Conflict Alerts

Conflict Alerts # 173, 8 October 2020

Turkey, Russia and regional issues in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict
Apoorva Sudhakar

In the news
On 5 October, Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service warned that escalation of conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh region posed a threat of Islamist radicals to Moscow. Meanwhile, despite Russia, France, and the United States calling for an unconditional ceasefire, Turkey has come out in support of Azerbaijan and said that without a sustainable solution, a ceasefire is meaningless. 

On 27 September, clashes erupted between the two countries resulting in at least 300 deaths including civilians and declaration of martial law in both countries. 

Issues at large
First, Turkey's increasing assertiveness in the region. Armenia claims that Turkey has been sending fighters to the region, including from Syria and Libya. Though Turkey has denied claims of sending mercenaries to Azerbaijan, Erdogan has maintained that support for Azerbaijan is a part of Turkey's quest for its "deserved place in the world order." France and Syria have blamed Turkey for crossing the red line and stirring up the conflict. 

Second, Russia's hesitations to get involved in the conflict. Russia, which has enjoyed relations with both the former Soviet blocs, has sold arms to the two countries but Russia's defence pact guarantees security to Armenia. Moscow may, however, not extend the support in the conflicted region because it is internationally recognized as a part of Azerbaijan. Moreover, this is an opportunity for Russia to counter the current Armenian leadership's anti-Kremlin politics. 

Third, Iran as a balancing actor. Despite sharing a border with Azerbaijan and having a common Shia ethnicity, Iran has stayed away from getting involved in the conflict and has called for negotiations. However, in the past week, small demonstrations were held in support of Azerbaijan, including in Tehran and Tabriz. 

Fourth, Azerbaijan's role in Europe and Turkey's energy security. The Nagorno-Karabakh region is an important transit route for the supply of oil and natural gas to the European Union and Turkey from Azerbaijan which produces oil up to 800,000 barrels per day. The pipeline along this route delivered 9.2 billion cubic meters of natural gas to Turkey in 2019 and is due to start supplying Greece and Italy with up to 3 per cent of the EU's total supply next month. 

In perspective
On 5 October, NATO Chief Jens Stoltenberg called for a ceasefire. However, Turkey's hardline stance on the conflict raises questions on NATO's effectiveness. Further, the Minsk Group, formed under the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), to mediate between the two countries over the 1992 Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, has failed to address the conflict today. As the Group is headed by France, Russia and the US, the conflict would pave the way for Turkey to marginalize the Minsk Group. Azerbaijan, too, has said it has lost patience with the OSCE's failure to resolve the conflict and demands Turkey be included in any further negotiation. 

On 7 October, Iran warned if fighting between Azeri and ethnic Armenian forces in the South Caucasus prolongs, a regional war is inevitable. If so, the main external actors would be Russia and Turkey. Since the US role in the region has been decreasing, other powers like France and Iran may also enter the conflict which could lead to scenarios similar to those in Syria and Libya or the East Mediterranean.

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