Russia and Turkey keep powder dry in Nagorno-Karabakh
Ankara sees its strong backing for Azerbaijan over the fighting with ethnic Armenians in the mountain enclave as part of efforts to boost Turkey’s international clout. Moscow is determined to defend its own interests in the South Caucasus. But neither wants to be sucked into an all-out war, and private military contractors say Moscow and Ankara are largely turning a blind eye to the role of mercenaries – possibly fighting on both sides – to avoid stoking tensions.
NATO member Turkey, which has stepped up arms supplies to Azerbaijan in recent years, is likely to refrain from deeper military involvement if its ally continues to advance in Nagorno-Karabakh, military and political analysts said. Russia, which has a defence pact with Armenia, also has good relations with Azerbaijan and is unlikely to become directly involved militarily unless Azerbaijan launches a deliberate attack on Armenia, they said.
"The fundamental question is: does the Kremlin want the return of Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan?" said Pierre Razoux, academic director at France’s Mediterranean Foundation of Strategic Studies.
Thousands are feared killed since fighting flared on 27 September in the breakaway territory, which is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan but populated and controlled by ethnic Armenians.
Azeri President Ilham Aliyev said on Sunday his country’s forces had taken Shusha, the second-largest city in Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenian officials denied this, but Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan congratulated his "Azeri brothers" and said he believed Aliyev’s statement was "a sign" that Azerbaijan would soon regain control of more territory.
Turkey’s support for Azerbaijan has been vital, and Azerbaijan’s superior weaponry and battlefield advances have reduced its incentive to reach a lasting peace deal. Ankara denies its troops are involved in fighting but Aliyev has acknowledged some Turkish F-16 fighter jets remained in Azerbaijan after a military drill this summer, and there are reports of Russian and Turkish drones being used by both sides.
"All assistance required"
Russia is Armenia’s main arms supplier though it also sells weapons to Azerbaijan which, like Armenia, was for decades part of the Soviet Union. Russia has said it will give "all assistance required" should the conflict spill onto "the territory of Armenia".
A Russian private military contractor, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, cited unconfirmed information from a colleague that Russian mercenaries had gone to Nagorno-Karabakh.
Alexander Borodai, a former leader of pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, said a handful of Russian fighters, mostly of Armenian descent, had gone privately to Nagorno-Karabakh but had not stayed long. "They understood quickly that they wouldn’t be properly used there," he said.