Women and children read books in a bomb shelter seeking refuge from shelling, Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh, Oct 1, 2020
Caucasian chalk circle
The United States and Russia are increasingly in each other’s crosshairs on the global stage, be it in the Arctic, the Black Sea or the Middle East. But they have joined hands with alacrity to take a common stance on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. It is patently loaded against Turkey.
On October 2, at a hastily arranged “working meeting” in Geneva, the Russian National Security Council secretary Nikolai Patrushev and the US National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien discussed issues privately “in a bid to normalise bilateral relations and strengthen the international security.” This is the first time the two top national security officials have met in the past two-year period.
The Kremlin has been watching with dismay Turkey’s interventions in Syria and Libya. Russia feels helpless about the Turkish occupation of northern Syria and is instead obliged to take Ankara’s help to stabilise northwestern Syria. In Libya, their respective proxy groups are fighting for the upper hand.
There is a lot of frustration in the western capitals too over Turkey’s Islamist policies and neo-Ottomanism, its military intervention in Libya and provocative moves in Eastern Mediterranean. The western powers and Russia now get a rare opportunity to corner President Recep Erdogan within a “Caucasian chalk circle” of chaos and chance.
But how far they will succeed remains to be seen. Erdogan has shown himself to be a masterly player of brinkmanship. The Moscow pundits claim that the current happenings in Transcaucasia do not really impinge on Russian security interests or its so-called Greater Eurasia Partnership project.
But the Russian security establishment must be worried like hell. Just two days before the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict erupted, Russia’s intelligence chief Sergei Naryshkin had listed Georgia as among the countries from where the CIA, Pentagon and the US state department have been training activists and indulging in the “dirtiest methods for rocking the boat in Belarus”. (Naryshkin is a close associate of President Putin.)
Now, with the success of the colour revolutions in Georgia and Armenia, Azerbaijan is the only remaining part of Transcaucasia that is outside the US “sphere of influence.” Some stirrings of protests have appeared in Baku in the past but Azeri leadership managed to squash them.
Unlike France or the US, Turkey is not a newcomer to Caucasian politics. The modern Turkish state under Ataturk turned its back on the Caucasus and stuck to its new credo that Islam and imperial heritage only led to backwardness and restrained Turkey’s modernisation.
However, following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Turkey began rediscovering its severed historical, ethnic, cultural, linguistic and religious ties with Caucasus (and Central Asia.) With the retreat of “Kemalism” in Turkey, Erdogan switched to a more proactive and independent policy in the regions that used to be part of the “Ottoman space.”
Thus, the fraternal ties with Azerbaijan (a Turkic-speaking country) morphed into a strategic alliance. Turkey has become a provider of security and a guarantor of stability. Turkey and Azerbaijan are also involved in several joint energy projects and infrastructure programmes (eg., Baku – Akhalkalaki – Tbilisi – Kars railway line.)
The Caucasian diaspora are an important factor, too. Around 10 percent of Turkey’s population are of Caucasian origin — refugees fleeing Tsarist Russia’s advance, who form a very influential political constituency today, represented well in the Turkish army, parliament, media, etc.
The stakes are exceedingly high on the Transcaucasian chessboard — NATO’s advance into the Black Sea; Caspian oil; the volatile North Caucasus region (Russia’s “soft underbelly”); Iran’s ethic Azeri minority community; Israeli presence, etc. to name a few.
The tensions over Transcaucasia will be felt in the Syrian situation. Turkey and Russia do not see the Syrian settlement through the same lens. Both Moscow and Ankara are also looking for opportunities to strengthen their standing as regional superpowers in the Middle East and the Black Sea region.
Meanwhile, the unresolved conflicts in the Transcaucasian region also include the situation in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which may look relatively calm as of now, thanks to the restraint that Georgia has exercised in taking any actions to regain its territorial integrity that Russia violated in the Russo-Georgian war in August 2008.
But Russian revanchism strengthened Tbilisi’s ties with the US, NATO and the EU. Georgia’s pro-western course set by Mikhail Saakashvili (following the colour revolution in 2003) has become irreversible. Simply put, Transcaucasia is still very much “work in progress” in the geopolitical rivalry between Russia and the US.
Russian-Turkish collision course?
The tensions have continued to simmer, notwithstanding the shift in attention to events in Ukraine’s Donbas and Crimea’s annexation by Russia. The US still advocates “energy pluralism” in Transcaucasia, i.e. finding alternative ways to supply oil and gas to Europe as well as creating a platform for conducting its policy to contain Tehran’s and Moscow’s ambitions. Equally, the security of Russia’s seven North Caucasian (Muslim) republics cannot be sequestered effectively from the state of affairs in its Transcaucasian neighbourhood to the south.
To be sure, the spillover from the Ukraine crisis has far from played out and the competition between European and Eurasian integration is only going to intensify in the Transcaucasian region. Georgia has opted to enter into free trade agreements with the European Union. Armenia, on the contrary, decided to join the Moscow-backed Eurasian Economic Union.
But Azerbaijan has so far tried to balance between various integration projects and the current conflict becomes a defining moment. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan have choices to make. They will likely view integration as an additional tool for gaining the upper hand in their brutal ethnic and political conflict.
The crisis in Ukraine has also led NATO and Georgia to intensify their contacts. The road map plotted by the US has brought the NATO into the Black Sea where it is lately consolidating a military presence to challenge Russia’s historical pre-dominance in the region.
On September 29, after talks at the NATO Headquarters in Brussels with the visiting Prime Minister of Georgia, Giorgi Gakharia, the secretary-general of the alliance Jens Stoltenberg described Georgia as “one of NATO’s most important partners” and referred to close cooperation on the Black Sea security. Gakharia responded that “We see Black Sea security as the window of opportunity for Georgia, for deepening the cooperation with NATO.”
From the western perspective, therefore, any unravelling of the Turkish-Russian entente due to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict will be a geopolitical windfall. The western analysts are expecting that latent contradictions in the Turkish-Russian entente will surface.
Paradoxically, Turkey’s current actions in the Caucasus, which are often interpreted as an element of its foreign policy, also hold the potential to transform as part of the Western effort to expand its regional footprint in Eurasia to complete the arc of encirclement around Russia.
Thus, the US and its EU allies have all along supported the trilateral cooperation between Turkey, Azerbaijan and Georgia. The influential American strategist on Russia, Fiona Hill wrote in a Brookings report in 2015 titled “Retracing the Caucasian Circle: Considerations and constraints for U.S., EU, and Turkish engagement in the South Caucasus” that Washington and its allies regarded Turkey as being part of the West alongside the EU and the US in regional diplomacy and Turkey’s actions in South Caucasus were part of the Western agenda.
Indeed, Turkey shares interests with Georgia (and Ukraine) and are working together on energy pipeline projects. Turkish businesses are actively involved in both countries. Broadly, Ankara has moved in tandem with the NATO while pursuing its regional ambitions in Georgia and Ukraine.
Having said that, Azerbaijan has a troubled relationship with the US and has long viewed Russia as a counterweight. Ideally, Russia needs to find a balance between Armenia, a strategic ally, and Azerbaijan, a strategic partner.
This is where the role of Iran in the Transcaucasian question comes into play. Tehran has been successful in keeping friendly ties with all three states in Transcaucasia. Iran is a unique regional player with a truly independent foreign policies and devoid of any ancient imperial hang-ups.
Iran is fundamentally wedded to the principle that such conflicts as Nagorno-Karabakh should be resolved without interference from players outside the region. Its position is closer to Russia than to Turkey. But Russia’s dilemma appears to be that it is hesitant to break the existing status quo in Transcaucasia until it resolves the Syrian and Ukrainian issues.
Ankara’s active involvement in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has provoked the Armenian lobby in the US Congress as well as in Europe (primarily in France). At some point in future, the crisis in Transcaucasia could open the door to a more active involvement by the US and the EU, including through a peacekeeping operation.
In immediate terms, the risk lies in the unseemly rush of Azerbaijan to create new facts on the ground. The growing number of incidents on the contact line along its border with Armenia (outside Nagorno-Karabakh) can lead to some flashpoint, forcing Russia or Turkey to take unilateral action. Iran has cautioned against it.