Most Significant Security Challenges and Opportunities for the Caspian Region: Turkish Perspective
Author: Dr. Bülent Aras
Jan 10, 2024
This article is a guest contribution from a conference in July 2023, that the CPC hosted together with the Near East South Asia Center of the National Defense University (NDU), “Connecting Central Asia, the South Caucasus and Beyond”.
Türkiye has regenerated interest in the Caucasus/Central Asia region through bilateral and multilateral engagements with the countries of the region. Turkish policy towards this region is emerging gradually by evolving political, economic, and energy relations in the post-Soviet era since the independence of the countries of the region. There has always been an ethnic affinity in the political dialogues, but the sides tried to establish solid relations by means of political and economic relations, and, at the top, by the pipeline and energy deals. Türkiye takes part in the energy geopolitics of the Caspian basin, interestingly in parallel with the projects with Russia, by playing well in the regional balances. One needs to focus on the fact that this has been a painful process by all sides, but energy geopolitics is an area that is, more or less, a middle ground in the relations between the countries.
Türkiye has evolved its regional engagements to provide a security and military role, after the second Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict. Ankara’s active support for Azerbaijan’s military capabilities made Türkiye a security actor in the wider scope of geopolitics as well. This role then gained more importance in the aftermath of the Ukraine invasion and Russia’s internal turmoil after the recent Wagner mutiny. Türkiye’s recent charm offensive in the region by a new momentum in bilateral diplomacy, strengthening the Organization of Turkic States (OTS), and an emerging security-provider role are all parts of regenerated interest or reset in the relations towards this region.
Russia’s troubles in the Ukraine War are both a boon and a challenge for Turkish interests. This might have a direct, even immediate impact on the Central Asian republics, Georgia, and Belarus. It might even give credence to centrifugal movements inside the Russian Federation. This development might negatively affect Turkish trade and political interactions with these regions, as well as giving way to a further possibility of human inflows to Türkiye. Yet, in the long run, a weakened Russia might benefit Türkiye. Ankara might find new venues to cripple Russian legacy and make inroads to increase its political influence in these countries.
Russian regional retrenchment and even national disunion are more likely than not, not only because of the missteps in Ukraine but also due to other factors such as economic, political, and demographic disequilibrium. With Russia’s role dialed back, Türkiye will find a wide zone of influence open to project Turkish interests. This requires strategic thinking and not engendering a new polarized atmosphere in Central Asia, the Caucasus, the Balkans, and the Middle East. Türkiye’s engagement in the second Azerbaijan-Armenia war by military assistance has been exemplary in the regard that it utilized post-Ukraine geopolitics with a well-implemented strategy on the ground. It consolidated the Türkiye-Azerbaijan strategic partnership and left a permanent imprint on regional geopolitics with future implications. Türkiye has more chances to play delicate balancing roles, for example in the relations between Georgia and Russia, and to balance Iran in its relations with regional countries.
Regional Connectivity, Trade, and Energy
There are three ongoing regional integration schemes, among others, which promote inter-connectivity in this geography. The first is the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which brings China and Russia together with Central Asian countries and Iran. For this platform, Türkiye is a dialogue partner. The SCO continues to expand, and its members attribute increasingly more prominent roles to this organization. The second one is the Organization of Turkic States (OTS), which consists of Turkic-language-speaking countries and Hungary. There is a new momentum in the OTS that aims for political, economic, and strategic integration within this bloc. The third is the deepening energy ties and revival of the Middle Corridor (in the spirit of the old Silk Road) for economic relations.
Iran seeks to contain the development of the OTS, considering it a threat, in particular after Azerbaijan’s regaining of its lands from Armenia. The regional balance of power shifted toward Türkiye and Azerbaijan with the support of Pakistan and Israel. This unlikely constellation is one of the headaches for the Iranian hardline regime nowadays. However, Iranian influence, or spoiler role, in these projects has considerably lessened mainly due to an overstretch in Iranian international involvement and rising political and economic problems at home. Türkiye plays a central role in the Southern Gas Corridor and contributed to regional connectivity in the sense of energy security through the construction of the Trans-Anatolian Gas Pipeline (TANAP) and the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TAP).
Türkiye also aims to seize the opportunity to create alternative trade routes after supply-chain problems in the aftermath of the Ukraine invasion. The Russia-Ukraine War already had a negative impact on the EU and transatlantic trade routes, as well as Eurasian ones, and had implications on the structures of the global supply chain. The attempts to establish the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route is a promising project for not only the regional countries but also for the EU as well. The participating Asian countries would benefit from this project, too. There is already visible progress through coordination meetings, established committees, and the on-going construction of various parts of this route. The Zangezur Corridor will consolidate the value and operationality of the project. The Middle Corridor project avoids Iran and Russia, and the proposed trade routes promise security and welfare for sending, receiving, and transit countries.