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November 23, 2020 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 242

What Next For Turkey And Russia In Nagorno-Karabakh?

November 23, 2020 | By Dr. Dimitar Bechev
Russia, Turkey, South Caucasus | MEMRI Daily Brief No. 242

On November 17, 2020, Turkey's Grand National Assembly authorized the deployment of a military contingent in Azerbaijan. It is hard to overstate the symbolism of the decision. It resonates strongly with the sentiments of many in the country for whom the adage iki devlet, tek millet ("two states, one nation") is an article of faith. According to a letter by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to parliament, the Turkish troops are supposed to establish an observation point in Nagorno-Karabakh. The prospective mission is ostensibly an extension of the ceasefire deal brokered by Vladimir Putin on November 10, which ended the six-week war between Azerbaijan and Armenia.


(source: AFP)

The line in Ankara is that Russia has endorsed a Turkish presence on the ground in the seven districts surrounding what in Soviet times was the Nagorno-Karabakh autonomous region within Azerbaijan. After all, it was Turkish assistance to Baku – in the form of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), the stationing of F16s behind the frontlines to deter Armenian attacks, alleged deployment of Syrian militiamen as well as military instructors from the ranks of the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) – that helped Azeris make sweeping territorial gains. Whereas in other instances when the conflict became "unfrozen," as in April 2016, Turkey offered mainly rhetorical support, this time President Erdoğan upped the ante and scored a victory on the battlefield. Much like in faraway Libya, the recourse to hard power has yielded political benefits. In the Turkish version of the events, Russia has essentially accepted, willy-nilly, Turkey as a co-equal in the South Caucasus, which is supposedly part of Moscow's "near abroad."

That is certainly not how Russia reads the situation, to be sure. On November 17, Vladimir Putin gave a lengthy interview to the state-owned Russia 24 news channel in which he did not mention a Turkish contingent embedded in Russia's 2,000-strong peacekeeping force positioned around Nagorno-Karabakh. The Russian president acknowledged Ankara's role in the crisis, stressing that "Turkey's actions in the Nagorno-Karabakh issue may be qualified in whatever way, but it cannot be accused of violating any international law." Support for Azerbaijan's bid to take over territories that are de jure under its sovereignty, Putin argued, was justified. However, he also noted that Turkey is not a co-chair of the OSCE's Minsk Group dealing with the conflict, unlike Russia, the United States, and France. This was perhaps a diplomatic way to tell the Turks to stay in their lane.

Whether Russia ends up making concessions to the Turks, symbolic or otherwise, remains to be seen. Azerbaijan's preferences are a factor in that regard. Baku has long insisted on the involvement of Turkish peacekeepers as a counterweight to a putative Russian mission in Nagorno-Karabakh. Now that Azerbaijan has welcomed the Russian army back, after the lease on the Gabala Radar Station expired in 2012, it has an incentive to deepen security ties with Turkey as well. Baku's traditional posture was to avoid entanglements and keep at arm's length both the West, which, until a decade ago, included Turkey as well, and Russia. But, as analyst Zaur Shiriyev has observed,[1] Azeri President Ilham Aliyev has moved closer to Moscow in recent years. It was furthermore clear that a deal on Nagorno-Karabakh had to include Russia by default, considering Western disengagement and the leverage the Russians carry in Yerevan. The events of the past few weeks vindicated that view. But Azerbaijan has not given up its multi-vector policy and hence Turkey remains highly relevant. As a sidenote, it is worth mentioning that on November 17, the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) began operating, meaning that Caspian gas is now piped through Turkey and Greece to Italy.

While Azerbaijan may have options, its neighbor Armenia finds itself in an unenviable position. Its defense alliance with Russia was never meant to apply to Nagorno-Karabakh, formally an Azerbaijani territory where the self-proclaimed Republic of Artsakh is recognized by Yerevan alone. But Moscow was expected to restrain Baku and facilitate a diplomatic solution to the dispute. What Armenians saw, both now and in April 2016, was Russia standing on the sidelines and becoming involved only late in the game, with the goal of securing its own status rather than fend for its client. Though the Russian peacekeepers are now safeguarding Armenian religious and cultural sites in the regions being handed over to Baku, the images of civilians leaving and setting ablaze their homes and shops are sure to stick in everyone's mind. But Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, blamed by hardcore nationalists for losing Nagorno-Karabakh, has no choice but to continue working with Moscow. During a visit by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu to Yerevan on November 21, Pashinyan thanked Russia and Putin personally for the support Armenia received during the war. This is a slice of humble pie for a politician whom the Kremlin's loyal media decried as a sell-out to the West. The bottom-line is that Yerevan may try to expand trade ties with the EU, but the war and the Azeri-Turkish alliance has brought it even closer to Russia.

This does not mean that Putin has scored a diplomatic triumph without doing much at all. On the contrary, Russian commitment to keeping the peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan carries political as well as operational costs and risks. A resumption of hostilities may put Russian troops in harm's way and dent the Kremlin's credibility. Erdoğan, who has ventured onto Russia's turf, just as Russia did to Turkey when it entered Syria in September 2015, will not relinquish his ambition of gaining a foothold in the Southern Caucasus. President Aliyev may well decide that the full reconquest of Nagorno-Karabakh, including the enclave's capital Stepanakert, is viable and will lead to no penalty by Moscow.

Whatever happens next in Nagorno-Karabakh, it is beyond doubt that Turkey and Russia will go on with business as usual. From Syria to Libya and from energy issues to the Southern Caucasus, they will be competing and cooperating at the same time. Moscow and Ankara are no friends but they are not foes either. Looking at Putin and Erdoğan's words and actions, it seems both are content with that state of affairs.

*Dr. Dimitar Bechev is Europe's Futures Fellow at the Institute of Human Sciences in Vienna.

 

[1] Chathamhouse.org/sites/default/files/2019-03-14-Azerbaijan2.pdf, accessed November 23, 2020.

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