The question that Armenian authorities must ask is not if authorities in Yerevan underestimated or miscalculated the geopolitical shifts in the region or not, but how they underestimated, miscalculated and ignored the shifting balance of power in the Middle East and beyond.
Geopolitics is the study of how political power is reinforced or undermined by geographical arrangements (boundaries, alliances, natural resources etc.). In 2011, with the explosion of widespread transnational protest movements in the Middle East, the region was hit by anarchy. The Middle East experienced revolutions and counter-revolutions, state collapse, political vacuums, civil wars, financial crises, insurgencies, the emergence of Islamic terrorism and institutional collapse. All these factors directly or indirectly were motivated by geopolitical and energy security shifts. These changes have reinforced de-facto new state boundaries; Syria, Yemen and Libya turned into zones of spheres of influence divided by regional powers. Three main state actors were directly involved in this process: Turkey, Iran and Russia.
Turkey’s military adventures in Northern Syria, which operated under the code name “Operation Euphrates Shield,” enjoyed a successful run from the summer of 2016 until October 2019. It was during the Idlib war of 2019 where Turkish Bayraktar unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) were used against Russian-made defense systems and were quite effective. One could have hinted that Turkey was employing hard power in its foreign policy to gain certain points in its geopolitical calculations. Ankara’s main concern was no more the presence of the Syrian President Bashar al Assad, but the removal of Kurdish military presence in Northern Syria. Turkey considers the Syrian Kurdish militia YPG (People’s Protection Units) as an offspring of PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party); thus its presence near the border threatens Turkey’s territorial integrity. For this reason, Turkey balanced itself between Washington and Moscow, meanwhile working to push its anti-Kurdish agenda forward. Successfully, Erdogan destroyed the land bridge between the three Syrian Kurdish cantons, and thus by occupying Afrin, his administration, with the help of local proxies, employed the Turkification project. Turkey not only consolidated its presence there, but also made impossible the reunification of these territories back to Syria.
Not far from Syria, Ankara started to flex its muscles in the Eastern Mediterranean and scored military victories in Libya against General Haftar who was supported by Russia, Egypt and the UAE. Turkey became a crucial actor in the Eastern Mediterranean by containing the French-Greek-Egyptian axis on one hand and making unilateral decisions to explore gas fields in Northern Cyprus on the other. Meanwhile, Ankara has reduced its reliance on Russian gas imports by April 2020; for the first time, Azerbaijan has surpassed Russia in gas supplies to Turkey. Thus, the South Caucasus’ energy security became part of Ankara’s geopolitical calculations to bargain with Russia in the future. Haven’t the recent military exercises between Turkey and Azerbaijan sent warning signals to the authorities in Yerevan? After all, it was only a matter of time before Ankara was going to extend its influence to the South Caucasus and challenge Russia in its backyard.
Even though many Iranian clerics, including the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have made announcements that “Karabakh is a land of Islam” and congratulated Azerbaijan on “liberating its territories from the occupation,” it would be wrong to expect that Iran is shifting its policy of neutrality to more explicit support for Azerbaijan in the region. According to political analyst Eldar Mamedov, “Iran’s foreign policy formulation is a complex process involving stakeholders from various diplomatic and security establishments.” Mamedov argues that Khamenei may act as a decision-maker but not the ultimate executor. What many Armenians neglected were the announcements and comments of Iranian military leaders and the mobilization of the Iranian army with the border of Artsakh and Azerbaijan. Many high-ranking Iranian military officials warned of the presence of Islamist fighters and the role that Israel had played in this war. Tehran knows very well that Baku is now forever indebted to Israel. However, Iran is not ready to confront Azerbaijan and Turkey. The latter is an important transit corridor to provide its gas and oil to European markets and cooperate against the Kurdish insurgency in the region.
Two reasons push Tehran not to antagonize Ankara at this moment. The first is that Turkey would fuel a sense of Azerbaijani nationalism inside of Iran, where some 20 million people of ethnic Azeri background live in the northwest of Iran. Many American and Israeli think tanks suggested using the “South Azerbaijan” card to disintegrate Iran from within. In other words, the Iranian authorities feared the potential for spillover, where Tehran would unwillingly be dragged into the Armenian-Azerbaijani war. The second factor that concerned Iran was the likelihood that Turkey’s proactive policy of supporting Azerbaijan would lead to providing Ankara a bigger stake in the future of the South Caucasus. Tehran is aware that the presence of Syrian mercenaries at its northern border has additional missions, as many of them are possibly staying for resettlement purposes in the Azerbaijani captured territories north of Iran. These factors were not taken into consideration by authorities in Yerevan; there was speculation that Tehran would directly intervene in the conflict. For the aforementioned reasons, Iran cannot confront Turkey; however, with the mercenaries and Israeli agencies on its north border, Tehran may feel the pressure to act in the future.
As for Russia, Armenians naively assumed that Putin would lead a direct intervention in Artsakh and take their side. Why would Russia risk a war with Turkey and Azerbaijan and risk its soldiers and resources? Russia has regional and geopolitical interests and cannot risk a major war against Turkey in the South Caucasus. Moscow is in a “clash and cooperation” situation with Turkey, both in Syria and Libya. According to Andrey Sushentsov, Russia’s concerns in the region are also guided by the threat of possible NATO expansion to the South Caucasus. With Georgia falling under Western influence and Azerbaijan under Turkish, Moscow could not have risked its only ally in the region falling under foreign influence. Armenia miscalculated the strength of Russia’s skepticism towards Yerevan following the Velvet Revolution.
Russia’s position is tied to many interests among regional actors that forced it to adopt a balanced approach during the Artsakh War. For example, from a Russian perspective, Russia’s arms sales to Azerbaijan aimed to neutralize the Israeli and Western military cooperation and prevent the defrosting of the conflict by NATO, but Moscow ultimately failed here. To keep the Western influence out and solve the conflict, Russia realized it had to cooperate with Turkey, as Ankara’s influence was increasing on Baku. For this reason, Russia was searching for a compromised deal, and as soon as it realized Armenia was losing the battle, it had to intervene—a costly outcome for the Armenian side. Moreover, Yerevan’s maximalist and irrational announcements that “Artsakh is Armenia” along with the celebrations on the centennial anniversary of the Treaty of Sevres antagonized both Ankara and Baku and pushed them to plan to bring Armenia to its knees. These mistakes pushed Russia to intervene and save the remaining part of Artsakh from Azerbaijani yoke.
To conclude, in the last few years there have been clear geopolitical shifts in the region and the balance of power has shifted towards Turkey. Borders were shifted and redrawn by Turkey both in Libya and Syria, and the international community was silent while Russia was trying to cooperate and sometimes clash with Turkey in Northern Syria. It was only a matter of time; Ankara was going to extend its hands towards the South Caucasus. Today, thanks to the miscalculations from Yerevan, Russia’s nightmare has become a reality, and Turkish military presence in Azerbaijan has become a fact. Armenia can only contain it by moving closer to Russia and Iran with the hope that the outcome of any future confrontation between Ankara and Moscow would be to Yerevan’s benefit.