Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld made an unscheduled visit to the South Caucasus this week in response to the volatile situation in the Republic of Georgia which is resonating throughout the Caspian region.
The purpose of the visit is to bolster the US presence in the Caucasus and investigate ways to ensure regional stability as a safeguard to important US interests, such as the continuation of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil-pipeline project, and fly-over rights and refueling for aircraft bound for the Middle East and Afghanistan. In addition, the visit will promote the continued role of the states in the region to the global anti-terrorism campaign. Moreover, Mr. Rumsfeld's agenda includes preservation of US interests and influence at a time of expanding Russian leverage in the region; the recent crisis in Georgia illustrated Russia's key role in the Caucasus to both the residents of the area and to Washington.
The best strategy for the secretary to pursue would be joint, vigorous action with Russia to resolve the conflicts that afflict the region. In the late '80s and following the Soviet breakup, a variety of regional powers in the Caucasus used ethnic tensions to promote their own political and economic agendas. Russia was the primary catalyst in the Caucasus caldron, with Iran and other local players also stirring the pot at times.
The major conflicts that emerged in the Caucasus were the Nagorno-Karabakh war between Armenia and Azerbaijan - which in the early 1990s led to the deaths of 30,000 and created over a million refugees - and a civil war in Georgia, which led to the de facto secession of the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Today close to 20 percent of Azerbaijan's territory remains under Armenian occupation, including the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Likewise, Abkhazia and South Ossetia are not under Tbilisi's central control and enjoy protection from Moscow.
These conflicts are regulated by cease-fires, but the area is still volatile, especially the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan where skirmishes frequently occur. The possibilities that these conflicts could re-ignite pose the greatest threat to US interests in the Caucasus and to economic and social progress in the region.
How can Washington best promote and keep peace there? There should not be a Pax Americana in the region, but one that recognizes and incorporates the key role that Russia plays and will continue to play in the area. If Russia does not view the peace arrangements as minimally contributing to its own security, it will work to undermine them, and it clearly has the means at its disposal to do so. In the early 1990s, Moscow was the main protagonist of these regional conflicts. Today, one of Russian President Vladimir Putin's chief policy goals is the stabilization of Chechnya, which borders on the South Caucasus. Accordingly, Mr. Putin wants to prevent a reignition of war in that area, which could undermine stabilization measures in Chechnya.
Also, policy must be formed to deal with the needs and rights of the refugees from the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. For over a decade now, more than 800,000 Azerbaijani refugees have been waiting - without resorting to terrorism - for the international community to address their plight, but their patience may soon be exhausted, and conflict resolution will become even more complicated. Dealing with this ongoing, humanitarian crisis could preempt a resumption of hostilities.
Next, serious conflict resolution efforts should become a priority for high-level political attention. Armenia and Azerbaijan have come close to signing comprehensive peace agreements on three occasions - their fundamental positions are bridgeable and this warrants optimism.
In addition, US aid in the region should be disbursed wisely, channeled toward projects enhancing peace, not undermining it. USAID funds have been used to build housing and infrastructure in the occupied Nagorno-Karabakh territories, and this should be curtailed.
The Caucasus and the greater Caspian region possess key strategic value, by virtue of their geographic location, substantial reserves of non-OPEC oil and gas, and their population, which is predominately Muslim and pro-Western. The US should be reminded by the recent events in the Republic of Georgia of how quickly simmering situations in the Caucasus can change. Rumsfeld's visit is evidence of the region's strategic value, but prompt, serious, and effective conflict resolution efforts are still needed to safeguard both US interests and the security and prosperity of the people of the South Caucasus.
• Brenda Shaffer is research director at the Caspian Studies Program at Harvard University. She is the author of 'Borders and Brethren: Iran and the Challenge of Azerbaijani Identity.'