Jan 12, 2010 | 11:46 GMT

4 mins read

The Turkish-Russian Struggle Over the Caucasus

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.
TURKISH PRIME MINISTER RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN travels to Moscow Tuesday for a two-day trip in which he will meet with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitri Medvedev. Although Erdogan and Putin are chummier with each other than they are with most world leaders, this meeting has been planned and postponed a number of times in recent months. The relationship began to decline last summer as Turkey's ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party continued pushing for a peace deal with Armenia that would open up another major outlet for Turkish expansion in the Caucasus, a mountainous region that encompasses the states of Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia. Russia, however, had been busy building up clout in this region long before the Turks started focusing on neighborhood relations again. Since Armenia is essentially a client state of the Russians, it was Moscow that was calling the shots every time Turkey attempted a dialogue with Yerevan. Russia has been happy to chaperone these negotiations for Ankara while seizing the opportunity to get on the good side of a critical rival in the Black Sea region. At the same time, Russia was not about to grant Turkey its wish of an Armenian rapprochement that would encroach on Russia's own sphere of influence in the Caucasus. Moreover, Russia had a golden opportunity at hand to encourage Turkey to alienate Azerbaijan, its tightest ally in the region. Azerbaijan sees Turkey's outreach to Armenia –- an enemy of Azerbaijan that occupies disputed territory inside of Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh region –- as an outright betrayal to the historic brotherly alliance between Turkey and Azerbaijan. While keeping Georgia in a vice and Armenia's moves in check, Russia strategically coaxed Turkey's allies in Azerbaijan into an alliance that would provide Moscow with a crucial lever to control the flow of energy to Europe. Turkey, meanwhile, has been left empty-handed: no deal with Armenia and very angry allies in Azerbaijan. Gazprom's chief said Baku was considering a deal in which all of Azerbaijan's natural gas could be sold to Russia. Just one day prior to Erdogan's trip to Moscow, the Russians decided to flaunt their rapidly developing relationship with Azerbaijan. Following a meeting between Russia's natural gas behemoth, Gazprom, and the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan (SOCAR), Gazprom's chief Alexei Miller said Monday that Baku was considering a deal in which all of Azerbaijan's natural gas — present and future — could be sold to Russia. This would in effect allow Moscow to sabotage any plans by Turkey and Europe to diversify energy flows away from Russia. Azerbaijan has already been prodding Turkey with its blossoming relationship with Russia, throwing out threats here and there of sending more of its natural gas to Russia instead of Turkey. But if Azerbaijan has actually agreed to such a deal with Moscow to send not just some, but all of its natural gas to Russia, then a major shift has taken place in the Caucasus — one in which the Turks cannot afford to remain complacent. Azerbaijani national security rests on its ability to diversify its trade and political alliances to the greatest extent possible. If Azerbaijan entered into a committed relationship with the Russians, however, it would be just as vulnerable as Georgia, Ukraine, Belarus, Turkmenistan or any other state in the Russian periphery that is frequently subjected to Russian economic and military pressure tactics to fit Moscow's political agenda. What, then, would encourage such a fundamental shift in Azerbaijani foreign policy? Our first task is to verify with the Azerbaijanis whether the Gazprom chief is speaking the truth in claiming such a deal. Miller, after all, has been known to spin a few tales from time to time when it comes to Russian energy politics. If the story is true, then we need to nail down what caused the shift in Baku to sacrifice its energy independence to Moscow. Russia would have to pay a hefty price for such a deal, and that price could very well be tied to Azerbaijan's territorial obsession: Nagorno-Karabakh. If Azerbaijan is prepping its military to settle the score with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh, and we have heard rumors building to this effect, it would want guarantees from Moscow to stay out of the fray. We have no evidence of this hypothesis as of yet, but it is some serious food for thought for Erdogan as he makes his way to Moscow.

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