Clash of the Titans?

Armenia and Azerbaijan’s tug-of-war sets the battle ground for Erdogan and Putin, writes Dr Neil Shastri-Hurst.
President Putin meets President Erdogan in Ankara, Turkey | Source: PA Images

By Dr Neil Shastri-Hurst

Dr Neil Shastri-Hurst is a barrister, surgeon, and former British Army Officer.

20 Oct 2020

To think that a conflict over a rugged enclave in the South Caucasus was of little importance would be naïve. Although only 1,700 square miles, the strategic significance of this patch of disputed land cannot be underestimated. The violent eruption in tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan has drawn in a multitude of competing political interests; the mixture has the potential to be explosive.

September 27th signalled the latest escalation in the bitter contest over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. This is a conflict almost 100 years in its making. A fragile stay of hostilities held through the Soviet-era, however the collapse of the USSR quickly put an end to this. After all-out war, a Russian led ceasefire followed in 1994. Following that accord, an uneasy peace has existed, peppered with bloody outbursts.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Minsk Group, under the tripartite leadership of Russia, France, and the United States, has previously managed to reduce tensions from boiling to simmering. Yet, their diplomatic efforts to find a long-lasting resolution have been without success. The cycle of thawing and refreezing the conflict, without addressing the deep-seated issues, has been far from ideal.

Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, has brokered a temporary ceasefire. Such an arrangement appears markedly shaky. There are already reports of active hostilities re-igniting. This will lead to more sleepless nights amongst the Minsk Group and beyond. For, unlike previous skirmishes, this one is different. The cause: President Erdoğan’s increasingly assertive and antagonistic foreign policy platform.

Whereas in the past Turkey has advocated for a peaceful solution, now it has undertaken “to stand with the friendly and brotherly Azerbaijan with all its facilities and heart”. Laying down his marker, Erdoğan has asserted that, to resolve the conflict, Armenia “must withdraw from these lands”. His support is not limited to words alone. It translates to the supply of arms, such as the TB2 Bayraktar attack drones, and possibly Turkish funded mercenaries as well. This would echo his previous export of Syrian Jihadists to Libya.

This is a preposterous intervention by a NATO member. President Erdoğan continues to adopt this illiberal foreign policy strategy to achieve his primary objective; namely, regime security and the assertion of Turkey as an influential global actor. He targets former strongholds of the Ottoman Empire, Libya and Syria being the two prime examples.  It is an aggressive approach which espouses and exports a conservative, Islamist ideology.

"There can be no false steps for either President Putin or Erdoğan now. To date both have managed to walk the delicate tightrope between their shared and competing interests"

For the West, this poses fresh difficulties. To date, NATO has failed to effectively challenge Turkey’s offending behaviour. America, likewise, as can be traced back to the Obama-era and their attempted accommodation with Islamism, has failed to effectively push back against this aggression. As a result, Erdoğan continues to operate in direct contravention to the Alliance’s founding principles. NATO must find its voice now. America is currently preoccupied on two fronts with the imminent Presidential Elections and the ongoing pandemic. Whilst President Macron has not shied away from expressing his displeasure with Ankara, in isolation, France lacks the levers to effect change. Whilst President Erdoğan chooses to take a reckless course, the West should refrain from strengthening his military might further through the sale of arms.

There is, however, another strand to this particular political ball of yarn. Turkey’s stand also opens up yet another front with Russia. After Libya and then Syria, the South Caucasus represents a third arena in which Putin and Erdoğan’s tussle for dominance can be played out.

This is a crisis for Russia to lead on. Putin knows this. Should Erdoğan succeed in stirring up tensions further, what has started in the South Caucasus could easily spread further across the wider region. With Iran watching from the side lines, oil and gas rich pipelines running through the region, and Russia’s competing relations with both sides in the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute, Moscow has every reason for wanting the current ceasefire to persist.

There can be no false steps for either President Putin or Erdoğan now. To date both have managed to walk the delicate tightrope between their shared and competing interests. This latest example of aggressive adventurism by Turkey illustrates Erdoğan’s increasingly cavalier approach to statecraft. He hopes his continued interventionist approach, popular with his base at home, will strengthen his grip on power. But he also risks overplaying his hand and, in doing so, spilling out into conflict by accident or design.