Look first at the headline:
On Monday, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan of Armenia signed a settlement to end the war in Nagorno-Karabakh, surrendering the disputed territory and acceding to other demands to stop the devastation of Armenia’s army by Azerbaijan’s drone-heavy armed forces.
Okay, so Armenia lost, had to give up a disputed province, and is standing down, taking time to lick its wounds, while Azerbaijan consolidates its hold on newly-won territory. Simple, right?
No. It’s anything but simple. The geopolitics of the region would give scholars of pre-WWI Europe a headache. Armenia gives up control of Nagorno-Karabakh, but is allowed a safe corridor for access to Armenian communities therein, and Azerbaijan is allowed a safe corridor for access to Nakhchivan, an Azerbaijani exclave otherwise completely isolated from Azerbaijan itself.
Both corridors are to be guarded by Russian peacekeepers for five years, after which Russia will ostensibly withdraw and leave the two nations to their own devices. This may also termed “kicking the can down the road”, since the human desires for power and vengeance tend to flare frequently when two enemy nations share a long border. But to give the Russians credit, they did stop the fighting, at least for now.
Russia’s efforts to shore up their vulnerability
But what did Russia really do? First off, Russia is nominally an ally of Armenia, and one would think it unlikely that mighty Russia would simply allow Azerbaijan to have its way, especially given that Azerbaijan is closely allied with Turkey. But one has to bear in mind that Russia, for all its apparent military might stretching from the Pacific Ocean to the Black and Baltic Seas, is not a wealthy nation. Russia’s gross domestic product (GDP) is only $1.7T (USD), significantly less than, say, Italy’s $2T. Russia is trying to compete on a global stage with the EU, China, and America, is supporting an intermittent military rebellion in the Ukraine, is supplying men and material to conflicts in Syria and Libya, and must keep units in reserve for instability in Belarus and other former Soviet republics.
In other words, Russia’s military is stretched thin across a significant portion of the planet, which means it would have been difficult to provide sufficient military support for Armenia to fend off the Azerbaijani onslaught. In contrast, while Turkey’s GDP is $754B — less than half that of Russia — their sphere of influence only includes the geographical area from the Mediterranean to the Transcaucasia region. This smaller area of responsibility means the Turks are better able to support and maintain a relatively strong military on a local level.
So the Russians decided not to do so go ‘all in’ to defend Armenia. Instead, they pointed to the defense agreement they had signed with Armenia where it clearly stated they would militarily defend Armenia if another nation (by which they meant Azerbaijan) were to attack the nation of Armenia itself — which did not include the disputed province of Nagorno-Karabakh. By agreeing to station peacekeeping troops as part of the resultant peace settlement between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Putin not only ensured continuing close cooperation with Armenia, but also — and especially — enabled close contact and cooperation with oil-rich Azerbaijan for the next five years, thus giving Moscow an opportunity to wrest influence away from Turkey.
Sounds like a masterstroke of geopolitical maneuvering by the Kremlin, right? Not so much. After all, there’s a good reason why, when it comes to complex diplomacy, the adjective ‘Byzantine’ —meaning ‘overly complex’ in this context — comes to us from the city we now call Istanbul, the capital of Turkey.
Turkey and Russia have been at loggerheads for centuries, mainly due to Russia’s desire for unrestricted access to the Mediterranean (since all its other ports with routes to Europe tend to be frozen in the winter). Right now, Russia and Turkey are on opposing sides in conflicts in Syria, Libya, and until this week, Nagorno-Karabakh. Turkey, under the leadership of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has been reasserting itself across the region, and many are raising the specter of a reemergent Ottoman Empire. Erdoğan has been consolidating his power by embracing Islamism in the Turkish government, though not the beliefs of the hardline Wahhabi sect entrenched in Saudi Arabia. The more tolerant Salafism found in Turkey was in part what enabled Erdoğan to ally with majority-Shiite Azerbaijan against majority-Apostolic Christian (and Russian ally) Armenia.
As a result, not only is Azerbaijan significantly stronger than Armenia, but Azerbaijan allied itself with Turkey which, their particular region, is at least as strong as Russia (if we don’t count nuclear weapons). Interestingly enough, Azerbaijan was also able to purchase about $1B of armaments (mostly combat drones) from Israel.
Control of the eastern Mediterranean
In other words, while Russia was able to stabilize tensions on its Caucasian flank for five years and maintain influence in the region, the same settlement stabilized tensions on Turkey’s eastern border (at no cost to Istanbul). What’s more, Turkey expanded its influence by being Azerbaijan’s main ally in victory. Now that Turkey doesn’t need to worry overmuch about its eastern frontier, Erdoğan can now turn his eyes back to the Mediterranean in general and Greece in particular, and the saber-rattling over ownership of Cyprus has picked up once more. Greece and Turkey have never been on the best of terms, but the peace settlement between Armenia and Azerbaijan means that Erdoğan can give his full attention to spreading neo-Ottoman influence in the Levant. This does not mean Greece and Turkey will go to war — they are both members of NATO, after all — but Turkey may well end its membership in NATO, thus giving Erdoğan an opportunity to initiate some level of aggression against Greece.
But wait — there’s more!
The defeat of Armenia by Turkish ally Azerbaijan is being celebrated in Istanbul. After all, in their eyes they didn’t just defeat Armenia, but also defeated Russia, right? Less well-known is that the Armenian/Azerbaijani conflict made headlines in south Asia, since Pakistan strongly supported Azerbaijan and India supported Armenia.
Considering the increasingly-complex range of alliances between major nations across the region, this is more than a little alarming. It is becoming reminiscent of pre-1914 western Europe, with Turkey, Azerbaijan, Pakistan, and possibly Iran (and its effective puppet Iraq) all lined up against Russia, Armenia, India, and Saudi Arabia. While a general war across the region is highly unlikely, it is nonetheless possible. And should that happen, the Turkish alliance would likely win. We may yet see another Ottoman Empire in our lifetime.