Turkey called Russia's bluff in Nagorno-Karabakh

Russia defeated at least partially by Turkey in the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh region, said Mark Galeotti, a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London, during a youtube interview with Ahval on Monday.

On Nov. 10, the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh came to a pause after almost two months of fighting when the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan agreed to a truce that was guaranteed by their powerful neighbour Russia. A lasting ceasefire eluded international mediators for weeks but in this moment, President Vladimir Putin appeared to be the one to deliver on this front.

To many observers, the latest round of violence in the Caucasus was seen as another episode of a wider competition between Russia and Turkey, who strongly supported Azerbaijan. Following the truce brokered in Moscow, analysts immediately went to work debating who the winner was between the region’s two historic hegemons.

On the surface, Russia appeared to be as the powerbroker. Moscow maintains close relations with Armenia as well as Azerbaijan, two former Soviet republics, and its soldiers soon deployed to the frontline to enforce the new truce. Turkey was not signatory to the final agreement despite its enormous support for Azerbaijan and Turkish participation in the peacekeeping mission was rejected by Russia.

Mark Galeotti, however, said who the perceived victor depended in part to analytical biases related to Russia’s geopolitical strength. In many ways, Galeotti believes it has been Moscow who was outplayed by Ankara.

“I personally feel this is something of a partial defeat for Russia,” Galeotti told Ahval in a podcast interview. He insists that Russia maintains significant capabilities that could alter the balance of power but Turkey effectively cracked the veneer that it has any monopoly over the Caucasus.

Shortly after the fighting started on Sept. 27, Russia’s first remarks came on Oct. 2 in a joint statement with the United States and France, fellow co-chairs of the so-called Minsk Group set up to mediate the dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh in 1994. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov brokered a ceasefire a week later in Moscow, but it almost immediately collapsed.

Russia is officially a military ally of Armenia through the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), but its actions took on tepid and uncertain tones. Putin himself said in an interview that the fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh was not on Armenia proper, so Russia saw no reason to intervene. He also emphasised Russia’s close ties to Azerbaijan as well.

In comparison to Russia’s uncertainty, Turkey offered its full support to Azerbaijan. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan rejected Russia’s initial call through the OSCE for a ceasefire and provided diplomatic cover to Azerbaijan.

Turkish jets were later deployed to Ganja International Airport and Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev announced that they would protect against external aggression. As the sole military power capable of making a difference on the ground, this was interpreted as a veiled reference to Russia.

Galeotti says that Turkey’s visible support to its ally in comparison to Russia’s indecisiveness lent towards Turkish success further from the frontline.

“Turkey’s role was crucial, not only on the battlefield, but in the political battlefield,” said Galeotti, adding that it exposed Russian insecurities about its hegemony over what it considers its ‘near abroad’ in the former Soviet Union. “Turkey has, by its presence in the region, called Moscow’s political bluff.”

The damage may already be unfolding. As Azerbaijanis flowed into the streets to celebrate what they saw as a national triumph thanks to Turkish support, Armenians protested violently in the capital Yerevan.

Throughout last week, protestors stormed government buildings and called for the resignation of Nikol Pashinyan as prime minister. While no fan of Pashinyan, Russia may see its truce compromised if his government were to fall and be replaced by a more nationalistic alternative.

Even though it was excluded from the truce in Moscow, Turkey did win some concessions.

While excluded from the peacekeeping operation itself, Turkey won a token presence in a Russian operated observation centre in Azerbaijan to monitor the mission. Significantly, a land corridor was secured between Nakhchivan province on Turkey’s border and Azerbaijan itself, a long held Turkish goal.

In spite of the damage to its regional clout, it is unlikely Russia will dramatically alter its relationship with Turkey even as some question how far their disagreements can go.

Asked in an interview whether Russia was growing too dependent on Turkey to solve regional problems including Nagorno-Karabakh, Foreign Minister Lavrov defended the relationship as cooperative and based on pragmatism that trumps their disagreements.

This emphasis on the pragmatic element of the relationship was echoed by Putin, who has forged a robust working relationship with Erdogan. Speaking at the annual Valdai Forum, Putin insisted Russia has no fear of Turkish ambitions and described Erdogan as a “flexible person” who he works well with.

Galeotti holds that in many ways Russian officials respect Turkey’s willingness to forcefully assert itself over national interests, even if it goes against Russia’s own. It is this shared language of realpolitik referenced by Putin at the Valdai Forum that in the end allows them to avoid any larger confrontation between their nations.

“The Russians feel they are on familiar territory,” said Galeotti. “Sometimes they’re going to win, sometimes they’re going to lose, but they do not have a problem with rules of the game when it comes to Turkey.”