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[ANALYSIS] How Russia exploits Turkish nationalism to expand its clout in the South Caucasus

Erdogan Pashinyan

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan met with Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan on the sidelines of European Political Community meeting in Prague on Oct.6, 2022.

Fatih Yurtsever*

The outcome of the military operation launched by Azerbaijan against Armenia in 2020 to liberate Nagorno-Karabakh and the seven occupied districts around it and subsequent developments led to geopolitical changes in the South Caucasus. These changes, combined with Russia’s preoccupation with the Ukraine war after Feb. 24, 2022 and the Russian military’s performance in Ukraine, which fell far short of expectations, made assumptions about the effectiveness of Russian military power questionable. The erosion of Russia’s political and military power has created new opportunities for cooperation between Armenia, Azerbaijan and Turkey. However, Turkey’s unconditional support for Azerbaijan against Armenia, based on nationalist motives, its failure to open the border gates with Armenia, which have been closed since 1993, and its failure to normalize diplomatic relations with Armenia — Turkey suspended diplomatic relations with Armenia in 1993 due to Armenia’s occupation of Azerbaijan’s Kalbajar region — have complicated regional cooperation and given Russia the opportunity to maintain its influence in the South Caucasus by exploiting the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. So, what should Turkey do to reverse this trend?

In 2023 the Azerbaijani army successfully took control of the Nagorno-Karabakh region, which had been declared Azerbaijani territory in a 1991 declaration at the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) summit in Almaty, Kazakhstan. The CIS was created by a treaty among Russia, Ukraine and Belarus on Dec. 8 of that year, marking the collapse of the Soviet Union. However, a referendum held in Nagorno-Karabakh on Dec. 10, 1991 resulted in a 99.89 percent vote in favor of full independence, which Azerbaijan did not recognize, leading to the termination of the region’s autonomous status. During Azerbaijan’s attempts to take over the administration, the Armenian government supported the independence movement in Nagorno-Karabakh, leading to a violent conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan that lasted until 1994.

During this period Armenia occupied seven Azerbaijani districts in addition to Nagorno-Karabakh. However, between 1994 and 2020, Azerbaijan made significant progress in modernizing and strengthening its army using its economic power, particularly through arms purchases from Israel and Turkey. In 2020 Azerbaijan launched a successful military operation that allowed it to regain its occupied territories with the help of the aforementioned weapons and its strengthened army. A ceasefire agreement was brokered on Nov. 9, 2020 between Azerbaijan and Armenia through Russian mediation.

Although Azerbaijan liberated seven districts around Nagorno-Karabakh from occupation with the military operation it carried out in 2020, Russian peacekeepers settled in the Nagorno-Karabakh region in accordance with the agreement reached with Armenia under the mediation of Russia. Russia’s main strategy was to spread the resolution of the conflict in the Nagorno-Karabakh region over time and to ensure the signing of a peace treaty between Azerbaijan and Armenia under its mediation. However, since Armenian President Nikol Pashinyan recognized the Nagorno-Karabakh region as Azerbaijani territory in line with the Almaty Declaration, Azerbaijan diplomatically assessed that the conditions and international conjuncture were in its favor and carried out a military operation in the Nagorno-Karabakh region on Sept.19 and took full control of the region. As a result of the conflict in the region, 120,000 Armenians are currently migrating to Armenia through the Lachin Corridor linking Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia.

This migration will have significant effects on the political and economic life of Armenia. The current president of Armenia, Pashinyan, is in favor of freeing Armenia from Russian influence and establishing good relations with EU countries and the United States. Pashinyan believes that the Russian-controlled Collective Security Treaty Organization, of which Armenia is a member, cannot meet Armenia’s security needs because it has not responded to Armenia’s request for assistance in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. On the other hand, Armenia is economically dependent on Russia. Russians own the railway company and natural gas distribution company in the country. Russian troops protect Armenia’s borders. Therefore, Armenia needs to establish good economic relations with Turkey and Azerbaijan to eliminate Russia’s influence.

In fact, now is the most favorable time for Turkey to open the border gates with Armenia and start diplomatic relations. Pashinyan is moderate and reasonable. However, both the additional burden on the economy caused by the Armenian population coming from Nagorno-Karabakh and the discontent among Armenian nationalists due to the abandonment of the Nagorno-Karabakh region to Azerbaijan have put Pashinyan’s political future at risk. But Turkey’s opening the border gates with Armenia may lead to a revival in the Armenian economy. Furthermore, the EU and the United States are also in favor of Armenia ridding itself of Russian influence. Therefore, Turkey can rebuild Armenia’s natural gas infrastructure and supply natural gas to Armenia, especially with the financial support provided by the EU and the political support of the United States.

One more point should be underlined here. A solution in the South Caucasus that completely excludes Russia will not last long at this stage. Therefore, Turkey should follow a roadmap utilizing its good relations with Russia. First of all, Turkey should stop the flow of migration from the Nagorno-Karabakh region to Armenia by using its influence on Azerbaijan. An international commission including Russia led by Turkey should monitor the situation and living conditions of Armenians here. Turkey should immediately initiate the necessary diplomatic initiatives in this regard. Secondly, Turkey should guarantee the territorial integrity of Armenia and Azerbaijan. In this way, Armenia’s hand should be strengthened to end the Russian military presence in its country. Turkey should establish a “South Caucasus Economic Union” in which Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan will be included. Russia and Iran can also become members of this union if they wish. As a condition for joining this union, the member states should recognize each other’s borders and pledge not to intervene militarily against each other.

However, Turkey is not taking any of the steps outlined above. On the contrary, it supports Azerbaijan due to its nationalist agenda and is working to destabilize Armenia. While the Turkish public is preoccupied with the geopolitical gains of the Zangezur corridor that will link Turkey, Nakhchivan and Azerbaijan, which will require Armenian approval, they are ignoring the fact that Russian troops still guard the borders of Armenia and that part of this corridor that will pass through Armenian territory will be under the control of Russia.

The ongoing conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia and the fact that Turkey severed diplomatic relations with Armenia in 1993 and has kept its border gates with Armenia closed have served to protect Russia’s interests and expand its influence in the South Caucasus, while isolating Armenia in the region. Germany, China and the US are organizing summits in the 5+1 format to improve their relations with the Central Asian countries. The development of Turkey’s relations with these countries depends on the regional integration to be established in the South Caucasus. Turkey can access the Caspian Sea and from there the Turkic world through a corridor that will traverse the territories of Turkey-Nakhchivan-Armenia-Azerbaijan with Armenia’s participation and approval, with Russian troops out of the equation. Central Asia and the South Caucasus’s economic integration would serve the interests of all. Russia’s weakening power in Ukraine paves the way for such regional integration projects. For this, historic animosities and nationalist feelings on both the Turkish and Armenian sides should be put aside, and conditions should be created for everyone to come together. It is imperative that Turkey expedite the normalization of relations with Armenia. The continuation of a nationalist-oriented foreign policy by Turkey not only exacerbates regional discord but also provides a conduit for Russia to solidify its foothold in the area.

* Fatih Yurtsever is a former naval officer in the Turkish Armed Forces. He is using a pseudonym out of security concerns.

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