It remains to be seen if this is yet another tactical balancing act on Baku’s part, or the sign of a more substantial shift.
The particular object of the current dispute is a series of flights that Russian military cargo planes took to Armenia, shortly following an outbreak of fighting in July between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan has claimed that they transported several hundred tons of military materiel to Armenia, and President Ilham Aliyev took the rare step of publicly complaining to his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin.
Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu subsequently flew to Baku and tried to clear things up. Shoigu met with top officials, including Aliyev, and assured them that the flights were not carrying weapons, but construction materials for the military base that Russia operates in Armenia.
A senior adviser to Aliyev, Hikmet Hajiyev, effectively accused Shoigu of lying. “The explanation by the Russian side is not entirely satisfactory,” Hajiyev told reporters on August 29. “The explanation that the planes were supposedly transporting construction materials doesn’t satisfy us.”
The controversy over the alleged weapons shipments has taken place against the backdrop of larger processes, most notably a marked increase in Turkish support for Azerbaijan in the wake of the July fighting. And pro-government press and commentators have been interpreting Shoigu’s express visit to Baku, and Azerbaijan’s ability to talk tough with Russian officials, as the result of that Turkish backing.
“Most likely, the firm position of the President of Azerbaijan has caused concern in the Kremlin. Perhaps, given that what happened could lead to a higher level of partnership between Azerbaijan and Turkey, they thought it was necessary to improve the situation and win the hearts of official Baku,” the pro-government newspaper Musavat wrote following Shoigu’s visit.
While economic ties between Turkey and Azerbaijan are deep, and the two sides carry out annual joint military exercises, Turkey’s support for Azerbaijan in its ongoing conflict with Armenia has been as much rhetorical as material. Russia, meanwhile, plays a far more significant diplomatic role and has provided Azerbaijan’s armed forces with the large majority of their weaponry.
But following the most recent round of fighting, Turkey’s response has been considerably stronger than it has been in the past. Ankara and Baku have exchanged several high-level diplomatic and military visits in the weeks since that fighting and held larger-than-usual joint military exercises.
“Azerbaijan is not alone. We will continue to support Azerbaijan in its just struggle. In the struggle of Azerbaijan for the liberation of the occupied lands, we, Turkey with a population of 83 million, are next to our brothers,” Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said during an August 14 visit to Baku.
Whether or not Ankara is ready to back those words up, they have proved useful for Baku as leverage against Moscow.
“The strengthening of the Baku-Ankara military alliance, the visits of the Azerbaijani foreign and defense ministers to Turkey and the visit of the Ankara military elite to Baku also prompted Russia to reconsider its policy towards the South Caucasus, especially Azerbaijan,” the state news agency APA wrote in an analysis.
“Turkey has entered the stage of military involvement in the South Caucasus,” Musavat wrote. “The fact that Turkey is one of the key members of NATO, which is in fierce competition with Russia, has significantly changed the balance of power in the region. The Kremlin is beginning to realize that Russia is in danger of losing the South Caucasus, its regional hegemony is in doubt.”
Matthew Bryza, a former top American diplomat who is now a pro-Turkey and -Azerbaijan commentator, suggested that Turkey could become one of the key mediators in the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
In an August 27 commentary for the U.S. think tank Atlantic Council, Bryza said the body that is currently facilitating the negotiations, the Minsk Group, is failing. “It may therefore fall to Ankara and Moscow to fill a diplomatic vacuum and convince their respective allies to return to the negotiating table,” he wrote.
For Armenia, any Turkish diplomatic involvement in the conflict is a non-starter. But some Armenian commentators blame the Armenian government itself for widening the conflict with Turkey.
Gerard Libaridian, a prominent historian and adviser to former president Levon Ter-Petrossian, noted in a recent commentary that senior Armenian officials have revived territorial claims against Turkey stemming from the World War I-era genocide of ethnic Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. That amounted to “a declaration of at least diplomatic war against Turkey,” Libaridian wrote. “[W]hatever our screams, whatever our adjectives to describe [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan, Turkey and Turks, the fact remains that now we must visualize the possibility of confronting Turkey directly, in addition to Azerbaijan.”
Russia is not likely to take Azerbaijan’s reproaches lying down. A small sign of that was a September 1 article in the Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta, by the hawkish analyst Vladimir Mukhin, claiming (with no evidence) that Azerbaijan had readied 500 Syrian militants in preparation for a “blitzkrieg against Armenia.” Azerbaijan’s ministries of defense and foreign affairs both publicly criticized the report; foreign ministry spokesperson Leyla Abdullayeva called it a “slander and dirty campaign against our country.”
A turn away from Russia and more toward Turkey would no doubt cheer many non-official Azerbaijanis, who across the political spectrum tend to be pro-Turkey. There have been at least two unsanctioned demonstrations in Baku in support of Turkey’s military; the second one was broken up by the police. The independent Turan news agency gloated at the Russian defense chief’s comeuppance in Baku. “How stupid Shoigu looks was clearly visible from the expression on Ilham Aliyev’s face, who looked at the Moscow envoy with slight contempt,” it wrote.
It remains to be seen whether Baku’s broadsides against Moscow amount to a tactical attempt to play one partner off another – a practice that Baku has honed in its three decades of independence – or something more substantial.
Farid Shafiyev, the head of an Azerbaijan government-run foreign policy think tank, said that a variety of factors may point to a decisive turn against Moscow. For one, several high-ranking, pro-Russia officials have recently been removed from their positions, he noted. And expectations that Russia may turn away from Armenia following the 2018 Velvet Revolution, which brought many pro-Western figures into prominent positions in Yerevan, have been disappointed.
On top of all that, “the latest development with Russia’s massive arms delivery to Armenia had, I believe, a profound effect on Baku,” Shafiyev told Eurasianet. “I expect that the close relationship between Baku and Ankara is the only option Azerbaijan has to fight for its territorial integrity.”