Russia and Turkey in the Caucasus: Moving Together to Preserve the Status Quo?

Fiona Hill and Ömer Taşpınar

Relations between Russia and Turkey have changed dramatically over the last decade. In fact, in 2005, relations between the two states were probably better than at any point over the last several centuries—given a history of imperial competition and frequent wars between the Russian and Ottoman Empires since the 18th Century as well as the rivalry of the Cold War. Since 2003, President Putin and Prime Minister Erdogan have held multiple meetings, and Russia and Turkey seem to have found common ground on once contentious issues.

This is in stark contrast to the immediate post-Cold War era, when Russia viewed Turkey as a proxy for the United States and as a strategic competitor in post-Soviet Eurasia. In the 1990s, Russia and Turkey found themselves in diametrically opposed camps on a number of crucial issues such as Bosnia, Kosovo, and Chechnya—due to Turkey’s close historic association with the Muslim peoples of the region, and to the presence of significant Balkan and Caucasus diasporas on Turkish territory. Turkey’s position in NATO, and the threat of NATO enlargement beyond Eastern Europe to former Soviet republics, further rankled Russia. This all combined to produce a consistently tense bilateral relationship. Russia focused on its relations with the United States, Europe, and the immediate neighboring states of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS); while Turkey was preoccupied with its strategic partnership with the United States, the management of its volatile relationships with Greece and Cyprus, and its efforts to become a member of the European Union (EU). For most of the 1990s, Russia and Turkey neglected each other politically, while trade relations largely developed behind the scenes.

So why have things changed? The most visible drivers have been energy relations, and increasing trade and tourism between the two countries. As far as the geostrategic dimension of the Turco-Russian rapprochement is concerned, the main motivation seems to be a shared sense of frustration with the West. Especially since 2003, shared disillusionment with the United States and Europe, and an increasing common desire to head off U.S. and European activity in their joint border area in the Caucasus, as well as a desire to challenge U.S. policy in the Middle East, have drawn Russia and Turkey together.

The Caucasus in particular—an area of overt competition between Russia and Turkey for several centuries, extending from the imperial through the Cold War periods and into the 1990s—is emerging as a region, in which Russian and Turkish interests have begun to converge. This is not a development that could have been foreseen in the initial period after the collapse of the Soviet Union. And, it has significant implications for the European Union, which—as it expands eastwards to the Black Sea—now has to craft a new policy toward the Caucasus region and its individual states of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan that lie in the geopolitical space between Russia and Turkey.