From the Aegean to Central Asia to even Russia, people were celebrating on the streets after Azerbaijan captured large swathes of Armenian-held territory in Artsakh, or more commonly known as Nagorno-Karabakh. After a month and a half of brutal warfare with no end in sight, it took the downing of a Russian helicopter and two resulting deaths to bring a swift end to the fighting.
Of course, we are not expected to believe that a trilateral agreement between Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Russian President Vladimir Putin was drafted and agreed upon within a matter of hours of the helicopter being downed. It is likely that the agreement for Armenian forces to surrender most of Artsakh and allow Azerbaijan to gain access to its Nakhchivan exclave, which borders Turkey and Iran, has been in the works for some time.
By signing this agreement, a five-year mandated 2000-strong Russian peacekeeping force will protect the Lachin Corridor that connects the Republic of Armenia with Armenian-held areas of Artsakh. The Turkish military will also maintain observation points across the line of contact like it does in Syria.
Thus far, every Turkish military intervention over the past five years has led to a division of influence between Ankara and Moscow. This is observed in northern Syria, Libya and now in Artsakh. However, what makes this different to Syria and Libya is that the division of influence is in a region that is traditionally in Russia’s sphere. Effectively, Turkey has once again instigated an issue and muscled in as a solution to a problem that itself created.
Tsarist Russia fought continuous battles to keep the Ottomans out of the Caucasus. Today however, Russia’s Muslim-dominated North Caucasus autonomous regions, many which have elements of separatist and Islamist ambitions, are now within touching distance of Turkey’s growing influence in Azerbaijan and Artsakh.
So, what are the gains for Russia?
Influence in Armenia could be weakened as many Armenians see this deal as a betrayal. This could galvanize pro-Western forces in the country to move Armenia further out of Russia’s sphere of influence.
Influence in Azerbaijan has also weakened. Over the course of the war Baku made it clear that it is fully integrated into the pan-Turkic project of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and often accused Russia of backing the Armenians.
These questions however are irrelevant for Ankara as they continue their project to create a contiguous “Turkestan” sphere of influence that stretches from the Aegean Sea to Western China via the Caucasus and Caspian. The “Turkic Homeland,” encompassing much of Central Asian and Siberia, could in the future challenge not only Russia’s traditional sphere of influence, but also Russian sovereignty.
In fact, government-controlled Turkish media outlets over the course of the war in Artsakh have been promoting the idea of a “Turan Army” or a “Turkic NATO.”
Since the Turkestan project includes Turkey’s territorial expansion into Arab-Kurdish dominated areas of northern Syria and into Armenian-majority Artsakh, there is no ideological opposition as to why an expansion would not include Russia’s Turkic national subdivisions, including Bashkortostan, Tatarstan, Chuvashia, Khakassia, Tuva, Yakutia, the Altai Republic, Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachayevo-Cherkessiya.
Iran must also be concerned by Turkey’s growing pan-Turkic ideology. Iranian Azeris, forming the largest minority group in the Persian-majority country, may not only see Baku as the soul of the greater Azeri nation, but look up to Turkey as the guardian and protector of Turkism. This will feed into the mindset of young Azeris in Iran and might influence ideological and separatist developments. It would also constitute a reaction to the Mullahs rule as it can be seen as an attractive alternative path for young Iranian Azeris who are increasingly becoming nationalistic.
None-the-less, Russian forces will remain in Artsakh for at least five years, with an option to extend for another five years. Baku now has a corridor across Armenia’s Syunik province to reach its Nakhichevan enclave that is detached from Azerbaijan proper. Nakhichevan is also the only part of Turkey that actually borders Azerbaijan. Effectively, Turkey now has access to Azerbaijan proper, thus already stretching its ideologically-driven Turkestan contiguously from the Aegean to the Caspian.
However, not all of Artsakh will go under Azerbaijani administration and the current trilateral agreement has not resolved the final status of areas still controlled by the Armenians. Both Azerbaijan and Turkey have said since the signing of the trilateral deal that all of Artsakh will eventually come under Baku’s administration.
Moscow is attempting to balance its relations with Armenia and Azerbaijan. This is why Russia did not directly intervene despite the downing of its helicopter by the Azerbaijani military. But by trying to balance these delicate relations, Moscow risks a lot geopolitically as it attempts to hold onto its losing influence over Baku, refusing to acknowledge that Turkey is the main foreign influence in the country now. Moscow also risks losing influence in Armenia to the West, especially as it appears only French President Emmanuel Macron and U.S. President-Elect Joe Biden are prepared to challenge Erdoğan.
The war in Artsakh has only shown that Ankara’s presence in the region is firm and established. With Syrian terrorists now at the doorstep of Russia’s Dagestan, and the Turkestan project achieving a major result by creating a contiguous Turkic Nation stretching from the Aegean to the Caspian at Armenia’s expense, Moscow is risking its security by appeasing Erdoğan. In fact, Moscow’s diminishing influence over Turkic states is evident by the response of the Turkic members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), who constitute three of the six members. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan all announced their support for Azerbaijan, making it clear that there was no chance the CSTO’s defensive clause would be triggered despite numerous attacks by Azerbaijan, a non-CSTO member, against the Republic of Armenia, a CSTO member.
It appears Putin is attempting to hold onto Russian influence over the Caucasus and Central Asia. But by continually appeasing Turkey, Moscow only emboldens the Turkestan project. His appeasement for Turkey will not negate challenges against Russia in its traditional sphere of influence, but rather expand it as Erdoğan continues to be emboldened.
Partially published on InfoBRICS.