If Vladimir Putin made one thing clear over the years, it’s that no power but Russia—not the U.S., the European Union, or even China—is allowed to meddle in the security affairs of its former Soviet stomping ground.
It appears Recep Tayyip Erdogan didn’t get the message. By ramping up support for Azerbaijan as it tries to win back territories lost to Armenian forces in 1994, the Turkish president has put his relationship with Russia to the test.
Erdogan’s forceful approach has broad support at home and may have unlocked a fitful stalemate in the Caucasus that lasted almost 30 years. It could also win him a voice in the settlement. But if over-reached, it risks rebuke from a military power able to strike at Turkish interests in multiple theaters. Putin has long pressed for a new multipolar world order where regional powers would pursue their interests without meddling from the U.S., but this was not what he had in mind.
“Erdogan is really testing Putin’s patience,” said Alexander Dynkin, president of the Institute of World Economy and International Relations of the Russian Academy of Sciences, which also advises the Kremlin. “He irritates Putin more and more.”
The relationship was under strain beforefighting broke out around Nagorno-Karabakh on Sep. 27, despite perceptions in the West that Turkey has abandoned the U.S. and other North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies to partner with Moscow.
Russia and Turkey have had either military advisers, mercenaries or troops deployed on opposite sides of two major conflicts, in Syria and Libya. Now concern is growing in Moscow that red lines could be crossed in the ex-Soviet Caucasus, amid claims that Turkey has sent Syrian militants to aid Azerbaijan.
The number of disputes for the two leaders to manage and compartmentalize is only growing. Russia perceives Turkey to be squeezing its natural gas giant, Gazprom PJSC. Turkey imported 28% less Russian gas in July compared with a year earlier, while imports from Azerbaijan rose 22%. Turkey will soon also open a new pipeline that will allow Azeri gas to compete directly with Gazprom for market share in Europe.
Speaking to the Turkish parliament on Oct. 1, Erdogan condemned as “unacceptable” Putin’s call for an immediate cease-fire in Azerbaijan, which the Russian leader made in a joint statement with U.S. President Donald Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron. France, Russia and the U.S. are co-chairs of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s so-called Minsk Group aimed at resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute.
In his speech, Erdogan said the Minsk Group was no longer fit for purpose. He also linked the latest resurgence of fighting to Russia, saying it was part of a wider crisis that began with the “occupation” of Crimea. Russian forces annexed Crimea in 2014, part of a conflict in eastern Ukraine that’s still playing out.
On Saturday, the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan each said they would consider a truce, but only on terms the other is unlikely to entertain.
The mainly ethnic Armenian enclave and seven districts around it are recognized by the United Nations as occupied territories that, according to U.K.-based Caucasus specialist Thomas De Waal, account for 13.6% of Azerbaijan’s land.
Russia and France, meanwhile, say Turkey has sent militants from Syria to fight for Azerbaijan, a move that could introduce an Islamist element to a conflict that already pits Muslim Azeris against Christian Armenians. Turkey and Azerbaijan have denied the accusation.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a U.K.-based group that monitored death tolls throughout the war in Syria, said on Saturday that 36 Syrian fighters had been killed in the fighting around Nagorno-Karabakh in the previous 48 hours, bringing the total to 64. The group said Turkey had sent 1,200 Syrian fighters to Azerbaijan so far, mostly ethnic Turkmen.
“If the direct participation of the Turkish military or militants from Syria is proven, that will be a red line,” said Dynkin. “This isn’t the kind of multi-polarity Putin wanted.”
QuicktakeWhy Stakes Are Raised in the Azeri-Armenian Conflict
Turkey has long supported fellow Turkic-speaking Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, but the strength of Erdogan’s intervention this time is unprecedented. Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has said his country will do more if Azerbaijan should ask. Large-scale joint Turkish-Azerbaijani military exercises finished as recently as August.
Russia is hardly hands off. It has a security treaty with Armenia and has sold arms to both sides. The Kremlin has publicized at least two conversations between Putin and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan since Sep. 27, though none with Erdogan or Azeri President Ilham Aliyev.
According to a senior official in Ankara, far from betraying NATO for Moscow, Turkey sees itself as standing alone against a crescent of Russian pressure in the region.
That’s not a view widely shared in the West. While Turkey’s leaders never harbored illusions about their essentially transactional relationship with Russia, they’ve left the country exposed by simultaneously alienating NATO allies that might have acted as a backstop, said Sinan Ulgen, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe, a Brussels-based think tank.
Erdogan’s goal in Azerbaijan is to marginalize the Minsk Group and force his way to a place at a new negotiating table where an eventual settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict would be worked out, according to Ulgen.
That’s the same strategy of leverage building Erdogan has used with some success in Libya, Syria and the eastern Mediterranean. But it also involves risk, because Putin can strike back in Turkey in any of these theaters, should events on the ground run beyond what he is willing to accept.
“Turkey is in a much more brittle position than it needs to be, because of the erosion of trust in its traditional alliances, and that is mutual,” said Ulgen. Erdogan’s decision to take delivery of Russian S-400 air defense systems played a part in that.
The problem for Russia is that unlike in other so-called frozen conflicts in the ex-Soviet space, it has no troops on the ground to control the situation and—unlike Turkey—is trying to keep a relationship with both sides, according to De Waal, author of“Black Garden,” a book on Nagorno-Karabakh.
“So long as there is equilibrium, they have leverage, but they cannot afford to pick sides,” he said. “That always seemed a bit of a losing strategy and it seems to be running out of road.”
Russia may also be holding back to teach a lesson to Armenia’s reformist government that “anti-Russian policies could lead to the total halt of support,” said Arkady Dubnov, a Moscow-based analyst. Pashinyan replaced a more pro-Kremlin leadership in 2018.
“For the moment these two big bears are managing to mark out their territory, but Erdogan should be careful not to overstep the limits,” said Dubnov. “His country is a major regional power, but he mustn’t forget that Russia considers itself the dominant player here.”
— With assistance by Onur Ant, Henry Meyer, and Dina Khrennikova
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