Implications of the Nagorno-Karabakh War: Turkish-Russian Relations and Shifting Geopolitics in the Greater Middle East

 /  Jan. 27, 2021, 10:51 a.m.

Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR) soldiers from the 8th regiment are rushing out of a trench during operation on the Agdam front on the most eastern side of the front
Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR) soldiers from the 8th regiment rush out of a trench on the Agdam front,

On December 1, 2020, Azerbaijan took control of the last of the districts that Armenia agreed to hand over to Azerbaijan after signing a ceasefire agreement that ended the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war. With it, a new geopolitical reality has emerged in the South Caucasus, with implications for the greater region and Turkish-Russian relations.

In September, war broke out between neighboring Azerbaijan and Armenia over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh and the seven Armenian-controlled districts surrounding it. At its core, the war between these two former Soviet constituent republics of the Caucasus region was a nationalistic border dispute, with the more powerful Turkey and Russia highly invested in the outcome.

After weeks of heavy fighting, allegations of human rights violations on both sides, and global popular support campaigns that reached even the UChicago campus, Azerbaijan defeated Armenia. On November 9, shortly after Azerbaijan conquered the strategic city of Susha, or Shushi, the president of Armenia announced on Facebook that he made the "hard, hard decision" to agree to a Russian-mediated ceasefire agreement. Per the agreement, Armenia agreed to cede the seven districts surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh and recognize Azerbaijan’s territorial gains in Nagorno-Karabakh from the war, while Russia has stationed peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh to prevent further conflict. 

The ceasefire has mostly held, though Russia reported a ceasefire violation on December 11, with Armenia and Azerbaijan accusing each other of instigating the violation. On January 11, the leaders of Russia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan held a meeting in Moscow, announcing the creation of a trilateral working group for “unblocking all economic and transport links in the region.”

With the ceasefire agreement, a new geopolitical reality has emerged between Turkey, Russia, and  Western powers and their influence in the South Caucasus, with critical implications for the power dynamics of the Middle East. Before the war, Russia held the strongest influence over both Armenia and Azerbaijan, though its hold over Armenia appeared to be slipping, and the OSCE Minsk Group chaired by France, the United States, and Russia was the main peacemaking and conflict negotiation body for the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. After the war, Russia has reasserted its influence in the South Caucasus while the US and French influences have diminished. Meanwhile, Turkey has emerged as a more prominent source of influence.

Implementation of the Nagorno-Karabakh ceasefire agreement as of December 8, 2020.

Implementation of the Nagorno-Karabakh ceasefire agreement as of December 8, 2020. 

Russia's Role

Russia is the preeminent source of influence in the South Caucasus, formerly part of the Soviet Union’s domain, and its role in brokering the successful Nagorno-Karabakh ceasefire will likely sustain its position and solidify its influence over Armenia. 

Russia was one of Azerbaijan's two biggest arms suppliers in 2018 and 2019. While also supplying arms to Armenia, it has tried to balance relations between both sides and maintain broad influence in the South Caucasus.

Since 1992, Russian border guards have been stationed on Armenia’s borders with Turkey and Iran to help Armenia defend itself, along with a Russian military base. A Turkish or Iranian invasion that would result in the deaths of Russia border guards in Armenia could be seen as an act of war against Russia as well. 

With the 2018 "velvet revolution," a successful popular uprising against the Armenian governing establishment led by current Armenian president, then a member of parliament, Nikol Pashinyan, Armenia was on a long path of inching towards the West, slowly distancing itself from Russia in the process. Russia failed to send military forces into Nagorno-Karabakh to defend Armenia's position this year, despite Armenia’s membership in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), Russia's rough equivalent to NATO. This may have signaled Russia’s dissatisfaction with Armenia's lean towards the West.

While Russia did not use troops in the war, it reportedly set up a small military outpost within Armenia-proper on Armenia’s border near Nagorno-Karabakh. This outpost acted as a tripwire to deter an Azerbaijani invasion into its core territory, though not one into Nagorno-Karabakh or the non-annexed Armenian-controlled territories it captured after the 1992-1994 war, where Armenia backs a separate, limitedly recognized Republic of Artsakh

However, with November’s ceasefire agreement, Russia has re-asserted itself as the principal protector of Armenia and increased its influence over the country. Russia has now stationed peacekeepers in both the Armenian and Azerbaijani-held areas of Nagorno-Karabakh, deterring further Azerbaijani attacks and securing a land route from Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh, now surrounded by Azerbaijan. The Republic of Artsakh now joins the company of the limitedly recognized small republics that largely owe their existence to Russia forces stationed in their territories, such as Transnistria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

As Thomas de Waal, a scholar on Eurasian affairs and a senior fellow of Carnegie Europe notes, the recent agreement is similar to the so-called "Lavrov plan" that Russia has reportedly pushed for in the past three years. The plan, named after Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, would have reportedly forced Armenia to concede the seven districts surrounding the former Soviet Nagorno-Karabakh autonomous region in exchange for Azerbaijan recognizing Armenian control of Nagorno-Karabakh itself, and would have deployed Russian peacekeepers. 

Armenia seems to have caved into an agreement similar to Lavrov plan, with terms favorable to Azerbaijan since Armenia has now ceded a substantial amount of territory. But this increased reliance on Russia may come at a cost: its ability to self-determine its foreign policy. By accepting the offer of protection Russia has extended, Armenia will be more squarely within Russia’s sphere of influence, while Turkey’s role is expanding with regard to Azerbaijan.

Geopolitical map of the Caucasus before the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war.

Geopolitical map of the Caucasus before the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war.

Turkey's Expanded Role in the South Caucasus

Despite Russia’s tightened grip on Armenia, it is no longer the only major geopolitical player in the South Caucasus; Turkey has entered the fray. Turkey backed Azerbaijan in the war, continuing a tradition of solidarity with other Turkic nations and a long history of hostile relations with Armenia. Turkey was Azerbaijan's third-largest weapons supplier in 2019, after Israel and Russia, supplying Azerbaijan with cutting-edge drones, although Turkish arms transfers accounted for only 3.2 percent of Azerbaijan’s arms imports. Turkey reportedly also sent Syrian mercenaries and Turkish military personnel in the battle for Nagorno-Karabakh, though Turkey denies this. 

With Azerbaijan's apparent victory, Turkey has made moves to secure its influence. Turkish troops participated in an Azerbaijani military parade in Baku celebrating its victory in Nagorno-Karabakh. Turkey plans to deploy troops alongside Russian ones to establish a joint observation center in Nagorno-Karabakh, though the Russian foreign minister has said the Turkish peacekeepers will be limited Azerbaijani territory.

The end of the conflict has also removed a threat to important oil and gas pipelines for Turkey and Azerbaijan that run near Nagorno-Karabakh from Azerbaijan, through Georgia, and then Turkey. They also serve as an alternative to Russian pipelines to Europe. 

Notably, the agreement will further deepen Turkey’s access to Azerbaijan and Central Asian Turkic countries via a new transport corridor between Azerbaijan's main territory and its exclave of Nakhchivan. The corridor will pass through Armenian territory but be guarded by the Russia border guards.

Iran’s Diminished Influence

Iran, a regional power directly south of Armenia and Azerbaijan, was largely sidelined by the ceasefire. Despite its large ethnic Azeri population, Iran has not taken an active role in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, nor taken a clear position, trying to balance its ties with Armenia and Azerbaijan.

The new transport corridor to Nakhchivan could decrease Iran’s influence. Iran previously served as the main land link between Nakhchivan and Armenia, charging a 15 percent commission on gas transported from the main part of Azerbaijan through Iran to Nakhchivan. With the new transport corridor, Turkish trade to Central Asia could more easily bypass Iran.

The South Caucasus Turns Away from the West

While Turkey expands its role in the South Caucasus, the West's role—via both individual nations and joint bodies like the OSCE Minsk Group—has waned. Despite their disputes, Turkey and Russia have agreed to form a new joint monitoring center in Nagorno-Karabakh, leaving out the OSCE Minsk Group chaired by the United States, Russia, and France, which had previously been the main observatory and peace mediation body.

Throughout the conflict, the Minsk Group and the Western powers leading it had little effect on the dispute, though not for lack of trying. A ceasefire agreement that resulted from US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo bringing the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan to Washington, DC quickly fell through. With peacekeepers in Armenian-held Nagorno-Karabakh being exclusively Russian, and the Russian peacekeepers in Azerbaijan-held Nagorno-Karabakh poised to be joined by Turkish ones, the ceasefire agreement leaves far less room for Western powers to maneuver in the region. 

Nagorno-Karabakh in Context

The case of Nagorno-Karabakh is only part of larger trends in the shifting geopolitical landscape of the Middle East. Russia and Turkey are among the main powers driving these trends. Both have participated in proxy conflicts and set their sights on expanding their respective spheres of influence in the greater Middle East, particularly in Libya and Syria.

In Libya, a 2011 NATO-led military intervention that helped overthrow Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi left years of civil war and a power vacuum in its wake. Both Russia and Turkey moved to fill the void and backed two opposing governments. Russia supports the Tobruk-based government and the Libyan National Army led by General Khalifa Haftar in the east, while Turkey supports the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) in the west. Like in Nagorno-Karabakh, Turkey's ally had the upper hand. Russia deployed mercenaries in September 2019 to support Haftar’s offensive on GNA-held Tripoli, but a Turkish military intervention in January of 2020 helped rebuff Haftar's offensive. But unlike in Nagorno-Karabakh, other regional powers and international institutions wield their own influence, with the United Nations mediating the recent permanent ceasefire agreement in October between the opposing sides.

Following the United States’ near-total withdrawal from Syria in fall 2019, Turkey and Russia alongside Iran have become leading power players in the Syrian civil war. Turkey, Russia, and their proxies and allies now divide much of Syria's territory. Turkey, Russia, and Iran have held formal diplomatic meetings since January of 2017, negotiating the terms to end the Syria conflict, and creating key joint statements. In February of 2020, 34 Turkish troops died in an airstrike in Syria that the US accused Russia of orchestrating. Not letting the airstrike thwart their cooperation in Syria, Turkey and Russia have implemented a ceasefire deal in the Idlib province since March of 2020, although this deal has often been violated.

Making Sense of the Turkish-Russian Relationship

The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and the Turkish-Russian proxy conflict exemplify that the Turkish-Russian relationship does not fit neatly into simple categories of diplomatic relations. Despite being engaged in various proxy wars, both countries' leaders have continued to hash out agreements.

Relations did hit a period of overt tension from 2015-2017. In 2015, Turkey shot down a Russian military jet; Russia returned with harsh sanctions in kind. However, the countries have since begun a rapprochement, lifting the sanctions. In 2019, Turkey purchased a S-400 missile defense system from Russia, much to the chagrin of US leaders. On December 14, the US imposed sanctions on Turkey for it. However, Turkey announced in October that it is expanding military cooperation with Russia's enemy, Ukraine. 

The bottom line: Russia and Turkey’s relationship is elusive, and viewing the two nations strictly in terms of friendship or enmity is to overlook the complex and unpredictable nature of their dynamic. 

Turkey and Russia share a distrust of Western-led multilateral institutions. While Turkey is a NATO member, it has strained relations with the other allies. Turkey and Russia also both maintain foreign policy strategies with a significant element of opportunism. They have embraced proxy warfare and have shied away from overt hostility and rivalry, despite their competing interests. They have sought to fill power vacuums in the greater Middle East, and they have both clashed and cooperated as a result of it. But Turkey may be outplaying Russia. 

The Future of the Greater Middle East

While both President-elect Joe Biden and the Trump administration have warned about the threat Russia poses as a potential rising great power on the global scale, Russia is arguably losing influence to Turkey, at least in the greater Middle East. Turkey has gained ground against Russian-backed forces in Nagorno-Karabakh, Syria, and Libya. Russia's military expenditure is now comparable to Saudi Arabia's and one-tenth of the United States'. Russia is no longer the Soviet Union, and no longer has the same influence. 

As one writer for The Moscow Times puts it, perhaps the Nagorno-Karabakh agreement is a sign of Russia's imperial faltering, where its hegemony in the former Soviet Sphere is seemingly in decline. Russia has conceded to Turkey's expanded role in the former Soviet domain; it has faced NATO and European Union enlargement; and it has watched China increase its influence in Central Asia. As the United States sounds the alarm of Russia’s ascendancy, whether Russia is truly growing as a great power remains up for debate.

The Turkish-Russian relationship does not fit into simple definitions of allies or adversaries, but will likely continue to have a substantial impact on affairs in the region as both powers vie to expand their influence. The ceasefires in Nagorno-Karabakh, Libya, and Idlib, are tenuous and not permanent peace agreements. Tied together by the Turkish-Russia relationship and their shared region, events in one conflict will likely affect the others, and could possibly create new fronts.

 All images featured in this article are in the public domain. The headline image was taken by Jonathan Alpeyrie and is licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 Licence. The featured map of the Nagorno-Karabakh ceasefire agreement was created by Emreculha and is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 4.0 International License. The Geopolitical Map of the Caucasus Region was created by Jeroencommons and is published under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. No changes were made to the original images. 

Samuel Levy


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