Caucasus: A Clash of Imperial Dreams
As the dust settles after the latest fighting in Transcaucasia we may be witnessing the shaping of a bigger disaster involving more parts of the Western Asian arch of instability spanning from the Caspian Basin to the Mediterranean.
Let’s briefly recall what happened.
Sometime in 2018, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan offered to help his Azerbaijani counterpart Ilham Aliev to reconquer the High Qarabagh enclave captured by neighboring Armenia in the early 1990s, soon after the disintegration of the Soviet Empire. A crash program of training and arming the newly created Azeri army was launched by Ankara, financed by Azerbaijan’s spiraling oil revenues. The fact that the so-called Minsk Trio, the United States, France and Russia, who guaranteed the status quo had lost interest in the whole thing enabled Erdogan to put the new and as yet fragile Azeri republic on a war footing with the help of over 100 Turkish advisers and some 300 Syrian jihadis forming part of a Turkish Foreign Legion.
Meanwhile, successive Armenian governments, thinking that Russia will always be there to protect Armenia, as it had done since the 18th century, had neglected the new nation’s defense needs. Just over a month of fighting drove the Armenians onto the defensive and then defeat on various fronts. But when the Azeris and Turkish allies were swooning for the kill, Russia intervened by calling the leaders of Baku and Yerevan to Moscow to agree to a confused ceasefire that, while stopping the fighting, left the deep causes of the conflict untouched. In typical fashion of opportunist powers, Russia used the occasion to extend its military presence, already significant in Armenia, to Azerbaijan as well. Under the Moscow accord, a Russian “peacekeeping” force will seize control of the ceasefire line plus the borders of Azerbaijan and Armenia with Iran.
On balance, the Azeris didn’t gain much. Most of the disputed enclave, notably its capital Stepanakert (Khan Kandi in Azeri) remains beyond their control, while a good chunk of their own territory, notably the land route between Azerbaijan proper and its “autonomous” enclave of Nakhichevan, fall under Russian control.
Armenia loses six settlements while at least half of High Qarabagh’s ethnic Armenian population has chosen to flee, often burning their villages. Worse still, Yerevan will now have to consult, read obey, Moscow before attempting any revenge in the future. The message is clear: Transcaucasia was a Russian protectorate for two centuries and is again becoming a Russian glacis.
All this may recall what Putin has done in some other so-called “near neighbors” of Russia. He has annexed the Crimean Peninsula and carved out a fiefdom in Donetsk in eastern Ukraine. He has annexed the Georgian enclave of South Ossetia and created another fiefdom in Abkhazia. He has a similar fiefdom in eastern Moldova, under Russian protection and is breathing down Latvia’s neck with a military build-up.
And yet, Putin may turn out to be one of the losers in this deadly game.
To start with, the mini-victory he has won against Armenia may have whetted Erdogan’s appetite for further conquests. Pro-Erdogan papers in Turkey are beating the drums about “victory in the Caucasus” as the first time, since the end of the Ottoman Empire, that Turks have managed to “liberate” a chunk of Islamdom from “infidel” rule. Forty-eight hours after the ceasefire, Erdogan asked the Turkish Parliament to let him send an expeditionary force to Azerbaijan. A Turkish military presence in Transcaucasia could entail the risk of direct confrontation between Moscow and Ankara which are already in conflict in a number of other places notably Syria, Libya and Kosovo.
Worse still for Putin, Erdogan has already indicated he wants to involve his Foreign Legion of Jihadis in protecting “Muslim lands”. The Moscow daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta quotes Russian military experts who warn that Erdogan may have his eyes on stirring trouble among Crimean Tatar already unhappy with Russian annexation. A recent visit by a gentleman who claims to be heir to the throne of Crimea on behalf of the Develt Giray Tatar dynasty who ruled in Baghche-Sarai in medieval times was given top billing in Ankara. (Crimean Tatars were transported to Siberia en masse by Stalin but allowed to return under Khrushchev in the 1950s.)
The region is full of Muslim lands to be “liberated “from Russian “Infidel” control, notably Dagestan, Chechnya, Ingushetia and Charkes-Qarachai, not to mention the more populated autonomous republics of Tatarstan a Bashkortostan.
More immediately, Erdogan’s ambitions may threaten Armenia’s very existence. Turks blame Armenians for having stabbed the Ottoman Empire in the back in the First World War by siding with Russia. It is no accident that Ankara has revived the memory of the so-called Iravan (Yerevan in Armenian) Khanate, a mini-state under a self-styled Turkic khan that enjoyed a brief existence during the period of Iranian decline under the Qajars.
Several Moscow papers claim that Erdogan’s swelling ambition is dangerous for both Russia and Armenia.
By mixing his Muslim Brotherhood jihadism with pan-Turkic themes that recall Enver Pasha, Erdogan hopes to replace the Ataturk narrative with a new narrative of religious nationalism. It is no accident that he is also sharpening his anti-West rhetoric and tightening ties with the Grey Wolves, a pan-Turkish outfit banned by the European Union as a “terrorist organization.” The “Grey Wolves” dream of a Turkic empire stretching from the Balkans to Central Asia. In their most cherished book, The White Lilies, they even claim that Finns and Hungarians are also Turks and would become part of the empire.
The mess created by Putin and Erdogan in Transcaucasia may also revive Armenian militancy. There are some 12 million Armenians across the globe, more than 3 million in Russia alone. In recent days we have heard noises about “volunteers” from various parts of Europe and North America who might go to the region to fight against the “Turkish enemy.”
Two decades ago, we witnessed a similar trend as Serb and Croats in diaspora returned to the Balkans to fight for their respective patch of land. For almost three decades, until the fall of the Soviet Empire, the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA) was a thorn in the side of both Turkey and Russia.
Ah, and what about Iran? It has lost its border with Armenia, and once again has Russia as a land neighbor. The latest episode revealed the Islamic Republic as a country without a proper government in the normal sense of the term, and thus as an irrelevant spectator as the “big beasts” fight it out.