What do Turkey and Russia want in Nagorno-Karabakh?

Armed conflict has flared between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and much larger powers may be drawn into the fray

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The prospect of a dramatic escalation in tensions between Turkey and Russia has become a distinct possibility following the eruption of fresh violence between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

The conflict between the two states in the South Caucasus region, which dates back to the breakup of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, primarily centres on the decision by Nagorno-Karabakh, a predominantly Armenian region, to break away from its former masters in Azerbaijan and ally itself with Yerevan.

The move prompted a full-scale war in 1992 after both countries gained independence from the Soviet Union, claiming the lives of an estimated 30,000 people.

epa08709815 Local residents  stand in a pit used as shelter from alleged  Armenian shelling in the city of Tartar (or another spelling Terter) , Azerbaijan, 30 September 2020. Armed clashes erupted on 27 September 2020 in the simmering territorial conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh territory along the contact line of the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (also known as Artsakh).  EPA/STRINGER

Since a Russian-brokered ceasefire in 1994, an uneasy truce has held. Talks between France, Russia and the US have failed to bring about a full resolution, with the result that flare-ups are frequent between the two countries.

The current outbreak of hostilities, though, is the most serious since the early 1990s, raising concerns that it could draw in regional powers such as Turkey and Russia, and destabilise an area that serves as an important corridor for global energy markets.

In the latest round of fighting, which began on Sunday, Azerbaijan has been accused of launching a full-scale assault against Armenian positions, prompting the declaration of martial law in Armenia and a mobilisation of Armenian forces. In Azerbaijan, the authorities claim that 11 civilians have been killed and 34 wounded in shelling by Armenian forces. So far, the latest round of hostilities is said to have claimed more than 100 lives.

The prospect of the conflict spreading beyond the narrow confines of territorial questions between Armenia and Azerbaijan stems from the fact that both countries enjoy the support of powerful regional neighbours.

Azerbaijan, a predominantly Muslim, Turkic country, is backed by Turkey, while Armenia is closely allied with Moscow. Though they also enjoy good relations with Azerbaijan, the Russians maintain an important military base in Armenia – said to be the first country in the world to have adopted Christianity.

Relations between the Kremlin and Yerevan in recent years might best be described as being lukewarm. Russian President Vladimir Putin does not regard the current Armenian government as being sufficiently friendly to Moscow in comparison with its predecessors. But the Armenians have made it clear they would expect Russian backing if the conflict were to escalate further. “If necessary, Armenia will turn to its allies,” Vardan Toghanyan, the Armenian ambassador to Moscow, recently commented.

Azerbaijan's relationship with Turkey, by contrast, has only grown warmer. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was quick to demonstrate his support for Baku, tweeting, “The Turkish people will support our Azerbaijani brothers with all-out means as always.” He also denounced Armenia as “the biggest threat to regional peace.”

Turkey has a long and troubled relationship with the Armenian people, with the Turks accused of committing the Armenian genocide during the First World War. That event was characterised, Armenia claims, by the systematic mass murder and expulsion of around 1.5 million Armenians during the final days of the Ottoman Empire.

Turkish demonstrators participate in a demonstration in support of Azerbaijan against Armenia in Ankara on October 1, 2020.
 Heavy shelling between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces persisted on October 1, 2020 despite fresh calls from world leaders for an end to days of fighting over the disputed Nagorny Karabakh region. The rival Caucasus nations have been locked in a bitter stalemate over the Karabakh region since the collapse of the Soviet Union when the ethnic Armenian province broke away from Azerbaijan. / AFP / Adem ALTAN
The Armenians have made it clear they would expect Russian backing if the conflict were to escalate further

The historical relationship with Azerbaijan lacks such dark chapters; much of the Azerbaijani population speaks a dialect of Turkish, and Turkey was the first country to recognise a newly independent Azerbaijan in 1991. The two countries regularly hold joint military drills, including last month when Turkey was accused of sending rocket launchers to the area. Since then, Armenian officials have accused Ankara of supplying Azerbaijan with heavy weapons and mercenaries to support its offensive in Nagorno-Karabakh.

On Tuesday, the Armenians even claimed that one of its warplanes had been shot down by a Turkish F-16 fighter, a claim the Turks denounced as being “absolutely untrue”.

Public support has been growing in Azerbaijan in recent months for a campaign to recapture Nagorno-Karabakh, with thousands of protesters taking to the streets in Baku in July, chanting “Karabakh or death”. Some Western diplomats believe that Azerbaijan has been prompted to make its recent military moves in the belief that the US, traditionally an impartial arbiter in the Caucasus, no longer has any interest in resolving the conflict.

A man holds up a sign as he stands with members of the Armenian Youth Federation (AYF) during a protest outside the Azerbaijani Consulate General in Los Angeles on September 30, 2020 to protest what they call Azerbaijan's aggression against Armenia and Artsakh.  / AFP / VALERIE MACON

The bigger concern, though, is that the latest hostilities could lead to a broader conflict between Turkey and Russia.

Although relations between Moscow and Ankara have improved in recent years, with Mr Erdogan negotiating a multi-billion dollar arms deal with the Kremlin, tensions are never far from the surface.

Mr Erdogan and Mr Putin are both committed to expanding their global influence, and their rivalry often finds them supporting opposing factions, the most infamous example occurring during the Syrian conflict in 2015 when the Turks shot down a Russian warplane they claimed had strayed into Turkish airspace.

There have also been tensions between the two countries in Libya, where Moscow’s support for Khalifa Haftar, Commander of the Libyan National Army, has brought it into conflict with Ankara, which is providing military support for the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord and Islamist militias.

Turkey’s support for Azerbaijan in its conflict with Armenia therefore has the potential to open up another area of rivalry with Moscow, one that could seriously exacerbate tensions in the South Caucasus.

Whether that happens will depend to a large extent on Russia’s response. Previously, the Kremlin has preferred diplomacy to military might to ease tensions in the region, and a negotiated solution to the latest flare-up between Armenia and Azerbaijan is still likely to remain Russia’s preferred outcome.

Con Coughlin is a defence and foreign affairs columnist for The National