Much was made of Turkey’s return last year to one of its old stomping grounds: the Caucasus. Almost six months on, however, little of substance has materialized in Ankara’s diplomatic and military initiatives in the region.
For centuries, Turkey, in its previous incarnation as the Ottoman empire, controlled the western portion of the South Caucasus, including much of western Georgia and historical western Armenia. Following the Ottoman collapse, Ankara was locked out of the region owing to Soviet domination. Even after the break-up of the Soviet Union, Turkey remained a peripheral player owing to its own weakness and greater interests elsewhere.
That all seemed to change last autumn. After nearly three decades of mostly low-key support to its Turkic ally, Azerbaijan, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan decided to throw Turkey’s military and political weight behind Baku to reignite the long-dormant Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Turkish drones and commanders played a key role in the ensuing 44-day war that ended in victory for Azerbaijan. It seemed Turkey had waltzed into Russia’s backyard and imposed itself on a region hitherto dominated almost entirely by Russian (and some Western) influence.
But what has Turkey actually won for itself in the Caucasus? The evidence suggests it is very little of any lasting substance.
The first difficulties emerged immediately after the war ended in a ceasefire in the early hours of November 10. The ceasefire was a trilateral agreement between Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia, who were both architects and guarantors of the deal. There was no mention of Turkey.
Turkish officials insisted repeatedly that they would be part of the ceasefire monitoring operations, as well as any future negotiations on the status of Nagorno-Karabakh. On November 12, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu even declared that Turkey’s role in monitoring the ceasefire would be “exactly the same as Russia’s.” Russian diplomats have refuted this claim, however, reaffirming that the November 10 agreement concerns only Russia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Other parties, including Turkey, have no part in it.
Nevertheless, a memorandum on a joint Turkish-Russian monitoring center was signed in mid-November. But when the center finally opened on January 30, it turned out to be situated around 10km outside Karabakh itself, with a staff of only around 100, half of them Turkish.
Meanwhile, under the trilateral agreement, Russia had already deployed well over 2,000 personnel – equipped with heavy weaponry and vehicles – in Karabakh itself and were interacting directly with both Azeri and Karabakh Armenian personnel. Turkey’s presence appeared to be not only largely symbolic but also of greater benefit to the Russians, giving them boots on the ground on both sides of the line while Ankara was sidelined.
Other Turkish efforts to enter the diplomatic realm over Karabakh have similarly come to naught. Even though the OSCE’s Minsk Group, which until now has been the primary international vehicle for negotiations over Karabakh, seems to be moribund at present. Turkey continues to be rebuffed.
Ankara’s suggestions for other regional dialogue forums have met with a cool reception. The most ambitious of these, the “3+3” format (Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia plus Russia, Turkey and Iran) promoted by Cavusoglu, has proved unacceptable to Armenia and Georgia, which is no great surprise. Ankara’s failure to see the obvious – that Tbilisi would object to working with Moscow – shows a certain naiveté.
Turkey’s attempt to end another long-standing quarrel in the Caucasus, between itself and Armenia, has also been ham-fisted at best. In recent months, Turkish officials have indicated frequently a willingness to reopen the border between their countries, which has been closed since 1993, and to establish diplomatic relations.
In this, Turkey would appear to hold most of the cards. If Ankara takes a unilateral decision to reopen the border, this essentially presents Armenia with a fait accompli. Russia would certainly encourage such a move as it could then establish its own overland link – via Azerbaijan and Armenia – with Turkey
But Ankara has shown little understanding of the political sensitivity of the matter in Armenia, with Erdogan in particular repeatedly issuing harshly worded statements against Yerevan and in support of Baku. Without even the slightest show of empathy toward the issue of the Armenian genocide – let alone the open support for Azerbaijan in the recent war – the chances of a genuine relationship with Armenia are slim.
So what does Ankara have to show for the recent postwar months in the Caucasus? It has strengthened relations with Azerbaijan, but even those are tempered by Baku’s careful foreign-policy balancing act with Russia and the West. Turkey has made no tangible progress in asserting itself as a bilateral or multilateral partner with either Georgia or Armenia, and has shown little understanding of the region’s dynamics.
In this context, Turkey’s role in the Caucasus is not so dissimilar to Iran’s: a former imperial power that once dominated half the region, but whose influence now is extremely limited. It will take significantly more nuance and skill if Ankara wishes to truly extend its reach into the Caucasus.
Neil Hauer is a security analyst based in Tbilisi, Georgia. His work focuses on, among other things, politics, minorities and violence in the Caucasus.