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After the Kemalist revolution of 1923, Turkey started to pursue Western modernism with stabile and
isolationist policy from their East neighbors and with the rejection of Ottoman culture. However,
defensive and isolationist Western policy changed by Turgut Özal’s neo-Ottomanism approach.
Demirel’s argument of the Turkish world from the Adriatic to the Chinese Wall in the 1990s was significant to
the Caspian region (Efegil, 2008, p.167). This paper argues that despite Davutoglu’s “strategic depth” has
good intentions, this doctrine is mostly failed against Turkic and non-Turkic countries in the realities and
complexities of the Caspian region. This paper will first explain the strategic depth doctrine and will
afterward apply and assess this doctrine to Turkic and non-Turkic countries.
Turkey is a regional power in strategic depth. In this doctrine, Davutoglu utilizes Machiavellian classical
realism with stressing the importance of geography, history, culture and considers economic, and
military as potential powers. Thus, Davutoglu sees Turkey as a central country that possesses
a geographical and historical leadership role to its neighbors which is compatible with the definition of
regional power theory. Turkey uses soft power like economic interdependence, cultural platforms and
cooperative security as theoretical frameworks of regional power. Additionally, Turkey influences the
Caspian region and is therefore recognized by other states with its soft power. (Kardaş, 2010, p.124).
Strategic depth considers Turkey as a hinterland that emerges from the Ottoman Empire (Özkan, 2014,
p.119), whereas Turkey needs to remove its isolationist policies by multiple alliances to counterbalance
EU. According to Davutoglu, Turkey can’t reach the Caspian Sea and therefore Turkey needs to have
sea strategy for controlling other sea routes that are connected to the Caspian Sea (Aktoprak, 2003,
p.176). Hence, Turkey needs to collaborate with Russia and Iran (Davutoglu, 2001, p. 32). In this way
Turkey will increase its area of maneuver without aligning either with West or East. Given that Turkey
can utilize its unique historical, cultural and bridge role of connecting East and West characteristics, are
what makes Turkey special in strategic depth.
Particularly, strategic depth is the depth of geography which considers Turkey as a continental basin
under the capacity of being a Middle Eastern, Caucasian, Western and Mediterranean country, which
furthermore derives from Ottoman legacy rule to three continents and its historical depth of multiple
cultures in these continents. Davutoglu provides the elements of multidimensional, proactive, and
rhythmic diplomacy, zero problems with neighbors, pragmatism and mediation as characteristics of
Turkey’s new policy. Hence, Turkey pursues an integrated regional policy since it has multiple regional
Additionally, Turkey considers the all-inclusive policy of taking NGOs and every state into cooperation
(Aras, 2009, p. 133), while its global role is shifted from Western military deterrent and peripheral
country to the central country. Hence, Turkey’s secular democracy can bring stability and peace to the
Caspian states. The latter gains more attention since the strategic depth represents both neo- Ottomanism
and Eurasianism with Islamic conservatism without Turkish ethnic domination but rather cooperation
(Tüysüzoğlu, 2014, p.99).
Russia is the biggest test for the strategic depth doctrine. Turkey removed its skepticism towards Russia
and shifted its relations from an enemy state to an economical ally state after 1990 with increasing
economic relations during the Putin era. Davutoglu argues that Turkey needs to implement a strategy of
close cooperation with Turkic states against Russia’s unilateralism in the Caspian Sea. Turkey’s new
multidimensional and inclusive policy allows Turkey to remain neutral between Russia and the West while
increasing its economic relations with Russia. Turkey pursued a multilateral diplomacy policy in the
Russian-Georgian crisis of 2008 in order to balance Russian unilateralism with the Caucasian
Cooperation and Stability Platform which consists of Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Russia and Turkey
without external powers (Aras, 2009, p. 136). This platform is created because of the failure of Minsk
group and was the only solution for Turkey to provide peace and stability, since Turkey’s political
actions are restricted because of its economic dependency on Russia. Therefore, Georgia is crucial for
Turkey to decrease the Russian dependency, and in the same way it is an ally for Turkey since they both
support Western democracy. Turkey considers Georgia geographically important since the main routes
of BTC and BTE pipeline routes pass through Georgia because of the ethnic and historical conflicts with
Armenia. Consequently, Turkey seeks to solve Georgian crisis by CSCP for to be energy hub between
Caspian and West.
However, the CSCP platform is unsuccessful for the following reasons; Firstly, because of the
asymmetrical dependence and secondly because of Turkey’s non inclusive approach for not taking EU,
US even Iran to cooperate was accredited as a big mistake (Jackson, 2011, p.88). Hence, this crisis
demonstrates that strategic depth failed in the real complex of the Caspian politics. Turkey could gain geopolitical advantage neither from the US nor from Russia because of this policy. This crisis was
difficult for Turkey since it needs to make a binary choice between Russia and the US and similarly
between Armenia and Azerbaijan in Karabakh. Turkey restricted the passing of US military ships in
straits in accordance to the Montreux agreement during this crisis. Consequently, Turkey used its soft
power with providing only humanitarian aid to Georgia and having a mediation role between Russia and
Georgia. This crisis occurred to prevent NATO’s military expansion in Georgia, whereas Russia
legitimized these actions in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.
Moreover, Turkey recognizes the Russian dominance with including Russia in every cooperation, which
is compatible with the strategic depth doctrine. From this doctrine, Russia is naturally allied to
counterbalance EU and with also converging interest to fight against radical Islamism (Walker, 2007,
Besides, apart from the energy disputes, e.g. the BTC and BTE pipelines, Turkey balances this with the
Blue Stream pipeline. (Davutoglu, 2008, p.91). Russia is critical for Turkey to illustrate to the Turkic
states that Turkey cooperates with a common share of identity and interest rather than Pan-Turkism or
imperial desires. The great game of transferring energy sources of Caspian to Europe can create
conflicts among Russia and Turkey (Çaman, Akyurt, 2011, p.55). Turkey’s economic dependency on
Russia is an obstacle for the implementation of the strategic depth, and is therefore suggested that
Turkey can decrease this dependency through Iran and Turkmenistan and not only with Azerbaijan. This
dependency restricts Turkey’s political freedom in the Russian-Georgian crisis. Given that Turkey should
not allow Russia to impose dominance on Turkic countries, only the realistic policies of strategic
partnerships with Turkic countries, render this possible rather than adopting a “big brother” behavior.
Turkey’s biggest disadvantage is Russia’s historical political and cultural assimilation process on Turkic
states during the Soviet Union, which clarifies that both sides need to be cautious on ethnic issues like
Chechen and Kurdish people. According to Davutoglu, Turkey should not leave the mediation role to
Russia in Karabakh. Gradually, after 1990, Russia was successful in terms of filling the vacuum of
geopolitics in the Caspian rather than Turkey. This could be interpreted because of Turkey’s lack of
domestic economic and political stability, which illustrates that the strategic depth lost against Russia.
The triangle of Azerbaijan-Armenia and Turkey is a deadlocked process. Unfortunately, the strategic depth
of Turkey in this triangle is also unsuccessful. Azerbaijan is the closest ally and strategic partner for
Turkey, and although the Karabakh issue threatens Azerbaijan’s sovereignty, it remains unsolved
despite Turkey’s and Russia’s mediations. Davutoglu argues that Turkey needs to have an energy strategy
and partnership with Azerbaijan without allowing the creation of an alliance among Russia, Iran and
Armenia against Turkey (Davutoglu, 2001, p.24). Although this energy strategy is compatible with the
strategic depth policy, however, this did not happen in the realities of Caspian. Davutoglu in his strategic
depth analysis rejects Samuel Huntington’s clash of civilizations ideology however the Karabakh
issue between Azeri and Armenian people is a clash of civilization (Murinson, 2006, p.949). Strategic
depth respects multiculturalism but real politics prevent this. The normalization process and diplomatic
talks with Turkey and Armenia in 2009 was a huge development. This normalization policy is convenient
with the strategic depth for the following three reasons; firstly, it will attribute a mediation opportunity to Ankara; Secondly, it will enhance Ankara’s regional role and finally, it will render possible the
Nabucco pipeline operation. If Turkey manages to have good relation with Armenia without losing
Azerbaijan, then Russia will lose its control on pipelines. However, this protocol was not put into
practice because of the Karabakh issue. Turkey’s normalization process also damaged its closest ally,
Azerbaijan. Consequently, it is obvious that the Karabakh conflict creates a huge dilemma in this
triangle, in which Armenia prefers to be allied with Russia and Iran (Aras, 2009, p.4). Armenian
arguments of the 1915 genocide, which is a major problem for Turkey, since the genocide accusations,
renders unsuccessful the strategic depth, especially due to the Armenian historical conflict with Ottoman
and pan Turkism in the Caspian (Jackson, 2011, p.83). Hence, Turkey needs to use its economic
interdependence card against Armenia to incentive them to cooperate on energy pipelines mainly
because Armenia’s economy totally deteriorated after the bombardment of Georgian ports by
Russia in 2008, which undoubtedly resulted in the loss of Armenia’s economic partner, Georgia. The
football diplomacy among Turkey and Armenia is also unsuccessful due to the nationalist domestic
pressures of both sides, the genocide arguments, the diaspora of Armenians and the Karabakh issue.
Although Turkey was one of the first states that recognized Armenia’s independence and invited the
latter as a founding member of the Black Sea Cooperation, this triangle illustrates that strategic depth is
not succeeding due to deep historical and ideational conflicts, which prevent any peace progress and
cause zero-sum policies (Aras, Akpınar, 2011, p.61). Azerbaijan is therefore the last ally for Turkey to
be the energy hub, with also the help of Georgia.
Turkey has to acknowledge that all post-Soviet Turkic countries do not want to be dependent on any
single power and do not seek any country for a role model (Walker, 2007, p.43). Although Western
powers consider and hope Turkey to be a role model in this region, in order to remove Iran’s dangerous
radical Islamism and Russia’s geopolitical desires, Turkey was unsuccessful in this role. The Turkish
public opinion is sensitive towards the Turkic countries since they consider them as “fatherland of
ethnic Turks”. However, Turkic populations do not consider themselves as Turkish, thus this is a crucial
common misunderstanding. Hence, Turkey needs to perceive Turkic countries as they are. TIKA is
founded for giving aid to Turkic countries (Çaman, Akyurt, 2011, p.47). This is the soft power of
Turkey in the areas of economics, culture, language, history in line with the strategic depth
understanding. Turkey facilitates the ground for increasing their voice in international institutions with
its “door opening and right advocating” role. In parallel, the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO),
Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA), Turkic Council are organizations that consist of
Turkey and Turkic states. Turkey and Kazakhstan have joint economic Commission and High Level
Strategic Cooperation Council and achieved agreement on security and terrorism. However, since there are disagreements among Turkic states, Turkey only achieved bilateral cooperation instead of multilateral relationships. Therefore, Turkey needs to have realistic and pragmatic policies towards these states instead of unfounded expectations and speeches. Turkey’s lack of economic success and political instability allowed Russia to fill this geostrategic role, which resulted in the defeat of both Turkey and Iran against Russia in terms of controlling the Turkic states. Turkey has to recognize the dominance of
Iran and Russia and needs to cooperate with them in order to increase its influence.
Moreover, the establishment of the Turkic Council is a huge achievement for Turkey which it can
increase this kind of soft power for the implementation of realistic goals. According to Aras, Turkey
fails to sufficiently understand international factors and its misperceptions are the reasons for the failure
of Turkish policy in the Caspian. Turkey supports the policy of “One Nation, Two States” towards
Turkic states, and it additionally supports Turkmenistan’s neutral status, regardless of the fact that their
interactions are limited to tourism, culture and official visits. TURKSOY, TDV and TDRA are cultural,
religious and educational organizations in the region (Aras, 2000, p.45), and in the meantime, the high
transfer of students from Caspian to Turkey, is valuable for integration. Therefore, strategic depth is
partially successful to Turkic countries. This success depends mostly on Turkey’s soft power in cultural,
education, historical and language councils to these regions. However, Turkey lost the ground to Russia
in terms of both geopolitical and geo-economical grounds except Azerbaijan.
Concerning Iran, Turkey utilized its strategic depth policy against Iran, thus it supported the Iranian
peaceful nuclear program during the US sanctions (Murinson, 2006, p.960). They agreed on fighting
against the PKK terrorism in Syria. Turkey cooperates with Iran for increasing the bargaining power
against the Russian gas dependency in compliance with the strategic depth, whereas Turkey also
defeated Iranian Islamism in Turkic states. Since Iran has economic restrictions due to sanctions, most
Turkic states prefer to choose the Turkish liberal economy (Goudarzi, Lashaki, Lakani, 2015, p.127).
However, neither Iran nor Turkey could take Russia’s geopolitical role in the Caspian. Although Iran
has the most compatible and safe energy route for pipelines, Azerbaijan chose Turkey for cooperation
because of Iran’s support to Armenia and Iran’s Islamic threat to Azerbaijan’s Western democracy. Aras
argues that Turkey’s constructive de-securitization process on political Islam and Kurdish separatism
caused to have good relations with Iran (Aras, Polat, 2008, p.496). Consequently, the strategic depth is
successful in the eyes of Turkic states against Iran in Caspian.
Consequently, I think the strategic depth doctrine has good intentions for making the Turkish foreign
policy success with regards to its geographical and historical depth of Ottoman legacy. However, this
is achievable in peaceful regions and not in complex and unstable cases, such as the Caspian Sea. This is
because of the strategic depth’s neo-Ottomanism, Islamic tendency and pan Turkism, which are not good strategies towards the Turkic and non-Turkic countries. The latter could be interpreted from the
fact that all states in the Caspian do not seek any role model; in contrary they want to be independent
and act according to their interests. Therefore, strategic depth is achievable ıf it is used on economic
interdependence and mutual interests. Thus, Turkey had success towards Azerbaijan but unfortunately
failed against other Turkic states. Turkic states mostly prefer to cooperate with US, EU and Russia.
Consequently, strategic depth failed in the eyes of Turkic states and non-Turkic states. This role is filled
by Russia because of Turkey’s not realistic policies and lack of domestic economic and political
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This article is written by Senad Sevdik