In the last years relations between Ankara and Moscow have drastically changed and the impact of situations in Syria as well as internal political struggles in Turkey are intensely covered over the background of bilateral relations. Yet, developments in the Caucasus as an important strategic arena were still underreported and seemed to stay a subject of a close circle of regional experts.

 

Even though there a several regional theatres for meaningful strategic interactions between Russia and Turkey in this decade, the Caucasus is still one of the most vital ones when it comes to the development of their relationship. In both countries foreign policy making processes there is a special value on the South Caucasus originating from Turkey’s and Russia’s imperial history. Beyond that, many experts point to the geostrategic centrality of the Eurasian Heartland, especially when it comes to trading routes along newly emerging Silk Road concepts and the access to the hydrocarbons of the Caspian Basin 

 

Significance of the Caucasus

In every region that falls under the definition of the “Near Abroad”, Russia publicly admits to reserve itself a special right to interfere on behalf of its interests and the protection of its citizens. Therefore, Russia’s interests in the South Caucasus are often portrayed by Moscow as urgent matters. In proclaiming an exclusive sphere of influence, Russia is able to strengthen the perception of being a global power. To achieve this, the Russian state has to retain its military-and economic dominance over the three independent Caucasus republics. Turkey, however, also identifies the Caucasus as a region of special interest, even though its claims are voiced less urgently and are not pursued as aggressively. Like Russia, Turkey has historical ties to the Caucasus that affect its domestic political arena, specifically in regards to the Azerbaijani-Armenian conflict. This provides the strategic incentives to be active in the Caucasus. Therefore, Turkey tries to increase its influence over the region, even though full dominance is not necessarily a strategic goal of Ankara.

 

Alliances and military bases

When it comes to security interests, it must again be mentioned that the terrain of the Caucasus does not allow for quick offensive gains. Therefore, military capabilities stationed in the region are not perceived as threatening as, for example, deployments on the North European Plain. Still, basing rights enable external powers prepare their military capabilities in order to pursue their own interests or undermine their rival’s (support counter-terrorism, securing regimes, guarding or taking over pipelines etc.). Therefore, it is in Russia’s interest to be the only power to have a military presence in the Caucasus in order to emphasize its claim of a special sphere of influence. At the same time, having military capabilities ready in the region would also be a strategic asset for Turkey, even though there is likely to be a tolerance for the military presence of other external powers, considering Turkey does not claim the Caucasus to be its exclusive sphere of influence.

Overall, Russia benefitted from the relative military weakness of the independent republics, which restricted their decision making when it comes to relations with their powerful neighbor. Georgia’s ambitions to escape Russia’s grip by allying with the West were crushed before the 2010s. After being internationally isolated in the 1990s due to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Armenia technically accepted Russia as its suzerain by joining the CSTO, giving Russia legal pretense to intervene on its domestic security matters. 

Only Azerbaijan has retained its sovereignty on security matters. The main reason for that is Turkey’s ongoing commitment to give external support, enabling the country to conduct a balanced foreign policy. Even though Turkey was a strategic partner of Baku since the 1990s, cooperation between both countries grew significantly in the 2010s, to Russia’s displeasure. The signing of the “Agreement on Strategic Partnership and Mutual Support”, a mutual defense treaty in the case of aggression, was the first formalization of the Turkish-Azerbaijani alliance. This was a clear indication of Turkey’s growing influence over Baku, and a willingness of both parties to openly defy Russian military dominance in the Caucasus. Although the treaty’s phrasing is rather vague, it was definitely a framework for further cooperation between the Turkish arms industry and Azerbaijan in order to break Baku’s dependence on Russian arms sales. Cooperation between both countries’ militaries increased as well, evident in mutual training programs and large exercises like in 2015. Additionally, rumors about plans to set up a Turkish military base in the Nakhchivan enclave surfaced frequently in the press. Whether the project will be realized or not, the fact that this possibility is discussed means that Turkey’s efforts to undermine Russian military hegemony in the Caucasus through an Azerbaijani alliance have reached a new level since 2010. 

It must be mentioned however, that Turkey’s actual will to confront Russia directly over Azerbaijani interests, most likely within the Nagorno-Karabakh context, can be doubted. During the Four-Day War in 2016, it again became apparent that Russia is the power-broker in this territorial conflict. With Turkey only willing to give minimal security assurances to Azerbaijan, Russia can set itself up as the key actor on the issue. Considering the importance of the conflict to Baku, Moscow is still holding a bargain-chip to convince Azerbaijan to halt its attempts to establish a stronger military alliance with Turkey and pressure it to join the CSTO or the EEU. 

 

Hydrocarbons and their political leverage

Russia’s ambition to make the “Near Abroad” an exclusive Russian sphere of influence is not only expressed in its decisive agenda to stay militarily dominant, but also in its attempts to exert control over the former Soviet imperial periphery. According to this, Moscow especially tries to gain control over the hydrocarbons of the Caspian Basin by being the sole provider of a pipeline network through its territory. This is not only vital because control over the resources’ transportation is a means to control Baku’s decision making by strong economic leverage but also because Russia’s own economy is poorly diversified and its state revenues are mainly generated through the sale of oil and gas. Due to that dependency, Russia’s economy is vulnerable to falling energy prices. Therefore holding the most possible leverage over the global energy markets is a vital interest of Moscow. 

Turkey, however, is a net-energy consumer, and Ankara sees its geographic position between the energy ellipse and the European economies as a chance to set itself up as a key transit hub for hydrocarbons. Russia vehemently tried to prevent early projects like the BTC-pipeline from Azerbaijan over Georgia to Turkey and the occupation of the Georgian separatist regions were sometimes seen as an attempt to gain the capability to sabotage or take over energy routes throughout the Caucasus. Countries interested in making Caspian hydrocarbons accessible to the global markets also tried to exclude Moscow from major projects designed to free up Azerbaijan’s production, like the BTC. Efforts by Turkey to provide Azerbaijan the means to distribute resources are manifested in the TANAP project, which aims at bringing Caspian energy from Azerbaijan over Georgia and Turkey to the European consumer markets. Construction started in 2015, and was again strongly opposed by Russia.

Considering the continuing trend of pipeline diversification, one could ask why Russia is not accepting the situation and adjusting its strategic calculations. Even though Russia has lost the monopoly over the Caspian pipeline structure, it is not in the position where cutting losses is a viable option. As previously mentioned, the Russian economy is dependent upon price development on the global markets. Additionally, one has to consider that an advanced network of pipelines would also provide the opportunity to link up the Central Asian reserves with European markets independently from the Russian pipeline network. This significantly increases the stakes for Russia. Hence, every time Russia’s economy comes under strain and domestic pressure starts to mount, the issue will likely resurface in the strategic discourse between Ankara and Moscow. The different strategic orientations of both countries on this issue will therefore remain opposing. Nevertheless, Turkey has some room to maneuver by being able to back down from new projects. If the strategic environment outside of the Caucasus sets strong incentives for realignment, Turkey could trade its position on the Caspian energy to gain concessions or support on other aspects of their grand strategy. This is indicated by Turkey’s newest offers to connect TANAP with the existing Turkish Stream, a project planned to bring Russian natural gas to Turkey. This would allow Russia at least additional access to European consumer markets. The offer comes at a time when both FPE’s toy openly with the idea of a rapprochement. 

 

What to make out of it? 

Even though the term “New Great Game” is controversial and its zero-sum logic certainly does not apply to the whole spectrum of interactions between external powers in the Caucasus, it still has explanatory power for the Russian-Turkish competition in the military realm and over the control of the hydrocarbons. Therefore, the conflict potential over key security-and economic interests in the 2010s is still higher than grounds for strategic cooperation, continuing the competition that characterized the Russian-Turkish interactions in the Caucasus since the end of the Cold War.

 

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