On September 27, 2020, one of the longstanding frozen post-Soviet conflicts in the Nagorno-Karabakh region in the Caucasus, disputed by both Armenia and Azerbaijan, erupted into deadly armed clashes. Armenia blames Azerbaijan for a planned and coordinated offensive. The clashes resulted in more than 710 deaths as of October 18, 2020.
Although Russia has been Armenia’s ally, Moscow has also maintained good relations with Azerbaijan. Russia has always been involved in conflict mediation efforts during the 30-year dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. While the international community has called for negotiation and peaceful resolution of the conflict, Turkey has emerged as an outside actor inflaming the conflict on the side of Azerbaijan. And Turkey may lose more than it could gain from deepening the war.
What is the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict about? The Soviet government under Joseph Stalin made this disputed Armenian-majority region an autonomous province of Soviet Azerbaijan in 1923. The war of 1988-1994, which killed more than 30,000 people and displaced hundreds of thousands, resulted in Armenia capturing most of Nagorno-Karabakh and some nearby Azeri territories. The warring sides reached a ceasefire following an international mediation led by Russia. However, despite the ceasefire, there have been periodic armed clashes between Azerbaijan and Armenia in Karabakh since 1994 that have left hundreds dead. Azerbaijan has sought to retake the region, while Armenia has tried to keep its control over the past 26 years.
This time, Azerbaijan feels emboldened to regain control over Nagorno-Karabakh, particularly with the help, if not downright encouragement of Turkey. The latter’s role in this conflict may lead to a diplomatic crisis with Russia if the crises escalates. Turkey and Russia might find themselves in another proxy war in Nagorno-Karabakh if the warring sides do not reach a truce.
Turkey and Russia might find themselves in another proxy war in Nagorno-Karabakh if the warring sides do not reach a truce.
Why is Turkey interested in this war? There are both strategic and economic reasons. While Turkey has sided with Azerbaijan on the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute since the 1990s, it has taken a more forceful position only recently, in line with Ankara’s increasingly hardline foreign policy and pursuit to establish itself as a regional power.
In a recent interview with Inside Arabia, Richard Giragosian, Director of the Regional Studies Center, an independent think tank in Yerevan, Armenia, said that Ankara’s “full diplomatic backing and direct military support for the Azerbaijani offensive stem from Turkey’s traditional role as a patron state for Azerbaijan. After losing that role of primary military patron to Russia in the past, Turkey is now intent on restoring the lost glory and regaining its former role as the leading regional power.”
Some Russian observers believe that Turkey’s actions in Nagorno-Karabakh are directly aimed at their country, as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sees a rival in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s growing influence in the greater Middle Eastern region. Turkey played an important role in securing the Government of National Accord (the UN recognized government) in Tripoli, which would not have survived a 14-month assault by the Libyan National Army (LNA) — led by Khalifa Haftar, a former general under Muammar Gaddafi — without Erdogan’s support. LNA is an armed faction that has been seeking to expand its power over Libya with Russian backing. Russian observers posit that Turkey may use Nagorno-Karabakh as a bargaining chip with Russia to gain control over Sirte and Jufra in Libya as well as over Idlib and Tel-Rifaat in Syria; as Russia and Turkey continue to support opposing sides in the wars in Syria and Libya.
Nagorno-Karabakh is an opportunity for Turkey to project its power in Russia’s backyard. Turkey is one of Azerbaijan’s closest allies due to their linguistic, cultural, religious, and historic ties. For many years, Ankara has been providing training to Azeri military officers and supplying military equipment to Baku. Azerbaijan, in turn, needs Turkish support to regain its lost lands from Armenia. Turkey and Armenia have not established formal relations since the onset of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict 30 ago. Those ties have in fact been strained since the ethnic fighting and deportations of Armenians by the Ottoman government between 1915-17 during World War I.
In recent years, Erdogan has conditioned any form of rapprochement and creation of formal ties with Armenia on the latter’s surrender of Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan. There is a risk of a protracted bloody war in Nagorno-Karabakh not only because of Azerbaijan’s determination to win back the lost territories, but also because Turkey constitutes “an even more resolute resistance to a ceasefire than Azerbaijan,” according to Giragosian.
The strategic interests of Ankara in the Armenian-Azeri territorial dispute go hand in hand with its economic interests.
The strategic interests of Ankara in the Armenian-Azeri territorial dispute go hand in hand with its economic interests, which hinge on protecting pipelines in Azerbaijan that deliver oil and gas to Turkey. Azerbaijan is an increasingly important natural gas supplier to Turkey, particularly since Ankara has been actively trying to reduce its energy imports from Russia and secure more leeway in its foreign policy pursuits in the Middle East and the Caucasus.
Indeed, the increase of gas imports from Azerbaijan has significantly shrunk Russia’s natural gas market share in Turkey. Russian gas exports to Turkey fell by more than 40 percent in 2020 compared to the first two quarters of 2019. This year, Azerbaijan has essentially ousted Russia from the Turkish energy market, rendering the Russian-Turkish Turk Stream and South Stream gas pipelines useless.
In addition, Turkey has recently boosted imports of liquefied natural gas (LNG) from the U.S., Qatar, and Algeria. Ankara also rejected supplies of Russian Urals oil brand. Turkish oil refineries, some of which are owned by the Azeri national oil and gas major SOCAR, swapped Russian Urals with oil imports from Iraq and Norway. Solidifying Azerbaijan’s role as a key energy partner, the Trans Anatolian Pipeline (TANAP) – a gas pipeline launched in 2019 – began delivering 6 billion cubic meters (bcm) of gas per year from Azerbaijan to Turkey, with additional 10 bcm of gas deliveries slated for the European market in the near future.
But the escalation of the Armenian-Azeri tensions increases the threat of sabotage against TANAP and other critical energy infrastructure that passes through Azerbaijan to Turkey. “A network of oil and gas pipelines from the Caspian Sea through Azerbaijan and transiting Georgia before reaching the Turkish Mediterranean for exports, which includes both the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline and the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum gas line, is vulnerable due to the proximity of the battlefield. This was evident in the wake of a recent escalation of artillery and missile attacks, thereby demonstrating the precarious security and exposed proximity of the section of these pipelines through Azerbaijan,” Giragosian told Inside Arabia.
When Armenian and Azeri forces clashed in Azerbaijan’s Tovuz border district this July, which lies on main energy and railway routes linking Azerbaijan with Georgia and Turkey, they caused alarm in Ankara over its energy supply security from the Caucasus. The fighting was of particular concern to Azerbaijan and Turkey because Tovuz is far away from Nagorno-Karabakh. They perceived the fighting in Tovuz as Armenia’s effort to halt energy supplies from Azerbaijan. Tovuz is vital for Turkey to reach Central Asia and China by bypassing Russia and Iran.
As Turkey seeks to reduce its oil and gas imports from Russia, securing energy supplies from and through Azerbaijan appears to have further hardened President Erdogan’s position.
In a sign of further escalation, Azerbaijan accused Armenia of trying to destroy its energy infrastructure by attacking the Azeri city of Ganja in early October 2020, where the BTC oil pipeline passes through to the international markets. As Turkey seeks to reduce its oil and gas imports from Russia, securing energy supplies from and through Azerbaijan appears to have further hardened President Erdogan’s position on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
However, Turkey’s heightened assertiveness toward Armenia and its apparent unwillingness to compromise on the conflict may do more harm to its oil and gas interests in Azerbaijan than help protect the vital energy infrastructure if the fighting escalates and expands.
At this juncture, it appears that Russia’s ability to assert itself in its traditional sphere of influence in the Caucasus and active involvement in mediating the Nagorno-Karabakh clash, as it had done in the past, could be the only deterrents to Turkey’s meddling in the Armenian-Azeri territorial dispute. So far, however, Russia has been unable to gain an upper hand in the conflict. A case in point is the Moscow-brokered ceasefire between Armenia and Azerbaijan on October 10, 2020. Both sides resumed hostilities in Karabakh merely minutes after agreeing to a truce in Moscow.
Indeed, Russia seems to have further distanced itself from the conflict by stressing that it would not extend its security obligations enshrined in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a regional military alliance, to Nagorno-Karabakh, which it considers outside of Armenia. Under CSTO, Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan commit to abstain from using force against each other and protect each other from external security threats.
The Turkish factor in the Nagorno-Karabakh war is likely to play a major role on where the conflict goes from here. Erdogan appears to be further defying Russia by reportedly sending hundreds of Syrian fighters to Nagorno-Karabakh. Turkey may challenge Russia’s power by going hard on Nagorno-Karabakh, so that Moscow reckons with Ankara’s geopolitical ambitions in the Middle East. The price would be the blood and lives of innocent Armenian and Azeri people in Karabakh.