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In Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict, Turkey's Involvement Could Be Russia's Nightmare

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev receives prayer beads from his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, during a meeting in Baku on February 25.

MOSCOW -- As heavy fighting broke out this week between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, reigniting a bitter conflict that has simmered since a war in the early 1990s, Moscow reiterated a long-standing commitment to its traditional role as mediator.

"Russia has always maintained a balanced position," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on September 28, the day after Azerbaijan launched an offensive targeting the mountainous region that has been under de facto Armenian control since a Russian-brokered cease-fire in 1994.

Moscow will use its "cordial relations with both sides -- with Azerbaijan and Armenia -- to seek to resolve this conflict," Peskov added. He was hinting at a long history, including decades of 20th-century domination over the bitter rivals in the South Caucasus, that has left Moscow with substantial influence in both countries long after the Soviet breakup of 1991.

But a major new development could upend Moscow's calculations: the involvement of Turkey, a regional power that has long voiced support for its ally Azerbaijan but never taken direct part in the fighting. Now, Ankara's promises of military support in the latest flare-up, analysts say, may spur Moscow to rethink a policy of playing both sides that has served it for decades.

"For 30 years, Russia was convinced it was the main player in the South Caucasus," said Aleksandr Golts, an independent Russian military analyst. "It armed both sides in the conflict, justifying that by saying that it's upholding a balance of power. And by doing so it sought to increase its influence over both countries."

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Moscow has sold weapons to Azerbaijan at market prices, reaping the profit, and to Armenia at subsidized, so-called "internal" rates. It has close ties to the ruling elite in Baku, with President Vladimir Putin enjoying a rapport with his authoritarian counterpart in Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev. But Russia has stronger relations with Armenia, which hosts a Russian military base and is part of two Moscow-led blocs that help the Kremlin maintain its influence in the region: the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Eurasian Economic Union.

It is a risky policy, Golts said, since Russia's role in militarizing a region with deep-seated recriminations has helped fuel an arms race. But Russia has also played a major role diplomatically. Alongside the United States and France, it is a member of the Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which has been seeking unsuccessfully to coax the sides into ending the conflict since the 1990s. In 2009, the trio issued a blueprint for eventual peace in Nagorno-Karabakh known as the Basic Principles -- a framework that has neither been implemented nor fully rejected by either side.

Now, however, the combustible set of grievances that continues to spark repeated fighting in the enclave is being fanned by the involvement of Turkey, whose September 29 pledge to offer direct military support to Azerbaijan prompted the Kremlin to accuse it of "pouring oil on the fire" and did little to calm tensions in a region where Moscow and Ankara are vying for increased influence.

"There's a coming clash between Russia and Turkey playing out in the South Caucasus as it has in Syria and Libya," said Richard Giragosian, director of the Yerevan-based Regional Studies Center. "It's a return to a historic rivalry, and with the eruption of the fighting now it actually elevates the South Caucasus as more of a priority for Turkey."

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As fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh entered its fourth day on September 30, Turkey's potential military involvement could change realities on the ground for a conflict that is now in its 32nd year. While Armenians prevailed in the war that killed some 30,000 people and displaced hundreds of thousands before the 1994 truce, the result resolved little. Sporadic clashes in the years since have turned into a war of attrition, and a days-long flare-up in July killed at least 17 people, including at least one civilian.

The two sides blamed each other for the escalation in July, provoking a spike in bellicose rhetoric in both countries. Negotiations between the two governments essentially stopped.

Then came Turkey's involvement, which may have emboldened Baku into taking a tougher stance in talks with Moscow. It publicized disputed reports about a large Russian weapons shipment to Armenia in the aftermath of the July clashes, and Aliyev expressed concern in an August 13 phone call with Putin.

Wary Of Russia

Now, with the United States distracted by its upcoming presidential election and Europe grappling with a second wave of the coronavirus pandemic, analysts say there is a lack of global leadership as the conflict reignites. The latest standoff can be seen as "a symptom of a world in which the U.S. is no longer acting to defuse regional conflicts," Thomas de Waal, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Europe think tank and expert on the Caucasus, wrote in Politico.

In Syria, Russia has given President Bashar al-Assad's government crucial backing and seized on the U.S. military withdrawal to fill the void it left behind, cleaving out a zone of influence in the Middle East even as Turkey seeks to do the same.

But in Nagorno-Karabakh, a military intervention by Moscow would dramatically raise the stakes in a long-standing and intractable conflict that analysts say Russia would prefer to either resolve, winning credit as a peacemaker, or let simmer without major escalations, allowing the Kremlin to maintain a regional status quo that gives it outsize influence.

In addition, it would pose not only serious logistical challenges in a mountainous and largely inaccessible region, but also the unpalatable prospect of winning over a local population primed by history to view warily any Russian military presence.

"There's only one point of agreement between Baku, Yerevan, and Karabakh. They're all opposed to Russian peacekeepers," Giragosian said. "Which is prudent, because there's no such thing as Russian peacekeepers: Once deployed, they never go home."

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    Matthew Luxmoore

    Matthew Luxmoore is a Moscow-based journalist covering Russia and the former Soviet Union. He has reported for The New York Times in Moscow and has written for The Guardian, Politico, The New Republic, and Foreign Policy. He’s a graduate of Harvard’s Davis Center and a recipient of New York University's Reporting Award and the Fulbright Alistair Cooke Journalism Award.