[ by Cynthia M. Lardner ]
“Western ignorance of the region and tendencies to view developments in Azerbaijan solely through simplistic, liberal democratic lenses risk accelerating the growth of this influence, and encouraging interest groups in the ruling elite to advocate closer alignment with Moscow.,” opined Zaur Shiriyev, Russia and Eurasia Programme at London’s Chatham House.
The issue is only complicated if one reads about centuries of endless battles between Azerbaijan and Armenia giving rise to a frozen conflict. The conflict centered on the Armenian-majority Azerbaijani enclave known as the Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Region (NKAO), and the nearby Southern Caucasus.
Augmenting the critical territorial issues, are fundamental cultural, language and ethnic differences. The problem is exacerbated by Azerbaijan’s Armenian racism and xenophobia.
Ultimately the regional conflict evolved into a proxy war between Russia and Turkey.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s objective was using this conflict as leverage for membership in the Minsk Group. The Minsk Group spearheads the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) efforts to find a peaceful solution to the frozen NKAO conflict and shares influence in the South Caucasus. The Minsk Group consists France, the Russian Federation, and the United States. If successful, Erdogan would assume a greater role in regional geopolitics.
Russian President Vladimir Putin had his own agenda: increasing military presence guarding it’s Southern Caucuses borders.
THE CAUCUSES NATURAL BORDER
Russia proactively protects the natural border and buffer zone created by the Southern Caucuses. 90% of the Georgian-Azerbaijani and Russian-Azerbaijani borders run along the Caucasian Mountain ridge, thereby creating a natural barrier separating Russia from Turkey, Iran, Syria and Libya. It prevents terrorists and returning Chechnya fighters from Syria to enter Russia. Russia has historically cooperated with Georgian, Azerbaijani and Armenian troops to patrol this barrier.
Russia is also concerned that the limited Iranian border between Azerbaijan and Turkey remains open. Under Erdogan’s leadership, Turkey has drifted away from democratic principles into a more traditional Shiite Muslim nation, promoting increasingly radical Muslim ideals. Since the early days of the Syrian War, Turkey has allowed terrorists and mercenaries to traverse freely between Europe and Syria.
RUSSIA’S & TURKEY’S RAPIDLY EVOLVING RELATIONSHIPS WITH AZERBAIJAN & ARMENIA
Azerbaijan’s border is 2657,1km. Azerbaijan’s land borders are with Russia (390km), Georgia (480km), Iran (765km), Armenia (1007,1km), and Turkey (15km). It has maritime borders with Iran, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Russia via the resource rich Caspian Sea.
Smaller and landlocked Armenia is bounded on the north by Georgia, Azerbaijan, and the Southern Caucasus. Its southeast and western neighbours are, respectively, Iran and Turkey.
AZERBAIJAN & TURKEY
Turkey and Azerbaijani are both Turkic countries. The 140 million Turkic people living in several countries share a common language and ethnic heritage but not religion. For instance, Turks are predominantly Sunni and Azerbaijani’s Shia.
After World War II, Turkey was the first country to diplomatically and economically engage Azerbaijan. In 2012, their presidents issued a joint statement calling them “one nation, with two states”.
While Russia is Turkey’s largest energy source, Azerbaijan too has gas and oil reserves to offer, especially in the Caspian Sea. Its capital, Baku, has the largest Caspian Sea port.
AZERBAIJAN & RUSSIA
A former USSR satellite state, Azerbaijan has maintained close ties to Russia. Azerbaijan protects its Shia and Russian Orthodox population, granting citizens of Russian descent equal rights and the right to enjoy their culture and traditions.
Since before the USSR’s dissolution, the Russian Gabala Radar Installation has existed in Azerbaijan. It is an early warning system for missile attacks on Russia’s southern periphery, as well as the other Caucuses states.
Russia attempted to maintain the status quo by offering to train Azerbaijan’s troops and to teach them how to repair military equipment in Russia. Azerbaijan, which has always felt threatened by Russia’s Armenian relationship, rejected the offer, stating that after the USSR’s dissolution, the Gabala Radar Installation became its sovereign property.
Azerbaijan then approached North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) about training its military. While not a NATO member state, since 1991, Azerbaijan has belonged to the North Atlantic Cooperation Council. NATO offered to have neighboring Turkey assist in training Azerbaijan‘s military.
A related concern for Russia are Azerbaijan and Armenia’s Iranian borders. Although Azerbaijan and Iran are both predominantly Shia, and their religious ideologies are worlds apart, and together with Turkey, they share strong economic ties.
For Russia, expanding access to ports to transport oil and weapons, and to engage in military operations has been a priority. Azerbaijan offers Russia access to three major ports. Azerbaijan transports its energy resources via Russian pipeline to Novorossiysk.
ARMENIA & TURKEY
Turkey and Armenia have a fraught history. Armenia still recollects the Turkish 1914-17 [alleged] genocide of up to 1.5 million Armenians.
In 2008, Ankara unsuccessfully pursued diplomatic efforts with Armenia. The failure motivated Turkey to pour military resources into Azerbaijan.
ARMENIA & RUSSIA
Since the days of the USSR, Moscow has provided Armenia with military support, and maintained a military base in Armenia. Since 2000, Russia’s military presence has continually increased.
In 1997, Armenia and Russia signed a friendship treaty calling for mutual assistance in the event of a military threat to either party and allowing Russia’s military to patrol Armenia’s Turkish and Iranian borders.
Russia is always interested in exploring other countries natural resources. In Armenia, there is a long list of valuable natural resources found in its mountainous region, including gold, iron, silver, copper, molybdenum, zinc, lead, aluminum and other hard-to-find metals.
DISPUTED NAGORNO KARABAKH AUTONOMOUS REGION
The dispute between Azerbaijan and Armenia in the Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Region is centuries old; with both countries believing they have a legitimate claim to the territory.
Until 1989, the NKAO was part of the USSR; during which time Armenia and Azerbaijan unhappily co-existed. After dissolution, the NKAO was internationally accepted as belonging to Azerbaijan, without Armenia relinquishing it’s claim.
The NKAO has existed as a semi-autonomous de-facto state despite international recognition of the NKAO as Azerbaijan’s. Devoid of an economy or border controls, it is beleaguered by drug and human trafficking.
Until this proxy war, the NKAO, consisted of 10 regions; 70% Armenian controlled and 30% Azerbaijani.
MORE RECENT HISTORY
Having long wanted an official say in the Southern Caucuses, as early as 2008, Turkey unsuccessfully proposed a Caucasus Stability and Cooperation Pact, that would have included Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Turkey and Russia.
In 2018, European Parliament’s peace program offered “…full support to the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and to the United Nations in their efforts to solve the regional frozen conflicts; to commit the European Union to act as mediator in the search for peaceful solutions.”
Related to the current conflict is Russia’s Dagestan border situated at its southern-most point. It abuts Georgia and Azerbaijan. Russia’s stronghold was unsuccessfully challenged in 1999 by the Chechnya-based Islamic International Peacekeeping Brigade, in the War of Dagestan.
Azerbaijan claimed that the fighting was a security threat.
After the War of Dagestan, in October 2000, Russia transferred weapons from Georgia to its Armenian military near the NKAO.
Russian officials denied transferring weapons to the Armenian military, countering that the weapons in Armenia were under Russian control at a Russian military base located in Gyumri, a city in northeast Armenia.
Between 2012-14 Azerbaijan amassed approximately $12 billion in armaments primarily from Turkey. This led to a significant military relationship developing between Azerbaijan and Turkey.
Azerbaijan and Israel share a common enemy in Iran. As early as 2016, Israel sold Azerbaijan $7bn in weapons. The sales included more drones and Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile and rocket system. Mossad gained an Azerbaijan station for monitoring Iran and was allowed use of Azerbaijan’s airfields. Israeli fighter jets [allegedly] have been observed in Azerbaijan.
During 2020, unconfirmed Azerbaijani sources alleged Russia transferred to Armenia an additional 20 tanks, 60 infantry cars, 25 armored vehicles, 25 salvo launchers shilka, 250 antitank launchers, 250 submachine guns and 25 other military vehicles. The allegations did not address if the armaments were delivered to Russia’s military base or to the Armenian military.
Azerbaijan’s Minister of Defense General Abiyev responded that the “Russian-Armenian military cooperation became a real jeopardy for the entire Caucasus”.
At the same time, Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev claimed that, “There are 5,000 Russian troops at the base in Gyumri and according to the information we have, the base maintains regular arms supply to Armenian armed forces.”
Russia’s weapons sat like a festering wound, but until 2020 Azerbaijan lacked the military prowess to challenge Russia.
TURKEY’S RESPONSIBILITY FOR STARTING PROXY WAR
This opened the door for Turkey to expand its role in the South Caucasus. Turkey pledged to Azerbaijan unconditional military support.
Turkey provided military leadership and personnel, along with armaments to Azerbaijan’s military. This included the sale of two dozen armed Turkish TB2s drones to Azerbaijan. While the drones have a limited range of 150 km, they can hover for up to 24 hours.
Over 600 Turkish troopswere sent to Azerbaijan. Turkey also deployed a special forces regiment specialized in mountain warfare to help the Azerbaijan fight in mountainous terrain.
Azerbaijan now had military superiority over Armenia. With Turkey’s military prowess behind it, Azerbaijan implemented tighter security measures along the Dagestan border and captured the NKAO.
In July 2020, Azerbaijan initiated combat north of the NKAO and in close proximity to Russian gas pipelines.
This was the beginning of a proxy war.
It became a full blown conflict on September 27th when Armenia attacked several Azerbaijani civilians and troops.
Russia and France claimed that Turkey used its Libyan strategy by deploying Syrian mercenaries to take control of the NKAO.
The war quickly shifted in Azerbaijan’s favor due to the drones acquired from Turkey, which were “…responsible for the destruction of hundreds of armoured vehicles and even air defence systems,” according to United Kingdom’s Defense Minister Ben Wallace.
It was alleged on the basis of unverified video that the drones also killed NKAO civilians.
Chris Coles, director of NGO Drone Wars UK, opined that, “Civil society groups have been warning for some time that because drones lower the cost of warfare, they are likely to fuel this type of bitter, lethal conflict between neighbouring states.”
In response, in October, Canada suspended exports to Turkey of targeting gear made in Ontario after they were found in a downed TB2.
Violating an international ban, on October 28, Armenian forces either firedor supplied cluster munitions and at least onetype long-range rocket used in an attack on Barda city, 230 km west of Baku.
The OSCE’s Minsk Group brokered an October 2020 peace settlement.
Concurrently, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that, “This conflict did not begin as a conflict just between two governments over a territory, it began with inter-ethnic confrontations. Sadly, this is a fact, when first in Sumgait and then in Nagorno-Karabakh brutal crimes were committed against the Armenian people.”
That agreement rapidly deteriorated perhaps in part as Turkey was not a party. Over 5,000 troops and civilians were killed.
On November 9, former Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov brokered a second ceasefire. Armenia sustained several territorial losses. The three Armenian controlled districts in the NKAO went to Azerbaijan. Over 7,000 Armenians occupying the NKAO were to return to Armenia. In a minor concession the agreement left Stepanakert, the NKAO capital, under Armenian control.
Armenia agreed to open a transport corridor for Azerbaijan through Armenia to the Azerbaijani region of Nakhichevan.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said that, “the main thing is to prevent bloodshed.”
The November 10, 2020 peace agreement included a memorandum of understanding signed by Turkey and Russia to jointly monitor the peace deal, which can be renewed every five years.
Afterwards, 135 Turkish Armed Forces Special Mine Detection and Clearance specialists have supported Azerbaijan troops to disarm and dispose of unexploded ordnance in the NKAO regions liberated from Armenia’s occupation and outside of Baku.
The November peace agreement did not address the NKAO’s legal and political status.
Armenian’s have protested the agreement. Armenian Prime Minister Pashinyan defended the deal as a painful but necessary move to prevent further territorial losses.
Dmitri Trenin, a political analyst for the Moscow Carnegie Center, said that the “…peacekeeping function is Moscow’s advantage in its competitive relationship with Ankara.”
At least 2,000 Russian troops will guard the “Lachin corridor” linking the Karabakh capital, Stepanakert, to Armenia. Russia sent 5,000 peacekeeping troops just north of the Iranian border. Ninety armoured personnel carriers were simultaneously deployed.
Now having some oversight responsibilities, “Under President Erdogan Turkey has gained a very important foothold in the region,” concluded Deutsche Welle (DW) political commentator Konstantin von Eggert.
Both sides have been accused of violating the cease-fire agreement by engaging in isolated skirmishes.
On December 13, the situation escalated after the Armenian army committed an allegedly more serious violation of the cease-fire precipitating Azerbaijan’s military seizing territory in the Armenian Caucasus as Armenians torched their homes before fleeing.
In late December, the UK’s military implemented a state of the art armed drone program to counter Azerbaijan’s controversial and indiscriminate use of drones. The UK did not comment on suspending two other British drone components, a fuel pump and a bomb rack missile release system sold to Turkey’s military despite a 1992 arms embargo relating to all weapons that could be used in NKAO.
At the December agreement’s inception, Lavrov unequivocally stated that “…attempts to question this agreement both domestically and internationally are unacceptable.”
This position underscored a January 13 summit hosted by the Kremlin with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, with Turkey notably absent, to discuss further implementation of the November truce, including the role of regional Russian peacekeepers, demarcation lines, and humanitarian issues. The meeting was permeated by deep seated distrust and hatred.
The future of other Turkic countries is uncertain, as Turkey may consider proxy war the necessary impetus for advancing into other post-Soviet Turkic countries, such as Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
Cynthia M. Lardner is an American journalist residing in Europe specializing in geopolitics with an emphasis on Russia. She is a contributing editor to Tuck Magazine and the International Policy Digest. Ms. Lardner holds degrees in journalism, law, and counseling psychology.