It is difficult to accept the idea that the war in Karabakh can drag on without a decrease in intensity. This means that someone must satisfy Baku's request for progress in the negotiations, and it would be better if Moscow, not Ankara, does it. Because otherwise Turkey will really show itself as the most productive force in the region, and this will give it grounds to demand a lot – for example, the status of an intermediary with equal rights with Russia.
In recent years, everyone has become accustomed to seeing Russia and Turkey on the same side of the barricades – opposite from the United States and Europe. In Syria or Libya, Putin and Erdogan might have different interests and local allies, but it is still much easier for them to agree with each other than with the West.
However, it turned out differently in Karabakh. Russia and the West together call on Azerbaijan to stop the offensive, while Turkey, on the contrary, aggravates the conflict. Ankara directly invites Moscow to sit down and solve everything "as in Syria," but the Russian leadership is in no hurry to respond to Turkish initiatives with the usual understanding. After all, we are talking about the Transcaucasus, a region that Russia considers to be the sphere of its special interests.
Nevertheless, the Kremlin does not want to openly quarrel with Erdogan, building partnerships with him took so much time and effort. That is why Russia has so far ceded the role of the main critic of Turkey to France and at the same time is trying not to alienate Azerbaijan from itself in order to prevent the Turks from becoming an equal mediator in the settlement of the conflict.
Back in 1997, first and then incumbent President of Armenia Levon Ter-Petrosyan called on the Armenian society to take a realistic approach to the settlement of the Karabakh conflict, because "it is impossible to maintain the status quo for a long time - neither the world community nor the economic potential of Armenia would allow it."
This willingness to compromise cost Ter-Petrosyan the presidency. He was replaced by the uncompromising Karabakh clan of Robert Kocharian and Serzh Sargsyan, and then, in 2018, Nikol Pashinyan, who promised Baku jam tomorrow. Let us just strengthen our power, achieve a mono-majority in parliament, then we will begin constructive negotiations on Karabakh.
Meanwhile, the world community, contrary to Ter-Petrosyan's expectations, was in no hurry to put pressure on Armenia or stop Pashinyan, who declared, despite several UN Security Council resolutions, that "Karabakh is Armenia." And when Azerbaijan, enraged by 26 years of useless negotiations, tried to resolve the issue by force, the co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group (USA, Russia and France) jointly called for the resumption of negotiations – that is, in fact, to return the same status quo, which Ter-Petrosyan believed, Armenia would not be allowed to be saved.
Such a rare unanimity between Russia and the West created a vacuum on the side of Azerbaijan, which Turkey – another ambitious power – hastened to fill. During the current aggravation, Ankara has for the first time supported Baku so firmly and unconditionally, and not only rhetorically.
Of course, Turkey has always played an important role in the Karabakh conflict. The sale of weapons to Baku, training of the Azerbaijani military and constant diplomatic support – all this has been going on for many years. But this time Erdogan's ambitions go further – he explicitly stated that he wanted to break the old and establish a new norm for Turkey to be present in the region - "sahada ve masada" ("strong both at the table & in the field"). The head of the Turkish Foreign Ministry has repeated this rhymed phraseological unit in almost every statement in recent days.
Erdogan is trying to drag Putin into a bilateral dialogue on Karabakh – the same as they are conducting on the situation in Libya or in northern Syria. Turkish Foreign Minister Cavusoglu openly draws such parallels: "We spoke with Putin, with Lavrov. As we act together in Syria, we tried so here, but failed."
Indeed, Moscow does not like Turkey's plans. Karabakh is not Syria. Russia is used to looking at the Transcaucasus as a sphere of its special interests and negatively perceives any outside interference in the region.
In Syria's case, it was beneficial to become allies with Erdogan – it helped to undermine the unity of NATO and added respectability to the "Astana troika", which, in addition to Russia, is joined by Iran, which is quite unpleasant for the West. And what can Russia get from Turkey in Karabakh? The reputation of a country that calmly watches how its ally in the military bloc, the CSTO, is being attacked?
However, Russia would not want to curb Turkey too sharply. A new conflict, like the one that happened with the downed plane in 2015, would be a serious image loss for Moscow and would deal a painful blow to the hard-fought alliance between Putin and Erdogan. Therefore, the Kremlin is ready to show restraint and let Turkey let off steam, nostalgic about the greatness of the Ottoman Empire.
Russian authorities are trying to be very careful about Ankara's actions. Peskov abstractedly says that "any statements about possible military support for one of the sides" are provocative and harmful. The Foreign Ministry refrains from direct claims.
Even the head of the Foreign Intelligence Service, Naryshkin, speaking about the appearance of foreign mercenaries from Syria and Libya in the conflict zone, called not only pro-Turkish groups, but also "extremist Kurdish." The mention of the Kurds, who, logically, can only fight for the Armenians, should have shown that Moscow is generally against Turkey's actions, but prefers to keep a balance.
The most noticeable "curtsey" towards Ankara was the comment of Yevgeniy Prigozhin, who is considered the head of PMC Wagner group. He answered the questions of the Turkish newspaper Aydınlık with a monologue, in which he criticized Pashinyan for indulging American NGOs and stated that "legally, the Turks have every right to intervene in the Karabakh conflict until they cross the border with Armenia."
In Baku and Ankara, this caution of the Russian authorities is still appreciated. When Macron made a statement about foreign mercenaries, he left no room for ambiguous interpretations. According to him, groups to be sent to Karabakh were formed in Turkish Gaziantep. And Ilham Aliyev demanded an apology from him, but not from Moscow.
Macron, with his strained relationship with Erdogan, generally provides the Kremlin with a comfortable backdrop against which it is much easier to present its actions as restrained and balanced. For example, in Baku, they have no doubt that it was Macron who took the initiative, called Putin and Trump, and got the joint appeal signed. The representatives of Azerbaijan unequivocally hint that they would prefer France to leave the three co-chairmen of the Minsk group, and Turkey takes its place.
New old format
It is now difficult to say for sure how long the Kremlin will tolerate Erdogan's increased activity in the Transcaucasus. But in any case, the settlement of the Karabakh conflict, which has been activated in September 2020, has now been destroyed. A new diplomatic structure is being built right now, although its outlines are still vague. In July, in Baku called to intensify the work of the Minsk group, and now Aliyev is already saying that if it does not cope, then it is possible to do without it.
The idea that the war in Karabakh can drag on without a decrease in intensity is still difficult to accept. This means that someone must satisfy Baku's request for progress in the negotiations. And it is better for Moscow to do it, not Ankara. Because otherwise Turkey will really show itself as the most productive force in the region, and this will give it grounds to demand a lot – for example, the status of an intermediary with equal rights with Russia. And Karabakh will become a field for their confrontation, which does not bode well.
Therefore, most likely, Moscow will try to regain the initiative and prevent Ankara from entering the first roles. Russia can remind Azerbaijan that, quite recently, it strongly opposed Pashinyan's idea to involve the authorities of Nagorno-Karabakh in the negotiations, citing the inviolability of the format. And if so, then Azerbaijan itself should not radically revise this format. Therefore, Turkey would preserve its previous position as a member of the Minsk Group, but not a co-chair.
After that, Russia (already at the level of President Putin) could guarantee Aliyev's real progress in the negotiations. And to explain to Pashinyan that the negotiation process needs to be intensified – at least by transferring the most sparsely populated territories in the south of the security belt around Karabakh under the control of Azerbaijan. Pashinyan, of course, will not like this, but it will be difficult to argue. As his teacher Ter-Petrosyan wrote, a compromise is not a choice between good and bad, but between bad and worse. And the worst concerns not only Armenia but Russia too.