Will Russian-Turkish cooperation in Karabakh strengthen ties or increase rivalry between the two powers?

Will Russian-Turkish cooperation in Karabakh strengthen ties or increase rivalry between the two powers?

 Will Russian-Turkish cooperation in Karabakh strengthen ties or increase rivalry between the two powers?

Azerbaijan defeats Armenia in Karabakh war

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian said Monday night that he has “painfully” signed an agreement with the leaders of Azerbaijan and Russia to end the war with Azerbaijan on Tuesday.

It follows six weeks of fighting between Azerbaijan and ethnic Armenians.

The region where fighting occured is internationally recognised as Azerbaijani but has been run by ethnic Armenians since 1994.

“I have signed a statement with the presidents of Russia and Azerbaijan on the termination of the Karabakh war,” Pashinyan said in a statement posted on his Facebook page, calling the move “unspeakably painful for me personally and for our people.”

The Kremlin released a statement later, saying the parties have signed a deal on the “complete stoppage” of combat in Nagorno-Karabakh. Pashinian added that he would address the nation “in upcoming days.”

Russia’s defence ministry said it had begun the deployment of 1,960 soldiers to act as peacekeepers for the next five years. Putin said they would be positioned along the frontline in Nagorno-Karabakh and in the corridor between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh.

Turkey and Russia agree to cooperation in peace deal

Turkey’s president on Wednesday announced the signing of a memorandum of understanding (MoU) setting up a joint Turkish-Russian center to monitor the Karabakh peace deal, which has ended weeks of armed conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia.

“Turkey will join the peacekeeping forces in the [Karabakh] region to monitor the implementation of the deal with Russia,” Recep Tayyip Erdogan told a parliamentary group meeting of his party in the capital Ankara.

The joint center, which will be established on Azerbaijani territories that were liberated from Armenia’s occupation, was signed this morning, Erdogan added.

“All measures in preventing violations of the cease-fire in Nagorno-Karabakh will be taken by this center,” he explained.

A 20-member Russian delegation arrived in Ankara early Nov. 13 and held meetings with their Turkish counterparts first at the Foreign Ministry and then at the Defense Ministry. Deputy Foreign Minister Sedat Önal hosted the Russian delegation at a working luncheon before technical talks for the joint observation center began at the Defense Ministry.

“The objective we are trying to achieve in Azerbaijan is to make the ceasefire permanent, to provide stability and peace, to spread prosperity and to open borders. Nobody should have eyes on the other’s interests,” Defense Minister Hulusi Akar told a parliamentary panel late Nov. 12 while explaining the Turkish-Russian joint mission.

“We will discuss with the Russian delegation the tactical and technical points concerning who will be located to where and etc.,” Akar said.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar and Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu signed a memorandum of understanding for the establishment of a joint mission to monitor the implementation of the ceasefire between Armenia and Azerbaijan in line with Nov. 9 agreement between the two rival countries.

As a result of a six-week armed conflict, Armenia accepted the defeat and promised to withdraw from the Azerbaijani territories it has been occupying since the early 1990s. Russia has brokered the deal and will play a crucial role in Nagorno-Karabakh with the deployment of a 2,000-strong peace force.

Article 5 of the deal stipulates the need to observe the ceasefire which will be carried out by Turkish and Russian forces.

According to the press reports, Turkey will deploy its drones to observe the ceasefire along the new Line of Contact in Nagorno-Karabakh, while the Russians will also have a ground observation mission.

In an interview on Nov. 12, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov suggested that the mobility of Turkish observers will be limited by the geographic coordinates of the Russian-Turkish monitoring center which will be located away from Nagorno-Karabakh.

“The center will operate exclusively remotely, using live monitoring and recording systems, such as drones and other technology, to monitor the situation on the ground in Nagorno-Karabakh, primarily on the contact line, and to determine which party violates and which party complies with the terms of the ceasefire and termination of hostilities. The boundaries of the Turkish observers’ mobility will be limited to the premises that are to be set up on the territory of Azerbaijan, not in the zone of the former conflict,” he said.

Although necessary military and technical works to set up the joint monitoring mission will be conducted by Turkey and Russia, a final decision about the modalities and working procedures will be made by Azerbaijani authorities as the host nation.

The joint Turkish and Russian working group is expected to inform the results of their work and draft modalities on a visit to Baku once they conclude the bilateral meetings. It’s expected that the Turkish Parliament will authorize the government to deploy troops to Azerbaijan in line with article 92 of the Turkish Constitution.

What does this mean for Turkish-Russian ties?

Along with Nagorno-Karabakh, the Turkish-Russian delegations have also reviewed the latest situation in Idlib province of Syria where they continue to monitor the cessation of hostilities since March.

Turkey has recently re-located some of its observation spots in the southern skirts of Idlib which were established as a result of the Sochi Agreement in 2018.

It is hard to dismiss the fact that such cooperation in Azerbaijan has momentous implications on relations between Turkey and Russia, who have already established joint patrols in Syria.

However, while talks were ongoing, discussing the solution in Karabakh, Russian jets bombarded an oil refinery in the Syrian border town of Jarablus and targeted a military parade by the Syrian National Army in Idlib, killing at least 50 Turkey-backed soldiers.  Both strikes were interpreted as a demonstration of Russian disapproval over Turkey’s role in the current war in Nagorno-Karabakh which Russia considers within its sphere of influence. So why did Russia invite Turkey to the table yet express its frustration through military escalation in Syria?

Over the years, Turkey and Russia have built and navigated a relationship where cooperation and conflict go hand in hand while both nations try to compartmentalise their complex relations.  The shooting down of a Russian fighter jet after Russia violated Turkey’s airspace in 2015 and the following freeze in Turkish-Russian relations was a lesson remembered until today.

After the incident, Turkey and Russia entered a spiral of escalation and increased the costs for each side. While Russia enabled several military victories for its client in Damascus, Turkey’s support to the Syrian opposition caused massive damage to Russia and its local allies.  Soon, both nations learned that they need to talk despite their disagreements and find areas of cooperation as buffers for a potential escalation in the relationship – otherwise, Turkey and Russia would bleed themselves out. This experience in Syria is now standardised across the gambit of Turkey-Russia relations.

Turkey is increasingly wading into proxy conflicts against Russian-backed forces, and its success in them have been frustrating President Vladimir Putin all year. Turkey turning the tide in Libya against Russian backed Haftar, was the biggest example of this.

But while the long-term consequences for such aggression by Turkey remain unclear, the short-term consequences for Putin’s plans in the Middle East and Caucuses are, the NATO analyst said.

“Until Russia can stop” Turkey from deploying its cheap drones, “Putin is going to have a problem,” the analyst said.

But still, this reality did not prevent Turkey and Russia from building the TurkStream in addition to the already working BlueStream. These crucial energy infrastructure projects function as a buffer in relations. Other Turkish-Russian areas of cooperation like the building of the Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant or the procurement of the S-400 air-defence systems by Turkey can be seen in the same light. Even though, both are viewed as a necessity rather than a choice, both function as tools of de-escalation.

Nevertheless, from a Russian perspective, Turkey has evolved as its biggest competitor. Turkey stands in front of Russian expansionism in the Caucasus, the Black Sea, and the Middle East and Turkish foreign policy has not only challenged Russia in its expansionism but also interfered in regions regarded as Russia’s hinterland.

Russia’s frustration with the necessity of Turkey’s involvement in the Karabakh peace process is clear, and although the joint patrols will certainly act as a buffer to conflict between the two powers, Turkey’s increasing involvement in Azerbaijan will certainly increase its rivalry with Russia, as Russia increasingly sees Turkey as a threat to its regional geopolitical interests.

Hazem Zahab

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