CGI Asks: Will Turkey-Russia Tensions Spill Over Into the Caucasus?

December 18, 2015

In each installment of “CGI Asks,” a selection of experts respond to a question on the latest developments in Russia and Eurasia. This week, we ask whether whether the recent conflict between Turkey and Russia could extend to their troubled neighborhood.

galeottiMark Galeotti, Professor of Global Affairs at the Center for Global Affairs, New York University


Moscow and Ankara have long been “frenemies,” cooperating in some ways while also competing for regional authority in the Middle East and the Caucasus. The Turks have, for example, courted Azerbaijan and also turned a blind eye to Chechen rebel fundraisers at home; likewise the Russians have offered some support, even if only moral, to Turkish Kurds.

There is thus the basis for both nations to escalate their current confrontation in the Caucasus. This could mean stepping up diplomatic efforts to squeeze the other country out of its present political and economic positions or more actively encouraging malign actors, such as anti-Russian insurgents or else drug traffickers operating through the Caucasus and into Turkey.

This would, though, be a dangerously destabilizing move, and if one side began to adopt such tactics, it is almost certain the other would reciprocate in kind. The likelihood is that neither side would come out of this well. This is therefore one of those uncomfortable situations where we wait to see whether head wins out over heart. Both Putin and Erdogan are used to brinkmanship and bluff and also covert pressure. They are also both viscerally angry with the other. Common sense would suggest that both has every reason to cool the current situation, but neither leader always follows the path of cold logic.

Richard Giragosian, Director, Regional Studies Center (Yerevan, Armenia)


It is already clear that the crisis between Russia and Turkey is expanding into the Caucasus. This “conflict spillover” comes as no surprise, however. In fact, against the backdrop of the escalating tension between Moscow and Ankara, the Caucasus is a tempting target for both sides. For Russia, the Caucasus offer a new front for confrontation and a platform for power projection, now aimed at pressuring Turkey. This reassertion of Russian power may leverage its military base in Armenia, mere miles from Turkish territory, bolstered by the deployment of Russian border guards along the closed Armenian-Turkish border. For Turkey, tension with Russia has also spurred a renewed effort to forge a new “security triad,” with Georgia and Azerbaijan. And for both sides, the already conflict-prone and vulnerable Caucasus offers a natural “battle space” for an expanding conflict, only reinforcing traditional geopolitical dividing lines.

Yet the current Russian-Turkish crisis is neither new nor surprising. It was inevitable. The formerly close relationship between the two countries was far too dependent on a personal, presidential partnership. Moreover, in light of the recent escalation of tension, the “bluff and blusters” of the Russian and Turkish presidents only reaffirm the inherent, and natural, rivalry between these two regional powers. Thus, this crisis is as much a reflection of history, as “hysteria of revenge.” And as always, it is the small Caucasus region that suffers most from this zero-sum confrontation, returning to its prison of geography, as an arena for confrontation over cooperation between the competing interests of much larger regional actors.

caseymichelCasey Michel, Author of Crossroads Asia, The Diplomat


Broadly, we’ll see certain strains of Russian-Turkish tensions push into the Caucasus, especially within economic relations. However, it seems unlikely the tension will manifest itself in any kind of militarized clash regarding Nagorno-Karabakh. While there’s an outside chance the latest round of tensions will spark a renewed militaristic clash in the region, it remains far likelier that tensions will remain relegated to sharp words and symbolic, if largely fruitless, economic recrimination.

Despite certain rhetoric, there appears little desire in either Moscow or Ankara – or even Yerevan and Baku, for that matter – to flare fighting within and around Nagorno-Karabakh. Economic difficulties, within most especially Baku and Moscow, have tamped down military reprisals for the time being. And there seems little reason to think Armenia will test its CSTO security relations with Russia for the foreseeable future.

That said, we’ve already seen fallout from the tensions, most especially in Russia’s decision to bar Turkish goods from passing from Azerbaijan to Russia. These economic reprisals will likely remain for some time – but any expansion into militarized response appears unlikely.

indexMichael Cecire, Associate Scholar, Foreign Policy Research Institute


Turkey-Russia tensions can absolutely spill over into the Caucasus. Both states are not only separated by the Caucasus, but both powers have various extensive economic, cultural, and military interests and relationships in the region. Armenia is a client state of Russia, a treaty ally, host for thousands of Russian troops, and whose actual independence from Moscow is a genuine question. Azerbaijan, which has long been at odds with Armenia over the latter’s occupation of Azerbaijani territory in Nagorno-Karabakh and adjoining regions, has its own defense treaty and longstanding cultural relationship with Turkey. With the situation continuously volatile at the Line of Contact between Azerbaijani and Armenian forces, the added factor of high tensions between regional powers Turkey and Russia increases the risk that the Karabakh conflict could turn into a regional conflagration and even potentially intermingle or merge with the fighting in Syria and Iraq.

More broadly, Turkey-Russia tensions mean that the Caucasus will likely be, over the long run, the primary theater of mutual competition. Locally, states and even separatist polities will be forced to choose between the two powers. Armenia is already firmly entrenched in the Russian system, and Georgia, which aspires to Euro-Atlantic integration and regards Russia as its principal security threat, has extremely close and growing relations with Turkey. However, other entities may be forced into taking sides before they feel ready.

Azerbaijan, its defense treaty with Turkey notwithstanding, has seen its relationship with Moscow expand dramatically over the past couple of years and is more a pillar of the ‘Eurasian’ world than a part of the West at this point. And over the Syria conflict, Baku is more firmly aligned with Russia and Iran than with Turkey or the Sunni Arab powers. Largely ignored Azerbaijani offers to mediate between Russia and Turkey underline Baku’s dilemma balancing between the two camps. Similarly, the Georgian separatist region of Abkhazia, “recognized” by Russia, is deeply reliant on Moscow for its fledgling economy, the de facto state budget, and security. Yet Turkey is home to a large diaspora of Abkhazians and their Circassian kin, and Ankara has been willing to quietly buck the international embargo and trade with Sukhumi. Russia may be the Abkhazian separatists’ chief geopolitical benefactor, but Turkey has serious cultural and economic influence in the balmy Black Sea republic.

The Center on Global Interests provides an open platform for discussion. The views expressed here are the authors’ own.