Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The two leaders suddenly see eye to eye. Photo: AFP / Sergey Guneev / Sputnik

The Russia-brokered ceasefire in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has unraveled. Azerbaijan and Armenia have stepped up their military operations.

The Izvestia newspaper reported, quoting Russian experts, that the conflict will continue without the intervention of a third party.  

That seems to be the thinking in Moscow also, as apparent from the remarks on Wednesday by Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov that the Kremlin does not exclude the possibility that Russian military observers may be included in the ceasefire control mechanism in Nagorno-Karabakh.  

Lavrov said in a media interview: “Today it’s not even the peacekeepers [who should participate in the verification mechanism] but the military observers, this should be enough. We think that it will be absolutely correct if these were our military observers, but the final word should belong to the sides.

“Without a doubt, we go on a premise that both Yerevan and Baku will take into account our alliance, our relations of strategic partnership.”

Plainly put, Russia is inserting itself on behalf of the Minsk Group and taking it for granted that Baku accepts it as a follow-up move in line with the joint statement adopted at the three-way foreign-minister-level talks between Lavrov and his Armenian and Azerbaijani counterparts in Moscow on October 9.  

Lavrov explained that the ceasefire control mechanism should function along the line of contact of Armenian and Azerbaijani forces in Nagorno-Karabakh. He disclosed that President Vladimir Putin has a hands-on approach and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu is in talks with the Armenian and Azerbaijani defense ministers.  

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Photo: AFP/Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik

Moscow is pushing this idea to avoid any catastrophic developments on the ground. To quote Lavrov: “It is necessary to immediately hold a meeting of the militaries to agree the ceasefire control mechanism. I reconfirmed the corresponding signals literally half an hour ago when Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bairamov called me on the phone.

“We are sending the same signal to our Armenian colleagues. I believe this is now the key to a sustainable cessation of the fire that affects civil facilities and civilians.” 

But the political salience lies somewhere else: Moscow is ignoring Turkey’s pretensions of being a player in the Caucasus. Azerbaijan keeps saying that Turkey should be involved in the talks on the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh and that the conflict cannot be solved without Ankara’s involvement.

But Moscow is ignoring it.

In an interview with Turkish broadcaster Haberturk, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev said on Wednesday that Turkish F-16 jets were in Azerbaijan.  

Turkey cannot be liking this slight. It comes as no surprise that Ankara has scheduled a visit by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky this week during which a Turkish-Ukrainian military cooperation agreement will be signed.

Some major arms deals also seem to be in the works, which had come up for discussion during a July visit by Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar to Kiev.  

Turkish National Defense Minister Hulusi Akar is welcomed by Ukrainian Defense Minister Andriy Taran with an official ceremony at the Defense Ministry of Ukraine in Kiev on July 10, 2020. Photo: AFP/Arif Akdogan/Anadolu Agency

Interestingly, Defense News also reported recently that Turkey hopes to source aircraft-engine technology from Ukraine. According to the report, Turkey wants to develop an indigenous engine technology for various aerial platforms it has developed.

The report quoted a Turkish source to the effect that Ukrainian engine-maker SE Ivchenko-Progress is producing the AI-35 engine to power Turkey’s new indigenous Gezgin missile.  

This could be a major defense project. Defense News said: “SE Ivchenko-Progress, a subsidiary of Ukraine’s Ukroboronprom defense giant, designs and manufactures engines that power 66 types of aircraft in more than 100 countries.

“The AI-35 engine family was built to power high-speed unmanned aircraft systems and advanced cruise missiles. Analysts have described the Gezgin as similar to the American-made Tomahawk. The Gezgin program was designed to develop conventional, long-range strike capabilities for naval platforms. This new missile is thought to have a range of approximately 1,000 kilometers.” 

Moscow must be aware of these developments and, conceivably, it is expelling Turkey from the Caucasus in view of its capacity to create further mischief in Russia’s back yard. Lavrov in his public remarks on Wednesday openly disagreed with Turkey’s stance that a military solution to the Karabakh conflict is possible. 

Zelensky will be only too happy to invite Turkish military advisors to be deployed to Ukraine. A statement in Kiev on his visit to Ankara said the proposed military agreement with Turkey would “reflect a guarantee for security and peace in the Black Sea region.”  

No doubt the strategic partnership between Turkey and Ukraine will profoundly annoy Russia, as it could affect the tenuous military balance in the Black Sea region at a time when the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is increasingly asserting its presence in the region.

Turkish-backed Syrian fighters in the village of Qaminas, about 6 kilometers southeast of Idlib city in northwestern Syria on February 10, 2020. Photo: AFP/Omar Haj Kadour

 There are any number of things Turkey can do that can pose headaches for Russia at a juncture when Moscow’s ties with the European Union are in deep chill. Most important, the curtain is coming down on the traditional cooperation between Russia and Ukraine in the Black Sea region. 

Will the Turkish-Russian rupture cast its shadows on the Syrian situation? Surely, if Moscow wants to turn the heat on Turkey, there is no better time than this to let go the Syrian forces on an offensive to regain control of Idlib.

But it could lead to a conflagration with unpredictable consequences. About 12,000 Turkish troops are deployed in Idlib in some 140 bases.

The US is unlikely to come to Turkey’s aid in Idlib. Washington and Ankara are at loggerheads over the developments in the Eastern Mediterranean. In a statement on Tuesday, the US State Department deplored the renewed Turkish survey activity in that sea. 

It explicitly warned Turkey: “Coercion, threats, intimidation and military activity will not resolve tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean. We urge Turkey to end this calculated provocation and immediately begin exploratory talks with Greece. Unilateral actions cannot build trust and will not produce enduring solutions.”

But the Turkish Foreign Ministry simply shrugged off the US warning.  

M K Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat.