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October 1, 2020


CAUCASUS: Escalation in fighting unlikely to turn into a regional conflict

BY Andrius Tursa, Wolfango Piccoli

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  • Renewed clashes in Nagorno-Karabakh are not expected to evolve into a wider conflict despite Turkey’s backing of Azerbaijan and Russia’s close ties with Armenia.
  • Geopolitical considerations and economic constraints on both sides point to (eventual) de-escalation as the most likely scenario.
  • Nonetheless, extremely combative rhetoric and domestic political pressures on both sides leave some scope for unpredictability.

A major escalation in fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed Nagorno Karabakh region has been taking place since Sunday, 27 September. While sporadic clashes between the two sides over the region have been continuing since the 1990s, the latest flare up is the most intense and deadly at least since the four-day war in 2016. While Turkey’s support for Azerbaijan in the conflict has emboldened Baku, complicating any effort to stop the escalating violence, Moscow has been atypically low key thus far in this latest flare-up. Turkey and Russia will likely strive to find a way through the conflict without harming their wider bilateral relationship.

Turkey unlikely to risk a fallout on its relationship with Russia

The latest clashes with Armenia have strengthened already close relations between Ankara and Baku based on perceptions of shared ethnicity and a network of economic ties, including between associates of the presidents of two countries. Azerbaijan is one of the largest foreign investors in Turkey, and in 2020 Azerbaijan overtook Russia to become Turkey’s largest supplier of natural gas. Moreover, Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan has a good working relationship with President Ilham Aliyev, who has been vocal in his support for Ankara’s assertive policies in the eastern Mediterranean. Meanwhile, a deep-rooted antipathy in Turkey towards Armenia has prompted widespread public support for the Erdogan government’s support for the Azeri side.

From the domestic perspective, the flare-up in the Caucasus – and its vigorous coverage in the now almost completely government-controlled Turkish media – is undoubtedly useful to Erdogan as he seeks to distract public attention from a struggling economy and another surge in Covid-19 cases. Moreover, Ankara has been forced to pause its confrontations with Greece and Cyprus in the Mediterranean to try to avoid EU sanctions.

However, Erdogan is aware that any substantial increase in Turkish military aid to Azerbaijan, and particularly the deployment of Turkish troops, would risk a major crisis in relations with Russia at a time when Ankara is already effectively confronting Moscow on the battlefield in Syria and Libya.

Will Moscow play the peacemaker card?

Russia’s reaction to renewed fighting near its southern border has been largely neutral so far, characterized by generic calls for de-escalation and dialogue. While Moscow’s relations with Yerevan have somewhat cooled with the Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan taking office in May 2018, both countries retain close historic, economic and military and ties. Russia is home to the largest Armenian diaspora community in the world, while Armenia is a member of the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which considers military aggression against its signatory as aggression against all its members. Russia also has a military base in Armenia and the two countries have recently concluded large-scale military drills.

The Kremlin has little appetite to get involved in a potentially messy and prolonged conflict given the ongoing unrest in Belarus and mounting challenges at home amid resurging Covid-19, volatile economic recovery and looming risk of new Western sanctions. In addition, Russia’s open involvement in the conflict would yield little political dividends domestically and complicate Moscow’s pragmatic relations with Ankara. Conversely, the brokering of a new ceasefire agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan – as it did in 1994 and 2016 – would boost Russia’s geopolitical standing and reputation. Moscow’s largely non-committal role in mediating the conflict so far might be an attempt to weaken the Pashinyan government before the eventual ceasefire talks.

De-escalation most likely scenario but risk remain

Lack of interest from Russia and Turkey to get openly involved in the conflict as well as limited economic resources of Armenia and Azerbaijan to engage in a prolonged large-scale military confrontation amid the Covid-19 pandemic makes eventual de-escalation as the most likely scenario. While Azerbaijan has larger financial buffers to sustain fighting, mountainous terrain – and the upcoming winter conditions – might help Armenia in protecting its positions in Nagorno Karabakh.

However, extremely combative rhetoric and domestic political pressures to keep the hardline approach leave some scope for unpredictability and miscalculation on both sides. For example, so far conflicting parties have refrained from using ballistic missiles or relying on their air-forces (beyond helicopters) to back their military operations on the ground. Further escalation may be also prompted by attacks on predominantly civilian areas or vulnerable energy infrastructure targets, including important oil and gas pipelines passing through the region.

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