We have, in the past year, entered an entirely new dynamic in Eastern Mediterranean and South-East European strategic affairs.
We are in a period and a region in which Russia, not the West, is taking the key initiatives and has much of the advantage. This is particularly significant given that Russian policymaking receives scant attention in US and other Western media, and remains as opaque to Western analysts as it was during the Cold War era when Russia was veiled by an Iron Curtain. At least during the Cold War, the West threw its best intellects into attempting to understand Russia and the Soviet Union.
Russia’s recent major thrusts — for a variety of historical, economic, and security reasons — have been to dominate the Caucasus and Northern Tier, the Greater Black Sea Basin, and Central Asia. This has been evidenced particularly by Russia’s successful initiatives to build strategic relations with Turkey and Iran. The profound depth of this transformation cannot be under-estimated, and, along with the stability of the European Union itself (which is inextricably bound to Russia for its energy), vitally affects the fate of South-Eastern Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean states.
At the same time that this tectonic shift is occurring, US policy toward the Eastern Mediterranean and adjacent lands has, for the past 60 years — perhaps longer — been heavily based on wishful romanticism, ignorance, and an overwhelming and narrow preoccupation with the containment of the now-defunct Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. US policy toward the region continues to be based around a premise of a Soviet threat which no longer exists, but which the US — and for that matter, some in Britain — cannot bring themselves to retire or revise. And by continuing to treat post-Cold War Russia as though it was still the Soviet Union, the US and UK have to a large degree caused Moscow to act in manners contrary to Western interests.
The US-led NATO caused alarm in post-Soviet Russia by moving to bring former Soviet bloc states into NATO, by treating Islamist terrorism in the Caucasus as something Moscow deserved while 9/11 was something the US did not deserve, and so on. The poorly-handled attempted deployments of missile defense systems by the US into Poland, the Czech Republic, and Azerbaijan further alienated Moscow, quite apart from the gratuitous refusal to allow Russia to become part of the West; US tacit or active support for Georgian attempts to seize control of Abkhazia and South Ossetia; the US blatant interference in the elections in Georgia, Ukraine, and the Kyrgyz Republic and in creating Kosovo as a supposedly independent state — with attempts to do the same elsewhere — were all further examples of perceived post-Cold War US hostility toward Moscow. There are many other examples of events which forced Moscow to return to a lonely course of action in pursuit of securing its own interests in a hostile world.
The high cost to the West of pursuing such a mumpsimus policy — that is, policy which persists even though the underlying premises have clearly been proven to be erroneous — is becoming evident as Western economies and Western strategic influence decline. The Western tide is retreating, showing the ground truths, once covered by the sea of wealth and power which had allowed the Cold War fixations to remain unchallenged.
We still see the persistence of Washington-based myths about the Eastern Mediterranean, South-Eastern Europe, and the Caucasus, and those myths have become more expensive to sustain, and more in the nature of comic opera. The result has been that, while the USSR and the threat of ideologically-based East-West confrontation has passed, Russia has been forced to respond by considering the reality that the West would not let the Cold War end. As a result, Russia has had to resume fending for itself in the regions of its immediate neighborhoods, including South-Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Asia Minor, and the Levant and the associated Eastern Mediterranean. It was forced into accommodations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) over Central Asia, and while some of these were sensible for global trade as a whole, the resulting Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) has emerged in part as a mutual security regime which reinforces the growth of Chinese strategic power as well as the resurrection of some Russian regional hegemonic influence.
The declining strategic influence of the United States — again, something not recognized in Washington, given that it remains lost in the mists of its own self-importance — means that the new tensions of South-Eastern Europe, Asia Minor, the Caucasus, and the Eastern Mediterranean have emerged full-blown and there seems little that Washington is prepared to do to accommodate this. The reality is that Western policy toward Turkey and Russia still centers around approaches decided by the British Foreign Office during and after the Crimean campaign which ended in 1856.
At the same time, of course, the French historian, Alexis de Toqueville, also forecast in the first half of the 19th Century that Russia and the United States, as continental powers, must inevitably be rivals and must compete over Europe. So these ancient views of Russia as the perpetual enemy, and Turkey as the inevitable counterbalance to Russia, have shaped British and American strategic sentiments, just as romantic orientalism has shaped Western views of the Middle East and Asia. [Indeed, I would not say that the West should lose sight of the potential for Turkey to be used as a counter-balance to Russia, but this should not be an unthinking, perpetual, and universal policy, when, as in World War I and II, Turkey was not, in fact, always an ally of the West (or an asset to it), whereas Russia and the USSR were, at key times, allies of the West.]
A perspective of the context of actual Western geopolitical and economic interests, and the realities of history, have rarely played a dominant rôle in US or British strategic policymaking since the end of the Cold War. At the same time, Russian strategic policymaking has reverted to the age-old geopolitical and geoeconomic principles which have dominated Russian security for 500 years.
A year ago, however, it became conclusively apparent that Russia had, as a result of Moscow’s initiatives and because of the changing global circumstance, become the power with dominance over Turkey. This was the result of trends which had been some time in the making, but my early reporting in March 2009 of that phenomenon — and the implications it had for Western policy and for Greece and Turkey — drew no response from the media or from policy officials. To its great credit, the American Hellenic Institute (AHI) took a gamble and published a report of mine in 2009 on the new Russo-Turkish strategic relationship. Only now, a year later, is the West reluctantly coming to grips with the fact that Russia is far more persuasive than the West with regard to Turkey, because Turkey is absolutely strategically in thrall to Moscow.
The same situation applies to Iran. And, indeed, we need to understand that it is impossible to formulate viable policy in Washington with regard to Turkey unless the broad context of Turkish, Russian, Iranian, Chinese, Caucasus, Black Sea, and other dynamics are taken into account. Western analysis is, in fact, guilty of stovepiping and geographic specialization, ignoring the historical and spatial context which drives reality.
Despite this, US, British, and, to a large extent, EU policy toward Turkey has been “business as usual”, discussing Turkish entry into the European Union as some kind of panacea; as some way of “bringing Turkey back into the Western fold”. The reality is that the West has failed for some time to understand the pressures prevailing within Turkey, and with regard to Turkey’s overall geospatial context. Indeed, unless we begin to understand Russia’s goals and actions in the region, as well as East-West and North-South trends, then it is impossible to formulate policies in Washington which relate to Turkey.
My colleague, Yossef Bodansky, this month wrote a major study on the prevailing context in the Greater Black Sea Basin, and also discussed some of the history which we need to understand. He noted:
“North-south dynamics started in the middle of the 15th Century when the Russians began pushing the Mongol-Turkic hordes southwards in a series of wars, while the Ottoman Armies occupied Constantinople, brought an end to the Byzantine Empire, and started their advance northwards along the shores of the Black Sea all the way to Crimea. The north-south mega-trend crossed an historic milestone in the early 17th Century when Cossack raids spread along the northern shores of the Black Sea (today’s Ukraine) and culminated toward the end of the Century when the armies of Peter the Great first reached the shores of the Black Sea (the Sea of Azov to be precise).”
“During the 18th and 19th Centuries, Russia fought a series of bitter wars with both Turkey and Persia which determined the southern borders of the Empire until the end of the 20th Century, as well as consolidated its claim to a special — if unwelcome — rôle in the Balkans. As well, Russia fought in the mid-19th Century against the main European powers of the day — England and France — on the shores of the Black Sea in order to legitimize Russia’s pre-eminent rôle as a regional power. Throughout the Century, as it does today, Russia also continued to suppress rebellions and insurgency in the Caucasus. Russia’s aggregate posture endured throughout the turbulent 20th Century: [through] both World Wars and the ensuing Cold War.”
“East-west dynamics can be traced back to the mid-Second Century BC, to the first recorded origins of the Silk Road which facilitated China’s initial reach out to Europe via Persia. In its original form, the Silk Road was consolidated some 300 years later, in the mid-Second Century AD. The more modern character of the Silk Road can be traced to the mid-13th Century, the civilizational transformation of Eurasia in the aftermath of the Mongol invasion of Europe, when the Silk Road expanded and gradually evolved into a comprehensive system of exchange of both goods and culture between East and West. Alas, the east-west dynamics were largely frozen out during the second half of the 20th Century as a byproduct of the Cold War.”
“At the dawn of the 21st Century, and to a lesser extent even in the last decade of the 20th Century, these historic mega-trends have revived and assumed their dominant rôle in geopolitics and geoeconomics.”
Significantly, the mega-trends coincide with the major trade of the 21st Century: energy. The European dependence on energy from and via Russia, or through the Greater Black Sea Basin, including Turkey, drives much EU policy toward Russia and Turkey. To a great extent, it is Turkey’s potential rôle as an energy conduit from the Caspian Basin through to the EU which has enabled Ankara to escalate its importance to Europe. This, as much as anything, has been a driver in sustaining the Turkish application for membership in the EU, despite the fact that Turkey was not meeting EU entry conditionalities.
We need to understand, too, that Turkey’s willingness to accept Russian dominance — despite the fact that there is no love lost or trust between Moscow and Ankara — is in large part due to the decline in Western strength, and this came to a head with the failed Georgian military adventure against Russia over Abkhazia and South Ossetia in August 2008.
In that March 2009 report, I noted: “Bilateral Turkish-Russian trade in 2008 already had reached $32-billion, making Russia Turkey’s biggest trading partner, and now Moscow and Ankara see a path to revitalize Turkish relevance to the regional energy pattern. Turkey, once the key to the West’s developing pipeline strategy to circumvent Russia’s stranglehold on the delivery of energy to Europe, is now part of the Russian circle.”
“This was, inevitably, the result of the collapse of US influence due to the failed military attack of August 2008 by Georgia against Abkhazia and South Ossetia, an affair which not only forced neighboring Azerbaijan to bow to the reality that the US could not support it, but also led to the inevitability of the Kyrgyz Republic’s decision to re-embrace relations with Russia at the expense of US access to the Manas air base in Kyrgyzstan. That move, essentially, also spelled the reality that the US/NATO ability to sustain a long-term military engagement in Afghanistan was now ended, especially given the logistical difficulties the US has had utilizing Pakistan as a support base for the Afghan war."
The difficulties which emerged by early April 2010 for the man who Washington placed in power in the Kyrgyz Republic, Kurmanbek Bakiev, will begin to show the critical rôle which Kyrgyzstan plays in Central Asia, in the global narco-trafficking pipeline, and in the conduct of Coalition operations in Afghanistan. The US will see, if it is not already too distracted, that the meddling in Kyrgyz politics, in manipulating elections to get rid of an honest friend of Washington, Dr Askar Akaev, and placing Bakiev in power, will be one more area of profound mis-steps, which also serve now to erode US influence in the Eurasian east-west flow, and increase the return to influence of Moscow.
Clearly, in the north-south matrix, what we are seeing is a diminishing US influence on Turkish policy and a rising Russian influence there. Although Ankara silently resists — through gritted teeth — the pressures from Washington and Moscow, the rise of Russian influence and the decline of Washington’s has significant portent, as well, for US-EU relations, because Europe is anxious that Washington does not disrupt the energy flow from East to West, mainly via Russia. So — in a sense as de Tocqueville predicted — the contest between Russia and the US for dominance in Europe is now moving toward Russian eminence. This is particularly surprising to the US, given its belief that the US had “won” the Cold War; believed that Europe remained a subordinate partner of the US; and had continued to regard and relegate Russia as the loser who would never be allowed back in from the cold.
Does this mean that, on the question of Turkish occupation of northern Cyprus, we should now expect Moscow to be able to be of more influence on Ankara than was Washington? And in this context, will the West now need to better understand and accommodate Azerbaijan’s and Moscow’s views on the Nagorno-Karabach parallel issue?
Does this mean that NATO will no longer be meaningful or viable, given the emerging US-EU differences and the fact that the NATO mission no longer exists?
Does the new Russo-Turkish alliance mean that Turkey is no longer interested in EU membership if, indeed, EU membership itself holds the luster it once had? There is no question but that internal Turkish dynamics between the ruling Islamists of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the military means that the political leadership will continue, for the time being, to play the EU membership card simply so that the Constitutional and political changes can be forced into effect in Turkey; changes which would keep the military in the barracks forever, and out of politics.
That internal process in Turkey is drawing to a dénouement — a final resolution or clarification — and either the military will go passively into the night, or the Turkish General Staff will react against the politicians. Either way, there will be little that Washington can do to interfere or influence. Similarly, there would be little that Washington could do if Turkey was to act militarily against Greece in the near future, because, as we have seen from recent Turkish wargaming, a military resurgence in Turkey was, to some degree, going to be triggered by the creation of a military clash between Turkey and its NATO neighbor, Greece. In the event that the Turkish General Staff opts for this scenario of triggering a conflict with Greece or in Cyprus, as a last-ditch bid to restore its power in Ankara, the US will be essentially powerless to intervene to help Greece or Cyprus, even if it understands that it should.
Moscow, however, does have sway in this. Russia depends on a stable nexus at the Black Sea to ensure that the energy patterns remain uninterrupted because this is the lifeblood of the Russian Federation. In this regard, it is increasingly likely that the South Stream pipeline complex will dominate, along with other shipping mechanisms from Azerbaijan and Georgia to Romania. In all of this, the US-backed Nabucco pipeline network is increasingly becoming a less-than-attractive option, in large part because it is a pipeline network without a guaranteed supply of gas. The emergence in February 2010 of plans for that new supply route — a mix of pipelines and shipping, from Azerbaijan through Georgia, and across the Black Sea to Romania, which has yet to be discussed in energy circles — could dramatically undercut Turkey’s political leverage with the EU.
The Georgian mis-adventure of 2008, and the elections of 2010 in Ukraine, have brought much of the region back under the suzerainty of Moscow. Even Georgia itself, which has continued to support Islamist terrorist operations against Russia in Chechnya and surrounding regions, may find that it has nowhere to go but to finally accede to Russian dominance.
The complexities of this situation, and what this complexity means to the Balkans, to Israel and the rest of the Levant, and to Cyprus, demand intense and protracted research. But the fundamental is this: Moscow is in the ascendant; Washington is in the descendant in the region. Will Washington, with its diminished access to the Northern Tier and even the Levant, attempt to accommodate Cyprus in order to retain access, with the British, to the intelligence bases on the island? Or will it continue to attempt to intimidate Cyprus to ensure that access?
And is it signal for the Hellenic and Israeli lobbies to devote their attentions to Moscow at least as much as to Washington?
Gregory R. Copley for Oilprice.com