Neither friends nor foes: Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan. Photo: Sergey Guneev / Sputnik

When Turkey first proposed its “3+3” format – the three South Caucasus states of Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan plus Russia, Turkey and Iran – last December, few thought anything of it. After all, since the Soviet collapse 30 years ago, the region had been largely Russia’s back yard, with little space for other actors to dislodge its overwhelming impact.

But in the past two months, the proposal has suddenly gained new life. Both Russia and Iran have begun backing the new format openly, with the latter in particular seeing the same thing Ankara does – a lever of formal influence on the region for the first time in modern history.

For Russia and Turkey, however, the two countries now hope to extend their bloody-yet-cooperative foreign relationship from the Middle East to the Caucasus – a development that would probably have terrible consequences for the region itself.

The most obvious starting point for serious external impact on the South Caucasus was Turkey’s military backing of Azerbaijan in the 44-day Karabakh war one year ago. Turkish Bayraktar drones (probably piloted by Turkish servicemen) and operational planning support played a decisive role in engineering an overwhelming victory for Turkey’s close ally, Azerbaijan.

After the war’s end, however, Ankara was largely cut out of any clear future role: Russian peacekeepers assumed control of what remained of Armenian-held Karabakh on the ground. Turkish attempts to become involved in the negotiations and settlement process of the Karabakh issue were successfully rebuffed by Moscow, resulting in only a largely ceremonial joint Russian-Turkish ceasefire-monitoring center well removed from the Russian-controlled new front lines.

It may seem surprising, then, that the Kremlin has seemingly acceded to Ankara’s will by backing a new framework that would give Turkey a seat at the table. By considering the alternatives, however, Moscow’s motivations become more clear.

The main negotiating format for the settlement of the Karabakh issue remains the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) Minsk Group, established in the early 1990s and consisting of the US and France alongside Moscow as co-chairs.

Washington and Paris are arguably the two primary antagonists for Russia in the international arena, especially given sharply increased security competition between Russia and France in Africa in recent years. Turkey, meanwhile, remains a partner the Kremlin can work with: an eternal “frenemy” with which frequent political and even military clashes emerge, but one with which understandings taking into account the interests of both sides can be achieved.

The past half-decade in Syria and Libya, where Turkey and Russia have backed opposite sides (and continue to agitate against each other) but have still managed regularly to reach acceptable compromises, testifies to the practicality of this relationship. 

In this sense, Turkey will be the clear winner, and the United States and European Union the main international losers, of any adoption of the 3+3 format. The new framework would cut out Western powers entirely, part of why its suggestion has been strongly rebuffed to date by Georgia, with its particularly close Western links.

The US and EU, already struggling to recover their influence on Armenia and Azerbaijan after last year’s war, would find themselves largely on the outside looking in as the Minsk Group and related mechanisms take a back seat to the new reality. It’s little wonder, then, that both Washington and Brussels have strongly opposed the new format, while Armenia – loath both to abandon the Minsk Group and give additional heft to Turkey – has also refused it.

The third element of the proposed format, meanwhile – Iran – is likely to continue to find itself on the outside looking in. While Tehran is the most influential actor in the Middle East of the three countries, as it plays a large role in affairs in Iraq, Yemen, Syria and Lebanon, the ways in which it exerts that influence simply do not apply to the South Caucasus.

Iran thrives on operating in an environment where the state is either weak or nearly non-existent, which allows militias backed by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to dominate on the ground. The South Caucasus is a sharply different arena, with functional states in all three countries and no clear ability for non-state actors of the sort Tehran prefers to gain ground.

Iran is largely ignored by countries in the region, something its recent massive war games on Azerbaijan’s border just to get Baku’s attention attest to. The 3+3 format would give Tehran some de jure leverage, but it would certainly be a distant third to Moscow and Ankara.

The primary losers, of course, would be the countries of the South Caucasus themselves. By becoming subject to the sorts of Russian-Turkish power games that have characterized the Middle East, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia would become just the latest in the line of proxy battlegrounds between Moscow and Ankara.

One needs only to look at how this dynamic has played out in Syria and Libya to see how destructive the rules of the game are: Russia and Turkey exert their influence on the local environment through devastating military campaigns involving indiscriminate air strikes, empowering ruthless local vassals, and engendering a spiral of competition through violent destruction.

If Iran is added to the picture, with its policies of supporting brutal militias to enforce its will in destroyed states across the Middle East, the picture only becomes more catastrophic for the people of the Caucasus.

The Caucasus has been through more than enough war in its history. Turning the region into another Russian-Turkish proxy playground would be an avoidable recipe for more.

This article was provided by Syndication Bureau, which holds copyright.

Neil Hauer is a security analyst currently in Kiev, Ukraine. Usually based in Tbilisi, Georgia, his work focuses on, among other things, politics, minorities and violence in the Caucasus. Follow him on Twitter @NeilPHauer.