I remember an entertaining phenomenon from last August, when Russia invaded Georgia over South Ossetia. Many blog commentators predicted that Russia would keep troops in South Ossetia on a national (not OSCE) mission, and in Georgia’s other “breakaway province,” Abkhazia, after the invasion retreat. We predicted this as early as the first week after the 7 August invasion, but this prediction was vigorously disputed by others, most of whom were certain that (a) Georgia was the aggressor, (b) Russia had no designs on the territory of South Ossetia or Abkhazia, and (c) the whole thing was a retaliation for “Kosovo” anyway (and besides that, the US was going to put missile defense sites in Eastern Europe, so what did we expect?).
Even as Russia promptly recognized South Ossetia and Abkhazia, when they announced their independence from Georgia at the end of August 2008, our interlocutors remained convinced that we were wrong: Russia had no intention of expanding her territory, her frontage on the Black Sea, or her military leverage over Georgia. They pointed out, with varying degrees of triumphalism, that Russian troops did, in fact, withdraw from the undisputed territory of Georgia after the invasion, and that it was hardly odd for Russian troops to remain in South Ossetia afterward, since they had been there before, as part of the OSCE mission. The Russians, after all, assured us on 29 August that reports of planned Russian bases in the breakaway provinces were premature and without foundation. (Russia then announced 11 days later that Russian troops would remain in the two provinces for the foreseeable future, in the withdrawal deal brokered by Nicolas Sarkozy.)
Fast-forward to March 2009, and the announcement that both Abkhazia, on the Black Sea, and the inland province of South Ossetia, will host Russian bases, the former with a 49-year lease, the latter with a 99-year lease. Russia was joined by Nicaragua in recognizing the provinces’ independence from Georgia, but no other nation, or the UN (which last month renewed the mandate for the UN observer mission in Abkhazia through June 2009), has done so. Russia’s hemispheric neighbors are clear, as those on this side of the world may not be, that Russia is, in fact, making a power play: a territorial grab in all but name, against a neighbor with claims as legitimate as any other. Even the nations that oppose American or broader Western/European policies have not endorsed what Russia is doing in Georgia. Many of them have provincial unrest, border disputes, and overweening neighbors of their own.
On the other hand, some who, at least ostensibly, do not oppose American or Western policies are finding in Russia’s new activism an outlet for accommodation of their problematic border issues. One such is NATO ally Turkey. In the wake of last year’s events in Georgia, Turkey has accelerated her move to improve ties with Russia, and in addition to negotiating a major new energy deal, also anticipates Russian support for Turkey’s plan to improve her relations with Armenia, still rendered icy by echoes of the 1915 genocide. (The US, meanwhile, continues – literally today — to consider Congressional legislation that would recognize the 1915 event as a genocide of more than a million Armenians, rather than the civil war Turkey characterizes it as, with an Armenian death toll of 300K.) The irony of Turkey turning to Russia – whom she blames for supporting the Armenians in the civil war – to reach a final disposition of the matter with modern Armenia, will not be lost on historians.
There is no reason why Turkey and Russia should not jointly address the issues of their region. There is, however, good reason for the US, and European NATO, to be concerned about Turkey’s new anxiety to work with Russia, given its augmentation with Russia’s occupation of Caucasian territory that, at the very least, was supposed to be disposed of through UN- and OSCE-sponsored negotiations, rather than military force. There are dimensions of these developments that ought to give us serious pause.
Russian patronage versus Western
One is the obvious bid Turkey is making for regional support of her internal security provisions. Turkey occupies a difficult position, there is no doubt of that, with a resentful Armenia on her eastern border blocking a direct path to Caspian sea oil and gas, and a substantially more serious problem with Kurdish separatism – one that could rend Turkey in two if she lost control of her internal security. Turkey has also, however, for years been accused by “rights watch” organizations, including the UN, of treating ethnic minorities unjustly, in everything from education to property rights. The Kurds represent by far the largest of the minority groups (20% of Turkey’s population), but the small remaining populations of Jews, and Christians of Armenian and Greek heritage, also come in for unequal treatment. A price for Turkey of qualifying to join the European Union has been addressing these shortfalls in national law and practice.
But Russia’s well-justified reputation for a less finicking approach to human rights, and a more rough-and-ready approach to leveraging disputed territories for regional power, may well be more amenable to Turkey’s ruling Islamic coalition, and her “supervisory” General Staff, the senior military officers whose approval remains necessary for effective governance by the prime minister’s coalition. The General Staff functioned, in the wake of the Cold War, as a brake on the gathering parliamentary significance of Islamism – which for decades had been denied express representation in electoral politics, given the secular basis of national government established by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (and long prized by a majority of Turks). But the General Staff’s role of tacitly approving governing coalitions, and hence the major direction of new parliamentary policies, has gradually been exercised from a shifting position over the last decade.
This is not, inherently, either good or bad; there are arguments on both sides. However, it is important to understand about the General Staff that its historical tendency has been to an uncompromising pragmatism: during the Cold War, it saw Turkey’s bread buttered on the NATO side; today it has cause to perceive that Turkey’s future may lie with Russia, which the ruling Islamic coalition of Tayyip Erdogan has more than one reason to reach out to. Russia is much more tolerant of decisive dealings with ethnic minorities (and exploitation of their potential for furthering other agendas) than Europe tends to be. Russia also clearly won the last round with NATO: she now occupies Abkhazia and South Ossetia, with everything over except the paperwork, to obtain de facto international recognition of the partitioning of Georgia. Not recognizing the implications of this signal event up the Black Sea coast would be rather dense, on the part of Ankara’s leadership.
Regarding disposition of the August 2008 invasion and the disputed provinces, it is particularly noteworthy that NATO – Turkey’s official strategic tie with Europe — was essentially inert throughout the process. This could be considered remarkable, given that Russian activism on the Black Sea directly affects not only NATO’s security boundary, but individual NATO members, starting with Turkey. Meanwhile, the EU was boresighted on the Caucasus, as if it saw the problem on a straight line from Brussels; and seemed to pay, inexplicably, no attention to the potential of Turkey – a NATO ally and aspirant to EU membership — as a major partner in forming an approach to the issue. No US initiative awakened Europe from this weird complacency and lack of vision: America undertook to provide humanitarian supplies to Georgia, but exercised no apparent leadership in crafting a broader policy that might have decompartmentalized – to the benefit of strategic coherence — the Caucasus, the Black Sea, and the Turkish path from the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean.
NATO’s inertia in terms of strategic policy left Turkey free to sponsor her own plan, the “Caucasus Stability and Cooperation Platform (CSCP),” which most (non-Armenian) Americans are likely to be ignorant of – but which Russia has shown great interest in. Washington may not, indeed, have been informed of the CSCP initiative before it was announced by Ankara, as suggested in an interview with a Turkish professor and deputy of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) last year. The whole interview is well worth reading; this passage is especially interesting:
So, keeping the crisis regional is another way of distancing the situation from Cold War traditions.
One of the most important opportunities of the post-Cold War era is regionalism. In the past we didn’t have that. Today we say that Turkey is a very important regional power. We wouldn’t say that during the Cold War. The Cold War did not provide opportunities for individual states to become anything but a member of one of the two camps. The countries didn’t have mobility zones. France and Germany tried to discuss this, but the most that happened was France deciding to withdraw from the military wing of NATO. Even the larger European countries had a very limited mobility zone. Today we don’t have a bipolar world order. Some say it is unipolar, others say multipolar. The fact is there is a great deal of uncertainty. And that is good. That gives Turkey, and other countries who want to do so, an opportunity to create its own initiative. As soon as the Georgia crisis commenced Prime Minister Erdoğan flew to Moscow, then to Tbilisi. Some media organs couldn’t understand this. The Americans were apparently not informed about the Caucasus Stability and Cooperation Platform when it was first launched by Turkey. Today there is no simultaneity between Turkish and American foreign policy. Turkey can act on its own and what matters is speed. This is regionalism, but it is not cut off from the international system.
Also of note is Professor Dagi’s characterization of Russia’s process for isolating Chechen insurgents as the use of “soft power.”
Regional maritime security
Americans, with our characteristically cavalier attitude toward history, and low tolerance for the maneuverings of land powers, are likely to shrug and ask why we should care if Russia and Turkey are surveying the Caucasus and thinking of ways to organize it between them. We may imagine that there were Englishmen who asked themselves that, when the issue was between Russia and the Ottoman Empire two centuries ago. One of the key reasons is the same one Great Britain had: security of the Eastern Mediterranean and the approaches to South Asia and the Far East. Control of the Middle East could put a continental power – Russia – in the classic Napoleonic position of being able to flank an opponent from his center. And Russia, operating from the base of a wholly-owned Black Sea, a quiescent Turkey, and a Syrian client providing naval bases on the Mediterranean, would have a good headstart on consolidating decisive influence in the Middle East.
This is not a simplistic matter of Russia intimidating everyone in sight with military force, although we can expect that to figure into it. It is more a matter of the liberal ideal represented by American policy being strategically directionless for some time now — as evidenced by the strategy vacuum in which NATO was encased during last year’s war – and offering no practical alternative, as events unfold, to Russian activism. Turkey, last year, may not have especially wanted to align herself with a NATO initiative featuring Turkey; but there is no evidence that she was even solicited on that head. We may justly wonder if it even occurred to Turkey’s European NATO partners that Turkey’s security was even more intimately affected by the Russian move on Georgia than was Eastern Europe’s. Russia may be aided, in persuading regional nations to throw in with her, by the essential passivity of the US and NATO, and the obviousness of the fact that relying on them does not turn out well.
The US, as de facto arbiter of the Eastern Mediterranean since WWII, has sought to keep a lid on the old and deep-seated conflicts there, such as that between Greece and Turkey, and the ethnic strife in the Balkans. We have also sought to broker a modus vivendi of the Arab nations with Israel, and to keep the key chokepoints of the Turkish Straits and the Suez Canal open to all. Today’s generations are so accustomed to this state of affairs that they imagine it to be the norm, and have no understanding that it was never the norm prior to the late eighteenth century; that intermittent versions of it since have required careful maintenance by a dominant maritime power; and that that maintenance has involved some significant clashes with Russia, as well as periods of Arab activism in which the Suez canal (or its Red Sea outlet to the south) was closed: the most recent from 1967 to 1975. (The mining of the Red Sea by Libya’s Qaddhafi in 1984 caused damage to 20 commercial ships, and jeopardized traffic through the Suez chokepoint until US mine countermeasures forces had performed a major mine clearance operation.)
Concern about free and secure access to the Eastern Mediterranean is by no means outdated, nor has it become irrelevant to the security of nations in the region. Greece cannot remain secure without it, nor can Turkey, Israel, or Egypt – or, obviously, Ukraine or Romania. A loss of the permissive freedom of access enjoyed today by all the regional nations, and the rest of the world, would force them to begin choosing sides with a regional hegemon: a power that would guarantee them access (assuredly in exchange for specified considerations), even if it excluded others. Such developments could not remain confined to one area; their consequences would inevitably spread into Europe, Asia, and Africa. If we could pick one single geostrategic juncture on earth to gain hegemony over, the most useful by far is the Middle East – and the Eastern Mediterranean functions as its western flank, either guarded by one hegemon for open access and honest purposes, or held by another with the option to turn against any who approach.
The abstract principles that ruled American strategic thought during the Cold War – the nuclear equation, containment, deterrence – often blinded us to the fact that Russia thinks very much in terms of concrete geographic advantage. Russia sees our alliance with Turkey, and Turkey’s internationally recognized administration of the Turkish Straits, as a US advantage over Russia, achieved by leveraging geography through alliance. Russia would like to break what she sees as her encirclement – a perception she complained of constantly throughout the Cold War, but which the US had little understanding of – and gain a decisive control of her “near abroad.” A major purpose for this is to gain the position and ability to counter US influence, and attract de facto allies through the perception that she can do so – even if Moscow has no specific plans to take action against us. Moscow, like Tehran, would rather get the other nations of the region to begin systematically turning their backs on us than confront us directly. And projecting maritime power from the shores of the Eastern Mediterranean is a Russian vision for this approach that goes back at least to Alexander I, and the era of the competition for the Eastern Med waged between Great Britain and Napoleonic France.
In an extended effort of this kind, Russia would gain more from fostering regional conflicts than from suppressing them. Russia siding with Turkey in her claims against Greece, and that conflict heating up anew, may be something we have to look forward to. Russia has been reinvigorating her ties in the Balkans, including improvements to the port of Tivat in quasi-independent Montenegro (formerly and still nominally part of Serbia), which was heavily used by the Russian navy during the Cold War. With Russia in Serbia and Montenegro on one side, and Russia supporting Turkey on the other, Greece will be in an interesting position: one in which the ties of Eastern Orthodoxy, and Russia’s putative ability to guarantee Muslim Turkey’s behavior, may well foster accommodation, rather than a bid for independence by Athens.
Russia basing ships and aircraft in Syria, and giving Syria and Turkey the security to back off from their marginally more accommodating postures with Israel, can be expected. Egypt has no desire to be part of Russian schemes, but would rather make small accommodations and see where things go, than come into early conflict with a Moscow obviously motivated and on the offensive. America is a long way away, and appears increasingly too self-absorbed to tend even the pillars of her national security, like regional partnerships that promote balances of power, and freedom of maritime access. The nations of Western Europe, increasingly, seem not even to recognize the shifting interplay of factors in their security, or the stubborn persistence of geographic reality, and the existence of other nations besides the members of the EU.
All such moves in the region will be couched in the most positive – and elliptical — political and diplomatic terms. There will be no obvious cues from public pronouncements – no “Attention! We are now dismantling the Pax Americana.” It will be easy for those on all sides to make superficial arguments that nothing important has changed, that a healthy regionalism is emerging but is not incompatible with the “international system.” But there is another dimension to this situation, one that will provide more tangible clues, and earlier ones, to what is going on.
… and of course, the Passing of the gas
This dimension is, of course, energy politics. While it truly is not all about “the gas, stupid,” the gas pipelines from the Caspian Sea, and the energy needs of Europe, certainly figure prominently this overall situation. Indeed, we can expect this dimension to provide concrete warnings of broader-scope developments. No one who has observed Russian gas politics since the 1980s can doubt that Moscow will use her leverage over gas supplies to extort her neighbors. It is really a peculiar determination to avoid evidence and analysis, for anyone to suggest that Russia will not act in other realms as she does in this one.
Ironically, the West backed the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline that runs through Turkey, whence the gas from it is distributed to Europe, as a means of ensuring an alternative to Caspian gas routes through Russia and Iran. The closure of Georgia’s other gas pipeline during the 2008 invasion – not effectively opposed by NATO — and the ability of Russian troops permanently stationed in South Ossetia to easily menace the BTC pipeline, would have served to convince Turkey that keeping the BTC gas flowing is a goal best achieved through working with Russia. The BTC pipeline is not Turkey’s only concern: she hopes for Russian help with Armenia (and a sorting out of the Caucasus in general) – and she clearly sees a need now to expand her options for great power patronage. But the BTC pipeline is a big moneymaker for Turkey, as well as a source of supply for her own energy needs.
A greater determination by the West to guarantee alternatives to Russian control of Asian gas supplies could have made a difference here, but that determination was not in evidence last year. It has never been unclear that Georgia, by herself, is unable to defend pipelines running through her territory against Russian action. NATO, however, made no provision to make good that shortfall; and thus demonstrated quite clearly the low priority its members assign to their alternative gas routes. Western Europe drove the point home earlier this year, when Ukraine – a key waypoint for gas to Europe – was left to negotiate as best she could with Russia, while Russia cut off a fifth of Europe’s gas supplies during a historic winter cold spell, and the EU threatened Russia and Ukraine equally with a “review” of relations. Ukraine ended up with a bad deal she is unlikely to be able to afford — a deal that may well supply Russia with a pretext for intervening in Kiev’s affairs down the road.
Turkey’s perspective is not hard to understand: it would be less than prudent at this point to fail to keep options open with Russia. The major energy deal being negotiated between Moscow and Ankara holds the promise not merely of profit, but of being immune from the unreliability of European will. Of course, the Russia-Turkey deal could also put Turkey in Ukraine’s position one day; but Ankara knows that depends on her, and if Europe finds the possibility alarming, it is Europe that must offer Turkey credible alternatives. In a most ironic twist, Europe’s promotion of the alternative BTC pipeline through Turkey has given Russia a motive for gaining more influence with Turkey, and Turkey one for turning to Russia to keep the infrastructure secure and the profit coming. The element of European backpedaling on the once-prized alternatives to Russian-controlled gas – all that was needed to set these complementary motives to work – has been supplied decisively over the last six months.
The tectonic shift has already started
The break-up of the post-WWII regional security scheme for the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East has only begun. I don’t know that anyone ever spoke presciently of “some damn fool thing in the Caucasus,” as Bismarck did of the Balkans in the decades before WWI. Some observers did make the analogy of Georgia, 2008, to the Third Reich’s land grab in the Sudetenland in 1938; which may turn out to be accurate in spirit, if not in timeline. The character of Russian activism is almost certain to be different from Nazi Germany’s: Russia will subvert the bonds of NATO, and expand exclusionary commercial ties and military basing privileges through the region, rather than operate through lightning war.
And Professor Dagi of Turkey’s AKP is right: the world no longer is bipolar. Other great powers – China, India, Japan – reacting to Russia’s new course, are likely, less and less, to seek leadership from America, and more and more to chart their own. This will be, in the charmless but efficient lingo of modern America’s can-do contingent, a net negative for the security of the United States.