Thursday, May 6, 2010

Turkey and Russia assemble an ‘axis of outsiders’

Adrian Pabst

It was one of the most memorable parliamentary brawls of recent times. Members of Ukraine’s Supreme Council threw punches, eggs and smoke bombs, while the speaker was shielded with an umbrella.

Last week’s turmoil erupted when lawmakers were considering whether to endorse an agreement that would, over the next 10 years, decrease the price that Ukraine pays for Russian gas in exchange for a 25-year extension of Moscow’s lease on the Crimean port of Sevastopol, home to Russia’s Black Sea fleet.

On one level, these tensions are just the latest episode in a century-long struggle between Ukraine’s Russian-speaking east and south on the one hand, and the country’s centre and west on the other. The former looks to Moscow; the latter considers itself part of the West. Coming less than three months after a divisive presidential election narrowly won by the pro-Russian candidate Victor Yanukovych, the deal marks the end of Ukraine’s flirtation with Nato and seals its return into Russia’s orbit.

More importantly, it signals a wider realignment in the Middle East and Central Eurasia that heralds the return of former outsiders like Russia, Ukraine and Turkey to the forefront. Disillusioned with the EU’s bureaucratic diktat and fed up with what they view as arbitrary US interference in their Central Asian and Kurdish backyard, leaders such as the Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Erdogan are forging close ties. Traditional rivals are becoming partners.

With the EU conspicuous by its absence and the US struggling to make progress in Afghanistan or on Israel-Palestine, Russo-Turkish co-operation is filling a growing void in the Caucasus and in the strategic corridor that links the Gulf to Afghanistan and Central Asia. In the process, Moscow and Ankara are reshaping the geopolitics of the Middle East and Eurasia.

Many in the US and the EU will dismiss this rapprochement as little more than a desperate move by two deeply disgruntled, post-imperial powers in search of a role in a changing world. But there can be little doubt that Russia and Turkey are building an ‘’axis of outsiders’’ that is challenging US hegemony and the EU’s complacent indifference regarding its own periphery.

Mutual geopolitical and economic interests are at the heart of this new axis. Geopolitically, Moscow and Ankara have a stake in stabilising the wider Caucasus and other parts of their shared neighbourhood. That’s why both have mediated in the ongoing conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Moreover, Turkey – a long-standing member of Nato – created the Caucasus Security and Stability Platform after the 2008 war between Georgia and Russia. Aimed at all countries in the region (including Armenia and Iran) and granting Russia special status, this platform was initiated independently from Turkey’s traditional western allies. Crucially, it marks a neo-Ottoman concern for the wider Caucasus and underscores an imperial recognition that great power conflicts threaten the collective security of entire regions.

This recognition also applies to the wider Middle East, where Ankara and Moscow show their deep mistrust in Israel by maintaining links to Hamas and other Palestinian groups. Even though any peace deal depends on US brokerage, enhanced involvement from Turkey and Russia can help prepare the ground for new negotiations.

Turkey and Russia have identified shared interests that go beyond tourism and trade in cheap consumer goods. Both are engaged in the geopolitics of energy security.

In the past, they seemed to be on opposing sides. Turkey was part of the Nabucco pipeline project, delivering gas from Turkmenistan via the Caspian Sea to Europe, thus bypassing Russia. Meanwhile, the Kremlin championed the South Stream project, with a pipeline running under the Black Sea from Russia to Bulgaria, thus bypassing Turkey.

Despite long-standing pricing and volume disputes, both have been profoundly frustrated by a lack of investment and political support from the EU and the US. In response, Moscow and Ankara are now envisaging a second Blue Stream gas pipeline. The first such pipeline was inaugurated in 2003 and currently transports 10 billion cubic metres of gas yearly. Alternatively, Ankara could take up Moscow’s offer to join the South Stream project, using Turkey’s exclusive economic zone in the Black Sea. Either way, this would transform the Turkish Republic into Europe’s real energy hub, with possible gas deliveries to Israel and links to Iran’s vast energy reserves.

Moreover, Russia and Turkey have shared interests in Iran and Afghanistan. As the tensions over Iran’s nuclear ambitions escalate and the Afghan security situation deteriorates, expect more joint initiatives from the ‘’axis of outsiders”.

Despite the ‘’Obama effect’’, the US and Nato remain deeply discredited in the Middle East and Afghanistan, which opens the way for other actors. The EU suffers from both integration and enlargement fatigue and it lacks a substantive vision for relations with its neighbours, thereby exacerbating the frustration and disillusionment of countries on Europe’s periphery.

Instead of simply opposing US domination or looking to the EU for meaningless ‘’strategic partnerships’’, Russia and regional powers such as Turkey and Ukraine are forging close ties with each other and intervening in their shared spheres of influence. Issues such as future US troop withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan or a new wave of sanctions on Iran won’t be solved without their involvement or support.

In the wake of the global economic crisis, the centre of geopolitical and geoeconomic power is shifting from the developed countries of the West to the emerging markets in the Gulf region, eastern Asia and the southern hemisphere. As part of this shift, there are a number of realignments in the wider Middle East and Central Eurasia that presage the return of former outsiders to the centre of global affairs.

Adrian Pabst is lecturer in politics at the University of Kent, Canterbury, UK