As the four-day-old war pitting Azerbaijan against Armenia over the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh enclave continues to escalate with dozens of casualties on both sides, there are growing indications that the latest conflagration between the traditionally hostile former Soviet states was not sparked by accident but was preplanned by Azerbaijan and its regional ally Turkey. The unanswered question is where regional heavyweight Russia stands in those plans. Is it supporting Turkey and Azerbaijan for its own strategic purposes, or is it biding its time before slapping them down?
The Kremlin has a military pact with Armenia and a large base there close to the Turkish border. It supplies weapons to both countries and has avoided openly taking sides. It’s joined the United States and NATO’s calls for an immediate cease-fire. Azerbaijan and Armenia have rebuffed the calls.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu accused Moscow of siding with Armenia today. "If Armenia hadn’t enjoyed support today from other countries — from the West, Russia — it wouldn’t be able to muster up this courage," he said in an interview with the state-run Anadolu news agency. He made no bones about Turkey’s position, saying, “We will do what is required if Azerbaijan wants to resolve this [conflict] on the ground.”
Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan says Turkey is providing arms and military advisers to Azerbaijan. Despite Azerbaijani denials, various Syrian rebels attached to Turkish-mentored brigades continue to confirm their presence in Azerbaijan, saying they were transported there by Turkey.
Armenia’s Ministry of Defense said yesterday that one of its Russian-made Sukhoi S-25 combat aircraft was shot down by a US-made Turkish F-16 warplane within Armenia’s airspace. Today it shared footage of the wreckage. Turkey denied that it's using planes and drones against Armenia.
The conventional wisdom, however, is that Turkey is providing Azerbaijan with military support of a kind not seen since the start of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in 1988. Turkey’s assistance to ill-disciplined and largely unmotivated Azerbaijani forces proved fruitless at the time. A truce was called in 1994, with Armenia retaining control over the Armenian-majority enclave and five administrative regions surrounding it, amounting to a fifth of Azerbaijani territory.
After 36 years, Azerbaijan is far wealthier thanks to its substantial oil and gas resources and boasts an arsenal of sophisticated weapons. Turkey’s combat drones, which have had a game-changing effect against Kurdish insurgents in Turkey as well as its foes in Syria and Libya, are helping Azerbaijan wrest back territory for the first time, according to diplomatic sources who spoke to Al-Monitor on condition they not be identified by name. The sources said Azerbaijani forces were close to regaining control of Fuzuli and Jebrail, south of Nagorno-Karabakh, that fell to Armenian forces in 1993 and were seeking to cut off a supply route from the Armenian capital Yerevan to Nagorno-Karabakh by taking the peak of the Murovdag Mountain. Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry said on Sunday that its forces already had.
The diplomatic sources briefing Al-Monitor said Turkey had likely left behind assorted military hardware in Azerbaijan used during joint exercises that were held from July 29 to Aug. 10 in the capital Baku and the country’s second-largest city, Ganja, among others. Combat aircraft and land forces took part, prompting sharp protests from Armenia and admonishments from Russia. The exercises followed the most recent round of clashes between the sides in early July that left at least 16 people dead.
Those who argue that Russia is letting Turkey and Azerbaijan run loose for the moment offer several reasons. It wants to expose the impotence of the United States and France, who together with Russia are permanent members of the so-called Minsk Group. The group, which operates under the umbrella of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, has been trying unsuccessfully to broker peace since 1994. When both sides are sufficiently exhausted Russia will step in as the ultimate arbiter of the conflict, sending a strong message to Pashinyan that his reformist 2018 Velvet Revolution comes at a price.
Asli Aydintasbas, a senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told Al-Monitor, “It’s not clear to me that Turkey and Russia are on the opposite sides of this conflict. It seems the Russians are sitting on the fence, even allowing Armenia to lose territory. Relations between Moscow and the Pashinyan government in Armenia have not exactly been smooth.”
“People also underestimate the nature of the relationship between [Russian President] Vladimir Putin and [Azerbaijani president] Ilham Aliyev, himself the son of a high-ranking KGB official, Haydar Aliyev,” Aydinstasbas observed.
“It’s unlikely that Turkey will want to settle scores with Russia [over Syria’s rebel-held] Idlib by way of upping the ante in Azerbaijan. The two countries and their respective leaders value their relationship and know how to compartmentalize their differences. Ankara is not interested in opening another front against Russia.”
Either way, for Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, being able to claim credit for winning back Azerbaijani territory, however little, would be an enormous boost to his droopy poll numbers in the midst of a looming economic crisis. Moscow’s support in that endeavour would in theory make him more dependent on the Kremlin. It might also accommodate Turkey’s demands to let it take another swipe at Syria’s Kurds.
But it’s not just Turkey that is coming to Azerbaijan’s aid. Israel is also providing weapons and intelligence to Azerbaijan. Hikmet Hajiyev, foreign policy adviser to Aliyev, confirmed to Axios today that Azerbaijani cargo planes have been traveling to Ovda, a military base in southern Israel. The planes are allegedly ferrying weapons back to Azerbaijan. Hajiev acknowledged that in addition to “fruit and vegetables,” the planes might be carrying “military items” as well. Azerbaijan is among Israel’s top suppliers of oil but its main interest in the Turkic nation is its border with Iran and all the intelligence-gathering benefits it entails.
Despite its official statements in support of its fellow Shiite Azerbaijanis, Iran is widely believed to be arming Armenia, with which it also shares a border, as a deterrent to potential Azerbaijani attempts to provoke its own large ethnic Azeri population against its clerical regime. Russia cooperates with Israel against Iran in Syria, so it’s conceivable it does so in Azerbaijan as well.
If so, it doesn’t necessarily follow that it's cooperating with Turkey in Azerbaijan, as it does in Syria. Kevork Oskanian, an honorary research fellow at the University of Birmingham, contends that the idea that Turkey and Russia are acting in cahoots in Azerbaijan and that Moscow wants to cut Pashinyan down to size is “a bit far-fetched.” Oskanian told Al-Monitor in emailed comments, “Yes, the personal relationship between Pashinyan and Putin isn’t good, but nor was the relationship between Putin and [Belarusian President Alexander] Lukashenko, even before the recent troubles [in Belarus].”
Oskanian continued, “What matters much more is Armenia’s geopolitical orientation. And in terms of the security relationship with Russia, things are still close.” If anything, Oskanian noted in a recent essay, the presence of Syrian mercenaries, if confirmed, would “also be perceived as highly provocative by Moscow in light of the proximity of the restless North Caucasus, inviting a potential response.”
He was referring to Russia’s rebellious Muslim-majority republics, Dagestan and Chechnya, which have served as a fertile recruiting ground for the Islamic State and other jihadi groups. As such, in all likelihood, the escalation over Nagorno-Karabakh is “more like Turkey doing something, and Russia standing by for now.” Through its intervention in the southern Caucasus, Turkey is seeking to create leverage over Russia in Libya but above all in Syria. Turkey’s “basic logic,” Oskanian concluded, is, “If you meddle in my backyard, I’ll meddle in yours.”
Editor's note: Oct. 1, 2020. An earlier version of this story incorrectly asserted that former Islamic State operatives were among Syrian rebels allegedly deployed to Azerbaijan.