A new informal alliance is emerging in Southeastern Europe, and it is being led by Turkey.
Azerbaijan’s victory on the battlefield against Armenia and the recovery of seven occupied districts surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh and the southern part of this enclave centred on the important cultural centre of Shusha (Shushi) would not have been possible without Turkish diplomatic and military assistance. Turkey invested in training Azerbaijan’s armed forces according to NATO standards and supplied drones, other forms of military technology and its Syrian proxy forces fighting along the Turkish–Syrian border, copying Russia’s longstanding use of proxy forces in Ukraine and Eurasia. Speaking in Baku on 12 November, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said that his country would continue to give its support to Baku for any further steps it would decide to take towards Nagorno-Karabakh.
TURKEY AS A NEW REGIONAL POWER
Turkey’s new and for the moment putative geopolitical alliance is built on longstanding ties between pro-Western or Western-leaning states in the former USSR who had created the GUAM group in the late 1990s, bringing together Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova. GUAM stagnated after the election of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine in 2010 and Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili leaving office three years later. Renamed the GUAM Organization for Democracy and Economic Development, it revived its operations after Ukraine’s 2013–14 Euromaidan Revolution. Ironically, Azerbaijan chaired GUAM in the year it took back much of its occupied territory.
One would have been forgiven for thinking that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was ‘pro-Russian’ because of his authoritarianism and criticism of the EU, NATO and US. But this is not the case. Erdoğan is more of a pan-Turkish nationalist than his predecessors who lay allegiance to Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, providing greater support to Turkic-speaking Crimean Tatars and Turkic-speaking Azeris.
Turkey shot down a Russian Sukhoi Su-24 fighter plane over Turkish airspace in November 2015 which led to a Russian boycott of Turkish trade and tourism. Although both countries patched up their strained relations, Turkey and Russia have supported opposing sides in Syria, Yemen and Libya.
In Syria and the South Caucasus, Israel and Turkey, who have had strained relations in the past, are geopolitical allies. In Syria, they both oppose the alliance of the Bashar Al-Assad regime with Iran and Russia. Assad’s murderous campaign against Sunni Muslims and acquiescence to Kurdish autonomy are additional factors motivating Erdoğan’s intervention in Syria.
In the South Caucasus, Israel sees Azerbaijan as a counterweight to Iran, which backs Armenia and Russia. Israel has supplied weapons and training to Azerbaijan and Georgia. Israel and Azerbaijan jointly manufacture drones which played an important and decisive role in its defeat of Armenia. The closeness of their security cooperation was evident in August 2019 when an Israeli team infiltrated Iran from Azerbaijan to assassinate Al-Qa’ida’s second-in-command in Tehran. Azerbaijan has now taken back control of all of its border with Iran. Turkey has purchased Israel’s Barak-8 long-range surface-to-air and Iron Dome systems and Azerbaijan has bought Israel’s LORA tactical ballistic missile system.
TURKISH–AZERBAIJANI STRATEGIC PARTNERSHIP
Azerbaijan has been an undervalued ally of the West for decades despite being an energy giant and located in a geo-strategic region of the greater Middle East and Eurasia. Azerbaijan is an important and emerging energy supplier for Turkey, Israel and Europe and therefore a US ally in reducing Russia’s monopolisation of energy supplies to the EU. Azerbaijan is also an important country for the US as a supply corridor to its forces in Afghanistan, although the country has also diverged from the West when it comes to respect of human rights obligations.
In contrast, Armenia has been an ally of Russia since 1994 when it was a founding member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), an attempt by Russia to establish a NATO-type structure of former Soviet states. Armenia withdrew from the EU’s Eastern Partnership Association Agreement in 2013 and joined the CIS Customs Union, becoming the Eurasian Economic Union two years later.
In this year’s 44-day Azerbaijani–Armenian war, the CSTO showed itself to be a paper tiger. An important reason for Armenia’s arrogance towards Azerbaijan and Yerevan’s threats to annex Nagorno-Karabakh had been the false assumption that Russia or the Russian-led CSTO would come to its rescue in the event of war. This would not have been the case; Russian President Vladimir Putin made plain that neither his own national forces nor the CSTO would be activated in the (unlikely) event of Azerbaijan attacking Armenian sovereign territory. This ruled out the CSTO assisting Armenia in its defence of occupied Azerbaijani territories.
Geopolitical interests have trumped the fact that Turkey and Azerbaijan are from two often antagonistic branches of Islam, Sunni and Shiite respectively. Turkey and Azerbaijan are linked by ethnic and linguistic ties, described as ‘Two States, One Nation’ (İki Dövlət, Bir Millət) in a manner similar to those Turkey has with Crimean Tatars. The Crimean Khanate existed as an autonomous entity within the Ottoman Empire for six centuries before Russia’s occupation of the peninsula in 1783. In the 19th and 20th centuries, millions of Crimean Tatars fled from Russian and Soviet persecution to the Ottoman Empire and Turkey. Half of the remaining Tatars living in Crimea died after they were ethnically cleansed by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin in 1944. Since Russia’s occupation of Crimea in 2014, at least 20,000 Crimean Tatars have fled to Ukraine and hundreds have been imprisoned.
In Turkey, where there are an estimated six million Crimean Tatars, they are often called ‘Crimean Turks’ because of the closeness of their languages, culture and history. This sizeable Crimean Tatar minority is vocal, active and influential in Turkey and now has a Turkish president who backs up his words with deeds, although it remains to be seen whether Turkey’s position on Crimea’s future fully coincides with that of Ukraine.
TURKISH–AZERBAIJANI ENERGY ALLIANCE
Turkey has agreed to Azerbaijan becoming its main gas supplier, taking over from Russia. This step has major geopolitical ramifications for the entire South Caucasus, Black Sea and Southwestern European region. It is probably not coincidental that Azerbaijan became Turkey’s sole gas supplier only five months before the outbreak of the Azerbaijani–Armenian war.
Turkey is a vital regional hub for the Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline, one of three pipelines in the Southern Gas Corridor connecting Azerbaijan’s Shah Deniz II field to the European market. The Turkish–Azerbaijani strategic alliance cements the former as a regional energy hub largely independent of Russia while enabling the latter to become a major gas exporter to Europe for the first time. In addition, 40% of the oil that Israel imports is from Azerbaijan.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky paid two strategic visits to NATO members Poland and Turkey, which stand at polar ends of a new strategic realignment that includes Ukraine and Azerbaijan. Ukraine and Azerbaijan are longstanding pro-NATO and pro-Western former Soviet states in a contested region which Russia demands the West recognises as its exclusive sphere of influence.
At a joint press conference with Zelensky, Erdoğan said ‘Turkey sees Ukraine as a key country for ensuring stability, peace and prosperity in our region. Within this framework we have always supported and will continue to support Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, including over Crimea’. He added, ‘Turkey has not recognised and does not recognise the annexation of Crimea’. Erdoğan re-affirmed Turkey’s non-recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea three weeks after Azerbaijan launched its military operations against Armenia.
Following the November 2018 Russian naval piracy in the Azov Sea, Turkey and Ukraine have developed common interests in Black Sea security. Turkey is, alongside the US and UK, backing the rebuilding of Ukraine’s navy. Following Pakistan, Ukraine has purchased T MILGEM-class corvettes from Turkey.
Turkey’s refusal to recognise Armenia’s occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh since 1992 is longstanding. In language reminiscent of support for Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity, a joint statement issued by Erdoğan and Zelensky in Ankara said that Turkey would continue to support steps towards the ‘de-occupation’ of Crimea and Russian-controlled Donbas. The joint statement raised the plight of Crimean Tatar and Ukrainian prisoners held by Russia and joint protection of human rights in Crimea.
In what Russia has long been vehemently opposed to, Erdoğan gave his support for Ukraine’s membership of NATO. Turkish–Ukrainian security cooperation would be expanded through the Crimean Platform and Quadriga ‘2+2’ formula of foreign and defence ministers. Ukraine and Turkey are cooperating on the building of a range of military products; for example, Turkey’s Akinci (Raider) unmanned aerial system (UAS) drone and Akinci unmanned aircraft systems are powered by Ukrainian Ivchenko-Progress turboprop engines. Ukraine has bought 12 (with plans to purchase a total of 48) Bayraktar TB-2 UAS drones which Turkey used with high rates of success in Syria and Nagorno-Karabakh; some of these will be based in the Donbas war zone of eastern Ukraine.
It is noteworthy that Zelensky also held a meeting with Bartholomew I of Constantinople. In 2018–19, Turkey – behind the scenes – backed the Patriarch of the Orthodox Church granting a Tomos (autocephaly) to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine after declaring Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) control over Ukraine to have been ‘uncanonical’. The loss of 40% of the ROC’s parishes in Ukraine was a major geopolitical and soft power defeat for Putin and he called an emergency session of the Russian Security Council. The ROC is no longer the biggest of 14 Orthodox Churches and with a much reduced 16,000 parishes is now similar in size to the Romanian Orthodox Church.
Through a combination of US President Donald Trump’s isolationism and pre-occupation with the election cycle and the EU’s lack of foreign policy gravitas, Turkey has upended the geopolitical picture in the South Caucasus and muscled into what Russia demands the outside world sees as its exclusive sphere of influence. Turkey’s all-round support to Azerbaijan was decisive in its defeat of Armenia and showing the CSTO to be an empty vessel and the EU to be a paper tiger.
Turkey’s geopolitical ambitions, building on the GUAM regional group, will further challenge Russia in delivering Azerbaijani energy to Europe and in supporting Ukraine, which also has regions under Russian occupation. While the Azerbaijani–Turkish alliance has passed an important test of endurance, Turkey’s development of a new strategic alliance with Ukraine is in its embryonic days.
Following his visit to Ukraine on Aug. 18, Britain’s Defense Secretary Ben Wallace announced that the U.K. will lead a multinational Maritime Training Initiative for the Ukrainian navy in order to boost Ukraine’s ability to combat threats in the Black Sea.
The initiative will share expert knowledge of U.K.’s Royal Navy and provide a coordinated training package to the Armed Forces of Ukraine.
According to the British Ministry of Defence, the training consists of courses from the Royal Navy and naval personnel from Sweden, Canada and Denmark in areas such as “navigation, operational planning, military diving, sea surveillance, fire-fighting and damage control.” The U.K. expects more nations to join the initiative in the near future.
Both sides also agreed to resume Operation Orbital, U.K.’s training mission to Ukraine, following its temporary suspension due to the coronavirus pandemic. In effect since 2015 and extended by Wallace until 2023, Operation Orbital has trained over 18,000 members of the Ukrainian Armed Forces.
“We have already assisted thousands of Ukrainian personnel in a plethora of skills ranging from basic first aid to operational planning, all of which defends their territorial integrity from Russian-backed separatists,” said Wallace.
Britain has been a vital partner in protecting Ukraine’s integrity in the Black Sea region since Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014. Four years later, tensions appeared to only increase as Russia had seized three Ukrainian navy boats and arrested 24 Ukrainian sailors in the Sea of Azov. The International Tribunal for the Law and the Sea in Hamburg ruled in Ukraine’s favor, signaling the international community to pay closer attention to Russia’s naval bullying and dominance in what Russia considers its “backyard”.
On Jun. 12, Ukraine became an Enhanced Opportunities Program member of NATO, deepening its cooperation with the North Atlantic Alliance.
“As part of NATO’s Enhanced Opportunities Partner (EOP) we hope to intensify our common efforts to ensure security in the Black Sea region and to work closely together to overcome hybrid threats,” stated Olha Stefanishyna, the vice prime minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration of Ukraine, on Aug. 11.
Stefanishyna further thanked the U.K. government for the increase of technical assistance to counter Russian aggression.
Wallace asserts that the Maritime Training initiative will help Ukraine fully benefit from its enhanced collaboration with NATO, as well as build on Ukraine’s newfound status within the alliance.
The UK will lead a multinational Maritime Training Initiative for the Ukrainian Navy, boosting their ability to combat threats in the Black Sea, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace has confirmed.
Visiting Ukrainian partners in Kyiv, Mr Wallace also announced that the UK will send Royal Navy ships to visit the region later in the Autumn, where they will train alongside the Ukrainian Navy.
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said:
It’s great to be in Ukraine for my second time since becoming Defence Secretary. The Maritime Training Initiative is another step forward for the UK’s defence relationship with Ukraine.
We have already assisted thousands of Ukrainian personnel in a plethora of skills ranging from basic first aid to operational planning, all of which defends their territorial integrity from Russian-backed separatists.
Now, the Maritime Training Initiative will enable even closer collaboration with the NATO Alliance and Armed Forces around the world, and allows us to build on Ukraine’s new NATO Enhanced Opportunities Partner status.
Mr Wallace discussed issues of regional security and areas of mutual interest and cooperation in meetings with defence minister Andriy Taran and Ukrainian commander-in-chief Colonel General Ruslan Khomchak. Beyond the bilateral talks, the Defence Secretary paid tribute to members of the Armed Forces of Ukraine who have died in combat since the start of the conflict in East Ukraine in 2014, laying a wreath at the Hall for the Defenders of Ukraine.
In support of that effort, the Ministry of Defence is increasing its support to the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) by coordinating an international maritime training package that will share the expert knowledge of the Royal Navy and partners from next month.
Courses will be delivered by the Royal Navy and naval personnel from Sweden, Canada and Denmark in areas such as navigation, operational planning, military diving, sea surveillance, fire-fighting and damage control. More nations are expected to join in the near future.
Ukraine lost much of its Navy capability during Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 and Ukraine has since continued to face a rising number of threats in the Black Sea and Sea of Azov. In response, Ukraine has been rebuilding its Navy to protect its economic interests and its right to freedom of navigation. The Maritime Training Initiative will boost that effort, enabling them to uphold the rules based international order and European security in the region on which the UK’s own security depends.
As well as bringing skills, knowledge and expertise to the Ukrainian Navy, the Maritime Training Initiative will empower the Ukrainian Navy to work even more closely alongside international partners in defence of the Black Sea region. This will be in evidence later this year when Royal Navy ships visit the region.
The new initiative will follow the resumption of Operation Orbital, the UK’s training mission to Ukraine, after a COVID-19-enforced suspension. Since the training mission began in 2015, British troops have trained over 18,000 members of the Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF). Their efforts have made a real difference and saved lives as Ukraine faces down Russian aggression and threats to its sovereignty. Last year the Defence Secretary extended Operation Orbital until 2023.
The UK’s Operation Orbital and Maritime Training Initiative will be complemented by US security assistance support. This will further enhance Ukraine’s capabilities and situational awareness in the maritime domain to more effectively defend itself against Russian aggression. The UK continues to urge all allies and partners to enhance their support for Ukraine.
Ukraine defence reform
The strengthening UK-Ukraine defence relationship has seen the UK support Ukraine in its process of conducting vital defence and security sector reform. A Special Defence Advisor has been deployed to Ukraine to assist in this process, which has also been aided by UK representation on the country’s Defence Reform Advisory Board (DRAB), General Sir Gordon Messenger.
Taras Kuzio is a Professor at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy.