By Joshua Kucera
United States intelligence believes that Georgia could reverse its strategic orientation toward the West under Russian pressure, the country’s top intelligence official has said.
The U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified to Congress on Tuesday, offering the U.S. intelligence community’s annual “Worldwide Threat Assessment.” The short section dealing with the Caucasus and Central Asia offers some interesting insights into how American government spooks and analysts see developments in the region. Perhaps the most intriguing statement is that on Georgia, which suggests that Georgia may be rethinking its Euro-Atlantic orientation, in part due to Russian efforts:
Even as Georgia progresses with reforms, Georgian politics will almost certainly be volatile as political competition increases. Economic challenges are also likely to become a key political vulnerability for the government before the 2016 elections. Rising frustration among Georgia’s elites and the public with the slow pace of Western integration and increasingly effective Russian propaganda raise the prospect that Tbilisi might slow or suspend efforts toward greater Euro-Atlantic integration. Tensions with Russia will remain high, and we assess that Moscow will raise the pressure on Tbilisi to abandon closer EU and NATO ties.
While last year’s assessment noted that “we assess that Moscow will press Tbilisi to abandon closer EU and NATO ties,” it didn’t make a judgment about how likely that might be. There has been a lively debate in and outside of Georgia about whether or not Georgia’s Western orientation is at risk, but this assessment seems to suggest the risk is increasing.
On Central Asia, the U.S. says that while Central Asian governments are concerned about Islamic extremism spilling over from Afghanistan, internal threats are in fact more dire. That comports with what they have been saying in recent years, but one innovation this year is that the DNI assessment suggests that Russia may be using that as a pretext for increased involvement in Central Asia:
Central Asian states remain concerned about the rising threat of extremism to the stability of their countries, particularly in light of a reduced Coalition presence in Afghanistan. Russia shares these concerns and is likely to use the threat of instability in Afghanistan to increase its involvement in Central Asian security affairs. However, economic challenges stemming from official mismanagement, low commodity prices, declining trade and remittances associated with Russia’s weakening economy, and ethnic tensions and political repression, are likely to present the most significant instability threat to these countries.
On Armenia and Azerbaijan, the U.S. again argues that the risk of war remains high, noting that the economic crisis this year in Azerbaijan further adds to that risk:
Tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh remained high in 2015. Baku’s sustained military buildup coupled with declining economic conditions in Azerbaijan are raising the potential that the conflict will escalate in 2016. Azerbaijan’s aversion to publicly relinquishing its claim to Nagorno-Karabakh proper and Armenia’s reluctance to give up territory it controls will continue to complicate a peaceful resolution.
Generally, the report argues that Russia will continue to strive towards becoming the “uncontested regional hegemon in Eurasia.”
Despite Russia’s economic slowdown, the Kremlin remains intent on pursuing an assertive foreign policy in 2016. Russia’s willingness to covertly use military and paramilitary forces in a neighboring state continues to cause anxieties in states along Russia’s periphery, to include NATO allies. Levels of violence in eastern Ukraine have decreased, but Moscow’s objectives in Ukraine—maintaining long-term influence over Kyiv and frustrating Ukraine’s attempts to integrate into Western institutions—will probably remain unchanged in 2016.
Since the crisis began in Ukraine in 2014, Moscow has redoubled its efforts to reinforce its influence in Eurasia. Events in Ukraine raised Moscow’s perceived stakes for increasing its presence in the region to prevent future regime change in the former Soviet republics and for accelerating a shift to a mulitpolar world in which Russia is the uncontested regional hegemon in Eurasia. Moscow will therefore continue to push for greater regional integration, raising pressure on neighboring states to follow the example of Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan and join the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union.
What the report doesn’t assess, however, is how achievable all these Russian ambitions may be, or what the U.S. might be able to do to thwart them. Stay tuned.