Zurab Batiashvili, Research Fellow at the Rondeli Foundation
It is very natural that in the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict, official Ankara has always sided with Baku as a result of historical, ethnic and cultural ties. However, during the recent military confrontation near the Tovuz region of Azerbaijan on July 12, Ankara’s position was marked by sharper rhetoric and actions than in previous periods which raised the question: Is Turkey’s policy in the Caucasus changing and, if so, in what direction?
After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, Ankara no longer faces a direct existential threat from Moscow. Consequently, the West (especially Washington) has lost its previous role as a kind of guarantor of security for Turkey. Added to this is the coming to power of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his political organization (AKP – Justice and Development Party) who advocates a more balanced foreign policy.
In such a situation, official Ankara has slowly but surely begun to pursue a foreign policy independent of the West and this is particularly visible in the Middle East region. As a result, we see Turkey’s active involvement in the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East (the civil wars in Syria and Libya). And in these endless conflicts, its main uncomfortable opponent is usually Moscow posing a number of threats and challenges to Ankara.
From the perspective of the Turkish authorities, the Armenian-Azerbaijani confrontation is also part of this grander picture where Moscow traditionally supports Yerevan and Ankara – Baku. The principle of “two states, one nation” (this formula implies that Turks and Azerbaijanis are one nation but have two states) is an indicator of the close interconnection between Turkey and Azerbaijan which is often highlighted by the parties in describing their bilateral relations.
Another interesting fact to consider when describing Russian-Turkish relations is that from the spring of 2020, Azerbaijan – and not Russia – is the largest supplier of natural gas to Turkey (it provides 23.5% of the Turkish market demand). Russia was the largest supplier in 2019 with 33%, down by 9.9% this year. Consequently, Turkey’s energy dependence on Russia sharply decreased which, in turn and as expected, was soon reflected in political relations.
The Armenian-Azerbaijani confrontation started from a military point of view in the vicinity of the Tovuz region and not in the more volatile Karabakh. This region is where the very gas pipeline (as well as the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline and the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway) that supplies Azerbaijani natural gas to Turkey runs and is very close to the front line. This was considered in Ankara not to have been a mere coincidence.
Tovuz region where essential transport and energy corridors are situated.
In view of all of the above factors, Turkey’s reaction to the recent tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan has been quite harsh towards both Armenia and Russia.
Turkey’s Position on the Latest Tension between Armenia and Azerbaijan
After the resumption of tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan on July 12, telephone consultations were held between the Presidents of Turkey and Azerbaijan as well as between the Foreign and Defense Ministers of the two countries, followed by official statements.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan strongly condemned Armenia’s actions, accusing the latter of systematic attacks on Azerbaijan and stressed the fact that the situation was aggravated not in Karabakh but further north at the border between the two countries.
The Turkish president also added that the attack is beyond Armenia’s capabilities, indicating that he thinks Moscow was behind Yerevan’s actions.
Interestingly, President Erdogan also spoke about the historical context in his speech. In particular, he noted: “We will continue to fulfill the duty in the Caucasus which was performed by our ancestors for centuries.” He did not specify who was meant by the ancestors nor did he continue to talk about historical topics. We can assume that Erdogan was referring to the Ottomans as the “ancestors” he mentioned in his speech who, according to Turkish official history, brought “justice and peace” upon the occupied territories.
In turn, the Turkish Foreign Ministry noted in a statement that “Turkey continues to stand by Azerbaijan to the best of its ability in the fight that concerns the protection of its territorial integrity.”
Shortly after the start of the fighting on July 16, Azerbaijani Deputy Defense Minister and Air Force Commander, Ramiz Takhirov, accompanied by a delegation, hastily visited Ankara where he met with the Turkish Defense Minister, the Chief of the General Staff and Army commanders.
Meeting of the Minister of Defense of Turkey, Hulusi Akar, with the Deputy Minister of Defense of Azerbaijan, Ramiz Takhirov.
It is true that the details of the meeting were not made public but it is easy to guess that the main topic of discussion there would be issues of bilateral military cooperation.
After the meeting, the Turkish Defense Minister, Hulusi Akar, condemned Armenia’s actions, adding in a statement containing threatening overtones that the latter will pay an “appropriate price.” He also noted that the Republic of Turkey and its armed forces will do everything necessary in the current situation.
On July 16, the leaders of the factions of the political parties represented in the Turkish Parliament made a joint statement in support of Azerbaijan. The statement, joined by Turkey’s left-wing and right-wing opposition parties (except the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party), condemned Armenia’s policies, stressed support for Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity and underlined the necessity of establishing lasting peace in the South Caucasus.
Naturally, Ankara’s position was unequivocally endorsed by Baku while Yerevan strongly condemned Turkey’s unconditional support for Azerbaijan.
Interestingly, the Turkish side did not comment on the possible attack by Armenia on the Mingechauri Reservoir. Azerbaijani Defense Ministry spokesman, Vagif Dargyakhly, said in a statement: “The Armenian side must not forget that the ultra-modern missile system of our armed forces has the ability to accurately hit the Metsamor nuclear power plant which would be a great tragedy for Armenia.” It should be noted that this nuclear power plant is located just 15 km from the Turkish-Armenian border and a serious humanitarian crisis could be created in the eastern provinces of Turkey if it is damaged.
The Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant located near the Turkish-Armenian border.
- Official Ankara has recently become quite active in its foreign policy (including the Caucasus). This activity does not necessarily mean a change in its positions. On the contrary, it focuses more sharply, and will continue to do so in future, on topics that are in its national interest.
- In this context, Turkey will be even more active in the Caucasus; first of all, in supporting the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan (and, consequently, Georgia).
- Turkey is likely to intensify military cooperation with Azerbaijan (this could include additional drones and air defense systems as well as providing intelligence, increasing the intensity of joint exercises, increasing assistance in the military industry and military education, etc.).
- However, this does not mean that Ankara is ready to launch a direct military confrontation in the Caucasus region against Armenia and its ally Russia. Membership of Armenia in the CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organization), the Russian military base in Gyumri and Russian border guards on the Turkish-Armenian border remain significant deterrents for Ankara.
- Nevertheless, Ankara can offer various (including military) surprises to both Yerevan and Moscow in the Caucasus region.
- Ankara needs allies in the region. It is in this context that we should consider the statement made by Ankara in January 2020 in which Turkey once again publicly supported Georgia’s membership in NATO. Therefore, we should expect more engagement in this direction as well.