The foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan signed a cease fire agreement in Moscow on Friday following a late-night summons by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who finally stepped in to stop the bloodshed, as well as a military escalation which jeopardized his complex relationship with Turkish President Erdogan. Cease-fire violations were reported in the aftermath of the cease-fire deal, but military clashes ought to calm down, as the harsh winter in the area renders large-scale military campaigns more difficult. The conflict over Armenian-occupied Nagorno Karabagh will re-start next summer and the one after that, a bloody war of attrition likely to last until a final peace treaty is arranged. As the NK conflict simmers, the once rock-solid friendship between Putin and Erdogan is mutating into barely concealed mutual disgust.
Who won in NK?
Azerbaijan has not been alone in refusing to accept any demands for a ceasefire until Friday. Rather, it was Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who has emerged as an even more ferocious obstacle and formidable opponent to any suggestion of an end to the fighting. Why did he suddenly change his mind? The answers are buried in the convoluted dance he performs between Putin and Trump.
After a sweeping military offensive by Azerbaijani forces launched on September 27, combat operations escalated with each passing day. After seizing and securing territory from the Armenian side, the Azerbaijani assault only deepened, driven by an insatiable appetite for more of the territory it claims as its own and which the United Nations recognizes as such, comments Asia Times.
For the Turkish leader, full diplomatic backing and direct military support for the Azerbaijani offensive stem from Turkey’s traditional role as a patron state for Azerbaijan.
Ankara, after losing that role to Moscow in recent years, is now intent on restoring the lost glory and regaining its former role as the leading regional power.
Yet Turkey’s power play had both wider implications and high risk, as the Turkish military assistance to Azerbaijan was quickly approaching a red line that put it on a clear collision course with Russia.
Russia is bound to Armenia by its own security pact, and so the danger of a proxy war between Ankara and Moscow continues to loom large.
Turkey’s calculated risk
Turkish President Erdogan is as much the cool calculating risk-taker and chess player as his Russian counterpart, President Vladimir Putin. And to his credit, Erdogan was cunning enough to sense an opportunity of timing.
As both opportunity and opening, this bold Turkish power play in the Caucasus was based on a strategy consisting of several elements.
First, from a Turkish perspective, Russia was already bogged down in Syria and Ukraine, with a broader burden of draining Western sanctions and geopolitical solitude. And faced with the Kremlin’s embarrassing mismanagement of the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, Turkish leaders saw an opportunity in a distracted Russia.
In that context, the Azerbaijani offensive was as much a surprise for Russia as it was for Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh.
Erdogan also thus warned Putin that if the latter creates trouble for him in Idlib and Libya, he has means of pay-back. Yet, this is truly a complex relationship. To make sure, he is not perceived as breaking up with Putin, he sent Russian made S-400 anti-missile defense system to Black Sea town of Sinop for testing. This of course annoys the American Congress and NATO, but offers Putin an olive branch of sorts.
A second element of this Turkish strategy was also based on the prudent perception of Western distraction. As the successful timing of the Azerbaijani attacks only reaffirmed, the combination of the Covid-19 pandemic as the pressing priority for the European Union and the chaotic domestic political environment in a Washington already prone to chaos and conflict, had little expectation and even less fear of a robust Western response to his intervention.
Erdogan is also playing for regional power
The third element of this Turkish strategy of projecting power in the Caucasus is rooted in Erdogan’s larger agenda. This broader context reveals a deeper and even more destructive ambition that far exceeds any localized objectives.
Rather, it is Turkish power and position in Syria, Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean that are driving this ongoing reassertion of strength.
This bolder Turkish strategy will be neither satisfied not sated by Azerbaijani military gains in the fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh. Erdogan will try to get Turkey’s fair share of the continental shelves (of) Cyprus and in East Med to broaden Turkey’s influence to the South, too.
Backlash and blowback
A key risk for Turkey is that its unconditional support for Azerbaijan could produce a dangerously overconfident and reckless ally, which may exceed the limits of distraction and geopolitical disinterest.
President Ilham Aliyev, Azerbaijan’s proverbial strongman who inherited power from his father in 2003 and has appointed his wife as vice-president, appears determined to ride the tiger of war and conflict.
Putin’s ceasefire demand comes at a critical moment, which has stopped a dangerous tit-for-tat game which might have forced him or Erdogan to risk the future of a relationship which helps, more than hurts the strategic interest of both nations. But as impressive as the Russian move was, neither the Azerbaijani threat to resume hostilities at the next opportunity nor the Turkish hunger for a rematch in the next round of confrontation will diminish.
The end game
The future of Putin-Erdogan bromance will probably be determined in Washington DC, if Biden is elected, rather than in Caucasus, Idlib or Libya. Biden will offer Turkey a simple choice: Be with us, or you are one “of them”. These lines should sound familiar to Erdogan, which threatened Turkey’s business community with the same motto: If you are not with us, then you are against us.
What goes around…..
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