Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, left, Russian President Vladimir Putin and then-Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in 2019. Photo: AFP / Adem Altan

YEREVAN – Azerbaijan’s military offensive on the Armenia-controlled Nagorno Karabakh enclave threatens to spiral quickly into a wider regional conflict, one that pits Russia and Turkey in a volatile proxy theater.

With each powerful regional actor aligned on opposed sides of the fighting, the deeper contest between Moscow and Ankara is now set to trigger what some analysts foresee as a monumental “clash of the titans.”

As Azerbaijan’s offensive enters a third day, Karabakh Armenian forces are engaged in an intense effort to defend territory and prevent any breakthrough by the Azerbaijani side.

Armenia has reported more than 80 of their troops killed; Azerbaijan has yet to release any official death toll for its soldiers. The UN Security Council was set to meet on Tuesday for emergency talks on Karabakh behind closed doors, diplomats told AFP.

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Russia was monitoring the situation closely and that the current priority was to “stop the hostilities, not to deal with who is right and who is wrong.”

Tehran said it was ready “to use all of its capacities to establish a ceasefire and start talks between the two sides,” with foreign ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh calling for “an immediate end to the conflict.”

But Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan demanded Armenia end its “occupation” of Karabakh, whose ethnic Armenians declared a breakaway republic following a war for autonomy in 1991.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a key player in the dispute. Photo: AFP/Ramil Sitdikov/Sputnik

“The time has come for the crisis in the region that started with the occupation of Nagorno Karabakh to be put to an end,” Erdogan said. “Now Azerbaijan must take matters into its own hands.”

Amid this dynamic situation, the stage is now set for a heated competition between regional rivals.

The Karabakh triangle

The South Caucasus has long been a region of contest with a history of submission and subjugation by larger powers. Over the centuries, the Persians, Ottoman and Russian empires have all fought for conquest and control of the area.

This geographic vulnerability in recent days was exposed once again, as the renewed fighting over Karabakh invited a return of regional power competition.

The modern replication of this geopolitical contest is between Russia and Turkey, with Iran as an important yet understated and underrated third party power. Each of these three regional players has vested interests and valuable influence in the South Caucasus.

But with this latest outbreak of serious fighting, the risk of outright war has likely sharpened their attention. From this perspective of a “Karabakh triangle,” the geometry of the coming clash reveals a complex and looming struggle for dominance.

Currently, Russia, Turkey and Iran remain vigilant and are reportedly closely following events as they unfold on the battlefield. Of the three, Turkey is the most active, however. Turkey’s support of its Azerbaijan ally increased significantly several months earlier.

This acceleration in Turkish activity is mainly driven by a desire to regain its former role as the leading military patron of Azerbaijan, an objective that has only intensified in the wake of Turkish frustration of having been supplanted by Russia and Israel in arms sales to Azerbaijan.

Turkish National Defense Minister, Hulusi Akar (4th L) and the Turkish Armed Forces Command during joint exercises between Turkish and Azerbaijani forces in Perekeshkul, Azerbaijan on August 13, 2020. Photo: AFP/Arif Akdogan/Anadolu Agency

By providing military training and equipment to their Azerbaijani partner, Turkey has encouraged Azerbaijan to adopt a more assertive and even aggressive posture vis-a-vis Armenia.

Recent military exercises under Turkish tutelage have fostered more assertiveness within the Azerbaijani officer corps, which in turn has arguably engendered a considerable degree of over-confidence among rank and file soldiers.

Due to insufficient and inadequate unit cohesion, discipline and basic training, the overall combat readiness of ordinary Azerbaijani military forces is low.

Ironically, from the Turkish perspective, such military need and necessity is preferred, as it only deepens the Azerbaijani military’s dependence on Turkish assistance and guidance.

On a broader level, Turkey has also benefited from an apparent vacuum, as Russian military overtures to Azerbaijan have been strictly limited to large and expensive arms deals and the procurement of modern offensive weapons systems.

Although this has been somewhat supplemented in recent years by a Russian effort at cultivating ties to the senior ranks, the lack of ties to lower levels such as unit commanders and mid-level officers has provided Turkish military advisers and instructors with a clear advantage.

The Russian edge

The second angle of this Karabakh triangle, Russia, holds distinct advantages that surpass Turkish influence. Despite trepidation over Russian ambitions in the region, Azerbaijan now sees Russia as the one pivotal player in the Karabakh conflict.

This perception stems from several factors. First, Azerbaijan recognizes that Moscow has seized the diplomatic initiative in the Karabakh peace process, and that fellow mediators France and the US have grudgingly ceded the diplomatic lead to Russia.

Russian servicemen take part in military exercises on September 25, 2020, during the ‘Caucasus-2020’ drills with China, Iran, Pakistan and Myanmar troops, along with ex-Soviet Armenia, Azerbaijan and Belarus. Photo: AFP/Dimitar Dilkoff

A second advantage for Russia is that not only does Armenia have no real security alternative to Russia, but the greater the tension and the more serious the threat from the fighting makes Armenia even more dependent on Russian security promises.

Despite constant and consistent Russian pressure on the Armenian government, there is a transactional nature to Armenian relations with Russia, with Yerevan forced to bargain with Moscow often from a position of weakness rather than strength.

Third, as demonstrated in earlier rounds of fighting, most notable in April 2016, only Russia responded to renewed hostilities quickly and effectively. This is also evident in the reality that the only ceasefire agreements reached in the Karabakh conflict were brokered with Russian involvement.

Over the longer term as well, Russia will be essential for any eventual negotiated resolution to the Karabakh conflict. Moreover, Russia will likely be the only regional actor capable of enforcing peace and helping to ensure a durable “day after” any potential peace deal.

Persian power

Looking to the future and beyond Turkey’s power projection and Russia’s strategic advantages, Iran is the overlooked third element of the Karabakh triangle. It is not only disingenuous to underestimate Iran as a true rival regional actor, it is also dangerous.

More specifically, in the wake of the failure of Iran’s anticipated westward turn after it’s now dead nuclear deal, Iran is now preparing to return to the South Caucasus region.

Military commanders salute during a meeting with Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran, Iran, February 7, 2017. Photo: Handout via Reuters
Military commanders salute during a meeting with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran on February 7, 2017. Photo: Handout via Reuters

But Iran’s underlying tension with the West will be less of a driver for Iran in the South Caucasus, unlike Iraq and Syria for two notable examples.

Rather, Iran’s looming return as a regional actor in the South Caucasus will be motivated by a desire in Tehran to push back against two key rivals and perceived interlopers: Russia and Turkey. This will also be based on an appeal to Shiite Islam, seeking to both bully and befriend Azerbaijan as a fellow Shiite state.

Moreover, Tehran will also be careful not to directly confront or challenge either Ankara or Moscow, but rather will likely steadily undermine and rely on subterfuge to erode its rivals’ positions in the region.

In this regard, Iran will leverage its already sound relations with its only stable and friendly neighbor, Armenia, and resist any challenge from Azerbaijan as the leading Shiite “spokes-state” and only theological Shiite state.

Against that backdrop, the next stage of fighting over Karabakh will likely usher in a new and even more unpredictable period of instability and insecurity in what some foresee as a coming clash of regional titans.