Caucasus ceasefire cements Turkey as a power in Russia’s backyard
With his fist raised in triumph, Azerbaijan’s defence minister put his arm around his Turkish counterpart, grinning while clad in military fatigues. “Commander-in-chief of the victorious army and defence minister of Azerbaijan’s closest ally!” read the caption of the official defence ministry photograph.
It is a head-turning statement by the former Soviet state that has previously looked north to Russia as its most important partner. But a six-week-long conflict with Armenia over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh that has resulted in major gains for Azerbaijan and its Turkish-backed military, has recalibrated Baku’s regional perspective.
A truce announced on Monday evening freezes the conflict and Azerbaijan’s territorial advances, and includes agreements that Armenia, a defence ally of Russia, must hand over additional land to its neighbour by the end of this month.
While the truce was brokered by Moscow — which has deployed peacekeepers — the scale of Azerbaijan’s success with Turkey’s support has cemented Ankara’s newfound influence in the Caucasus region, which the Kremlin views as its geopolitical back yard.
“The geopolitical consequences are disastrous not only for Armenia, but also for Russia,” said Ruslan Pukhov, director of Russian defence think-tank the Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies. “The Russians’ client and ally was the loser. The Turkish ally won convincingly.”
“Behind the thin veil of a deceptive foreign policy triumph, namely successful mediation and bringing peacekeepers to the region, the harsh reality is that Moscow’s influence in the trans-Caucasus region has sharply decreased, while the prestige of a successful and pugnacious Turkey, on the contrary, has grown incredibly,” Mr Pukhov added.
Nagorno-Karabakh is internationally recognised as Azerbaijani territory, but it and a number of adjacent regions have been occupied by Armenian forces since the early 1990s. In the conflict that erupted in late September, Azerbaijan vowed to recapture all of the territory, and was on the brink of besieging the region’s capital before Armenia sued for peace.
While the truce affirms Russian president Vladimir Putin’s role as an indispensable regional arbiter, it comes at the cost of recognising Turkey as a geopolitical actor in the Caucasus whose support for Baku tipped the scales of a dispute that Moscow had kept balanced for more than 25 years.
The Kremlin’s influence over the post-Soviet region is based on trade ties (often involving cheap energy exports); financial assistance through loans and investments by Russian state-owned companies; and the threat of its massive military.
This last element is the most powerful — but the hardest to wield. Azerbaijan took a calculated risk that, with Turkey’s backing, Moscow would not be prepared to intervene militarily in a conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, and for more than six weeks it was proved right.
And through its major territorial gains, Baku has proved that Moscow is not the only military power capable of redrawing de facto borders in the post-Soviet space.
Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been a cheerleader for the war over the past month, hailed the agreement in a speech on Wednesday: “The 28-year occupation of lands belonging to Karabakh and Azerbaijan has officially come to an end,” he said.
“[Mr] Erdogan . . . sees Turkey as a regional power. This is not something he will concede. Turkey will not return to becoming the Nato ally Turkey of the 1950s. I think Turkey is trying to stake out an autonomous path for itself,” said Onur Isci, assistant professor of international relations at Bilkent University in Ankara.
Russia and Turkey “will have political conflicts here and there. They don’t really agree on geopolitical issues. They’re trying to manage it,” he said, adding: “I don’t think that we will ever see, in Syria or the Caucasus, a full-blown . . . military alliance.”
Turkey’s incursion into the geopolitics of the Caucasus mirrors Moscow’s decisive entry into the war in Syria in 2015 and its ongoing activities in Libya — areas that Ankara views as its sphere of influence.
The countries’ two strongmen leaders, while backing opposing sides in both conflicts, have sought to maintain uneasy, pragmatic relations based in part on their shared distrust of the west.
“Turkey’s actions [in Nagorno-Karabakh] are partly an answer for Russian activities in the Middle East. Turkey is trying to be a global player and to have a finger in every pie,” said Stanislav Pritchin, senior research fellow at the Center for Post-Soviet Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences.
“From this perspective, the south Caucasus looks to Ankara like a comfortable zone without potential risks. But Turkey can count only on Azerbaijan and doesn’t have a good understanding of the regional complexities that have limited space for manoeuvre,” he added.
Russia’s deployment of almost 2,000 troops to Nagorno-Karabakh this week does affirm Moscow’s continued leverage, but will increase the Kremlin’s accountability for the future of the enclave.
“Azerbaijan gained a great deal of what it wanted — but part of the cost appears to be more, not less, Russian influence [inside its borders],” said Olga Oliker, director for Europe & Central Asia at the International Crisis Group. “At the same time, Russia now has far more responsibility for this conflict than it ever did before, and that is going to be a burden for some time to come.”
Russia and Turkey are haggling over details of the ceasefire settlement, including whether any Turkish troops will be involved in peacekeeping: something Baku wants but Moscow opposes.
Turkey will be involved in a “joint centre” for monitoring adherence to the ceasefire parameters, the Kremlin has said, but has denied a statement by Baku that it would be located in Nagorno-Karabakh.
“This does not tally with our understanding,” Mr Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Wednesday. “Some nuances have yet to be clarified.”
Ankara and Moscow were in “constant contact”, Turkey’s foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Tuesday. “Our meetings continue on how this [agreement] will be monitored and regulated. We stood by our brother Azerbaijan throughout, be it in the field or at the table.”
Henry Foy in Moscow and Laura Pitel in Ankara