Re-establishing Armenia on the Eurasian Chessboard
YEREVAN — The transformation of the global world order from the “Unipolar Moment” towards the multi-polar system is still in its early stages. It is challenging to assess the precise time frame of this shift. However, the world has entered an era of great power competition marked with instability, a growing role of coercive diplomacy and hard power, and an increased rivalry for regional hegemony.
In recent years we have witnessed that Turkey is transforming itself into an independent regional power that is influential in multiple regions – the Middle East, the Eastern Mediterranean, North Africa, the Black Sea, Balkans, and the South Caucasus. Turkey uses different methods and approaches in these areas – simultaneously seeking to cooperate and compete with Russia, the United States, France, Iran, and the Gulf states. In recent years, President Erdogan integrated the ideology of Pan-Turkism into Turkey’s foreign policy, pushing for the transformation of the Cooperation Council of Turkic speaking States into the Organization of Turkic states.
The growing aggressiveness and the increased role of Pan-Turkism ideology in Turkey raises concern in multiple capitals – from Athens to Moscow, Tehran, New Delhi, and Beijing – albeit for different reasons. Some are interested in countering Turkey, while Beijing is concerned that the emerging Turkic world under the leadership of Turkey may become a tool for the US containment strategy against China.
THE EVOLUTION OF POST-1991 ARMENIA-TURKEY RELATIONS
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the return of Turkey into the South Caucasus, many experts viewed the absence of bilateral relations between Turkey and Armenia as one of the main obstacles for Turkey to foment its influence in the region and to be an equal rival for Russia. Armenia–Turkey relations are burdened by past – the Armenian Genocide in the late years of the Ottoman Empire, and by the present – Turkey’s continuous denial of the Genocide, its blockade imposed on Armenia in April 1993, and its full support to Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. In the 1990s and 2000s, the US made several efforts to normalize Armenia-Turkey relations, viewing it as the only option to decrease Armenian dependence on Russia and lay the path towards the eventual banishing of Russia from the region. The Americans nearly succeeded in 2009, as Armenia and Turkey signed two protocols in Zurich. However, strong opposition from Azerbaijan and then-Prime Minister Erdogan’s alliance with Turkish nationalists stopped the process.
The 2020 Karabakh war, which resulted in the devastating defeat of Armenia, should have logically pushed the prospects of Armenia-Turkey normalization further away. However, both before and after the early Parliamentary elections held in Armenia in June 2021, representatives of the Armenian government, including the Prime Minister himself, made several statements arguing that Armenia should change its approach towards Turkey and that Armenia wanted to normalize relations and usher in an era of peace in the region. This campaign culminated on December 14, when both countries revealed they were appointing special representatives to push the normalization process.
This significant shift in the attitude of the Armenian government caught many by surprise. Since the 2020 Karabakh war, nothing has changed in Turkey; it has the same president, the same strategic goals in foreign policy, and continues to deny the Armenian Genocide. Yet the Armenian official position changed, from accusing Turkey of continuing its genocidal policy to a narrative on regional peace and development.
Some experts argue that the Armenian government de facto realized the main preconditions put forward by Turkey to normalize relations. With the 2020 Karabakh war and November tripartite agreement, Armenia relinquished its three-decade role as the security guarantor of Nagorno-Karabakh, making its fate a subject of Russia–Azerbaijan bilateral and potentially Russia-Azerbaijan-Turkey trilateral relations. Simultaneously, Armenia stopped pursuing the international recognition of the Armenian Genocide, as the Prime Minister did not say a word about genocide during his September 2021 UN General Assembly speech.
The Armenian government put forward an assessment that the overall restoration of communications, including the opening of the Armenia-Turkey border will in the short-term boost Armenia’s GDP by 30 percent. The Minister of Economy also spoke about new opportunities for Armenian exporters to enter the Turkish market with its population of over 80 million people, and to use Turkey as a transit route to reach the Middle East, as well as Europe via the Mediterranean Sea. Many experts, however, warn that the significant increase of cheaper Turkish imports is likely to damage Armenia’s emerging textile industry and create challenges for Armenian farmers focused on the domestic market, a risk heightened by the ongoing collapse of the Turkish Lira. Turkish private and state giants may seek to penetrate and control key sectors of the Armenian economy, including mining, energy generation, hospitality and IT.
STAYING ON THE CHESSBOARD
Regardless of the reasons behind this apparent shift of the Armenian government’s attitude towards Turkey, it will not solve the challenges Armenia faces. On the contrary, it threatens to exacerbate the situation even more.
Azerbaijan and Turkey are now pursuing a strategy to force Armenians out of Nagorno-Karabakh,, gain economic influence, and transform it into their client state. Armenia, therefore, needs external support and assistance to resist this pressure. If Armenia is ready to embrace Turkey and be gradually transformed into Turkey’s client state, no one will even notice the disappearance of Armenia from the geopolitical chessboard of Eurasia. At the same time, regional and global players will look for other options to deter Ankara.
In current circumstances, the only viable option for Armenia to remain on the geopolitical chessboard of Eurasia and prevent its gradual transformation into the client state of Turkey and Azerbaijan is to position itself as a state which does not welcome Turkey’s aggressive rise and is ready to resist it.
External support can only come from several states, namely Iran, India, Russia, and the Gulf-Mediterranean alliance, which are opposed to expanding Turkish influence.
Russo-Turkish relations have been at the forefront of recent expert and media discussions. “Cooperative competition,” “frenemies,” a “managed rivalry,” “co-opetition,” and other catch phrases are used to describe bilateral relations between Moscow and Ankara. The reality is that the two countries have both overlapping and contradictory interests in many parts of the world. The most critical for Russia, however, is the post-Soviet space and the Caucasus in particular.
Let us be clear. Russia decided to cooperate with Turkey to decrease the direct presence and involvement of the West in the South Caucasus. Launching the 3+3 format in Moscow (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Russia, Turkey, and Iran) is a sign of that cooperation. Nonetheless, the Kremlin has a clear understanding that it will face Turkey in the struggle to dominate the region at the end of the day. Russia has no intention to be replaced by Turkey as a leading power in the South Caucasus, and if Turkey successfully transforms Armenia into its client state, the Kremlin has few chances to prevent the realization of that scenario.
Russia’s strategy is clear – to use separate cooperation with Turkey to decrease direct involvement of the West in the South Caucasus and stabilize the situation, but never to allow Turkey to dominate. In this context, Russia is not against the Armenia-Turkey normalization process, but it will do its best to prevent the transformation of Armenia into Turkey’s client state and the economic dominance of Turkey over Armenia. A Russia-Armenia-Iran partnership would serve Russian interests quite well, as Iran cannot replace Russia in the South Caucasus and always will be a supporting force.
Iran has always viewed the South Caucasus as a part of the area of the Iranian civilization. However, the vital interests of Iran are located in the Middle East, where in the last two decades; Iran established a strong network of influence stretching from Iraq to Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen. Iran has not deployed the necessary resources to play a leading role in the South Caucasus. Its primary concern is to prevent the US and Israel from using the region as a launch pad of anti-Iranian activities. In this context, Iran views the entrenchment of Azerbaijan-Israel ties, now extending into conquered regions on its northwestern border, with growing anxiety.
Iran has a nuanced approach towards Turkey. Erdogan’s policy to transform Turkey into an independent actor and end its role as a sole provider of the US’ interests is in line with Iran’s strategic interests. But regardless of this fact, Iran does not want to see Turkey replacing Russia as the leading power in the South Caucasus, as it would encircle Northern Iran with a Turkic arc. Turkey is and will remain a NATO member state. Despite all tensions between Turkey and the US and between Turkey and NATO, if Turkey replaces Russia in the South Caucasus as the dominant player, it will open the path for the US and Israel to use the entire region for anti-Iranian activities.
Tehran believes that Russia and Turkey have reached an understanding in the region to manage their competition, but at the end of the day, the South Caucasus faces two choices – a dominant Turkey or a dominant Russia. Iran prefers the second option as more Russia means less US and vice versa. In this context, Iran would be happy to develop a Russia-Armenia-Iran partnership as the best option to secure its interests in the region. Iran will not fight against Turkey to push it out from the region, but Iran is ready to prevent total Turkish dominance in the South Caucasus. Iran will have no geostrategic interest in supporting Armenia if Armenia moves towards a partnership with Turkey.
Until recently, the South Caucasus was not an area of vital interest for India. It was not a destination of significant Indian exports or a source of vital imports, and none of the South Caucasian republics was involved in any anti-India activities. However, the situation has changed radically in the past year, and the driver of that change was Turkey’s decision to bring Pakistan into the region. Turkey played a crucial role in establishing the Azerbaijan-Pakistan-Turkey strategic partnership and the organization of the first trilateral military drills in Azerbaijan in September of this year. The growing involvement of Pakistan in the South Caucasus brought the region onto the Indian foreign and security policy radar.
On a strategic level, India views neighboring nuclear-armed Pakistan as a threat. The emerging Turkey-Azerbaijan-Pakistan “Three Brothers” strategic partnership, the anti-Indian statements of President Erdogan at the UN General Assembly and other forums, and Pakistan’s growing military presence in Azerbaijan makes India quite concerned. India would like to stop Pakistan from getting involved in the South Caucasus, but it understands that the viable path to reach that goal is not to pressure Azerbaijan but to prevent Turkey’s growing influence in the region. India has a clear vision that Turkey brought Pakistan to the region, and if it wants to stop the process, it needs to counter Turkey and not Azerbaijan.
Thus, maybe for the first time since 1991, the South Caucasus is a priority for India. A testament to this came in October, when India dispatched its top envoy to Armenia for the first time in the country’s post-Soviet history. In Yerevan, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar took the opportunity to stress India’s support for Armenia’s development as a key link in the planned International North South Transport Corridor connecting the Indian Ocean to the Black Sea, with the notable offer of access to the Iranian port of Chabahar, which is under development by India.
Eastern Mediterranean – Gulf alliance
Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, UAE, and Saudi Arabia have strong albeit different reasons to prevent the further rise of aggressive and nationalistic Turkey. Their grievances have a historical, geopolitical, and geo-economic background, spanning from illegal Turkish gas and oil exploration in the Eastern Mediterranean to Turkey’s support of the Muslim Brotherhood. France supports these anti-Turkish sentiments driven by geopolitics and domestic policy, given France’s growing nationalistic and anti-immigrant sentiments ahead of the 2022 Presidential elections.
Israel, another significant player in the Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean – which in March welcomed Greece, Cyprus and France to take part in joint naval trills, has its own problems with Erdogan, including anti-Semitism, support to Hamas, and other issues.
Recently Erdogan made some overtures towards its neighbors: hosting UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed in Ankara and speaking about his readiness to mend ties with Israel. However, the strategic contradictions remain in place. In recent years Israel, Greece, and Cyprus made significant efforts to foster bilateral ties. The three states signed an agreement to construct an East Med gas pipeline to bring Israeli and Cyprus gas to Europe in January 2020, while France and Greece signed a defense pact in September 2021. All these states will be ready to explore additional ways to counter Turkey’s aggressive behaviors in different regions, including the South Caucasus.
Given Armenia’s friendly relations with Greece, Cyprus, France, the UAE, and Egypt, it may benefit from bolstering its relations with these countries – seeking to receive investments and deepen its cooperation in the spheres of defense industry and defense education. This would require preliminary consulting with Russia not to frustrate its primary ally.
The devastating defeat in the 2020 Karabakh war has significantly reduced the geopolitical role of Armenia in the region. The previous 130 km border between the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic and Iran, and the control over the region’s vast water resources, added significant value to the Armenian geopolitical significance.
Armenia is a country with less than 3 million people and no significant natural resources. Copper, gold, and molybdenum bring profits to the Armenian budget, but Armenia is not among the world’s top players in mining. Its limited domestic market, approximately 30 percent considered at the poverty level, and no access to the sea does not make Armenia an attractive place for foreign investments. Armenia registered growth in some sectors in recent years, such as IT, tourism, and agriculture. However, none of them have added a geopolitical value to Armenia and did not make it a significant country for regional and global players to be interested on the level of protecting its interests and defending against external threats.
The potential role of Armenia as one of the efficient tools to counter Turkey’s aggressiveness is the only option to keep Armenia in the geopolitical chessboard of Eurasia. The alternative is elimination from that board and the eventual transformation into Turkey’s and Azerbaijan’s client state.
Armenia should directly talk with Turkey as every nation needs direct talks with its adversaries. Armenia and Turkey may have diplomatic relations, establish embassies in Yerevan and Ankara and use each other’s territories for transit purposes. However, there should be a clear line between direct Armenia-Turkey talks and a policy of appeasement. Armenia should not reward Turkey by giving up Nagorno-Karabakh and opening itself for Turkey’s economic penetration and dominance
During direct talks with Turkey, Armenia should clearly state that Nagorno-Karabakh, within at least the borders of the former Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Oblast and its secure land border with Armenia, should not be a part of Azerbaijan. Also, they should relay Turkey’s involvement in the 2020 Karabakh war. Armenia should also articulate that it will not tolerate Turkish economic penetration and dominance in Armenia.
Simultaneously with launching direct talks with Turkey and offering Ankara to establish diplomatic relations and opening up communications for using each other’s territories for transit purposes, Armenia should pursue active diplomatic engagement with states concerned by Turkey’s latest moves. The first step should be the launch of negotiations with Russia and Iran for establishing an official trilateral format of cooperation. Armenia should intensify the existing trilateral Armenia-Greece-Cyprus partnership and explore ways to engage with Israel given growing Israel-Greece-Cyprus ties.
While fully understanding the limits of possible defense cooperation with NATO member states, due to the existing tensions between Armenia’s sole treaty ally Russia and NATO, Armenia should start frank discussions with Russia about its desire to increase defense cooperation with Greece and France. Armenia should also start talks with the UAE and Egypt to explore the possibilities to establish Armenia-UAE-Egypt format focused on economic cooperation. Lastly, Armenia should capitalize on President Armen Sarkissian’s unprecedented October visit to Saudi Arabia and his warm welcome by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, to establish diplomatic relations between Armenia and the Kingdom.
One thing is clear – a normalization of Armenia-Turkey relations on Turkey’s terms, and the current trajectory towards a policy of appeasement, may only accelerate the demise of Armenia.