The deepening political, economic and military ties between Turkey and Azerbaijan as well as mutual grassroots sentiments between Turks and Azerbaijanis suggest a radical change in Baku’s foreign policy. Is this the end of the Caspian nation’s equidistance to regional powers and blocs?
“It is no secret that Turkey is not only our friend and partner but a brotherly country. We support and will support Turkey without any hesitation in all matters… We have the support of our Turkish brothers in all matters and we also support them in all matters, including their research in the Eastern Mediterranean…”
These were the words of President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev, voiced to the Greek ambassador upon receiving the latter’s credentials on 2 September 2020.
Although the Greek media reacted very negatively to the statement, Aliyev’s key message was probably addressed to multiple capitals and not only Athens. It might also herald a new chapter in the Caspian nation’s foreign policy.
For years Baku has been adherent to and effectively operating the policy of balancing, which was based on equidistance to (or avoidance from) any political (EU, EEU) or military blocs (NATO, CSTO).
The country’s primary aim was to maintain positive relations with all confronting powers (the United States, the EU, Turkey, Russia and Iran) without siding with any of them. But things seem to change in Azerbaijan.
July skirmishes and the immediate aftermath
Although the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan is not new and remains explosive, the last escalation broke out quite spontaneously and along the uncontested state border – and not directly related to Nagorno-Karabakh. The war lasted a few days and claimed at least 18 lives, including one civilian from the Azerbaijani side.
The aftermath of the skirmishes proved similarly tense and became internationalised with the involvement of several foreign actors.
Turkey’s reaction to the escalation along the Armenian-Azerbaijani border was straightforward: Ankara unconditionally supports Azerbaijan in the latter’s conflict with Armenia. This reaction was followed and substantiated by high-level diplomatic and military visits and a large joint drill that took place across Azerbaijan.
Although joint military exercises are held annually, this year’s drills between 29 July and 10 August were more impressive and larger as they employed almost all types of armed forces.
What is more intriguing is that they took place against the backdrop of the simultaneous Russian-Armenian military drills, which may demonstrate geopolitical alignments and further polarisation in the South Caucasus.
However, the Kremlin’s overt siding with Armenia was greeted by outrage in Azerbaijan as Russia, a key mediator in the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process is expected to take a neutral stance toward the belligerent sides.
Shortly after the border skirmishes and Russian-Armenian joint drills, Azerbaijan claimed the Russian side had transported several hundred tons of military materiel to Armenia by using an indirect, circular route. Encouraged by Ankara’s backing, Baku voiced up its rhetoric against Moscow, never seen in such a scale before.
In a telephone conversation, President Aliyev publicly complained to his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. Interestingly enough, Azerbaijan’s presidential page communicated the minutes of the conversation, including this complaint, which was missing in the text provided by the Kremlin.
The telephone conversation was a trigger for the Russian military: while two warships of the Russian Navy approached Baku, allegedly to participate in some international competition, Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu quickly visited Baku and tried to assure Aliyev that the controversial cargo flights were carrying construction materials for the Russian military base in Armenia.
Shoigu did not appear convincing enough and the explanation by the Russian side was not quite satisfactory as Aliyev’s foreign policy adviser told the press in a daring statement.
Throughout July and August Turkey’s authorities, including President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu and Defence Minister Hulusi Akar openly and firmly expressed Turkey’s unconditional support to Azerbaijan.
“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 Defence Minister Akar said during his August visit to Baku.
A NATO member that has given security guarantees to a non-NATO state, Turkey has been extensively training the Azerbaijani army. The deeper Turkish involvement in the South Caucasus has raised too much concern in Russia, which traditionally considers the region part of its own orbit of influence.
Russian experts and media are alarmed about the military build-up of Turkey in Azerbaijan’s Nakhchivan exclave; these claims, if true, would display the real shift in Azerbaijan’s foreign and military policy based on an equidistance to and avoidance of military blocs, both NATO and CSTO.
Moreover, the idea of foreign troops on Azerbaijani soil has always been dismissed both by the authorities and the public (Azerbaijan became the first post-Soviet country to get rid of the Soviet/Russian army in the early 1990s, while a strategic radar system operated by the Russians since the Soviet times was shut down with Baku’s insistence in 2009).
President Aliyev, in his meeting with the Turkish Defence Minister, said he wanted Turkey to be Azerbaijan’s top military partner. As part of this ambition, the Azerbaijani military is planning to acquire Turkish-made Bayraktar drones, which displayed high effectiveness in the Near Eastern battlefields.
Then came the Greece statement from Aliyev in early September. While touching upon many issues in the Azerbaijani-Greek relations, he expressed full support to any Turkish actions in the Eastern Mediterranean, saying that Azerbaijan’s policy is completely identical on all fronts with that of Turkey.
The speech instantly became a newspaper headline in Turkey and received gratitude from Turkey’s Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu.
Such a move from Azerbaijan’s authorities was welcomed at home and received public enthusiasm, which was also boosted by the incoming Turkish armed forces. At least two unauthorised rallies were held in Baku with pro-Turkey slogans.
A connection can also be found and speculated between the relevant change in foreign policy and some recent moves in the domestic domain of Azerbaijan: the long-time foreign minister was dismissed amid the July war, while several notoriously pro-Russian officials have been pushed out of their positions recently, which could mean the weakening of Russia’s positions within the Azerbaijani government.
A short-term trump
While political and economic ties between Turkey and Azerbaijan are deep, as well as mutual grassroots sentiments between Turks and Azerbaijanis, the current situation is developing a momentous situation. Even during the 2015 Russian jet crisis, Azerbaijan did not openly support Turkey, trying again to balance between the two powers. This time, however, Baku firmly sides with Ankara and makes daring démarches against Russia.
We will still need some time to see whether Baku’s Turkey card is a short-term trump within a policy of balancing or a radical change in foreign policy.
In turn, Turkey, which has been pursuing a very assertive policy in the Near East, North Africa and the Mediterranean, usually by colliding with Russia, endorsed Azerbaijan`s ambitions and demonstrated its willingness to protect the fraternal nation.
Through Azerbaijan, Turkey can make a military entry into an important region, Russia`s backyard, which retains geostrategic importance as an energy-rich region and a transport corridor.
READ 4 SCENARIOS FOR ARMENIA, AZERBAIJAN, BELARUS, GEORGIA, MOLDOVA & UKRAINE: