By Matt Trinder
RUSSIA will ultimately decide the extent of Turkish involvement in the escalating Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict, a leading regional expert told Redaction Politics.
Nicholas Danforth, Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy, an independent think tank, argued that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan would likely withdraw if Russia intervened to avoid a clash with the regional superpower.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has called for the fighting to stop over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, while Armenia has accused the Turkish military of aiding the Azeri army and shooting down Armenian military aircraft-something that Ankara denies.
Mr Danforth said: “As long as Russia stays out, Azeri forces will have the upper hand even without direct Turkish involvement.
“If Russia decides to intervene, Turkey is unlikely to risk a direct confrontation with Russia on the Azeris’ behalf.”
Nagorno-Karabakh is officially part of Azerbaijan but run by ethnic Armenians.
The two former Soviet republics went to war over the territory between 1988 and 1994, eventually reaching a ceasefire but no long-term peace agreement.
Tens of thousands are estimated to have died, including more than a thousand civilians. At least 220 people have been killed in the latest flare up, which erupted on September 27, with both sides accusing each other of provocations.
Mr Danforth said: “Since 2016, Turkey’s foreign policy has prioritized the use of hard power to advance its national interests across the region. In Syria, Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean, Turkey has used force to change facts on the ground and try to increase its diplomatic leverage.”
Turkey has occupied parts of northern Syria and sent troops to support the Libyan Government of National Accord in its struggle against French-backed rebels as its involvement in both civil wars has escalated in recent years.
Turkey has also carried out exploratory surveys of the seabed near Cyprus, an EU member, in search of mineral wealth, something which Cypriot leaders claim is a clear breach of sovereignty.
With this latest conflict, Erdogan has said a “lasting ceasefire” depends on “Armenians’ withdrawal from every span of Azerbaijani territory” and has, along with Azeri President IIham Aliyev, rejected the possibility of peace talks floated by Armenia last week.
In a speech on October 2, President Erdogan said: “Turkey stands with and will continue to stand with friendly and brotherly Azerbaijan with all our means and all our heart.”
Mr Danforth argued: “In Nagorno-Karabagh, as in Syria and Libya, [Turkey’s] hard power approach has created a strange, mutually beneficial form of conflict between Turkey and Russia.
“Transforming the region’s disputes into a series of bilateral standoffs between Turkey and Russia also gives both countries more control over their respective proxies, while minimizing the role for the US and EU.”
The EU threatened Turkey with sanctions last week, but only after coming under pressure from Cyprus, which had refused to sign off on sanctions targeting Belarus unless the EU took a tougher stance against Ankara.
Cyprus argued that action against Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, accused of brutal repression of democracy protesters, was less of a priority for the bloc as Turkish intervention in Cypriot waters threatened an EU member state itself.
The EU has been divided about how to respond to a more aggressive Turkey, with France and Austria arguing for a tougher line, but others such as German President Angela Merkel urging caution.
In 2019, Erdogan threatened to “flood” Europe with refugees fleeing Syria, a politically sensitive subject forMerkel as she seeks to fend off a rise in support for far-right anti-migrant parties in some regions of Germany.
Mr Danforth said: “Moscow has been willing to accommodate, and even reward, Turkey’s interventions, but in doing so ultimately benefits from its ability to force Turkey to back down as necessary.”
Russia, which has a military base in Armenia but also strong links with Azerbaijan, is part of the three Minsk Group powers along with France and the US. All three have appealed for peace, but none have yet taken direct action.
Nicholas Danforth is a Non-Resident Senior Fellow for the Program on Turkey at the Hellenic Foundation for European And Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP), an independent, non-governmental, nonprofit think tank, based in Athens, Greece.
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