Turkish-Russian Strategic Depth in South Caucasus

By Zaur Shiriyev | 21 May 2010


Turkey’s recent shuttle diplomacy between Moscow, Baku and Tbilisi has indirectly confirmed the strategic depth of its foreign policy as the country seeks to become a regional leader and increase its role at the Eurasian level.

Cordial relations with the South Caucasus states are important for meeting both goals.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s historic first visit to Turkey provided an opportunity to broach Moscow-Ankara relations in the volatile South Caucasus region. More importantly, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan arrived in Batumi on Monday evening from the Azerbaijani capital, Baku, where he stated that his nation will not ratify a deal to normalize ties with Armenia until the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is settled.

Turkey’s foreign policy toward the South Caucasus should first aim to resolve all the pending disputes that its diplomatic inertia caused to accumulate in the past. Erdoğan’s shuttle diplomacy in the South Caucasus raises a crucial question: Will Turkey’s strategic depth due to its history and geographic position, and to its “strategic partnership” (as Turkish media described Turkish-Russian relations) with Russia, be helpful in restoring stability to the South Caucasus?

Turkish-Russian relations developed steadily throughout the 1990s; on a parallel track, Moscow and Ankara have been extremely cautious about keeping tension emanating from the Caucasus from spilling over to the entire bilateral relationship. Although some of those tensions appear to be purely bilateral, the Georgian-Russian conflict demonstrates that there is no such thing anymore in this globalized world, and certainly not in this interconnected region. Such a huge overall improvement in the Russian-Turkish relationship should (theoretically) now reap major positive benefits for the political and economic situation in the South Caucasus, a bridge between two great trading partners. More prospects for economic development and regional integration in the Caucasus should have opened up.

But Russia’s hostility toward Georgia, and its obsession with the perceived role of the Western countries there, complicates Russia’s relations with all the Caucasus states and demonstrates the positive benefits of the Turkish-Russian strategic depth in the region. The frozen Turkish-Armenian rapprochement also has a negative effect, as both Ankara and Moscow are considered common influences in the region.

According to Eduard Popov, the head of the Black Sea-Caspian center of Russia’s Institute for Strategic Studies and a visiting scholar at the Baku-based think tank the Center for Strategic Studies, Turkish-Russian relations are developing into a “strategic partnership” in the region. Popov says, however, that more time is needed to improve Turkish-Armenian and Russian-Georgian relations before Moscow and Ankara’s effective approaches can bring peace to the region.

Lesson from history

In fact, real peace in the South Caucasus requires two key strategic transformations. One is a lesson from history: In order to achieve stabilization in the region, unresolved conflicts cannot be ignored. This stabilization should begin with serious progress in resolving regional conflicts, which are often called “frozen conflicts.” This is not a correct term to use because these conflicts are not “frozen” – they are alive, developing with different levels of intensity and bringing numerous negative effects. What is “frozen,” unfortunately, is the process of conflict resolution.

It would be more accurate to think of these uncontrolled territories as “the last fragments of empire,” where the tragedies and injustices of the 20th century linger without resolution. To be sure, it is largely unresolved conflicts that have hampered the development of democracy in South Caucasus countries.

The other lesson is that, geopolitically, Moscow and Ankara have a stake in stabilizing the wider Caucasus and other parts of their shared neighborhood. That is why both countries have mediated in the ongoing conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. At present, Russia treats one party (Armenia) more favorably than the other (Azerbaijan). Such partiality inhibits effective mediation. The Caucasus Platform initiative, which was made public by Erdoğan in Moscow on Aug. 13, 2008, has brought about a new development, however: For the first time, the good Turkish-Russian understanding was being openly used to resolve problems in their common geographic neighborhood.

Contrary to the Organization of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation, which has always avoided such issues, the Caucasus Stability and Cooperation Platform, it was stated, would be orientated toward problem solving. Now, both Moscow and Ankara are working to revive the CSCP, with efforts that are more serious and sustained than previous ones. But in order to succeed, Turkey must firmly pursue obtaining a pledge from all the region’s players to repudiate the use of force in settling their disputes.

Finally, Turkey and Russia have vital traditional interests in the South Caucasus; they are not given the option to forget about the region. Though it is really too early to talk about the implications of the Turkish-Russian “strategic partnership” for the region, both countries have the utmost stake in ensuring the sustainable stability of the South Caucasus. It is the only relevant strategic concern for these two neighboring states.


Zaur Shiriyev is a foreign-policy analyst based in Azerbaijan




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