Putin and Erdogan’s frenemy status: Dividing zones of influence from Nagorno-Karabakh to Syria and Libya

  • + Geopolitical lessons from the end of the Nagorno-Karabakh war.
  • + Russia and Turkey are dividing zones of influence in the South Caucasus, Syria, Libya.
  • + Putin and Erdogan are benefitting from US withdrawals in the Middle East and blind opposition to Iran.
Putin and Erdogan’s dynamics of carving up zones of influence throughout the MENA region has continued in the South Caucasus.
Source: TRT World

Why are Putin and Erdogan frenemies?

Answer: The end of the Nagorno-Karabakh war led to Armenia’s crushing defeat and Azerbaijan’s surge in regional power.

On November 9th, 2020, Russian President Putin, Armenian Prime Minister Pashinyan and Azerbaijani President Aliyev, signed a ceasefire to end the month-long war in Nagorno-Karabakh. This cease-fire returns territories in and around Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan, while Russia will send a 2,000-man peacekeeping force to the Lachin corridor for the next five years (in Nagorno-Karabakh) to keep the crucial route open for international trade. Although not formally part of the ceasefire agreement, Erdogan played a major role in the negotiations as Azerbaijan’s major backer. Turkey will cooperate with Russian peacekeepers in a Baku-based observation post to ensure the ceasefire is upheld. 

The ceasefire is a major defeat for Armenia. Its troops defending Nagorno-Karabakh were badly mauled by incessant Azerbaijani drone strikes and Turkish-backed offensive, sustaining over 2,000 deaths. The Azerbaijani capture of Shusha on the 9th of November opened a direct route to Nagorno-Karabakh’s capital, Stepanakert, and threatened to encircle up to 20,000 Armenian troops defending the disputed region, forcing Pashinyan to agree to a ceasefire.

The loss of Nagorno-Karabakh led to mass protests in Yerevan, as the Armenian leadership’s propaganda falsely indicated that Armenia was winning the war. Aliyev’s success in retaking Nagorno-Karabakh fulfils the national struggle which existed since 1994 and makes the Azerbaijani president a national hero. The Russian peacekeeping force will enforce the ceasefire and ensures that Azerbaijan cannot launch a further offensive on Armenia. 

However, the ceasefire is by no means a resolution to the conflict in the South Caucasus. Indeed, the pre-conflict roles are merely switched: Armenia is now the state with grievances, while Azerbaijan will strengthen its hold on Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenia’s national rhetoric will revolve around re-taking Nagorno-Karabakh; with little diplomatic options available to this end, the country will likely start a military buildup to retake their lost region.

Nevertheless, the balance of power has clearly turned in favor of Baku. Aliyev has positioned Azerbaijan as a central hub connecting Russia, Turkey and Iran, fulfilling an intermediary role between the Middle East, South Caucasus and Russia. Aliyev’s petro-dollars, newly upgraded army and strong Turkish support have allowed Azerbaijan to become a regional power, leaving Russian-dependent Armenia in the back-view mirror. The future of Nagorno-Karabakh will continue to depend on the level of foreign support Azerbaijan and Armenia receive, as seen with Turkish support of Azerbaijan in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War. As such, the South Caucasus’ future will likely be marked by an extension of regional tensions, hostility and war. 

How are Putin and Erdogan cooperating in conflicts where they are nominally opposed?

Answer: They are coming to agreements over dividing zones of geopolitical influence.

What stands out of the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War is Putin and Erdogan’s cooperation in carving out zones of influence in the South Caucasus. As the historical regional superpower, Russia retained its influence by brokering the ceasefire and sending Russian peacekeeper to the Lachin corridor. Putin’s manoeuvring allows Russia to remain Armenia’s primary ally while keeping good relations with Aliyev in Azerbaijan.

However, Putin has also come to accept in recent years that Erdogan’s emerging military power seeks to expand Turkey’s regional zone of influence. As such, Putin ceded part of Russia’s previously uncontested influence in the South Caucasus to Turkey, which now holds significant power in tandem with Azerbaijan. Now, Turkey is as much of a power broker in the South Caucasus as Russia. Nevertheless, Turkish and Russian cooperation in establishing zones of influence is not restricted to the Nagorno-Karabakh War. 

Indeed, Erdogan and Putin have collectively sought to benefit from the US’ withdrawal from the MENA region by carving up their own zones of influence. This trend has been observed in Libya and Syria, conflicts where Turkey and Russia are on opposing sides. Although opposed, the two military powers have been unwilling to enter in a full-fledged confrontation. Instead, Putin and Erdogan allow their regional allies to become dependent on military support. Once established, Russia and Turkey agree on ceasefires, effectively defining each country’s zone of influence. This has been the case in Libya, which is split between the Turkish supported GNA and Turkish supported LNA. In Syria, both states have agreed to a ceasefire, stabilizing the frontlines. 

It’s become clear that all these conflicts are interlinked, and Turkish-Russian negotiations over ceasefires and zones of influence are not restricted to a specific conflict. As such, the ceasefire in Nagorno-Karabakh may be tied to Russo-Turkish confrontations in Idlib. Notably, Russia’s bombing of Turkish allies Faylaq al-Sham, leading to the death of over 80 of its members in late October was met with little Turkish opposition, raising doubts about an agreement between the two counties. The presence of a Russo-Turkish observation post in Nagorno-Karabakh could depend on further Turkish withdrawals from their observation posts in Idlib. 

As such, Putin and Erdogan are clearly cooperating to fill the geopolitical void left by the US and NATO’s apathy. This cooperation is motivated by strategic geopolitical interests and does not translate to a hidden alliance. However, Russia and Turkey have seized the opportunity, and their success in partitioning zones of influence across the Middle East, North Africa and South Caucasus reveals a deepening American disconnection from global security challenges. 

What does Erdogan want?

Answer: Expand Turkey’s geopolitical influence to divert attention from domestic problems.

Erdogan’s primary motivation for Turkey’s interventionist policies in Syria, Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh is to divert the Turkish electorate’s support away from the crumbling economy. Although partially successful, Erdogan is still under heavy electoral pressure in light of the 2023 Turkish presidential elections. The success of the Azerbaijan-Turkish alliance in Nagorno-Karabakh was a major foreign policy win for Erdogan, showcasing the power of the Turkish armaments industry and rallying to the defense of another Islamic nation. This success gives further weight to Erdogan’s new positioning as a key leader of the Islamic world and rallies Turkey’s conservative/Islamic electorate around the Turkish president. 

However, we cannot simply pass Turkey’s military interventions as Erdogan’s electoral ploys. The Turkish president has skillfully exploited the power vacuum left by the retreating Americans in the MENA region, deploying the Turkish military to expand Turkey’s zones of geopolitical influence. Moreover, Erdogan efficiently guided Donald Trump’s Middle Eastern policy to match Turkey’s interests, calling the US president up to 2 times per week.

Exploiting Trump’s lack of understanding of Middle Eastern history, power dynamics and the Syrian Civil War, Erdogan was able to convince Trump to withdraw support for the Kurds and let Turkey invade part of Syrian Kurdistan. Erdogan has managed to keep the US silent, or even sanction Turkish interventionism in Afrin, Tripoli, Sinjar and Nagorno-Karabakh. The Turkish president’s main selling point was that Turkey, through these interventions, is pushing back against Iranian allies and influence.

Erdogan may have convinced Trump that Turkey is acting as a counterweight to Iran, but the reality is far different. None of Turkey’s state media ever critique Iran’s main allies such as Hezbollah or Houthis, while both states have coordinated anti-Kurdish military operations in Iraqi Kurdistan and expressed similar views in ending the conflict in Yemen.

Instead, Erdogan is significantly harming US positions in conflicts Turkey is involved in. Turkey’s actions in Afrin, where the standard of living collapsed under Turkish occupation, shellings in Sinjar Province, sending Syrian mercenaries to Nagorno-Karabakh and Libya have degraded NATO’s standing. Using his newfound autonomy stemming from NATO’s inertia, Erdogan, with Putin, has been able to partition each nation’s new zones of geopolitical influence. Erdogan’s enfranchisement from the West points to a Middle East partitioned between Russia, Turkey and Iran, opposed by traditional American allies – Israel, UAE and Saudi Arabia. 

What does Putin want?

Answer: Encourage Turkish interventionism to weaken NATO, while expanding Russian geopolitical influence.

Putin understands that a rogue Turkey plays directly into Russia’s geopolitical interests. Indeed, Turkey’s interventionism threatens NATO’s existence, notably as Turkey clashes with its fellow NATO ‘allies’, France and Greece. Erdogan’s manipulation of US foreign policy through Trump also shows that the US is far removed from its past interventionist foreign policies, especially in the MENA region. Thus, Putin hopes that an unbridled Erdogan will help NATO implode from the inside out.

However, the end of NATO could lead to European security integration, which would threaten Russian interests. As such, Putin’s goal may be to keep Turkey within NATO in order to weaken the organization but prevent its imposition to block more robust security institutions from rising in NATO’s place. Furthermore, victims of Turkish military aggressions have no one else to turn to for protection other than Russia due to the decrease of US presence in international affairs. As such, Turkish interventionism contributes to expanding Russian geopolitical influence, as states need Russian support to counter the Turkish military power – and no other state is able or willing to provide this counter-power at the moment. 

However, Putin cannot let Turkey impede on the Russian sphere of influence, from the South Caucasus to the Middle East and North Africa. The Russian president has also received substantial domestic criticism for his handling of the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War. Russian foreign policy security experts, Makiyenko and Zhilin, see the ceasefire as a significant win for Turkey and assert that Putin should not have split Russia’s hold over the South Caucasus.

However, Putin recognizes that Turkey will expand its spheres of influence regardless of Russian action, and does not want to engage in open conflict against Turkey. Rather, Putin wagers that he can control Turkey’s spread of influence by cooperating with Erdogan and giving Turkey influence in areas that are less critical to Moscow. This way, Erdogan is able to claim military victories to his people, while Putin controls how the spheres of influence are divided while pushing for Turkish actions that destabilize NATO

Furthermore, Turkey’s intervention in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War aided many Russian interests in the South Caucasus. First, Putin was able to get rid of Armenian Prime Minister Pashinyan, who he distrusts and has poor relations with. The Russian president also punished Armenia for its 2018 Velvet Revolution, asserting Moscow’s influence over Yerevan.

Second, Putin led the ceasefire talks and writing of the final agreement. He did so without any intervention from the OSCE Minsk Group, relegating Western powers to the background and reasserting Russia’s dominance over the South Caucasus. The Moscow-backed ceasefire allows Russia to retain good relations with Azerbaijan while becoming Armenia’s only foreign sponsor. Even though many Armenians feel betrayed by Russia, which was supposed to back Armenia if Azerbaijan attacked, they simply have no other power to turn to. 

Lastly, Putin placed Russian peacekeepers in the Lachin corridor, a long-held Russian ambition after it was unable to do so in 1994. This allows Russia to retain military and geopolitical superiority in the South Caucasus. The presence of Russian peacekeepers is a crucial power play, notably since Russia demonstrated the consequences of firing on their peacekeepers; invading Georgia after the 2008 shelling of Russian peacekeepers in Southern Ossetia. Peacekeepers are also key to halt Azerbaijan’s offensive and to make sure the ceasefire holds, limiting the potential human rights abuses from the change of hand of Nagorno-Karabakh. Halting the Azerbaijani offensive was crucial to Putin, who would have been forced to intervene if Armenian land had been breached.  

What does this mean for you? 

Answer: The foreign policy moves made by Russia and Turkey could lead to the end of NATO.

The new dynamics between Russia and Turkey could lead to the end of NATO. An end to NATO would probably result in a new wave of European security integration, perhaps leading to a European army. However, the new Biden administration, far more experienced in foreign policy than the Trump administration, will probably seek to re-establish order within NATO and control Turkish interventionism more tightly. Thus, the world turns to see how the Biden administration will orient US foreign policy, notably in North Africa and the Middle East.

David Salinger

R&A Editor in Chief