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The recent war in the Nagorno-Karabakh region has shown that Russia avoids a serious conflict while maintaining good relations with both South Caucasus states, as it is not in Moscow’s interests to ruin relations with them. Meanwhile, Azerbaijan–Turkey relations have always been strong with the two often being described as “one nation with two states” due to both being Turkic countries and having close historical and ethnic ties.
In the absence of US or EU leadership, or international organizations mediating in the peace process, Turkey and Russia could redirect Azerbaijan and Armenia away from the battlefield, but the July clashes indirectly pit Ankara against Moscow, which has been the main security guarantor of Yerevan.
Despite the fact that Russia has a military base in Armenia, and the two countries are also members of the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization, Moscow also has strong ties to Azerbaijan, which is being openly backed by Turkey, a NATO member. In addition, Russia has been selling weapons to both Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan’s closest ally
Turkey reportedly sent weapons and military advisers to Azerbaijan during its war with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh in the early 1990s, and Turkey and Azerbaijan signed an Agreement on Strategic Partnership and Mutual Support in 2010.
Azerbaijan is a key energy partner for Turkey, which imports the vast majority of its energy demand. Baku supplies Turkey with about a third of its natural gas imports, as well as exports oil to the port of Ceyhan on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast.
Turkey cut off diplomatic relations and sealed its border with Armenia in 1993 to protest the war over Nagorno-Karabakh, which had an ethnic Armenian majority but is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan. In 2010, Ankara ignored a U.S.-brokered initiative to restore Turkish ties with Yerevan.
Ankara has consistently supported Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity and condemned Armenia’s actions in Nagorno-Karabakh. Turkey was one of the first countries offering its support for Azerbaijan on every level, including all kinds of military equipment during and after the mid-July clashes and the 44-day war.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has vowed “to stand against any attack” on Azerbaijan, and the Turkish foreign and defense ministers also released strong messages against the attacks.
Following the deadliest clashes at the Armenian-Azerbaijani border in mid-July 2020, Ankara has intensified military and strategic support to Baku by staging major joint drills in several parts of Azerbaijan in the presence of ground and air forces, from 29 July until mid-August. The joint exercises involved military personnel, armored vehicles, artillery mounts, and mortars, as well as military aviation and air defense equipment of the armies of the two countries.
In July, the head of the Turkish Defence Industries Ismail Demir said “from our armed UAVs to our ammunition and missiles… all our experience, technology and capabilities are always on the orderof Azerbaijan”.
Russia’s paper Nezavisimaya Gazeta on September 1 claimed that after recent joint military drills, Turkish and Azerbaijani authorities agreed to set up military bases in the Nakhchivan exclave and the Absheron peninsula of Azerbaijan.
Meanwhile, Azerbaijan’s defense ministry denied the presence of foreign military bases or any illegal armed group in the country, saying that the country’s army was well-equipped, trained and sophisticated enough to carry out any combat mission needed to liberate lands occupied by Armenia and restore Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity.
Azerbaijan has reportedly used Turkish drones against Armenian targets in the latest 44-day war (27 September – 10 November) over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding districts. In the early days of the war, the pro-government CNN Turk news channel website said on 28 September that Turkish “TB2” armed drones are being “used effectively” in clashes between Azerbaijan and Armenia.
At the same time, the Armenian foreign ministry accused Turkey of providing direct military support for Azerbaijan in a flare-up of the recent fighting. It also said that Turkish military experts “are fighting side by side” with Azerbaijan, and was also using Turkish weapons including drones and warplanes.
On 16 October 2020, Kommersant provided details of Turkish military involvement, saying that Turkish servicemen had apparently remained in Azerbaijan after joint military drills during the summer, to coordinate and direct the planning and conducting of the operations.
The source added that six hundred servicemen had stayed on, including a tactical battalion of 200 people, 50 instructors in Nakhchivan, 90 military advisers in Baku, 120 flight personnel at the airbase in Qabala; 20 drone operators at Dollyar Air Base, 50 instructors at the aviabase in Yevlakh, 50 instructors in the 4th Army Corps in Perekeshkul and 20 others at the naval base and Azerbaijan Higher Military Academy in Baku. The forces also included 18 Turkish infantry fighting vehicles, one multiple launch rocket system, 10 vehicles and up to 34 aircraft, including 6 warplanes, 8 helicopters and up to 20 military intelligence drones, the sources added.
Armenia’s expectations from Russia
As a member of the Russia-led military alliance Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), Yerevan has a right to request military assistance from CSTO, only if an attack occurred on Armenia’s internationally recognized territory. Furthermore, the Armenian borders are patrolled by both Armenian and Russian border guards, and hosts the Russian 102nd Military Base in Gyumri, about 125km north of the capital Yerevan, with a garrison of about 3,000 soldiers.
Russia had historically pursued a policy of maintaining neutrality in the conflict, and Armenia never formally requested aid. Prior to the war, Russia had possessed a military base in Armenia as part of a military alliance with Armenia, and thus was obligated by treaty to defend Armenia in the case of a war. Russia has a military base in Armenia, and the two countries are also members of the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).
“Russia and Armenia have common interests in terms of security, and it is based on these mutual interests that we are pursuing the common goal to ensure security. The [102nd] military base is helping achieve the goal,” Armenian Minister of Foreign Affairs Zohrab Mnatsakanyan told the Russian news agency Interfax on August 31.
Meanwhile, Azerbaijan has raised concern over the delivery of large amounts of military supplies from Russia to Armenia starting on July 17, right after the border skirmishes ended. In a phone call with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev said that over 400 tonnes of Russian military shipment to Armenia raise concern and serious questions among the Azerbaijani public.
On July 17, soon after the four-day clashes between Azerbaijani and Armenian troops, Putin issued the surprise combat readiness check for the troops of the Southern and Western Military Districts, marine infantry of the Northern and Pacific Fleets and some units of the Central Command and also for the Airborne Force.
About 150,000 troops, over 26,000 weapon systems, 414 aircraft and 106 warships were involved in a snap combat readiness check. According to the Russian defense ministry, the drills were meant to assess the troops’ ability to provide military security in Russia’s southwest where serious terrorist threats persist and to prepare for the Kavkaz-2020 strategic command and staff exercise.
On September 13-14, the servicemen of the intelligence units of the Russian military base in Armenia conducted two-day tactical battalion exercises with the Armenian military. Over 1,500 servicemen and about 300 units of military and special equipment including helicopters and drones took part in the drills.
During the military exercise which started on September 11, seven countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) – Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan – checked the combat-readiness of the CIS joint air defense system.
Armenian troops and Russian servicemen from the 102nd Military Base in Gyumri launched joint bilateral battalion tactical military exercises on 5 September. Tank, engineering and reconnaissance units have developed defensive, offensive and reconnaissance operations with artillery, air defense and air support during the drills. Around 1000 troops from the Russian Southern Military District and 300 units of military equipment, including fighter jets, other military aircraft and UAVs are participating in the exercises.
Armenia also participated in the Kavkaz-2020 (Caucasus-2020) joint military exercises together with five other countries that were held between September 21-26 in Russia. Yerevan sent units from its tank and motor-rifle regiments to the drills. Meanwhile, Azerbaijan just sent two military representatives to the drills as an observer.
At the beginning of the war, Russia was judged to be unlikely to intervene militarily unless Armenia incurred drastic losses. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs also released a statement on 31 October, saying that Russia will provide Armenia with “all the necessary assistance” if the war continued on the territories of Armenia, as both countries are part of the CSTO.
Nonetheless, when the Azerbaijani forces reportedly struck the bases of Smerch multiple rocket launchers located on the Armenian territories which were repeatedly used in the shelling of Ganja in October, a city in western Azerbaijan, and, Russia did not directly interfere in the conflict.
The Russian media reported in November that there were about 500 Russian mercenaries, including the Russian private military company Wagner Group fighting on the Armenian side in Nagorno-Karabakh, and some 300 Russian mercenaries had taken part in the Battle of Shusha. The Russian military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer also stated that Wagner contractors were sent to support the Armenian forces as anti-tank guided missile operators. A photo of a Wagner mercenary, apparently taken in front of a church in Shusha during the war, appeared on the internet after the war, in December 2020.
On 9 November, the day when the ceasefire agreement was signed, the Azerbaijani forces in the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic accidentally shot down a Russian Mil Mi-24 attack helicopter near Yeraskh, in Armenia. https://www.bbc.com/russian/news-54879360
On the same night, an unknown missile hit an open area in Khyrdalan, near Baku, without causing any injuries, according to the Azerbaijani sources. Also, yet again on the same day, a video emerged on social media apparently showing the Armenian forces launching a Russian-made Iskander missileinto Azerbaijan.
Baku liberated several cities and nearly 300 settlements and villages from the Armenian occupation during the 44-day conflict. On November 10, the two countries signed a Russia-brokered agreement to end fighting and work toward a comprehensive resolution. Approximately 2,000 Russian soldiers were deployed as peacekeeping forces along the Lachin corridor between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh for a mandate of at least five years.
Russia’s stance and reality
Throughout the war, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov have repeatedly called for an immediate ceasefire and the start of negotiations, expressing “serious concern” about the flare-up. The Russian state media have reflected the official position of neutrality, with normally vociferous news programs showing no sign of favoritism.
Armenia is an important Russian ally, but the Kremlin has been apprehensive of the current Armenian government ever since it came to power, as it is the result of regime change brought about by street protests: a color revolution, which the Kremlin views as a deadly sin.
In 2018, the new leadership of Armenia embarked on a course of distancing itself from Russia, putting pressure on Russia’s henchmen and allies (Kocharyan, General Khachaturov and others). The Russian pro-government media outlets also directly accused the Armenian leadership of cooperation with Western foundations, Soros and others.
Referring to Russia’s stance in the war, Konstantin Makienko, a member of the State Duma Defence Committee, said that the geopolitical consequences of the war were “catastrophic” not only for Armenia but for Russia as well, because Moscow’s influence in the Southern Caucasus had dwindled while “the prestige of a successful and feisty Turkey, contrariwise, had increased immensely“.
On February 2, Armenian Defence Minister Vagharshak Harutyunyan said at a meeting with UK Charge d’Affaires Helen Fazey that the analysis and assessment of the 44-day war may lead to structural changes in the Armed Forces, procedures and tactics of decision-making, and the legislation.
The 44-day war was essentially a war of models, where the NATO military model clashed with the Russian model, according to which the Armenian Army has acted over almost three decades in the post-Soviet period.
Now, Armenia faces the dilemma of modernizing the country’s Armed Forces. On one hand, Russia is Armenia’s chief partner in defense, military, and technical issues. On other hand, Yerevan thinks about modernization, and it is clear that the NATO experience is better for every country rather than Russia’s experience.