The (first) 30 Days of War in Artsakh Explained against the Global Geostrategic Chessboard

The (first) 30 Days of War in Artsakh Explained against the Global Geostrategic Chessboard

Text: Tigran Zakaryan

 

It has been a month since Azerbaijan, with Turkish direct involvement and support, has been waging a war of extermination in Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh), that aims at ethnic cleansing and a violent resolution of the conflict simmering since the ceasefire of 1994. Unlike any other previous conflagration and the war of 1992-1994, this time the involvement of Turkey is unprecedented, starting from Erdogan’s harsh warlike rhetoric and well-known supply of arms up to armed involvement and transfer of jihadi fighters from northern Syria.

In the first days of the war, with no serious military success achieved and hundreds of casualties and war equipment losses suffered in the battlefield, Azerbaijan became increasingly dependent on Turkey and ultimately as many observers note, one of the keys to ending the conflict, the war at least, was shifted from Baku to Ankara. 

Artsakh's president Arayik Harutyunyan on the frontline, October 4

There is yet another peculiarity of the current war in Artsakh which is the Russian stance. Some Western media until recently kept maintaining, due to sheer lack of knowledge or their political agenda, that the present war in Artsakh was a proxy conflict between Russia (allegedly backing unilaterally Armenia) and clearly pro-Azerbaijani Turkey, however the reality is quite different. Initially, while the situation on the frontline remained stable and Azerbaijan had no progress whatsoever, the Kremlin maintained an underlined neutral position. Meanwhile through some experts and pro-Kremlin media figures Moscow conveyed the idea that Russia could put an end to hostilities if both sides requested it, sending peacekeepers to the conflict zone. In the meantime the same personalities expressed dissatisfaction over Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s figure and his independent and allegedly anti-Russian policies partially blaming him for escalating the tensions. What Moscow largely failed to notice was the obvious fact that it had lost its formerly solid foothold in Azerbaijan and that Turkey was by far a bigger shareholder in the influence over that oil-rich country. 

Political inertia is specific to many political establishments of long historical record and the Russian political establishment is no exception, yet the war (at least its proportions and the extent of the Turkish involvement in it) came as a shock for them. Particularly alarming is one of its components, the shipment of jihadi terrorists from northern Syria to Azerbaijan and this point was not missed by Paris as well as US and Iran. 


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The fact is that by becoming the majority shareholder in Azerbaijan, Ankara has very good chances of becoming an influential player in Central Asia and this very fact can seriously put Russian interests at stake on one hand and the Chinese projects on the other. In fact one could argue that the West, particularly the US could only be interested in the Turkish presence in the region as a counterbalance to the Chinese disproportionately growing presence, and it holds truth, however the risks are high that it can simply replace Russian presence and that is clearly a mortal threat to Moscow. Russia is cordoned off by the NATO in the west and a new fence set up by Turkey in the south – starting by Ukraine to the Caucasus to eventually Central Asia would end up in choking off Moscow’s presence in key regions like the Middle East and eventually exporting instability into Russia proper. The first signs of trouble infiltrating into Russia were seen even during the ongoing war in Karabakh when in certain areas, including the North Caucasus or further to the north, members of extremist groups, reportedly plotting terror attacks in Russia, were neutralized in special operations or arrested. 

Russian response to those challenges was manifested in increasing its pressure in the north of Syria, including air strikes at the positions of pro-Turkish militant groups, among whom Turkey recruits jihadists to fight in Azerbaijan. Another sign of Russian reply is the improved air defense of Artsakh which succeeded in downing several Turkish state-of-the-art Bayraktar UAVs, previously causing much trouble to the Armenian ground forces. On the other hand Russian President Vladimir Putin in his interview at the Valdai Discussion Club on 22 October, called Erdogan a “partner” praising him on his confrontational stance against the West and still arguing implicitly that the Caucasus region is within the vital interest zone of Russia. 

Yet Turkey is far from withdrawing from Azerbaijan, especially against the background of the recent relative success of Baku in the war, which was largely due to the Turkish involvement. In a recent statement the Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay has stated that Turkey could officially send troops to Azerbaijan in case Baku “applied for help.” This could be read as a hint that Ankara is ready to militarily challenge Moscow in case the latter mounts pressures and threats against Azerbaijan. 

It is not clear the degree to which this might be a bluff – quite in the style and tradition of Erdogan’s foreign policies – yet it is a fact that this particular point was never reiterated at high official level. 


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The West and France, specifically, are vitally interested in curbing Turkish appetites in many regions where the interests of those two are crossed, including Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe. On the other hand the West in general could be alarmed in the eventuality of Russia’s destabilization via the increased Turkish presence in Moscow’s “soft underbelly” and this is why the interests of the three co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk group, the USA, France and Russia could coincide in containing Erdogan’s Turkey. 

The ceasefire agreements negotiated and announced on 10, 18 and 26 October, brokered by Russia, French involvement and the US, all failed, yet showing the genuine interests of those players in establishing peace and checking Turkish involvement in the region. Iran, although not at all demonstratively announcing its goals, is yet another player not interested in the establishment Turkish control along its northern borders, which can potentially put into motion its vast Turkic-speaking minority in the north.    

Cease-fire, explained

Negotiations of Azerbaijani and Armenian foreing ministers with Russian Sergei Lavrov in Moscow, October 9

 

Still Turkey is challenging all sides, confronting France over many issues, the prophet Muhammad’s caricatures being the last case, the US over the S-400 air missiles deal with Russia and Moscow (although the rhetoric in this case is much softer) by increasing its presence in the southern sector of the former Soviet republics. A logical question arises here – is there a red line of the Turkish ambitions? It is difficult to discern them under the aggressive ranting coming from Ankara, yet there are some. First of all, Turkey for the moment cannot afford direct military intrusion into the internationally recognized Armenian territory, which is under Russian security warrants. Movement of jihadi fighters worries the Europeans and under such circumstances it is not to be ruled out that apart from targeted sanctions against the Turkish military some EU member states could recognize Artsakh once the military situation is stabilized and it becomes clear that there is no military resolution to the conflict. The US can also exert hard pressure on Turkish economy regardless of Erdogan’s defiant remarks to the contrary. 

Ankara’s game in Artsakh seems to be overstretched with partners and allies few and far in between, like Israel and Pakistan, yet its main asset it its independence as a player, which helps Moscow to view Turkey as a solid partner in fending off the West in the southern strategic area. Turkey remains a “valued NATO ally” as recently the organization’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg noted and it is serving primarily as a bulwark against Russian, as well as Iranian and eventually Chinese expansion into the Middle East and the Mediterranean region. 

Turkey’s game is admittedly a thinly calculated one, regardless of its seeming recklessness and could have success, just like Nazi Germany had on the eve of the World War 2, while playing against both the West and the USSR. Yet two factors could be miscalculated here. The first is the lesson learned from the “appeasement” policies. The current position of the leading players of the global community is that a peace should be imposed and even sanctioned rather than handled through rewarding the aggressor, as was the case over 80 years ago. On the other hand we do not have “Czechoslovakia” here as Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan in his address to the nation said at the very outset of the war on 27 September. Armenians are determined to fight to the last and have demonstrated it fully over the past 30 days and this inspires many that a peace can be achieved without rewarding the aggressor and preventing more aggressive conflicts worldwide, which could erupt should Erdogan and Aliyev succeed. Armenia and Artsakh are fighting for preventing a global chaos and the onset of the law of the jungle in international relations and the sooner this idea is grasped globally the better are chances that the world will become a safer place.