Veiled Counter-Balancing: The Peacekeeping ‘Arrangement’ Between Turkey and Russia in Karabakh

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 17 Issue: 181

Baku military parade, December 10 (Source: Getty Images)

In the wake of Azerbaijan’s successful offensive against the dug-in Armenian forces in Karabakh and surrounding Azerbaijani districts, the defense ministers of Turkey and Russia, General (ret.) Hulusi Akar and General Sergei Shoigu, respectively, met on November 11 and penned a memorandum of understanding to broker the ceasefire process in the war-torn region. According to the deal, Ankara and Moscow have, in principle, agreed to establish a joint peace-monitoring headquarters. The Russian foreign policy community has been extremely uneasy to see the Turkish Armed Forces suddenly operating in the South Caucasus, once considered Moscow’s undisputed hinterland (Milliyet, December 3).

The Turkish press reported that the final agreement between Moscow and Ankara secures multiple monitoring contingents on Azerbaijani territory. A week after the two sides signed the memorandum, the Turkish Parliament approved the motion to send troops to the peacekeeping mission (Anadolu Agency, November 17).

The peacekeeping mission in Karabakh, in every detail, highlights the thinly veiled power struggle between Turkey and Russia in their overlapping areas of strategic interest. Moscow did its best to keep the Turkish contingent in the headquarters and away from the zone of action. Yet during the talks, Turkey’s presidential spokesperson, İbrahim Kalın, gave a notable interview in which he emphasized that while the Turkish foreign office, intelligence services, and the military are negotiating with their Russian counterparts as to the details of the peacekeeping mission, at the end of the day, Turkey, thanks to its special ties to Azerbaijan, will be in Karabakh in any case (Anadolu Agency, November 22).

An important aspect of Turkey’s Karabakh mission boils down to de-mining and counter–improvised explosive device (IED) efforts. For decades, Armenian defensive planning meant extensive land mining of Karabakh and the adjacent occupied territories. And during the recent—and mostly undisciplined—retreats by Armenian combat formations, mining and trapping activities increased, posing a grave threat to Azerbaijani re-settlement plans for the recaptured areas. On November 28, for example, four Azerbaijani civilians were killed by a tank-mine near the liberated town of Fizuli (Daily Sabah, November 28).

To address the threat, the Turkish military dispatched counter-explosive and de-mining teams to the de-occupied portion of Karabakh (, November 30). At the time of writing, Turkish news outlets reported that 136 personnel were dispatched as a part of the military-engineering mission to this area (Yeni Safak, December 17). Additionally, through the peacekeeping mission, Turkey has begun sending a robust and broad liaison team to the area of operations. Nevertheless, the Turkish peacekeeping contingent, in terms of force generation patterns, is nowhere close to that of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation. The Russian military has forward-deployed some 1,960 troops, equipped in the form of a mechanized formation supported by heavy fires and commanded by a highly-decorated three-star general, Rustam Muradov of Dagestan (Sputnik News—Turkish service, November 14).

By all indications, the Russian “peacekeeping” contingent is not there to monitor de-confliction and resettlement of communities after the war but to lay the foundations for a new Russian protectorate in the South Caucasus—to be more precise, on Azerbaijani sovereign territory (see EDM, December 8, 10). Although Ankara’s more “humble” peacekeeping contribution cannot by itself counter-balance that Russian force (which is supplemented by additional “power ministry” troops and personnel), Turkey has other cards to play in Azerbaijan. Boosting the İki Devlet Bir Millet (“two states, one nation”) ties and fostering the military alliance remain key elements of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s roadmap in Baku.

During Azerbaijan’s victory parade on December 10, Presidents Ilham Aliyev and Erdoğan saluted the units together. Moreover, Azerbaijan’s defense minister, General Zakhir Hasanov, addressed the two heads of state when introducing the ceremony. These expressions came with crucial symbolism, showcasing the level of integration between both countries’ military policies and strategic cultures (YouTube, December 10). The Turkish detachment of choice for Azerbaijan’s Patriotic War Parade was also striking. A battalion from the Turkish Army’s 2nd Commando Brigade of Bolu paraded during the event, carrying the elite unit’s oriflamme and indigenous MPT-76 rifles, produced by Turkey’s burgeoning defense industries. Before the parade, the brigade’s detachment rehearsed marching in the streets of Baku, while commemorating Azerbaijan’s fallen troops (TRT Haber, December 9). For decades, this battle-hardened combat formation has spearheaded Turkish expeditionary campaigns. Starting from Turkey’s military intervention in Cyprus in 1974 to the cross-border operations into northern Iraq during the 1990s and the contemporary Syrian expeditions, the 2nd Commando Brigade has a long track record of operating in fierce wars (TRT Haber, December 9).

From a political-military standpoint, Ankara’s decision to specifically pick the 2nd Commandos for the parade signaled a firm symbolic counter-balancer to Moscow, which had dispatched elements of the 15th Motorized Rifle Brigade and, more importantly, the 31st Guards Brigade of the elite Russian Airborne Forces (Vozdushno-Desantnye Voyska—VDV for the peacekeeping mission in Karabakh (The Moscow Times, November 10).

Geopolitically speaking, Turkey remains the region’s sole capable counter-balancer against the Russian political-military presence and quasi-imperial foundation-building on Azerbaijan’s doorstep. Ankara and Baku apparently understand this challenge and are walking a firm but careful path with Turkey’s forward-deployments in Azerbaijan. Notably, during the autumn 2020 Karabakh war, President Aliyev referred to the Turkish Air Force stationing at least four F-16 aircraft in Azerbaijan to support Baku. And he tellingly declared that these jets would only take off for combat missions to prevent “outsider intervention” to the Azerbaijani Armed Forces’ offensive—a veiled by clear reference to Russia, as the only outside power that was likely to step in (Haber Global, October 26).

After Bayraktar TB-2 drones and Roketsan-manufactured smart munitions were paraded in Baku last week, higher-end Turkish systems can be expected to enter the Azerbaijani arsenal in the coming years. Likewise, Turkey’s 3rd Field Army is likely to boost its cooperation with the Azerbaijani Combined Arms Army in Nakhchivan (see EDM, August 14); and one should anticipate even larger-scale joint drills between the Turkish and Azerbaijani militaries. In the meantime, the Turkish military advisory mission in Baku will probably reach the highest level ever since it was established. So while Russia has been busy establishing another fait accompli in what is left of the Armenian-occupied areas of Karabakh, Turkey is further deepening its strategic ties with Azerbaijan.