Caucasus flareup risks Turkish-Russian relations - Politico

The recent deadly border clashes between Caucasian neighbours Azerbaijan and Armenia risk an already-shaky partnership between Turkey and Russia, U.S. magazine Politico said on Monday.

Azerbaijan and Armenia remain in dispute over the Nagorno-Karabakh region, which with Armenian military support broke away from Azerbaijan in 1991.

Fresh clashes broke out between the two countries’ forces at the border near Armenia’s Tavush and Azerbaijan’s Tovuz provinces on July 12. At least 16 people, including an army general, have been killed in the deadliest fighting in years.

Observers told Politico the violence risks unravelling the partnership between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Ankara, a close political ally of Azerbaijan which it shares cultural ties with and provides fresh arms to, and Moscow, which supports Armenia, maintain a complex relationship; they back opposite sides of two long-running conflicts in Syria and Libya, while preserve economic ties and, as Politico said, share a mutual distrust of the West.

However, Turkey and Russia are both hesitant to directly intervene in the clashes between Azerbaijan and Armenia due to proximity, according to Özgur Ünlühisarcıklı, Turkey director of the German Marshall Fund.

“This is Russia’s backyard, and the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan continues within the parameters drawn by Russia,” Ünlühisarcıklı told Politico.

“Turkey sees this (latest clash) as a message from Russia, but knows it is extremely risky to confront Russia here, even through proxies. Although Turkey has shown steadfast support for Azerbaijan, it has never considered a direct intervention.”

Russia had called for a ceasefire on Friday, saying it was ready to act as a mediator between the two sides. The Russian defence ministry has also announced holding military exercises in southwest Russia on Saturday.

Although Azerbaijan is richer and militarily superior to Armenia, it has held off from escalating the conflict in years past because it knows Armenia has tacit support from Russia, which keeps a military base in the landlocked country, Politico said.

Ünlühisarcıklı said Erdoğan’s statement in June that Turkey may turn a new page with its relationship with the United States as their interests in both Libya and Syria align more closely was not welcome by Russia.

“The main dynamic of the competitive cooperation between Turkey and Russia is that both countries feel shunned by the West,” he said. “As Turkey cooperates with the United States, this alliance begins to crumble. This time, Russia has given its response in the Caucasus.”

Richard Giragosian, director of the Regional Studies Center, a Yerevan-based think tank, pointed out that Turkey’s effort to intervene in the Caucasian conflict could backfire because taking Azerbaijan’s side could push the current Armenian government, which has sought to create some distance from Moscow, back to Russia.

“The danger of Turkey’s military alliance with Azerbaijan would be to force Armenia back into overdependence on Russia,” Giragosian told Politico.

“It could also provide Russia with an opportunity to deploy peacekeepers in the Armenian-Azerbaijan conflict, where it hasn’t had a military presence. Armenia, Azerbaijan and Turkey are all against the presence of Russian forces.”