Russian-Turkish relations in the Context of Tavush Clashes

10 m.   |  2020-08-31

I n July 2020, the border clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan once again made the issue of Russian-Turkish relations topical. Russia is the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chair country and at the same time, is the military-political ally of Armenia in the CSTO. Although not being a Co-Chair, Turkey is also a member of the OSCE Minsk Group. He is the strategic ally of Azerbaijan and from the very beginning of the Artsakh conflict, it has openly pursued a pro-Azerbaijani policy.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia building

The subject of the conflict of interests of these two powers in the post-Soviet period is the issue of control over the Transcaucasia. To implement the policy of pan-Turkism revived after the collapse of the USSR, Turkey sought to establish its control over this region and then to expand into the Central Asia and the territories of Russia. The implementation of such goals is dangerous for Russia. Therefore the conflict of Russian-Turkish interests in Transcaucasia is of strategic nature, whereas in case of Russia even of vital security nature.

The current latent Russian-Turkish conflict in the Caucasus was reflected in the Armenian-Azerbaijani border tensions in July. The importance of the issue for both powers is evidenced by the fact that both countries have reacted to the unfolding events at the level of the highest authorities and first-rate officials for foreign policy (President, Foreign Affairs Minister). The tension in Tavush was discussed at both Russia’s and Turkey’s [1] Security Council meetings, twice in case of Russia (on July 17 [2] and July 24 [3]). Finally, the issue was on the agenda of bilateral relations and was discussed at the official level.

Other countries and international organizations also responded to the Tavush clashes, however, the issue was at such a high level only on the foreign policy agenda of Russia and Turkey. The discussion of the issue on the agenda of Russian-Turkish interstate relations was also an exceptional event, because, except for the Moscow-Ankara interstate relations, the Tavush tension wasn’t on the agenda of interstate relations of other states.

Turkey was the only country in the world to openly support Azerbaijan in diplomatic, information and in military fields in the days of the Tavush tensions. This unconditional support was most evident in the condemnation of Armenia at the highest official levels (President, Foreign Affairs Minister and so on). In this way, Ankara aimed to use the opportunity to increase its involvement in the Artsakh issue and also to expand its presence and influence in the Caucasus in case of its ally Azerbaijan’ success.

Turkey was creating additional tension in the region with its provocative and unilateral statements and actions, thus hindering the de-escalation of the situation, which couldn’t be ignored in Russia. Therefore, Moscow sought to suppress Ankara’s aspirations through diplomatic and information channels.

Russia has expressed its concerns about Turkey’s destructive actions in two ways: a) diplomatic communication at the level of higher authorities and b) press releases.

If in the beginning, Moscow’s statements were general, in the form of transparent hints, without naming, then as the situation worsened they became more targeted. The official website of the Russia’s Foreign Ministry reports about Foreign Affairs Minister S. Lavrov’s telephone conversation with Zohrab Mnatsakanyan and Elmar Mammadryarov on July 13 [4]. The Russian side noted the importance of all members of the Minsk Group showing a responsible approach in assessing the current situation and avoiding statements and actions, that could provoke an additional increase in tension [5].

Though it isn’t mentioned by name, but the phrase “all Minsk countries”, it’s obvious, that the message refers to Turkey. A few days later, on July 17, Deputy Foreign Minister Andrey Rudenko made a similar statement, clearly pointing to Turkey. On behalf of the Russian Foreign Ministry, he called on Ankara to show restraint in the Artsakh issue, to refrain from actions that can reopen a tension door between the two countries (Armenia and Azerbaijan- V.H.) [6].

On July 23, during the telephone conversation between Russian and Turkish Foreign Ministers S. Lavrov and M. Chavushoglu, according to a press release issued by the Russian Foreign Ministry, among other issues, there was an exchange of views on the situation in the Caucasus. The Russian side emphasized the need for a balanced approach and a deterrent effect on the parties involved in the conflict in order to prevent further exacerbation of the situation, ensure security on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border, and intensify efforts for a Nagorno-Karabakh settlement. It was agreed to develop cooperation between Moscow and Ankara in the interests of stabilizing the region [7].

In case of the transition from the diplomatic language to the ordinary, it turns out that Russia is concerned about Turkey’s unilateral pro-Azerbaijani policy, which promotes Azerbaijan’s militarism, is fraught with the risk of further aggravation of the situation, disruption of border security, as it undermines the efforts for a negotiated settlement of the issue. The Russian side expects Ankara to use its influence on Baku to bring its actions to a constructive level.

The same position of official Moscow was expressed in a telephone conversation between the Presidents V. Putin and R. Erdogan on July 27, during which an exchange of views took place on the situation in Transcaucasia in the context of aggravation of the situation along the Armenian-Azerbaijani state border. Based on the official website of the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin stressed the importance of preventing any actions that would escalate tensions [8].

In the days of the July tensions, Azerbaijan took steps to legislate Turkey’s actions, as well as to expand its sphere of action in the Artsakh issue. Dissatisfied with the actions of the CSTO Minsk Group’s Co-Chairs, official Baku offered to convene an enlarged meeting of the Minsk Group with the participation of all members. As Turkey is one of the 11 members of the Minsk Group, it’s not hard to guess that the aim of such an offer was to create an even greater legal opportunity for Turkey to get involved in the Artsakh conflict. It’s not excluded, that Turkey was behind such an offer by Azerbaijan. However Baku’s proposal was ignored by the CSTO Minsk Group Co-Chairs, including Russia [9], which means that the latter is not encouraged by the prospect of expanding or deepening Turkey’s involvement in the Artsakh issue. The joint operative-tactical and fight-tactical military exercises of the Armed Forces of Turkey and Azerbaijan starting from July 29, are also related to the issue of Armenian-Azerbaijani border tension issue in July [10].

According to Russian data, 5 thousand servicemen, 150 units of armored vehicles, up to 150 units of artillery and air defense systems, as well as up to 30 tactical aircraft, multipurpose helicopters, reconnaissance and attack unmanned aerial vehicles take part in the military exercises [11].

Turkish-Azerbaijani military exercises – 2020

Although the military exercises were planed beforehand, however, as they coincided with the July events, couldn’t but catch the attention of the expert community and official circles. Moreover, when they were held near the Armenian border. Deputy Director of the Information and Press Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, A. Zaytsev said about the military exercises: “We, of course, are following the situation in the region most closely, especially in view of the recent Armenian-Azerbaijani border conflict, and we urge all parties to restraint, including in their current military activities[12].

O n August 12, a telephone conversation was held between the Presidents of Russia V. Putin and the President of Azerbaijan I. Aliyev, during which, based on the official statement from the Kremlin, the sides exchanged views on the regional issues in the context of the escalation of the situation on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border in July. The Russian side emphasized the importance of preventing any actions that would contribute to the escalation of tension [13].

After the easing of the border tension, such a warning is related to the extension of the above-mentioned Turkish-Azerbaijani military exercises, in which official Moscow saw a danger of further destabilization in the region. Moreover, when the extension of these military exercises was accompanied by meetings between the heads of the Turkish and Azerbaijani military-political departments, during which destructive statements were made.

On August 11, Azerbaijani Defense Minister Zakir Hasanov and Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov visited Turkey. They mainly discussed the Armenian-Azerbaijani border clashes in July during the meetings with Turkish officials. Turkish Foreign Minister Chavushoglu reiterated Ankara’s support for the Azeri brothers, noting that Turkey has always stood and will continue to stand by Azerbaijan in the Artsakh issue and support the latter’s steps, whatever decision it makes [14].

Turkish Minister of Defense Hulusi Akar [15], who arrived in Baku on August 13 to follow the joint Turkish-Azerbaijani military exercises, recalled “two states, one nation” resolution, condemning Armenia for the Tavush clashes and said: “Turkey will continue to support Azerbaijan against Armenia… We will be close to our Azerbaijani brothers to the end”[16].

Thus, in the context of the Tavush tension, Moscow saw a threat in Ankara’s actions to both the region and its security, which he was trying to suppress through diplomatic and information channels. 

[1] Yesterday’s meeting of the National Security Council, Nor Marmara, 23.07.2020

[2] Совещание с постоянными членами Совета Безопасности

[3] Совещание с постоянными членами Совета Безопасности

[4] On July 16, Elmar Mammadyarov was relieved of the post of Azerbaijani Foreign Minister. He was replaced by former Minister of Education Jeyhun Bayramov. Президент Азербайджана отправил в отставку главу МИД

[5] О телефонных разговорах Министра иностранных дел России С.В.Лаврова с Министром иностранных дел Армении З.Г.Мнацаканяном и Министром иностранных дел Азербайджана Э.М.Мамедъяровым

[6] Russia announced Turkey. Turkey should show restraint over Karabakh issue, Nor Marmara, 18.07.2020

[7] О телефонном разговоре Министра иностранных дел России С.В.Лаврова с Министром иностранных дел Турции М.Чавушоглу

[8] Телефонный разговор с Президентом Турции Реджепом Тайипом Эрдоганом

[9] See Брифинг официального представителя МИД России М.В.Захаровой, Москва, 23 июля 2020 года

[10] See Турецко-азербайджанские учения продлеваются – Тигран АбрамянМинистры обороны Турции и Азербайджана присутствовали на учениях ВС двух стран

[11] Брифинг заместителя директора Департамента информации и печати МИД России А.А. Зайцева, Москва, 30 июля 2020 года

[12] The same link.

[13] Телефонный разговор с Президентом Азербайджана Ильхамом Алиевым

[14] Azerbaijani Ministers of Defense and Foreign Affairs arrived in Turkey, Nor Marmara, 12.08.2020

[15] He was accompanied by Azerbaijani Defense Minister Zakir Hasanov and Chief of the General Staff of the Turkish Armed Forces Yasar Guler.

[16] Турция продолжит поддерживать Азербайджан против армянских оккупантов