BACKGROUND: The Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (TANAP) and the Baku-Tblisi-Kars (BTK) railway will place Turkey at the center of a new Eurasian energy and commercial transportation corridor that will break Russia’s current monopoly in these sectors. Receiving natural gas from Azerbaijan's Shah Deniz field via the South Caucasus Pipeline running through Azerbaijan and Georgia, TANAP will transport the gas across Turkey to the Turkish-Greek border for final delivery to the European Union. The natural gas delivered by TANAP represents an important alternative source of energy for both Turkey and the member-states of the European Union as they seek to alleviate their dependency on Russian imports. Turkey currently relies on Russian natural gas for sixty percent of its consumption. As Turkey’s rate of natural gas consumption skyrockets, Ankara regards the reliable supply of reasonably priced Caspian natural gas delivered via TANAP as an economic imperative.
With the May 2014 purchase of an additional 10 percent share in TANAP from the State Oil Company of the Azerbaijan Republic (SOCAR), Turkish state-owned, oil and natural gas pipeline company BOTAŞ owns a 30 percent share in the pipeline project. After SOCAR, BOTAŞ is the largest stakeholder in TANAP. Concurrent with BOTAŞ’s TANAP investment, Turkey's national Oil and Natural Gas Company, (TPAO), bought out French energy giant Total’s stake in the Shah Deniz field. TPAO now maintains a 19 percent interest in the Shah Deniz field, making Turkey a significant financial stakeholder in the production of natural gas as well as its transportation to Europe. (See July 9, 2014 Turkey Analyst)
In addition to TANAP, the Baku-Tblisi-Kars railway connecting Azerbaijan to Turkey via Georgia will provide the final link in a China-to-Europe overland transport route via Kazakhstan that entirely bypasses Russian territory. Expected to become operational by the end of 2015, the 826 kilometer rail line will break Moscow’s stranglehold over Eurasian commercial transport. The railway will carry an estimated 10 million tons of Chinese goods through Azerbaijan for further transport across Georgia and Turkey to European markets. The BTK railway is also being constructed to accommodate the shipment of oil exports from Kazakhstan’s Kashagan oil field in the Caspian Sea, the largest oil discovery in the last forty years. Costing more than US$613 million, BTK railway is also expected to boost the total trade volume between Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey to more than US$10 billion per year.
On May 6, 2014, the presidents of Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Georgia conducted their first trilateral summit in the Georgian capital Tbilisi in which the three heads of state agreed to deepen their economic cooperation. (See May 28, 2014 Turkey Analyst) Conducted against the backdrop of the Russia's March 2014 annexation of the Crimea and the ongoing crisis between Russia and Ukraine, the three principals signaled the future development of collective security mechanisms against potential Russian-sponsored threats to the region. Thus, on August 18 and 19, 2014, the defense ministers of Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Georgia held their first trilateral summit.
IMPLICATIONS: The defense ministers’ trilateral summit was conducted in the wake of escalating border violence between Armenia and Azerbaijan during the previous month. At the end of the summit, the defense ministers of Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Georgia made the historic announcement that the three countries would hold regular joint military exercises. Establishing the foundations for a collective security alliance, the defense ministers announced that they would meet biannually and would create mechanisms for regular trilateral military training and technical cooperation. Held in Azerbaijan’s Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic (NAR), the political symbolism of conducting the summit proceedings in the Azerbaijani exclave separated from the rest of Azerbaijan by Armenian territory highlighted Turkey’s message to Armenia and its patron Russia that Ankara is committed to helping ensure the stability and territorial integrity of Azerbaijan and Georgia.
The government of Justice and Development Party (AKP) of Turkey has maintained a policy of strong support for Azerbaijan’s Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic, which shares a 15 km border with Turkey. Turkey’s new Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu in his previous capacity as foreign minister declared in 2010 that, “The security and prosperity of Nakhchivan is our security and prosperity.” Speaking with the NAR’s parliamentary assembly chairman during his visit to Ankara, then foreign minister Davutoğlu promised, “Turkey will always have the utmost concern for the Nakhchivan’s future.” The location of the summit also pointed to how the deepening defense cooperation among the three countries is linked to their economic cooperation on TANAP and the BTK railway.
As part of their joint efforts to secure the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic, Turkey and Azerbaijan have been developing plans to create both gas and rail links from Turkey’s eastern border city of Iğdır to Nakhchivan City, thereby connecting the NAR to both TANAP and the BTK railway. The latter would create an efficient land transit route from Nakhchivan to the rest of Azerbaijan, circumscribing Armenia via Turkey and Georgia.
While the twenty-year dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh has been labeled a “frozen conflict,” hundreds have died along the Line of Contact between Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan. July 2014 witnessed a serious escalation in cross-border hostilities. According to Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Defense, the Armenian Armed Forces allegedly violated the ceasefire lines 37 times between July 21 and 22. At the beginning of August, the skirmishes escalated into heavy fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan, with over 20 soldiers killed. With the pretext of seeking to de-escalate the violence, Russian President Vladimir Putin convened a meeting of the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents in the Russian Black Sea city of Sochi. Held on August 10, eight days before the trilateral defense minister’s summit, Putin’s Sochi meeting was an attempt to assert Russian dominance in the region.
The Russian government itself was silent about the defense ministers’ trilateral summit, with no official comment emanating from Moscow. There was also no coverage of the outcome of the summit in any government news outlets such as Izvestia and ITAR-TASS. With NATO’s Summit meeting scheduled for September 4-5, Moscow may have considered it prudent not to further exacerbate Western concerns over Russian expansionism. At the summit, NATO issued a declaration stating that the NATO alliance members “remain committed in their support to the territorial integrity, independence, and sovereignty of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and the Republic of Moldova.” Considered a small victory for Azerbaijan, the NATO summit also committed itself to a ‘substantive package of measures’ for Georgia, including the establishment of a NATO training facility on Georgian soil.
With Russia's ongoing presence in the Georgian breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Georgia represents the location in the emerging Eurasian energy and commercial transportation corridor most vulnerable to Russian interference. Five days after Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Georgia agreed to hold joint military exercises, the pro-Russian, anti-Georgian extremist Raul Khajimba won a narrow victory in Abkhazia’s presidential elections. Khajimba, who served in the KGB in eastern Abkhazia prior to the Soviet Union’s collapse, would like to integrate Abkhazia more closely with Russia. Three days after his election, Khajimba flew to Moscow to meet with President Putin to discuss the details of a new treaty to deepen the level of integration between Abkhazia and Russia. To achieve his plans, Khajimba’s government is likely to implement discriminatory measures against eastern Abkhazia’s 30,000 ethnic Georgians to encourage them to leave Abkhazia creating a potential flashpoint with Tblisi.
CONCLUSIONS: To protect it stake in TANAP and the BTK railway, Turkey has joined Azerbaijan and Georgia in the formation of a trilateral defense partnership. With the largest armed forces of the three nations, Turkey will be expected to play a leading role in deterring any Russian-sponsored provocations. How Turkey manages its contribution to the security of its South Caucasus allies will form a critical test for the new Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu who has repeatedly advocated an expansive role in regional affairs. Yet since the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War in 2011, Turkey has failed to exert any significant influence over the course of events in Syria or Iraq. Ankara’s failure to impact events on its southern border has severely undermined Turkey’s deterrent capability. Turkey’s reluctance to play a forward role in the coalition of Western and Middle Eastern nations assembling to combat the Islamic State (ISIS) further diminishes Turkey’s status a major regional power.
Under these circumstances, Turkey needs to commit a considerable level of military force to the defense of Azerbaijan and Georgia to create a credible deterrent against Russian designs in the South Caucasus. Without such a commitment, the purpose of Turkey’s participation in the trilateral alliance will be to serve as a tripwire for NATO intervention.
Micha’el Tanchum is a Fellow in the Middle East and Asia Units, Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace, Hebrew University. Dr Tanchum also teaches in the Department of Middle Eastern History and the Faculty of Law, Tel Aviv University.
(Image Attribution: Presidency of the Republic of Turkey)