Sunday, December 13, 2015

Moscow’s ‘Nuclear’ Diplomatic Option on Turkey – Denouncing 1921 Kars Treaty – Would Backfire

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 13 – Vladimir Putin has talked casually about the use of nuclear weapons and has shown himself willing to violate Russia’s commitment, but in the current standoff with Turkey, many in Moscow are urging him to use what might be called a “nuclear” diplomatic option and denounce the 1921 Kars Treaty between Soviet Russia and Turkey.  

            But such an action, while it would potentially hit Turkey hard by calling into question its borders in the Caucasus, beyond any doubt would destabilize the situation in that region in ways that would undermine and quite possibly kill for a long time to come Moscow’s influence in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia.

            And thus, while it may be the kind of threat that the Kremlin has shown itself more than willing to suggest, it seems unlikely that even Putin would take the risks that denunciation of this treaty would involve.

            The Kars Treaty between Turkey and Soviet Russia, signed on October 13, 1921, replaced both the March 1921 Treaty of Moscow between the two as well as the earlier treaty of Brest Litovsk. It both defined the borders between Turkey and the Soviet republics in the Caucasus and made Moscow and Ankara jointly responsible for the borders of Nakhchivan within Azerbaijan and gave Turkey transit rights through portions of Georgia.

            Most of the territory Turkey gained had been seized by the Russian Empire at the time of the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-1878, although a small portion of it had been absorbed into the Russian Empire following the last Russo-Persian war half a century earlier.  And it thus effectively defined many of the borders in the Trans-Caucasus.

            Many in the West know little about the treaty – indeed, if they know anything at all, is the anecdote about the exchange of opinions between the Turkish representative who complained that Armenia had the mountain of Ararat on its shield even though that location is in Turkey and the Soviet one who said Ankara shouldn’t complain because Turkey had the moon on its flag.

            But in the region and in both Moscow and Turkey, the 1921 Kars Treaty has long been viewed as the foundation of stability of borders there; and any change would generation a sharply negative reaction in Yerevan, Baku, and Tbilisi, not to mention in Ankara and the capitals of its fellow NATO partners.

            Nonetheless, many in Moscow are pressing Moscow to abrogate the 1921 accord, presenting such a step as a way to call into question Turkey’s borders, promote a larger Armenia, establish a pro-Moscow Kurdistan, and otherwise e-order the political map in and around Turkey.

            Among the most determined advocates of abrogation is Moscow commentator Aleksandr Sitnikov, who outlines the history of the adoption of the 1921 treaty and argues that Moscow should now revisit the treaty in an article entitled “The Diplomatic Defeat of Turkey” on the Svobodnaya pressa portal (

            He argues that by the Kars Treaty, “the Bolsheviks agreed to give up significant parts of Armenia and Georgia in exchange for a peace” that would allow them to recover from the Russian Civil War and also to prevent Turkey from realizing its plan to form “’a Great Turan’ as far as Kazan and the Altay.”

            In the event, Sitnikov says, “Istanbul received all that it wanted” and thus “was formed the Soviet-Turkish balance of interests which over the following decades fixed the status quo.” But Moscow never forgot that from its point of view, it had given away too much and in 1945, several Soviet commentators called for an abrogation of revision of the treaty.

            That didn’t happen, the Moscow writer says, because “then in defense of Turkish interests stood the atomic power of the US.”  However, a great deal has changed since then and Russia should revisit the issue in order to advance its interests and those of its friends in the Caucasus.

            Of course, he says, the denunciation of the 1921 treaty “would not lead to an immediate change of borders in the Caucasus. But this decision would launch a process of restoring historical justice and also remind the entire world about the bestial crimes against humanity committed” by Turkey’s leaders.

            Sitnikov’s article implies that Armenia and Georgia would be the winners in such a case, but that is unlikely. On the one hand, denunciation of the treaty and the end of Moscow’s agreement to Turkey’s special role as guarantor of Nakhchivan, a non-contiguous part of Azerbaijan, would likely trigger a new Karabakh war.

            And on the other, while the Moscow analyst may think Georgia would be able to reclaim what he sees as its historic territory in Turkey, the likelihood is that the Turkish military would not only be able to maintain Turkey’s current borders in Georgia but also even extend Turkish control more deeply into that Transcaucasian state.

            But most important, if Moscow denounces the Kars Treaty, it would certainly alienate Azerbaijan far more than any other step could and thus cost Russia its diplomatic gains there in the last several years. At the same time, it would deepen rather than weaken ties between Baku and Ankara, hardly a goal serious Russian policy makers would like to see pursued.

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