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A Russia Strategy Must Look South: The Caucasus Impacts Europe through the Eastern Mediterranean

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In the current Russian war of aggression against Ukraine, NATO and the EU would do well to recall the Boston speech of the great Belgian statesman, Paul-Henri Spaak, on 2 September 1958 when he was Secretary-General of NATO.


A Russia Strategy Must Look South: The Caucasus Impacts Europe through the Eastern Mediterranean

In the current Russian war of aggression against Ukraine, NATO and the EU would do well to recall the Boston speech of the great Belgian statesman, Paul-Henri Spaak, on 2 September 1958 when he was Secretary-General of NATO. Aside from the many parallels between recent geopolitical developments in Europe and expansionist Soviet actions at the time, he posed a key question: “Is it sufficient […] to construct a solid military barrier along the Elbe, on the eastern frontier of the free world, if the free world is to be outflanked politically, militarily and economically in the Middle East and Africa?”

An Effective Russia strategy cannot ignore the Eastern Mediterranean and the Caucasus

This strategic perspective is as valid today as it was 60 years ago. If the EU and NATO are to reach their full potential for closer cooperation, then the space between the EU’s Strategic Compass and NATO’s Strategic Concept should be filled with substance in the Eastern Mediterranean, the Middle East, and the Levant (EMELEV). Spaak’s far-sighted strategic vision reflected the inescapable forces of geography, and the fundamental geopolitical drivers that have not ceased to reproduce broadly similar dynamics to this day. This is the case not only because EMELEV, given its location and the many crises, is itself a key strategic security zone for Europe, but also because of its historic role as a bridge between the Caucasus and Europe.

This historic bridging function was obscured for decades by the near total bipolarity of the Cold War, and the rigid alliances it created for the different EMELEV states. Moreover, the Caucasus states were part of the Soviet Union, and therefore were not necessarily dealt with on the basis of their specific individual geopolitical features. They were lumped into the great Soviet behemoth, for which plans were mainly made along the proverbial Elbe, to use Spaak’s apt description. This very eastern-centric European perspective prevailed throughout the Cold War. It negated the deep historic links southwards of the Caucasus, with EMELEV.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the role of the EMELEV as a southern bridge, between the Caucasus and Europe, was further obscured by the geostrategic challenges posed by the Iraq wars, Iran (and its proxy Hizballah), terrorism, the Syrian civil war, the migration crisis, and the Arab Spring.  The enlargement of the EU towards central and eastern Europe also meant that a predominantly eastern and continental tilt in its prism was inevitable, rather than a maritime and southern one.  However, in reality the independent Caucasus states have been rebuilding their historic links with the EMELEV since the 1990s.

There is the little-noticed close cooperation and warm relationship between Azerbaijan and Israel over the last three decades. Iraqi tourists have been visiting Azerbaijan in droves, which also has a majority Shia population. Gulf investors have been pouring into Georgia, and close governmental links have been established, while Iran has renewed its historic close links with the country. The communities of Armenians, long resident in the Levant, have been acting as a very effective bridge. Turkey’s influence and shadow loom across the entire Caucasus in varying degrees. The spread of radical Islam through some of the old Soviet republics in the northern Caucasus cannot be ignored, with Dagestani jihadists following a path towards the Levant trodden over centuries by their forefathers, some of whom reached the highest military and diplomatic ranks in Iraq and Jordan. The Life Guard inside the Hashemite palaces of Jordan’s Royal Family have always been Circassians, who are still dressed, to this day, in their traditional Caucasian uniforms. Georgia is a major tourism destination for Gulf Arabs, Israelis and Turks, just as it is for Russians, is home to a large ethnically Iraqi Christian community, and continues to have close social links with its former imperial ruler, Iran, as it does with its later imperial ruler, Russia.

This reversion to a pre-Cold War pattern of regional relations has a clear impact on European security writ large from the “other” geographic end of the former Soviet Union. But is has not been matched by a similar shift in the European perspective, with its narrower focus on the continental eastern borders. How the Caucasus would fit into a new security architecture following Russia’s war on the Ukraine will depend to a large degree on how this southern and maritime perspective, in addition to that looking east at the continent, will be dealt with. This will be an important factor in any 360-Degrees Russia strategy.

Turkish-Israeli-Azeri cooperation bridges the Caucasus and the Mediterranean

No better illustration of these developments than the fact that two key Mediterranean powers, Turkey and Israel, teamed up last Autumn (2021) with Azerbaijan against Iran. This came on the heels of their active involvement in the Nagorno-Karabakh war of November 2020, also in support of Azerbaijan, against Russian-backed and armed Armenia. The Turkish-Israeli-Azeri cooperation effectively bridges the southern Caucasus into the Mediterranean with all that such a development entails for Europe’s security architecture.

It was surprising that Turkey took what appeared to be a sudden hostile posture vis-à-vis Iran last Autumn, in alliance with the Azeris, who revived territorial claims against Iran. The Azeris and Turks have a very strong relationship, bolstered by the fact that the former are one of the largest foreign investors in Turkey, and by the fact that Turkey fully supported Azerbaijan in its wars with Armenia. Turkish drones and Israeli expertise played a decisive role in defeating Armenia in November 2020. The sizeable Azeri minority inside Iran have reportedly also become more restive. Turkey relies on Iran for 15% of its gas imports (and on Russia for over 50%). Turkey, therefore, considers completing a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to its Mediterranean coast as a strategic priority to ensure that it has an alternative source of gas, and to act as a transit country for supplies to Europe.  The pipeline has been blocked by Iran, however, thus preventing Turkey from achieving these strategic aims. One scenario foresees that, should Azerbaijan succeed in taking over current Iranian territory, Turkey will be able then to build the missing pipeline segment potentially on newly controlled Azeri territory. It is, therefore, not surprising that Iran launched one of its largest military “exercises” ever on the Azeri border last Autumn, as a show of strength and a warning against any attempts to alter the existing borders by force. The Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei publicly declared that this is a “matter of life and death” for the Islamic Republic. Indeed, any change to the borders of a “central corridor state” such as Iran will fundamentally alter the country’s, as well as the international geopolitical dynamics. For Europe, this would affect its relations with Turkey in all its various dimensions.

Moreover, Iran fears Israel’s adoption against it of what Prime Minister Neftali Bennett called the strategy of “death by a thousand cuts”. To weaken Iran’s relative geostrategic position by denying it control over a key stretch of territory on its northern border with Azerbaijan would be a very substantial cut indeed. This is a critical addition to Israel’s existing Iran strategy, which was recently summed up by former Israeli Defence minister General Moshe Yaalon: “One way or another, the military nuclear project in Iran should be stopped”.  Here too, there is a speculative possible link to the Caucasus. Should it be allowed to launch the raid from Azeri territory which borders Iran, Israel would, in principle, be able to launch an air raid against Iran’s nuclear facilities without the need to fly very long distances requiring air refuelling.

Conclusion: A New Security Architecture

The Russian war of aggression against a peaceful democratic Ukraine in the east, to force the latter away from a European liberal future and to condemn it to autocratic serfdom, should not eclipse the critical strategic importance of what is essentially the “Southern European Front”. The links that the Caucasus states maintain with EMELEV are on par with the Caucasus’ ties to Russia.

The maritime as well as the continental dynamics stretching east and south from the Caucasus to Europe should put EMELEV front and centre in any effective new European security architecture. Russia’s military presence on the Mediterranean and its influence in Syria, its naval strategy that depends on access through the two Turkish-controlled straits of the Bosporus and the Dardanelles to link its Black Sea naval operations with the Mediterranean, as well as Georgia’s status as a littoral Black Sea state, are geostrategic vectors that should be of immediate and direct interest to any European security strategy. The recent statement by President Ursula von der Leyen, that Azerbaijan will play an important role in securing alternative gas supplies, underlines the critical role the southern link between Europe and the Caucasus will play in Europe’s security, especially that the pipelines will traverse Turkey. These southern vectors have a distinct Russian angle that will need to be correctly understood and countered for a long time to come. Europe needs to add this southern prism to how it interprets its Neighbourhood Policy, as the dynamics of the eastern and southern neighbourhood meet up in the crises of the Caucasus.

In practice, the EU’s two neighbourhood approaches will need to be viewed as being closely interlinked, and where necessary combined rather than being dealt with as two entirely separate tracks, in order to more accurately identify which regional geopolitical and human terrain dynamics will have an impact on European security and prosperity, beyond their regional confines. An effective European Russia strategy will have to ensure that such regional dynamics are not neglected, and that the approaches to the three seas, the Baltic, Black and Mediterranean Seas are coordinated.



(Photo credit:  Pixabay)