The current Turkish activism in the Nagorno-Karabakh scenario has multiple interpretations that are not mutually exclusive. The first interpretation consists of the ethnic affinity that Turkey shares with Azerbaijan as they both belong to the Turk ethnic group. Turkey feels a sort of protective sentiment of brotherhood towards the Azerbaijani. As a matter of fact, the two countries openly consider themselves “one nation, two states”. Consequently, a strong Turkish military support in favor of Azerbaijan in the current conflict is reasonable to take place as well as it occurred in the 1988-1992 war. The second interpretation of the Turkish attention to the area represents its geopolitical strategy of achieving a greater power status that extends to the Caucasus, to the Balkans (underlined by the Turkish aims toward Northern Cyprus), and to part of the Mediterranean Sea. Erdogan’s Turkey desires a switch from a geopolitical regional power to a broader and more global power position.
Despite the cultural protective sentiment and the geopolitical desire to emerge as a global power, a much-underrated interpretation for the Turkish activism in the Nagorno-Karabakh area can be contextualized within the long-term Turkish energy strategy. A premise must be made first. Strategy and tactics in geopolitics as well as in the military field differ: while strategy entails achieving a certain geopolitical situation which can take place only in the long term, tactics implies a step or a single action the success of the which leads to a more likely accomplishment of the strategy. In the case of Turkey, the energy strategy represents an attempt to maintain its important position of the energy transit system in the region as well as to find diversified and accountable sources of natural gas. One of the Turkish tactics is instead aimed at obtaining this energetic agenda by its activism over the Caucasus and particularly over the fate of the Nagorno-Karabakh situation.
The Turkish strategic location and its vulnerabilities in the energetic sector
As of today, Turkey possesses extraordinary strategic potential in the energetic sector. Ankara is surrounded by countries whose natural gas supply represents three-quarters of the natural gas reserves : Iran (connected to Turkey through the Tabriz-Ankara pipeline) and Russia (connected to Turkey through the BlueStream, for instance), and Azerbaijan (connected through the Baku- Tbilisi-Ceyhan or BTC and the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum pipelines or BTE). However, Turkey is quite short on natural gas sources and all it can only do is represent an important energy bridge connecting the suppliers (the East) to the consumers, namely itself and the West). For instance, the Tabriz-Ankara pipeline reaches and supplies the Balkans. In the long-run, Turkey has the chance to have access to two important natural gas sources located in the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. As far as the 320-cm (billion cubic meters) Black Sea gas field is concerned, it lies within the Turkish Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which makes the Turkish claims over it lawfully, according to international law. Yet developing infrastructure and technology to extract that gas might take very long and might represent an expense too huge to carry out. As regards instead the likely presence of natural gas within the Mediterranean, Turkey still has maritime borders disputes with Greece concerning whether it has the right to send its nature gas discovery teams. As of today, the situation is not solved and it might take very long to be fixed. Consequently, Turkey cannot represent yet an important natural gas supplier in the short and the medium term: it can only rely on its geostrategic position and represent an important hub of energy flow and make the best profit from it.
Assumed the importance of Turkey as an energy transit system for the East and the West, this current Turkish role might look rather vulnerable at times. Certain territories the Turkish gas pipelines cross are subject to relative instability, thus jeopardizing the whole gas flow. For instance, the current amount of natural gas provided by Russia sharply went down over the last years. This is due to the divergent positions of the two countries in scenarios like Libya and Syria, which made their relationship rather difficult. Gazprom declared it will reduce consistently the 2020 amount of gas flowing through the BlueSteam. After all, one of Turkey’s main tactics in its natural gas diversification consists exactly in becoming less dependent on the Russian gas and exploiting other possibilities such as Iran and Azerbaijan. However, the current Iranian and Azerbaijani pipelines could not be enough to ensure a Turkish prominent role as both of them are vulnerable in turn. On one hand, the Iranian-Turkish pipeline represents an unstable flow of natural gas because of lack of Turkish domestic security: various sabotages activities on the pipelines within the Turkish territory are likely to happen often, the bulk of which are carried out by the PKK group. These activities lead to malfunctions in the gas flow that can last for days. On the other hand, issues with the Azerbaijani-Turkish oil pipelines are reported to be significant too. Since Azerbaijan and Turkey are divided by Armenia (Turkey borders Azerbaijan only through an Azeri enclave, the Nakhchivan autonomous enclave), the BTC pipeline passes through Georgia. Despite its immense flow of natural gas, this pipeline showed deficiencies during the 2008 12-days-long Georgian-Russian war, where Russia exposed the BTC flow, particularly in danger because of the tense situation. It is therefore clear that the Turkish energetic insecurity urges Ankara to diversify its oil flow trends to keep a certain degree of stability and continue to maintain its prominent role as an energetic transit system. Over the last years, such diversification might have been identified by Turkey in the exploitation of Nagorno-Karabakh and the frictions between Baku and Yerevan.
The Turkish switch from “zero problems with neighbors” to military activism is also part of the energetic strategy
The Turkish foreign affair policy and the change of it can be also interpreted as a part of the broader strategy of securitizing Turkey as an important energetic hub. The diplomatic relationships between Ankara and Baku and between Ankara and Yerevan are a brilliant example to show how significant the energy sector is to Turkey.
The diplomatic dynamics of the last decade showed how Ankara cannot afford to lose such a vital ally like Azerbaijan by adopting a rapprochement policy towards Armenia. Turkey tried to undertake some rapprochement with Armenia through the 2008 Turkish-Armenian Protocol, in which also the then Nagorno-Karabakh status quo was told to be solved only if Azerbaijan recognized the self-determination rights of the locals. The Turkish strategy behind these attempts was actually connected to the Turkish tactic of “zero problems with neighbors” foreign policy: this tactic represented part of the strategy to stabilize the region and secure its position as the strategic hub in the energetic sector. It is not a coincidence that this Protocol was carried out a month after the Russian-Georgian war, which put the BTC pipeline in the Georgian territory at risk. Likely, Turkey thought that a potential escalation of tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh region would have forced Turkey to support Azeri, which in turn would have resulted in a loss. If Turkey would have supported Azerbaijan, frictions between Ankara and Moscow would have occurred with consequent repercussions on the Russian pipeline flow passing through Turkey. Consequently, a reconciliation especially on the Nagorno-Karabakh field seemed a viable tactic to adopt. However, these reconciliation attempts caused a sharp slowdown in the relationship between Baku and Ankara: Azerbaijan in fact maintained that the natural gas prices (sold to Turkey at one-third of the standard market prices) could have been easily increased if further negotiations with Armenia would have taken place. Additionally, Azerbaijan threatened to sell its gas to Russia instead: in such a way, Russia would have held a stronger monopoly over gas, thus putting Turkey in a greater position of inferiority. Turkey had its hands tied and could do nothing but step back and not ratify the Turkish-Armenian Protocol. It is clear that the Turkish desire to keep very strict ties with Azerbaijan was not merely for cultural and ethnic reasons, but for energetic reasons too. The 2008 episode represented a significant Turkish policy recalibration over the Caucasus: Turkey realized that it was much better to be directly in charge of the region’s security (and, consequently, of the energetic security) instead of representing only a spectator of the regional conflicts. The key tactic to pursue this strategy therefore switched from “zero problems with neighbors” to direct and ruthless interventions in the region. As a matter of fact, the Turkish approach towards the last conflicts (Libya, Syria) illustrated its aggressive attitude. The Nagorno-Karabakh did not make any exception.
Nagorno-Karabakh as a geopolitical arena Turkey can step in to accomplish its energetic mission
The Turkish identification of Nagorno-Karabakh is one of the tactics to pursue its role of the energetic hub that might have not happened but recently. The Turkish perception of how Nagorno-Karabakh should look considerably changed in the last years, after the failed experiment of Ankara-Yerevan rapprochement.
The Turkish “zero problems with neighbors” policy was totally substituted by a rise in military activism when the Nagorno-Karabakh tensions emerged again on the 27th of September 2020. This new aggressive attitude is shown when Erdogan, at the edge of the conflict, maintained that Armenians must withdraw from Nagorno-Karabakh. This position is certainly very different from the 2008 Turkish-Armenian Protocol’s contents. When the conflict broke out, Turkey still represented important military support for Baku: military equipment was delivered as well as technological support such as the Turkish drones. Yet also over the past decade, the Turkish and Azerbaijan military relationships intensified in terms of military technology bought by Azerbaijan and military training to the Azeri topes carried out by Turkish personnel. This military business went alongside a stricter collaboration in terms of gas supply for Turkey, which rose by 23% in the first half of 2020. It looks like a fair trade-off: Turkish military equipment and know-how in exchange for (even more) preferential access to the Azerbaijani natural gas. The Azerbaijani state oil company SOCAR does indeed represent now one of the major sources of investment for Turkey. Azerbaijani friendship is vital to maintain a functional flow of natural gas. Consequently, Turkey did not only want to securitize the area with a more active method but expected the scenario to be in total favor of Azerbaijan. An Azerbaijani victory (very likely, given the Azeri military superiority) would permit Turkey to keep this advantageous flow of natural gas. The improved energetic Axis between Ankara and Baku might finally solve the issue of the Turkish energetic diversification once and for all. This is the reason why Turkey had to provide unconditional support in the Nagorno-Karabakh scenario.
How Turkey might behave in the Nagorno-Karabakh ceasefire agreement to enhance its energetic strategy
After the ceasefire, the Nagorno-Karabakh scenario looks incredibly different from the pre-conflict situation. Azerbaijan gained control over a significant part of Nagorno-Karabakh and all the 7 districts around it. Most importantly for what could be the Turkish strategy in the future, the distance between the Azerbaijani autonomous enclave of Nakhichevan (which borders Turkey) and the new territory controlled by Azerbaijan became significantly tinier. The agreement in fact acknowledges this situation, and grants a new transport corridor between the Nakhichevan and the new Azeri territories for the movement of people and goods. In practice, it seems like Azerbaijan and Turkey are now directly connected through Nakhichevan, the new territory conquered by Azerbaijan and this corridor was agreed upon by the ceasefire armistice. Virtually, a connection like the following could complete the energetic puzzle for Turkey: a new pipeline linking directly Azerbaijan and Turkey might be build-up without it passing through Armenia, which would never consent to it. This would mean for Turkey total control over this pipeline, as it is much closer to its direct sphere of influence than to Russian’s. It is important to remember that the corridor agreed by the ceasefire declaration is still Armenian and grants only safe transportation of Azerbaijani goods and people: it does not represent Azerbaijani territory. However, this corridor could still fall within the Azerbaijani hands if a violation of the ceasefire happens and if Azerbaijan obtains further military successes. In a nutshell, Turkey might be extremely interested in the conflict to prosecute despite the ceasefire agreement. Within this context, the Turkish decision of supporting the Azerbaijani during the conflict through Syrian mercenaries might be seen in a whole new light. During the conflict, Turkey contributed to sending to the battlefield a significant amount of Syrian mercenaries. Different analysts have wondered the reasons for such an action since the Azerbaijani were already militarily superior to Armenia. An answer might rely exactly on the above-mentioned explanation. The presence of mercenaries is never helpful in a ceasefire scenario, as these subjects have total interest in prosecuting a war scenario. Their job is waging war, and their presence remains threatening because they might still violate the status-quo and wage a new conflict, thus infringing the already delicate and weak ceasefire. Once war begins again, it is easy to predict a new Azerbaijani victory, which can entail control over the corridor that is still held by Armenia. Once the corridor is Azerbaijani, a new secure and stable pipeline directly connecting Turkey and Azerbaijan can take place.
The Turkish energetic strategy might help understand different aspects of the Turkish choices over Nagorno-Karabakh, the relationship with Armenia, and the close ties with Azerbaijan. However, this strategy must not be identified as an alternative vision of the Turkish geopolitical activism in the Caucasus, nor the only interpretation possible. It should instead be considered complementary with other elements such as the cultural and ethnic affinity with Azerbaijan and the Turkish attempts to emerge as a global power and control the Caucasus at the expense of Russia. As a matter of fact, becoming an energy transit system might be interpreted as an important step to achieve a stronger and more global position in the international scenario.
Written by Giuseppe Loveno Garofalo
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Picture: Source by Asianews (2020). Nagorno-Karabakh, Turkish weapons in support of the Azeris in the war with the Armenians. Retrieved from: http://www.asianews.it/news-en/Nagorno-Karabakh,-Turkish-weapons-in-support-of-the-Azeris-in-the-war-with-the-Armenians-51308.html.