BACKGROUND: The recent exchange of gunfire lasted for three days in mid-July, along the northern border between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The incident included artillery, tank fire and drone involvement, causing military casualties, as well as affecting villages on both sides of the border. Such incidents are not uncommon. The roots of this conflict stem back to the break-up of the Soviet Union and the establishment of independent states and to the controversy over the Nagorno-Karabakh region. The war lasted four years, in which Russia actively aided Armenia in gaining control. Despite international recognition of Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity, including through UN Security Council decisions during the war itself, on the ground Armenia continues to de facto control the region to this day, including occupied territories outside Nagorno-Karabakh, with active military, political and economic support from Russia.
The event which took place in July is unusual because of its geographic location, in the region of Tovuz, near the meeting point of the borders of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. This is far from the disputed area, which lies far to the south. Most of the military clashes over the years have taken place along the line of control close to Nagorno-Karabakh or the occupied territories surrounding it, and have been aimed at moving the border and gaining control over parts of the disputed region. Pointedly, they have not taken place on the international border between Armenia proper and Azerbaijan. Both countries have resisted broadening the area of conflict, for fear of losing international support, and neither country has shown interest in expanding the conflict beyond the disputed area.
During the height of the fighting, Russia began delivering military supplies to Armenia, and launched unannounced snap military exercises beginning on July 17. Russian arms deliveries to Armenia are nothing new, but the timing – during an episode of direct hostilities – is unprecedented. Before the end of July, Russia operated eight Ilyushin-76 flights to Armenia with military supplies. Because Georgia refused overflight rights, these flights were forced to use the circuitous route through Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Iran to reach Armenia. These supplies led President Ilham Aliyev to register his unhappiness directly with President Vladimir Putin.
The special importance of the geographic location of these clashes is its proximity to energy export pipelines, and their importance to Turkey, the main destination of these pipelines. Thus Russia’s involvement becomes clearer, and raises the question whether this event marks an indirect message from Russia to Turkey.
IMPLICATIONS: The violence in the region of Tovuz is, it seems, in actuality reflects a clash between Russia and Turkey, wherein Russia used Armenia as leverage in its confrontation with Turkey. It would seem that the Russian initiative was meant to be a message to Turkey vis-à-vis the energy export infrastructure crossing the Caucasus to At the time of the incident itself, the Russian news agency TASS quoted a source from Gazprom Armenia, a subsidiary of Russia’s Gazprom, reporting that some of their pipelines had been damaged during the incident. That was enough to justify Russia’s involvement, and Russian foreign Minister Lavrov met with representatives of both sides. The following day, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan pledged that that Turkey would support Azerbaijan in its conflict with Armenia. Turkey’s staunch support of Baku was aimed, this time, not only at Armenia, but at Moscow, inviting a response, and a response there was. Presidents Putin and Erdogan had a telephone conversation ten days after the event to discuss the escalation of the situation along the Armenia-Azerbaijan border. Putin expressed his willingness to coordinate efforts to bring about stability in the area, and the two presidents opened a direct dialogue, beyond the scope of Armenia and Azerbaijan, centered on stability in the Caucasus, opening the door to broader issues.
The pipelines transiting the area supply Turkey with energy for its own use, as well as turning Turkey into a transit state for energy for Europe. The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline crosses the region of Tovuz in Azerbaijan, as well areas in southern Georgia, finally reaching the Turkish port of Ceyhan on the Mediterranean Sea. From there, the energy is exported to world markets. In parallel goes the route of the natural gas pipeline, the “Southern Corridor,” transports natural gas from the Caspian Sea in Azerbaijan, through Georgia and Turkey, which is a key transit state to Europe. The Trans-Anatolian pipeline is complete, and its extension to Europe will soon be finished as well.
Russia and Turkey both have a stake in the civil war in Libya, creating the developing tension between them. The fact that each of these powers supports and supplies active military aid to a different side in the Libyan civil conflict, helps explain the incident along the Azerbaijani and Armenian northern border.
It is clear that the conflict between Russia and Turkey in Libya is focused on energy and on Libya’s geographic location. Libya contains huge proven oil reserves and is considered number nine in the world in this respect. In addition, its geographic location is crucial to both regional powers, since it lies along the Mediterranean coast, not far from Europe, including several Libyan ports. Both Russia and Turkey are vying for control of these oil fields and for possible control of these ports. This would provide the key to achieving a strategic position in the Mediterranean and convenient access to oil and gas discoveries in the area. Turkey appears already to be taking steps to achieve a presence in Libyan ports, a dominant position in Libya and has reached an agreement with the Tripoli-based Libyan government concerning the division of subsoil assets in the Eastern Mediterranean. This agreement challenges Russia, which has considered itself the reigning power in the eastern Mediterranean ever since it established itself in Syria, another area where Turkish and Russian interests have clashed.
CONCLUSIONS: The ever-increasing confrontation between Russia and Turkey in Libya, as well as that in the Eastern Mediterranean, may well continue to have a significant influence on the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. This was already the case several years ago, when Turkey short down a Russian fighter jet on its border with Syria, something that led Russia to deploy military helicopters to Armenia. The latest incident may seem to be unrelated to the ongoing conflict regarding natural gas, but it brings this point home. The major energy transport infrastructure from the Caspian Sea to Turkey passes through Azerbaijani territory and is under potential threat from Armenia. Russia has the ability to effectively influence Armenia, which is greatly dependent on Russia for its economic and military wellbeing. This situation provides Russia with leverage over Turkey, both economic and geostrategic. This has become especially obvious since Azerbaijan replaced Russia as Turkey’s major gas provider, as well as the fact that it has become an important transit state from the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean and Europe. Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean are of extreme strategic importance to Russia. Therefore, the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict may well serve as a means in Russia’s hands to enhance its standing vis-à-vis Turkey.
Dr. Avinoam Idan is a geostrategist and a non-resident Senior Fellow with the Washington based Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program. He is based in Israel. Prior to his academic career, he served in the Israeli Embassy in Moscow during the break-up of the Soviet Union.