Armenia, Azerbaijan and Turkey: Caught Between Russia and the West
By Harut Sassounian
As the war in Ukraine is continuing to cause more devastation and the loss of human life, countries around the world, particularly Armenia, Azerbaijan and Turkey, had to make difficult choices in their policies, public statements and votes in international organizations. Despite concerns about Turkey’s inconsistent positions, it is clear that neither Russia nor the West is willing to push Turkey to the opposing camp. Pres. Erdogan’s senior advisor, Ibrahim Kalin, pompously told CNN that Western countries have urged Turkey to maintain its ties with Russia, which is highly unlikely. Erdogan was quoted as saying: “we can neither give up on Ukraine nor Russia.” This is described as “strategic ambiguity.”
Here is my analysis of the repercussions of this war on Armenia, Azerbaijan and Turkey. Will they be able to maintain their ambiguous positions or will they stumble and lose their delicate balance?
Let us start with the votes these three countries have cast regarding the conflict. The first vote took place on February 25 at the European Council where Armenia, Azerbaijan and Turkey are members. Out of the 47 members, only Russia and Armenia voted against the motion to suspend Russia’s membership in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and the Committee of Ministers. Forty two countries voted in favor. Azerbaijan did not vote. Turkey abstained.
The next vote came on February 28 in the UN Human Rights Council on whether to include the situation in Ukraine on the Council’s agenda. Out of the 47 Council members, 29 voted in favor and 13 abstained (including Armenia). Russia was probably not pleased with Armenia’s vote. On the other hand, the Charge d’Affaires of Ukraine in Armenia Denis Avtonomov expressed his government’s satisfaction with Armenia’s vote. More importantly, on March 4, the Human Rights Council voted to establish a commission to investigate Russia’s violations in Ukraine. Thirty-two countries voted in favor and 13 abstained (including Armenia). Azerbaijan and Turkey are not members of the UN Council.
The UN General Assembly adopted a resolution on March 2 calling on Russian forces to withdraw from Ukraine. 141 member states voted in favor and 35 abstained (including Armenia). Turkey voted in favor. Azerbaijan did not vote.
Going beyond votes, Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has the difficult task of balancing his country’s military, political and military alliance with Russia with trying to maintain positive relations with the West. Pashinyan made his first cautious remarks regarding the conflict on March 2: “We are deeply saddened by the unfolding events which are now clear that will have global repercussions. Our hope is that the scheduled Russian-Ukrainian talks will take place and become fruitful, and diplomacy will be able to silence the cannons.”
Azerbaijan also has its foot in both camps. On February 26, Ukraine’s President Volodomyr Zelensky tweeted twice praising Azerbaijan for supplying $5 million of medicines and ordering Azeri gas stations in Ukraine to provide free fuel to emergency vehicles, just days after Azerbaijan and Russia had signed a treaty of alliance. However, Azerbaijan has not imposed sanctions on Russia, just like Turkey and Armenia. Since Ukraine had supported Azerbaijan politically and militarily prior to the 2020 Artsakh war and the fact that 2,000 Russian peacekeepers are providing security for Artsakh Armenians, the government of Artsakh announced its recognition of the “independence” of the Russian controlled regions of Donetsk and Lugansk in Ukraine.
Turkey is the only NATO member that has refused to impose sanctions on Russia and kept its airspace open to Russian planes, in order not to lose Russian investments, gas imports, and large income from tourists. Surprisingly, Erdogan approved on March 1 an investment promotion agreement with Belarus which is sanctioned by the West for joining Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. On the other hand, Turkey blocked the passage of some Russian warships through Turkish straits to the Black Sea, as stipulated by the 1936 Montreux Convention. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressed his appreciation for the Turkish decision. Nevertheless, Turkey-U.S. relations remain frigid.
After five of its dozen Turkish drones were shot down by Russia, Ukraine plans to purchase more drones from Turkey which have targeted Russian armed convoys. On the other hand, Turkey had purchased Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missiles causing the United States to sanction fellow NATO member Turkey, blocking its acquisition of the American F-35 stealth bombers.
On March 1, The New York Times published an article by Carlotta Gall titled, “Ukraine Invasion Increases Friction Between Erdogan and Putin.” She reported that hours before the start of the war, two Turkish planes landed in Ukraine to evacuate diplomatic staff and other Turkish citizens from Kiev. However, the planes and evacuees became stranded, resulting in Pres. Erdogan getting criticized at home for misreading the looming danger and not acting quicker. Erdogan had invited Presidents Putin and Zelensky to Turkey to mediate the conflict. Putin politely declined the invitation. Erdogan shut down several Western media outlets silencing their criticisms of Russia.
Despite Turkey’s fence-sitting in the conflict, “three Turkish factories and four warehouses in Ukraine were destroyed By Russia during the war. These factories manufactured ammunition and small bombs,” reported the London-based Arabic newspaper Rai Al-Youm. In addition, “a large factory that specialized in building the structures of Bayraktar drones was destroyed.” Ukrainian factories supply engines and other critical parts for Turkish drones. The newspaper quoted an unnamed senior advisor to Erdogan stating that Turkish losses in Ukraine are in the hundreds of millions of dollars and could possibly reach billions of dollars.
Meanwhile, Erdogan’s son-in-law, drone manufacturer Selcuk Bayraktar, tweeted: “I condemn in the strongest terms the unlawful invasion carried out by Russia in defiance of the sovereignty of an independent nation.” He said he supported “Ukraine and Crimea, the homeland of our Turkish brothers resisting the occupation.” In a second tweet, Bayraktar regretted the “destruction and suffering caused by war.” Turkish citizens pointed out the hypocrisy of a “merchant of death” whose drones have caused so much destruction around the world. He obviously places his business interests ahead of human lives.
The Russia-Ukraine war has disrupted the norms of international order, forcing many countries, including Armenia, Azerbaijan and Turkey, to delicately balance their interests on both sides.