By Daniele Santoro
1. The war in Ukraine has allowed Turkey to unravel the dilemma that has been gripping it for over a decade now. Pinned for years at the crossroads between Washington and Moscow and between the Atlantic option and the Eurasian chimera, since 24 February Ankara has begun to move with further ease between the superpower and its declining rival, successfully substantiating its ambitious rhetoric on strategic autonomy, and disengaging itself from the bipolar logic made anachronistic by Putin’s suicide in Ukraine. The moves played by Erdoğan on the Ukrainian chessboard disregard the tactical balancing act between the United States and Russia; they do not imply any general consequences on Turkey’s geopolitical affiliation and only respond to Turkish strategic imperatives.
What induced Ankara to step on the accelerator was precisely Russia’s defeat in Ukraine. There was also Moscow’s need to concentrate resources and attention on the western front, which inevitably forced the Kremlin to deplete the quadrants characterised for years by vigorous Turkish-Russian competition. This led to the opening up for Turkey of margins of manoeuvre that were unthinkable up to the eve of the conflict. This allowed the Turks to further accentuate their unscrupulous posture, to challenge Russia with increasing brazenness, and at the same time to exploit Russia’s difficulties to consolidate bilateral trade, energy and even military relations to their advantage.
But these moves did not imply a symmetrical rapprochement or estrangement from the United States. The Russian variable is no longer a factor in the Turkish-American geopolitical equation. The attack on Moscow’s influence in the Levant, the Caucasus, and Central Asia appeals to Washington to a certain extent, because the superpower is well aware that Russian losses translate into Turkish gains. The dynamics of the Ukraine conflict and its continental ramifications have exponentially increased Turkey’s geopolitical importance for the superpower, but have equally pronouncedly increased the magnitude of the threat inherent in Turkey’s growing expansionism. This has led the United States to adopt an approach calibrated to the ambitious aspirations of its former ally. Washington has by now realised that it can no longer compress Ankara’s imperialism in the Anatolian box. Washington must necessarily grant an outlet to Turkey’s irrepressible tendency towards extroversion: by proposing to orient it towards the fronts where competition with Russia is more pronounced, thus further incentivising the dual containment between the two rivals, and to contain it in the quadrants where the increase in Turkish influence would act as a power multiplier. In other words, the United States leaves a relatively free hand to Ankara along the Caucasus-Central Asia land route and at the same time hinders its projection into the Middle Ocean by setting up an anti-Turkish cordon between Thrace and Cyprus. The aim is to drown the Turks’ thalassic vagaries and push them into the Eurasian fray, while distracting them from the sea and inducing them to concentrate on land.
2. Turkey is fighting the Ukraine war mainly outside of Ukraine. By helping to foil the Russian march on Kiev, Ankara has achieved its main strategic objective in the conflict. It had equipped itself in advance, providing the Ukrainians with the famous Bayraktar Tb2 drones as early as 2019. The nature of the Turkish-Ukrainian military cooperation, however, reveals that Erdoğan’s concerns were rather relative and that the Turks had to some extent foreseen the difficulties encountered by the Russians west of the Don. Unlike Western countries, Turkey has in fact never given a single bullet to Kiev – partial exceptions being the drones given away for free following the emotionally-charged collections organised by Poles, Lithuanians and the Ukrainians themselves. For Ankara, the current dynamics of the conflict – the Russians bogged down and under attack, the Ukrainians seemingly unable to prevail despite the comeback fuelled by American intelligence – make up an almost idyllic situation, as they allow Erdoğan to successfully play the role of honest matchmaker between the belligerents and thus capitalising on Russia’s misfortunes while taking care to protect his rival’s core interests. Putin’s now daily praise of the Turkish president’s wisdom is a demonstration of this, as well as an unmistakable sign of the desperation that reigns in the Kremlin.
Never since the end of the 17th century have the Russians been so dependent on the Turks, on the latter’s willingness to (not) allow them to pass through the Straits. In this sense, Ankara has sent unequivocal signals to Moscow. It closed the Bosporus and the Dardanelles to warships, but the timing did not harm Russian war operations in Ukraine. It quintupled the toll for transit through strategic bottlenecks, but at the same time revamped the Montreux Convention (actually written by the Soviets) and temporarily froze the works that had to begin on the Istanbul Canal. It allowed Russian commercial vessels laden with armaments – e.g. S-300s transferred from Syria to Ukraine – to pass through the Straits when the conflict began to turn against Moscow, while at the same time announcing that it would more ‘carefully’ evaluate arms supplies to Kiev. These dynamics have further brought back the overall balance of power and allowed Turkey to considerably harden its anti-Russian approach in multiple quadrants, particularly in the South Caucasus, the not-only-geographical focus of the dispute that unfolds along an arc stretching from Central Asia to deepest Africa.
3. At this stage, the instrumental Turkish-American tactical convergences in the Caucasus quadrant are clear and substantial. Washington has every interest in guaranteeing a terrestrial outlet for Ankara’s imperial ambitions, directing them towards a region that is anything but strategic for US interests in order to divert them from the crucial MedOceanic route. The aim is to induce the Turks to enter a collision course with the Iranians, Russians and Chinese, structurally preventing the emergence of an unlikely Eurasian bloc, an option re-launched by Erdoğan when he requested full admission into the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. Symmetrically, the destabilisation of Armenia and the Russian-American competition for Yerevan plays into Turkey’s hands, since these dynamics allow Azerbaijan to raise the level of confrontation in terms of violence and force the Armenians to seek a downward compromise. Not least because today the real issue at stake in the Caucasian conflict is (no longer) Nagorno Karabakh but Armenia’s territorial integrity, which the Russians are evidently unable to defend and which the Americans could only protect once Yerevan has turned its back on Moscow. In spite of everything, this eventuality remains highly unlikely in the immediate future, in light of the continuing commercial, energy, cultural and military influence that Russia can project onto the Caucasian country. Remarkable, in this sense, was the speech made in parliament by Nikol Pashinyan on the night of 13-14 September, during which the Armenian Prime Minister publicly admitted that he was prepared to sign the surrender. He said he was ready to accept that ‘many people will criticize and denounce [him] and call [him] traitor’, even to run the risk of being ‘remove[d] from office’. Equally indicative is the fact that at the end of September the Armenian secret services contributed to the capture of two PKK terrorists by Turkey and that despite Azerbaijan’s aggressiveness the normalisation process between Ankara and Yerevan – in the context of which the border was opened to the transit of third-country nationals and the first direct commercial flights between the two countries began – has not suffered any setbacks.
The Caucasian synergies between Ankara and Washington could continue in the medium term and foster the realisation of the strategic goals pursued by the Turks in this quadrant. From the Turkish perspective, the key issue at stake in the South Caucasus conflict is the opening of a land link between Azerbaijan and the Autonomous Republic of Nahçıvan, which borders Turkey via a strip of territory that Mustafa Kemal dubbed the ‘Turkish gateway’. Such an operation would allow Ankara to establish a direct connection between Istanbul and the Caspian, to structurally bind Turkey to Turkic Asia, and thus to substantiate the fascinating Pan-Turkic rhetoric that increasingly cloaks the geopolitical narrative of Erdoğan and Bahççeli. While publicly obstructing the project, Washington could turn a blind eye and even encourage Ankara’s Eurasian projection under the table, in order not to encourage the expansion of the undisciplined former ally and not to deal a mortal blow to Russia’s grip on the region, since for the superpower, the slippage of the South Caucasus into the Turkish orbit poses a more alarming threat than Moscow’s continued influence. Through the Turkish-Azerbaijani corridor, however, the Americans could attain two tactical objectives that are far from irrelevant.
Firstly, Ankara’s Caucasian manoeuvre would allow the US to satisfy Israel’s desire – perceived less urgently by the superpower – to increase pressure on Iran from the north. One of the main consequences of establishing a direct connection between Turkey and Azerbaijan would in fact be to nip in the bud the north-south infrastructural corridor with which the Islamic Republic intends to bypass the Anatolian Plate and reach the Mediterranean and Russia via Armenia, Georgia, the Black Sea, Bulgaria and Greece. This would constitute a central section of the larger Russian-Indian project to connect the Indo-Gangetic Plain and the Indian Ocean to the Baltic Sea. Tehran has lucidly understood the nature of the risk, so much so that at the beginning of the recent Armenian-Azerbaijani clashes, Iran’s Foreign Minister publicly expressed his opposition to the reshaping of the borders in the Caucasus, an indication that the Islamic Republic fears – quite reasonably – that the Turkish-Azerbaijani corridor affair will end with Baku annexing Armenian territory, a circumstance that would deprive it of its border with Armenia and extend the border with ‘Turkey’ from the Zagros to the Caspian.
Worse still, Azerbaijan’s military successes and the emergence of a ‘Western Turkestan’ endowed with territorial continuity, risk instilling an unprecedented Pan-Azeri nationalist sentiment in the Islamic Republic’s large Turkish minority, which according to conservative estimates amounts to about a quarter of Iran’s population. This circumstance ties the hands of the Iranians. The threat inherent in the progressive “Turkishisation” of the Caucasus and the risk of losing the land border with Armenia should induce Tehran to intervene in defence of Yerevan. However, adopting an overtly anti-Azerbaijani approach could negatively affect the loyalty of Iran’s Azeris. This leaves the Iranians no choice but to watch Turkish activism in the region with frustrated concern, to the delight of the Israelis. Thanks to the support provided to Baku in the second Nagorno Karabakh war, Israel has managed to install itself in Azerbaijan with the intention of forcing the enemy to defend itself on the northern front as well, by reciprocating the border threat Iran poses from Syria, and of stirring up the Azerbaijani minority in the Islamic Republic. As demonstrated by the cryptic message about the “mysteries of Tabriz” delivered to the Ayatollahs by the eclectic Israeli ambassador to Baku, George Deek.
The possible opening of the Turkish-Azerbaijani corridor would also allow the United States to wedge itself into the crisis between Russia and China, to fuel the decoupling of the ‘odd couple’. Concerns expressed by Xi Jinping to Vladimir Putin at their meeting in Samarkand on 15 September, the first face-to-face meeting between the two leaders since the start of the war in Ukraine, signal Beijing’s growing unease with the evolution of the conflict. The ‘special military operation’ has indeed compromised – perhaps irreparably – the northern route of the New Silk Roads, the route by which the People’s Republic aspires to connect its Pacific ports to continental Europe via Russia and Ukraine. Western sanctions on Moscow and the Ukrainian junction’s impracticability have given rise to this situation.
China is looking for alternatives and the Turkic corridor linking Beijing to Istanbul via Kazakhstan, the Caspian, Azerbaijan and Georgia is currently the only viable option, albeit not without risks. The Georgian section of the ‘central corridor’ – as Ankara called the Caucasian-Central Asian route in the late 1990s – is in fact subject to potentially deadly Russian pressure. This circumstance makes the Armenian branch, which is less exposed to Moscow’s destabilising actions, particularly valuable to Beijing. The Chinese are exhibiting an ever-increasing intolerance towards Moscow’s actions, as demonstrated by the assertiveness with which Xi Jinping expressed his support for the defence of Kazakhstan’s territorial integrity during his visit to Nur-Sultan on 14 September, one day before his meeting with Putin in Samarkand. For their part, the Americans could turn a blind eye to the opening of the Turkish-Chinese corridor since such a dynamic would favour Sino-Russian decoupling, hinder the infrastructural connection between Russia, India and Iran, and thus prevent Moscow from reaching the Indo-Pacific by land. But, most of all, because Washington increasingly controls what would become the key artery of its main rival’s Eurasian projection.
4. The recent acceleration in the reconciliation between Ankara and the Syrian government – instrumentally blessed by Erdoğan and Bahçeli as early as August – is a further reflection of Russia’s difficulties in Ukraine and plastically confirms the rebalancing of Turkish-Russian power relations also in the MedOceanic context. If in Eurasia Turkey attacks Russia’s influence without regard in all quadrants where the interests of the two powers overlap, in the Middle Ocean it strives to match its own growing ambitions to its rival’s strategic imperatives. For Turkey this is a matter of inescapable necessity. In the immediate term, Erdoğan’s priority is to prevent Russia’s shrinking presence in the Levant from favouring Iran’s projection towards the Mediterranean, which despite the agreement with Israel, Ankara does not yet feel ready to confront directly. In strategic terms, the Russians serve the Turks to force the dual containment of the United States in its domestic seas. The Turkish-Russian game of Parts Work is relatively coming to an end, because the Americans have now woken up and smelled the coffee. From Turkey’s perspective, it is no longer a question of using Russia as a tactical lever to justify its maritime extroversion in the eyes of the superpower, but of exploiting the coinciding strategic interests in the Middle Ocean to pierce the cordon set up by Washington between the eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean Sea.
Turkey and Russia are two radically land-based powers that increasingly perceive the imperative to gain an oceanic dimension. For the Russians, the Black Sea-Mediterranean-Indian Ocean route is the only way out of the American encirclement. For the Turks, the MedOceanic projection is synonymous with the restoration of imperial glory. The starting conditions, the inclination of the parabola and the motivations are different but the underlying objective is similar. And the aggressive posture of the United States means that unlike in Eurasia, the perfect overlapping of Turkish-Russian interests induces Ankara and Moscow to present a united front.
Compacting Turkey and Russia is the dual containment arranged by the Americans on the Greek and Cypriot pivots. In May, the Greek Parliament ratified the amendments to the Mutual Defence Cooperation Agreement with the United States, granting the superpower the use of three more military bases in addition to the one in Suda on the island of Crete. Of these, the most strategic is evidently the one located in the port city of Alexandropoli/Dedeağaç, from where the United States can monitor and possibly prevent Ankara’s and Moscow’s MedOceanic extroversion. The US has now elected the Greek peninsula as an outpost of its projection into the Middle Ocean, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa, with the obvious aim of using the military installations kindly granted by Athens to formally contain the Russians, surreptitiously the Turks, and essentially both.
Turkey has smelled the rat and is determined to call America’s bluff. It is hardening its posture in the decisive confrontation with Athens, challenging the Greeks to a duel, and threatening to reshape the maritime borders in the Aegean with the use of force. Washington perceives Turkish pressure with increasing fear, as demonstrated by the State Department’s now almost daily references to the need to protect Greece’s territorial integrity and Greek sovereignty over the Aegean islands, the biggest stakes of the robust MedOceanic competition. For their part, the Russians have every interest in incentivising the escalation of the Turkish-Greek dispute and in supporting Turkey laterally in a confrontation that can decisively influence the vital attempt to circumvent the American encirclement. They thus seek to widen the rift between Turkey and the United States, to amplify the consequences of the American disengagement from the Mediterranean, and to fuel MedOceanic convergences with the historic rival.
Such dynamics clearly divide in two Ankara’s imperial projection. In Eurasia, the Turks play against Russia in ephemeral harmony with the superpower. In the Middle Ocean, they put up a united front with the Russians to break the American maritime siege. But the Turkish pendulum has stopped swinging between Washington and Moscow. Tactical convergences with the two powers have no strategic significance. They do not shift the orientation of Turkey’s geopolitical axis, whose centre of rotation is now firmly hinged on Anatolia and disregards the Russian and American extremes.