In the aftermath of the second Nagorno-Karabakh war, bolstered by Turkey’s growing influence in the South Caucasus, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan proposed the controversial idea of establishing a six-country regional cooperation platform. Speaking from the Azerbaijani capital Baku, where he was attending victory celebrations, Erdogan noted that new opportunities for regional cooperation are possible for the Caucasus region. Turkey’s leader envisages a platform that would bring Turkey, Russia, Azerbaijan, Iran, Georgia, and Armenia together. In his words, it would provide a win-win opportunity for all sides, including Armenia, which could use the platform as a first positive step toward establishing bilateral relations with Turkey.
While no practical steps have been taken in implementing the project, Erdogan noted that President Vladimir Putin, who recently strengthened Russia’s military presence in the region by stationing Russian troops in Nagorno-Karabakh, has expressed positivity toward the idea. This comes as no surprise given it is in Putin’s interest to weaken the role of Western institutions and U.S. influence in the region. In the midst of a pandemic and high political polarization across the U.S., the Kremlin sees an opportunity to take control of the situation in its neighborhood. Moscow will be looking to make it more difficult for the Biden Administration to reaffirm America’s role in the region and strengthen cooperation with South Caucasus countries, particularly its key ally Georgia. Meanwhile, NATO member Turkey is pursuing its own regional ambitions and despite a traditionally competitive relationship with Moscow, Ankara is increasingly willing to accommodate Russia to achieve these ambitions.
Given the conflicting interests and deeply complicated relations between regional actors, Erdogan’s idea has not been met with the same enthusiasm by others, particularly Georgia. Erdogan’s initiative is especially concerning for Tbilisi because of the national security challenges it poses and because Tbilisi is a “lone wolf” in the region in terms of its commitment to European and Euro-Atlantic structures.
The six-country platform is inherently incompatible with Georgia’s state interests. In light of Russia’s occupation and further militarization of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, including its ongoing “borderization” policy which sees Russia’s creeping occupation of Georgian territory, it is virtually inconceivable that Georgia would join a platform that also has Russia as a member. Moreover, an overwhelming majority of Georgia’s population supports European and Euro-Atlantic integration. The poor performance of pro-Kremlin political parties in the 2020 Georgian Parliamentary Elections demonstrates strong public consensus for a pro-Western foreign policy agenda with greater emphasis on democratization and cooperation in defense and security. Any Georgian government willing to reproach with Russia and join a cooperation framework is setting itself up for failure.
On top of this, Erdogan’s proposed platform would further damage U.S. interests in the region, which have already been relatively weakened. The South Caucuses and Black Sea regions were largely ignored by the Trump Administration, although the partnership between the U.S. and Georgia remained steady and strong (demonstrated by the decision to grant Georgia permission to purchase 10 Javelin anti-tank missiles and 72 Command Launch Units (CLUs). America’s absence in the South Caucasus under the previous administration enabled Russia and Turkey to intervene in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and determine an outcome favorable to their interests. At the same time, Russia has gone to great lengths to portray its ongoing military presence in the region as a peacekeeping endeavor. The presence of Russian troops, under the guise that they are so-called peacekeepers, poses very real security threats and will likely compromise any prospects of long-term peace in the region.
Amidst a challenging global political landscape and unstable regional security environment, Georgia is swimming against the current. Tbilisi needs unanimous and unwavering Western support and practical actions to strengthen the country’s resilience toward a myriad of national security threats. Encouragingly, Biden is building an experienced foreign policy team with strong regional expertise. But with such significant domestic challenges to address, it is unlikely that strengthening the U.S.’s role in the South Caucasus and the Black Sea will be a top priority. However, Biden has expressed eagerness to reaffirm America’s global leadership and strengthen support for allies. Reinforcing its role in the South Caucasus, where U.S. dominance is currently under threat and diminishing, would be an ideal starting point.
In light of Russia’s growing ambitions to reaffirm its political and military dominance in the region, Georgia cannot be left on its own to deal with such large-scale regional challenges. Recent developments, including Erdogan’s proposed cooperation platform, indicate the willingness of both Ankara and Moscow to block Western engagement and mark the region as their sphere of influence. The deployment of a U.S. military base in Georgia, increased cooperation with the Black Sea security framework, and a greater push for Georgia’s NATO accession are measures that would signal a much-needed push from Washington. In doing so, the U.S. would turn a new page towards greater engagement with its strategic partners and allies. Over many years, Georgia has proved worthy of such support.
Natia Seskuria is a fellow with MEI's Frontier Europe Initiative. The views expressed here are her own.
Photo VANO SHLAMOV/AFP via Getty Images
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