The recent fighting outbreak in Nagorno-Karabakh, the worst in a twenty years period, reveals a sweeping complexity of the longstanding geopolitical chessboard that is the South Caucasus. Over the years, the frozen status of the ethnic Azeri-Armenian conflict has become a trump card for powers on both sides of the demarcation line. However, the augmenting rivalry between Moscow and Ankara, due to Russia’s involvement in the Syrian conflict and Erdogan-Putin rift over the downed Russian Su-24, threatens to dismantle the pragmatic state of affairs and fuel ethnic jingoism once again.
According to the German think tank Bonn International Centre for Conversion (BICC), Armenia and Azerbaijan are among the top 10 most militarized nations in the world. Azerbaijan has increased its military expenditure more than twenty-fold since 2004 and Armenia regularly receives military aid from Russia. Interestingly, the Kremlin nurtures its own goals by selling weapons to Azerbaijan and using obtains funds to arm Armenia. Permanent tensions allow Moscow to project its power on Yerevan while simultaneously clouting Baku’s domestic and foreign politics.
Moscow’s influence purported Armenia’s integration with the Kremlin-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). In effect, Russia currently has more stacks in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict than Armenia, as the CSTO framework extols the role of the Russian troops to the major combating force if the conflict flares up. Yerevan’s moves are closely coordinated with the Kremlin and it is highly unlikely that the Armenian side could carry out organized and coordinated militarily provocations across the delimitation line, as Moscow is not interested in the conflict’s escalation.
The Kremlin’s involvement has also prevented Baku from seeking closer cooperation with Turkey and other Western allies. Azerbaijan sees the current Nagorno-Karabakh status as an occupation of 20% of its national territory, therefore its significance for domestic and foreign politics can not be underestimated. However, Baku also understands that the return of the lands could only result from diplomatic compromise with the Kremlin, which imminently paves the way for membership within Russian-led organizations that might scrap certain aspects of the Azeri independence. It is a Catch-22 situation for Baku: it does not want to ally with the Kremlin but it can not afford to cooperate with Russia’s adversaries.
While Russia still remains the key regional player in the South Caucasus, Turkey is growing more aggressive. Previously, Ankara was projecting its power solely by flexing its economic muscles and avoiding any direct confrontation with Moscow, as well as loudly supporting Baku. However, Russia and Turkey are currently experiencing the worst crisis in bilateral relations in decades and rapprochement is highly unlikely as long as Erdogan remains in charge.
The downed Su-24 placed a wedge between Moscow and Ankara. Russia has openly accused Turkey of sponsoring international terrorism and Erdogan’s son of buying oil from ISIS directly. Moscow went even further and restored Soviet-style working relations with the Kurds in Iraq and Syria, which trajects far-fetching outcomes for Turkish domestic and foreign politics. In response, Ankara is trying to impose additional pressure on the Kremlin.
Despite Russia’s current commitment to defend its interests in the faraway Middle East, it does not want to get involved into another conflict. Russia’s comeback to the international arena, with the Ukrainian fiasco followed by the campaign in Syria, coupled with the deteriorating domestic economy, turn the possible involvement in Nagorno-Karabakh into a highly undesirable scenario. This unwillingness is exploited in both Ankara and Baku.
Ankara understands that a stronger Azerbaijan imminently exceeds its own role in the region, which is why it is vital to supply Baku with military equipment, advisors, as well as strong backing on the international arena. The Turkish elites, likewise, have become more outspoken in supporting the Azeri ‘brothers’ after the downing of a Russian jet. Two days after the incident Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu stated: “Turkey will do everything possible to liberate the occupied territories of Azerbaijan”.
Turkey perceives the South Caucasus as the region of a historical significance, as Azeris and Turks are the closest Turkic groups in linguistic and ethno-cultural terms. By supporting Baku, Ankara is sending a powerful message to other Turkic groups all across the post-Soviet territories, as well as within Russia, that it is now committed to defend pan-Turkish interests. Erdogan has been using the pan-Turkism card actively by reviving the old Ottoman-kinship soft power strategy – a move that concerns many in the Kremlin.
However, Ankara understands the limits of its influence. The Azerbaijani elite is closer to the Russians than they are to the Turks, because of the common Soviet past, and will use Ankara’s support only to the extent that it helps influence the Kremlin. Baku skillfully utilizes the Turkish backing in order to project its willingness to act in Nagorno-Karabakh and reclaim the occupied territories with force, all while in the eyes of the Moscow political elites. However, Baku will never support Ankara openly in its confrontation with Russia.
Baku is skeptical about the Minsk Group’s ability in resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The gap between the two countries military capabilities is enormous: Azerbaijan’s annual military expenditures exceed Armenia’s entire state budget. Russia’s 102nd Military Base in Gyumri and commitment under the CSTO are the only red flags that stop Baku from reclaiming the territories with force. Thus, Azerbaijan is only hoping to extract certain concessions from the Kremlin; it is gradually securing key heights in Nagorno-Karabakh that can be brought to the table for negotiation.
As a result, the current outbreak in Nagorno-Karabakh, even though the largest since the Bishkek Protocol ceasefire of 1994, is nothing more but a prolongation of a longstanding chessboard of geopolitical rivalry. Even though Turkey is trying to add fuel to the fire, it will not burn; nobody is interested in a full-scale conflict so long as it does not serve geopolitical goals.