Why does Russia need South Caucasus?
    Analysis by Mikhail Shereshevsky

    ANALYTICS  24 September 2023 - 12:23

    Mikhail Shereshevskiy

    Russian publicist Igor Dmitriev has recently published interesting notes trying to answer the question of why Russia needs the South Caucasus. He notes that the situation looks strange at first glance.

    Georgia and Armenia, with all due respect, are small states that do not have significant natural resources. However, in the mid-19th century, the Russian Empire received, an amazing prize - Baku oil. The significance of this discovery cannot be overestimated.

    "Russia should have fought so hard for Georgia and Armenia because, in the end, it got Azerbaijan. Georgia and Armenia, by and large, made sense to Russia only for the sake of possessing Azerbaijan. And this is not an exaggeration at all! Until the discovery of Siberian oil fields in the 1960s, it was Azerbaijani oil that was the basis of fuel self-sufficiency of the USSR. Victory in WWII would have hardly been possible without Baku's oil fields. In 1942, Hitler rushed to the Caucasus [insanely stretching his front and dispersing his forces], because he was eager to capture Baku [certainly not Georgia and Armenia]".

    Baku oil has become the centre of geopolitical games in the region. Therefore, the Soviet Union needed to “drive a thorn” under the skin of Azerbaijan in the form of the “Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region [NKAO]”. This was done not out of hatred towards the Armenians, but in order to have additional leverage on Azerbaijan in the event that a local national movement appeared there that would seek independent statehood. NKAO existed from 1923 to 1991. within the Azerbaijan SSR. Clarification is needed here though. Firstly, during the development of oil fields between the Volga region and the Urals starting in 1932, the second (after Baku) large base of the USSR oil industry was created. Moreover, since the 1950s, “Second Baku” came to 1st place in the USSR in terms of oil production. The “Third Baku” became the fields of Western Siberia, the largest source of oil in the late USSR. Nevertheless, the importance of Baku oil remained great throughout the history of the USSR.

    Secondly, the plan of the German offensive in the Caucasus in 1942 envisaged not only the capture of Baku oil by the Germans, although, of course, it was of great importance. The main objective of this plan, developed under the then-time leadership of Franz Halder, the chief of the German General Staff, was to abandon, surprising as it may seem at first glance, the war in the east as a war exclusively against the USSR.

    "The Second Imperialist War," as it was called by the Soviet press in the late 1930s, which was essentially a clash between the ruling classes of the world's largest states to redivide the world, turned into several largely isolated armed conflicts.

    Halder's plan did not disperse the German forces, but, on the contrary, concentrated them. The strike, according to his plan, was directed precisely at the Caucasus. The goal was not only the occupation of Baku and the capture of Baku oil (which would no longer feed the Soviet Union and provide fuel for the Wehrmacht) but also to connect several theatres of war. Halder envisioned the German armies going to the Middle East, the offensive in Iran and Türkiye, cutting off the lend-lease, the main flow of which went through Iran (which would mean serious exsanguination of the Red Army) and the subsequent march to connect with the forces of Rommel, advancing in North Africa and, also, rushing to the Middle East.

    A remark by historian Yaroslav Shimov expands the vision of this situation: "The Wehrmacht's conquest of the South Caucasus would have left neutral Türkiye no choice but to join the Axis, which would have instantly made the British position in the Middle East very difficult on the verge of critical."

    Due to a planning error made at the insistence of Hitler, two directions of attack were chosen instead of one. This is what scattered the German forces. Adding the second, Stalingrad's direction, as one of the main directions, was a failed strategy that led Germany to defeat in the Caucasus and at Stalingrad, and then in World War II.

    In any case, the strategic games in the South Caucasus between the powers were conducted primarily because of Azerbaijani oil. Baku itself was also of great importance as a major industrial centre and one of the largest and most developed cities in the region. Even at the very beginning of the 20th century, it was a city where events echoed throughout the Middle East. For example, the Iranian revolution of 1905-1911 would hardly have been possible without Iranian guest workers who participated in similar revolutionary events of 1905 in Baku and then returned home.

    We see how games of powers have been played around the region for decades. Garabagh became an important part of them. It was an attempt by the Soviet regime to maintain control over Baku, a control that came at such a high cost during World War II. It was important for the Soviet leadership to use the Armenian-populated Garabagh as a mechanism to keep Azerbaijan within its state. The amazing irony of history is that in the end, it turned out exactly the opposite. The separatist movement in Garabagh, which demanded that the region be annexed to Armenia, was one of the first and largest outbreaks of national conflict in the former Soviet Union. It was this separatist movement that led to the confrontation between Armenia and Azerbaijan and then stimulated the process of the collapse of the Soviet Union.


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