By Khajag Aghazarian, Montreal, Québec, 21 January 2021
The second Artsakh War erupted as a result of changes in the political and military environment of Turkey, Russia, and Azerbaijan. During the three decades of Armenian control of Artsakh there were changes in the interests, perception, and policies of Russia, Turkey, and Azerbaijan which led to the attack that tipped the balance of power in Southern Caucasus. While developments in Armenia and Artsakh are as important in describing the war and its outcome, the focus here is an analysis of the regional framework of the conflict without underestimating the Armenian context.
Turkish state ideology and interests have undergone dramatic changes since the ascendance of Recep Tayyip Erdogan to power as prime minister in 2003, and later as president in 2014. The new ethno-religious nationalism of Erdogan was the first major state-level ideological shift in Turkey since Ataturk’s founding of the Republic of Turkey almost 100 years ago, which was based on nationalistic ideology that focused on prosperity and patriotism rather than expansionism.
By introducing and re-emphasizing the religious component in the Turkish national identity, Erdogan went beyond the traditional Turkish nationalist rhetoric and claims by adding to it the Ottoman religious heritage. By doing so, he wanted to legitimize his interventionism and subsequent territorial expansionism under the “undisputable historical legacy” of the last Islamic Caliphate. This ideological shift had been transformed into a new foreign policy of interventionism and hegemony towards almost all countries surrounding Turkey. Under this new ideological construct, Erdogan justified to his supporters and to Turkey’s allies his country’s direct interference in the second Libyan Civil War and similarly in the Syrian Civil War (as of 2014 and 2016 respectively). More dangerously, Erdogan justified through these religious ideological discourses his support and, in some cases, Turkey’s direct control over local Islamist militant groups in these two Arab countries.
Erdogan believes he and his country are the legitimate descendants and the righteous inheritors of the last Islamic Caliphate, the Ottoman Empire. According to that premise Turkey will embrace the mission of re-establishing an Islamic Caliphdom in the 21st century. This ideological doctrine, state-constructed and brought forward by Erdogan and his ruling elite, is new to modern-day Turkey. The major component and the most contentious element in this new doctrine are its justification of expansionist policies and adventures of the Turkish state almost without restraint.
Before Erdogan, Turkey had been cautious in challenging or provoking Russia. The success of Turkish military and policies in the past few years in challenging and sometimes even surpassing Russian military and political will in two major conflicts in the region (Syria and Libya) encouraged Turkey to challenge Russia in Southern Caucasus. By doing so, Turkey indicated the desire to establish its political and military presence in that region. The timing was judicious: these developments occurred after Turkey had established economic and commercial ties with Azerbaijan and Georgia. Turkey found in Azerbaijan’s Ilham Aliyev a trustworthy and collaborative ally who showed willingness to facilitate Turkey’s goals in the region. Erdogan did not want to miss the opportunity to establish a strong and enduring Turkish foothold in Southern Caucasus.
The 2020 Artsakh War occurred at a moment of rapprochement and the rearranging of settlements between Russia and Turkey in Syria. It also started when Russia was and is trying to minimize Iran’s influence in Syria. To do that it needs the maintenance of the status quo in its relationship with Turkey. Turkey was able to seduce the Russian appetite in Southern Caucasus by providing for it an opportunity to score several gains. Russia was eager to seize the opportunity that came at almost zero cost while it attained high geopolitical and commercial gains that can be summarized as follows:
- Since 1991, Russia’s central aim has been to enhance its influence over the former Soviet countries.
- Russia always wanted to establish an upper hand in the Artsakh conflict–at least as a peacekeeper. The war created a new consensus among the belligerents to establish ceasefire under direct and sole Russian presence and auspices.
- Russia had become wary of the new political regime in Armenia that was formed as a result of the revolution in 2018. The Kremlin needed a comeback in Armenia’s political scene and to re-establish relations with its new political elite. The war paved the way for that.
- Suffering from economic challenges since 2014, Russia needed regional allies and commercial deals, and subsequent compromises and stability to sustain its economy and external influence. The war opened several such opportunities for Russia in Southern Caucasus and in the adjacent countries.
Recent political and economic developments in Azerbaijan proved to be instrumental in the war against Artsakh. These internal developments were coupled with dramatic shift of Azerbaijan’s foreign relations especially with Russia, Turkey, and Iran. To contain the growing popular opposition, Aliyev took a reformist path after his re-election for the third consecutive term in 2018. In 2019, he replaced most of the members of the old guard such as Ramiz Mehdiyev and Ali Hasanov – part of the ruling elite since the mid-1990s – with young, Western-educated, high-caliber professionals who were loyal to the president and believed in his ideological rhetoric. This was coupled with a supposed widescale crackdown on corruption, at many intervals this was a showdown of his “new” policy rather than a real change of administrative procedures in Azerbaijan. Doing so, Aliyev won a much-needed popular support as a “reformist leader”.
In a dramatic ideological shift, Aliyev changed his rhetoric immediately after re-assuming power in 2018: from being Eurocentric and an advocate of liberal social and economic policies to a religious conservative who advocated tradition and historical allegiances based on religion and ethnicity. By doing so, Aliyev curbed the tension between religious groups and the government and, more importantly, presented an additional compromise to his ally, Turkey. Following the steps of Erdogan, Aliyev replaced the rhetoric of secular nationalism with ethno-religious nationalism. This was the last cornerstone in the alliance of the two states that had been taking shape for almost a decade. The artificial shift in the ideological perspective of Aliyev is explained by his eagerness to gain full military and political support from Turkey in pursuing his aspiration to grab Artsakh, and become a regional player through his oil pipelines that had reached Europe.
To sustain his rule, Aliyev needed a military victory over the Armenians. The hoped victory would justify his spending on the army and his impoverishment of the Azerbaijani people. Azerbaijan’s military budget increased from just $104 million in 1996 to $1.6 billion in 2018. The military budget increased annually until 2015 when oil prices dropped and Azerbaijan was hit economically. Without hope of restoring his financial losses, Aliyev could not reverse the course of his plan to resort to arms to resolve the Artsakh conflict. Aliyev had to justify to his people the $30 billion military spending in 10 years, and his mobilization of his people and resources towards that aim. He could do so only by attaining significant territorial gains.
Turkish – Azeri Alliance
Although Turkey had been supportive of Azerbaijan since the latter’s independence in 1991, at many important milestones, it stood at a distance and their relationship never rose to the level of comprehensive alliance. The Turkish-Azeri alliance during the years leading to the war in September 2020 was the definitive element in the changing environment that encouraged Azerbaijan to launch the war.
The changes in the ideological, political, military, administrative, and diplomatic processes that occurred in Azerbaijan, especially since 2011, happened with the direct blessing, support, and sometimes even intervention of Turkey’s Erdogan. The Turkish-Azeri rapprochement that started in 2008 evolved to take the current form of a full alliance. For Aliyev, this came as a result of a rational choice based on cautious calculation. As a typical dictator, he viewed any success in Azerbaijan as a step forward towards his personal glorification. To place his country on the map of influential nations, he had to follow the difficult path of finding new, reliable partners in the region and in the international arena. Aliyev credited his success in his meticulous distancing from Russia while continuing to nurture the relationship and avoiding any provocation against Putin. Aliyev also found partners who would uphold his interests. These new partners were Turkey to a large extent, Europe and Israel to a lesser one.
One of the early fruits of this rapprochement was the construction of the South Caucasus Pipeline. The pipeline departs from Azerbaijani Shah Deniz oil and gas fields in the Caspian Sea, crosses into Georgia and down to the Ceyhan port on Turkey’s southern coast. This was the first pipeline through which Azerbaijan would start exporting its oil and gas to new markets. It was also the first serious link in developing Turkish-Azeri economic and commercial dependence. Other projects followed that deepened the dependency.
In 2011, the relationship between Turkey and Azerbaijan took a different twist compared to the preceding two decades. The twist was based on the individual interests of each party. Azerbaijan wanted to consolidate its independence and sovereignty, especially from the historical Russian dominance in the region. To attain that aim, Aliyev needed access to the West, especially to Europe, besides other growing markets. Oil and gas were the main products that would intimidate Europe to build good and lasting relations with Azerbaijan, especially since Europe had been suffering from its dependence on Russian oil and gas in recent decades. In November 2012, negotiations between Azerbaijan, Turkey, and the European partners concluded with the signing of a memorandum of understanding as a result of which Azeri oil fields in the Caspian Sea would be connected to Europe via three pipelines with a length of 3,411 kilometres and referred to as Southern Gas Corridor: South Caucasus Pipeline, Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (TANAP) and the Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP). This $45 billion project was a win-win scenario for all the parties, leaving Russia out of the equation.
On the eve of the September war, Azerbaijan was able to read and mobilize its forces based on the regional and internal elements that had conglomerated to create the ideal environment for war in Artsakh. Aliyev’s dream was to reach “Erivan”, as he likes to call the capital of Armenia. He later re-tweaked his ambition and accepted to sign a new ceasefire with Armenia under the auspices of Russia. Aliyev’s military victory is debatable, despite the return of the occupied territories. His political achievements have a sweet and sour taste, knowing that Russia now is the main actor in the conflict. More worrisome for Aliyev and Erdogan are Putin’s ambitions and appetite in Southern Caucasus that also includes the newly opened oil and gas trade route with Europe. The scale of achievements and failures of each party will continue to unfold.
Meanwhile, who won and who lost?
Winners: Russia and Turkey.
Unhappy about Azerbaijan’s perceived partial victory, there’s no doubt Aliyev would resort to force at the earliest opportunity, especially since his martial propaganda during the war raised Azeri people’s level of hatred of Armenians and whetted their appetite for further aggression.