Could it be that the April hostilities in Nagorno-Karabakh and tension between Russia and Turkey might lead to the emergence of two opposing blocks in the Caucasus with Russia and Armenia on one side and Turkey, Azerbaijan and Georgia on the other?
In mid-May, Azerbaijan’s Defense Minister Zakir Hasanov met with his counterparts from Turkey and Georgia. After the meeting, he promised that the three countries will hold joint military exercises. Although the three defense ministers meet regularly, and it will not be the first time that Turkey, Azerbaijan and Georgia hold joint military exercises, Hasanov’s statement caused much anxiety. It was no coincidence that Georgia’s Defense Ministry declined to comment on the report about the upcoming event. The situation in the Caucasus is tense even without the announcement. By explaining the reasons behind this anxiety we will gain better insight into what drives Moscow’s policy in the region.
Primarily, the very prospect of a full-fledged, i.e. legally binding, military alliance between Turkey, Azerbaijan and Georgia should not cause any misgivings, since it is simply unfeasible. Turkey’s sovereignty is restricted by its NATO membership. It simply cannot provide security guarantees to third countries, since this would run counter to the guarantees it benefits from as a NATO member. Will NATO, for example, be willing to assume responsibility for security at the line of contact in Nagorno-Karabakh if Turkey becomes Azerbaijan’s military ally? Probably not. By the same token, Azerbaijan is likely to refrain from providing direct military assistance to Turkey, should it launch a campaign against the Syrian Kurds.
The threat lies in the possible emergence of informal alliances.
When hostilities broke out in early April along the demarcation line in Nagorno-Karabakh, it did not so much alter the regional military and political reality as revealed the changes that had already taken place. The key change was the sharp deterioration in Russian-Turkish relations after the downing of the Russian fighter jet in Syria and the killing of a Russian pilot by the pro-Turkish armed groups who were operating in that part of Syria. The April hostilities in Nagorno-Karabakh showed that for many years the existence of an understanding between Russia and Turkey was an important, albeit underestimated, balancing factor in the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Looking back, we can see how the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict transformed from a frozen form to outright open hostilities just as Moscow and Ankara’s foreign policy drifted further apart. In the absence of lasting agreements between the conflicting sides, maintaining a military and political balance was crucial for preserving the ceasefire.
What makes the possibility of a new war breaking out in Nagorno-Karabakh different from other conflicts of this kind across the former Soviet Union is that once this one starts, it will be very hard to keep it from escalating far and wide. If we look at Abkhazia and South Ossetia, war is impossible since Russia is there to guarantee their security. In Transnistria, the presence of Russian troops makes any military action by Moldova very costly. Moscow, Berlin and Paris are aware that the conflict in Donbass could grow into a major European war, and this fact contributed greatly to their coming together in an effort to prevent the conflict from escalating. There are no such deterrents in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Both sides of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict have stockpiled so many weapons, and their positions are so incompatible that if war breaks out, the conflict would quickly cease being a battle for territories or a way to get diplomatic advantage, but rather it would become a war of extermination. Just look at how promptly the two sides started threatening each other with strikes against civilian and economic infrastructure. These threats would have materialized had the hostilities lasted longer. It is perhaps the first time that neighboring states, primarily Georgia, realized that if a war of extermination breaks out in the region no one would be left out; the whole region would face dire consequences.
In the most catastrophic scenario, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict could become a proxy war between Russia and Turkey. Taking into account the conflict’s propensity to escalate quickly, it would be therefore hard to discern at what point direct confrontation becomes possible. Although it would be totally imprudent of Turkey to engage in direct confrontation with Russia in Southern Caucasus, what should, for example, Georgia do if this most dangerous scenario becomes a reality?
Turkey’s whole-hearted support of Azerbaijan during the April conflict is easy to explain. In fact, Turkey would lose by intervening in the conflict directly, unless it forces Russia to play along the scenario of there being two coalitions in the Caucasus. By treating the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as a stand-off between Azerbaijan, Turkey and Georgia, on one side, and Armenia and Russia on the other, Moscow would have automatically conceded to a number of other assumptions. First, it would be the recognition that Russia is in conflict with Azerbaijan, leading to the view that Moscow will be responsible for settling all the claims Azerbaijan has regarding Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia. In fact, the Azerbaijani press is already asserting that Russia has taken Armenia’s side, although with little conviction. Second, any vulnerability manifested by Armenia or the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic along the demarcation line would be parlayed as a Russian weakness, and presented as such. Third, this would put an end to solidarity within the Minsk Group, which despite its relative unimportance is instrumental to Russia as an example of constructive cooperation with the West and its willingness to cooperate in the peaceful settlement of conflicts. Fourth, in Georgia the expected support from Turkey would prop up forces eager to recover Abkhazia and South Ossetia by force. Of course, from a practical standpoint this is hardly possible, even if Ankara does back an initiative to this effect. What matters here is that this is a diplomatic game, not war. But diplomacy matters, meaning that it would be enough for the abovementioned points to materialize in order for Russia to be put on the defensive in the South Caucasus, depriving it of influence and initiative.
One of the most common grievances expressed by Armenian politicians towards Russia is that in early April Moscow failed to provide its ally the kind of political support Azerbaijan received from Turkey. There is also a reproach that Russia supplies weapons to Azerbaijan which then uses them to threaten Armenia, Russia’s ally. It is true that diplomacy-wise Russia has remained a mediator, and commented on the conflict with extreme caution. There is logic to this in itself: Moscow is not interested in playing along Turkey’s scenario of two coalitions. It will seek to prevent, as long as possible, the region from splitting into opposing informal alliances.
What is also curious in this respect is that Georgia seems to have adopted a similar stance. The main motive behind Tbilisi’s position is to avoid both being drawn into a conflict around Nagorno-Karabakh and any threats that would lead to the resumption of war. At least, this is what the current Georgian government seems to be thinking. Even Defense Minister Tina Khidasheli, who is known for bestowing on Moscow statements that would make more responsible politicians sorry, showed much more restraint in her comments about Nagorno-Karabakh. If this purely momentary tacit understanding between Russian and Georgian diplomats remains in place, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict will not spread across the region.