NEO-OTTOMAN EMPIRE & REGIONAL CHANGE IN CAUCASUS
‘Peace is an excellent thing, and war is a great misfortune. But there are many things more valuable than peace, and many things much worse than war. The maintenance of Ottoman Empire belongs to the First Class, the occupation of Turkey by Russia belongs to the second. ’This forgotten quote of Henry John Temple, the British Prime Minister (1855-1858), has emerged as a metaphor in current conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh region.
Military historians are divided over the origins of this feud. Some call it sequel to fall of Ottoman Empire, while others trace it to the defeat of Persia by the Russian Monarchy. Consensus is on the factor that conflict surfaced with disintegration of USSR, roughly starting in late 1980s, and lasting until May 1994, which was the first phase to be characterized by Inter-ethnic conflicts. It is an accepted fact that the conflict broke out when parliament of Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO), having ethnic Armenians as its majority, voted for secession from Azerbaijan in order to unify with Armenia.
Some military historians also consider the cause of conflict to be a design of Joseph Stalin. The fall of Ottoman Empire made the region unstable and it remained as such till 1920, when Soviet Army took over Caucasus. Joseph Stalin was commissioned to resolve the regional issues of Caucasus. Stalin, in July 1921, decided to hand over the region, having 94% American ethnicity to Azerbaijan, and parallel to it in 1923 Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) was also created.
The arrangement of Stalin served twin purpose. First, this brought Armenia & Azerbaijan into direct confrontation, and secondly, Soviet government carried the authority to control the Caucasus. A separate class of military historians believes that this arrangement was done with higher objective of spreading communism and was also aimed at appeasement of the majorly Muslim population of Azerbaijan.
The first wave of clashes started by late 1980s and went up to 1994. This agreement ended in a ceasefire brokered by the intervention of Russia in May 1994, which was signed by three parties- the respective defense ministers of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Republic of Artsakh. Since then it has largely remained one of principal frozen conflicts of former USSR. As the conflict was of territorial nature rather than religious, the consensus was never reached, despite repeated attempts. Since 1994, there have been numerous attempts of ceasefire violations, notably in 2008, 2014 and worst one in 2016.
The fresh clashes started on 27th September 2020 and a full scale war erupted between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The present clash is different from the earlier ones, as this time, Turkey is at centerstage, openly supporting Azerbaijan and has been utilizing its enhanced military capabilities to this end. The ceasefire attempts of United Nations, EU, Russia and Iran have been diluted by Turkey, which has stated that without a sustainable solution, a ceasefire would be meaningless.
The position of Turkey has not only been assertive but also aggressive in the region, signaling a direct approach rather than a solution through diplomatic channels. This choice of foreign policy by Turkey is a combined result of cultural and linguistic affinity with Azerbaijan, and the apparent apathy of west in resolving the conflict of Armenia and Azerbaijan. In the year 1993, Turkey had to close its border with Armenia, when the latter had occupied the territories of Azerbaijan, resulting in the forced migration of more than 1 million people; and now in the year 2020, Turkey is proactively playing a decisive role having remodeled its foreign & security policy,despite its weak economy.
The use of drone warfare by the Turks, has played a vital role in the present conflict, and hasled to claims of victory by Azerbaijan. This new found confidence in Turkish foreign policy, has been a result of its successful effort in bringing Pakistan and Azerbaijan within its ambit on issues concerning economic co-operation and territorial integrity. Pakistan’s affinity with China, which is being considered as a potential weapon supplier for Turkey & Azerbaijan, has encouraged Turkey to play a major role in influencing the geo-political dynamics of the region. The hard stance of Turkey on issues of territorial integrity has been creating ripples for India as well. Turkey openly supports Pakistan on Kashmir issue and has signed multiple military and strategic agreements with Pakistan. This situation has resultantly compromised the strategic interests of India in Caucasus and Central Asia. India has been historically supported by Armenia, so much so that the Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan was the only foreign leader who had publically and forcefully endorsed the Indian position on Kashmir. Armenia has endorsed India as its alternative security partner, and negotiations are underway, since 2018, for purchase of Pinaka multiple launch rocket system.
Armenia has purchased & deployed the Indian military radar system, called Swathi, preferring Indian defense equipment over Russian & Polish who were other potential sellers. Irrespective of military co-operation of Armenia with India, Azerbaijan has not been vocal on Kashmir, but has consistently advocated resolution of the issue according to the norms and principles of international law.India too has maintained a balanced approach, encouraging the peaceful resolution of Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict, beginning with an immediate ceasefire. Since the frozen conflict between Armenia-Azerbaijan is melting, Indian foreign policy has to find a resourceful solution, in accordance with the new equations which are emerging in the region. On one hand, India is in direct competition with China & Russia for investments in infrastructure & advancement of weapons systems, and on the other hand,Indian strategic interests in the region are in direct confrontation with those of Pakistan & Turkey.
The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict may not be pivotal in shaping the existing world order in Caucasus or elsewhere around the globe, but it does have specific reflections and indicators about the future world order and the strategic arrangements in central Asia and esp in Caucasus . The stepping back of United States and Europe, and the lead role of Turkey and Russia in the region, is indicative of the emerging world order in Caucasus, which in turn is going to make the future world, more multipolar.
Strategic analysts construe this position as one of the key events in worldwide U.S. global retreat- the retreat caused by weakening economy, intolerance and injustice towards racial minorities, and the impact of covid pandemic. In addition to this,there has been a lack of a coherent US policy for South Caucasus in the Trump administration.
In the global context, the position of Europe seems to have become vulnerable, due to the second wave of covid pandemic, leading to a declaration of emergency in nation-states, such as Spain. The weakening of Europe has been further amplified by Brexit and Mediterranean Energy crisis. But it is the approach undertaken by Turkey, which has truly relegated Europe into the background.
Another factor which is shaping the region is ideology of the ruling political party in Turkey. The current leadership has been critical of the earlier reigns, whose interest were aligned with those of US. The current regime has made a grand promise to its citizens that the lost Imperial glory of the Ottoman Empire would be reclaimed, and Turkey would become a great nation. The Ruling regime has taken this stance to gain legitimacy & support from electorate and to reflect the idea that Turkey is potential leader of Islamic world shifting it from gulf leadership.
The term ‘Neo-Ottoman’ emerges from the assertive and aggressive foreign policy of the present day Turkey, which symbolizes resurgence of old Ottoman Empire. Moving from secular colour towards an Islamist hue, Turkey despite being member of NATO, has adopted such policies which are inimical to the interests of the organization in the region. The position of Turkey has been strengthened not only by an apparent lack of western policy over south Caucasus, but also due to the strategic interest of Russians, who have used this opportunity to highlight the American failures in Caucasus and worldwide. The inability of the European Union to tackle its foreign policy issues due to the lack of consensus and the underlying conflicting regional interests, has also given an upper hand to Turkey. For example, the soft stand of German Chancellor Angela Merkel during refugee deal in 2015-16 was mainly shaped by the public opinion generated by 3.5 million Germans of Turkish origin. This is one of the prime examples among many others like those of Belarus crisis, refugee crisis of 2015 and disputes of Greece & Cyprus. China too desires a dysfunctional west, so that it is able to benefit from extended de-stability in Africa, Libya, Syria, Eastern Ukraine, Venezuela, Yemen up to Caucasus. In such a scenario, it is expected that the influence of Iran, Turkey and Gulf states will increase, and these would be able to dominate policies of West and China in the region. Western analysts perceive this situation as a threat to global stability and peace, where as another school of thought considers it as a long awaited counter-balance to the Western Neo-imperialism.
To quote Publius Ovidius Naso (43BC-17AD), a poet of Roman Empire- ‘There is no such thing as pure pleasure; some anxiety always goes with it.' Neo-Ottomans may have dominated the scene right now with their political leadership and assertive foreign policy, but not too far in the distant future it will cross the Rubicon and the electorate would be compelled to choose between economic development and national security.
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