By Tom Fowdy, a British writer and analyst of politics and international relations with a primary focus on East Asia.
Throwing support behind Baku amid the escalation of the Azerbaijan-Armenia dispute, Turkey is playing the classic ‘middle power’ and is aiming to draw Russia and the US into the situation while pursuing its own interests.
The latest escalation of a territorial dispute between Azerbaijan and Armenia is terrifying and worrying, do we need 2020 to get any worse? Military clashes commenced between the two countries in the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, involving helicopters and artillery. Fighting has continued throughout Sunday night, and civilians are reportedly dead. Russia and the United States have both called for a ceasefire and an immediate halt to hostilities.
In the midst of all the chaos, however, Azerbaijan has a very clear and open backer – Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey. Ankara has declared its full support for Baku’s side in the dispute, blaming Armenia for the escalation of tensions and stating: “The Turkish people stand with their Azeri brothers with all its means as it has always been.” Turkey has since been accused of sending F-16 fighters to assist Azerbaijan and even of sending militants from Syria.
But what’s really going on here? Despite the fact that Ankara brands Armenia as “the biggest threat to the region,” the real problem here is in fact Turkey’s overtly ambitious and nationalistic foreign policy, and its pursuit of establishing regional hegemony, which is becoming a growing destabilizing force to the Middle East and Caucasus proximity. Using its membership only for strategic leverage and gaining the upper hand in conflicts it chooses to escalate, NATO should recognize that Erodgan’s behaviour is increasingly a liability, and its partners should seek to reel him in.
Over the past few years, Turkey’s domestic politics and foreign policy have undergone a transformation. The country has shifted away from the democratic ideals and Western-orientated philosophy of Kemalism towards a populist-led Turkish nationalism, which has sought to more aggressively assert Turkey’s interests abroad. Despite being a NATO member, Erodgan has set Ankara’s foreign policy on an independent and adventurist path which has seen the country involve itself in multiple regional conflicts, much to the disdain of everyone else.
Turkey has sought to carve out space for itself as a regional hegemon, leveraging its geostrategic position as a land bridge between Europe and Asia, whilst hedging between Washington and Moscow to do so. In the past year alone, Turkey’s provocative actions have included intervention in the Syrian war, growing maritime disputes with Greece, military intervention in Libya and now, escalating the Azerbaijan-Armenia dispute and whipping up pan-Turkish nationalism as the justification.
Why has Ankara sought to influence this crisis, at this time? First of all, one recurring theme of nationalist-inspired conflicts in 2020 is the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. Turkey’s economy has suffered a devastating toll from the virus, having plummeted at an annualized rate of 9.9 percent and as deep as 11 percent.
As we are seeing in the US with the Covid-19 blame game against Beijing, and very similar in India with the aggravation of the border dispute with China, populist orientated countries see it as profitable to weaponize nationalism as a distraction from woes at home. Hence, Turkey has misleadingly branded Armenia the aggressor, and thus drew upon Pan-Turk solidarity to come to Azerbaijan’s support.
Secondly, the geopolitical motivations for inserting itself in the conflict include seeking greater bargaining chips against Moscow. As set out above, Turkey’s foreign policy is strictly self-orientated and does not subscribe to any Universalist ideals, despite its ties with the West. This translates into a foreign policy which effectively seeks to hedge itself and constantly maintain ambiguity in its ties between Moscow and the West, hoping to derive benefits from its relations with both without committing to serious friendship.
This is also known as “middle power diplomacy,” wherein a medium-sized country plays between great power states to pursue its interests. One day it will be picking quarrels with the US, the next day it will be starting fights with Moscow or the EU. To do so, Erodgan simply proceeds to get involved in one crisis after the next and thus twists them into giving him what he wants.
Therefore, Ankara’s involvement in the Azerbaijan-Armenia dispute is evidence that it, in its classic middle power position, aims to draw Moscow and the US into the situation in order to secure diplomatic bargaining chips for itself. This may include the demand for more concessions concerning Syria, as well in as other crises it has embedded itself in.
Nevertheless, this does not change the underlying facts that Turkey’s behavior is destabilizing the entire region around it. Erodgan’s foreign policy is a bitter broth of pan-Turkish nationalism and a regional power grab based on a hedging strategy seeking to play the great powers against each other. It needs to be kept in check.