28 November, 2019 10:43

The New Bond between Russia and Turkey: Should Armenia be Concerned?

By Benyamin Poghosyan, Founder and Chairman, Center for Political and Economic Strategic Studies

On November 26, the chief executive officer of Russian Rosoboronexport, Alexander Mikheev stated that Moscow and Ankara were actively discussing Ankara taking up an option in the original contract to receive more S-400 anti-aircraft weapon systems. According to him Rosoboronexport hopes that in the first half of 2020, both sides will sign the contract documents. Given the current tensions in US – Turkey relations caused by the S-400 shipments in July 2019, this statement definitely will further infuriate the US establishment. 

Some US Senators and members of the House of Representatives have already demanded from the White House to sanction Turkey using the “Countering American Adversaries through Sanctions Act.” Just one week ago, a Senior State Department official told journalists that Turkey needs to either destroy, return or somehow get rid of the S-400 missile defense system it purchased, to overcome a standoff with Washington. However, Turkey does not seem willing to give any concessions. On Monday, November 25, Turkey started testing the S-400 system currently deployed at an airbase outside the capital Ankara, thus sending a signal to Washington that it is not going to cancel the agreement. Turkey’s decision to block approval of a NATO plan on defending Poland and the Baltic states from a hypothetical Russian attack as well as NATO formally not recognizing the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, as a terrorist group, makes disagreements between the US and Turkey more acute.

Russia – Turkey Relations Watched by Armenia

Certainly, the S-400 issue is one piece in a greater geopolitical game involving Russian efforts to drive wedges between Turkey and the US, as well as a signal of growing Turkish confidence in pursuing an independent foreign policy in the Middle East with an intention not to be perceived as a junior partner of the US. However, besides global geopolitics, the S-400 issue and the recent developments in Russia – Turkey relations are being carefully watched by Armenia. 

Armenia is under both Azerbaijani and Turkish pressure due to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and is the only Russian strategic ally in the South Caucasus. Besides geopolitics, history also inflames Armenia’s concerns. Yerevan is wary not to see a repeat of the events of 1920-1921, when the temporary alliance between Soviet Russia and Kemalist Turkey resulted in a Russian supported Turkish invasion of Armenia. Armenian forces were defeated and Armenia was forced to choose between Turkey’s occupation or Sovietization, finally becoming a Soviet Republic within the USSR. Thus, many in Armenia, including members of the expert community argue that growing Turkey – Russia cooperation poses a threat to Armenia and may result in Russia’s “betrayal” of Armenian interests.

However, so far there are no signs that the Russian – Turkish partnership in Syria and growing economic and military – technical cooperation may result in cooperation also in the South Caucasus. The region is perceived by Russia as a part of its sphere of influence and the Kremlin has a clear goal of increasing its scope there. Given the relative decline of the EU and the US involvement in the South Caucasus, as well as Iran’s focus on “regime survival” due to US economic pressure and growing domestic unrest, the only potent adversary of Russia in the South Caucasus is Turkey. Ankara has a strategic alliance with Azerbaijan and quite strong economic relations with Georgia. Turkey views the South Caucasus as a part of its neighborhood, as well as an alternative route to reach Central Asia and China. Turkey alongside with Azerbaijan and Georgia is actively promoting the Middle Corridor transport route, which envisages the transportation of Chinese goods to Europe via Kazakhstan, the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey using the recently launched Baku – Tbilisi – Kars railway. Azerbaijan is also a key asset for Turkey’s nationalists who are vying for more Turkish influence in the Turkic world. 

Turkey’s increased involvement in the South Caucasus is a source of concern for Russia. Despite US – Turkey tensions, partly stoked by Russia, Turkey remains and will remain a NATO member. Russia views Turkey’s efforts to strengthen its position in the region not only as a part of bilateral relations but also within the prism of NATO’s efforts to deter and counter Russia and decrease Russian influence in the Post-Soviet world. 

We may argue that Turkey’s growing role in the South Caucasus is a threat to Russian interests. Given the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, as well as Turkish denial of the Armenian Genocide, Armenia should be seen in Russia as a key leverage in deterring Turkey in the region. Most probably, the recent Russian decision to double firearm capabilities at the Russian military base in Armenia is based on similar assessments. Thus, despite Russia – Turkey cooperation in Syria, large scale joint economic projects and growing military – technical cooperation, Russia still perceives Turkey as a competitor in the South Caucasus and Armenia may be the best leverage to put restrictions on Turkey’s regional aspirations. 

Meanwhile, it should be very clear to Russia that any Russian move which will be perceived in Armenia as a “betrayal” of Armenian interests will have a strong negative impact on Armenia – Russia relations and decrease Russia’s abilities to use Armenia as a deterrence against Turkey.