This Week in Geopolitics

Turkey Rattles Regional Power Struggle

May 23, 2016

Last week, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey announced that they would expand military cooperation. Most will likely see this as fairly trivial and surely not important for Americans. However, it is actually a major event that impacts the broader region.

It means Eastern Europe and the United States’ long-term strategy to contain Russia’s resurgence is finally coming together. I have written extensively in the past decade about the Intermarium. It is the idea that for Eastern Europe to be secure from Russia, Germany, or any other country that could try to take over Europe, an alliance must extend from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea.

Until now, the missing link has been Turkey. With Turkish-Russian relations sour, Turkey is now moving closer to the US and, therefore, to the Intermarium. It is using its regional power to bring Azerbaijan in as well.

This is not your typical announcement that another trivial defense agreement will be signed in a far-off place in the world. It is a clear sign that the Intermarium is emerging. This will affect American strategy in Europe, Russian national security, and Turkey’s role in the area.

Geography of the Caucasus

The Caucasus Mountains are critical to Russian national security—acting as a buffer between Turkey and Iran, and protecting the agricultural and industrial heart of Russia from invasion. The northern Caucasus remain in Russian hands.

The southern Caucasus consist of three former Soviet republics—Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia. Georgia has been aligned with the US and was defeated in a war with Russia in 2008. Azerbaijan, bordering on both Russia and Iran, has followed a complex path balancing between Russia, Iran, Turkey, and the US. Armenia, in a state of war with Azerbaijan, has been aligned with Russia. It is a complex area.

Azerbaijan and Georgia have broadly cooperated militarily… but not to great effect. Turkey has also cooperated with both in the past. But Turkey’s decision to join a more advanced arrangement is very significant and will upset the Russians greatly. This could raise the possibility of Russian pressure on Azerbaijan and Georgia, either directly or through Armenia. And that would increase Russian tensions with Turkey.

Turkey: Between the US and Russia

Russian relations with Turkey sank badly after Turkey shot down a Russian plane that briefly trespassed its airspace in November. But relations had already soured when Russia lent military support to Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The Russians have had good relations with the Syrian ruling family since the 1970s. Turkey has opposed the Assads due to massacres of Sunni Arabs and Turkmens in Syria and because they were seen as a potential threat to Turkey in the Cold War.

Turkey is a NATO member and was a close American ally during the Cold War. It was critical in blocking Soviet expansion into the Mediterranean. After pro-Soviet coups in Syria and Iraq in the 1960s, Turkey was under military threat from Russia to the north and pro-Soviet Syria and Iraq to the south.

Turkey is a Muslim country. Its strategy over the past decade has been to shift from a strictly secular state, to one where religion plays a bigger role. The rise of radical Islamism has forced the government to adapt to counter the danger of instability.

Turkey must face the new realities of the Islamic world—particularly the Arab states to its south. Turkey is emerging as the leading power in the region. It will, in my view, become a great power. But it isn’t one yet. So it has maintained relations in all directions including, reportedly, the Islamic State. It did not want to send troops into the Arab states, nor see a radical presence in Turkey.

Turkey’s strategy put it at odds with the United States. After Afghanistan and Iraq, the US did not want to deploy massive ground forces. The US strategy is to encourage regional powers to put their own forces at risk while confining itself mainly to airstrikes.

The Turks did not like this idea. They saw the same problems the US did with direct involvement. Ankara did not want the job of pacifying radical Islamism. It would not only fail but would draw the conflict to Turkish soil.

Russia’s action in Syria forced a change in Turkish thinking.

Russia’s Strategy in Syria

Russia’s drive for going into Syria was complex and went beyond old friendship. The Russians were dealt a harsh reversal in Ukraine, as a pro-Western government took power in Kiev. Moscow then tried and failed to trigger an uprising in the east and faced sanctions from the US and Europe.

When the Russians have found themselves blocked in Europe, they try a flanking move, often in the Middle East. This was seen during the Cold War. The move into Syria protected Assad and created the aura of Russia as a key power.

Also, Russia was pleased when the US was bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan. It gave Russia time to revive after the Soviet Union fell. The US missions in the Islamic world allowed Russia to attack Georgia in 2008 without fear of an American counter. The chance to re-create that situation appealed to the Russians. They could live with Turkish hostility.

The US saw the Sunni rising in the Arab world as something it could not manage. In the end, it’s an important but not an existential issue. The potential re-emergence of Russian power is the greater concern.

The US is worried that Russia will try to restore its position in Eastern Europe, through political, economic, or military means. If the Russians regain influence in Ukraine, they could be in a powerful position in southeastern Europe and the Black Sea. And that could pose a serious threat to Turkish interests.

The US lacks the force to defend Ukraine. Its size and distance create difficult logistical and manpower problems. It could use Ukraine to put the Russians on the defensive but not to engage them militarily.

The Russian military was not in a position to directly intervene with major forces in 2015. It couldn’t occupy such a large territory. So Moscow let the fighting in Ukraine subside, while hoping to modernize its forces. That would take a couple of years, which gave the Americans time.

The View from Europe

Here, we shift to the thinking of the former Soviet satellites, particularly Poland and Romania. The EU is in disarray, and no one has the military or political ability to support these countries.

Over a century ago, Jozef Pilsudski, founder of modern Poland, devised a theory to solve this problem. He saw Poland as trapped between Germany and Russia. Either country could crush Poland, and neither could be relied on in the long run. Allying with either was a threat. Resisting either alone was impossible.

Pilsudski proposed a north-south alliance that ran from the Baltic Ocean to the Black Sea. It went by the Latin name “Intermarium”—between the seas. The Baltics, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria would be part of it. But the Intermarium needed strategic depth. If it included Turkey, the bloc could threaten Russia from the south as well as the west.

As for Germany, the alliance required a French commitment to attack Germany if Germany attacked the Intermarium states. Something like this emerged before World War II, but it was not effective. There was no unity among the Intermarium countries. Turkey had no interest in the alliance, and France proved unable to carry out its commitment to Poland.

Nevertheless, the basic strategy remains feasible. But it needs a replacement for the French.

The US Interest in Europe

The US is the obvious replacement, for strategic reasons. The United States’ primary defense is its control of the oceans, which could only be challenged by a united, integrated Europe. The keys to uniting Europe would be Germany and Russia. Germany is the leading industrial power, and Russia has massive natural resources.

So the US had a fixed strategy. It would let the Europeans stay in constant, shifting conflict. If that failed, the US would give support to one side or another. And if that failed, it would intervene directly.

Thus, as the Russians planned their response to Ukraine’s pro-Western government, the US shifted to a bilateral defense of the Intermarium. The US would replace France and draw in willing partners. Poland and Romania were the most crucial, and Slovakia and Hungary were likely to fall in line when needed.

The US has positioned armor and artillery and rotated large forces through these countries. The focus… the Black Sea. The goal is not to keep Russia from seizing Ukraine. It is to ensure that if it does, it will be blocked from further expansion. The US also wants a base from which to act against the Russians, if needed.

Turkey’s Role in the Intermarium

Turkey was the weak link in the strategy. Turkey was resisting US pressure to act in Syria against IS. Relations between the two countries had soured dramatically. As a result, it was impossible to develop a Black Sea strategy, for which Turkey is necessary.

US access to the Black Sea runs through the Bosporus and depends on Romanian ports. The Bosporus is part of Turkey, and is self-evidently Turkish controlled. Also, a new containment strategy must have a southern component, as it did during the Cold War, and stretch beyond the Black Sea to the Caspian. And that means that Georgia and Azerbaijan have to participate.

The Intermarium strategy depends on several shifts in Turkish strategy. The most important is the realignment of Turkish and American interests. The Russian action in Syria has forced Turkey to re-evaluate. Turkey cannot be hostile to both Russia and the US.

While the danger of being drawn into conflict in the Arab world is real, the danger from Russia is greater. If Turkey and Russia were to confront each other, then Turkey would have to reconcile with the US. And that accord is underway. Turkey is holding serious talks with Poland and Romania, and on the ground involvement in Syria has started.

It is in this context that Turkey’s willingness to enter into a serious agreement on military cooperation with Georgia and Azerbaijan is significant. “Turkey has neither the chance nor the right to turn its back on its region or the world at large,” President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said May 19.

"The events that are happening in the Balkans, Caucasus, north and south are all closely related to our past and present. Who can say, claim or imagine that the things happening in Syria, Iraq and the Middle East have nothing to do with us?” he said.

An agreement would mean that Turkey and the US both support Georgia and would bring Azerbaijan into the American sphere. If Turkey is part of this bloc, it will be its leader. That means the bloc will be anti-Russian and supports the Intermarium. And that means it supports the continuation of a century-old national strategy for the US.

Things that appear minor in foreign affairs can often turn out to be extremely important. Here, a deal between Turkey, Georgia, and Azerbaijan would help Poland and Romania defend themselves. It also would allow the US to continue its grand strategy of keeping any continental power from controlling Europe.

George Friedman
George Friedman

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