The Caucasian Cold War

The phrase ‘Cold War’ typically brings about thoughts of a worldwide geopolitical struggle. However there is a new ‘Cold War’ brewing in the Caucasus with Turkey’s growing relations in the region.

Through the new establishment of close military ties with Georgia and Azerbaijan, Turkey is showing its geostrategic goal of dominating the Caucasus region. Georgia and Azerbaijan’s individual interests that are adversarial to Russia align with Turkey’s goal of being the dominant player in the region thus beginning the Caucasian Cold War between Russia and Turkey.

Ever since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Turkey has been seeking to expand its influence in the former Soviet Republics in the Eurasian region. This has typically come through economic ventures and cultural exchanges due to many of these states having Turkish backgrounds or minorities. These moves have been of great importance to the growing Turkish economy and for the expansion of Turkish soft power within the region. However forging large scale military ties in this region highlights Turkey’s desire to secure these interests.

Turkey has much to gain economically from solidifying its relationships with Georgia and Azerbaijan. The elephant in the room of this relationship pertains to the involvement in the pipeline system from the Caspian Sea onward. In addition to this access to the pipeline there are other economic incentives that can be built upon such as the free trade agreement with Georgia. Azerbaijan also does significant trade with Turkey as well. Ensuring the security of the pipelines through these alliances will benefit Turkey most of all.

Through establishing these closer relationships with Georgia and Azerbaijan, Turkey will grow its soft power in the Caucasus region. There are few cultural links with Georgia to build upon, but keeping the Russians out is a shared interest which Turkey can build upon through this defense cooperation. Azerbaijan is a majority Muslim state, though it is Shia and Turkey is Sunni, but this and shared cultural backgrounds have already paved the way for Turkish influence in Azerbaijan. Like in Georgia, keeping the Russians out will cement Turkey’s stance in the region. Therefore Turkey is seeking to continue steering these states away from Russian and into its umbrella of influence through this defense cooperation.

Georgia has perhaps the most to gain from this defense cooperation. Having suffered a defeat from the massive Russian military in the 2008 war, with Russian forces occupying Georgian claimed lands, Georgia has been seeking further security guarantees. Before that war and after it has sought NATO membership to no avail thus far. This defense cooperation could get Georgia what it wants though.

Turkey has one of the best militaries in the world. Having a security guarantee from Turkey would ease the Georgian stress concerning their neighbor to the north. This defense cooperation accomplishes their shared goal. Turkey will increase its power in the Caucasus region through keeping Russia out. Georgia will keep Russia out through teaming up with Turkey. Although Turkey and Georgia have this shared goal, Georgia has other motives as well.

Before and after the 2008 war, Georgia has sought NATO membership to no avail. By increasing their ties with Turkey, a NATO member, Georgia will also build its rapport with the alliance. NATO’s unofficial strategy of moving into former Soviet States to deny Russian influence is in alignment with Turkey’s strategy to gain influence in the Caucasus. Therefore in addition to securing itself through Turkey, Georgia may make headway with getting its NATO membership.

Azerbaijan is set to benefit from the new defense cooperation with Turkey as well. Since its independence it has moved closer and closer to Turkey, much to Moscow’s chagrin. This has been due to the cultural links between these states. The defense cooperation will ensure the integrity of Azerbaijan’s economy and will ensure their security against Russia.

Although Azerbaijan hasn’t come into direct conflict with Russia as Georgia has, it still remains threatened. Moves away from Russia by former Soviet states such as in the Georgian or Ukrainian case have been met with aggression from Russia. This necessitates the need for Azerbaijan to ensure its security through an external backer which works for Turkey since it wants to increase its own influence in the region.

The main security concern for Azerbaijan comes from Armenia. Conflicts in the 1990s and recent border clashes still are fresh wounds in Azerbaijan. Having a defense relationship with a regional power like Turkey will act as a deterrent for Azerbaijan. This deterrent is particularly in regards to Armenia’s relationship with Russia that involves large amounts of Russian troops being stationed in Armenia. Therefore similarly to the Georgian case, Azerbaijan and Turkey both want to keep the Russians out to ensure security and influence in the Caucasus respectively.

Ever since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia has sought to retain influence in the former Soviet republics. This has been done through attempts at forging economic ties and alliances. This has also been done through shows of force and aggression. Being that this has been the Russian modus operandi since the end of the Soviet Union, this behavior has set the stage for this Caucasian Cold War.

Russia has been linked to both Georgia and Azerbaijan since Soviet times. As time has passed, like other former Soviet states, Georgia and Azerbaijan have moved further and further away. Russia went to war with Georgia in 2008 in part due to Georgian movement away from Russia which has created a permanent strain upon their relationship. In 2014 this occurred in Ukraine as well. Both of these cases still have unresolved grievances though the guns have fallen silent in Georgia and not Ukraine. Being that Russia is willing to use force to get what it wants, it only makes sense for former Soviet states to seek external security guarantees.

Russia has been seeking to be the preeminent power in the Caucasus region since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. This has been done through courting Georgia and Azerbaijan economically, but to no avail. It has also been done militarily through the 2008 war with Georgia and the military ties with Azerbaijan’s rival Armenia. Also since the end of the Soviet Union, Turkey has been seeking to increase its influence in the Caucasus. Up until now this influence was restricted to economic and some cultural links. However since Turkey now has a defense agreement with Georgia and Azerbaijan, the wheels are in motion for a Caucasian Cold War. Only time will tell how Russia reacts to the growing Turkish influence in the region. At a minimum this Caucasian Cold War will pit Russia against Turkey through these states, despite their Turkish leaning, but Russia has shown recently that it is willing to use force to retain influence in its former Soviet territories.