South Caucasus: new chapter in the struggle of three large states

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Baku, 26 April 2013 –

Rumors surface about growing struggle between Russia, Turkey and Iran over the Sou th Caucasus. Analysts try to predict possible outcome of the rivalry but overall, they forget one key aspect pertaining to the region.

Triangle of reciprocal relations

Large powers have become notably active in the South Caucasus. There is a significant surge in the struggle between the U.S., Russia, Turkey and Iran over reshaping the geopolitical picture in the region. Joshua Kucera wrote about it in "The Bug Pit” blog based on the report by the Center for Strategic and Intrenational Studies (see: Joshua Kucera. Russia, Iran, Turkey, and the, 27 March 2013). Since Joshua Kuchera is a journalist who has long specialized on the South Caucasus and Central Asia, his analysis is worthy of scrutiny.

Indeed, for some time, certain developments have been signaling escalating geopolitical struggle in the Caucasus. Processes have also intensified. According to experts, Russia has become more active. In general, experts have always kept a close eye on Moscow’s policy towards Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Experts with the Center for Strategic and International Studies evaluated the geopolitical situation in the South Caucasus in the context of reciprocal relations between Russia, Iran and Turkey. The research is titled: "The Turkey, Russia, Iran, Nexus”. Another peculiar feature of the report is addressing the issue of an impact of that "triangle” upon the U.S. policy.

Authors believe that Turkey is more preoccupied by Iran’s prominence in the region that Russia is. Nevertheless, the real picture is more complex. Moscow dislikes existence of another power center in the region. It is compelled to maneuver for the time being. New undertones are surfacing in Russia’s relations with Turkey and Iran with respect to the Caucasus. Therefore, there is a number of thought provoking aspects if we scrutinize Turkey-Russia, Russia-Iran, and Turkey-Iran relations.

Moscow’s major concern is believed to be Turkey’s policy on the South Caucasus. Two countries also disagree on Syria. However, Russia associates Turkey’s influence in the South Caucasus with plausible threat to its security. Muslims are predominant in the region. This factor may contribute to boosting the capacity of radical religious groups in the Caucasus. Moscow is acutely aware of the major Wahhabi threat in the Caucasus but given the volatility of the situation other groups may also seize the initiative, especially taking into account the obscure situation in Afghanistan.

Georgia is another issue here. Abkhaz, Osetin and Circassian communities in Turkey wield clout in Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Karachay-Circassia regions respectively. Those chain relations may turn the North Caucasus into a battlefield. So, Russia has number of reasons to maintain normal relations with Turkey while preventing the latter from capturing the initiative in the Caucasus. This aspect is all the more significant in light of dynamically developing economic relations between the two countries.

Finally, Armenia and Azerbaijan related issues have always been crucial in Moscow-Ankara relations. Azerbaijan remains in the focus of the West and Russia as a country endowed with natural resources and an important transportation corridor. Interests remain keen. Meanwhile, Baku has gained more steadfast position owing to its independent energy policy. Azerbaijan pursues development of relations both with the West and Russia. Therefore, speculations of certain pressure exerted upon Azerbaijan are groundless.

Why the aggressor is being "forgotten”?

Situation with regards to Armenia is quite different. Armenia’s media reports of Moscow’s plans to boost its military presence in the country. They even allege envisaged deployment of troops to Nagorno Karabakh. Also, information emerged that high-ranking Iranian officials discussed this issue in Yerevan. The issue is related to the resolution of problems that may arise in the event of deployment of additional troops to Armenia.

In light of those developments the analysts are articulating Russia-Armenia-Iran geopolitical cooperation. They are describing it against the backdrop of Turkey-Georgia-Azerbaijan axis. But the situation on the ground is different, once viewed in the broader perspective. The problem is an intense situation in the region and limited cooperation opportunities stemming from Armenia’s policy of aggression. Achieving some sort of security system in the region is inconceivable without preventing that policy.

Therefore, deployment of Russian troops to Nagorno Karabakh appears implausible. Even if it indeed happened, it would be futile to expect positive changes in the geopolitical-military situation in the region. It is not about a single country that seeks a geopolitical partner in the region. Cessation of aggression is the ultimate objective. This is the main precondition for the establishment of productive balance of power.

Iran is not really worried by Russia’s reinvigorated posture towards the South Caucasus. Their interests coincide on many issues. Nevertheless, Iran disfavors Moscow’s absolute control over the region, although Tehran is inexplicit about in the face of immense pressure from the West. Therefore, Tehran refrains from any actions that may irritate Russia. In the meantime, is does undertake certain actions against Azerbaijan. Iran introduces certain measures aiming to curb the spread of pro-democracy calls of its ethnic Azerbaijani community. Baku in turn adheres to its policy of good neighborly relations with Tehran. Apparently, Iran will continue to exercise caution in its relations with Azerbaijan for some time to come.

There is plenty of constructiveness to Turkey’s policy towards the South Caucasus. Ankara is interested in solidifying the sovereignty of the regional states. This is the very substance of its relations with Azerbaijan. Presently, Armenia is the greatest regional obstacle for Turkey. Upcoming anniversary of the so-called "Armenian genocide” further complicates the matters. Presumably, this factor will impair Turkey’s ability to leverage the South Caucasus compared to Russia.

Management of natural resources of the region occupies a special place in Russia-Turkey relations. Ankara has stepped up its efforts for the realization of TANAP. In the meantime, Moscow is attempting to thwart Turkmenistan’s involvement with the project using certain aspects of Azerbaijan-Turkmenistan relations to that end. Turkey is being more proactive in endorsing consensus between Baku and Ashgabat. However, it is premature to speak of any results. In other words, this issue adds uncertainty to Ankara-Moscow relations.

The aforementioned displays abundance of conflicting aspects in ongoing Russia, Turkey and Iran struggle, and a lot has to be done to alleviate the tensions. Regrettable is the fact that large powers neglect the key element of the Southern Caucasus policy – pressuring the aggressor. This obstructs conflict resolution severely and exacerbates the regional geopolitical environment. Therefore, dominance of an individual geopolitical force in the region will be difficult to secure.

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