport documents to the contracts and payments. The hacked Russian officer, Maj. Anton Valentinovich Perevozchikov, did not deny his role in recruiting the Cubans, as the Intercept reports: “He instead sent an expletive-laced reply to the Intercept denouncing NATO and declaring, ‘Russia will win.’”

Niger's security officers stand guard as demonstrators stand outside an airbase to demand the departure of the French military from Niger after a coup ousted its president in Niamey on Sept. 3. Niger’s security officers stand guard as demonstrators stand outside an airbase to demand the departure of the French military from Niger after a coup ousted its president in Niamey on Sept. 3.

Niger’s security officers stand guard as demonstrators stand outside an air base to demand the departure of the French military from Niger after a coup ousted its president in Niamey on Sept. 3. AFP via Getty Images

Sept. 9-10: India hosts the Group of 20 summit, with U.S. President Joe Biden in attendance. (Chinese President Xi Jinping will be a no-show.)

Sept. 10: Biden visits Vietnam to roll out a new strategic partnership with the country.

Sept. 11: The 54th session of the U.N. Human Rights Council begins.

“When I was a student, my best hangover food was actually to go to McDonald’s.”

—Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, informing U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken of his hangover cures as the two diplomats shared a side of fries in Kyiv during Blinken’s visit to Ukraine this week.

Classic Florida man. Via USA Today: “Florida man arrested while attempting to run across Atlantic Ocean in giant hamster wheel.”

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