By calling into question the validity of the 1921 Treaty of Moscow, Russian politicians may be attempting to rattle Ankara and gain the political support of Georgia and Armenia.

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan listens to statements at the COP21, United Nations Climate Change Conference, in Le Bourget, outside Paris, Monday, Nov. 30, 2015. Photo: AP

Rising tensions in Russian-Turkish relations over the civil war in Syria are leading to new attempts by Russian politicians to impose political costs on Turkey for interfering in Syria. The latest move – an attempt to annul the Moscow Treaty of Friendship and Brotherhood with Turkey signed on March 16, 1921 – could have repercussions not just for the Middle East, but also for the former Soviet republics of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Last week Russian State Duma members Valery Rashkin and Sergei Obukhov of the Russian Communist Party sent a letter to the Russian political leadership and the Russian Foreign Ministry requesting the cancellation of the 1921 Treaty of Moscow, concluded by Bolshevik Russia and Kemalist Turkey. The faction of A Just Russia party supported the initiative. On Feb. 10, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said that the Russia will study the question of annulling the nearly 100-year-old treaty with Turkey.

What is the 1921 Treaty of Moscow?

The Treaty of Moscow was concluded and signed between Bolshevik Russia and Kemalist Turkey on March 16, 1921. This occurred shortly after the Sovietization of the Caucasus republics of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, all of which existed as tenuous independent republics ever since the collapse of Russian rule in 1918. Notably, the campaign to regain Transcaucasia was led by Caucasian Bolsheviks, such as Joseph Stalin, Sergo Ordzhonikidze, and Anastas Mikoyan.

Although the Bolsheviks managed to secure much of pre-Revolutionary Transcaucasia, the westernmost districts came under the military occupation of Turkish nationalist forces, led by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

These included the provinces of Artvin, Ardahan, and Kars, annexed by the Russian Empire in the aftermath of the 1877-78 Russo-Turkish war. It also included the district of Surmali (today Turkey’s Iğdır Province), with Mount Ararat and the salt mines of Kulp (Tuzluca). This district had been part of Russian Armenia since 1828 and, before that time, part of Persian Armenia since the Persian-Ottoman Treaty of Zohab in 1639.

Turkish forces also managed to capture the Armenian town of Aleksandropol (Gyumri) and set their sights on the strategic Georgian Black Sea port of Batum (Batumi).

The Bolsheviks sought to halt a further Turkish advance into the region and to conclude peace with the new Turkish republic. Weary from the ongoing Russian Civil War, the Bolsheviks had no appetite for starting a new war with an assertive Kemalist Turkey. State Duma member Oleg Pakholkov of A Just Russia faction noted this fact when he announced his support for the recent initiative to review the 1921 Moscow Treaty.

“One should realize that in 1921 the Bolshevik (Soviet) government was literally hanging by a single thread,” he remarked. “The foreign intervention and civil war continued. Under those circumstances Soviet Russia could not speak from a position of strength and impose more favorable terms of the treaty on Turkey.”

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The Treaty of Moscow recognized Turkish control over Artvin, Ardahan, Kars, and Surmali. The region of Ajara, with the port of Batum, would be retained by Soviet Georgia on the condition that it would be granted political autonomy due to its largely Muslim Georgian population. Turkey withdrew from Aleksandropol and a new border was established between Turkey and Soviet Armenia, defined by the Araks and Akhurian Rivers.

The treaty also stipulated that the district of Nakhichevan, historically part of the Armenian Region and later the Erivan Governorate under Tsarist rule, be transferred to the jurisdiction of the Turkic Muslim Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan. Additionally, Turkey acquired a small strip of territory known as the Araks corridor. Historically administered as part of the Erivan Governorate, the corridor was located immediately east of Surmali and bounded by the Araks River to the north and the Lower Karasu River to the south. Strategically, it allowed Turkey to share a common border with Nakhichevan and consequently Soviet Azerbaijan.

The treaty was reaffirmed in October 1921 with the Treaty of Kars and the borders it established have been maintained ever since. However, this did not mean that Soviet policymakers necessarily accepted the terms of the treaty as permanent. After World War II, when the Soviet Union was at the zenith of its power, its leader Stalin reopened the issue on behalf of Armenia and his native Georgia. Supported by Moscow, both republics began to assert territorial claims against Ankara. According to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, Stalin made this move at the insistence of Lavrentiy Beria, the deputy premier and a fellow Georgian.

“Beria egged Stalin on over the Turkish question,” recalled Khrushchev in his memoirs. “He proposed that we officially approach Turkey and present our territorial claims. This policy drove the Turks into the arms of the United States.”

Indeed, Ankara sought the support of Washington, which had become suspicious of Soviet intentions with the onset of the Cold War. The issue was eventually dropped by Moscow and by 1952 Turkey had joined the NATO military alliance, precluding any further discussion on border revisions. 

The frontiers established by the 1921 treaty remained unaltered and were maintained by the newly-independent states of Russia, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan after the dissolution of the U.S.S.R. However, the Turkish border with Armenia has been closed since 1993 due to Ankara’s support for Azerbaijan in the dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh.

Implications for Russian policy in the Caucasus

The re-examination of the 1921 Moscow Treaty by the Russian Foreign Ministry has significant implications for Russian policy toward Turkey and the former Soviet republics of the Caucasus. If the treaty is cancelled, it could leave the door open for a possible revision of Turkey’s borders with Armenia and Georgia. Realistically, however, it is unlikely that Moscow will totally nullify its 1921 treaty with Ankara and become involved in the business of dramatically revising borders.

Although Armenia and Georgia attach great historical importance to the northeastern Turkish provinces in question, they are largely inhabited by Muslim Turks and Kurds. Neither of these groups would favor joining Armenia and Georgia. There are pockets of Islamified Georgian communities in northeastern Turkey. However, over the past 95 years of Turkish rule, they have become assimilated into Turkish society. Therefore, it is unlikely that they would favor joining Georgia, a country shaped by both its distinct Christian identity and 70 years of Soviet rule.

There is one section of the 1921 border that Moscow could potentially call into question. This would be the ruined medieval Armenian city of Ani, situated in the Turkish province of Kars. Known as the city of 1,001 churches, Ani was once a major political, cultural, and commercial center for the Armenian branch of the Bagratuni royal family. Its glory days long since past, the city is today completely desolate and uninhabited. It is located immediately on the Turkish-Armenian frontier in a geographically distinct area defined by the Bostanlar (or Alaca) Canyon to the west, the Akhurian River to the east, and the Ani city walls to the north.

Ani is of major symbolic significance to the Armenians and of negligible significance to Turkey. If there was one section of the border that Russia could realistically call into question, it would be the ruined city of Ani. Official Yerevan would likely favor such a position, given its stalled overtures toward Ankara for a rapprochement and a resolution on longstanding political and historical disputes. Playing the Ani card would also create much support among the Armenian public and would help to bolster greater trust between the Kremlin and the people of Armenia.

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However, aside from Ani, it is unlikely that Russia would seriously consider dramatically revising 1921 Turkish-Soviet border. Rather, the move to call the border into question should be understood as part of an effort by Moscow to rattle Ankara, amid a heightened period of tension between the two countries.

The issue would likely enhance Russia’s position and standing in Armenia, especially if the question of Ani is raised. Although border revisions in the vicinity of Georgia are unlikely, the mere fact that Russia raised the issue will serve to strengthen those forces in Georgia that seek a rapprochement with Moscow. Specifically, it demonstrates that Moscow is willing to stand up for Georgian interests and that it can work for the benefit of Tbilisi. Officials in both Yerevan and Tbilisi have not yet commented on the issue.

After Turkey, Azerbaijan could potentially have the most to lose if the 1921 border treaty is annulled. Specifically, it would throw into question the status of the Nakhichevan exclave and of the Araks corridor, which forms the only common frontier between Turkey and Azerbaijan. Yet despite Azeri concerns, again, Moscow is unlikely to indulge in dramatic border revisions. It is also cognizant of the fact that it does not want to upset Baku, given Moscow’s long-term desire to entice Azerbaijan to join the Eurasian Economic Union.

Indeed, whatever actions Moscow takes with regard to Ankara, it will simultaneously work to keep relations with Baku balanced. Notably, when Zakharova announced that the Foreign Ministry would review the 1921 treaty, she also emphasized that Russia is “developing relations with Azerbaijan and will not do anything that could worsen them. On the contrary, we will focus on what could improve our relations with this country.”

The Kremlin’s re-evaluation of the 1921 Treaty of Moscow represents only the latest episode in the recent saga of Russo-Turkish tensions. Regardless of the outcome, it is clear that the impact of this saga on the Caucasus is already being felt.