Monday, June 01, 2020

Russia–Turkey Strategic Rivalry in the South Caucasus

Focus: Madrid Principles of Nagorno Karabakh Conflict Settlement

Russia–Turkey Strategic Rivalry in the South Caucasus

By Dr. Benyamin Poghosyan
Chairman, Center for Political and Economic Strategic Studies, Yerevan, Armenia

Despite the COVID-19 outbreak, recently Russia has made fresh efforts to push forward the phased approach solution in Nagorno Karabakh. This solution is based on the so-called “Madrid principles and six basic elements” first publicized by the Russian, US, and French Presidents’ July 2009 statement. However, the phased approach solution traces back to late 1997 when apparent push by OSCE Co-Chair states to reach an agreement resulted in the resignation of the first President of Armenia. After 6 years break, this logic again appeared to have dominated the settlement process since 2004. Six elements envisage the withdrawal of Nagorno Karabakh Republic’s forces from more than 50 percent of its territory, deployment of peacekeeping forces, and the final determination of Karabakh status by legally binding expression of will. However, neither date nor the modalities for that procedure have been determined and left to be decided during future negotiations. These ideas had been supported by all three Co-Chair states, but it was Russia that put tremendous efforts to push forward this solution in 2009-2011. 

Then Russian President Medvedev organized more than 10 trilateral summits with the participation of Armenian and Azerbaijani Presidents. Nevertheless, the failure of the June 2011 Kazan summit seemed to have shattered any hopes that the Madrid document may ever bring peace to Nagorno Karabakh. The April 2016 Azerbaijani failed large-scale attack against the Nagorno Karabakh Republic brought about some changes in negotiations. Instead of talk on force withdrawal and deployment of peacekeepers the confidence and security-building measures started to dominate the process. The implementation of Vienna and Saint Petersburg agreements on launching of OSCE ceasefire investigation mechanisms and expansion of OSCE Monitoring mission implemented by the Office of the Personal Representative of the OSCE Chairperson-in-Office were among key topics of several rounds of negotiations held within May 2016 – May 2018 period.

Despite the lack of any meaningful progress in these areas, Russia has apparently activated its efforts to push forward the implementation of the phased approach. In his April 21, 2020 statement Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov mentioned that a new document was delivered to Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers during April 2019 meeting in Moscow. Mr. Lavrov did not disclose all the details, but it was apparent that this document was based on the same ideas circulating since 2004. Armenia and the Nagorno Karabakh Republic again are offered to destroy the hardly created security fortification around Karabakh only to receive promises of opening up communications and holding a referendum in indefinite future to determine the final legal status of Karabakh. Apparently, both Armenian republics are offered to capitulate, as an agreement based on the “Land for Promise” formula equals to nothing less than capitulation.

Some experts argue that Russia is interested in the deployment of its peacekeepers alongside the new line of contact which will be established after the withdrawal of Karabakh forces from current positions. This will give Russia tangible additional leverages over Azerbaijan and will provide an opportunity to control parts of the Azerbaijan – Iran border. According to this logic, these gains are sufficient for Russia to force Armenia to accept this solution. However, this scenario will bring significant changes in the geopolitics of the South Caucasus, and surprisingly, the winner would be not Russia but Turkey.

Despite recent ups and downs in Russia – Turkey relations, two states clearly view each other as strategic competitors in the South Caucasus. Russia is interested in restricting any foreign power influence in the region as Kremlin views the South Caucasus as a part of its legitimate spheres of influence. The key contenders with Russia in the region are the US, EU, and Turkey. Iran has vast interests in the region and perceives it as a part of common Iranian cultural areal. However, Tehran is embroiled in a strategic rivalry with Israel and Saudi Arabia in the Middle East. Simultaneously Iran faces a maximum pressure campaign from the US. Thus, Iran has no resources to be actively involved in the region and Tehran’s concern is to prevent the usage of the South Caucasus as a launchpad for any type of anti-Iranian activities. As for China, Beijing has just started to reach the region and lacks both resources and intentions to compete with Moscow.

Thus, the key competitors of Moscow in the South Caucasus are the US, EU, and Turkey. Americans are actively involved in Georgia both bilaterally and through NATO – Georgia cooperation. The US supports Azerbaijan in its efforts to bring its gas and oil to the world market circumventing Russia. The main mechanism of EU policy in the region is the Eastern Partnership program. Georgia signed an Association Agreement with DCFTA and Armenia signed a Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Program with the EU. However, the EU is mainly economic and normative player in the region and lacks hard power capacities, while the US, despite its firm positions in the region, does not view the South Caucasus as the area of its vital interests. The region is perceived in Washington through the lenses of its Russian policy. Meanwhile, the main area of the US – Russia confrontation in post – Soviet space is Ukraine and a large part of American resources are being deployed there.
Thus, the key contender of Russia in the region is Turkey. Turkey has a historic connection with region since the Ottoman times and has been a strategic competitor of Russia in the last 300 years. Despite its recent history of turbulent relations with the US, Turkey is and in the foreseeable future will be the key NATO member and the US views Turkey as an effective conduit to implement its policy in the South Caucasus. Not surprisingly the US supports the Azerbaijan-Georgia-Turkey alliance, which has clear anti-Russia features. Turkey has systemically increased its economic influence in Georgia which has effectively been transformed into the transit corridor to connect Azerbaijan and Turkey through the network of pipelines and highways. The Russia – Georgia tensions clearly contribute to Turkey’s goal of strengthening its positions in Georgia.

However, the asset of Turkey in the South Caucasus is not Georgia but Azerbaijan. They share ethnic and language similarities which have been emphasized by the former Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliyev’s famous slogan “One nation, two states”. However, Ankara – Baku's strategic relations have much wider implications. Both states were at the roots of the establishment of the Cooperation Council of Turkic speaking states, an intergovernmental organization created in 2009 and uniting Azerbaijan, Turkey, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan as full members and Hungary as observe state. This organization is an embodiment of Turkey’s desire to gain strategic influence in Central Asia and unite Turkic speaking states' capacities. Given the growing Chinese influence in Central Asia where Beijing has surpassed Russia in terms of economy and has gradually increased its military sales there, this organization may be used by the USA as an important tool in pushing forward its anti-China policies in the region. Another role of this organization could be to trigger anti-China protests in the Xinjiang autonomous region of China on behalf of another Turkic speaking people - Uyghurs. Meanwhile, the growing number of Muslim populations in Russia, mainly concentrated in the North Caucasus and Tatarstan, makes this organization an effective tool to trigger also instability in southern parts of Russia.

However, Turkey lacks a direct connection with Central Asia and the missing point for Ankara is Armenia and the Nagorno Karabakh Republic. Currently, Turkey has approximately 10 km of land border with Nakhijevan Autonomous Region, an Azerbaijani exclave surrounded by Armenia and Iran. Meanwhile, Armenia and the Nagorno Karabakh Republic separate Nakhijevan from mainland Azerbaijan by some 180 km of land (45 km territory of Armenia and 135 km territory of Nagorno Karabakh Republic). Not surprisingly, the inaugural summit of the Cooperation Council of Turkic speaking states was organized in Nakhijevan, and very often Azerbaijani leadership speaks about Armenia and the Nagorno Karabakh Republic as the only obstacles for the unification of Turkish world spanning from Turkey till the borders of China.

Meanwhile, the basic principles of the Karabakh conflict settlement supported also by Russia, envisages the withdrawal of Nagorno Karabakh's forces from the 135 km of Nagorno Karabakh Republic – Iran border and establishment of Azerbaijani control over those territories. Thus, this will significantly contribute to the realization of Turkey’s dreams to unite the Turkic world under Ankara’s leadership making small 45 km of Armenia’s territory as the only land separating Turkey from Azerbaijan and Central Asia. These developments will boost Azerbaijan’s positions in the region which in turn means a strategic increase of Turkish influence in the South Caucasus. In this case, Turkey will be much better positioned to compete with Russia in the region. Kremlin believes that the possible deployment of Russian peacekeepers in these territories will curb Turkish ambitions and create an effective barrier for Turkish expansion. Russian position may seem reasonable, however, from a strategic perspective, there are no guarantees for the indefinite deployment of Russian forces in those territories.

Meanwhile, such developments will significantly weaken the only ally of Russia in the region – Armenia. Given the history of Armenia – Turkey relations, Ankara’s denial to recognize the Armenian Genocide organized in the last years of the Ottoman Empire, and its unequivocal support to Azerbaijan during the Nagorno Karabakh conflict, the vital national interests of Armenia require the prevention of increase of Turkish influence in the South Caucasus. Thus, Armenia and the Nagorno Karabakh Republic are objectively interested in keeping Azerbaijan and Turkey separated, otherwise they both may face another threat of Genocide.

Meanwhile, if Armenia and the Nagorno Karabakh Republic will be forced to accept the Madrid principles and basic elements, it will not only strategically endanger their geostrategic positions but will significantly decrease the importance of the alliance with Russia. It will strengthen those forces in Armenia and the Nagorno Karabakh Republic which argue for the strategic reevaluation of Armenia – Russia relations and the end of Armenia – Russia alliance. Meanwhile, it should be noted that the implementation of Madrid's basic principles will not permanently solve the Karabakh conflict, as disagreements over the time and modalities of the future referendum most probably will derail any possibility of lasting peace. It will only destabilize the situation, embolden Azerbaijan, and make Armenia and Karabakh more un-secure.

Thus, by pushing forward Madrid principles, Russia paradoxically may only increase the influence of its strategic competitor in the South Caucasus. Moscow will significantly weaken its own positions, and will effectively end its alliance with Armenia. We may only wonder if Russian policymakers strategically damage Kremlin’s positions in the South Caucasus amidst the growing global instability and the rising era of great power competition.

About the Author:

Dr. Benyamin Poghosyan
Dr. Benyamin Poghosyan is Founder and Chairman, Center for Political and Economic Strategic Studies and also, Executive Director, Political Science Association of Armenia since 2011. He was Vice President for Research – Head of the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense Research University in Armenia in August 2016 – February 2019. He joined Institute for National Strategic Studies (predecessor of NDRU) in March 2009 as a Research Fellow and was appointed as INSS Deputy Director for research in November 2010. Before this, he was the Foreign Policy Adviser of the Speaker of the National Assembly of Armenia. Dr. Poghosyan has also served as a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of History of the National Academy of Sciences and was an adjunct professor at Yerevan State University and in the European Regional Educational Academy.

His primary research areas are the geopolitics of the South Caucasus and the Middle East, US – Russian relations and their implications for the region. He is the author of more than 70 Academic papers and OP-EDs in different leading Armenian and international journals. In 2013, Dr. Poghosyan was appointed as a "Distinguished Research Fellow" at the US National Defense University - College of International Security Affairs and also, he is a graduate from the US State Department's Study of the US Institutes for Scholars 2012 Program on US National Security policymaking. He holds a Ph.D. in History and is a graduate from the 2006 Tavitian Program on International Relations at Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. 

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DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this insight piece are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the IndraStra Global.