An alternative to Russia and China: Turkey’s role in the South Caucasus and Central Asia

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s re-election as president of Turkey last month means the country is set to continue its engagement with the South Caucasus and Central Asia, where Turkey is increasingly viewed as a regional power able to rival and counter Russian, Iranian, and Chinese influence. 

When communism fell and the Soviet Union broke apart in 1991, Turkey faced a moment of both crisis and opportunity. Its strategic location on the USSR’s border had given it prominence within the NATO throughout the Cold War, but as the world entered what seemed like a US-led unipolar era, its stock fell.

However, as the First Karabakh War, Georgian Civil War, Tajikistani Civil War, and unrest in Central Asia’s Fergana Valley continued throughout the early 1990s, it quickly became apparent that the South Caucasus and Central Asia were indeed new theatres for regional power struggle. History had not ended, yet.  

Turkey, then, would work to help guide these regions towards prosperity and stability and in doing so counter and contain Russian, Iranian, and Chinese influence. Its ethnolinguistic ties with the Muslim Turkic republics of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan would prove a useful basis for establishing solidarity even if many of these countries were initially sceptical of and hesitant to embrace the Western ally and Cold War foe with the second largest military in NATO. 

Steadfast support for Azerbaijan 

The First Karabakh War began in 1988, before the USSR’s collapse, and waged for six bloody years that saw pogroms and massacres and the expulsion of around 700,000 Azerbaijanis from Armenia and territories in and around Nagorno-Karabakh. Tens of thousands of Armenians were likewise displaced from mainland Azerbaijan and its exclave of Nakhchivan.  

Russia and the United States—home to a large Armenian diaspora—were generally supportive of Armenia during this war. The irredentist calls for a “Greater Azerbaijan” including parts of northern Iran by then Azerbaijani president Abulfaz Elchibey alienated Iran at a critical point in Azerbaijani-Iranian relations.  

Turkey, however, vocally advocated for the perspective of its Turkic sister, Azerbaijan, when other countries did not, and the two countries placed an embargo on Armenia. Turkey’s border with Armenia has remained closed for decades, save for the rare humanitarian convoy, and Turkey set the return to Azerbaijan of territory occupied by Armenia-aligned forces as its precondition for normalising relations. 

The Turkey-Azerbaijan axis strengthened amid the race for fossil fuel reserves in the Caspian Sea as the oil and gas fields of the USSR were to be split between its successor states. Azerbaijan is the only country in the South Caucasus with a Caspian coastline, and it inherited vast reserves. These can only be shipped west by skirting Armenia via Georgia; the Baku–Tbilisi–Ceyhan pipeline follows a roundabout path north of Armenia and then south again.  

While cultural and economic ties have formed a strong foundation for Turkish-Azerbaijani relations, the two countries have also increasingly cooperated on military issues. Turkey helped the newly-independent Azerbaijan build its military from the ground up in a rejection of the model of the Soviet Red Army. Turkish armed forces educated and trained Azerbaijani military personnel and has co-founded and advised military academies in Azerbaijan—as well as in Georgia, with whom it cooperated on Black Sea security. 

Azerbaijanis have participated in Turkish military exercises since 2010, and the two countries frequently run joint drills on Azerbaijan’s border with an increasingly hostile Iran. Turkey has also armed Azerbaijan, notably with Bayraktar TB2 drones used in the Second Karabakh War to reclaim territory from Armenian separatist forces. Azerbaijani leader Ilham Aliyev ran footage of these drone strikes on digital billboards in Baku. 

Organising relations  

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has now led Turkey for two decades (either as prime minister or president) and his administrations have sought to foster close relations with not only Azerbaijan, but the Turkic states of Central Asia as well.  

Erdoğan’s former foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, concisely summarised his government’s aims in the region, saying, “Turkey’s ambitions to the Central Asian republics (CARS) is to maintain political and economic stability and prosperity in the region; to contribute to the emergence of an environment conducive to regional cooperation; to support their vocation toward Euro-Atlantic institutions, and to assist them to benefit from their own energy resources.” 

Turkey has built upon bilateral relations rooted in energy interests and soft pan-Turkism to build a multilateral framework for regional cooperation to rival those of Russia and China.  

Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Armenia are in the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) with Belarus and Russia, and the same countries as well as Tajikistan are in the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO). Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Uzbekistan were initially members of the CSTO but declined to renew their memberships in 1999. Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan are, however, members of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) with the countries of the CSTO and Moldova. Because Russia has the largest military and economy of any member state in these organisations, the organisations are often characterised as “Russian-led”. 

China has largely engaged Central Asia through the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). Originally termed “The Shanghai Five”, China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan began meeting in 1996. When Uzbekistan began participating in 2001, they launched the SCO—which has since been joined by India and Pakistan as well. Chinese leader Xi Jinping announced China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in Kazakhstan in 2013, and Beijing has now spent over one trillion US dollars on BRI development and infrastructure projects in 149 countries—including many inestments in Central Asia. Last month, China convened the leaders of all five Central Asian countries in Xi’an for a summit and has been moving ahead with railroad projects in the region.  

In 2022, Erdoğan announced Turkey’s intention to become a full member of the SCO. After the success of Russian- and Chinese-led multilateral frameworks, Turkey launched the Turkic Council with Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan in 2009. It has since been renamed to the Organisation of Turkic States (OTS) and Uzbekistan has joined as a full member. Hungary and Turkmenistan are observer states who attend OTS summits, and in 2022, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) also joined as an observer. Turkey is the only country in the world to recognise the TRNC—the rest of the world considers it to be part of the Republic of Cyprus, a member of the European Union—so the TRNC’s admittance was a diplomatic win and potential step towards broader recognition. 

While the OTS works mostly on economic and cultural cooperation, Central Asia has also increasingly bought arms from Turkey— including Bayraktar TB2 drones. Turkmenistan was the first country in the region to purchase the drones in 2020, but after Kyrgyzstan used its Bayraktar TB2 drones against Tajikistan in a border war in September 2022, all five countries in the region either have them or are in the process of acquiring them from Turkey. 

Tajikistan is predominantly home to speakers of Tajik Persian rather than Turkic languages, so it is not a member of the OTS. The secretary-general of the OTS openly sided with OTS member Kyrgyzstan in the war, to the dismay of Tajikistan’s authorities. Still, the OTS is primarily concerned with regional stability and cooperation through non-military means.  

Incentives for peace 

Both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are members of the CSTO. For treaty allies to go to war indicates a weak coherence within the alliance on key issues besides the desire to stay broadly aligned with Russia on security issues.  

To make matters worse for the organisation, after Azerbaijani troops attacked the territory of CSTO member Armenia in September 2022, the alliance drew Armenia’s ire for failing to respond in a timely manner. Russia’s troops are already stretched thin by the war in Ukraine, so it would have been difficult to immediately deploy more Russian troops to Armenia to defend it, but Central Asian members also opposed CSTO intervention against Azerbaijan due to strong trade and cultural ties with it. 

Armenian prime minister Nikol Pashinyan said in May that he was “not ruling out” the possibility of Armenia withdrawing from the CSTO if Armenia determines “the CSTO has withdrawn from Armenia”. 

Russia cannot afford for the credibility of its security guarantees for CSTO treaty allies to be tested any further but it is not in a position to commit more troops to Armenia either. Now, more than ever, it wants a lasting peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan—as does Turkey.  

The leaders and foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan have met frequently since the September incursion to agree on a peace deal. The talks have been mediated by the US, EU, and Russia and coincide with Turkey’s talks to normalise relations with Armenia. Ankara has previously waited to normalise relations with Yerevan until it formally recognises Nagorno-Karabakh—home to a breakaway state of ethnic Armenians—as Azerbaijani, as Pashinyan has now done to secure a peace deal with Azerbaijan.  

If a deal is realised, goods could be shipped between Nakhchivan—the Azerbaijani exclave bordering Turkey—and mainland Azerbaijan via Armenian territory, opening an uninterrupted trans-Caspian trade route between OTS member states and shorten routes by eliminating the need for fuel from Azerbaijan to circumvent Armenia via Georgia.  

Even as other members of NATO clash with Turkey on other issues, Turkish soft and hard power in the South Caucasus and Central Asia offers NATO the chance to compete with Russian and Chinese influence in those regions. The US has drawn down its security presence in Central Asia since withdrawing from neighbouring Afghanistan and has not invested the large sums it would need to counter Chinese BRI spending on Central Asian infrastructure. Nonetheless, the West benefits from the Caspian Sea’s vast energy reserves and trans-Caspian shipping routes that circumvent Iran and Russia.  

For the Turkic states in the region, Turkish engagement ensures the sustainability of their preferred multi-vector foreign policies. Without Turkey, Turkic countries in the region would have only two main choices for security and economic partners—Russia and China—and these two may either collude in power-sharing arrangements that detrimentally decrease options or eventually force countries to align with one or the other.

Turkey’s emergence as a regional power in Eurasia gives these countries more options for partners. 

Unlike many news and information platforms, Emerging Europe is free to read, and always will be. There is no paywall here. We are independent, not affiliated with nor representing any political party or business organisation. We want the very best for emerging Europe, nothing more, nothing less. Your support will help us continue to spread the word about this amazing region.

You can contribute here. Thank you.

emerging europe support independent journalism