The success of Turkish-Russian cooperation in the peacekeeping mission in Karabakh, along with their political engagement with Armenia and Azerbaijan matters a lot, if the goal of bringing peace and prosperity to the region is to be reached in the future, writes Valdai Club expert Hasan Selim Özertem.
The breaking out of skirmishes between Azerbaijan and Armenia in July 2020 signified a change in the course of the Karabakh conflict. The clashes started in Tovuz, an area beyond the territory controlled by Baku. Moreover, unlike in the four-day war in 2016, the tension de-escalated temporarily without a ceasefire agreement. During the interim period, Armenia and Azerbaijan continued flexing their muscles through military drills. Armenia and Russia declared a joint military exercise as part of the Kavkaz 2020 military drills on July 17, 2020. This was followed by joint military exercises between Turkey and Azerbaijan. Turkey participated in these drills with its elite forces, drones, attack helicopters and F-16s. They were symbolic, showing that Turkey would be supporting its partner in the Caucasus against any threat. When the skirmishes restarted on September 27, Turkish officials staunchly supported Azerbaijan. This support was interpreted in Russia as undermining the process for a political solution in the Caucasus.
At the early stages of the war, some observers like Dmitri Trenin, Eugene Chausovsky and Ünal Çeviköz drew attention to the risk of a collision between Russia and Turkey. Previous experiences like the downing of the Russian jet and bombing of Turkish troops in Idlib had shown that the conflict zones have peculiarities that pose risks. Fortunately, such a scenario did not transpire. Two factors should be underlined here in the avoidance of such a scenario in the South Caucasus: Turkey’s limited involvement into the conflict, and working channels of dialogue between Russia and Turkey.
The Karabakh conflict and Turkey’s involvement
As Turkic states, Turkey and Azerbaijan have developed a close relationship in the last three decades. This cooperation played a crucial role in the development of Azerbaijan’s military capacity. The parties signed the Agreement on Strategic Partnership and Mutual Cooperation in 2010, which became the backbone of cooperation in the spheres of security and economy. However, in addition to establishing a framework for bilateral relations, the agreement contains strong commitments for the signatories. Within the framework of Article 2 of the agreement, the parties agreed to assist each other in the event of a security threat. Can Kasapoğlu has even compared this article with NATO’s Article 5.
Thus, based on the 2010 Agreement, Turkey could have actively support Azerbaijan with boots on the ground when the clashes restarted. This would have been in line with international law, but politically a risky decision. It would change the degree of Russian engagement in the conflict and the risk of a collision between Ankara and Moscow. When an Armenian Su-25 was downed, Armenia tried to use the Turkish card to bring Russia in by blaming Turkish F-16s, but later failed to support this claim with concrete evidence. Moreover, Armenian officials tried to portray Turkey’s support for Azerbaijan as against Armenians and Armenia. But Turkey was careful to limit its support to Azerbaijan in relation with the occupied territories. Turkey did not make any manoeuvres in the east, on its border with Armenia, while another regional power, Iran, deployed troops on its border.
The share of Turkey in Azerbaijan’s imports of weaponry and equipment is relatively small in comparison with that of Israel and Russia. However, its support played a critical role on the battlefield. The provision of high-tech Turkish drones gave an operational advantage to Azerbaijan, both on the ground and in the air. Moreover, Turkish commentator Mete Yarar said on Haberturk television that “Syrian forces and Armenia’s military have similar weaponry and doctrines. Turkey shared its experience in Syria with Azerbaijani authorities, which turned into an advantage on the ground.”
Working mechanisms between Ankara and Moscow
Recently, both Ankara and Moscow demonstrated the capacity to deal with crises meticulously. In this regard, Ankara was so cautious not to directly confront Moscow in its backyard and keep channels of dialogue open. The chairman of the board of the Ankara Policy Center, Hasan Kanbolat, said when interviewed on November 19 that functioning mechanisms at the bureaucratic and leadership level played a role in minimising such a risk during the war.
During the course of the war, the presidents of Russia and Turkey talked on the phone six times, and the nations’ foreign ministers had five conversations. Moreover, Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar had a close dialogue with his counterpart Sergey Shoigu during this process. As in the Astana process, the statements of Russian and Turkish officials did not target each other at the public level and the official mechanisms managed to keep things under control while preventing any possible escalation during the Karabakh conflict.
In spite of their conflicting interests in the Caucasus and the Middle East, the parties continue to discuss these topics on a regular basis and seek common denominators. After the rapprochement process following the downing of the Russian jet, the establishment of the Astana summit as a mechanism of resolving the crisis in Syria set an important precedent in building a capacity for dialogue in foreign policy matters. Even though this dialogue hardly resolves differences, it helped to avoid a possible collision and opens space for manoeuvre for both parties, while deescalating tension.
Turkey and Russia after the truce
Vladimir Putin’s comments on November 17 show that Turkey’s position was valued by the Kremlin. Putin said that “You can assess Turkey’s actions [in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict] any way you want, but it can hardly be accused of violating international law. There may be varying subjective assessments, but what I have just described is the actual state of affairs.” Referring to the relations between Germany and France after World War II, the Russian president goes on to ask “Why can’t we [Turkey and Russia] do the same here, in the Black Sea region?”
Currently, the level of cooperation cannot be compared with that of between Germany and France. Sergei Lavrov provided a good description of the level of cooperation, saying that “Turkey has never qualified as our [Russia’s] strategic ally. It is a partner, a very close partner. In many sectors, this partnership is of a strategic nature.”
The parties have managed to expand the areas of cooperation from the economic sphere to politics in the last couple of years. Here, the evolution in Russian policy also played a critical role. Dmitri Trenin says that the Kremlin is more flexible in cooperating with third powers than before “to minimise the threats to core Russian interests”. Cooperation with Turkey in the Caucasus can be assessed as a reflection of this shift in Russian foreign policy. An Azerbaijani expert from Baku (Interviewed on November 19) says that this cooperation also limits the access of the West in Caucasian politics. Moreover, he argues that Moscow aims to bring Turkey closer to the Eurasian axis, from the ranks of NATO, as it cooperates closer with Ankara.
Prospects for cooperation in the South Caucasus
The truce is a breakthrough in the conflict. Based on the agreement, Russian troops are deployed as peacekeepers along the line of contact, and a joint monitoring centre will be established. This is a big gain for Moscow. However, in addition to the Russian presence in Azerbaijan, Turkey’s participation in the peacekeeping process became another topic on the agenda. A Russian delegation visited Turkey and after the negotiations, the Russian and Turkish defence ministers signed a memorandum that establishes the main lines of cooperation in the conflict zone.
Following the joint patrolling in Idlib and north-eastern provinces of Syria, Azerbaijan will become the next mission of cooperation between the Turkish and Russian militaries in a combat zone. The scale of this cooperation on the ground is trivial. Nevertheless, despite being on opposite sides during the Cold War, recently the security and diplomatic elite have started to cooperate to orchestrate these missions. This is a breakthrough in Turkish-Russian relations, which can serve to develop a common language and institutional mechanisms in the long run.
The situation in the Caucasus has a peculiar characteristic, that the parties of the conflict are nation states, not non-state actors as in Libya and Syria. In this regard, it is easier to stride forward for a more stable region. Drawing attention to Turkish-Russian cooperation, Andrey Sushentsov says that “Russia would like to benefit from the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, not from it becoming frozen again.” This requires a level of engagement beyond a security-oriented approach. There is a need for closer cooperation among regional actors. The expert from Baku (Interviewed on November 19) says that what we will see next is a post-Versailles process that would lead to another war, or a similar integration process like the Marshall plan, which would bring peace and prosperity to the region. Thus, the success of Turkish-Russian cooperation in the peacekeeping mission, along with their political engagement with Armenia and Azerbaijan matters more, if such a goal is to be reached in the future.