The ruins of the war in the Caucasus renew the rivalry between Russia and Turkey

KSU | The Sentinel Newspaper
Feb 6 2021

The 44 days of the second war around Nagorno-Karabakh, won by Azerbaijan last November, has updated the status quo in the South Caucasus, one of the most divisive depots of power in history.

As in much of the past four centuries, Russia and Turkey are once again face to face.

Iran is still a significant regional player, but the amount of trouble in Tehran appears to have dampened the appetite of the Ayatollahs to get involved in the dispute with the Azeris, who have very strong ethnic ties to ancient Persia.

Since the formation of the Soviet Union in 1922, Moscow had the strongest hand in the region, whose countries were absorbed into the Communist Empire.

Nagorno-Karabakh influenced this process. Historically an Armenian region, it found itself on the territory of Azerbaijan so as not to offend the Turks and to assert a certain border stability. Azeris are a Turkic speaking people and Muslims especially love them.

The situation was pushed with the stomach until the beginning of the Soviet decline, in 1988, when nationalist conflicts broke out. After the union officially ended in 1991, they evolved into the first modern war in the region, won by Armenia in 1994.

With him, in addition to Nagorno-Karabakh, seven Azeri districts around him were occupied. Hundreds of thousands of locals left, fueling a cycle of mutual hatred that returned to side-to-side displacement at a time when the outside powers were the Russian Empire and the Ottoman Empire.

With occasional skirmishes, the situation stabilized until last year the ambitious government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan decided to act. He helped arm Baku with modern attack drones and even sent Turkish F-16 fighters to support the ally.

The weakening of all countries due to the pandemic also served as a catalyst. For Baku, an opportunity to recover what he considers his own; for Ankara, a distraction for its domestic audience and a means of establishing its projection in the Caucasus.

Who didn’t like anything was Russian President Vladimir Putin, who had bad relations with Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, despite the geopolitical importance of his neighbor.

In Armenia, the Russians maintain a large military base in the west of the country and, by treaty, are forced to defend Yerevan against external aggression. But the agreement did not apply to Nagorno-Karabakh, whose jurisdiction was the subject of international questioning.

So Putin did nothing to prevent the war from starting. Baku was nimble and its autocrat, Ilham Alyiev, was determined to use Turkish support. It took over several areas occupied by the Armenians and even around 30% of Nagorno-Karabakh.

It was a bloody process. In all, about 5,500 soldiers and 150 civilians died, more or less evenly distributed. The infrastructure of the Armenian region has been severely affected by the bombing of bridges, communication lines, schools and hospitals.

Yerevan, supporting the so-called Artsakh Defense Force, the Armenian name for the region, attacked civilian targets also in Azeri territory. For Amnesty International, both countries have done this deliberately, and reports of brutality continue to emerge.

With no alternative, Pashinyan eventually accepted a very unpopular peace, as he lost all of 1994’s gains and provisionally maintained a smaller Nagorno-Karabakh.

For Putin, it was a political victory, as he negotiated the agreement and took charge of sending 2,000 troops to look after its implementation for five years, renewable for five more.

Its strategic objective of keeping a firm footing on its exposed southern flank, which serves as a link between Russian jihadist movements in the North Caucasus and the unrest in Syria and Iraq, has been achieved.

But Nagorno-Karabakh’s final status has yet to be defined, and the tone of accusation from side to side seems to prevent a happy ending to the story. Baku led by example by harshly criticizing France, one of the region’s first negotiators, whose parliament suggested recognizing the Armenian enclave as independent.

For his part, Erdogan, who reviewed the victorious troops with Aliiev, wanted more. Since the beginning of the month, it has been promoting a major joint military exercise with Baku on its eastern border, almost directly targeting Russian forces in Armenia.

Not content with seeing the ally victorious and having risked a confrontation with the Russians, the Turkish president demanded to participate in the peacekeeping forces monitoring the Azeri-Armenian agreement.

Moscow did not allow the dispatch of patrols, but agreed to set up a control center in the Agdam region, created on January 30 with 120 soldiers, half Russian, half Turkish.

The dynamic seems to repeat the tense relationship between the two powers in the civil wars in Syria and Libya, where they have supported different camps and made fragile deals.

Economics underlines this whole issue of power projection. Azerbaijan is a great natural gas well, and in recent years it has deviated from its historic link with Russia and laid pipelines directly to Turkey, where it now supplies over 80% of the product.

The final objective is Europe, through other gas pipelines, avoiding the obligatory passage through Russia.

His failure to make a more emphatic defense of the Armenian position during the war indicated Putin’s attempt to keep Baku close, which with Erdogan’s incisive action was not successful.

Armenia, on the other hand, saw its government all but collapse and, with no natural resources to enter the larger geopolitical game, had to accept its fate and tolerate the Turkish presence nearby.

The neighbors do not recognize each other because Ankara does not accept the idea that the Ottomans committed a genocide against the Armenians in 1915.

Lost in the middle of this big dog fight, the victims of the time, the displaced Armenians.

Like their Azeri peers in the past, and Armenians before, in an endless discussion about who deserves to inherit the land, it is now they who fill the roads with their possessions and are homeless.

Defining what will be done with Nargono-Karabakh may shed light on these people, although it is highly unlikely that a solution will end the side-by-side recriminations.

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Emil Lazarian

“I should like to see any power of the world destroy this race, this small tribe of unimportant people, whose wars have all been fought and lost, whose structures have crumbled, literature is unread, music is unheard, and prayers are no more answered. Go ahead, destroy Armenia . See if you can do it. Send them into the desert without bread or water. Burn their homes and churches. Then see if they will not laugh, sing and pray again. For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a New Armenia.” - WS