Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. Photo: AFP / Alexei Druzhinin / Sputnik

YEREVAN – The foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan were expected in Moscow on Friday following a late-night summons by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is seeking a ceasefire in Nagorno-Karabakh.

“After a series of phone conversations with Azerbaijani President Ilkham Aliyev and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, the president of the Russian Federation is making a call to cease the current hostilities in the Nagorno Karabakh conflict zone for humanitarian reasons, with the aim to carry out a swap of dead bodies and prisoners,” the Kremlin said.

“In order to hold consultations on those issues, mediated by the Russian foreign minister, the foreign ministers of Azerbaijan and Armenia are invited to Moscow on October 9,” it added.

The power to convene the top diplomats of the two former Soviet nations – seemingly overnight – represents a literal checkmate against Turkey, which was seen as the driving force behind Azerbaijan’s September 27 offensive.

Days earlier, in a rare demonstration of diplomatic cooperation, the foreign ministers of Russia, France and the United States issued a statement condemning “the unprecedented and dangerous escalation of violence in and outside of the Nagorno-Karabakh zone” and calling the new war an “unacceptable threat” to regional stability.

But as the attacker, Azerbaijani has not been alone in refusing to accept any demands for a ceasefire. Rather, it was Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who has emerged as an even more ferocious obstacle and formidable opponent to any suggestion of an end to the fighting.

After a sweeping military offensive by Azerbaijani forces launched on September 27, combat operations escalated with each passing day. After seizing and securing territory from the Armenian side, the Azerbaijani assault only deepened, driven by an insatiable appetite for more of the territory it claims as its own and which the United Nations recognizes as such.

For the Turkish leader, full diplomatic backing and direct military support for the Azerbaijani offensive stem from Turkey’s traditional role as a patron state for Azerbaijan.

Ankara, after losing that role to Moscow in recent years, is now intent on restoring the lost glory and regaining its former role as the leading regional power.

Yet Turkey’s power play had both wider implications and high risk, as the Turkish military assistance to Azerbaijan was quickly approaching a red line that put it on a clear collision course with Russia.

Russia is bound to Armenia by its own security pact, and so the danger of a proxy war between Ankara and Moscow continues to loom large.

Turkish-backed Syrian rebel fighters celebrate after a military parade marking the graduation of a new batch of cadets and attended by officials from the Turkey-backed opposition at a camp in the Afrin region in the rebel-held northern countryside of Aleppo province on September 20, 2020. Photo: AFP/Bakr Alkasem

Turkey’s calculated risk

Turkish President Erdogan is as much the cool calculating risk-taker and chess player as his Russian counterpart, President Vladimir Putin. And to his credit, Erdogan was cunning enough to sense an opportunity of timing.

As both opportunity and opening, this bold Turkish power play in the Caucasus was based on a strategy consisting of several elements.

First, from a Turkish perspective, Russia was already bogged down in Syria and Ukraine, with a broader burden of draining Western sanctions and geopolitical solitude. And faced with the Kremlin’s embarrassing mismanagement of the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, Turkish leaders saw an opportunity in a distracted Russia.

In that context, the Azerbaijani offensive was as much a surprise for Russia as it was for Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh.

A second element of this Turkish strategy was also based on the prudent perception of Western distraction. As the successful timing of the Azerbaijani attacks only reaffirmed, the combination of the Covid-19 pandemic as the pressing priority for the European Union and the chaotic domestic political environment in a Washington already prone to chaos and conflict, had little expectation and even less fear of a robust Western response to his intervention.

The third element of this Turkish strategy of projecting power in the Caucasus is rooted in Erdogan’s larger agenda. This broader context reveals a deeper and even more destructive ambition that far exceeds any localized objectives.

Rather, it is Turkish power and position in Syria, Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean that are driving this ongoing reassertion of strength.

This bolder Turkish strategy will be neither satisfied not sated by Azerbaijani military gains in the fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh. More likely, Ankara will demonstrate an even more resolute resistance to a prolonged ceasefire than Azerbaijan.

And while Turkey may soon seek to garner transactional gains in a possible bid to barter with Russia, it has already empowered and enabled its ally.

A picture taken on October 8, 2020, shows the internal damage to the Cathedral of Kazanchetsots in the Nagorno-Karabakh city of Shusha, during the ongoing conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the enclave. Photo: AFP/Davit Ghahramanyan/NKR Infocenter

Backlash and blowback

A key risk for Turkey is that its unconditional support for Azerbaijan could produce a dangerously overconfident and reckless ally, which may exceed the limits of distraction and geopolitical disinterest.

President Ilham Aliyev, Azerbaijan’s proverbial strongman who inherited power from his father in 2003 and has appointed his wife as vice-president, appears determined to ride the tiger of war and conflict.

This danger is already evident, as Azerbaijan’s indiscriminate drone attacks on cities in Karabakh and its apparent use of outlawed cluster bombs, flagged by Amnesty International, has demonstrably damaged the standing and perception of both Azerbaijan and Turkey.

An additional risk is that of backlash and blowback from Baku. The possible loss of control over Turkey’s erstwhile supplicant state Azerbaijan is only an increasingly likely scenario given Azerbaijan’s frustration in returning to any secondary role subordinate to Turkey.

As important as Turkish military help has been in this recent fighting, Azerbaijani leaders have painstakingly argued that they do not need any outside help, neither from the Turkish-organized influx of mercenaries from Syria nor the contribution of Turkish airpower.

And there is an added degree of potential domestic instability in Azerbaijan, especially after now well-documented reports that Turkey has recruited more than 1,000 Syrian mercenaries to boost and beef up the Azerbaijani attacks on Nagorno-Karabakh.

That influx of Sunni combatants into the Azerbaijan ranks may not easily follow Azerbaijani commands or meet expectations. And as logistically difficult such recruitment and import of such fighters may have been, getting them to leave may be even a more difficult challenge, for both Azerbaijan and Turkey.

Azerbaijani President Aliyev has been stoking, and forced to contend with, ever-rising domestic demands and expectations for victory. Yet once the current military censorship ends, the true measure of losses and casualties may undermine claims of victory and triumph.

The danger of the tide turning against the Azerbaijani side is increasingly possible the longer the attacks on the mountainous region continue, given the precariousness of supply lines and losses of equipment.

As such, Putin’s ceasefire demand comes at a critical moment. With his swift summons, the Russian leader has emerged as the Grandmaster of the Caucasus, diplomatically isolating his Turkish opponent.

But as impressive as the Russian move was, neither the Azerbaijani threat to resume hostilities at the next opportunity nor the Turkish hunger for a rematch in the next round of confrontation will diminish.

Also read: Taking inventory of Azerbaijan’s edge over Armenia