Statesmanship or ‘strongmanship’? Turkey playing catch up in the Caucasus

When the deadliest fighting in years between Armenia and Azerbaijan broke out along the border earlier this month, killing at least 18 people, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan  quickly denounced Armenia and expressed his country’s support for Azerbaijan.

For Richard Giragosian, founding director of the Yerevan-based Regional Studies Centre, this was more than simply standing by a friend. Turkey, a key ally of fellow Turkic, Muslim-majority Azerbaijan, had long been the main arms supplier for Baku, but lost that position in recent years to regional rival Russia.

Giragosian sees Ankara’s frustration at its reduced role in Azerbaijan, along with its dire economic situation, as driving its vocal support of Azerbaijani aggressions. Indeed, days after Erdoğan spoke, the director of Turkey’s defense industry said Turkey was ready to modernise Azerbaijan’s army.

“What it seems to be is Turkey trying to play catch up, trying to use the escalation to try to regain a more prominent role as a military patron for Azerbaijan, and to displace Russia,” Giragosian told Ahval in a podcast, contrasting this with Ankara’s more aggressive moves in Syria, Libya and the eastern Mediterranean. “Turkey is actually reacting and not as proactive...trying to now exploit the opportunity.”

The South Caucasus neighbours have been battling for decades over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan but overseen by the Republic of Artsakh, a de facto independent state with an ethnic Armenian majority.

On July 12, Azeri troops reportedly attempted to take a strategic hilltop in the province of Tavush, where Armenian troops were stationed. The cross-border skirmishes escalated, including drone strikes and tank fire, leading to a handful of troops killed on both sides, including, most recently, an Armenian soldier on Monday.

Both sides blamed the other for the border flare-up. For Giragosian, the burst of violence is almost expected at this time of year; what is notable is where it occurred, some 300 km from Nagorno-Karabakh, the primary source of tensions. “What this represents therefore is an escalation in a new direction, a troubling new direction,” he said.

Domestic political issues, mainly frustration with the lack of progress on Nagorno-Karabakh peace talks and an emerging generation of officials seeking to make its military mark, appear to have driven Baku to take a more aggressive and dangerous posture.

“I’m not worried about an official declaration of war or outright warfare; I’m much more concerned about a war by accident based on overreaction and miscalculation,” said Giragosian. “Azerbaijan is increasingly giving up on diplomacy and resorting to force of arms.”

Turkey also appears to have embraced this more militant position. Defence Minister Hulusi Akar last week blamed Armenia for the border clashes and described Turkey and Azerbaijan as one nation. “The pain of Azerbaijan Turks is our pain,” Akar said. “This is an attempt that is bigger than what Armenians can handle. They will pay for it.”

Giragosian saw such hawkish talk as part of a broader regional shift in the past few years.

“In this region, including Turkey, moderate voices have been crowded out by more militant positions and unfortunately nationalism is again resonating,” he said. “In this COVID-19 crisis, it couldn’t come at a worse time.”

Nationalist views have driven Azeris and Armenians around the world to clash in the past fortnight. An Azeri protest outside the Armenian embassy in London turned violent after Armenian counter-protesters arrived. A few days later, an Armenian protest at the Azeri consulate in Los Angeles led to clashes and an Armenian coffee shop in Kyiv was burned down, with Azeris saying it was their gift to Armenians.

This past weekend Azeris stopped a group of Armenians performing a traditional dance in Boston’s Harvard Square, while in Moscow, dozens of Armenians and Azeris have been arrested in street fights.

“This kind of ethnic-driven animosity is a very troubling and depressing and distressing sign,” said Giragosian, adding that it underscored how this latest flare-up was not about a disputed region but rather state versus state.

Erdoğan has sought to leverage military campaigns in Syria and Libya and Turkish aggressions in the eastern Mediterranean as nationalist political campaigns, looking to promote his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) during a severe economic crisis following stinging political defeats last year.

Now he hopes to ride Baku’s nationalist coattails to greater arms sales in the face of a fast-falling Turkish lira. Such hopes may not be misplaced, as earlier this year Azerbaijan topped Iran and Russia as Turkey’s leading supplier of natural gas.

Former Turkish foreign minister Yaşar Yakış suggested in an op-ed this week for Arab News that Russia might have pushed Azerbaijan to take military action on the border in an effort to interrupt the flow of Azeri gas to Turkey and beyond.

Other observers have expressed fears that a renewed Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict could endanger already fraught Turkey-Russia ties. The Black Sea rivals have drawn closer in recent years thanks to the TurkStream pipeline, inaugurated early this year, and Ankara’s purchase last year of Russian air defence missiles. Yet they are on opposing sides in the Syrian and Libyan civil wars.

Erdoğan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin have spoken about the deadly border clashes and expressed readiness to coordinate any potential stabilisation efforts. Russia is allied with both Armenia and Azerbaijan and has offered to serve as a negotiator. Giragosian said Moscow, which is part of a regional military alliance with Armenia, has been timid in its response, a sharp contrast with Turkey’s bellicose rhetoric that points toward a renewed rivalry between Erdoğan and Putin.

“This is a clash of titanic egos,” he said. “The region is much more prone to become more of an arena for competition, rather than a shared fear of influence for cooperation between Turkey and Russia.”

He feared Turkey’s support of Azerbaijan could drive Armenia back into the arms of Russia, which could give Putin a military presence in the area. Giragosian said that the border flare-up had destroyed any immediate hopes of reconciliation between Turkey and Armenia, which officially have no relations despite sharing a 300-km border.

In its new report on the border clashes, the anti-war organisation International Crisis Group urged Armenia and Azerbaijan not to walk back from their recent accords, which opened direct communications between the two countries for the first time in 15 years.

“Neither side has a clear military advantage in the border zone,” said the report. “The two countries should recommit to using their existing communication channel. Yerevan and Baku should keep channels open to find mutually beneficial ways to cooperate.”

Giragosian remained optimistic, pointing to Armenia’s peaceful uprising in 2018 that brought the country’s first democratically-elected government to power. Yerevan has seen no mass demonstrations and few calls for war.

In Baku, on the other hand, tens of thousands of people took to the streets demanding war with Armenia after General Polad Hashimov was killed in the border clashes. Several hundred protesters stormed into parliament, which President Ilham Aliyev described as an attempted coup.

Also, as analyst Axel Corlu argued in Ahval last week, Azerbaijan’s considerable military spending in recent years - nearly $15 billion last year, compared to the Armenian GDP of $12 billion - suggests Aliyev believes some aggression along the border could deliver some tangible political gains.

“There’s no alternative to diplomacy, and I do think President Aliyev is practical enough to see the inherent risk in such a battlefield gambit,” said Giragosian. “This is a time for statesmanship over ‘strongmanship’.”

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.