The Caucasus: The next battleground for Russia and Turkey?

Russia’s deployment last week of a new fleet of MIG-29 fighter jets and MI-8MT helicopters to the Erebuni Airbase in Armenia has raised concerns about Moscow’s growing military presence in the region. This could have far-reaching consequences, beyond the strategic encirclement of Turkey, for the future of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as well as broader regional security and stability.

Armenia has long enjoyed deep military ties with Russia, but the recent military buildup is perceived as an expansion of Russian dominance in the region – at a time of much talk about a new Cold War, particularly with regard to Crimea and Ukraine.

As for Turkey, the political setting has dramatically changed since its downing of a Russian jet in November 2015. For the Kremlin taking revenge, demarcating its sphere of influence along the Turkish border, and pressuring Turkey over “fraternal” Azerbaijan, all make perfect sense in this context.

Not unsurprisingly, Nagorno-Karabakh has returned to the agenda of both countries in parallel to the tension over the downed jet.

Just a day after the downing, Russian MPs proposed a bill to try anyone who denied the 1915 killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turkish forces as “genocide.” Then on Dec. 3, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu visited Baku and reiterated Turkey’s commitment to the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan. “Turkey will support Azerbaijanuntil all occupied Azerbaijani lands – every single square centimeter – are returned,” he vowed.

Within a week, for the first time since the cease-fire of 1995, Azerbaijan used heavy artillery against Armenians on the Karabakh frontline. Baku accused Armenia of triggering the episode by firing mortar rounds at Azeri settlements.

Indeed, in recent months there has been a serious escalation in military clashes between Azerbaijan and Armenia along the line of contact in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Russia’s recent deployment to Armenia is likely to change the balance in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in favor of Armenia. However, the devil is in the details. The Erebuni base near Gyumri is just 10 kilometers from the Turkish border, and reports say patrol flights are about to start soon along the Armenian border with Turkey.

Against this tense geopolitical backdrop, it would only take a spark to turn the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict into a new proxy war between Russia and the West. Richard Giragosian , director of the Regional Studies Center (RSC) in Yerevan, said a resumption of hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan could escalate to a wider geopolitical conflict.

“Any return to war over Karabakh threatens to involve much larger regional powers, including Turkey, Russia and Iran. There is also a narrower but equally significant danger that a resumption of hostilities may directly endanger the region’s network of energy pipelines,” Giragosian said.

In the event of an outbreak of war, Giragosian suggests that not only would planned pipelines and energy projects such as the Trans-Anatolian Pipeline (TANAP) project be at severe risk, but existing pipelines such as the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline would become vulnerable to attacks by Armenian forces.

Akın Ünver, Assistant Professor of International Relations at Kadir Has University, emphasized that clashes over supply zones and transit routes are likely to elevate risks for investors and thus increase insurance costs – something that could slow down the implementation of TANAP.

When appraised in conjunction with Russian energy giant Gazprom’s recent decision to reduce gas supplies to Turkey, developments in the Caucasus display Russia’s resolve to continue making life miserable for Turkey in the neighborhood.

As the war in Syria consumes all the energy and resources of the major actors, opening another frontline between Armenia and Azerbaijan may not appear to be in anybody’s interest. But events can spiral out of control in the blink of an eye, as witnessed along the Syrian border.

Pro-active diplomacy is required immediately to de-escalate tension in the region and prevent the collapse of the shaky cease-fire between Yerevan and Baku before it is too late.