Richard Giragosian

Turkey in the Post-War Caucasus

But after the end of the war for Karabakh, there are many questions over what comes next, with no clear answers and even fewer certainties.

Some observers see the 45-day war for Nagorno Karabakh as a victory for Turkey as much as for Azerbaijan.  This view stems from the unprecedented military support and unexpectedly direct engagement by the Turkish military in waging the war for Karabakh alongside Azerbaijani forces.  And although this joint military effort between Turkey and Azerbaijan succeeded in seizing large areas of territory and capturing parts of Nagorno Karabakh, several factors weaken the case and diminish the gains from the war for Turkey.  

In other words, Turkey’s victory is neither as complete nor as convincing as it seems.  Rather, Turkey is now over-extended, in both the military and diplomatic dimension.  This assessment is also confirmed by the less than expected results for Turkey after Russia’s belated engagement.  And this is also seen in the controversy over the future peacekeeping mission in the region for both Russia and Turkey.  

This latter issue was especially embarrassing for Turkey, as Moscow seems to have openly reneged on promises for a great, more direct role for Turkish military peacekeepers.  The final decision is more of a symbolic role for Turkey, with a minimal and marginal position in the peacekeeping planning and supervision within Azerbaijan itself.  And this effectively gives Russian peacekeepers the dominant role in the region. 

A Limited Victory 

Yet at the same time, Turkey did regain its lost role as the primary military “patron sate” for Azerbaijan, thereby replacing Russia as the leading arms provider and source of weapons.  This is also matched by a “power exchange” defined by a deeper trend of a shifting balance of power, with a resurgent Turkey empowering an over-confident Azerbaijan after the successful military campaign against Nagorno Karabakh.

Turkey’s role in enabling and empowering Azerbaijan military was also evident in two important ways.  First, a key component of the unprecedented intensity of combat operations over Karabakh was the widening and expanding scale of Azerbaijani air assaults, graduating from attacks using Turkish military-grade drones (UAVs).  And second, this new emphasis on air power was also significant in terms of the Turkish projection of power into the area of operations that directly challenged and targeted Russian air defense capabilities. 

What Next?

But after the end of the war for Karabakh, there are many questions over what comes next, with no clear answers and even fewer certainties.  For example, after 45 days of fighting, the war for Nagorno Karabakh halted abruptly on 10 November when Armenia announced that it was accepting the terms of a Russian-imposed agreement that ended the war but also effectively ceded territory to Azerbaijan.  

The agreement to halt the war for Karabakh, which salvaged the remaining remnants of Nagorno Karabakh and saved the Karabakh Armenian population from advancing Azerbaijani forces, raises only more questions about the status and security of the Karabakh enclave, however.  The Russian-crafted plan, signed by Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, consists of several elements.

According to the specific terms of the agreement, a roughly 2000-strong Russian peacekeeping force was immediately deployed to Karabakh, establishing a perimeter to protect and defend the vital “Lachin Corridor,” a lifeline connecting Nagorno Karabakh to Armenia.  Armenia is then to withdraw its forces from districts of Azerbaijan beyond the borders of Nagorno Karabakh.  In a staged withdrawal, this initial disengagement is to be followed with a return of the two districts of Kelbajar and Aghdam by November 25, with a further Armenian pullback from the Lachin district by 1 December.  By that time, Russian peacekeepers are to ensure the Armenian use and control of a five-kilometer-wide corridor through Lachin connecting Karabakh and Armenia.  

And in a seeming attempt at parity, a similar, but much more vague “corridor” is also stipulated to connect Azerbaijan to its exclave Nakhichevan.  This last point of the agreement is one of the most potentially significant outcomes, as the nature of such an Azerbaijani connection through Armenian territory remains dangerously unclear and undefined, raising questions over sovereignty, legal standing and policing, for some notable issues to arise later.  

An additional concern stems from what is not stipulated or stressed in the agreement.  For example, there is no clarity for the “status” of the remaining parts of Nagorno Karabakh, with a disregard for earlier negotiations.  And with a number of other implications and issues, there is an obvious need for direct negotiations and further agreements.  Thus, Turkey will face an uncertain future in the region, and may once again return to a vulnerable position being led by Azerbaijan, where Baku is able to regain power over Turkish policy options in the South Caucasus.