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Russia’s Twisted Victory Over Turkey in a Proxy War Involving Azerbaijan and Armenia

“Western ignorance of the region and tendencies to view developments in Azerbaijan solely through simplistic, liberal democratic lenses risks accelerating the growth of this influence and encouraging interest groups in the ruling elite to advocate closer alignment with Moscow,” opined Zaur Shiriyev, Crisis Group’s Analyst for the South Caucasus.

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 Nagorno-Karabakh, and the nearby Southern Caucasus.

Augmenting the critical territorial issues, are fundamental cultural, language, and ethnic differences.

Ultimately the regional conflict evolved into a proxy war between Russia and Turkey.

Turkish President Tayyip Recep Erdoğan’s objective was to use 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 Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and shares influence in the South Caucasus. The Minsk Group consists of France, Russia, and the United States. If successful, Erdoğan would assume a greater role in regional geopolitics.

Russian President Vladimir Putin had his own agenda: increasing Russia’s military presence on its Southern Caucasus 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 Chechnyan fighters from Syria from entering Russia. Russia has historically cooperated with Georgian, Azerbaijani, and Armenian troops to patrol this region.

Russia is also concerned that the limited Iranian border between Azerbaijan and Turkey remains open. Under Erdoğan’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 civil war in Syria, Turkey has allowed terrorists and mercenaries to traverse freely between Europe and Syria.

Russia and Turkey’s Rapidly Evolving Relations with Azerbaijan and Armenia

Azerbaijan’s land borders are extensive, and it shares maritime borders with Iran, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Russia via the resource-rich Caspian Sea.

Smaller and landlocked Armenia is surrounded in the north by Georgia, Azerbaijan, and the Southern Caucasus. Its southeast and western neighbours are, respectively, Iran and Turkey.

Azerbaijan and 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.

Russian soldiers patrolling Nagorno-Karabakh.

After the Second World War, Turkey was the first country to diplomatically and economically engage with Azerbaijan. In 2012, their presidents issued a joint statement calling them “one nation, with two states.”

While Russia is Turkey’s largest energy and military source, Azerbaijan has gas and oil reserves, especially in the Caspian Sea. Its capital, Baku, has the largest Caspian seaport.

Azerbaijan and Russia

A former USSR satellite state, Azerbaijan has maintained close ties with 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.

While it closed in 2012, the Russian Gabala Radar Station existed in Azerbaijan. It was 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 NATO about training its military. While not a NATO member, since 1991, Azerbaijan has belonged to the North Atlantic Cooperation Council. NATO offered to have neighboring Turkey assist in training Azerbaijan‘s military personnel.

A related concern for Russia is Azerbaijan and Armenia’s Iranian borders. Although Azerbaijan and Iran are both predominantly Shia, and their religious ideologies are world’s 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 the Russian pipeline to Novorossiysk.

Armenia and Turkey

Turkey and Armenia have a fraught history. Armenia still harbors resentment for the Armenian genocide when up to 1.5 million Armenians were killed.

In 2008, Ankara unsuccessfully pursued diplomatic efforts with Armenia. The failure motivated Turkey to pour military resources into Azerbaijan.

Armenia and Russia

Since the days of the Soviet Union, Moscow has provided Armenia with military support, and maintained a military base in Armenia. Since 2000, Russia’s military presence has increased.

(Al Jazeera)

In 1997, Armenia and Russia signed a friendship treaty calling for mutual assistance in the event of a military threat to either party and allowed 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 precious metals.

The Disputed Nagorno-Karabakh

The dispute between Azerbaijan and Armenia in the Nagorno-Karabakh is centuries old; with both countries believing they have a legitimate claim to the territory.

Until 1989, Nagorno-Karabakh was part of the USSR; during which time Armenia and Azerbaijan unhappily coexisted. After dissolution, Nagorno-Karabakh was internationally accepted as belonging to Azerbaijan, without Armenia relinquishing its claim.

Nagorno-Karabakh has existed as a semiautonomous de facto state despite international recognition of Nagorno-Karabakh as Azerbaijan’s. Devoid of an economy or border controls, it is beleaguered by drugs and human trafficking.

Until this proxy war, Nagorno-Karabakh 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, the 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 a 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 in August of 1999.

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 Nagorno-Karabakh.

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 $7 billion in weapons. The sales included drones and Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile and rocket system. Mossad gained an Azerbaijan station for monitoring Iran and was allowed the use of Azerbaijan’s airfields. Israeli fighter jets have been observed in Azerbaijan.

In 2020, unconfirmed Azerbaijani sources alleged Russia transferred to Armenia an additional 20 tanks, 60 infantry cars, 25 armored vehicles, 25 Shilka’s, which is a radar-guided anti-aircraft weapon system, 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 the Proxy War

This opened the door for Turkey to expand its role in the region. 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 drones to Azerbaijan. While the drones have a limited range of 150 km, they can hover for up to 24 hours.

Over 600 Turkish troops were sent to Azerbaijan. Turkey also deployed a special forces regiment specialized in mountain warfare to help 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 invaded Nagorno-Karabakh.

In July 2020, Azerbaijan initiated combat north of Nagorno-Karabakh 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 Nagorno-Karabakh.

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 UK Defense Minister Ben Wallace.

Unverified video evidence suggested the drones also killed civilians.

Chris Coles, director of Drone Wars UK, a reliable source 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 Turkish drone.

Violating an international ban, on October 28, Armenian forces either fired or supplied cluster munitions and at least one type of long-range rocket used in an attack on Barda city, several hundred miles 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, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov brokered a second ceasefire.

Armenia sustained several territorial losses. The three Armenian controlled districts in Nagorno-Karabakh went to Azerbaijan. Over 7,000 Armenians occupying Nagorno-Karabakh were to return to Armenia. In a minor concession, the agreement left Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, 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 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.

Afterward, 135 Turkish Armed Forces Special Mine Detection and Clearance specialists have supported Azerbaijan troops to disarm and dispose of unexploded ordnance in Nagorno-Karabakh liberated from Armenia’s occupation and outside of Baku.

The November peace agreement did not address Nagorno-Karabakh’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 Erdoğan, Turkey has gained a very important foothold in the region,” concluded Deutsche Welle 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 violated 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 Nagorno-Karabakh.

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.