The Caucasus, a region that has long been characterised by warfare and instability, has seen some of its most violent fighting in decades between Armenia and Azerbaijan, over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. This conflict is the latest in a series of shocks to what Moscow considers the Russian sphere of influence, which appears to be unravelling. In addition to the protests in both Russia and Belarus, Kyrgyzstan has also been the site of major demonstrations against its strongman-type leader, following disputed elections. While the resignation of the Kyrgyz President Sooronbay Jeenbekov in mid-October appears to have somewhat eased the situation in the Central Asian country, the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan shows no signs of abating.
The region of Nagorno-Karabakh has long been fought over by the two ex-Soviet republics, with the first major conflict occurring in 1918, against the background of the Russian Civil War. When the Caucasus region was invaded by the Soviet Union in 1920, ‘a divide and rule’ tactic was deployed, leaving Nagorno-Karabakh with a majority Armenian population although nominally under Azerbaijani control. This led to tensions between the two Soviet republics throughout the twentieth century, which erupted into full-scale warfare in 1988, just three years before the Soviet Union itself fell. This war over Nagorno-Karabakh lasted until 1994, when the ethnically Armenian Republic of Artsakh (which controls the vast majority of the disputed region) broke away from Azerbaijan.
Nagorno-Karabakh is still de facto controlled by an ethnically Armenian government, yet it is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan. Hostilities over the region broke out again on the 27th September (although there were some skirmishes and crossfire over the Armenian-Azerbaijani border back in July), after the foreign ministry of the breakaway enclave reported that the Azerbaijani government had been shelling the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh. In response, Armenia and the ethnically Armenian government controlling Nagorno-Karabakh imposed martial law and announced full mobilisation. That same day, the Azerbaijani parliament approved the introduction of martial law, as well as introducing a curfew. The conflict has now been going on for almost three weeks, with a death toll that is continuing to rise. The two countries briefly agreed to a ceasefire on the 10th October, which was brokered by Russia. However, within minutes, both sides were accusing the other of breaching the terms of the agreement. Since then, Russia’s calls for both sides to adhere to the terms of the ceasefire have fallen on deaf ears.
Considering the status of Armenia and Azerbaijan as ex-Soviet states, it might be expected that Russia would play the dominant role in determining the course of the conflict. However, this has not been the case. Russia’s initial calls for an end to the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict were not unilateral. Instead, they took the form of a joint statement with France and the USA, making an ‘appeal to the sides to cease hostilities immediately and to resume negotiations to find a sustainable resolution of the conflict’. These three powers co-chair the OSCE Minsk Group, an organisation set up in 1992 to encourage a peaceful resolution between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. This response, coordinated with two Western powers, was uncharacteristically passive for the Kremlin, especially when one bears in mind the strong and provocative way that it has responded to crises on its borders in the past. Georgia and Ukraine serve as prime examples of this.
Between its two southern neighbours, Russia is more closely aligned with Armenia, where it has a military base stationed. Armenia is also, like Russia, a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), a military alliance which also includes Belarus, Kyrgyzstan (both of which are trouble spots for Russia at the moment), Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan. However, Russia also has relatively warm relations with Azerbaijan. It has been a supplier of arms to both countries in the past, as though trying to maintain parity between the two countries in the capacity of an arbiter. These ties with both countries have made Russia reluctant to intervene on either side, which could compromise the intermediary position in which it casts itself.
Yet, Russia’s traditional role of mediator in between Armenia and Azerbaijan is being threatened by another authoritarian country, which is led by a strongman leader not too dissimilar from Vladimir Putin. It is Turkey that has emerged as the assertive regional power in this most recent outbreak over Nagorno-Karabakh. Turkey has come out in full support of Azerbaijan, which it considers to be a ‘brother country’. Azerbaijanis are a Turkic ethnic group and are predominantly Muslim, much like in Turkey. These close cultural and ethno-linguistic ties have led Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to condemn Armenian actions and demand a full withdrawal from the Nagorno-Karabakh region. However, Turkish support to Azerbaijan has gone beyond words. According to exports data from Turkey, Turkish arms sales to Azerbaijan surged even before fighting broke out at the end of September. Armenia has even accused Turkey of sending Syrian fighters to support Azerbaijani forces. Turkey’s Foreign Minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, earlier told the state-run Anadolu news agency at the end of September that Turkey would ‘do what is necessary’, if Azerbaijan was to request military support against its neighbour.
Turkey’s forceful stance signals that it looks ready to unseat Russia as the Caucasus’s main regional power. Erdogan has been vocal in his criticisms of the OSCE Minsk Group, stating that ‘the United States, Russia and France are still putting (finding a peace settlement) off with their stalling tactics’. Erdogan has spoken with Putin on the phone concerning the conflict, in which both leaders have declared their determination to find a peaceful resolution, but open Turkish critiques of Russia’s approach through the framework of the Minsk Group hint at the significant tensions between Ankara and Moscow. Russia and Turkey have at times appeared close in their criticisms of Western values, but have recently been pitted against each other in proxy wars in the Middle East. In Syria, Russia has supported President Assad, while Turkey has backed opposition forces, which has led to numerous clashes between the two powers. The situation is similar in Libya, where Turkey backs the UN-recognised Government of National Accord. Russia, however, has thrown military and economic support behind Khalifa Haftar, a rebel general.
Although it was Russia that brokered the ceasefire between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the fact that this deal was effectively dead in the water almost immediately after its signing is perhaps an indication of the fact that Russia does not have the influence in the Caucasus that it could once boast. There appears to be some recognition of this in Moscow. Sergei Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, has declared that Russia does not consider Turkey a ‘strategic ally’ and that Turkey should not be included in future talks, where Russia wants to continue playing a mediating role. In other words, Russia appears to want to box out a potential rival.
Nonetheless, considering how vehemently Russia opposed what it considered attempts by the EU to involve itself in the political crisis in Belarus, its response to Turkey’s enhanced role in a region of historic Russian influence has been comparatively low-key. This is especially the case considering the stances of the two other co-chairs of the Minsk Group, which have both openly and directly criticised Turkish policy. France, which has been involved in the conflict through its role as a co-chair of the Minsk Group, has condemned Turkey for pursuing a ‘reckless and dangerous’ path through its statements of support for Azerbaijan. Meanwhile, Mike Pompeo, US Secretary of State has accused Turkey of ‘coming in to lend their firepower to what is already a powder keg of a situation’. Turkey, however, is paying lip service to these warnings and not backing down from its hard-line position.
At a time when Russia is surrounded by political crises, Ankara’s boldness in the Caucasus is certainly causing concern in the Kremlin. Russia does not enjoy the ‘soft power’ that the US or China possess around the world, meaning that its stature on the global stage is dependent on flexing its muscles with an assertive foreign policy. The Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh is making it difficult for Russia to do so.