Ankara, Turkey – Strategic geopolitical competition between Russia and Turkey continued to escalate in 2020 in West Asia and North Africa (WANA) and Southeast Europe including Eastern Mediterranean. The parties redoubled their commitments to opposing sides in Syria and Libya, and Turkey opened a new theater of competition in the Caucasus region. Indeed, each of these conflicts is unique and discrete but must be understood within the cross-theater dynamics of Russia-Turkey geopolitical competition.
Over the past few years, both Russia and Turkey have played key roles in the world’s hottest conflict zones, Azerbaijan, Libya and Syria. Usually on opposite sides and often on the verge of a direct confrontation, Russia and Turkey have demonstrated a knack for brinkmanship and crisis management through diplomacy. While both sides have suffered casualties, they pulled back before any fight got too big.
Russia and Turkey are supporting belligerents on opposite sides of three conflicts – in Syria, in Libya, and in Nagorno-Karabakh – and are competing for influence in Western Asia and Southern Europe including Eastern Mediterranean. Russia-Turkey competition is not a new phenomenon but has escalated as both countries have adopted more ambitious foreign policy objectives and expanded their regional influence in the past decade.
On September 27, 2020 the latest in a series of conflicts emerged when fighting broke out again between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. With Turkey and Russia on opposite sides once more, the flare-up in the South Caucasus will be a major test of whether their relationship will bend or break.
In keeping with its approach to other conflicts, Russia has called on Armenia and Azerbaijan to cease fire since day one. Turkey, in turn, has openly supported Azerbaijan in what the Azeri Turks have defined as a bid to “restore territorial integrity.” Turkey’s stance is likely driven by his ambition of extending Turkey’s influence in the Caucasus. In order to project Turkey’s power and further its regional aspirations, he has been hopscotching crises – from Syria and Libya to spats with Greece and Cyprus and now Nagorno-Karabakh.
Turkey’s goals in the South Caucasus
From Russia’s standpoint, Turkey appears determined to achieve two primary goals in the Caucasus. The first is to shift the status quo in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in favor of Azerbaijan, a long-time ally with which it shares close ethnic and linguistic ties. The second and more important goal is to ensure a new role for itself as a mediator, over any possible objections from Armenia. (Turkey and Armenia have no diplomatic relations and their land border has been sealed since 1993.)
When it comes to conflict resolution initiatives, Turkey is skilled at gaining a seat at the table, even when major actors find his presence undesirable. What matters to Turkey, however, is that its new status in the Nagorno-Karabakh settlement is embraced and recognized by Russia. Meanwhile, Russia has been in contact with both Azerbaijan and Armenia and welcomed the foreign ministers of both countries to Russia for cease-fire talks on October 9, 2020. Given this development, Russia may just find a way to deny Turkey even the most scanty of mediatory roles.
To achieve its second objective, Turkey has had a strategy that now looks less likely than ever to succeed: Turkey has wanted to either join or form a viable alternative to the OSCE Minsk Group, the international body spearheading efforts to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Since its founding in 1992, the Minsk Group has been co-chaired by Russia, France, and the US, leaving Turkey out of the power game. To a degree, Turkey has hoped to copy Russia’s own approach to the Geneva conferences on Syria, when Russia decried the talks’ ineffectiveness and created a parallel track in Astana. Once the Astana process helped Syria to regain control over territories held by the opposition, Russia could return to the table in Geneva with greater international support and legitimacy.
Statements from Turkish officials suggest they are indeed aiming to replicate this approach. While Turkey criticized the Minsk Group, later stating that Turkey is ready to work with Russia on the Nagorno-Karabakh issue. The president’s criticism justifies the opening of a parallel negotiation track, while Turkey’s more conciliatory tone keeps alive the prospect of a greater role for Turkey under the current system. The contrast between the two statements also indicates a more general policy concern for Turkey: Russia has grown to be both a problem and an opportunity for Turkey as it seeks to project power and influence across former Turkistan lands (from Southeast Europe to West Asia, ie, from Albania to Kyrgyzstan).
Addressing the Turkish Parliament on October 1, 2020 Turkish Leadership said,“The crisis that started with the occupation of Crimea in the Black Sea can rise again any time. The clashes that started with the attack by Armenia, which occupied Nagorno-Karabakh, against Azerbaijan are the most concrete examples of this.” It is clear from declarations like these that Turkey sees Russia as encroaching on territories that it hopes to draw into its own sphere of influence.
At the same time, Turkey has come to see Russia as providing an opportunity to increase its own strategic autonomy vis-à-vis the US and NATO. Yet, a repeat in Nagorno-Karabakh of a Syria-style deal along the lines of the Astana talks is unlikely for several reasons.
Russia and Turkey back opposing parties in Libya and will likely remain militarily engaged despite a recent ceasefire. Turkey intervened in Libya in January 2020 to halt the advance of forces backed by geopolitical opponents Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Russia on Libya, while carving out a Turkish maritime sphere of influence in the Eastern Mediterranean. Turkey’s intervention derailed Russia’s campaign in Libya but produced intensified Russian engagement. Russia remains committed to establishing permanent Russian basing and access to Libya’s oil supply, even amid constraints imposed by Russia’s own local partners and regional allies. Russia and Turkey are locked in an armed race for influence in Libya below the level of outright conflict. The parties are unlikely to pull away from Libya even while a purported “permanent ceasefire” signed by their respective local partners on October 23 calls for the withdrawal of all foreign forces.
In Syria, Turkey’s decision to join Russia and Iran was a forced, tactical choice. After downing a Russian jet in November 2015, Turkey found itself under severe Russian sanctions. With little political and no financial or military support from the West, Turkey had no hope of getting “everything he wanted” in Syria, so he opted to bandwagon with Russia and Iran to get “at least something.” As a result, some pro-Turkish opposition groups in Syria have softened on Russia, Iran, and the Syrian Army, while others disbanded, by force or by choice. All of this played into Russia’s interests: Turkey was pulled away from the coalition of the willing to topple Syrian leadership and began to conduct shuttle diplomacy between Syrian opposition groups and Russia; Russia-Turkey relations reached unprecedented heights; and Russia increased its authority as a great power.
The situation in Syria is precarious; Syria remains a priority effort for both Russia and Turkey while the two parties are increasingly at odds. Turkey views Syria as core to its national security, fearing both a renewed refugee influx and autonomous Kurdish governance on the Turkish border. is a critical venue for projecting power in the Middle East and Mediterranean and pressuring the United States. Turkish occupation of swathes of northern Syria and Russian freedom of action throughout regime-held areas has resulted in a shaky balance. Turkey and Russia have been facing off in opposition-held greater Idlib to pressuring one another into a negotiated settlement since mid-September 2020. Turkish and Russian proxies are also manning opposing, but stable front lines in Syria’s northeast. Russia or Turkey must alter this balance, through diplomacy or force, if either is to achieve its objectives. The Russian air force carried out one of the deadliest-ever Russian airstrikes in Syria targeting a Turkish proxy in Idlib on October 26 in a possible play to shift the situation in Syria or impose costs on Turkey for actions elsewhere.
But the South Caucasus isn’t Syria
Recent hostilities in Nagorno-Karabakh are both born of and further fueling Russia-Turkey competition. Turkey coordinated with Azerbaijan to reignite the long-standing conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over occupied territory Nagorno-Karabakh in September. Turkey sees the conflict as a low-cost opportunity to solidify a Turkish foothold in the Caucasus and challenge growing bilateral ties between Azerbaijan and Russia while profiting from arms sales to Azerbaijan. Russia brokered two failed ceasefires since fighting began in September 2020 in a bid to keep both Armenia and Azerbaijan within its sphere of influence. Russia seeks rapid de-escalation in Nagorno-Karabakh with minimum Russian investment. Russia’s neutrality is an opportunity for Turkey to cash in rapid Azerbaijani territorial gains for regional influence without triggering a Russian escalation. A new ceasefire—brokered by the US without Russian involvement—went into effect on October 26 with both Armenian and Azerbaijani violations reported within hours. Russia may attempt to compel a resolution by force in response to Turkey’s growing military role and the United States’ growing diplomatic role in the conflict, reasserting Russia’s role as the sole powerbroker in the Caucasus.
In Nagorno-Karabakh, however, none of these conditions are in place. The Minsk Group, imperfect though it may be, helps advance Russian interests and is actually one of a few venues that might spur Russia-West cooperation on Nagorno-Karabakh, since all of the others have failed. Most importantly, Russia is the controlling security stakeholder in the Caucasus and has no interest in “selling its shares” to anyone else – be it the US, the EU, or Turkey. In terms of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict specifically, Russia believes that it has enough leverage over both Armenia and Azerbaijan to make deference to Turkey unnecessary. Russia’s other interests in the region, including separatist movements that it supports (South Ossetia and Abkhazia), mean that Russia is unlikely to cede any ground.
Turkey, nonetheless, is holding out hope for a partnership with Russia. This makes sense from Turkey’s perspective, as it knows it cannot win regional standing through a war with Russia that would overstretch its resources. Nor does Russia want a war. Domestically, a direct military engagement in the South Caucasus would likely be costlier for Russia than it would be for Turkey.
Most importantly, Russia and Turkey have differing ideas of what constitutes “success” in the South Caucasus. To achieve its vision, Russia must deftly balance between the competing interests of different partners. Success for Turkey, however, depends on the simpler task of providing enough political and military support for Turkish groups (e.g. Azeris) to feel that it has done its duty.
Accepting a new role for Turkey in the South Caucasus might weaken Russia’s position in the long run, even if Turkey’s aims are limited in comparison with its own. It would also likely be disastrous for Armenia and unacceptable for the EU. To a certain extent, greater Turkish influence would even be detrimental to Azerbaijan, as it will reduce its room for maneuver and make it more dependent politically, and perhaps even ideologically, on Turkey. Yet, Azerbaijan’s criticism of the Minsk Group’s performance suggests that Azerbaijani president is frustrated by its perceived bias in favor of Armenia and by 30 years of unsuccessful efforts to resolve the conflict. Although Azerbaijan is careful enough to speak well of Russia’s role in the process, Azerbaijan’s turn toward Turkey shows that it is now thinking more about the benefits of having a powerful regional actor speak for its interests on the international stage than about the price it might have to pay for this support.
Turkey’s maneuvers have caused alarm at the highest levels of the Russian state. Turkey’s explicit and definite support for Azerbaijan is a principally new external factor to the Nagorno – Karabakh exacerbation. Since the flare-up in fighting, Russia has frequently spoken out on the matter. Yet this statement is also a perfect summary of what Russia sees as the key difference from previous clashes over the disputed territory. Evidently, Russia is at a crossroads vis-à-vis Turkey’s aspirations in the South Caucasus and must choose one of two paths: either strike a deal with Turkey to accommodate one another’s ambitions and security concerns or break Turkey’s will through diplomacy of attrition.
In the latter case, Russia won’t reject out of hand any of Turkey’s proposals for cooperation, but will fight its rival on other fronts around the world. For example, Russia could egg on Syria to target pro-Turkish groups in Syria (Idlib) or ratchet up its support for Russian mercenaries and warlord Khalifa Haftar in Libya against the Turkish-backed Government of National Accord. Needless to mention, Russia is a proven destructive, never-trusted force capable of organizing brutal massacres in conflict zones against Turkey. The Syria (Idlib) offensive was an airstrike by the Russian-backed Syrian Armed Forces on February 27, 2020 against a battalion of the Turkish Armed Forces in Idlib province, Syria. The attack, which killed 34 Turkish soldiers, is described as Turkey’s biggest loss in the Syrian Civil War.
At the same time, Russia will make certain that Turkey does not get to wield too much influence over either the Minsk Group or any of its more ad-hoc mediation efforts.
In the Middle East, Russia has grown into a skillful player. In post-Soviet politics, it has mostly been rather clumsy. In the Caucasus, throughout its history, Russia has been both. From working with allies to countering rivals, it will soon be clear whether Russia has learned something in the Middle East that it can now apply to its own “near abroad.”
Developments in Syria, Libya, and Nagorno-Karabakh cannot be analyzed in a vacuum, but must instead be contextualized in the landscape of cross-theater Russia-Turkey competition. The two revisionist powers will likely continue to search for a comparative advantage, including by establishing new and advantageous theaters for competition or further investing in existing theaters. Seemingly inexplicable Russian or Turkish decisions in one theater may be readily understandable when considered alongside developments in another theater. A Russian or Turkish decision to commit resources in a new area, if not obviously compatible with policy objectives, may well result from a desire to obtain leverage over the other party. Whether Russia-Turkey competition de-escalates through negotiations or escalates kinetically, it will have profound and lasting effects in the Middle East, North Africa, and the Caucasus.
2020 Nagorno-Karabakh ceasefire agreement
Azerbaijan and Armenia agree full ceasefire in Nagorno-Karabakh Truce seen as victory for Azerbaijan and will be monitored by Russian forces.
The 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh ceasefire agreement is an armistice agreement that ended the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war. It was signed on 9 November 2020 by the president of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, the prime minister of Armenia, Nikol Pashinyan, and the president of Russia, Vladimir Putin, and ended all hostilities in the Nagorno-Karabakh region from 00:00, 10 November 2020 Moscow time. The president of the self-declared Republic of Artsakh, Arayik Harutyunyan, also agreed to an end of hostilities.
Renewed hostilities between Azerbaijan and the self-proclaimed Republic of Artsakh began on 27 September 2020. Azerbaijan made several territorial gains over the following six weeks culminating in the capture of the strategically important town Shusha following a fierce battle which prompted the parties to agree to sign a ceasefire deal on 9 November 2020.
According to the agreement both parties will exchange prisoners of war and the bodies of the fallen. Furthermore, the Armenian forces will withdraw from Armenian-controlled territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh by 1 December 2020. Additionally, a 2,000-strong Russian peacekeeping force from the Russian Ground Forces will be deployed to the region for a minimum of five years to protect the Lachin corridor, situated between Armenia and the Nagorno-Karabakh region. According to Azerbaijan, Turkish forces will also take part in the peacekeeping process. Additionally, Azerbaijan will gain passage to its Nakhchivan exclave, which is detached from Azerbaijan, through a strip of Armenian land close to the border with Turkey and Iran. Russian forces will also guarantee the roads connecting Azerbaijan and Nakhchivan.
Terms of the agreement:
The Multilateral Armistice Agreement states:
We the President of Azerbaijan, I. Aliyev, Prime Minister of the Republic of Armenia N.V. Pashinyan and President of the Russian Federation V.V. Putin state the following:
A complete ceasefire and end to all hostilities in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict from 00:00 Moscow time on 10 November 2020. The Republic of Azerbaijan and the Republic of Armenia, hereinafter referred to as the parties stop at the current territorial positions they occupy.
Agdam District returns to the Republic of Azerbaijan by 20 November 2020.
Along the frontline in Nagorno-Karabakh and along the Lachin corridor there will be a peacekeeping contingent of the Russian Federation with 1960 military personnel with small arms, 90 armored personnel carriers, 380 military vehicles and other special equipment.
The peacekeeping contingent of the Russian Federation is deployed in parallel with the withdrawal of the Armenian armed forces from Nagorno-Karabakh. The duration of the peacekeeping contingent of the Russian Federation is 5 years with automatic renewal for the next 5 year period if none of the parties state otherwise 6 months in advance.
In order to improve the effectiveness of control over the implementation by the Parties to the conflict agreements, a peacekeeping command post is being installed in order to enforce the ceasefire.
The Republic of Armenia will return to Azerbaijan the Kalbajar District by 15 November 2020, and the Lachin District by 1 December 2020. The Lachin corridor (5 km (3.1 mi) wide) which will provide access from Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia remains under the control of the peacekeeping contingent of the Russian Federation. The town of Shusha located within the corridor will remain in Azeri possession. By agreement of the Parties, a construction plan will be determined in the next three years for a new route of movement along the Lachin corridor, providing a link between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia with the subsequent redeployment of the Russian peacekeeping contingent to guard this route. The Republic of Azerbaijan guarantees the safety of traffic along the Lachin corridor of citizens, vehicles, and goods in both directions.
Internally displaced persons and refugees return to the territories of Nagorno-Karabakh and adjacent areas under the control of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees.
The exchange of prisoners of war is to be made, hostages, and other detainees as well as the remains of casualties.
All economic activity and transport links in the region are to be unrestricted. The Republic of Armenia guarantees the safety of transport links between western regions of the Republic of Azerbaijan and the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic in order to organize the unimpeded movement of citizens, vehicles and cargo in both directions. Transport control is carried out by the bodies of the Border Service of the FSB of Russia. By agreement of the Parties, the construction of new infrastructure linking the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic with regions of Azerbaijan is to take place.
On November 11, 2020, Turkey and Russia signed the memorandum of understanding on the joint Turkish-Russian center for the control and supervision of the ceasefire in Nagorno – Karabakh region.