After a brief period of what appeared as hopeful signs of Russian-Turkish reconciliation, diplomatic relations between the two states have soured once again, following violent clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Fighting erupted between Armenian and Azeri forces on April 2 in the historically contested region of Nagorno-Karabakh. The Nagorno-Karabakh region has been under Armenian-backed separatist control since 1994; when a ceasefire was established between Armenia and Azerbaijan following a period of deadly conflict which claimed 30,000 lives.
Last Saturday marked the most violent eruption of clashes between the two states since the 1994 ceasefire, already with around 100 reported casualties. A Moscow-mediated ceasefire agreement was reached on April 5, but this morning reports have indicated that the agreement has been breached with two killed, and both sides claiming the other side is responsible.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was quick to signal his government’s support for their Azeri allies, with whom Turkey shares close economic and ethno-cultural ties. Commenting on the outbreak of violence between the two states, President Erdoğan controversially stated:
“God willing, our Azeri brothers will accomplish this task with as little casualties as possible. The fighting which erupted in the region, which has been under oppressive occupation for years, is a result of the Minsk Group not taking this issue seriously enough… I pray to God that he will help and protect our Azeri brothers. We will not be saddened, we will not lose heart. If we believe, we will come out on top.”
The President’s comments did not sit well with Russia, who spearheaded the initiative towards a ceasefire, and quickly accused Turkey of taking sides in the conflict and worsening the chances of ending hostilities.
Speaking in an interview with the Russian Channel 24, the Russian Chairman to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OCSE) Alexander Lukashevichstated that “Turkey’s attempts to defend only one of the conflict parties in Nagorno Karabakh are absolutely destructive and not supported by the OSCE.”
President Erdoğan was quick to respond to these accusations, claiming that “Russia says that Turkey is taking sides. If we are looking for someone who is taking sides, it is Russia. Russia likes taking sides; it has done so in Ukraine, Georgia and today in Syria.”
The President’s comments were likely referring to Russian military ties with Armenia. Armenia joined the Eurasian Economic Union in 2014 which saw a significant increase in Russian arms support for the relatively small Armenian military. Russia has since delivered a sizable arsenal of combat helicopters, tanks, and other armoured vehicles to the Russian military bases in the Armenian cities of Gyumri and Erebuni.
The latest diplomatic fall out between Turkey and Russia has also rehashed old wounds between the two states. In November last year, Turkey downed a Russian fighter jet which had allegedly entered Turkish airspace without authorization. The incident deeply affected Russian-Turkish relations, with Russia strongly condemning the act and Turkey standing by its actions as within the bounds of rules of engagement.
After the subsequent downing of another Russian jet over Syrian airspace, allegedly by Turkmen rebels operating in the area, the crew ejected from the aircraft however one of the Russian pilots, Oleg Peshkov, was killed by ground fire after landing. A Turkish national Alparslan Çelik, who allegedly entered Syria with a group of militants in order to defend Turkmen groups, is currently under suspicion of killing the pilot.
Çelik was arrested on April 3 in the Turkish city of İzmir for the illegal possession of firearms. The Russian Foreign Affairs Spokeswomen Maria Zakharova has indicated that Russia has requested that Çelik also be tried for his alleged killing of the Russian pilot, but she reported that they still have not received an answer from Ankara.
Speaking in an interview with the news site Azeri.Haqqin.az, Zakharova indicated that Ankara’s apparent lack of transparency in the Çelik case has only further signalled ill-will in Russian-Turkish relations, stating: “Today, Russian-Turkish relations are in a sad and tragic state. But I don’t think anyone believes that Russia is at fault for the worsening of relations. We still have not seen Turkey display a sincere effort towards mending relations.”
Despite previous hopeful signs that Russia and Turkey could be moving towards patching relations, the diplomatic fallout triggered by the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict, confounded by tensions regarding the Çelik arrest, have resulted in a return to antagonistic relations between the two states.
This antagonism will likely continue to be problematic for both states, due to their symbiotic economic relationship especially in the sector of natural gas. Strained diplomatic relations will likely further affect Turkey’s already suffering tourism industry as the summer season fast approaches. Diplomatic tensions have already drastically reduced Russian tourism in Turkey, putting a strain on local Turkish economies, many of which rely heavily on tourism.