Nagorno-Karabakh: Turkey Instigates An Old War With Older Ambitions

October 13, 2020 Topic: Security Region: Eurasia Tags: TurkeyErdoganKarabakhWarMediterranean

Nagorno-Karabakh: Turkey Instigates An Old War With Older Ambitions

There is significant evidence that Turkey is the main instigator of the current Karabakh war. The country has been involved in every step of the way from the preparation to the execution of the Azerbaijani war plan.

International journalists have also not been spared. The shelling of Martuni by Baku led to the serious injury of two journalists from the French newspaper Le Monde. Likewise, Azerbaijan’s shelling of the magnificent Holy Savior Cathedral in Shushia crime in and of itselfresulted in the injury of three Russian journalists, including one in critical condition. Additionally, mounting evidence from Amnesty International, Karabakh officials, and on-the-ground journalists from Germany, Russia, France, and the UK have demonstrated that the Azerbaijani side has used cluster munitions prohibited by international law in its attacks. The targeting of civilians, combined with the use of internationally prohibited weapons, are clear violations of international humanitarian law and the laws of war. These actions and the unfolding humanitarian catastrophe merit the strongest condemnation by the international community. 

Neighborhood Reactions 

Turkey’s bid to expand its influence into the Caucasus has alarmed the region. Russia is particularly concerned given its interest in the stability and security of the Caucasus. Having a “buffer zone” of friendly states south of its tenuously stable North Caucasus is the main strategic objective of Moscow. As such, the Kremlin highly values its relations with both Yerevan and Baku, and consequently, any regional conflict between these two states, and the potential chaos and instability that it would create, would be against Russian security interests

Turkey’s forceful one-sided foray into Karabakh threatens to destabilize the region and throw Russia’s mediator position between Yerevan and Baku into doubt. However, for the moment, Russia has approached the situation cautiously and diplomatically. It has refrained from publicly picking sides while reaffirming its defense obligations to Armenia. However, Ankara’s actions undoubtedly pose a serious threat to Russian security. Moscow is alarmed not only by Turkey’s flagrant decision to waltz into the conflict but also by its introduction of foreign mercenaries and jihadists into the Karabakh conflict zone. The presence of such fighters so close to Russian borders presents a clear and direct danger to Russia, bringing the Syrian War right to Moscow’s doorstep, in very close proximity to its most sensitive region. The threat of Karabakh exploding into a greater regional war remains a top concern for Moscow. 

Iran shares Russia’s position and much of its concerns. Not only has Tehran been vocally concerned about the use of Syrian jihadist fighters, but also about the proximity of the conflict so close to its northern frontiers, where some spillover has already occurred. It is no coincidence that Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif discussed the issue over the phone, especially emphasizing the danger that Turkey’s deployment of jihadist fighters poses to the Caucasus neighborhood. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has expressed fears of a “regional war” and he has praised the recent Lavrov-negotiated ceasefire. Both Iran and Russia also have significant Armenian and Azeri populations and, given recent Baku-instigated brawls between Armenian and Azeri diaspora communities, both fear the potential domestic security issues that could arise from a new Turkish-instigated conflict. 

Neighboring Georgia, with its own history of civil war and breakaway conflicts, shares the fear of domestic strife. “Official Tbilisi gains much from regional stability,” said Johnny Melikian, Armenia’s leading expert on Georgian-Armenian relations. “Having war near their borders negatively impacts their national interests, especially considering relations between their large Armenian and Azerbaijani communities. The Georgian position is to be neutral and refrain from taking part in conflict.” Indeed, there is a reason why Georgian prime minister Giorgi Gakharia offered his own “khachapuri diplomacy” to solve the Karabakh problem. Moreover, like Moscow and Tehran, Tbilisi is also wary of Turkey’s rising influence in the region. 

Turkey’s Mediterranean rival, France, has less of a need for caution than Moscow, Tehran, or Tbilisi, and less to lose. Eschewing the more sensitive and diplomatic rhetoric of the Russian and Iranian foreign ministries, French president Emmanuel Macron had no inhibition in calling a spade a spade. He slammed Turkey’s “bellicose” statements as “reckless and dangerous” and that they “removed any inhibitions from Azerbaijan in what would be a re-conquest of northern Karabakh. That [is something that] we will not accept.” He added, “I say to Armenia and to the Armenians, France will play its role.” The following day, he accused Turkey of importing Syrian militants into the conflict zone. His statements come amid recent rising tension in Franco-Turkish relations over yet another theatre of conflict involving Erdogan, over the Mediterranean Basin. Paris, too, has joined Moscow and Tehran in calling for an immediate cessation of hostilities.

It remains to be seen if the tenuous Lavrov-brokered ceasefire will hold and for how long. If full-scale war resumes, Ankara and its ally Baku may ultimately end up losing the most from this ambitious adventure. Turkey is already experiencing imperial overreachfighting too many wars simultaneously on too many fronts. The opposition from much larger Tehran and Moscow to Turkey’s bid for regional influence will also conspire against it. Moreover, in the field, after two weeks of heavy fighting, Baku has failed to achieve any of its military objectives against the Karabakh Armenians and has only further alienated the local population against it. Any resumption in hostilities, far from benefiting Erdogan, may well herald the end of his Ottoman nostalgia, a prospect not entirely unwelcome.

Pietro A. Shakarian is a Ph.D. candidate in Russian History at The Ohio State University. His dissertation research focuses on the reforms of Soviet Armenian statesman Anastas Mikoyan in the nationality sphere in the Khrushchev-era USSR. He has written analyses on Russia and the post-Soviet space for The Nation, The Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Russian International Affairs Council, Russia Direct, and Hetq Online. He has also worked with the Gomidas Institute in London on the republication of nineteenth-century accounts of the Russian Caucasus. 

Artyom H. Tonoyan, Ph.D., is a research associate at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Holocaust & Genocide Studies. His research is focused on the intersection of religion and nationalism, and religion and conflict in the South Caucasus. He has published articles and book chapters with RAND, Demokratizatsiya: The Journal of Post-Soviet Democratization, Society, and Modern Greek Studies Yearbook, and others. He is currently finishing his first book on the social, historical and religious aspects of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict.

Image: Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan attends a news conference during a visit to Moscow, Russia, March 5, 2020. Pavel Golovkin/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo.