Putin feels the heat as Erdogan stokes the Caucasus flames
Recep Tayyip Erdogan is currently pursuing military campaigns in eastern Syria, northern Iraq, and Libya, along with an increasingly bitter dispute over maritime and territorial rights in the eastern Mediterranean and Cyprus. One would assume the Turkish president would be desperate to avoid further overseas entanglements, yet here he is, wading into somebody else’s conflict in the Caucasus: “The time has come to end the occupation of the territory of Azerbaijan by Armenia,” he thundered.
Turkey’s recruitment drive for Syrian mercenaries for Caucasus deployment began weeks before these latest hostilities, demonstrating the falsehood of Azeri/Turkish claims that they were simply responding to Armenian provocation. Patrolling Turkish F-16 fighter jets have attacked Armenian targets. Even without Turkish support, Azerbaijan has used its oil revenues to cultivate a huge military advantage, with 2009-18 military spending totaling $24 billion, compared with a minuscule $4 billion for Armenia. With Azerbaijan threatening that its missile systems are capable of striking Armenia’s Soviet-era nuclear power plant, global leaders are unsurprisingly concerned.
What lies behind the Caucasus skirmishes? After the First World War, the fledgling Soviet Union sought to curry favor with Turkey by designating the mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh province (with a 95 percent Armenian majority) part of Azerbaijan. Thus, in 1991, as Armenia and Azerbaijan emerged from the Soviet Union’s smoking ruins as independent states, they embarked on a bitter conflict for control of the province. The 1994 cease-fire resulted in Nagorno-Karabakh enjoying de facto self-governance, while retaining intimate ties with Armenia. Baku and Ankara have long been hell-bent on snatching back the disputed region.
The small, long-suffering Armenian nation is the descendant of an ancient and distinctive Christian civilization. For the past thousand years Armenia enjoyed only brief periods of independence due to successive domination by Persian, Ottoman and Russian empires. Oppressive foreign rule resulted in Armenia having huge diaspora populations dispersed throughout the world — many of whom rushed to support the motherland in this moment of crisis. Raw memories of genocide a century ago fuel perpetual Armenian fears of hostile Turkish intentions.
While Turkey has drawn attention to its own participation in the conflict through overheated nationalist rhetoric, Israel has been playing a quieter role in arming Azerbaijan. Between 2006 and 2019 Israel supplied Azerbaijan with about $825 million worth of weapons, while depending heavily on Baku for oil. As well as an opportunity to rekindle ties with Turkey, a primary motivator of Israeli assistance is Iran.
Given Turkey’s sharp contraction in GDP, how can Ankara wage wars on at least four fronts?
Tehran is highly discomfited by these tensions, which are already stimulating unrest among its huge Azeri population (about 20 percent of Iranian citizens). Azeris habitually refer to northwestern Iran as South Azerbaijan, and Persia has a long history of being dominated from its Turkic north. Over the past millennium its principal political dynasties — Seljuks, Safavis, Afsharis, and Qajars — were mostly Turkic. Thus, despite Azeris being Shiite, Iran has been providing support to its ally, Christian Armenia.
Given Turkey’s sharp contraction in GDP (down 11 percent from April to June), how can Ankara wage wars on at least four fronts? The deployment of cheap, disposable Syrian and Libyan mercenaries, and generous credit lines from the Qataris, allow Erdogan to ride a wave of expansionist neo-Ottoman nationalist sentiment, without thousands of citizens returning in body bags. There is an inexhaustible supply of desperate Syrians who, for the prospect of $1,500 a month to feed their families, are willing to sell themselves as Turkish cannon fodder. Syrians in Azerbaijan told journalists they were recruited as “security guards,” only to find themselves facing death in somebody else’s warzone. Turkey’s most zealous Syrian mercenaries frequently hail from extremist groups.
America and Europe are so distracted by domestic dysfunction that they are scarcely aware how quickly the international rules have changed in their absence: From sub-Saharan Africa into Central Asia, a contiguous belt of failed and chronically weak states is ripe for domination by neo-colonialist powers and jihadist statelets. According to Erdogan, Khamenei and Putin’s imperialist logic, if they don’t exploit these weaknesses, someone else will. It’s as if the laws-based system of sovereign nation states had been consigned to the dustbin of history. Welcome back to the 18th century!
People in glasshouses shouldn’t throw stones: While Iran showed other pariah states the way with its deployment of mercenary paramilitaries to sow region-wide mayhem, Turkey’s use of militias just above Iran’s northern borders risks triggering ethnic conflict and separatist tendencies throughout the Islamic Republic.
These events have likewise converted a deeply unnerved Putin into a model multilateralist, meekly holding Zoom meetings with French President Emmanuel Macron and other leaders and issuing statements calling for calm and adherence to international law. What a contrast with Putin’s past proclivities for devouring territories in Ukraine and Georgia! Putin’s instincts for capitalizing on political chaos in Belarus are similarly tempered by his fears of how easily Minsk’s mass protests could be replicated in Moscow.
Erdogan’s provocations are a rude shock to Russian pretentions to being the supreme arbiter between Azerbaijan and Armenia (with Moscow being obligated to the latter’s defense). It would be ironic if the price of Moscow’s shock-and-awe adventures throughout the Middle East was leaving Russia’s Caucasus back door open to Turkish saber rattling. There would be incendiary consequences for Russia if this volatile region again went up in flames.
Surrounded by hostile, bullying states, Armenia’s very existence is a miracle. With this nation yet again subjected to one-sided aggression, may the international community, just for once, do what is necessary to let Armenia live.
Arab philosopher and historian Ibn Khaldoun theorized how all empires adhered to a preordained life cycle of expansion-maturity-collapse. With Iran, Turkey and Russia gleefully abolishing the nation-state model and the laws-based security this confers, they ultimately put a time limit on their own empire-building efforts; after which imperial overstretch and contagious instability will cause these decomposing regimes to disintegrate under their own weight. And the sooner, the better.
• Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state.