Russia-Armenia Ties Complicate Turkish Regional Plans

Russia-Armenia Ties Complicate Turkish Regional Plans

In ending Armenian occupation of Azerbaijani territories in Nagorno-Karabakh, the Russian-brokered accord between Armenia and Azerbaijan in November 2020 removes the Azerbaijani condition for the creation of a regional stability pact in the South Caucasus first proposed in 1999. The Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, hopes that Armenia will now take the steps needed to establish such a security system. However, the political crisis in Armenia since the November ceasefire calls into question whether Yerevan will have the willingness to commit to this regional initiative. 

Despite the Armenian prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan, honouring the terms of the accord, opposition parties have called for his resignation with the backing of the military. The uncertainty surrounding Pashinyan’s premiership means that Armenia may fall back into its security dependence on Russia. The limits Russian influence puts on Armenian foreign policy risks diminishing prospects for a Turkish-Armenian rapprochement, which is key to the creation of a security system in the South Caucasus.

Russia-Armenia Ties Risks Derailing the Nagorno-Karabakh Postwar Settlement

Although the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict came to an end last November, it is far from certain whether a long-term settlement will materialise. Turkey hopes that it can use the restoration of peace in the region to revive an Azerbaijani proposal made in 1999 to create a South Caucasus stability pact to resolve crises and ensure regional security.

The terms of the November ceasefire, however, make it difficult to establish such a security mechanism. The Russian-brokered agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan is thin in terms of defining the future status of Nagorno-Karabakh, which means that the post-conflict reconciliation process is prone to failing. What the protests in Armenia demonstrate is the potential of that negative outcome.

In witnessing the loss of its claim to the territory, Armenia has been in a state of political crisis. Nikol Pashinyan’s government faces the risk of collapse as demonstrations denounce the negotiated resolution to the long-standing territorial dispute with Azerbaijan. An ultimatum was issued from seventeen opposition parties demanding the Armenian prime minister’s resignation. Although Pashinyan successfully fought off these calls, he was forced to dismiss Onik Gasparyan, head of the Armenian army’s General Staff, after the military intervened in support of the protestors.

The political uncertainty in Armenia means that Russia has an opportunity to tighten its grip on the direction of Armenian foreign policy. This is shown in Russia’s indifferent response to the crisis. Dmitry Peskov, Vladimir Putin’s spokesperson, did not go any further than stating Russia was following the disturbances with caution. A key obstacle facing Armenia’s efforts to pursue its own foreign policy after the collapse of the Soviet Union is its reliance on Russia for its security. In 1995, an agreement was ratified on the deployment of a Russian military base in Armenia in close proximity to its border with Turkey. Armenia also pulled out of Association Agreement negotiations with the EU in 2013 and entered the Russian fold in the form of Eurasian Economic Union accession.

The Kremlin knows that it can afford to adopt a cautious response since the perception of threat to Armenian security that is driving the demonstrations allows Moscow to wield influence. The Armenian military’s intervention in support of the protesters demonstrates that Yerevan is relapsing into its security dependence on Russia. The November accord serves Putin’s geopolitical interests more than the prospect of conflict resolution in the region in that it does not define a long-term status of Nagorno-Karabakh. In keeping the threat perception alive in Armenia that its national security has been compromised in surrendering to Azerbaijan, Moscow keeps Yerevan within its sphere of influence. As a result, Russia can hinder potential Armenian initiatives to pursue its own relations with other potential partners in the region, such as Turkey.

It is not surprising that the Turkish foreign minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, in sharp contrast to the mindful response in Moscow, came out strongly condemning the alleged coup attempt. The possibility of a regime succeeding Pashinyan which condemns the November ceasefire terms risks delegitimizing the basis upon which a new settlement in the South Caucasus could be established.

Diverging Foreign Policy Interests Undermines Turkish Diplomacy

Another issue Turkey will have if it wants to see a new regional security system emerge is confronting Armenian security interests with a divided foreign policy approach. While some leading members of the ruling AK Party favour close relations with Armenia, others in the security sector view such a rapprochement as potentially devastating for Turkish-Azerbaijani ties. Military cooperation between Ankara and Baku has deepened over the past ten years. Meanwhile, the difficulty in Armenia to sustain a foreign policy independent of its strategic alliance with Russia limits the political space for Turkish-Armenian reset in relations.

The prevalence of security interests in Armenian foreign policy calculations means that Ankara will not find it easy to cooperate with Yerevan. In support of its ally, Azerbaijan, Turkey took the decision to close its border with Armenia in protest of Armenian occupation of territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh in 1993. Now that Azerbaijani control has been restored under the Russian-brokered accord, Turkey is calling for the frontier to reopen.

Although Ankara is exploring options for a possible normalisation of relations, the current crisis following the November ceasefire has led Yerevan to adopt a passive stance on whether to revisit the border issue. 

As far as the Pashinyan regime is concerned, the decision not to take a keen approach to looking at the border issue with Turkey is justifiable. A reset in relations between Yerevan and Ankara that a border reopening would signify effectively legitimises the loss of Armenian claims to Nagorno-Karabakh in November. This would weaken Pashinyan’s already precarious position as prime minister.

Armenia originally wished for the border to reopen in order to mitigate the economic consequences of the Soviet collapse in 1991. However, the issue of the Azerbaijani security threat overridden other concerns in Yerevan as an Armenian-Turkish rapprochement never materialised. Some within the Armenian political elite were fearful of the willingness of the-then president, Levon Ter-Petrosyan, to reach a negotiated settlement with Azerbaijan.

Similar to the rationale behind its response to the crisis facing Pashinyan today, Russia used political divisions within Armenia as an opportunity to force Yerevan to fall back into its orbit. Ter-Petrosyan was subsequently forced out of office over concerns that he was prepared to return land in Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan. Pashinyan’s fear of following the same fate as his predecessor can therefore explain the passive response to the Turkish call for the border to reopen.

As the border closure is achieving nothing in changing Armenian attitudes towards Turkey, some in Turkish foreign policy circles have questioned its effectiveness in advancing Turkish regional interests. In 2014, officials in Ankara noted that Turkey had failed to prevent Armenia from escaping its security dependency on Russia. Despite a few of his foreign policy advisors raising these concerns, the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, is fearful of compromising his position in potentially damaging his country’s strategic partnership with Azerbaijan. Turkish foreign policy is left with few options to address key Armenian concerns over the border issue as a result. Similar to the predicament facing post-Soviet Armenian foreign policy, security consideration is overriding regional cooperation.

For instance, Pashinyan’s spokeswoman, Mane Gevorgian, condemned the Turkish president for praising Enver Pasha, who was one of the architects of the Armenian genocide in 1915 under the Ottoman Empire, at a military parade in Baku. Another sign demonstrating the scale of the diplomatic challenge facing Ankara is the decision to strip Turkey of tariff privileges with the Eurasian Economic Union of which Armenia is a member state.

Notwithstanding the potential for a Turkish-Armenian rapprochement that the November ceasefire creates, Ankara’s diplomatic options are limited in making reassurances with Yerevan since Turkey cannot afford to risk its close links with Baku. This means that it is far from clear whether Turkey has the political willingness to consolidate an inter-regional security system.

Can Turkey restore relations with Armenia?

What is for certain is that Turkey faces a huge diplomatic challenge in Armenia. Although the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh came to an end in November after the Turkish intervention tilted the conflict in Azerbaijan’s favour, the political crisis in Armenia that followed means that Yerevan may well fall back into its post-Soviet security dependence on Russia. This leaves hands tied in Armenian foreign policy-making in terms of opening up new relations with Turkey.

Erdoğan will also have to find a way to reconcile competing foreign policy interests if he wants to forge a new diplomatic channel with Armenia. On the one hand, Turkey would want to avoid any damage to its strategic partnership with Baku. Whereas others in Ankara are aware that playing solely to Azerbaijani interests makes the political environment harder for a rapprochement with Yerevan to be struck. The passive position adopted in Armenia over the border issue means that Turkey will now need to develop a nuanced strategy if it wishes to secure consent for a post-conflict security system in the region.

The proposal for a South Caucasus stability pact is possible as a result of the November ceasefire. However, the lack of political willingness, both in Ankara and Yerevan, for a normalisation of relations means it will be unlikely either side will take efforts towards rapprochement seriously.

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