Turkey’s Interference in Nagorno-Karabakh Puts Russia in a Delicate Spot

More than a week of renewed vicious fighting has passed in the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave, with the death toll brought to over 230 this past weekend. Many civilians were hit in bombings and attacks in the disputed territory as well as in other places. Yet even as many countries have called for peace, the two belligerents, Azerbaijan and Armenia, seem to be stepping up their fight.

Armenia vs. Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan claims the disputed territory, which has a long history of confrontations between Armenian and Azeri ethnicities, while the territory is home to a majority of Armenians. While these Armenians demand unification, Azerbaijani officials called them “occupiers” and said that there will be no end to the conflict so long as they stayed.

Armenia and its military forces “need to leave our territory, and then the war will stop and the conflict will come to an end,” Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev declared.

Echoing President Aliyev’s statement, Turkey’s leader Recep Erdogan also called for an end to the “occupation” of the disputed territory by Armenians and said Turkey was at the disposition of Azerbaijan “with all its resources and heart”.

Russia as a Mediator

Russia has long been the main player in the decades-long Nagorno-Karabakh dispute and thought it had it under control. In came Turkey, however, and the regional settings were disrupted.

Both Armenia and Azerbaijan are former Soviet Republics, and even in the wake of the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s Russia has remained deeply influential on both countries.

A member of the OSCE’s Minsk Group, Russia has been calling for an end to the conflict since the re-establishing of national borders between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Over the years, it succeeded in tipping the balance between the antagonistic neighbors, mainly by selling to each of them weapons and maintaining a more or less equal influence on their affairs.

Yet the recent outbreak of renewed fighting, which marks a spike in decades of intermittent fighting between the two sides, has compelled Russia to put more efforts into settling the urgent question. Moreover, Turkey’s coming into the game puts Russia in an even tighter and delicate spot – Putin must make a one-sided and clear decision now about what Russia will do.

The Turkish Factor

Azerbaijan, which appears to be prevailing, rejoiced in the adamant support from Erdogan. Both France and Russia have accused Turkey of deploying Syrian militiamen to fight along Azerbaijani forces in the conflict. In addition, Turkey is said to have provided drones and warplanes to Azerbaijan, which is now far superior in the air.

Soon after the war was declared, Armenia said that Turkey had a “direct presence on the ground” and that Turkish military experts were “fighting side by side” with Azerbaijan.

Thus, like in Syria and Libya, Russia finds itself in a standoff – and a proxy fight – against Turkey. Its relation to both Armenia and Azerbaijan, as well as its influence on them, is at stake and depends on Turkey’s next moves. Moreover, whichever decision Russia makes will favor Turkey to some extent.

Russia’s Dilemma

Russia, by decisively backing Armenia – which it is more inclined to do – will lose ground in Azerbaijan, a country to which Moscow has been steadily growing closer politically over the years. Furthermore, by doing so it will also bolster the Turkish influence in Azerbaijan to the detriment of Putin’s relation to the Azeri political elite and his authoritarian counterpart Aliyev.

Doing nothing about the conflict, on the other hand, or backing Azerbaijan – which is conspicuously out of the question – will largely be read as a sign of weakness from Putin, not least because Armenia and Russia are bound by exclusive military agreements.

Russia has a military base in Armenia, and Armenia is a member of both the Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Eurasian Economic Union, all of which are led by Moscow.

Moscow is all the more compelled to act in a timely manner as the conflict flares up, considering the current international context where the United States is preoccupied with the upcoming November presidential elections and Europe is grappling with a second wave of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.