Politics of the Black Sea: Dynamics of Cooperation and Conflict
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The agreement expanded an earlier trilateral security deal from April Hide Footnote A meeting among the defence ministers in May was followed a month later by a three-nation military drill near Tbilisi. Hide Footnote In April , the three defence ministers signed a memorandum that envisions closer trilateral defence partnership. Hide Footnote Azerbaijan is also a major consumer of Turkish defence products. Azerbaijan became the first foreign buyer of Turkish high-speed electromagnetic interference anti-drone systems. Whether Turkey and Russia can use their rapprochement to reduce risks of another flare-up over Nagorno-Karabakh remains to be seen.
The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, each with powerful regional allies, in Moscow and Ankara respectively, overlaps with tense Turkey-Armenia relations and with grievances dating back to Ottoman times.
This multilayered dynamic makes any progress on Nagorno-Karabakh particularly difficult. Yet there is precedent, albeit limited, for Ankara and Moscow working together to ease regional tensions. In April , Ankara decided not to sign the protocol that would have opened the border. Hide Footnote That temporary thaw between Yerevan and Ankara led to the October signing of the two Zurich protocols, which envisaged the normalisation of diplomatic relations between the two countries and the opening of the Turkey-Armenia border. That thaw, which may have been partly linked to the reset at the time of Russia-U.
A decade later, Moscow offered to facilitate the normalisation of relations between Armenia and Turkey. Turkish officials also have extended olive branches. In April , Turkey launched an EU-funded demining operation along the border with Armenia; the same month, the Armenian aviation authority granted Pegasus Airlines, a Turkish budget carrier, a licence to fly three times a week between Yerevan and Istanbul. Another Turkish company, AtlasGlobal, also flies the route five times a week.
Tourists can obtain visas at the airport or at border crossings. Civil society ties are well developed. More fundamental progress toward the settlement of the conflict appears unlikely, however. Armenia is reluctant to link Russia-Turkey relations to either its own relations with Baku or the Nagorno-Karabakh settlement process. In September , President Serzh Sargsyan said he would revoke the Zurich protocols before leaving office in April , the month his last presidential term ended — though he subsequently became prime minister — if Ankara did not return the Turkey-Armenia normalisation process to the bilateral track, involving neither Russia nor demands for Armenian concessions on Nagorno-Karabakh.
Political Economy of the Black Sea : Tunc Aybak :
Hide Footnote Armenia revoked the protocols in March The new Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, who was propelled to power by April mass protests that forced Sargsyan to stand down, has not wavered from this position. Hide Footnote Ankara has reacted cautiously to Pashinyan. Hide Footnote Turkey is in wait-and-see mode. Doing so risks being counterproductive for him: it would jeopardise the support of nationalist constituencies and of the nationalist MHP, which, after the June elections, he will need to rely on for a majority in the Turkish parliament.
Hide Footnote Besides, he is more likely to expend political capital with nationalists over the more pressing Kurdish issue rather than opening a second front over Armenia. If Armenians are wary about the give-and-take between Ankara and Moscow, Azerbaijan, which has strived to stay on good terms with both countries, has welcomed Russo-Turkish rapprochement.
That said, Baku — like Yerevan — would not necessarily welcome a Russian-Turkish peace initiative in Nagorno-Karabakh. This would be especially true if it perceives that Moscow is calling the shots and Ankara playing along. While convincing Armenians and Azerbaijanis to move toward a lasting settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict remains a tall order, Russia and Turkey could nonetheless use their combined political weight to forestall a new flare-up.
Hide Footnote Deterring the sides from the use of force and even pushing behind the scenes for substantive and honest discussions of a possible peace deal might be feasible. Neither Moscow nor Ankara would be served by a fresh outbreak of violence.
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Located on the Black Sea, the region sought to secede from Georgia in a war, unilaterally declared independence in , and was internationally recognised by Russia and a handful of other countries in Since then it has hosted Russian troops; Russian missile systems, including the Iskander-M and S, were deployed there in It has been careful not to let these ties interfere with its relations with Georgia and has never signalled it might recognise the breakaway region. But it has kept the option of engagement with Abkhazia open.
Ankara also has not prevented private Turkish investment in the region. Some Georgian politicians have even expressed a cautious interest in encouraging these links, particularly in trade, as a potential counterweight to Russia. The Su crisis prompted Moscow to push Abkhaz leaders for the first time to openly side with Russia against Turkey. Hide Footnote Sukhumi imposed an embargo on some Turkish produce — although the Abkhaz claim to have taken care to target only insignificant items.
Some Turkish investors had to take down the Turkish flags in front of their factories and offices. In early , the EU started exploring options for extending the benefits of its free trade area with Georgia to businesses in Abkhazia.
Nor is it clear whether Russia would tolerate that level of EU engagement. It has not, in other words, introduced additional friction with Moscow.
Ankara should continue to tread that fine line. The North Caucasus is another sore spot. Ankara has strong historical links to the region given that Turkey has long been home to its diaspora communities. More recent exiles, many of which are Salafi Muslims known as muhajirs , now live in Turkey after having been driven out of their homes because of their faith. For years, Russia and Turkey had upheld an implicit bargain. Turkey would remain neutral regarding the conflict in Chechnya in return for Russia downgrading its ties to the Kurdish insurgency, the PKK. Since , successive Turkish governments have denied supporting Chechen separatists.
Turkish companies have done business in Chechnya despite being subjected to forms of pressure and extortion by the republican leadership. Cooperation at the level of security and law enforcement has been rudimentary, both before and after the reconciliation. Turkish police have arrested suspects based on information from Russia, apprehending 99 Russian attempting to join ISIS in Hide Footnote But Turkish authorities rarely extradite muhajirs that Moscow claims have links to militant groups in Russia, instead sending most Russian nationals to third countries.
About 3,, citizens of the Russian Federation are believed to be fighting in Syria and Iraq.
Many of them have passed through Turkey. Hide Footnote It points to individuals recruited in Turkey into jihadist movements, including, for example, Akhmed Chatayev, a Chechen thought to have masterminded the Istanbul airport attack, as well as the militants who carried out the strike, who were nationals of Russia, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Hide Footnote The main suspect in the April St.
Petersburg metro bombing was an ethnic Uzbek from Kyrgyzstan who had spent time in Turkey. Turkish authorities, on the other hand, tend to look favourably on the muhajirs and have granted some political asylum. Moreover, Turkish authorities suspect the involvement of Russian security services in the assassinations in Turkey of prominent Chechens. The vast majority of muhajirs are non-violent. Hide Footnote Community activists claim that Russia has often blacklisted and pressed criminal charges against Russian nationals residing in Turkey without conclusive evidence.
Hide Footnote Russian law enforcement agencies pressure Turkish authorities to hand over people on its list, in accordance with a December agreement to cooperate on criminal matters. Continued Russian efforts to pressure Turkey into cracking down on the muhajirs will likely remain a thorn in the side of bilateral ties.
Ankara can be expected to make sporadic arrests and deportations but stop short of fully meeting Russian demands. It is better, too, for the countries of the Black Sea and the South Caucasus regions that Russia and Turkey are no longer locked in confrontation. They disagree in Ukraine, particularly over the status of Crimea and the Crimean Tatars. While both Moscow and Ankara were careful not to fuel the latest flare-up over Nagorno-Karabakh, their interests in the South Caucasus nonetheless conflict and their weapons supply and deployment intensify a build-up in an already heavily militarised region.
Nor have they found common ground on the question of the Russian Muslim diaspora in Turkey. Optimally, improvements in overall relations would lay the groundwork for Russian-Turkish cooperation that could bring greater stability to the Black Sea region, help repair relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and improve the plight of Crimean Tatars.
Turkey could provide further aid to the Crimean Tatars; Russia could allow it to do so. While there are important obstacles to having Russia and Turkey seize the opportunity to create such a virtuous cycle, they should at a minimum prevent regional conflicts from derailing bilateral cooperation. To rebuild trust and avert open conflict, they should coordinate de-escalation, exchange intelligence and designate representatives to open a new channel between their leaders. For nearly two centuries and despite their fierce geopolitical competition from the Levant to Iraq and the Caucasus, Turkey and Iran have kept the peace between themselves, compartmentalised growing energy and commercial relations and even cooperated regionally when their interests converged.
Yet today, while their economies are increasingly intertwined, a profound disagreement over core interests in Iraq and Syria is putting these two former empires on a collision course. It is not too late for a critically needed reset, but only if both recognise their fundamental interest in reversing course and taking steps that allow them to manage their differences peacefully, as they have done for almost years. As their officials and diplomats attest, Turkey and Iran generally concur on the strength of the relationship they have carefully nurtured during a long history of cohabitation.
Their inability to accommodate each other has the potential to undermine or even undo their strong ties. The dynamics instead point toward deepening sectarian tensions, greater bloodshed, growing instability across the region and greater risks of direct — even if inadvertent — military confrontation between them where their spheres of influence collide.
The possibility that an Iranian-made drone killed four Turkish soldiers in northern Syria on 24 November , as Ankara alleges, points toward perilous escalation. To reverse course and avoid worse, they need to overcome mutual mistrust.
To this end, and as a pressing priority, they should establish a channel for continuous high-level negotiations over their regional postures. The pace of such meetings as have been held has been problematic: periodic senior encounters lasting one or two days, followed by relatively long periods of diplomatic vacuum that tend to be filled with escalation of proxy wars and one-upmanship.
If they do this, and to demonstrate seriousness and goodwill, the governments should also take confidence-building steps, from more intelligence cooperation to coordinated de-escalation where conflict is most acute. In northern Iraq, Iran might thus offer as a first step to rein in Shiite militias deployed in Ninewa governorate, even as units nominally accountable to the Iraqi prime minister in his capacity as commander-in-chief, in return for Turkey agreeing to withdraw its tanks and other heavy weapons from the area.