By David Dautheir-Villars & Ann Simmons
Wall Street Journal
October 3-4, 2020 Anno Domini
Turkey’s role in the growing clash between Armenia and Azerbaijan—two countries Moscow regards as within its sphere of influence—is adding a new element to a string of proxy fights pitting Turkey and Russia against each other and challenging Russia’s long-standing policy of neutrality over the simmering conflict.
Roughly the size of Delaware, the province of Nagorno- Karabakh—a disputed enclave within Azerbaijan—has been a flashpoint between Azerbaijan and Armenia since the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is recognized internationally as part of Azerbaijan but controlled by pro-Armenian rebels.
About 30,000 people were killed in fighting during a six- year period before a cease-fire in 1994. But hostilities resumed last week, with each side blaming the other for a series of surprise attacks.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has long worked to keep former Soviet republics bound tightly to Moscow, and has sought to stay on good terms with both Azerbaijan and Armenia, due to their strategic location along an important energy corridor coveted by the West.
Now, a more assertive Turkey is testing that stance. Hours after fighting broke out, Turkey announced its unconditional support for Azerbaijan, with which it shares ethnic and culturalties. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan re-iterated that support on Friday.
“We stand with fellow and brother Azerbaijan,” he said. “Until Nagorno-Karabakh is liberated from invasion, this struggle will continue.”
The scope of Turkey’s support is unclear. France’s President Emmanuel Macron said Thursday that he had information that mercenaries from Syria had passed through Turkey to reach Nagorno-Kara- bakh. Mr. Erdogan’s government has denied the claim but its open support for Azerbaijan—the latest example of Turkey’s more muscular foreign policy—is putting Russia on the back foot at a delicate time for Moscow. A pro-democracy movement is threatening to pry Belarus from Moscow’s sphere of influence, and a wave of protests in Russia’s Far East is challenging Mr. Putin’s own standing.
“We use our privileges to be a welcomed party by both Armenia and Azerbaijan,” said Sergey Markedonov, senior researcher at the government-run Moscow State Institute of International Relations. “Turkey concentrates only on one side and it creates obstacles for Russia, because it pushes Azerbaijan to make a choice.”
Moscow, in contrast, has remained studiously neutral during the long-running conflict and has anointed itself mediator. After supplying Armenia with powerful ballistic missiles in the 1990s it then sold Azerbaijan the means to shoot them down through a complex new air-defense system. It also warned other countries to keep out of the fray.
“Any statements on military support or military activity unambiguously add fuel to the fire, and we are categorically opposed to this,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters this week.
Under Mr. Putin’s leadership, Russia has shown little hesitation to intervene militarily if it feels its dominance over former Soviet republics is challenged. It seized territory from both Georgia and Ukraine to counter what the Kremlin said was meddling from the West.
And Russia has warned Western powers to steer clear of the continuing political conflict in Belarus, where Mr. Putin’s ally President Alexander Lukashenko has faced weeks of post-election protests.
Turkey’s support for Azerbaijan, said Thomas de Waal, a senior fellow with the Carnegie Europe think tank, has left Russia on the defensive. “If they were to try and step in to support the Armenians, they would lose Azerbaijan and they would lose that role [as a mediator],” he said.