Turkey’s support for the war for Nagorno-Karabakh, a strategic mountainous enclave overlooking two Turkish-backed pipelines, is being propelled by a gas competition with Russia.
“Russia is neither an ally, nor an enemy, but we can’t negotiate if we are too dependent on them, especially when it comes to energy,” said a senior advisor to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
“We have vital interests to protect, just as any other great country,” he told Asia Times in Ankara.
In the South Caucasus, at the top of the list of Turkish priorities are twin pipelines, one of them due to begin taking natural gas from Azerbaijan to mainland Europe within weeks.
That critical infrastructure lies in the shadows of Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian enclave claimed by Azerbaijan, while another section skirts Armenia’s northeastern province of Tavush.
Over the summer, Azerbaijan’s longstanding vow to seize Nagorno-Karabakh – on the promise of returning the historic Azerbaijani minority to their homes – saw an unprecedented escalation.
Azerbaijani commandos attempted an incursion into Armenia proper, seeking to seize a strategic hilltop in Tavush. The operation failed, but appears to have been the precursor to the current war, this time overtly backed by Turkey.
The senior advisor to the Turkish presidency did not deny the deployment of Syrian mercenaries to serve as shock troops on behalf of Azerbaijan.
“We can’t afford losing our sight on what’s going on around our pipelines in the Caucasus, especially in the Tavush region, where there have been several clashes over the last years,” he told Asia Times.
Pipelines in peril
The timing of the war for Nagorno-Karabakh should serve, in Ankara’s view, as a wake-up call to Europe over shared financial and security interests in the South Caucasus.
On October 6, Azerbaijani presidential aide Hikmet Hajiyev said Armenian shelling had landed just ten meters from a stretch of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline.
“Desperate attempts of Armenia to attack energy infrastructure,” Hajiyev tweeted.
Touted as the first direct oil link between the landlocked Caspian Sea and the Mediterranean, the BTC pipeline has the capacity to export a million barrels of oil a day.
The plurality of shares (30.1%) are owned by British energy major BP, while Azerbaijan and Turkey’s state oil companies together own just over 31.5%. A number of European companies also hold stakes.
Passing parallel is the BP-operated South Caucasus Pipeline (SCP), capable of delivering 25 billion cubic meters of natural gas per year from Azerbaijan’s Shah Deniz field in the Caspian Sea to clients in Georgia, Turkey and soon Greece.
Completion of the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline, the missing link between the SCP, Turkey’s Trans-Anatolian Pipeline, and mainland Europe was announced on October 12.
“This will allow the Shah Deniz Consortium to finalize the final steps required to start the twenty-five years long supply of natural gas from Azerbaijan to customers in Italy, Greece and Bulgaria as planned by the end of 2020,” said BP.
On the same day, Turkish President Erdogan told the head of the European Council on a phone call that Armenia was putting gas diversification plans away from rival Russia at risk.
“Armenia endangered Europe’s energy supplies by attacking the Azerbaijani city of Ganja along with the Tovuz region, where natural gas and oil pipelines and transportation lines are located,” state news agency Anadolu quoted the Turkish leader as saying.
While Ankara cooperated with Moscow on the Turkstream 1 and 2 pipelines to transport Russian gas to Turkey and Eastern Europe, those projects enjoy only marginal profits and have been impacted by US sanctions against Russia. That has upped the stakes for Turkey’s ally Azerbaijan to compete with Russia for European markets.
On October 14, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev made an appeal similar to that of his Turkish counterpart.
“Armenia is trying to attack and take control of our pipelines,” he told Turkish outlet Haberturk.
On October 19, Azerbaijani media reported that BP regional president Gary Jones had written to Azerbaijan’s prime minister to express his support for Baku amid the hostilities.
“The staff of the BP made every possible effort to ensure the smooth implementation of the current process of oil and gas production and transportation during this period, which is of exceptional importance for Azerbaijan,” he was quoted as saying.
Policy makers in Turkey, whose economy is struggling amid a worsening currency crisis, concern over its foreign reserves, and the impact of Covid-19 say they are flabbergasted as to why European allies are not taking its side in the Caucasus.
“Turkey should be a natural ally,” said Enes Bayraklı, director of European studies at SETA, Turkey’s largest think tank, founded in the early 2000s by Erdogan’s chief advisor Ibrahim Kalın.
Ankara is especially furious with French President Emmanuel Macron for his perceived backing for Armenia.
“We can’t understand France’s activism on the Armenian issue, as it’s not even motivated by any strategical interest. Armenia is not in Europe’s influence zone, it’s a post-Soviet area. Helping Armenia is helping Putin,” said Bayraklı.
Since the start of the new war in Karabakh, Turkish academics, analysts, and advisors close to the presidency haven’t missed a chance to highlight geo-economic issues and rivalries with Russia.
“Russia violated Ukraine’s territorial integrity, tries to disrupt elections, launches cyber-attacks on the Western networks, but the European Union is always acting as if Turkey was the enemy,” he said.
“The EU needs Turkey more than Turkey needs the EU,” he said, listing migration and counterterrorism policy among key areas of cooperation.
Listening to Erdogan’s supporters, it is clear they expect this new front in Caucasus to draw the Europeans’ attention.
“The Nagorno-Kabarakh war has to be part of the same discussion as the Eastern Mediterranean crisis, Libya, Syria, and even European integration,” said Soli Ozel, a professor of international relations affiliated to the French liberal think-tank Institut Montaigne.
For Turkey, he told Asia Times, “nothing is solved until everything is solved.”