Turkey Stokes Caucasus Conflict, Riles Russia - OZY | A Modern Media Company
Azerbaijani citizens living in Ankara gather to sing the Turkish and Azerbaijani national anthem in front of Atatürk Monument at Ulus Square.
SourceErcin Top/Anadolu Agency via Getty

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

For years, Russia has been the sole regional power balancing tensions between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Now Turkey is encroaching into Moscow’s sphere of influence.

By Henry Foy and Laura Pitel

  • The post-Soviet states of Armenia and Azerbaijan have long had tense relations, but they’ve historically deferred to Moscow and returned to peace.
  • Now Turkey has injected itself into the equation as a new regional power backing Azerbaijan, upseting Russia’s calculations and stoking tensions.

Whenever fighting has erupted between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed territories claimed by both neighbors, demands from Moscow have ultimately forced the two post-Soviet states to the negotiating table.

This time, however, Russia’s calls to stop the escalating violence in Nagorno-Karabakh that began on Sunday have so far fallen on deaf ears, thanks in part to the rise of Turkey as a regional power that has altered the delicate balance in the sensitive Caucasus Mountains region.

Ankara’s support for its neighbor Azerbaijan and saber-rattling rhetoric has fanned the most violent flare-up for several years in a decadeslong conflict, and created a significant problem for Russian President Vladimir Putin by challenging Moscow’s regional hegemony.

While Russia has traditionally sought to remain neutral in the territorial dispute — Moscow considers both former Soviet states as allies — it has a military base in Armenia and a defense pact with the country that contains a mutual assistance clause in case of attack from external countries. 

At the same time, Turkey’s full-blooded support of Azerbaijan in the conflict has emboldened its capital, Baku, analysts say, and chipped away at Moscow’s influence over the Azeri leadership.

Turkey’s growing involvement in the South Caucasus through Azerbaijan is a fact which Russia does not relish.

Dmitri Trenin, Carnegie Moscow Center

That has added another flashpoint to Moscow and Ankara’s list of conflicts where the two regional powers and their strongman leaders — who have sought to strike an uneasy alliance over trade, energy and mutual distrust of the West — find themselves at odds, alongside Syria and Libya.

“Turkey’s growing involvement in the South Caucasus through Azerbaijan is a fact which Russia does not relish. Russian and Turkish interests clash here more than anywhere,” says Dmitri Trenin, head of the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank, adding: “Putin and [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan have never been true allies, and never will.”

Trenin adds: “What they manage to do instead is to capitalize on their parallel interests and to play down differences and divisions, so that these do not lead to direct conflict between Russia and Turkey.”

Erdogan has adopted an increasingly assertive foreign policy in recent years, using overseas military deployments and bombastic rhetoric to stoke nationalist sentiment at home. 

Erdogan’s combative response to the clashes, which saw him attack the Armenian leadership and offer full support to Azerbaijan, marks a break with previous rounds of fighting in the region.

“This signals quite a big shift in Turkish policy,” says Thomas de Waal, an expert on the region and author of Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan Through Peace and War. “Turkey has always offered political support to Azerbaijan but has also said the conflict must be resolved peacefully.…  There’s been a geopolitical equilibrium where no side has really backed one side over the other.… Now suddenly one of the major regional actors is backing Azerbaijan.”

Turkey views Azerbaijan as a “brother country” with shared cultural, linguistic and ethnic roots. The two have close trade ties, especially in the field of energy.

Armenia’s Foreign Ministry on Monday accused Turkey of a “direct presence on the ground” in the conflict, including weapons and fighter planes. Turkish media had trumpeted the use of what they said were drones made by a defense company run by one of Erdogan’s sons-in-law and his family.

But a Turkish official dismissed Armenian claims that Turkish military experts and Turkish-backed Syrian mercenaries were taking part in the conflict as “baseless accusations.”

As the fighting escalated on Monday, Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry released a video it said depicted missile attacks on two Armenian tanks. It claimed its armed forces had destroyed 26 Armenian tanks since the hostilities began on Sunday. Six Azeribaijani citizens had been killed by Armenian artillery, Baku said.

NATO and the European Union have called on the warring sides to reach a cease-fire. Azerbaijan hosts a gas pipeline that carries gas to Turkey and onward to Europe, a route viewed by Brussels as a critical alternative to gas supplies from Russia.

Russia’s desire to please both sides and Turkey’s position in the conflict mean Moscow will probably rely on diplomacy rather than an aggressive military response, in contrast to its response to other territorial conflicts in the post-Soviet region, such as in Ukraine and Georgia.

The Kremlin has sought to play down any suggestions it could join the fighting. Russia’s defense pact with Armenia does not cover Nagorno-Karabakh, meaning Yerevan could only request Moscow to deploy troops if there was an attack on undisputed Armenian territory.

“There’s little expectation of the reliance or durability of the so-called security pact with Russia,” says Richard Giragosian, director of the Yerevan-based Regional Studies Center think tank. “We will probably see an uncharacteristically delicate foreign policy response from Moscow.”

Speaking on Monday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said it was “important now to stop the fighting rather than try to find out who is right and who is wrong.”

“Russia has always assumed a balanced position … and has good relations with both Armenia and Azerbaijan,” Peskov said, adding Moscow was also in “full contact” with Ankara over the dispute.

Sinan Ülgen, a former Turkish diplomat who now chairs the Istanbul-based think tank Edam, says Turkey and Russia would strive to find a way through the conflict without harming their bilateral relationship. 

But he also warns of the risks if the fighting spreads into places such as the autonomous exclave of Naxcivan, which borders Armenia and which Ankara has a 1921 treaty obligation to defend. 

“If we see this conflict spill over into other parts of the geography, in particular Naxcivan, that will trigger a much more difficult episode between Turkey and Russia which will come on top of the existing theaters of conflict in Syria and Libya,” Ülgen says.

+
By Henry Foy and Laura Pitel

OZY partners with the U.K.'s Financial Times to bring you premium analysis and features. © The Financial Times Limited 2020.

Sign up for the weekly newsletter!

Related Stories