Turkey is pushing its 'neo-Ottoman' ambitions forcefully into the Mediterranean Sea. Image: Facebook

The following is the second installment in a series on the regional power dynamics that produced the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh and the diplomatic efforts to contain it. To read Part 1, click here.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in Berlin on October 2 that the European Union seeks a “constructive dialogue and a positive agenda” with Turkey. She had just returned to the German capital after a two-day summit meeting of the EU countries in Brussels.

Germany played a key role at the summit in steering the EU-Turkey relationship away from a confrontationist path to which it had been drifting lately. (See my commentary EU marks distance from Indo-Pacific strategy.)

Merkel said, “We had a very long, detailed discussion about our relations with Turkey. We came to the conclusion that we would like to enter into a constructive dialogue with Turkey, we want to have a positive agenda.” She added that the Brussels summit had opened a window of opportunity for closer cooperation with Ankara.

Merkel disclosed that talks for closer cooperation between the EU and Turkey in the coming months would focus on migration issues, trade, modernizing the customs union, and a liberalized visa regime.

In effect, Merkel has made a huge case for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a particularly sensitive juncture for the latter when there is growing criticism in Europe regarding his regional policies. 

German Chancellor Angela Merkel greets Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the beginning of the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, July 7, 2017. REUTERS/Bernd Von Jutrczenka/POOL
German Chancellor Angela Merkel greets Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the beginning of the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, July 7, 2017. Photo: Agencies/pOOL

In particular, there was a nasty incident recently involving the Turkish and French navies in the Eastern Mediterranean. It was a rare, if not unprecedented, incident involving two NATO powers in the seven-decade-old history of the Western alliance. 

Again, the US recently strengthened its military bases in Greece and has repeatedly called for restraint on the part of Turkey over its maritime disputes with Greece and vowed to intervene politically and militarily in the tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean. 

Turkey and France support opposite sides in the Libyan civil war, while the US is aligned with militant Kurdish groups in Syria whom Turkey regard as terrorists. And after conflict erupted in Nagorno-Karabakh, Turkey has witnessed the US, France and Russia swiftly drawing close to push back at Erdogan’s robust backing for Azerbaijan, including pledges of military help. 

To be sure, Merkel spoke with great deliberation. Before leaving for Brussels, she had addressed the German parliament, where she referred to complaints against Turkey’s human-rights record, but went on to praise Turkey’s “amazing and remarkable” performance in hosting some 4 million refugees. 

Interestingly, Merkel compared Greece to Turkey in a poor light.“We have to weigh very carefully how to resolve the tensions and how to strengthen our cooperation on refugees and on the humane treatment of refugees,” she said, and proceeded to condemn the manner in which Turkey’s archetypal enemy Greece was handling the migrant camp in Lesbos. 

With biting sarcasm, Merkel noted, “In recent days we have seen horrible images regarding the treatment of refugees. And not from Turkey, I would like to emphasize, but from Lesbos, from an EU member state.” 

Without doubt, Germany has stood up to be counted as Turkey’s friend at a time when the latter faces growing isolation within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and from the EU. 

Seminal events 

A well-known American professor at Harvard University’s John F Kennedy School of Government, Stephen Walt, once penned an essay titled “Great Powers Are Defined by Their Wars,” in which he pointed out that explaining a great power’s foreign policy is a perennial question for scholars of international politics. He argued that major wars have powerful and long-lasting effects on a nation’s subsequent foreign or military policy. 

Walt explained that wars are seminal events from which a great power’s subsequent behavior follows, independent of its relative power, regime type or its leadership.

In his words, “Those who fight in these wars are often scarred by the experience, and the lessons drawn from victory or defeat will be etched deeply into the nation’s collective memory. The experience of past wars is central to most national identities.… If you want to understand the foreign policy of a great power, therefore (and probably lesser powers as well), a good place to start is to look at the great wars it has fought.” 

Isn’t it a poignant historical memory for Berlin that the Ottomans were Germany’s allies in two World Wars when it was hopelessly isolated by the Western powers? 

On the other hand, take Russia and Turkey. Russia fought a series of 12 wars with the Ottoman Empire between the 17th and 20th centuries – one of the longest series of military conflicts in European history – which ultimately ended disastrously for the Ottomans and led to their decline and eventual disintegration. 

Turkish soldiers conduct a counterterrorism operation at Gollerbasi Base Area on Mount Ikiyaka, in Yuksekova district of Hakkari, Turkey on May 23, 2020. Photo: AFP via Anadolu Agency/Ozkan Bilgin

Russia had fought the Ottomans at different times, often in alliance with the other European powers. Importantly, these wars helped to showcase the ascendancy of Russia as a European power after the modernization efforts of Peter the Great in the early 18th century.

In the Turkish Muslim psyche, however, Russia has figured as a protagonist that played a historical role in the weakening of the Ottoman Empire in Central Europe, the Balkans and Transcaucasia.

The Russian conquest of the Caucasus mainly occurred between 1800 and 1864. In that era the Russian Empire expanded to control the region between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, the territory that is present-day Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia (and parts of today’s Iran and Turkey) as well as the North Caucasus region of modern Russia.

Multiple wars were fought against the local rulers of the regions as well as the Ottoman Empire until the last regions were brought under Russian control by 1864 with the expulsion to Turkey of several hundred thousand Circassians.

Then followed the Russo-Turkish War (1877-78) when Russia seized the the province of Kars and the port of Batumi on the Black Sea. In World War I, aligned with Germany, the Ottomans pushed against Russia as far east as Baku, capital of Azerbaijan, but then withdrew, lacking the strength to advance further, and subsequently in the postwar confusion, somehow contrived to regain Kars. 

Suffice to say, in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when Transcaucasia became independent as the states of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, a lot of blood-soaked history involving Russia and Turkey provided the backdrop.

Incidentally, Erdogan’s family originally hailed from Rize province in the eastern part of Turkey’s Black Sea region (where he grew up as a child), which was a site of battles between the Ottoman and Russian armies during the Caucasus Campaign of World War I and was occupied by Russian forces in 1916-1918, to be finally returned to the Ottomans under the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in 1918. The Soviet Union returned Rize to Turkey in 1921.   

‘Past is never dead’ 

Amid all this, an interesting feature of the flow of history has been that from the days of the Roman Empire, Transcaucasia was usually a borderland between Constantinople (Istanbul) and Persia. Areas would shift from one empire to the other, and their rulers would have varying degrees of independence and were often vassals of one empire or the other, depending on the size and proximity of the suzerain’s army.

By around 1750 the area was divided between the Turkish and Persian vassals. The western two-thirds were inhabited by Georgians, an ancient Christian people, and the eastern third mostly by Azeris, Turkic Muslims. And Russia of course was pushing close to the Black Sea and the Caspian against the Ottoman and Persian empires. 

Professor Walt in his essay cited a famous quote from the American novelist William Faulkner, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Indeed, for Russia, Turkey or Iran, the current developments in Transcaucasia form part of a vast collective event that shapes their perceptions of danger and definitions of heroism, sacrifice, and even their identity. 

In fact, the current lineup in the developing situation around Turkey speaks for itself: Germany voices sympathy for Turkey and offers an enhanced partnership; France lambasts Turkey and seeks EU sanctions against Ankara; France alleges Ankara’s dispatch of Syrian fighters to Nagorno-Karabakh; Germany appreciates Turkey’s big hand in addressing the refugee crisis gripping Europe; France coordinates with Russia at the highest level of leadership to pressure Turkey over Nagorno-Karabakh; NATO and the US join Russia’s and France’s call for cessation of fighting in Transcaucasia; Iran maintains neutrality and suggests a joint effort with Turkey and Russia to resolve the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. 

Azerbaijani soldiers hoist flag at the position where an Azerbaijani Warrant Officer was killed during combat against Armenian soldiers in Terter region, Azerbaijan, October 4, 2020. Azerbaijani Defence Ministry / Handout / Anadolu Agency

Meanwhile, Moscow has shed its initial ambivalence and is stepping into the arena on the side of Armenia, expressing “serious concern in connection with incoming information about the involvement in hostilities of gunmen from illegal armed units from the Middle East” – plainly put, censuring Turkey’s backing of Azerbaijan.

And Russian President Vladimir Putin underscores that he is voicing a common stance along with “the presidents of the countries co-chairing the OSCE Minsk Group” (Russia, France and the United States). Simply put, Russia’s “competitive rivalry” with Turkey is surging. 

Interestingly, Erdogan has openly drawn attention to the broader regional and geopolitical context in which various unnamed powers are jockeying and covertly coordinating to encircle Turkey. He said on October 2, “If we connect the crises in the Caucasus, in Syria and in the Mediterranean, you will see that this is an attempt to surround Turkey.”

It doesn’t need much ingenuity to figure out the identity of the foreign powers he would have had in mind who are attempting to “surround” Turkey – France, the US and Greece (all NATO powers) and Russia, the scourge of the Ottoman Empire.

This article, the second in a series, was produced in partnership by Indian Punchline and Globetrotter. It was provided to Asia Times by Independent Media Institute. The concluding article will examine the possibility of a coming clash between Russia and Turkey.

M K Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat.