Geo-strategic and diplomatic dimensions of Turkey’s Caspian Sea policy

The geo-strategic and diplomatic dimensions of Turkey’s policy towards the Caspian Sea region have evolved in response to the changes in the geostrategic positions of Russia and Iran in the post-Soviet era since these countries have formed the main rivals of Ankara in projecting its influence in this region. Among these countries, Russia was initially quite undecided about the nature of its involvement in the Caspian Sea affairs in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse in 1991 because, on the one hand, it had to maintain its influence in the region; on the other hand, it had to revise its relations with the regional actors considerably. In fact, any assertive form of Russian involvement in the Caspian Sea region might have further undermined Russia’s position, and provoked anti-Russian nationalisms among non-Russian groups in the re- gion.[1] [2]

In this context, the competition between Turkey and Russia in the Caspian Sea region had been formulated in zero-sum game terms throughout the 1990s. Accordingly, any gain of one side was seen as the loss of the other side. Moscow’s conception of regional order assumed that these post-Soviet developments had to be rectified or at least kept under control in order to establish a sustainable basis for regional order.[3] Consequently, increasingly disillusioned with its post-Soviet weakness and Turkey’s growing influence in the Caucasus, Moscow started to give special importance to its naval control of the Caspian Sea militarily especially after Vladimir Putin’s election as Russia’s president in 2000.[4]

Iran is another geo-strategic rival of Turkey in the Caspian Sea region as it cooperates with Russia in maintaining their dominance over the region. Turkey has been quite worried about Iran’s capacity to destabilize the Middle East through its nuclear program. In fact, if Tehran acquired nuclear power, it could use this military power to influence the developments and at the expense of Turkey’s interests in the Caspian Sea region too. Turkey has also been very critical of Iran’s periodic belligerency towards Azerbaijan, the key partner of Turkey in the Caspian Sea region.[5]

Among the regional countries Ankara gives the utmost importance to Azerbaijan. Turkey recognized the independence of Azerbaijan in November 1991, almost two months before the formal disintegration of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991. From Turkey’s perspective, Azerbaijan’s key security problem, occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh by Armenia, needs to be settled, as the persistence of this conflict has given Russia a free hand in manipulating the conflicts in the Caspian Sea region to its advantage. The continuity of this conflict marginalizes the role of Turkey in the region considerably too.[6]

It is in this context that Turkey and Azerbaijan have started to coordinate their positions on the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. In 2004, Presidents of Azerbaijan and Turkey, Ilham Aliyev and Ahmet Necdet Sezer respectively, stressed the unity of the positions of Azerbaijan and Turkey concerning the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. This common position of Azerbaijan and Turkey meant the withdrawal of the Armenian armed forces from Azerbaijan’s occupied territories as a first step towards the resolution of this conflict. It also emphasizes that any Nagorno-Karabakh settlement would have to be based on the principle of respecting territorial integrity and borders of neighboring states.[7] Although Ankara maintains this position of supporting territorial integrity of Azerbaijan, in recent years Ankara has episodically sought to make progress in both the peaceful settlement of the Nagorno- Karabakh conflict and the normalization of its own relations with Armenia simultaneously. However, it was a failure by Turkey to attempt to separate rapprochement with Armenia and opening borders with this country from Nagorno-Karabakh peace process. The policy did not produce the expected results, on the contrary in caused certain cooling down in the relation of Turkey with Azerbaijan, Ankara’s main ally in the Caspian region.

The other partners of Turkey in the Caspian Sea region are Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. Turkey supports Astana’s relations with Western security institutions, especially NATO. Turkey also supported Kazakhstan’s chairmanship of the OSCE. Turkey assumed the Chairmanship of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA) in order to alleviate the burden of Kazakhstan OSCE Chairmanship in 2010.[8]

Turkey’s relations with Turkmenistan are mainly limited to the socioeconomic and cultural fields. The neutral position of Turkmenistan limits the scope of Turkmenistan’s security cooperation with Turkey as a NATO member. Despite this limitation, Ankara has provided training to the security forces of Turkmenistan for enhancing their institutional capacity to cope with emerging soft security challenges, such as terrorism and organized crime.[9]

To summarize, geo-strategic and diplomatic dimension of Turkey’s policy towardsthe Caspian Sea region is the most challenging aspect of its regional policy as it faces the rivalry of Russia and Iran, which have historically dominated the region. Despite these challenges, Ankara has been largely successful in developing its relations with Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan and contributed to their integration into the European political and economic networks of cooperation effectively.

  • [1] See A.L. Karaosmanoglu, “Globalization and Its Impact on Turkey’s Security” in A.L. Karaosmanoglu, S.Tashan (eds.), The Europeanisation of Turkey’s Security Policy: Prospects and Pitfalls, Ankara, Foreign PolicyInstitute, 2004, pp. 11-24.
  • [2] O.F. Tanrisever (2004), pp. 127-155.
  • [3] D. Bazoglu-Sezer, “Turkish- Russian Relations: The Challenges of Reconciling Geopolitical Competition withEconomic Partnership”, Turkish Studies, vol. 1, no. 1,2000, p. 70.
  • [4] P.B. Henze, “Turkey’s Caucasian Initiatives”, Orbis: A Journal of World Affairs, vol. 45, no. 1, 2001, pp. 8191.
  • [5] See B. Aras and Rabia Karakaya Polat, “From Conflict to Cooperation: Desecuritization of Turkey's Relationswith Syria and Iran”, Security Dialogue, vol. 39, no. 5, 2008, pp. 495-515.
  • [6] D. Trenin, “Russia’s Security Interests and Policies in the Caucasus Region”, in B. Coppieters (ed.), Contested Borders in the Caucasus, Bruxelles, VUB University Press, 1996, p. 91.
  • [7] M. Katik, “Azerbaijan and Turkey Coordinate Nagorno-Karabakh Negotiating Position”, Eurasia Insight, 23April 2004.
  • [8] MFA of Turkey, “Turkiye - KazakistanSiyasiiliskileri”, available at: (last retrieved on 15 February 2014).
  • [9] MFA of Turkey, “Turkiye - TurkmenistanSiyasiili§kileri”, available at: (last retrieved on 11 February 2014).
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