The Georgian coastal city of Batumi hosted, on May 23, a trilateral meeting of the defense ministers of Azerbaijan, Turkey and Georgia (Azertac, May 23). This trilateral cooperation format was inaugurated in 2012, during a ministerial meeting in Trabzon, Turkey. As expected, a new military memorandum was signed during the Batumi meeting: the three sides pledged to boost military ties as well as increase cooperation in the fields of military education and military medicine, counterterrorism (including the protection of pipelines and railways), and joint large-scale military exercises (APA, May 23). “Our cooperation in the field of defense contributes to strengthening security, peace and economic development,” Azerbaijani Defense Minister Zakir Hasanov told reporters in Batumi (Azertac, May 23).
In addition to the signed memorandum entailing defense ministry–level cooperation, the three countries agreed to extend cooperation between the general staffs of their armed forces. Thus, in autumn 2017, the chiefs of the general staffs of the armed forces of Azerbaijan, Turkey and Georgia will gather together in Tbilisi under this framework. Moreover, new joint military drills, dubbed “Caucasian Eagle,” started on June 5 in Tbilisi. And according to the Azerbaijani Ministry of Defense, its military will take part in the exercise until June 14 (APA, June 5).
Armenia has frequently expressed concern for the expanding Azerbaijani-Georgian-Turkish trilateralism in the South Caucasus, since its official unveiling five years ago. More recently, Yerevan’s negative rhetoric toward the trilateral alliance has subsided somewhat due to Armenia’s close diplomatic ties with Georgia. The latter country facilitates Armenia’s connectivity with its ally Russia as well as global markets, mainly via the Tbilisi–Gyumri railway. Nevertheless, last month, Armenian officials again argued that the deepening military cooperation between Baku, Ankara and Tbilisi poses a serious national security challenge to Yerevan. “The new trilateral format in the region is seeking to isolate Armenia even more,” local expert Ruben Safrastian declared (EADaily, May 23). The government of Azerbaijan, however, has been quick to reply that the trilateral partnership is strictly aimed at strengthening economic cooperation between the three countries and it is does not pose a threat to regional stability. “This trilateral cooperation contributes to regional security, stability and sustainable development and is not directed against other countries,” declared Novruz Mammadov, the assistant to the president of Azerbaijan for foreign policy issues (APA, June 5).
Turkey’s continued involvement in the triangle with Georgia and Azerbaijan is arguably connected to Ankara’s desire to strengthen its geopolitical influence in the South Caucasus. In the aftermath of the unsuccessful 2016 military coup in Turkey and subsequent deteriorating relations with the European Union, Ankara’s foreign policy has been rapidly shifting toward the East, including the Caucasus. To some degree, the trilateral alliance is seen as a suitable politico-military, cultural and economic platform for Turkey to strengthen its influence in the South Caucasus. Indeed, Turkey is interested in becoming a regional oil and natural gas hub; however, without Azerbaijani natural gas passing through Georgian territory, these ambitions would remain a dream for Ankara.
Various separatist movements across the South Caucasus and Anatolia provide further impetus toward closer regional security cooperation among these three countries. Turkey’s long-time efforts to counter Kurdish militants (notably, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party—PKK) in the eastern provinces, the insecurity stemming from the military confrontation over Azerbaijan’s occupied Karabakh region, as well as Russian occupation of Georgian separatist territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia together have encouraged the three countries to seek closer relations.
To date, one of the most tangible results of the cooperative triangle has been the 826-kilometer-long Baku–Tbilisi–Kars railway project (the third such trilateral link after the Baku–Tbilisi–Ceyhan oil pipeline and the Baku–Tbilisi–Erzurum gas pipeline) that directly links the three countries. The strategically important railway is supposed to be operational by the end of June 2017 and raises expectations in certain corners that the trilateral platform can be turned into a more robust alliance (Daily Sabah, May 22). All the aforementioned factors notwithstanding, Baku, Ankara and Tbilisi’s trilateral military cooperation at this stage is arguably focused mainly on the security of regional energy pipelines that run from Azerbaijan through Georgia, near South Ossetia, and continue into eastern Turkey. As Azerbaijani Defense Minister Zakir Hasanov noted during an inaugural meeting of the three countries’ defense ministers in August 2014, the major reason for holding trilateral military drills is the need to protect pipeline and railroad infrastructure that crosses those states (News.az, August 20, 2014).
While clearly based on the mutual interests of its three participating countries, the Ankara-Baku-Tbilisi trilateral alliance is also a gateway for Turkey to access the Caspian basin and Central Asia via Azerbaijani and Georgian territory. Meanwhile, Baku and Tbilisi promote this regional triangle in order to cultivate regional political support for the peaceful settlement of their ongoing conflicts. And while, so far, no significant step has been taken toward the reconciliation of these territorial conflicts, the positive rhetoric coming out of the annual ministerial meetings suggests that the new trilateral platform will likely remain an influential force in the South Caucasus for the long term.