A new informal alliance is emerging in Southeastern Europe, and it is being led by Turkey.
Azerbaijan’s victory on the battlefield against Armenia and the recovery of seven occupied districts surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh and the southern part of this enclave centred on the important cultural centre of Shusha (Shushi) would not have been possible without Turkish diplomatic and military assistance. Turkey invested in training Azerbaijan’s armed forces according to NATO standards and supplied drones, other forms of military technology and its Syrian proxy forces fighting along the Turkish–Syrian border, copying Russia’s longstanding use of proxy forces in Ukraine and Eurasia. Speaking in Baku on 12 November, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said that his country would continue to give its support to Baku for any further steps it would decide to take towards Nagorno-Karabakh.
Turkey as a New Regional Power
Turkey’s new and for the moment putative geopolitical alliance is built on longstanding ties between pro-Western or Western-leaning states in the former USSR who had created the GUAM group in the late 1990s, bringing together Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova. GUAM stagnated after the election of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine in 2010 and Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili leaving office three years later. Renamed the GUAM Organization for Democracy and Economic Development, it revived its operations after Ukraine’s 2013–14 Euromaidan Revolution. Ironically, Azerbaijan chaired GUAM in the year it took back much of its occupied territory.
One would have been forgiven for thinking that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was ‘pro-Russian’ because of his authoritarianism and criticism of the EU, NATO and US. But this is not the case. Erdoğan is more of a pan-Turkish nationalist than his predecessors who lay allegiance to Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, providing greater support to Turkic-speaking Crimean Tatars and Turkic-speaking Azeris.
Turkey shot down a Russian Sukhoi Su-24 fighter plane over Turkish airspace in November 2015 which led to a Russian boycott of Turkish trade and tourism. Although both countries patched up their strained relations, Turkey and Russia have supported opposing sides in Syria, Yemen and Libya.
In Syria and the South Caucasus, Israel and Turkey, who have had strained relations in the past, are geopolitical allies. In Syria, they both oppose the alliance of the Bashar Al-Assad regime with Iran and Russia. Assad’s murderous campaign against Sunni Muslims and acquiescence to Kurdish autonomy are additional factors motivating Erdoğan’s intervention in Syria.
In the South Caucasus, Israel sees Azerbaijan as a counterweight to Iran, which backs Armenia and Russia. Israel has supplied weapons and training to Azerbaijan and Georgia. Israel and Azerbaijan jointly manufacture drones which played an important and decisive role in its defeat of Armenia. The closeness of their security cooperation was evident in August 2019 when an Israeli team infiltrated Iran from Azerbaijan to assassinate Al-Qa’ida’s second-in-command in Tehran. Azerbaijan has now taken back control of all of its border with Iran. Turkey has purchased Israel’s Barak-8 long-range surface-to-air and Iron Dome systems and Azerbaijan has bought Israel’s LORA tactical ballistic missile system.
Turkish–Azerbaijani Strategic Partnership
Azerbaijan has been an undervalued ally of the West for decades despite being an energy giant and located in a geo-strategic region of the greater Middle East and Eurasia. Azerbaijan is an important and emerging energy supplier for Turkey, Israel and Europe and therefore a US ally in reducing Russia’s monopolisation of energy supplies to the EU. Azerbaijan is also an important country for the US as a supply corridor to its forces in Afghanistan, although the country has also diverged from the West when it comes to respect of human rights obligations.
In contrast, Armenia has been an ally of Russia since 1994 when it was a founding member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), an attempt by Russia to establish a NATO-type structure of former Soviet states. Armenia withdrew from the EU’s Eastern Partnership Association Agreement in 2013 and joined the CIS Customs Union, becoming the Eurasian Economic Union two years later.
In this year’s 44-day Azerbaijani–Armenian war, the CSTO showed itself to be a paper tiger. An important reason for Armenia’s arrogance towards Azerbaijan and Yerevan’s threats to annex Nagorno-Karabakh had been the false assumption that Russia or the Russian-led CSTO would come to its rescue in the event of war. This would not have been the case; Russian President Vladimir Putin made plain that neither his own national forces nor the CSTO would be activated in the (unlikely) event of Azerbaijan attacking Armenian sovereign territory. This ruled out the CSTO assisting Armenia in its defence of occupied Azerbaijani territories.
Geopolitical interests have trumped the fact that Turkey and Azerbaijan are from two often antagonistic branches of Islam, Sunni and Shiite respectively. Turkey and Azerbaijan are linked by ethnic and linguistic ties, described as ‘Two States, One Nation’ (İki Dövlət, Bir Millət) in a manner similar to those Turkey has with Crimean Tatars. The Crimean Khanate existed as an autonomous entity within the Ottoman Empire for six centuries before Russia’s occupation of the peninsula in 1783. In the 19th and 20th centuries, millions of Crimean Tatars fled from Russian and Soviet persecution to the Ottoman Empire and Turkey. Half of the remaining Tatars living in Crimea died after they were ethnically cleansed by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin in 1944. Since Russia’s occupation of Crimea in 2014, at least 20,000 Crimean Tatars have fled to Ukraine and hundreds have been imprisoned.
In Turkey, where there are an estimated six million Crimean Tatars, they are often called ‘Crimean Turks’ because of the closeness of their languages, culture and history. This sizeable Crimean Tatar minority is vocal, active and influential in Turkey and now has a Turkish president who backs up his words with deeds, although it remains to be seen whether Turkey’s position on Crimea’s future fully coincides with that of Ukraine.
Turkish–Azerbaijani Energy Alliance
Turkey has agreed to Azerbaijan becoming its main gas supplier, taking over from Russia. This step has major geopolitical ramifications for the entire South Caucasus, Black Sea and Southwestern European region. It is probably not coincidental that Azerbaijan became Turkey’s sole gas supplier only five months before the outbreak of the Azerbaijani–Armenian war.
Turkey is a vital regional hub for the Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline, one of three pipelines in the Southern Gas Corridor connecting Azerbaijan’s Shah Deniz II field to the European market. The Turkish–Azerbaijani strategic alliance cements the former as a regional energy hub largely independent of Russia while enabling the latter to become a major gas exporter to Europe for the first time. In addition, 40% of the oil that Israel imports is from Azerbaijan.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky paid two strategic visits to NATO members Poland and Turkey, which stand at polar ends of a new strategic realignment that includes Ukraine and Azerbaijan. Ukraine and Azerbaijan are longstanding pro-NATO and pro-Western former Soviet states in a contested region which Russia demands the West recognises as its exclusive sphere of influence.
At a joint press conference with Zelensky, Erdoğan said ‘Turkey sees Ukraine as a key country for ensuring stability, peace and prosperity in our region. Within this framework we have always supported and will continue to support Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, including over Crimea’. He added, ‘Turkey has not recognised and does not recognise the annexation of Crimea’. Erdoğan re-affirmed Turkey's non-recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea three weeks after Azerbaijan launched its military operations against Armenia.
Following the November 2018 Russian naval piracy in the Azov Sea, Turkey and Ukraine have developed common interests in Black Sea security. Turkey is, alongside the US and UK, backing the rebuilding of Ukraine’s navy. Following Pakistan, Ukraine has purchased T MILGEM-class corvettes from Turkey.
Turkey’s refusal to recognise Armenia’s occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh since 1992 is longstanding. In language reminiscent of support for Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity, a joint statement issued by Erdoğan and Zelensky in Ankara said that Turkey would continue to support steps towards the ‘de-occupation’ of Crimea and Russian-controlled Donbas. The joint statement raised the plight of Crimean Tatar and Ukrainian prisoners held by Russia and joint protection of human rights in Crimea.
In what Russia has long been vehemently opposed to, Erdoğan gave his support for Ukraine’s membership of NATO. Turkish–Ukrainian security cooperation would be expanded through the Crimean Platform and Quadriga ‘2+2’ formula of foreign and defence ministers. Ukraine and Turkey are cooperating on the building of a range of military products; for example, Turkey’s Akinci (Raider) unmanned aerial system (UAS) drone and Akinci unmanned aircraft systems are powered by Ukrainian Ivchenko-Progress turboprop engines. Ukraine has bought 12 (with plans to purchase a total of 48) Bayraktar TB-2 UAS drones which Turkey used with high rates of success in Syria and Nagorno-Karabakh; some of these will be based in the Donbas war zone of eastern Ukraine.
It is noteworthy that Zelensky also held a meeting with Bartholomew I of Constantinople. In 2018–19, Turkey – behind the scenes – backed the Patriarch of the Orthodox Church granting a Tomos (autocephaly) to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine after declaring Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) control over Ukraine to have been ‘uncanonical’. The loss of 40% of the ROC’s parishes in Ukraine was a major geopolitical and soft power defeat for Putin and he called an emergency session of the Russian Security Council. The ROC is no longer the biggest of 14 Orthodox Churches and with a much reduced 16,000 parishes is now similar in size to the Romanian Orthodox Church.
Through a combination of US President Donald Trump’s isolationism and pre-occupation with the election cycle and the EU’s lack of foreign policy gravitas, Turkey has upended the geopolitical picture in the South Caucasus and muscled into what Russia demands the outside world sees as its exclusive sphere of influence. Turkey’s all-round support to Azerbaijan was decisive in its defeat of Armenia and showing the CSTO to be an empty vessel and the EU to be a paper tiger.
Turkey’s geopolitical ambitions, building on the GUAM regional group, will further challenge Russia in delivering Azerbaijani energy to Europe and in supporting Ukraine, which also has regions under Russian occupation. While the Azerbaijani–Turkish alliance has passed an important test of endurance, Turkey’s development of a new strategic alliance with Ukraine is in its embryonic days.
Taras Kuzio is a Professor at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
Correction note: A minor change was made to a sentence in paragraph 15 on 20 November 2020