An Assertive Turkey Muscles Into Russia’s Backyard

ISTANBUL—When Russia single-handedly brokered an agreement last month to stop fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenia, two former Soviet republics, the Kremlin granted an important concession to Turkey, allowing Ankara to monitor its implementation.

Turkey’s strong military support for Azerbaijan was a reality the Kremlin couldn’t ignore, said Russian President

Vladimir Putin.

“What can I tell you,” he said on Russian television when asked about Turkey’s broader role in the Caucasus days after fighting stopped last month. “It’s a geopolitical fallout from the downfall of Soviet Union.”

Turkey’s foray into an area the Kremlin has traditionally regarded as its exclusive sphere of influence is emblematic of President

Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s

 efforts to refashion the NATO member and once-pliant U.S. ally into a power player at the crossroads between Europe, the Middle East and Asia.

Turkey played a critical role in Azerbaijan’s victory over Armenian forces in the fight for control of Nagorno-Karabakh, a breakaway region allied with Armenia but entrenched within internationally recognized Azeri borders since the early 1990s.

This week, Mr. Erdogan was the guest of honor at a military parade in Azerbaijan that showcased Turkish attack drones that supported Azeri forces’ successful campaign to reclaim swaths of Nagorno-Karabakh. That operation drove out tens of thousands of Armenians who had long lived there.

“From the first days of the patriotic war, or rather from the first hours, we have felt the support of Turkey,” Azeri President Ilham Aliyev said at the parade on Thursday.

The Turkish-Azeri alliance was also on display in Turkey, where luminescent flags of the two countries have been emblazoned on top of Istanbul’s 720-foot television tower for the past month.

Turkish analysts say Russia remains the pre-eminent force in the region and that recent developments further bolster this status given the 2,000 Russian servicemen deployed on Azeri soil as part of the peace agreement.

They also concede that Mr. Putin may have allowed Ankara to become a power broker in the Caucasus as part of a broader calculation: to keep driving a wedge between Turkey and other members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

A Russian armored personnel carrier in the town of Lachin, Azerbaijan.


karen minasyan/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

But they say the idea that Moscow would remain impassive while Russian-equipped Armenian forces were getting trounced by Turkish-backed Azeri forces was unthinkable, even as of a few months ago.

They point out that Russia had to accommodate some of Turkey’s demands, notably by providing for the establishment of a 30-mile travel corridor across Armenia that connects Azerbaijan to its exclave of Nakhichevan. The corridor will allow for direct road transport from Ankara to Baku.

“It is a huge victory for Turkey,” said Behlul Ozkan, an international relations professor at Istanbul’s Marmara University. “It is perhaps the only Turkish foreign-policy victory in the past five or six years.”

Today, Ankara’s role in the Nagorno-Karabakh war and its tentative settlement contrasts sharply with the absence of the U.S. and France at the peace talks. Along with Russia, the two countries co-lead the Minsk Group, created in 1994 to help resolve the ethnic conflict. Washington and Paris both brokered cease-fire agreements in October, but those collapsed immediately.

Strikingly, Mr. Ozkan said, Turkey’s push in the Caucasus was free of the neo-Ottoman and Pan-Islamic overtones with which Mr. Erdogan has presented most of his foreign-policy initiatives in recent years, from military interventions in Syria and Libya to maritime challenges against Greece and Cyprus.

“It was a purely pragmatic, very well-calculated approach,” said Mr. Ozkan.

When the Soviet Union collapsed 1991, Turkey sought to exploit the sudden vacuum to deepen ties with Azerbaijan and the newly independent states of Central Asia, emphasizing their common religion, Islam, and shared ethnic and linguistic heritage.

Armenian police officers detained a protester in Yerevan, Armenia, on Nov. 10.


karen minasyan/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Within months, however, the Kremlin drew red lines to counter the burgeoning aspirations of former Soviet republics.

In 1992, Armenia and Azerbaijan were four years into their first war for control of the mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh region when Armenian troops raided and seized Shusha, a strategic town that controls access to the region’s capital, Stepanakert. In Turkey, pressure rose on then Prime Minister Suleyman Demirel to back Azerbaijan, but he quickly shelved plans for a military expedition after Russian military leader Yevgeny Shaposhnikov warned that any intervention could drive the planet “to the brink of a third world war.”

In 1993, Turkey sealed its border with Armenia in support for Azerbaijan, but took a more cautious approach, such as focusing on joint energy projects, to deepen its relations with Baku without provoking Moscow. Turkey also began quietly providing training to Azeri officers and soldiers.

That strategy was in full swing in 2003 when Mr. Erdogan took the leadership of Turkey, and Mr. Aliyev succeeded his late father as president of Azerbaijan.

Mr. Erdogan’s more muscular strategy carried risk because, under Mr. Putin’s leadership, Russia has shown little hesitation to intervene militarily if it feels its dominance over former Soviet republics is challenged. But a graduate of Moscow’s MGIMO, the prestigious university that has long groomed the country’s diplomats, Mr. Aliyev walked a fine line, launching construction of a natural-gas pipeline through Turkey, but also making ample room for Russian investors in Azerbaijan’s energy sector.

Mr. Erdogan, right, and Mr. Aliyev at the Baku military parade.


murat cetinmuhurdar/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

“Mr. Aliyev is a very clever man,” said Aydin Sezer, a Turkish columnist who served as a trade attaché in Moscow. “He knows the Russian code.”

While Ankara was discreetly gaining influence in Baku, Mr. Aliyev showed in 2009 that he could also sway Turkish politics. That year, Mr. Erdogan considered reopening his country’s border with Armenia and resuming diplomatic relations with the government there, but dropped the plan when the Azeri leader threatened to restrict energy supply to Turkey.

Flush with petrodollars—and backed by Turkey, Israel and Ukraine—Azerbaijan gradually built up a powerful military capable of overtaking the miles of trenches Armenians had dug around Nagorno-Karabakh in a bid to render the enclave unassailable.

“Then Azerbaijan patiently waited for an opportunity,” said

Hasan Unal,

a professor of international relations at Istanbul’s Maltepe University.

An opening came last year when

David Tonoyan,

then Armenia’s defense minister, said that instead of hunkering down in Nagorno-Karabakh, his country should go on the offensive and prepare a “new war for new territories.”

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When skirmishes erupted along the front line between Armenian and Azeri forces on Sep. 27, Baku pointed to Mr. Tonoyan’s aggressive stance to justify its decision to launch a full-scale offensive to retake the region.

The battle allowed Turkey to display the efficacy of its attack drones, which pierced Armenia’s defense lines and shocked its forces, according to Armenian accounts. Shortly after signing the peace agreement with Messrs. Putin and Aliyev, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said his country faced a military debacle if combat had continued.

Under the peace pact, Armenians have kept control of Stepanakert and a few surrounding towns, but have ceded all the adjacent districts, whose occupation in the early 1990s had prompted Turkey to close its border with Armenia.

Mr. Unal said this new situation created a fertile ground for Turkey to resume talks with Armenia, which could help placate the powerful Armenian diaspora.

“It would send a message, including to the incoming Biden administration, that Turkey isn’t out to destroy Armenia,” he said. “That Azerbaijan only took back its land.”

Speaking at a joint press conference with his Azeri counterpart after Thursday’s parade, Mr. Erdogan said reopening the border would be possible if Armenia took steps toward regional peace.

“We have no grudge against the people of Armenia,” he said. “The problem is with the Armenian administration.”

Write to David Gauthier-Villars at [email protected]

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