14.09.2023 Author: Alexandr Svaranc

Russia’s partnership with Turkey has little impact on its dominance in the South Cau-casus

South Cau-casus

The meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, on September 4 of this year sparked heated debate in the media. Expert assessments were frequently wishful thinking having little to do with reality. The prospect of regional leadership in the South Caucasus was one of these topics.

Prior to the presidents’ meeting this year, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan traveled to Moscow on August 31 and September 1 with the goal of organizing the summit in Sochi and agreeing upon the agenda of the negotiations between the two leaders. From reports that emerged after Hakan Fidan’s discussions with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in Moscow, one could make some educated guesses about the general direction of any subsequent agreements between Moscow and Ankara.

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan made the odd statement on the eve of his minister Fidan’s trip to Moscow: “Turkey not only plays its own game, but it can also change the outcome of games that go against its interests.” It is unlikely that the Turkish leader addressed his “stern warnings” about Turkey’s ability to “change the outcome of games” in its favor to Moscow. Simply because Russia is currently preoccupied with other “games,” which have nothing to do with Turkey. Nevertheless, President Erdoğan’s message to his negotiating allies in some ways hinted at the “trump cards” Ankara may hold that could alter the game’s outcome in its favor, whether it be the issue of the Straits, the problem of energy exports and “parallel transit,” the threat of a NATO convoy in the Black Sea Grain Initiative, a military buildup in the Transcaucasia, or all of the above.

Following talks with his Turkish counterpart Hakan Fidan, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said at a joint press conference on August 31 that he had discussed the situation in the South Caucasus and was confident of Ankara’s constructive role in normalizing Baku-Yerevan relations. The Russian Foreign Minister added that Turkey would contribute positively to the implementation of the trilateral agreements reached by the leaders of Russia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia on establishing regional links and communications in the South Caucasus.

In the meantime, President Erdoğan affirmed Turkey’s “constructive role” in the South Caucasus during the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War in 2020 during his speech at the Naval War College Commencement and Flag Handover Ceremony in Istanbul. He specifically pointed out: “In the fight to liberate the occupied territories of Azerbaijan, we rushed to the aid of our brothers and sisters with all our means without a second thought. Thus, together with our Azerbaijani brothers and sisters, we ensured the liberation of Karabakh.”

With the main focus of Ankara and Baku’s interests narrowed to the Zangezur corridor, it is obvious that such a “constructive role” of Turkey in the South Caucasus will not only be unlikely to promote the normalization of relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan but may also result in another rise in military tension. Furthermore, in defiance of the aforementioned trilateral agreements, Turkey is one of the only nations to publicly and vehemently back Azerbaijan’s blockade of the Lachin corridor connecting Armenia to Karabakh.

In the agreements between Russia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia, Turkey is not a party (signatory). What “constructive role” will it eventually play in its implementation? Some argue that it’s necessary to put pressure on Armenia and force Karabakh into integration with Azerbaijan. Will it, however, guarantee regional security for the foreseeable future?

In this regard, the Russian media recently published the opinion of Modest Kolerov, a well-known expert and former senior official in the Russian Presidential Administration, that Azerbaijan will not extend the terms of stay of Russian peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh and that Russia will be forced to withdraw from this province (aside from that, Baku has not signed the Peacekeeping Mission mandate and has not authorized the Russians). Kolerov argues that Russia’s military interests in Transcaucasia have been secured by the presence of Russian bases in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. As a result, in his opinion, Russia’s military base in Armenia has lost all value, and it will have to depart as well as the Russian border guards. Modest Kolerov associates such a result with Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s pro-Western policies. Alleging that Armenia has set its sights on NATO, and Turkey, as a member of the alliance, will become the primary arbiter in Transcaucasia.

What can you say? It was not Armenia that brought Turkey to Aghdam as a participant in the so-called monitoring center over Karabakh. The Russian Federation’s weakness as the center of power following the collapse of the USSR led to Turkey’s incursion into Azerbaijan and Georgia. After two centuries, the Turks have entered the Caucasus, which is soaked with the blood of Russian soldiers. Observations made by Russian historian Nikolay Karamzin in a letter to Emperor Alexander I of Russia, include: “Even an autocratic monarch has no right to cede land abundantly watered with Russian blood… .” It appears that Mr. Kolerov “forgot” this national history lesson.

Russia can, of course, take Turkey’s “constructive role” in South Caucasus events into consideration, but these expectations for a Turkish arbiter might be undermined by the NATO leaders intervention. It is obvious that the Turkish-Azerbaijani alliance will continue the Turkish policy of pushing toward the east. Kazakhstan has already purchased two new tankers, each with an 8-ton capacity, in order to transport its oil to Azerbaijan, Turkey, and Europe via the Caspian Sea to bypass Russia. After Ankara makes its ultimate claim in Transcaucasia and Central Asia, these bypassing tendencies will become even more pronounced in its geopolitical maneuvers. The Organization of Turkic States (OTS), which Turkey founded after Nagorno-Karabakh’s defeat, brings a whole new dynamic into play in the Turkic world.

Military bases in the semi-recognized states of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, on the other hand, cannot physically deter NATO and, in particular, Turkey from pressing east. As a result, Kolerov’s view on the expediency of Russia’s disengagement from Armenia is incompatible with genuine Russian interests. Finally, Armenia may turn out to be an outpost not of Turkey, as a NATO member, but of the same USA and France, with their own military bases deployed. The latter will intensify the situation in the region, which is detrimental to Russia’s interests. Turkey will become a “master” in the Caucasus in the same manner that it has become an arbiter in the Balkans. The United States would support a strategy to restrain Turkey’s ambitions in Armenia that is similar to what it is doing in Greece.

During the talks in Sochi, the Russian president praised the high standard of Russian-Turkish cooperation including the economy and regional security, but he did not advocate for Turkey to take its place in the Transcaucasia, even though, naturally, the situation in the region was noted by both leaders. Russia acknowledges the reality of the current strategic alliance between Turkey and Azerbaijan. Therefore, it is expected that Ankara will actively contribute to bringing about a normalization of the South Caucasus situation, enhancing regional security, and resolving regional communications in a way that benefits all parties involved in the negotiations without interference from outside forces.

Turkey’s own diplomatic proposal in the “3+3” format, i.e., Russia, Turkey, Iran + Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia, can function as such a platform in addition to the bilateral structure of negotiations between Russia and Turkey. It is no accident that Turkey’s Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan came to Tehran to meet with his Iranian counterpart, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, after his visit to Moscow. During their meeting, the two sides had the chance to talk about regional peace in the South Caucasus. Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi is also scheduled to visit Turkey shortly after Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Vladimir Putin’s meeting.

A major message for a similar strategy on a part of Turkey, particularly in the South Caucasus, is that the new Russian diplomacy is attempting to alter historical perceptions of conflicting ties with Turkey to peaceful cohabitation and mutually beneficial cooperation, This implies that Russia is advocating for Turkey to play a constructive role in the Transcaucasia, not that it be replaced by another NATO member.


Aleksandr SVARANTS, PhD in political science, professor, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.

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