The Time of Troubles in Transcaucasia – Part 1
Blog Indian Punchline, 01.10.2020 M.K. Bhadrakumar, ex diplomáico y columnista indio
Three days into the renewed conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh in the Transcaucasian region — also known as South Caucasus — it is becoming clear that the binary narrative dished out by western commentators of this being a Turkish-Russian clash of wills and strategies is either simply naive or purposively deceptive. The point is, Russia and Turkey — and Iran in a somewhat supportive role — are already proactively talking of negotiations involving the warring sides.
September 30 has been a turning point of sorts. Tehran had on the previous day called on Azerbaijan and Armenia to settle the differences peacefully and offered that along with Turkey and Russia, it can help the two countries to resolve their differences.
President Hassan Rouhani since repeated this offer in a phone conversation with Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. According to the Iranian account, Pashinyan responded positively that “any tension and conflict would be to the detriment of all countries in the region and welcomed any practical initiative to stop the violence.”
Armenia is a land-locked country and it depends on Iran to provide a vital transportation route to the outside world. On its part, Tehran kept up a warm relationship with Armenia (although its rival Azerbaijan is a Muslim country), even supplying it with natural gas.
Tehran stuck to the friendly track even after the “colour revolution” in Armenia in 2018 and Pashinyan’s steady gravitation to the American camp in the subsequent period, while also remaining a member of the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation. (See my articles in Asia Times — A color revolution in the Caucasus puts Russia in a dilemma dated May 9, 2018 and a second piece dated August 8, 2018 titled Color Revolution in the Caucasus rattles Russian leaders.)
Iran has profound security concerns over Pashinyan’s recent diplomatic exchanges with Israel (at the initiative of the White House), which of course has brought the famed Israeli intelligence apparatus Mossad right on to Iran’s northern borders (in addition to the potential Mossad presence in the UAE, Bahrain and Oman on Iran’s southern flank.)
Turkey too has reason to be concerned over Israel’s activities in Transcaucasia. Israel is virtually piggy-riding the US-sponsored colour revolutions in Transcaucasia. Following the US-sponsored colour revolution in Georgia in 2003, Israel overnight made its appearance in Tbilisi. And the Israel-Georgia ties have since become very close.
Despite the failure of the colour revolution in Azerbaijan in mid-2005 and the sporadic attempts since then, Israel has developed close “security cooperation” with that country. Further north, Israel has developed special relations with Ukraine, another progeny of the colour revolution, which also has a president who is an ethnic Jew who is actively involved also in the ongoing colour revolution in Belarus. (The strange part is that notwithstanding the company that Israel keeps in the Black Sea region, which is virulently anti-Russian, it still enjoys exceptionally close ties with Russia!)
Both Turkey and Iran understand perfectly well why Israel attributes such excessive importance to the three small countries of Transcaucasia (total population 11 million) to establish security presence in that region with a view to create a “second front” against its regional enemies — Ankara and Tehran. (Israel has a record of links with Kurdish separatist groups too who have ethnic links with Transcaucasia.)
Iran openly voiced its disquiet over Pashinyan’s decision to open Armenia’s embassy in Israel , which in turn inspired then National Security Advisor to travel all the way to Yerevan where he openly took aim at Iran (and Russia.) By the way, the Armenian Diaspora in the US is an influential constituency that Pashinyan cannot ignore, either.
At any rate, demonstrations broke out in front of the Armenian embassy in Tehran soon and senior Iranian officials cautioned Pashinyan. An Iranian commentary wrote:
“Tehran’s considerations… must be taken into account… On the other hand, Russia will undoubtedly oppose the idea of using Armenia to promote security and economic influence. It had already severely criticised Israel’s arms deal with Georgia and the Republic of Azerbaijan.”
Clearly, western analysts are obfuscating the US-Israeli nexus at work in Transcaucasia. Both Ankara and Tehran have cause to worry that the US would be using the Israeli proxy in the Transcaucasia region — as has been the case in the Middle East for decades — to weaken and roll back the rising aspirations of the two regional powers.
Turkey-Iran axis in the making
With the destruction of Iraq and Syria and the weakening of Egypt, Turkey (under President Erdogan) and Iran are the only two authentic regional powers left standing in the Muslim Middle East to defy the US regional strategies and to challenge Israel’s military pre-eminence.
Significantly, the surge of the US-Israeli nexus in Transcaucasia comes in the wake of the recent US-sponsored “peace agreements” between Israel and three Gulf Arab states (UAE, Bahrain and Oman.) Indeed, both Turkey and Iran have reacted strongly to the development in the Gulf.
Just this week, the Chief of Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces Major General Mohammad Hossein Baqeri explicitly warned the UAE that Tehran will view that country as an “enemy” and will act accordingly if Abu Dhabi allowed any Israeli security presence on its soil.
Within a month of the Israel-UAE agreement, Turkish President Recep Erdogan held a video conference with Rouhani where he made a big opening statement that:
“Turkey and Iran dialogue has a decisive role in the solution of many regional problems. I believe that our cooperation will return to its previous levels as the pandemic conditions alleviate.”
Rouhani responded that Turkish-Iranian relations are built on solid foundations throughout history and the border between the two “friendly and brotherly countries” has always been “the borders of peace and friendship.” He stated that especially in the past seven years, both governments had made great efforts based on bilateral, regional and international cooperation.
Significantly, Rouhani added that the two countries are located in a “sensitive region” of the Middle East and they are “the two great powers of the region. There was hostility and vindictiveness towards both countries. It also exists today. There is no way to be successful against such conspiracies other than by reinforcing friendly relations between the two countries.”
Sure enough, Israel has taken note of the nascent Turkey-Iran axis (which also includes Qatar.) A commentary in the Jerusalem Post noted that in the recent years the Turkish-Iranian ties have “grown closer due to joint opposition to the US and also Israel. Iran and Turkey both back Hamas, for instance.” It wryly observed that the Middle Eastern geopolitics built around the Shia-Sunni sectarian strife may have outlived its utility!
Again, the Turkish state news agency Anadolu featured a commentary last week titled New strategic design of Middle East, which pointed out that the peace agreements in the Gulf bring out the schism between the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain one side and Qatar and Kuwait on the other side. (Qatar is an ally of Turkey while Kuwait has friendly ties with Iran.) The commentary noted,
“Arab countries seem to have lost both confidence and a sense of unity; when the sense of confidence is seriously damaged, it will be easier to put them at odds, and this regional division, as everywhere, makes Arab countries and their leaders dependent on external forces for their security and existence.”
The Anadolu commentary then warmed up to its main theme, namely, that the so-called “normalisation” agreement between the UAE and Israel “may be a veiled effort not only to expand the imperial space but also to form a bloc against Iran and Turkey in the Middle East.”
“Iran is a non-Arab country and seems an arch-enemy of the US and Israel; Iran collaborates with Russia and China, the US’ arch-rivals, and sometimes with Turkey, which may threaten both the US imperial interest and Israeli security in the region. Hence Iran’s regional power and influence should be jettisoned and driven into a corner.”
“Turkey is a NATO country and seems a close US ally, (but) US policy towards Turkey in the region is ambivalent, unclear, and elusive in the sense that the US still continues to support the (Kurdish) YPG/PKK terrorist group in Syria that has been carrying out terrorist acts against Turkey and killing civilians for decades.”
“Moreover, the US and Israel, though they seem friendly, do not want a strong Turkey because a strong Turkey may influence Arab countries particularly using Islam and then turn them against the exploitation of the Middle East and its oil and resources by neo-imperial powers, yet the US and other imperial power will never allow Turkey to easily stand on its feet in the region. What they may prefer is that a weak and fragile Turkey, grappling with its internal conflicts, will always serve their purpose.”
In the chronicles of the great game, seldom it is that the protagonists speak up and opt for public diplomacy. The game, historically, is played out quietly in the shade outside the pale of public view. Turkey and Iran have decided otherwise. Can it be a mere coincidence that the conflict in Transcaucasia, a faraway region that borders both Turkey and Iran where Israel is consolidating a security presence against them, erupted in such a backdrop of new alignment that promises to redraw the geopolitics of the Middle East?
The Time of Troubles in Transcaucasia – Part 2
Blog Indian Punchline, 03.10.2020 M.K. Bhadrakumar, ex dilomático y columnista indio
The German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in Berlin on October 2 that the European Union seeks a “constructive dialogue and a positive agenda” with Turkey. She had just returned to the German capital after a 2-day summit meeting of the EU countries in Brussels. Germany played a key role at the summit in steering EU-Turkey relationship away from a confrontationist path to which it was drifting lately. (See my blog EU marks distance from Indo-Pacific strategy.)
Merkel said, “We had a very long, detailed discussion about our relations with Turkey. We came to the conclusion that we would like to enter into a constructive dialogue with Turkey, we want to have a positive agenda,” adding that the Brussels summit had opened a “window of opportunity” for closer cooperation with Ankara.
Merkel disclosed that talks for closer cooperation between the EU and Turkey in the coming months would focus on migration issues, trade, modernising the Customs Union, and liberalised visa regime. In effect, Merkel has made a huge case for Turkish President Recep Erdogan at a particularly sensitive juncture for the latter when there is growing criticism in Europe regarding his regional policies.
In particular, there has been a nasty incident recently involving the Turkish and French navvies in the Eastern Mediterranean. It was a rare, if not unprecedented, incident involving two NATO powers in the 7-decade old history of the western alliance.
Again, the US recently strengthened its military bases in Greece and has repeatedly called for restraint on the part of Turkey over its maritime disputes with Greece and vowed to intervene both politically and militarily in the tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Turkey and France support opposite sides in the Libyan civil war, while the US is aligned with militant Kurdish groups in Syria whom Turkey regards as terrorists. And as conflict erupted in Nagorno-Karabakh, Turkey witnesses the US, France and Russia swiftly drawing close in a phalanx to push back at Erdogan’s robust backing for Azerbaijan, including pledges of military help.
To be sure, Merkel spoke with great deliberation. Before leaving for Brussels, Merkel had addressed the German Parliament where she referred to complaints against Turkey’s human rights records, but went on to praise Turkey’s “amazing and remarkable” performance in hosting refugees, highlighting that Turkey is hosting four million refugees.
Interestingly, Merkel compared Greece to Turkey in poor light.“We have to weigh very carefully how to resolve the tensions and how to strengthen our co-operation on refugees and on the humane treatment of refugees,” she said and proceeded to condemn the manner in which Turkey’s archetypal enemy Greece is handling the migrant camp in Lesvos (Greece).
With biting sarcasm, Merkel noted, “in recent days we have seen horrible images regarding the treatment of refugees. And not from Turkey, I would like to emphasise, but from Lesvos (Greece), from an EU member state.”
Without doubt, Germany has stood up to be counted as Turkey’s friend at a time when the latter faces growing isolation within the NATO and from the EU.
The well-known American professor Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, Stephen Walt once penned an essay titled Great Powers Are Defined by Their Wars where he pointed out that explaining a great power’s foreign policy is a perennial question for scholars of international politics. He argued that major wars have powerful and long-lasting effects on a nation’s subsequent foreign or military policy.
Prof. Walt explained that wars are seminal events from which a great power’s subsequent behaviour follows, independent of its relative power, regime type or its leadership. In his words:
“Those who fight in these wars are often scarred by the experience, and the lessons drawn from victory or defeat will be etched deeply into the nation’s collective memory. The experience of past wars is central to most national identities… If you want to understand the foreign policy of a great power, therefore (and probably lesser powers as well), a good place to start is to look at the great wars it has fought.”
Isn’t it a poignant historical memory for Berlin that the Ottomans were Germany’s allies in two world wars when it was hopelessly isolated by the the western powers?
On the other hand, take Russia and Turkey. Russia fought a series of twelve wars with the Ottoman Empire between the 17th and 20th centuries — one of the longest series of military conflicts in European history — which ultimately ended disastrously for the latter and led to its decline and eventual disintegration.
Russia had often fought the Ottomans at different times, often in alliance with the other European powers. Importantly, these wars helped to showcase the ascendancy of Russia as a European power after the modernisation efforts of Peter the Great in the early 18th century. In the Turkish Muslim psyche, however, Russia has figured as a protagonist who had played a historical role in the weakening of the Ottoman Empire in Central Europe, the Balkans and Transcaucasia.
The Russian conquest of the Caucasus mainly occurred between 1800 and 1864. In that era the Russian Empire expanded to control the region between the Black Sea and Caspian Sea, the territory that is present-day Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia (and parts of today’s Iran and Turkey) as well as the North Caucasus region of modern Russia. Multiple wars were fought against the local rulers of the regions as well as the Ottoman Empire until the last regions were brought under Russian control by 1864 with the expulsion to Turkey of several hundred thousand Circassians.
Then followed the Russo-Turkish War (1877-78) when Russia seized the the province of Kars and the port of Batumi on the Black Sea. In World War 1, aligned with Germany, the Ottomans pushed against Russia as far east as Baku (capital of Azerbaijan) but then withdrew, lacking the strength to advance further, and subsequently in the post-war confusion, somehow contrived to regain Kars.
Suffice to say, in 1991 following the collapse of the former Soviet Union, when Transcaucasia became independent as the states of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, a lot of blood-soaked history involving Russia and Turkey provided the backdrop. Incidentally, Erdogan’s family originally hailed from Rize Province in the eastern part of Turkey’s Black Sea region (where he grew up as a child), which was a site of battles between the Ottoman and Russian armies during the Caucasus Campaign of World War 1 and was occupied by the Russian forces in 1916-1918, to be finally returned to the Ottomans under the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in 1918. The Soviet Union returned Rize to Turkey in 1921.
‘Past is never dead’
Amidst all this, an interesting feature of the flow of history has been that from the days of the Roman Empire, Transcaucasia was usually a borderland between Constantinople (Istanbul) and Persia. Areas would shift from one empire to the other, their rulers would have varying degrees of independence and were often vassals of one empire or the other, depending on the size and proximity of the suzerain’s army. By around 1750 the area was divided between the Turkish and Persian vassals. The western two thirds were inhabited by Georgians, an ancient Christian people, and the eastern third mostly by Azeris, Turkic Muslims. And Russia of course was pushing close to the Black Sea and the Caspian against the Ottoman and Persian empires.
Professor Walt in his essay cited a famous quote from the American novelist William Faulkner, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Indeed, for Russia, Turkey or Iran, the current developments in Transcaucasia form part of a vast collective event that shapes their perceptions of danger and definitions of heroism, sacrifice, and even their identity.
In fact, the current line-up in the developing situation around Turkey speaks for itself: Germany voices sympathy for Turkey and offers an enhanced partnership; France lambasts Turkey and seeks EU sanctions against Turkey; France alleges Ankara’s dispatch of Syrian fighters to Nagorno-Karabakh; Germany appreciates Turkey’s big hand in addressing the refugee crisis gripping Europe; France coordinates with Russia at the highest level of leadership to pressure Turkey over Nagorno-Karabakh; the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and the US join Russia and France’s call for cessation of fighting in Transcaucasia; Iran maintains neutrality and suggests a joint effort with Turkey and Russia to resolve the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Meanwhile, Moscow has shed its initial ambivalence and is stepping into the arena on the side of Armenia, expressing “serious concern in connection with incoming information about the involvement in hostilities of gunmen from illegal armed units from the Middle East” — plainly put, censuring Turkey’s backing for Azerbaijan. And President Vladimir Putin underscores that he is voicing a common stance along with “the presidents of the countries co-chairing the OSCE Minsk Group” (Russia, France and the United States). Simply put, Russia’s “competitive rivalry” with Turkey is surging.
Interestingly, Turkish President Recep Erdogan has openly drawn attention to the broader regional and geopolitical context in which the various unnamed powers are jockeying and covertly coordinating to encircle Turkey. Erdogan said on October 2, “If we connect the crises in the Caucasus, in Syria and in the Mediterranean, you will see that this is an attempt to surround Turkey.”
It doesn’t need much ingenuity to figure out the identity of the foreign powers he would have had in mind who are attempting to “surround” Turkey — France, the US and Greece (all NATO powers) and Russia, the scourge of the Ottoman Empire.
The Time of Troubles in Transcaucasia — Part 3
Blog Indian Punchline, 04.10.2020 M.K. Bhadrakumar, ex diplomático y columnista indio
Caucasian chalk circle
The United States and Russia are increasingly in each other’s crosshairs on the global stage, be it in the Arctic, the Black Sea or the Middle East. But they have joined hands with alacrity to take a common stance on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. It is patently loaded against Turkey.
On October 2, at a hastily arranged “working meeting” in Geneva, the Russian National Security Council secretary Nikolai Patrushev and the US National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien discussed issues privately “in a bid to normalise bilateral relations and strengthen the international security.” This is the first time the two top national security officials have met in the past two-year period.
The Kremlin has been watching with dismay Turkey’s interventions in Syria and Libya. Russia feels helpless about the Turkish occupation of northern Syria and is instead obliged to take Ankara’s help to stabilise northwestern Syria. In Libya, their respective proxy groups are fighting for the upper hand.
There is a lot of frustration in the western capitals too over Turkey’s Islamist policies and neo-Ottomanism, its military intervention in Libya and provocative moves in Eastern Mediterranean. The western powers and Russia now get a rare opportunity to corner President Recep Erdogan within a “Caucasian chalk circle” of chaos and chance.
But how far they will succeed remains to be seen. Erdogan has shown himself to be a masterly player of brinkmanship. The Moscow pundits claim that the current happenings in Transcaucasia do not really impinge on Russian security interests or its so-called Greater Eurasia Partnership project.
But the Russian security establishment must be worried like hell. Just two days before the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict erupted, Russia’s intelligence chief Sergei Naryshkin had listed Georgia as among the countries from where the CIA, Pentagon and the US state department have been training activists and indulging in the “dirtiest methods for rocking the boat in Belarus”. (Naryshkin is a close associate of President Putin.)
Now, with the success of the colour revolutions in Georgia and Armenia, Azerbaijan is the only remaining part of Transcaucasia that is outside the US “sphere of influence.” Some stirrings of protests have appeared in Baku in the past but Azeri leadership managed to squash them.
Unlike France or the US, Turkey is not a newcomer to Caucasian politics. The modern Turkish state under Ataturk turned its back on the Caucasus and stuck to its new credo that Islam and imperial heritage only led to backwardness and restrained Turkey’s modernisation.
However, following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Turkey began rediscovering its severed historical, ethnic, cultural, linguistic and religious ties with Caucasus (and Central Asia.) With the retreat of “Kemalism” in Turkey, Erdogan switched to a more proactive and independent policy in the regions that used to be part of the “Ottoman space.”
Thus, the fraternal ties with Azerbaijan (a Turkic-speaking country) morphed into a strategic alliance. Turkey has become a provider of security and a guarantor of stability. Turkey and Azerbaijan are also involved in several joint energy projects and infrastructure programmes (eg., Baku – Akhalkalaki – Tbilisi – Kars railway line.)
The Caucasian diaspora are an important factor, too. Around 10 percent of Turkey’s population are of Caucasian origin — refugees fleeing Tsarist Russia’s advance, who form a very influential political constituency today, represented well in the Turkish army, parliament, media, etc.
The stakes are exceedingly high on the Transcaucasian chessboard — NATO’s advance into the Black Sea; Caspian oil; the volatile North Caucasus region (Russia’s “soft underbelly”); Iran’s ethic Azeri minority community; Israeli presence, etc. to name a few.
The tensions over Transcaucasia will be felt in the Syrian situation. Turkey and Russia do not see the Syrian settlement through the same lens. Both Moscow and Ankara are also looking for opportunities to strengthen their standing as regional superpowers in the Middle East and the Black Sea region.
Meanwhile, the unresolved conflicts in the Transcaucasian region also include the situation in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which may look relatively calm as of now, thanks to the restraint that Georgia has exercised in taking any actions to regain its territorial integrity that Russia violated in the Russo-Georgian war in August 2008.
But Russian revanchism strengthened Tbilisi’s ties with the US, NATO and the EU. Georgia’s pro-western course set by Mikhail Saakashvili (following the colour revolution in 2003) has become irreversible. Simply put, Transcaucasia is still very much “work in progress” in the geopolitical rivalry between Russia and the US.
Russian-Turkish collision course?
The tensions have continued to simmer, notwithstanding the shift in attention to events in Ukraine’s Donbas and Crimea’s annexation by Russia. The US still advocates “energy pluralism” in Transcaucasia, i.e. finding alternative ways to supply oil and gas to Europe as well as creating a platform for conducting its policy to contain Tehran’s and Moscow’s ambitions. Equally, the security of Russia’s seven North Caucasian (Muslim) republics cannot be sequestered effectively from the state of affairs in its Transcaucasian neighbourhood to the south.
To be sure, the spillover from the Ukraine crisis has far from played out and the competition between European and Eurasian integration is only going to intensify in the Transcaucasian region. Georgia has opted to enter into free trade agreements with the European Union. Armenia, on the contrary, decided to join the Moscow-backed Eurasian Economic Union.
But Azerbaijan has so far tried to balance between various integration projects and the current conflict becomes a defining moment. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan have choices to make. They will likely view integration as an additional tool for gaining the upper hand in their brutal ethnic and political conflict.
The crisis in Ukraine has also led NATO and Georgia to intensify their contacts. The road map plotted by the US has brought the NATO into the Black Sea where it is lately consolidating a military presence to challenge Russia’s historical pre-dominance in the region.
On September 29, after talks at the NATO Headquarters in Brussels with the visiting Prime Minister of Georgia, Giorgi Gakharia, the secretary-general of the alliance Jens Stoltenberg described Georgia as “one of NATO’s most important partners” and referred to close cooperation on the Black Sea security. Gakharia responded that “We see Black Sea security as the window of opportunity for Georgia, for deepening the cooperation with NATO.”
From the western perspective, therefore, any unravelling of the Turkish-Russian entente due to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict will be a geopolitical windfall. The western analysts are expecting that latent contradictions in the Turkish-Russian entente will surface.
Paradoxically, Turkey’s current actions in the Caucasus, which are often interpreted as an element of its foreign policy, also hold the potential to transform as part of the Western effort to expand its regional footprint in Eurasia to complete the arc of encirclement around Russia.
Thus, the US and its EU allies have all along supported the trilateral cooperation between Turkey, Azerbaijan and Georgia. The influential American strategist on Russia, Fiona Hill wrote in a Brookings report in 2015 titled “Retracing the Caucasian Circle: Considerations and constraints for U.S., EU, and Turkish engagement in the South Caucasus” that Washington and its allies regarded Turkey as being part of the West alongside the EU and the US in regional diplomacy and Turkey’s actions in South Caucasus were part of the Western agenda.
Indeed, Turkey shares interests with Georgia (and Ukraine) and are working together on energy pipeline projects. Turkish businesses are actively involved in both countries. Broadly, Ankara has moved in tandem with the NATO while pursuing its regional ambitions in Georgia and Ukraine.
Having said that, Azerbaijan has a troubled relationship with the US and has long viewed Russia as a counterweight. Ideally, Russia needs to find a balance between Armenia, a strategic ally, and Azerbaijan, a strategic partner.
This is where the role of Iran in the Transcaucasian question comes into play. Tehran has been successful in keeping friendly ties with all three states in Transcaucasia. Iran is a unique regional player with a truly independent foreign policies and devoid of any ancient imperial hang-ups.
Iran is fundamentally wedded to the principle that such conflicts as Nagorno-Karabakh should be resolved without interference from players outside the region. Its position is closer to Russia than to Turkey. But Russia’s dilemma appears to be that it is hesitant to break the existing status quo in Transcaucasia until it resolves the Syrian and Ukrainian issues.
Ankara’s active involvement in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has provoked the Armenian lobby in the US Congress as well as in Europe (primarily in France). At some point in future, the crisis in Transcaucasia could open the door to a more active involvement by the US and the EU, including through a peacekeeping operation.
In immediate terms, the risk lies in the unseemly rush of Azerbaijan to create new facts on the ground. The growing number of incidents on the contact line along its border with Armenia (outside Nagorno-Karabakh) can lead to some flashpoint, forcing Russia or Turkey to take unilateral action. Iran has cautioned against it.