The Future Role of Turkey in the South Caucasus – Context of Ceasefire in Nagorno-Karabakh

Turkey always has had its own interests in the South Caucasus for centuries, as the interests of other major powers, Russia and Iran, were crossed here, and rivalry with them meant expressing its own strength in the region.

Since Bolshevik Russia annexed the three South Caucasus republics in 1921, and consequently Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia became part of the Soviet Union, Turkey’s interests in the region have shifted to the long term.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, for Turkey appeared wide opportunities to pursue its own interests in the South Caucasus again, in political, economic, cultural, and many other terms. Turkey has started active cooperation with two South Caucasus countries – Azerbaijan and Georgia, which made the very first steps of state institutions. Cooperation with Armenia was doomed from the very beginning due to well-known historical events.

The first event which demanded Turkish active involvement in the region was the appearance of pro-Turkish President of Azerbaijan, Abulfaz Elchibey, who was distinguished by a radically pro-Turkish position. However, Ankara’s attempts were not so effective due to certain reasons. With the advent of the Elchibey authorities, Turkey was granted the most favorable treatment in Azerbaijan, and Turkish business received serious benefits. However, Turkey was not ready for such a geopolitical gift. As a result, by the mid-90s, pro-Turkish sentiments in Azerbaijan began to decline, and Russia, after Azerbaijan’s defeat in the first Karabakh war, managed to seriously strengthen itself in this country, which, for obvious reasons, is Turkey’s natural ally in the region. Real military cooperation between Azerbaijan and Turkey begins already in the post-war period. In 1994, Azerbaijan joined NATO’s Partnership for Peace program, and in 1996 Turkey signed an Agreement on Cooperation in the Military-Technical and Military-Educational Spheres with Azerbaijan, which provided training for the officers of the Azerbaijan Armed Forces at military universities in Turkey. Several sources attribute the signing of secret protocols on military cooperation to the same period.

In the South Caucasus Region the most difficult case for Turkey’s bilateral relations Armenia. There are many reasons why those two countries have difficulties of coexistence in the region. One of them is a well-known historical past and the events of 1915, which Ankara does not still recognize as genocide. The problem between the two countries is also the border issue and as well as the ongoing conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh.

A new stage of Turkey’s interest in the region begins in the 90s of the XX century when the Contract of Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline was signed by the Presidents of 3 countries in 1999. For the first time, the idea of the project was expressed by the President of Azerbaijan, Heydar Aliyev, during the visit of Turkish Foreign Minister Hikmet Cetin to Baku in 1993. It took Aliyev more than six years to put this project into practice. But it was this project that radically changed the geopolitical map of the region. On October 29, 1999, the Ankara Declaration was signed expressing support for the construction of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline and regulating the transportation of Caspian energy resources along this route. Since the signing of the contract of the century and the agreement on the withdrawal of Russian troops from Georgia (Signed on the OSCE Summit in Istanbul on November 17, 1999), contradictions of force majeure (?) have arisen between Moscow and Tbilisi, which have led to the aggressive policy of the Russian Federation in the region, especially towards Georgia. The aforementioned Project negatively affected also on the relations between Russia and Azerbaijan. On the other hand, Ankara itself did not want to be perceived in Moscow as a competitor in the region. Turkey treasures its relations with Russia, with which it was connected by many projects from the Blue Stream (a gas pipeline from Russia to Turkey along the Black Sea bottom) to investments in the growing Russian economy and exports to Russia.

The August war 2008 between Russia and Georgia turned the balance of power in the region. Russia has shown that to maintain control in the South Caucasus, it was ready to use any means to achieve its goals in the Region. During the August war, the Kremlin checked Turkey’s reaction by dropping two bombs on a military base in the district of Khelvachauri (Adjara), when Erdogan’s plane was on its way to Moscow. There was no official reaction, but the territory of Adjara was no longer bombed and Russian troops did not appear since then there.

Immediately, after the August war, President Erdoğan started heading the Turkish government on a platform of stability and cooperation in the Caucasus. The key point of this platform was the item on improving relations with Armenia. What happened next was called “football diplomacy” when the players of the two countries met in a friendly match. The most interesting moment in this story is the almost forgotten proposal of former Foreign Minister of Turkey, Ali Babacan on an alternative route of the Nabucco gas pipeline through the territory of Armenia since Georgia has some problems after The August War. His successor Former Minister Ahmet Davutoglu wanted to produce an idea – zero problems with neighbors.

Azerbaijan’s reaction was extremely painful. Baku not only reminded of the existence of the Karabakh conflict but also refused to sign a new agreement on gas supplies. The contradictions that arose so unexpectedly between Ankara and Baku showed that the Azerbaijani side had much more leverages over Turkey than could be expected. As a result, a reformatting of the Turkish-Azerbaijani relations took place, Turkey has revised the prospects for developing its relations with Armenia. In comparison to the signing of the Armenian-Turkish protocols in October 2011, Azerbaijan and Turkey signed 15 agreements, thereby laying the foundations for future cooperation to turn Turkey into an energy hub. In consequence, in terms of zeroing problems with neighbors, the happy end did not work out. The following events such were: The Arab Spring, the Libyan and Syrian crises, the emergence of political subjectivity among the Kurds, three million migrants and a gas field in the Mediterranean had revealed many challenges and problems with almost all its neighbors except Georgia.

The second decade of the XXI century was quite challenging for Turkey. On the one hand, the growth of the economy, the implementation of large infrastructure projects, and the creation of new sectors of the economy have made Turkey a regional leader. But everything has its price, including success. Large countries might have large problems, and as soon as Turkey got large, it got large problems.

When the second Karabakh war has been waged Turkey has established a full-fledged strategic partnership with Azerbaijan. Unlike the beginning of the nineties of the XX century, when there were more emotions and white noise in relations between Turkey and Azerbaijan than a practical component, this time these relations were the result of many years of painstaking work. Turkey’s assistance in the second Karabakh war is only the final stage of a multi-year plan to start a new stage of Turkey’s political presence in the region. The basis of this presence is the economy. It is not just about Turkish investments in energy, construction, and trade between Georgia and Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan is also actively investing in the Turkish economy. Here we can give an example of the construction of the STAR petrochemical complex, the cost of which is estimated at more than 2 billion USD, as well as the construction of a container terminal on the Aegean coast, which will naturally be tied to the expansion of the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway. In 2020, the Azerbaijani energy company SOCAR ousted Gazprom, becoming the leader in gas supplies to Turkey. The integration of the economic systems of Turkey and Azerbaijan has been practically launched. And of course, regional projects – the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway, and especially the South Caucasus gas pipeline with a continuation to the TANAP Trans Anatolian gas pipeline and the TAP South European gas pipeline.

As of time Russia viewed all of these projects as competing and hostile, however, the situation has changed. The annexation of Crimea and the hybrid war in the Donbass have led to the fact that the main routes for transporting Russian gas to Europe were under the control of a country with which the Russian Federation is in a de facto state of war. Moreover, interference in elections in some European countries and the United States led to sanctions that postponed the construction of Nord Stream 2, indefinitely. In this situation, Turkey turned out to be the only partner of Russia, capable of at least partially solving the problems that Moscow has been creating for itself all these years.

Cooperation between Turkey and Azerbaijan in the military sphere is also impressive. The level of military cooperation between Turkey and Azerbaijan is evidenced by the fact that back in April 2019, as a possible response to the US reaction to Turkey’s purchase of S-400 complexes, the issue of placing the mentioned complexes in Azerbaijan was considered to avoid sanctions. Hasan Selim Özertem, Director of the Center for Security and Energy Studies of the Organization for International Strategic Studies USAK, assesses the period preceding the outbreak of hostilities: “The outbreak of hostilities between Azerbaijan and Armenia in July 2020 changed the nature of the Karabakh conflict. The clashes began in Tovuz, an area outside the occupied territories of Azerbaijan. Unlike the 2016 four-day war, at some point, tensions temporarily eased even without a ceasefire.

During this interim period, Armenia and Azerbaijan continued to flex their muscles by staging military exercises. On July 17, 2020, Armenia and Russia announced joint exercises as part of the Caucasus-2020 exercise. They were followed by joint military exercises of Turkey and Azerbaijan. On the Turkish side, they were attended by elite units, drones, attack helicopters, and fighter jets F-16s. The exercise turned out to be very significant: it demonstrated Turkey’s readiness to support its ally in the South Caucasus in the face of any threat. When fighting resumed on September 27, Turkish officials strongly supported Azerbaijan. ”

A lot has been written about the role of the Turkish drones “Bayraktar” and other unmanned aerial vehicles. They played one of the most important roles in causing damage to the Armenian armed forces. An equally important role in the war was played by the special unit of the Azerbaijani Ministry of Defense “Yashma”, the unit of the “Three Elements” (a brigade of navy seals, Special Forces of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, State Security and Foreign Intelligence Service (operated behind enemy lines). All these units were trained by Turkish military specialists. All these years, Azerbaijan bought mainly Russian weapons, but the Turkish side was engaged in the training of the personnel of the army and other power structures.

Throughout the entire period of hostilities in Karabakh, Turkey provided Azerbaijan with both military-technical and powerful political support at all levels. In the Turkish media, news from the Karabakh front was the news number one. Also, an informational background was created, in which every resident of Turkey felt his involvement in this war. The victory of Azerbaijan in the Karabakh war brought also a significant bonus to the President of Turkey Mr. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his party (AKP), which significantly strengthened their positions inside the country, receiving large support of their population (Note: In the last elections AKP ceded positions in the three main cities of Turkey, such are: Ankara, Istanbul, and Izmir).

Turkey’s support for Azerbaijan also had an important foreign policy aspect. In this conflict, Turkey has once again declared itself as an important regional power in relations with both Russia and the European Union. Turkey is actively involved in regional politics at a new level with the onset of the Syrian crisis. In essence, the war in Syria left Erdogan no choice, the threat to ethnically close Turkomans and, more importantly, the serious threat from the Kurdish combatants in Syria, who was a direct continuation of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, forced Turkey to intervene, including by military means. Unlike Syria, there was no direct military threat to Turkey in Libya, but there was a threat to economic interests. The appearance of Turkish military bases in Africa (Somalia and Sudan) and, which is especially important, in Qatar also belongs to the second half of the tenth years. With the Karabakh war, the Turkish military officially formalizes its presence in the southern Caucasus. Erdoğan announced the updated plan of the “Peace and Accord in the Caucasus” platform, announced back in 2008. The plan provides for the joint responsibility of Turkey and Russia for maintaining peace and stability in the region, opening all transport communications and borders, including the border between Turkey and Armenia. However, here the Turkish President rigidly linked this issue with the recognition by Armenia of the existing status quo, and also spoke for the resignation of the current government of Armenia.

Thus, Turkey ensured military control over the security of its regional projects (Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan, Baku-Tbilisi-Kars, and South Caucasus Gas Corridor). Both Moscow and European capitals, primarily Paris, were shown that Ankara has no restrictions on the promotion and protection of its interests anywhere, including in the post-Soviet space. As a result, Ankara has created political preconditions for further promoting its interests both in Azerbaijan and in other countries of the post-Soviet space. In addition to traditional cooperation with Georgia and with the Turkic-speaking countries of Central Asia, the format of cooperation between Turkey and Ukraine is especially interesting. This format became especially active after the visit of Ukrainian President Zelensky to Ankara in October 2020, just during the active phase of the Karabakh conflict, and was confirmed at the recent Ukraine-Turkey meeting in the Quadriga format (Foreign Ministers + Defense Ministers). This is primarily about military-technical cooperation.

In conclusion, Turkey has traditionally played the role of regional power – successfully balancing East and West, and at the same time, has stayed an important member of NATO and key ally for the West. Nevertheless, the last decade has demonstrated shifts in Turkish foreign and security policy, which became more obvious after 2016. Turkish position in Karabakh fits its logic and the outcome demonstrates some success in this path.

However, it is still unclear if Turkey has learned lessons from its mistakes in the case of Egypt and the early stage in Syria. Finally, does it have enough political, economic, and military power to act as an independent actor in the wider region?

This yet remains to be seen.

Nodar Kharshiladze, Georgian Strategic Analysis Center (GSAC)

Article prepared in frames of project «Impact of the current situation in Nagorno Karabakh on Georgian`s national and regional Security», Georgia (Embassy of The Republic of Poland in Tbilisi – NATO Contact Point Embassy, The Foreign Policy Council, Georgian Strategic Analysis Center)

Nodar Kharshiladze

Co-founder of Georgian Strategic Analysis Center, former First Deputy Minister of Defense and Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs of Georgia

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