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Moscow’s Caucasian Conundrum: Turkish-Russian Relations and the Limits of “Strategic Competition”

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Authors: Pietro Shakarian and Benyamin Poghosyan*

Russo–Turkish relations have been at the forefront of recent media discussions. Cooperative competition, “frenemies,” managed rivalry, “co-opetition,” and other catchy terms are used to describe bilateral relations between Moscow and Ankara. However, the reality is that the two countries have both overlapping, and yet contradictory, interests in many parts of the world. Of these, the most critical for Russia is the post-Soviet space, and the Caucasus in particular.

Managing Competition in Moscow’s Backyard

Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Russian Federation has viewed the entire post-Soviet space as a zone of its critical national security interest. Therefore, Moscow seeks to restrict the influence of other regional and global actors—in particular, that of the United States and the NATO military alliance. The Kremlin has consistently viewed the eastward expansion of NATO with considerable alarm, perceiving it as a violation of the trust in U.S.-Russian relations built during the Gorbachev-Reagan “détente” of the late 1980s. In keeping with that history, Moscow is very suspicious of the activities of any NATO member state in its immediate neighborhood. Turkey is no exception in this regard.

Ankara made its first foray into the Caucasus after 1991, with particular focus on developing relations with Azerbaijan. The ethnic and linguistic bonds with Baku served as an ideal basis for this policy. With the active support of war hawks in Washington, a network of gas and oil pipelines was built to bring Azerbaijani energy resources to the West through both Turkey and Georgia, an aspiring member of NATO. The aim, essentially, was to undermine Russia’s natural position as the dominant energy provider for Europe, and by extension, to weaken Russia’s position in other post-Soviet states, primarily in Ukraine and in Belarus. From the view of Washington war hawks keen on “containing Russia,” this East-West energy corridor would ideally extend further east. That is, it would extend across the Caspian, into the energy-rich post-Soviet Central Asia, especially Turkmenistan, home to the fifth largest reserve of natural gas in the world. The ultimate aim would be for NATO to surround Russia on its borders.

This vision directly clashes with the view commonly held in Moscow, which perceives the Caucasus as a vital part of its Eurasian underbelly. Of particular concern to the Kremlin is its volatile North Caucasus region. Therefore, it seeks to develop strong, and ideally allied, relations with its three neighbors to the south—the post-Soviet republics of Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia. Of these, Georgia is the most critical for Moscow. However, given the Kremlin’s fraught relations with Tbilisi due to its Euro-Atlantic aspirations and the conflicts over Abkhazia and South Ossetia, a full restoration of ties is unlikely to occur in the near future. Moscow has been able to maintain better relations with Baku. However, here, too, relations with the “Kuwait on the Caspian” have not always been reliable. Its close ties with NATO member Turkey, its leading role in Western-backed energy projects, and the anti-Russian current in Azerbaijani nationalist discourse have prevented relations from developing to an optimal level.

By contrast, Moscow maintains its strongest relationship in the region with Armenia, which depends on Russian security as a “vahan” (the Armenian term for “shield”) against Turkey. Since the 1990s, Yerevan has developed a strategic alliance with Moscow, hosting a Russian military base at the northern city of Gyumri and entering the CSTO and Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). Given the deep-rooted tensions between the U.S. and Iran, Tehran supports Russian policy in the region, including its alliance with Armenia. Support for this position enhances Iran’s security against possible efforts by the U.S. to use the Caucasus as a launchpad against Iranian territory.

Consequently, the region’s geopolitics has evolved into a tacit confrontation of two competing blocs—the U.S.-supported Turkey-Azerbaijan-Georgia East-West bloc vs. the Moscow-backed Russia-Armenia-Iran North-South bloc. This equilibrium has also played a decisive role in the settlements of regional conflicts. After the 2008 war in Georgia, Moscow recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Meanwhile, conventional wisdom told the Kremlin that it should prevent any drastic change of the status quo in Nagorno-Karabakh in favor of Azerbaijan to prevent an increase of Turkey’s influence.

Moreover, although Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili sought to cement Georgia as part of the East-West bloc, the Georgian Dream government has sought to mend ties with Moscow, a process that has seen both successes and limits. In late 2015 and early 2016, Georgia’s then-Energy Minister (now Tbilisi Mayor) Kakha Kaladze even explored the possibility of participating in the North-South bloc by forging stronger energy ties with Moscow and Tehran. In April 2016, Russia, Georgia, Armenia, and Iran signed an agreement in Yerevan to establish an energy corridor by 2019, which would sharply increase electricity supplies among them. However, domestic pressures within Georgia, especially from Saakashvili’s party, have prevented a major shift toward a more independent, multi-vectored policy in Tbilisi.

Turkish Delight or Turkish Nightmare?

The second decade of the 21 st century posed new challenges for Moscow in the region. The primary agents of change were the significant deterioration of Russia-West relations amid the 2014 Ukraine crisis and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s policy to transform Turkey into an independent regional player. Although Ankara sought to assert a separate position from the United States, it still found itself on the same side of U.S. policy on the Syrian Civil War, albeit with different aims than Washington. Turkish-Russian competition in Syria was especially intense, culminating in the Turkish shootdown of a Russian Sukhoi Su-24 over the Syrian airspace on 24 November 2015.

The Sukhoi incident marked the lowest ebb in the Russo-Turkish relations since the end of the First World War. It demonstrated how easily a complex conflict like the Syrian war could drift into a “nuclear war by accident.” For months afterwards, Russo-Turkish relations continued to bubble with antagonism. Russian overtures to the Kurds of Turkey and Syria were met by Turkish overtures toward the Crimean Tatars and support for Azerbaijan in its Four-Day War over Nagorno-Karabakh. However, Moscow and Ankara managed to move beyond the animosity and toward rapprochement, a process that intensified after the failed military coup attempt in Turkey in July 2016. The launch of Astana format in Syria, the purchase of S-400 systems, the Turkish Stream gas pipeline, and the Akkuyu nuclear power plant were primary examples of an emerging understanding between Moscow and Ankara.

Nevertheless, in many, if not most areas, interests between the two countries continued to contradict and conflict, most notably with regard to the fate of Idlib and northeastern Syria and the situation in Libya. This complex maze of coinciding and contradicting interests was governed by unspoken ground rules between the two sides, in order to avoid another entanglement on the scale of the Sukhoi shootdown. One of those rules was Ankara’s unconditional acceptance of Moscow’s dominant position in the post-Soviet space.

However, Erdogan’s frustrations with Moscow in the Syrian and Libyan theatres led him to do the unthinkable—violate this rule in the fraught conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh between Azerbaijan and the Armenia-allied Karabakh Armenians. His flagrant intervention in the post-Soviet space amid the COVID pandemic paid significant political dividends. Erdogan’s “quick war” in the Caucasus strengthened his position at home, while critically weakening Russia’s main strategic ally in the region (Armenia) and thus Moscow’s regional standing generally. Overall, a combination of NATO military tactics, Turkish Bayraktars, and Armenian incompetence proved to be fatally decisive factors in Karabakh.

Nevertheless, Russia was able to prevent the full takeover of Nagorno-Karabakh by Azerbaijan through the 10 November 2020 trilateral statement, which saw the deployment of its peacekeepers in what remained of the Armenian Karabakh. However, this outcome has been tenuously unstable. The Russian peacekeepers face manifold challenges, including the constant work of defusing recurring Armenian-Azerbaijani clashes. The number of Karabakh Armenian refugees who have returned to their homes has been limited. Moreover, with Armenia’s cession of the vital districts of Kelbajar and Lachin to Azerbaijan, only a single, narrow road (the Lachin corridor) connects the Russian peacekeepers to the Russian forces in Armenia, placing them in the same security dilemma that the Karabakh Armenians faced in the 1990s.

Meanwhile, the war has emboldened Ankara. In the Black Sea basin, Erdogan cast aside his conflicts with Washington to assist Ukraine in the NATO-led effort to increase pressure on Russia in Donbass. Across the Black Sea, while Georgia is preoccupied by Saakashvili’s latest antics, Ankara-backed Azerbaijan continues to launch new provocations against Armenia and Karabakh, taking advantage of a politically weak prime minister. Demanding from Yerevan uncontrolled access to Turkey via the southern Syunik province (the so-called “Zangezur corridor”), Baku has implemented a strategy of military coercion and blackmail penetrating Armenian territories inch by inch. Although some Russian commentators have raised the idea of a “Zangezur corridor” guarded by Russian troops, replicating the Lachin corridor arrangements, such an approach would only serve as a springboard for the Turkish influence to expand in the post-Soviet space. Meanwhile, across the Caspian, Baku, again with Turkish support, has worked to bolster relations with Turkmenistan and extend the East-West energy corridor into Central Asia. Indeed, despite its increasingly tenuous economy, Ankara appears to be playing a leading role in NATO’s effort to encircle Russia.

Although Moscow’s position in the region remains firm, Kremlin elites are becoming increasingly wary of Ankara’s efforts to project its influence along Russian borders. Russian Presidential Spokesman Dmitry Peskov was jokingly dismissive of Erdogan’s display of a map of a vast pan-Turkic world with a nationalist political ally. However, beneath the cool self-confidence, many in the Kremlin are becoming increasingly frustrated with Ankara’s comportment. Indeed, the threats are significant. Between Ankara’s actions and a growing NATO build-up in Ukraine, Moscow faces one of the greatest security challenges it has confronted since 1991. How Russian President Vladimir Putin and his administration will deal with it remains to be seen. One thing is very clear: the Kremlin’s patience is not infinite.

*Benyamin Poghosyan, Chairman, Center for Political and Economic Strategic Studies

From our partner RIAC

PhD candidate in History at The Ohio State University in Columbus, focusing on Russia, Eurasia and Caucasus, MA in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor

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Putin’s post-Soviet world remains a work in progress, but Africa already looms

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Russian civilisationalism is proving handy as President Vladimir Putin seeks to expand the imaginary boundaries of his Russian World, whose frontiers are defined by Russian speakers and adherents to Russian culture rather than international law and/or ethnicity.

Mr. Putin’s disruptive and expansive nationalist ideology has underpinned his aggressive

 approach to Ukraine since 2014 with the annexation of Crimea and the stoking of insurgencies in the east of the country. It also underwrites this month’s brief intervention in Kazakhstan, even if it was in contrast to Ukraine at the invitation of the Kazakh government.

Mr. Putin’s nationalist push in territories that were once part of the Soviet Union may be par for the course even if it threatens to rupture relations between Russia and the West and potentially spark a war. It helps Russia compensate for the strategic depth it lost with the demise of communism in Europe and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

However, equally alarmingly, Mr. Putin appears to be putting building blocks in place that would justify expanding his Russian World in one form or another beyond the boundaries of the erstwhile Soviet Union.

In doing so, he demonstrates the utility of employing plausibly deniable mercenaries not only for military and geopolitical but also ideological purposes.

Standing first in line is the Central African Republic. A resource-rich but failed state that has seen its share of genocidal violence and is situated far from even the most expansive historical borders of the Russian empire, the republic could eventually qualify to be part of the Russian world, according to Mr. Putin’s linguistic and cultural criteria.

Small units of the Wagner Group, a private military company owned by one of Mr. Putin’s close associates, entered the Centra African Republic once departing French troops handed over to a United Nations peacekeeping force in 2016. Five years later, Wagner has rights to mine the country’s gold and diamond deposits.

Perhaps surprisingly, the Russian mercenary presence persuaded President Faustin-Archange Touadera that the African republic should embrace Russian culture.

As a result, university students have been obliged to follow Russian-language classes starting as undergraduates in their first year until their second year of post-graduate studies. The mandate followed the introduction of Russian in the republic’s secondary school curriculum in 2019.

Mr. Touadera is expected to ask Mr. Putin for Russian-language instructors during a forthcoming visit to Moscow to assist in the rollout.

Neighbouring Mali could be next in line to follow in Mr. Touadera’s footsteps.

Last month, units of the Wagner Group moved into the Sahel nation at the request of a government led by army generals who have engineered two coups in nine months. The generals face African and Western sanctions that could make incorporating what bits of the country they control into the Russian world an attractive proposition.

While it is unlikely that Mr. Putin would want to formally welcome sub-Saharan and Sahel states into his Russian world, it illustrates the pitfalls of a redefinition of internationally recognised borders as civilisational and fluid rather than national, fixed, and legally enshrined.

For now, African states do not fit Mr. Putin’s bill of one nation as applied to Ukraine or Belarus. However, using linguistics as a monkey wrench, he could, overtime or whenever convenient, claim them as part of the Russian world based on an acquired language and cultural affinity.

Mr. Putin’s definition of a Russian world further opens the door to a world in which the principle of might is right runs even more rampant with the removal of whatever flimsy guard rails existed.

To accommodate the notion of a Russian world, Russian leaders, going back more than a decade, have redefined Russian civilisation as multi-ethnic rather than ethically Russia.

The Central African Republic’s stress on Russian-language education constitutes the first indication in more than a decade that Mr. Putin and some of his foreign allies may expand the Russian world’s civilisational aspects beyond the erstwhile Soviet Union.

Some critics of Mr. Putin’s concept of a Russian world note that Western wars allegedly waged out of self-defense and concern for human rights were also about power and geopolitical advantage.

For example, pundit Peter Beinart notes that NATO-led wars in Serbia, Afghanistan, and Libya “also extended American power and smashed Russian allies at the point of a gun.”

The criticism doesn’t weaken the legitimacy of the US and Western rejection of Russian civilisationalism. However, it does undermine the United States’ ability to claim the moral high ground.

It further constrains Western efforts to prevent the emergence of a world in which violation rather than the inviolability of national borders become the accepted norm.

If Russian interventionism aims to change borders, US interventionism often sought to change regimes. That is one driver of vastly different perceptions of the US role in the world, including Russian distrust of the post-Soviet NATO drive into Eastern Europe and independent former Soviet states such as Ukraine.

“People with more experience of the dark side of American power—people whose families hail from Guatemala, Chile, Brazil, Haiti, or Mexico, where US guns have sabotaged democracy rather than defended it—might find it easier to understand Russian suspicions. But those Americans tend not to shape US policy towards places like Ukraine,” Mr. Beinart said.

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Neighbours and Crises: New Challenges for Russia

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Through all the discussions that accompanied the preparation of the Valdai Club report “Space Without Borders: Russia and Its Neighbours”, the most clear question was whether Russia should or should not avoid repeating the historical experience of relations with its near abroad. This experience, in the most general terms, is that after Russia pacifies its western border with its foreign policy, the Russian state inevitably must turn to issues related to the existence of its immediate neighbourhood. With a high degree of probability, it will be forced to turn to its centuries-old method for solving problems that arise there: expansion for the sake of ensuring security.

Now Russia’s near abroad consists of a community of independent states that cannot ensure their own security and survival by relying only on their own forces; we cannot be completely sure of their stability. From Estonia in the west to Kyrgyzstan in the east, the existence of these countries in a competitive international environment is ensured by their link with one of the nuclear superpowers. Moreover, such connections can only complement each other with great difficulty. As the recent developments in Kazakhstan have demonstrated, they are not limited to the threat of an external invasion; even internal circumstances can become deadly.

The dramatic events in that country were intensified by external interference from the geostrategic opponents of Russia, as well as international terrorists, but it would be disingenuous to argue that their most important causes are not exclusively internal and man-made. We cannot and should not judge whether the internal arrangements of our neighbours are good or bad, since we ourselves do not have ideal recipes or examples. However, when dealing with the consequences, it is rational to fear that their statehood will either be unable to survive, or that their existence will take place in forms that create dangers which Russia cannot ignore.

In turn, the events experienced now in relations between Russia and the West, if we resort to historical analogies, look like a redux of the Northern War. The Great Northern War arose at the beginning of the 18th century as the result of the restoration of Russia’s power capabilities; the West had made great progress in approaching the heart of its territory. Within the framework of this logic, victory, even tactical victory, in the most important (Western) direction will inevitably force Russia to turn to its borders. Moreover, the reasons for paying more attention to them are obvious. This will present Russia with the need to decide on how much it is willing to participate in the development of its neighbours.

The developments in Kazakhstan in early January 2022 showed the objective limits of the possibilities of building a European-style sovereign state amid new, historical, and completely different geopolitical circumstances. More or less all the countries of the space that surrounds Russia, from the Baltic to the Pamir, are unique experiments that arose amid the truly phenomenal orderliness of conditions after the end of the Cold War. In that historical era, the world really developed under conditions where a general confidence prevailed that the absolute dominance of one power and a group of its allies creates conditions for the survival of small and medium-sized states, even in the absence of objective reasons for this.

The idea of the “end of history” was so convincing that we could accept it as a structural factor, so powerful that it would allow us to overcome even the most severe objective circumstances.

The Cold War era created the experience of the emergence and development of new countries, which until quite recently had been European colonies. Despite the fact that there are a few “success stories” among the countries that emerged after 1945, few have been able to get out of the catch-up development paradigm. However, it was precisely 30 years ago that there really was a possibility that a unipolar world would be so stable that it would allow the experiment to come to fruition. The visible recipes of the new states being built were ideal from an abstract point of view, just as Victor Frankenstein was guided by a desire for the ideal.

Let us recall that the main idea of our report was that Russia needs to preserve the independence of the states surrounding it and direct all its efforts to ensure that they become effective powers, eager to survive. This desire for survival is seen as the main condition for rational behaviour, i.e. creating a foreign policy, which takes into account the geopolitical conditions and the power composition of Eurasia. In other words, we believe that Russia is interested in the experiment that emerged within the framework of the Liberal World Order taking place under new conditions, since its own development goals dictate that it avoid repeating its past experience of full control over its neighbours, with which it shares a single geopolitical space.

This idea, let’s not hide it, prompted quite convincing criticism, based on the belief that the modern world does not create conditions for the emergence of states where such an experience is absent in more or less convincing forms. For Russia, the challenge is that even if it is technically capable of ensuring the immediate security of its national territory, the spread of the “grey zone” around its borders will inevitably bring problems that the neighbours themselves are not able to solve.

The striking analogy proposed by one colleague was the “hallway of hell” that Russia may soon face on its southern borders, making us raise the question that the absence of topographic boundaries within this space makes it necessary to create artificial political or even civilisational lines, the protection of which in any case will be entrusted to the Russian soldier. This January we had the opportunity to look into this “hallway of hell”. There is no certainty that the instant collapse of a state close to Russia in the darkest periods of its political history should be viewed as a failure in development, rather than a systemic breakdown of the entire trajectory, inevitable because it took shape amid completely different conditions.

Therefore, now Russia should not try to understand what its further strategy might be; in any case, particular behaviour will be determined by circumstances. Our task is to explore the surrounding space in order to understand where Russia can stop if it does not want to resort to the historical paradigm of its behaviour. The developments in Kazakhstan, in their modern form, do not create any grounds for optimism or hopes for a return to an inertial path of development. Other states may follow Ukraine and Kazakhstan even if they now look quite confident. There are no guarantees — and it would be too great a luxury for Russia to accept such a fate.

This is primarily because the Russian state will inevitably face a choice between being ready for several decades of interaction with a huge “grey zone” along the perimeter of its borders and more energetic efforts to prevent its emergence. It is unlikely that Moscow would simply observe the processes taking place on its immediate periphery. This is not a hypothetical invasion of third forces — that does not pose any significant threat to Russia. The real challenge may be that in a few decades, or sooner, Moscow will have to take on an even greater responsibility, which Russia got rid of in 1991. Even now, there seems to be a reason to believe that thirty years of independence have made it possible to create elements of statehood that can be preserved and developed with the help of Russia.

from our partner RIAC

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Do as You’re Told, Russia Tells the Neighborhood

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The Kremlin has always argued that it has special interests and ties to what once constituted the Soviet space. Yet it struggled to produce a smooth mechanism for dealing with the neighborhood, where revolutionary movements toppled Soviet and post-Soviet era political elites. Popular movements in Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova, Kyrgyzstan, and most recently Kazakhstan have flowered and sometimes triumphed despite the Kremlin’s rage.

Russia’s responses have differed in each case, although it has tended to foster separatism in neighboring states to preclude their westward aspirations. As a policy, this was extreme and rarely generated support for its actions, even from allies and partners. The resultant tensions underlined the lack of legitimacy and generated acute fear even in friendlier states that Russia one day could turn against them.

But with the activation of the hitherto largely moribund six-nation Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in Kazakhstan seems to be an entirely different matter. Here, for the first time since its Warsaw Pact invasions, Russia employed an element of multilateralism. This was designed to show that the intervention was an allied effort, though it was Russia that pulled the strings and contributed most of the military force.

CSTO activation is also about something else. It blurred the boundaries between Russia’s security and the security of neighboring states. President Vladimir Putin recently stated the situation in Kazakhstan concerned “us all,” thereby ditching the much-cherished “Westphalian principles” of non-intervention in the internal affairs of neighboring states. The decision was also warmly welcomed by China, another Westphalia enthusiast.

In many ways, Russia always wanted to imitate the US, which in its unipolar moment used military power to topple regimes (in Afghanistan and Iraq) and to restore sovereignty (in Kuwait.) Liberal internationalism with an emphasis on human rights allowed America and its allies to operate with a certain level of legitimacy and to assert (a not always accepted) moral imperative. Russia had no broader ideas to cite. Until now. Upholding security and supporting conservative regimes has now become an official foreign policy tool. Protests in Belarus and Kazakhstan helped the Kremlin streamline this vision.

Since Russia considers its neighbors unstable (something it often helps to bring about), the need for intervention when security is threatened will now serve as a new dogma, though this does not necessarily mean that CSTO will now exclusively serve as the spearhead of Russian interventionist policy in crises along its borders. On the contrary, Russia will try to retain maneuverability and versatility. The CSTO option will be one weapon in the Kremlin’s neighborhood pacification armory.

Another critical element is the notion of “limited sovereignty,” whereby Russia allows its neighbors to exercise only limited freedom in foreign policy. This is a logical corollary, since maneuverability in their relations with other countries might lead to what the Kremlin considers incorrect choices, like joining Western military or economic groupings.

More importantly, the events in Kazakhstan also showed that Russia is now officially intent on upholding the conservative-authoritarian regimes. This fits into a broader phenomenon of authoritarians helping other authoritarians. Russia is essentially exporting its own model abroad. The export includes essential military and economic help to shore up faltering regimes.

The result is a virtuous circle, in the Kremlin’s eyes. Not only can it crush less than friendly governments in its borderlands but it also wins extensive influence, including strategic and economic benefits. Take for instance Belarus, where with Russian help, the dictator Aliaksandr Lukashenka managed to maintain his position after 2020’s elections through brutality and vote-rigging. The end result is that the regime is ever-more beholden to Russia, abandoning remnants of its multi-vector foreign policy and being forced to make financial and economic concessions of defense and economics to its new master. Russia is pressing hard for a major new airbase.

A similar scenario is now opening up in Kazakhstan. The country which famously managed to strike a balance between Russia and China and even work with the US, while luring multiple foreign investors, will now have to accept a new relationship with Russia. It will be similar to Belarus, short of integration talks.

Russia fears crises, but it has also learned to exploit them. Its new approach is a very striking evolution from the manner in which it handled Georgia and Ukraine in 2008 and 2014, through the Belarus and Armenia-Azerbaijan crises in 2020 to the Kazakh uprising of 2022.

Russia has a new vision for its neighborhood. It is in essence a concept of hierarchical order with Russia at the top of the pyramid. The neighbors have to abide by the rules. Failure to do so would produce a concerted military response.

Author’s note: first published in cepa

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