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The Turks are winning the new Great Game at the Caspian

September 30, 2023 at 3:33 pm

Armenians hold placards and national flags during a demonstration outside Downing Street in London on September 30, 2023 to protest against Azerbaijan’s offensive in Nagorno-Karabakh. [HENRY NICHOLLS/AFP via Getty Images]

One region where events seem to have been developing at breakneck speed over the past few years is that of Nagorno-Karabakh, the former Armenian-dominated breakaway republic which – despite being internationally-recognised as Azerbaijani territory – had been ruled by Armenian militants with support from Yerevan over the past three decades.

After Azerbaijan’s military defeated the Armenian forces there in 2020 and a Russian-brokered truce was agreed upon, Baku this month decided to launch a 24-hour operation to finish the job and gain full control of the territory.

To many in the international community, this simply seemed like a victory for Azerbaijan and an expansion of its territory within its own borders, while to others – especially those in Western media outlets far removed from the situation – it was an act of ‘ethnic cleansing’ by the Azeri authorities against ethnic Armenians.

There were, over the previous years, certainly atrocities committed by Azerbaijani forces against Armenians and vice versa, though a heavy media presence and personal interviews appear to show that the hundred thousand Armenians who have so far fled Nagorno-Karabakh have been treated fairly.

If true, it goes against what notable outlets have claimed such as that Azerbaijan refused to offer guarantees of preservation of rights to the Armenian population, and that Baku forced out and exiled the Armenian population who are now fleeing the former breakaway republic.

Such outlets, of course, refuse – or fail – to acknowledge that Azerbaijan did indeed offer an agreement for significant autonomy under its rule to the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh prior to the latest operation, which was rejected, and that it afterward allowed the Armenians to remain in the region under the condition that they adopt Azerbaijani citizenship.

The majority of the Armenian population refused and instead decided to leave, as is their right, largely out of fear that Baku would not protect their rights.

Such attitudes by Western mainstream media comes as no surprise, of course, and is hardly a new phenomenon. What is a momentous development, though, is the geopolitical shift that has taken place over the past week and the effects it will have in reshaping the dynamics of the region.

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Just over a century ago, toward the end of World War One as the Western allies were defeating imperial Germany and the Ottoman Empire, the areas of the southern Caucasus and Trans-Caspia formed one of the many fronts of conflict between the British and Turkish forces.

More of a sideshow rather than a key battleground, that region surrounding the Caspian Sea was one crawling with intelligence officers and agents from the competing powers, making it a centre of espionage and intrigue between the Brits, Germans, former imperial Russians, and the Bolsheviks who had recently gained power in Moscow.

At the time, the Turks were a declining force amid the impending defeat and dismantling of the Ottoman Empire, but nevertheless an aggressive one – much to the bereavement of Armenians in the region – as they were steadily being cornered by the Western imperial forces.

It was hardly a time of promise and glory for any subscribers to pan-Turkism or Turanism, and what followed was seven decades of Soviet rule in the region until 1991, and then the formation of the many national republics once that empire fell.

Now, just over three decades of nation-building later, Azerbaijan finds itself in a suitable position to capture all the territory assigned to it under international law. Furthermore, the diplomatic and military support of Turkiye only strengthens that position, making both Ankara and Baku an emerging and formidable alliance within the southern Caucasus.

Their relations with Turkmenistan, just across the Caspian Sea, and the broader conglomerate of Turkic nations in the Turkiye-led Organisation of Turkic States (also known as the Turkic Council) have further resulted in a wider alliance that is increasingly becoming ripe enough to form a potential new regional order.

In this current situation, an event like a significant military development – such as Azerbaijan’s victory in Nagorno-Karabakh, in this case – could potentially set into motion a series of subsequent events that would entirely alter the dynamics in the geopolitical arena – and that may have already begun.

This week, Kazakhstan’s president Kasym-Zomart Tokayev announced during his visit to Germany’s capital Berlin that his country will abide by the international Western-led sanctions against Russia over its invasion of Ukraine.

It was a surprising development, as Kazakhstan has traditionally been in Moscow’s sphere of influence until now, and it caused some analysts to conclude that its convenient timing with the Azeri victory was too close to be merely coincidental. So far, there is little evidence to confirm a link between the Kazakh decision and events in Nagorno-Karabakh, but they do signify a particular boldness from Turkic countries which has not been seen in a long while.

Azerbaijan’s capture of all its assigned territories does not directly represent a blow to Russia, nor does Turkiye’s support for Baku. Moscow has also been positioning itself more as a mediator in the southern Caucasus rather than an assertive power, which is not surprising considering its focus on its war in Ukraine.

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Despite those complexities and the lack of enmity against Russia from Turkiye and Azerbaijan, the developments signify a decline in Russian influence in the southern Caucasus and Trans-Caspia, all while Ankara and Baku reap the benefits.

Immediately following the victory in Nagorno-Karabakh, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with his Azeri counterpart Ilham Aliyev, and together they struck a series of agreements including a deal to lay the foundation for a gas pipeline stretching from eastern Turkiye to Nakhchivan, the Azeri enclave bordering south-western Armenia.

Shortly after that, Erdogan urged for the establishment of the strategic Zangezur corridor which would run from eastern Turkiye to Nakhchivan and then directly to mainland Azerbaijan through land and rail routes, essentially accelerating the territorial connection between the two allies.

Over the coming months, it is increasingly likely that further deals will be signed and agreements will be in order to ensure the establishment of that corridor, as the velocity of the current developments seem to make that a reality with every month that goes by.

The largest obstacle that Ankara and Baku would have to deal with during that process, however, would be Iran. The concept of the corridor has long made Tehran uneasy, as it will run alongside its only land border with Armenia and would essentially cut it off territorially from the southern Caucasus.

Erdogan has attempted to ease those concerns by developing closer ties with Iran throughout the past year and expressing his hope earlier this week “to turn our region into a basin of peace and prosperity through joint projects that will include our neighbour Iran”.

Despite that, we may expect possible moves by Tehran to diplomatically lobby against the corridor or even to covertly undermine its development, potentially in cooperation with Moscow if the latter does decide to reassert its influence in that area.

Iran does not intend to lose its own influence in the southern Caucasus, even though it has already been declining rapidly over the past decade and particularly since 2020. It may, however, be appeased if there are sufficient assurances that it will have a share in the spoils and opportunities reaped by Turkiye and Azerbaijan.

Whatever the case, it has become undoubtedly clear that the Turkic bloc – if it can be called that – is now the leading player in the southern Caucasus and Trans-Caspian region, and is driving forward one of the greatest geopolitical shifts in 2023 and beyond.

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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.