Turkey's Foray Into Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict Tests Russia's Influence

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Turkey’s role in the growing clash between Armenia and Azerbaijan—two countries Moscow regards as within its sphere of influence—is adding a new element to a string of proxy fights pitting Turkey and Russia against each other and challenging Russia’s longstanding policy of neutrality over the simmering conflict.

Roughly the size of Delaware, the province of Nagorno-Karabakh—a disputed enclave within Azerbaijan—has been a flashpoint between Azerbaijan and Armenia since the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is recognized internationally as part of Azerbaijan but controlled by pro-Armenian rebels.

About 30,000 people were killed in fighting over a six-year period before a cease-fire in 1994. But hostilities resumed last week, with each side blaming the other for a series of surprise attacks.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has long worked to keep former Soviet republics bound tightly to Moscow, and has sought to stay on good terms with both Azerbaijan and Armenia, due to their strategic location along an important energy corridor coveted by the West.

Energy Corridor

A network of oil and gas pipelines allows Azerbaijan to access international markets without passing through Russia

Natural gas pipelines

Russian military bases

Trans-Adriatic

South Caucasus

ARMENIA

Trans-Anatolian

Trans-Caspian

(projected)

Gyumri

AZERBAIJAN

Yerevan

Erebuni

Oil pipeline

Baku

Western Route Export

Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan

NAGORNO-KARABAKH

KAZAKH.

RUSSIA

BULGARIA

Caspian

Sea

Black Sea

GEORGIA

Supsa

ITALY

AZERBAIJAN

GREECE

ARMENIA

TURK.

Sangachal

Shah Deniz

gas field

97.9% completed

TURKEY

Ceyhan

IRAN

SYRIA

300 miles

Mediterranean Sea

IRAQ

300 km

Natural gas pipelines

Russian military bases

Trans-Adriatic

South Caucasus

ARMENIA

Trans-Anatolian

Trans-Caspian

(projected)

Gyumri

AZERBAIJAN

Yerevan

Oil pipeline

Erebuni

Baku

Western Route Export

Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan

NAGORNO-KARABAKH

KAZAKH.

RUSSIA

BULGARIA

Caspian

Sea

Black Sea

GEORGIA

Supsa

ITALY

TURK.

AZERBAIJAN

GREECE

ARMENIA

Shah Deniz

gas field

97.9% completed

TURKEY

Sangachal

Ceyhan

IRAN

SYRIA

300 miles

Mediterranean Sea

IRAQ

300 km

Natural gas pipelines

Russian military bases

TAP

South Caucasus

ARMENIA

TANAP

Trans-Caspian

(projected)

Gyumri

AZERBAIJAN

Yerevan

Erebuni

Oil pipeline

Baku

Western Route Export

Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan

NAGORNO-KARABAKH

KAZAKH.

RUSSIA

BULGARIA

Caspian

Sea

Black Sea

GEORGIA

Supsa

ITALY

TURK.

AZERBAIJAN

GREECE

ARMENIA

Shah Deniz

gas field

97.9% completed

TURKEY

Sangachal

Ceyhan

IRAN

SYRIA

300 miles

Mediterranean Sea

IRAQ

300 km

Russian military bases

ARMENIA

Gyumri

AZERBAIJAN

Yerevan

Erebuni

Baku

NAGORNO-KARABAKH

Natural gas pipelines

TAP

South Caucasus

TANAP

Trans-Caspian

(projected)

Oil pipeline

Western Route Export

Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan

RUSSIA

Black Sea

AZER.

ARM.

97.9%

completed

TURKEY

300 miles

Mediterranean Sea

300 km

Sources: Geopolitical Intelligence Services (natural gas); MOL Group (oil)

Now, a more assertive Turkey is testing that stance. Hours after fighting broke out, Turkey announced its unconditional support for Azerbaijan, with which it shares ethnic and cultural ties. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reiterated that support on Friday.

“As Turkey, with all our means and with all our heart, we stand with fellow and brother Azerbaijan and we will continue to stand with it,” he said. “God willing, until Nagorno-Karabakh is liberated from invasion, this struggle will continue.”

The scope of Turkey’s support is unclear. France’s President Emmanuel Macron said Thursday that he had information that mercenaries from Syria had passed through Turkey to reach Nagorno-Karabakh.

The disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh is recognized internationally as part of Azerbaijan but controlled by pro-Armenian rebels.



Photo:

Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

Mr. Erdogan’s government has denied the claim but its open support for Azerbaijan—the latest example of Turkey’s more muscular foreign policy—is putting Russia on the back foot at a delicate time for Moscow. A pro-democracy movement is threatening to pry Belarus from Moscow’s sphere of influence, and a wave of protests in Russia’s Far East is challenging Mr. Putin’s own standing.

“We use our privileges to be a welcomed party by both Armenia and Azerbaijan,” said Sergey Markedonov, senior researcher at the government-run Moscow State Institute of International Relations. “Turkey concentrates only on one side and it creates obstacles for Russia, because it pushes Azerbaijan to make a choice.”

Moscow, in contrast, has remained studiously neutral over the long-running conflict and has anointed itself mediator. After supplying Armenia with powerful ballistic missiles in the 1990s it then sold Azerbaijan the means to shoot them down through a complex new air-defense system. It also warned other countries to keep out of the fray.

“Any statements on military support or military activity unambiguously add fuel to the fire, and we are categorically opposed to this,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters this week.

Under Mr. Putin’s leadership, Russia has shown little hesitation to intervene militarily if it feels its dominance over former Soviet republics is challenged. It seized territory from both Georgia and Ukraine to counter what the Kremlin said was meddling from the West.

Russia has repeatedly warned the European Union and other Western powers to steer clear of the continuing political conflict in Belarus, where Mr. Putin’s ally President Alexander Lukashenko has faced weeks of protests after claiming victory in a presidential election his opponents dismissed as a fraud. It has signaled its support for the regime by stepping up military cooperation with Belarus.

People drive toward Yerevan on Tuesday, away from the fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh.



Photo:

Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

Moscow doesn’t “look kindly on other powers, Western powers, trying to engage in the region without Russian participation, Russian consent,” said Chris Miller, co-director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.

But Turkey’s support for Azerbaijan, said Thomas de Waal, a senior fellow with the Carnegie Europe think tank, has left Russia on the defensive.

“If they were to try and step in to support the Armenians, they would lose Azerbaijan and they would lose that role [as a mediator],” he said.

Turkey is already involved in two proxy conflicts with Russia—in Libya, where it is supporting the internationally recognized government against rebels backed by Russia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, and in Syria, where Moscow is a staunch ally of President Bashar al-Assad.

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Ahmet Kasim Han, a professor at Altinbas University in Istanbul, says Turkey would be loath to open a new front by sending forces to Nagorno-Karabakh. “It would legitimize Russia sending in more troops,” he said, noting that Moscow already has close military ties with Armenia, and has stationed some 5,000 troops along its border with Turkey. Armenia is also part of a Russian-led mutual defense alliance.

Azerbaijan, a far wealthier country than Armenia thanks to its oil reserves, has diversified its arms-supply chain, notably buying drones from Israel, but remains a significant buyer of Russian weaponry.

Yet even in pro-Russian Armenia, Moscow’s neutral approach is ruffling feathers.

“We don’t like that Russia as our strategic allied partner is selling [weapons] to our direct enemy,” Armenia’s deputy defense minister Gabriel Balayan said.

From the Archives

During more than 20 years in power, Vladimir Putin has faced a number of challenges while pushing to expand Russia’s influence. But the coronavirus pandemic might be the biggest test to his leadership yet, as he moves to possibly extend his presidency until 2036. Photo: Getty Images

Write to David Gauthier-Villars at David.Gauthier-Villars@wsj.com and Ann M. Simmons at ann.simmons@wsj.com

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