As the all-out war between Armenia and Azerbaijan is still under way with no reliable and definitive reports on either side’s achievements, what is becoming clear is that the repercussions of this war will be larger than the casualty count as a new regional framework is developing to deal with the conflict.
The thawing of the frozen conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh between Armenia and Azerbaijan has been months in the making. After border skirmishes between Armenia and Azerbaijan in July, Ankara increased its rhetoric against Armenia in August, on the centennial of the Treaty of Sevres, and in the wake of Turkish-Azerbaijani joint military exercises in late July and early August. Subsequently, reports of increased Turkish military support and the transfer of military equipment to Azerbaijan began to circulate.
Speeches at the 75th UN General Assembly by the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan, only days before the start of large-scale military operations on September 27, also foreshadowed the escalation. In their speeches, both Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev used cautioning language: the former aimed at the growing involvement of Turkey, the latter at the lack of diplomatic progress and continued Armenian intransigence.
Since the early 1990s, negotiations for resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict have been deeply entrenched in the OSCE Minsk Process, a Euro-Atlantic framework that also includes Russia and Turkey. However, by many accounts, the Minsk Group has run its course without achieving any tangible results; moreover, there is an increased perception, especially on the part of Azerbaijan, that the Minsk Group is unable or unwilling to provide an effective resolution to the conflict.
The analysis of Russia and Turkey’s official reactions to the escalation provides observers with a sense of how the latest violent thaw might be a prelude to a shift in the framework of the conflict – from a Euro-Atlantic endeavour to a regional one. In that shift, Turkey’s unequivocal support for, and military presence in, Azerbaijan has been met with a relatively passive reaction from Russia, manifested in the form of a call on both sides to restrain from escalating the war – a position that puts the perception that Russia is Armenia’s strategic ally in doubt.
Furthermore, Turkey’s active (albeit seemingly tacit) participation in the conflict in a region that Russia considers to be its back yard can be viewed within the prism of Moscow and Ankara’s gravitation towards a synergy on several foreign policy fronts. Thus, even as Turkey and Russia stand on opposite sides in the Syrian and Libyan civil wars, they have both found some common ground in their mutual distancing from Western political and even military (NATO in the case of Turkey) paradigms. This shift might be explained by Moscow’s attempt to revive the Primakov Doctrine (named after Russian former foreign and Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov), which speculates that Russia should form regional alliances to resist the global hegemony of the US.
Many outsiders are taking the view that the thawing of the frozen conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh is a new chapter in the age-old proxy war between Moscow and Ankara in the Caucasus. Yet, upon closer examination, it appears that both sides are using this renewed conflict to work together to exert influence in the region while excluding Western powers.
The paradox of the Turkish-Russian love-hate relationship was most obvious when in November 2015 Turkish jet fighters shot down a Russian warplane over Turkey’s border with Syria. Instead of being used by Moscow to escalate tensions with Ankara, the incident was translated into increased Russian bombardment of Turkey’s Syrian allies; and by mid-2016, it had ostensibly been forgotten, as the two countries announced the reset of their relations. By 2019, Turkish-Russian relations were amicable enough for the two countries to sign a military cooperation agreement paving the way for Ankara to buy Russian-made surface-to-air missiles.
Other than their combined suspicion of and adversarial posture towards the West, both Russia and Turkey have taken advantage of several developments in the past couple of years to increase their cooperation, especially in the South Caucasus. Thus, the increased isolationism of US foreign policy and a lack of interest by European countries in the region, coupled with the global COVID-19 pandemic’s shifting of most countries’ attention on domestic public health concerns, have all provided an opportunity for Russia and Turkey to “hijack” the Nagorno-Karabakh dossier from the Minsk Process and convert it into a regional endeavour.
The implications of shifting the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict from the multilateral OSCE Minsk Group’s framework to a Russian-Turkish regional one (with an Iranian role possible but as yet unclear) could have major and lasting consequences. In this context, Russia’s continued “wait and see” approach might pay off when both Armenia and Azerbaijan find themselves in a military impasse, even if both sides claim some variation of “victory”.
In such a scenario, Russia would utilise its various levers against both Armenia and Azerbaijan to ensure they accept a Russian-imposed ceasefire with a high probability of Russian peacekeepers being deployed on the line of contact. Perhaps the first step towards this goal is Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s announcement (four days after the fighting started) that Moscow is ready to host both Armenia and Azerbaijan to discuss the possible settlement of the conflict “independently as well as within OSCE Minsk group”.
From Turkey’s perspective, Ankara’s “spoils” from the recent conflict and the possible Russian unilateral/regional diplomacy to resolve the conflict can be two-fold: a claim of military and diplomatic victory by Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and more importantly, the strengthening of Turkey’s “mentorship” over Azerbaijan.
Despite the UN Security Council calls on September 29 for containing the conflict and continuing its mediation within the OSCE framework, it has become obvious that the Minsk Process is no longer a viable option for the actors involved in the conflict – especially Azerbaijan.
With no end in sight to the military operations between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the possible shift of this conflict from a multilateral framework (OSCE Minsk Group) to a regional one (Russian-Turkish-Iranian) is indicative that both Russia and Turkey do not consider the West a relevant player in their back yard. Whether by choice or by accidental convergence, the two regional powers are ready to define and implement their own security strategies in the South Caucasus bilaterally, with only token, half-hearted objections from the West.