Russia, Türkiye in South Caucasus: friends, partners or opponents?
    Shereshevsky’s take

    ANALYTICS  02 October 2023 - 13:03

    Mikhail Shereshevskiy
    Caliber.Az

    Since the 1990s, Moscow's main goal has been to maintain its dominant position in the countries of the South Caucasus and prevent the growing influence of Iran, Türkiye and Western countries in the region. Today this strategy raises questions. Garabagh was part of it. Armenia and Azerbaijan confronted each other over this region. Russia helped Armenia win the First Garabagh War and turned it into an ally. Armenia's energy sector was under the control of Russian companies, while hundreds of thousands of Armenian workers were able to work in Russia and send money home. Russia also supplied weapons to Armenia.

    On the other hand, Russia maintained close ties with Azerbaijan, sold weapons to Baku for much larger sums, many Azerbaijanis went to work in Russia, and in 2022, Moscow entered the top five countries for direct investment in the Azerbaijani economy. Russia has invested about $5 billion in the oil and gas sector of Azerbaijan, which is about 4% of investments in this key industry for the country's economy.

    All this time, Russia was one of the main mediators in the negotiations on Garabagh between Armenia and Azerbaijan. And until the Garabagh problem was resolved, the role of a mediator allowed Moscow to maintain its position as the dominant power in the region. In other words, Russia created a network of military-political and economic ties that ensured its dominant position in the South Caucasus.

    However, over time, the situation changed. First, Armenia continued to control 20 percent of Azerbaijani territory, including 7 districts that had no relation to the former Nagorno-Garabagh Autonomous District, and about a million Azerbaijanis found themselves in the position of refugees and internally displaced persons. The idea of returning land and internally displaced persons to Garabagh became an important element in the formation of the national psychology of post-Soviet Azerbaijan. There was an intensive rearmament of the Azerbaijani Armed Forces. Baku, unlike Yerevan, has large oil and gas reserves and makes money from the export of energy resources.

    Azerbaijan's military budget was comparable to all government expenditures of Armenia combined. Time worked for Azerbaijan. The military-political balance shifted towards Baku. This became obvious during the four-day battles in 2016. Then, during the 44-day war of 2020, which in Azerbaijan is called the Patriotic War, Armenia was defeated.

    In addition, Azerbaijan attracted the attention and support of other states. The chief among them was Türkiye, which provided the supply of modern weapons and retraining of the Azerbaijani army. Economic ties between the countries grew, including Turkish investments in Azerbaijan and Azerbaijani investments in Türkiye.

    After the 44-day Patriotic War, Türkiye signed the Shusha Declaration with Azerbaijan, which became the basis of a new military and political alliance. According to the declaration, in the event of an attack by anyone on Azerbaijan, the Turkish troops will move to its defense. According to the formula “one nation, two states,” Azerbaijan became Türkiye’s main ally in the South Caucasus, after which Turkish influence became comparable to Russian. This meant that the main goal of Russian policy was not achieved.

    In addition, Azerbaijan has become an important partner of Israel, receiving precision weapons from it in exchange for oil.

    For its part, Armenia began to bolster ties with Iran, but it did not receive equally powerful military assistance from this country.

    Why did Russia prevent Azerbaijan not from winning the war with Armenia? Why did it intervene only at the very end of the 44-day war, achieving the deployment of its military peacekeeping contingent in Garabagh, which made it possible to keep part of Garabagh under Armenian control for three years? Why didn’t Russia intervene on the side of its main military-political partner in the South Caucasus? These questions are often repeated in Yerevan today, after another military clash, which again ended in the victory of Azerbaijan.

    First, because the government of Nikol Pashinyan was and continues to be in power in Armenia. It gained power as a result of a color revolution that displaced pro-Moscow forces - the Garabagh clan. Pashinyan is largely Western-oriented and has carried out a purge (albeit limited) of Moscow supporters among Armenian officials.

    True, Armenia continues to play an important role in providing ties between Russia and Iran, while the Armenian economy remains closely linked to Moscow. And yet, color revolutions are perceived in the Kremlin as an existential threat. Russia did not want to defend such an Armenia in 2020, but it had to, since Pashinyan still remained to some extent an ally. The ambivalent attitude towards Armenia was determined by the formula of Vladimir Vysotsky - “neither friend nor enemy, but just like that.”

    Second, economic and political ties with Türkiye, an ally of Azerbaijan, are of growing importance for Russia.

    Today both factors have increased sharply.

    Pashinyan openly took a pro-Western and anti-Russian course, which angered Moscow and reduced its desire to protect Armenians from the Azerbaijani army to approximately zero.

    On the other hand, the importance of Türkiye and its President Erdogan, with his rather independent policy from the West, became simply enormous for the Kremlin after February 24, 2022. Türkiye did not join the sanctions imposed against Russia. Russian trade turnover with Ankara has more than doubled, exceeding $60 billion. Türkiye became a market for Russian goods that could no longer find a direct route to other international markets. Türkiye has become a safe haven for Russian capital and one of the most important trading partners. Severing or damaging ties with Ankara would cause colossal damage to Moscow. So, Russia is now interested in strengthening relations with Türkiye and even in launching the Zangezur corridor as an important tool for Russian-Turkish trade.

    But Türkiye is a military and political ally of Azerbaijan. So, Moscow has no desire to aggravate relations with this couple because of Armenia. Compared to Türkiye, the significance of partnership with Yerevan for Moscow is small. And with an Armenia like this, where Nikol Pashinyan, a supporter of pro-Western orientation and the child of the victorious color revolution, is in power, even more so.

    What's next? After another victory in Garabagh and the loss of this region for Armenia, the influence of the Turkish-Azerbaijani alliance in the Caucasus increased, and Russian influence decreased. But Russian influence has been significantly undermined in Armenia itself: the parties are currently exchanging, to put it mildly, unkind comments.

    Will Armenia go to the West? Perhaps, but the West is unlikely to be ready to provide military assistance to it. It is limited to humanitarian assistance and expressions of “deep concern” - words that have taken on an absolutely mocking meaning in recent years. Therefore, those Armenian political experts, for example, Benjamin Poghosyan, who believe that if the gap with Moscow deepens, Armenia will be forced to seek protection from Türkiye are right. After all, Türkiye has a much greater interest and significantly greater weight in the affairs of the region than the West. As a result, Ankara will completely dominate the South Caucasus.

    Or not? What if the Garabagh clan and its supporters manage to carry out a coup in Armenia and, suppose, will be able to create a pro-Russian government there, then Russia will retain influence on this country.

    But another large-scale process is much more important. Strengthening Türkiye as a power and as an economic partner is beneficial or even necessary for Moscow in the short and medium term. In the long term, the expansion of international ties and the strengthening of Türkiye's military and economic power means an increase in its influence in many regions that Russia considers part of its sphere of influence.

    These are Ukraine (Türkiye is actively supplying it with the latest weapons, because it does not want to increase Russian influence in the Black Sea), Libya, the Middle East (Syria), the South Caucasus and the countries of Central Asia. Türkiye is creating a bloc of the Turkic states, which includes Azerbaijan and a number of Central Asian countries and in the future could become the basis of an economic bloc and military alliance with a total population of 160 million and a GDP of $1.5 trillion. Russia is Türkiye's strategic adversary because, as American diplomat James Jeffrey notes, Ankara's main nightmare is the revival of the USSR empire.

    Ankara, relying on its growing economic and military power, is projecting its influence over vast areas - from North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean to Central Asia, from the shores of the Black Sea to Pakistan, with which it is building a strategic military alliance. All this could weaken Russian influence in these regions in the future.

    The gradual formation of a large economic and military-political bloc by Türkiye means both the strengthening of its independence from the United States and the possibility of trade and political partnership with Moscow. Therefore, it is beneficial to Russia today. But from a strategic perspective, the strengthening of Türkiye is aimed at weakening Russian influence in the world.

    Caliber.Az

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