Eurasia: Between Russia and Turkey

Eurasia: Between Russia and Turkey

As Russian influence in Central Asia wanes, Turkey’s is on the rise. 

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine and Western sanctions have reinforced economic relations between an increasingly isolated Russia and an opportunistic Turkey. Russia has become Turkey’s leading import partner, while Turkish exports to Russia have also surged. Amid Russia’s isolation from the West, Turkey has grown increasingly important as a purchaser of Russian gas and a re-exporter of European goods to the Russian market. To the growing unease of Western countries, Russian President Vladimir Putin has described the energy relationship as “genuinely strategic.”

But cooperation co-exists with geopolitical competition, as an increasingly self-assured Turkey is challenging Russia in the South Caucasus and Central Asia—two regions that Moscow staunchly considers as parts of its exclusive sphere of influence, essential to its perceived status as a great power. Using Azerbaijan in the South Caucasus as a gateway, Turkey is expanding its influence to the Turkic-speaking states in Central Asia on the eastern side of the Caspian Sea. A Trans-Caspian dynamic is, thus, emerging under the auspices of a Turkic bloc of cooperation, spanning fields as diverse as security, trade, and culture.

Turkey’s Emergence as a Security Alternative

Turkey’s rising geopolitical influence in the broader Caspian region can be traced back to the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War between Armenia and Azerbaijan. During the war, Ankara’s extensive military backing enabled Azerbaijan to recapture large parts of the territory that the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic had controlled since the early 1990s. While Vladimir Putin brokered a ceasefire and ordered the deployment of Russian peacekeepers to the conflict zone, this did not change the fact that the war had ended with the victory of Turkey’s ally, Azerbaijan, and the defeat of Russia’s ally, Armenia. Turkey had, thus, inserted itself militarily in the South Caucasus, thereby breaking Russia’s military monopoly in the region.

Bolstered by this success, Turkey and Azerbaijan proceeded to codify their strategic alliance in the 2021 Shusha Declaration. This treaty with a NATO member, which includes mutual defense obligations, provides Azerbaijan, as the only country in the South Caucasus and Central Asia, with a real security alternative to Moscow. In September 2023, an emboldened Azerbaijan accomplished its three-decades-long goal of taking full control of Nagorno-Karabakh through a military assault “right in front of the Russian peacekeepers’ eyes.” Under pressure from its war in Ukraine, Russia announced the immediate and total withdrawal of its troops from Nagorno-Karabakh in April 2024.

Turkey’s assertiveness in the South Caucasus did not go unnoticed on the other side of the Caspian. It demonstrated to the Turkic states in Central Asia that cooperation with Ankara can have genuine security benefits. Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have both elevated their bilateral relationships with Turkey to the level of a comprehensive strategic partnership, striking agreements to develop military cooperation in areas including education, joint military exercises, and intelligence-gathering. Moreover, the Turkish defense industry is rapidly gaining dominance over a growing Central Asian drone market, thereby eroding Moscow’s dominance as the region’s singular arms supplier.

As Russia is preoccupied with Ukraine and weakened in the South Caucasus, its security guarantees are beginning to sound increasingly hollow to the states of Central Asia. Tellingly, the violent border clashes in 2021 and 2022 between the militaries of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, both members of the Russian-led military alliance CSTO and both with Russian military bases on their territories, only provoked half-hearted responses from Russia. Instead, Turkey has stepped in to support peacebuilding efforts between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, producing recent progress toward a border agreement.

The Middle Corridor

Turkic cooperation is also helping to reinvigorate the Trans-Caspian trade and transport corridor, better known as the Middle Corridor, as an alternative route for trade between Europe and Asia, bypassing Russia. The Middle Corridor is a network of roads, railways, and ships, as well as sea routes, that connect Europe and Asia via Central Asia, the South Caucasus, and Turkey. For the countries of the South Caucasus and Central Asia, the Middle Corridor reflects their vision of intercontinental trade between China and Europe, connecting them with the EU’s Global Gateway Initiative as well as China’s Belt and Road Initiative. In Central Asia, the main gateway is Kazakhstan. Still, China is planning an additional southern Central Asian route by constructing a China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway, which will likely be connected to the Middle Corridor.

From Ankara’s perspective, the sight of an unimpeded trade corridor from Istanbul to Central Asia looms on the horizon. For the time being, the main South Caucasian transport corridor remains the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway route, which connects Azerbaijan through Georgia to Turkey and from there into Europe. The capacity of this route is, however, insufficient for handling growing Trans-Caspian trade flows. In this context, Turkey, Azerbaijan, and the four Turkic countries in Central Asia have committed to jointly promote the contested Zangezur Corridor, a proposed transport corridor between western parts of Azerbaijan through Armenia to Azerbaijan’s Nakhichevan exclave and onwards to Turkey. This corridor presupposes a peace settlement between Armenia and Azerbaijan. A possible, if equally contested, alternative bypassing Armenia would be the Aras corridor through Iran’s East Azerbaijan province.

Amid growing demands for non-Russian transport routes, a flurry of Trans-Caspian activities has taken place with the aim of enhancing the Middle Corridor’s efficiency. Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, and Turkey have agreed on a roadmap for the development of the corridor until 2027. They aspire to increase the capacity of the corridor to 10 million tons of cargo from the present capacity of approximately 2 million tons. For this to happen, states along the Middle Corridor need to address several constraints upon the route’s attractiveness, such as cumbersome transit and trade procedures, bottlenecks at border points and seaports, as well as insufficient container and vessel fleet capacity to handle large volumes of goods. A step in this direction occurred in late January when EU officials announced that European and international investors would commit to investing 10 billion euros in a development program for the Middle Corridor.

Disruptions in trade transport and logistics are particularly problematic for Kazakhstan’s energy-dependent economy. Around 80 percent of its oil exports transit through Russian territory on their way to Western markets. In 2022, Russia interrupted this flow, leading Kazakhstan to expand cooperation with Azerbaijan to redirect energy supplies to Europe across the Caspian Sea. Turkmenistan, with its vast natural gas reserves, has likewise intensified discussions with Azerbaijan, Turkey, and the European Commission on developing the long-proposed Trans-Caspian Pipeline to Europe—a project that would require substantial investment. For the resource-rich Central Asian countries, Turkey’s location makes it crucial as a gas and oil hub, as well as key to accessing Western energy markets.

Unity of the Turkic World

Like Russia, Turkey is promoting its own multilateral format—the Organization of Turkic States—which is transforming from a platform for dialogue to an organization advancing comprehensive cooperation in all aspects of life. The member states—Turkey, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan—have adopted an ambitious Turkic World Vision 2040. The goal is to turn the organization into a Turkic-speaking equivalent to the EU, granting free movement of commodities, capital, services, technologies, and people among the member states. A Turkic Investment Bank is in the making, and permanently neutral Turkmenistan, normally shunning multilateral alignments, has joined the group as an observer.   

The Organization of Turkic States envisions a wealth of projects aimed at promoting Turkic solidarity and unity. The international organization of Turkic culture, TURKSOY, is implementing shared cultural and scientific projects within the states comprising the Turkic-bloc. Turkish president Recep Erdoğan has proposed a common Turkic alphabet.

Ultimately, this soft power project represents a rival to Moscow’s idea of Russkii mir, a Russian world made up of brotherly nations sharing Russian values and norms and bonded together by the lingering presence of the Russian language as well as a shared Soviet past. Azerbaijan and the Central Asian states are, however, undergoing rapid societal and demographic change that impacts identity formation. More than 70 percent of Central Asia’s population is under the age of forty. Russian culture is losing its once dominant role within the region, as a large, post-Soviet generation with no personal experience of the Soviet Union is coming to the fore.

Implications for Western Policy

The unpredictable consequences of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine leave the states in the South Caucasus and Central Asia with no other choice but to attempt to diversify their diplomatic relations and look for alternative routes to international markets. Turkey is responding to the growing demand for alternative partnerships. By making inroads into defense, energy, and culture—areas that have been the linchpin of Moscow’s influence—Turkey is emerging as a counterweight to Russia across the Caspian.

What does this mean for the United States and the EU? Turkey is a key allied state to have on its side. Its importance is amplified by Russia linking up with China and Iran, forming an axis of revisionist states bent on overturning the principles, rules, and institutions of the post-Cold War international system. Its members appear to be coordinating their strategies. Unless this axis’ rising influence is countered, it may stretch from the Pacific Ocean in the east to the Mediterranean in the west, posing a threat to a great number of states in the process.