Turkey in Caucasus as an opposition to Russian sabotage against the West
The breakout of hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan on September 27 quickly escalated into a full-fledged war between the parties. Turkey has strongly condemned Armenia and pledged full support with all its means to Azerbaijan. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan wrote on Twitter that “launching a new attack against Azerbaijan, Armenia has once again shown that it constitutes the biggest threat against peace and comfort in the region. The Turkish people stand with their Azeri brothers with all its means as it has always been.” Azerbaijan has also acknowledged that it had been using Turkish-produced armed UAVs to conduct strikes against Armenian targets in Nagorno-Karabakh. “Thanks to advanced Turkish drones owned by the Azerbaijan military, our casualties on the front shrunk,” said Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev in an interview with the Turkish TRT Haber. "These drones show Turkey’s strength. It also empowers us.” Azerbaijan also demanded for Turkey to be included in the peace process after a potential future ceasefire.
Some critics were quick to blame Ankara for flaming the tensions between the parties in order to expand its sphere of influence in the region. However, this interpretation does not address the actual circumstances that led to Turkey’s involvement in the current flare-up. Despite the fact that Azerbaijan is a longtime ally of Ankara with whom Turkey shares a special relationship based on close cultural, ethnic, linguistic, and historic ties, defined as “two states, one nation”, until recently Ankara has not been actively involved in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. However, the situation cardinally changed after the July clashes between Armenian and Azerbaijan this summer. In July, the clashes broke out not in Nagorno-Karabakh but at the border between the two countries, far away from the conflict zone. The territory where the hostilities originated were at the center of Azerbaijan’s core energy infrastructure such as the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline and the Southern Gas Corridor. Both parties threatened to hit each other’s critical infrastructure.
(The map above demonstrates the locations hit so far along the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil and South Caucasus gas pipelines)
The Southern Gas Corridor, which is a key element of the EU’s energy security strategy is expected to be fully operational by the end of 2020. The Southern Gas Corridor is also very important for Turkey, who places its energy security at the top of its foreign policy priorities. Ankara, just like the Brussels, has an interest in reducing its energy dependence on Moscow, Turkey’s Achilles heel, and it has unequivocally supported the EU-backed regional energy projects such as importing gas from Azerbaijan through the Southern Gas Corridor. In fact, over the past few years Turkey has been gradually weaning itself off Russian pipeline gas supplies. If, in 2016, Russia pipeline gas accounted for 50 percent of Turkish imports, in 2020, this number was reduced to only 14 percent. If in 2016 Russia pipeline gas accounted for 50 percent of Turkish imports, this number was reduced to only 14 percent in 2020. While Russia is losing Turkish gas market, Azerbaijan is continuing to carve out a growing share of Turkish imports. Over the past year, Azerbaijani gas imports to Turkey increased by 27.3 percent, with Azerbaijan managing to replace Russia as Turkey’s main natural gas supplier.
In the meantime, Russia faces a real threat of losing European gas market as well. In July, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the Trump administration is ending sanctions exemption for the firms involved in the pipeline’s construction under the 2017 Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CATSA). Under the new rules, any company involved in the construction of the Nord Stream 2 and Turk Stream projects could be subjected to economic and financial penalties. Prevision US sanctions against the Nord Stream 2 have already delayed the construction of the pipeline for over a year. This new move has dealt an additional blow to the Russian infrastructure projects. The outrage over the poisoning of Alexey Navalny, the Russian opposition leader who has been discharged from Berlin’s Charite hospital on September 23 after 32 days of treatment, has also been bad news for the Kremlin. The Navalny incident could very well become a final nail in the coffin for the Nord Stream 2 project. Despite the US sanctions against the pipeline and the fierce opposition from almost all Berlin’s allies to the project, Merkel so far has defended her government’s position on this issue. However, mounting domestic pressure within Germany to end her support for the project after the poisoning scandal is already forcing Merkel’s hand. Heiko Maas, Germany’s foreign minister, already noted that he hopes “the Russians don't force us to change our position on Nord Stream 2.” All of these seem to indicate that both the July clashes and the recent flare-up in Nagorno-Karabakh could be a part of the same strategy of seeking to disrupt energy projects in the region, especially the Southern Gas Corridor, thus strengthening Russian corporations’ position in the European energy market. In July, Elshad Nasirov, Vice President for Investment and Marketing at Azerbaijan’s SOCAR, noted that “it’s not by chance that Armenia launched a military operation against Azerbaijan three months before the start of Azerbaijani gas supplies to Europe”, adding that those in the West have to start thinking about “how fragile the Ganja corridor and the Trans-Caspian region are and how to provide military and physical security to the corridor that provides energy security to Europe”.
The July clashes became a wake-up call for Turkey, who decided to pursue a more assertive foreign policy to counter Russian activities in the region. This is the main reason behind Turkey’s active involvement in the current military flare-up between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Against this backdrop, the strategic interests of Turkey and the West to ensure the security of the regional energy corridor are closely aligned. Russia has always been displeased with Turkish and Western involvement in what the Kremlin sees as its own backyard, particularly Western involvement in the transportation of Caspian energy resources through Turkey bypassing Russia. Turkey does not share Russia’s vision for the region. When it comes to the overarching vision for the South Caucasus, the overwhelming number of the evidence shows that Turkey shares the same vision with its Western allies for the region. Turkey is the only NATO member currently containing Russian aggression in three different frontlines, stretching from the Caucasus to the Middle East and North Africa and it is high time for the West to join forces with Turkey and stand up against Russian aggression in the South Caucasus and elsewhere.
CCBS expert group
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