It seems that the latest escalation in relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan is a Turkish revenge on Russia for a lost war in Syria.
A serious escalation of the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh risks tuning into a large scale conflict, for the first time since it ended in 1994. Both sides are members of the Commonwealth of Independent States and maintain good relations with Russia, including military and technical. However, Armenia is also a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization and Euro-Asian Economic Union (EurAsEC) but Azerbaijan is not. There is a Russian military base in Armenia close to the Turkish border.
Both sides accuse each other of starting the conflict. But there is another consequence to provoking escalation: after Turkey shot down a Russian Su-24 over Syria a few months ago, relations between the two countries deteriorated – unexpectedly it seemed. The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict became a victim of the crisis in relations between Moscow and Ankara.
Even before the plane was shot down, the latter didn’t appreciate the State Duma passing a law recognizing the genocide of Armenians in 1915 (and Putin’s visit to Yerevan on the hundredth anniversary of this tragedy).
Relations between Armenia and Turkey also deteriorated over this incident. Adopting a “macho style”, Turkey has been violating the Armenian border more frequently, and as if on command, there was a sharp increase in the number of violations on the demarcation line between Azerbaijan and Armenia near Karabakh. Since 2014 there has been a steady increase in the number of incidents. This was “after the Crimea” when the work of the OSCE Minsk Group on Karabakh (which includes Russia and the USA) deteriorated.
Azerbaijan in turn spent huge amounts of money rearming during the year of high oil prices (its military budget is several times larger than Armenia’s) and made clear that it wasn’t going to wait forever for the Minsk group to come up with a solution. If they failed to solve the conflict peacefully, it would use military force. Last fall, high ranking Turkish politicians made a series of sharp statements saying that Turkey would “do its best” to help friendly Azerbaijan liberate its land.
Turkish Prime Minister Davoutoglu made his first such statement two days after shooting down the Russian plane in Syria. The same statements were made during the meeting of Erdogan and Azeri President Ilham Aliyev, with a lot of pan-Turkish statements from Erdogan. Turkey has many military advisors in the Azerbaijan army, and its policy can be considered as pay-back for Moscow’s actions in Syria, in particular for supporting the Syrian Kurds.
There is another factor strengthening political position of Ilham Aliyev. When he was in Washington at the summit on nuclear security, he met with Vice President Biden, who told him Azerbaijan was strategically important for America, confirming its support for Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity, including Karabakh.
Relations between the two countries is far better than in the 1990’s, when Baku was under American sanctions. Azerbaijan is a member of the Western coalition in Afghanistan, and American investments in Azerbaijan exceed $10 billion.
The US wants the country to become an important player in the “Southern Gas Corridor” to Europe, bypassing Russia. There is already an oil corridor, the Baku–Tbilisi–Ceyhan pipeline through Turkey. One would think that America doesn’t need a new large Karabakh war that would ruin plans for any ‘corridors’. The only country that needs a war is Turkey, as it plays its own game in the region without considering its principal ally, NATO.
Still, there are reasons to hope that the high level relationships between Moscow, Baku and Yerevan as well as the experience working with Washington on Syria will at least allow the conflict to be refrozen if not resolved, before it’s too late.