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Middle East conflict risks overspill into the Caucasus

ntrance to the Russian military base in Gyumri, Armenia. Image credit: Flickr/billert

On 1 March, the EU High Representative, Federica Mogherini, made an official visit to Armenia, following a stop the day before in neighbouring Azerbaijan. Officially the focus of the visits was the EU’s interest in the Southern Gas Corridor across the South Caucasus, the poor human rights and civil society situation in the region and discussions about new bilateral agreements. Also high on the agenda was the long-running conflict over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh.


Beyond the regular EU-South Caucasus agenda, however, there is also the worry that after five years of war in Syria, regional instability and violence risks spreading into the fragile security environment of the Caucasus.  At the heart of this concern is the rapid deterioration in the relationship between Russia and Turkey.


Moscow’s decision in late 2015 to introduce military forces into Syria has begun a spiral of growing tensions with Ankara, the Turkish capital.  A series of airspace violations related to Russian airstrikes in Syria initially caused frictions between the two countries.  Soon after Russia began its bombing campaign in Syria, Turkish authorities alleged that Russian warplanes entered it airspace. On 24 November, a Russian Sukhoi SU-24 aircraft was shot down by a Turkish F-16 aircraft. This incident took bilateral relations to their worst point since the Cold War.


President of Russia, Vladimir Putin, meets with President of Turkey, Recap Tayyip Erdoğan in Moscow in June 2013.
President of Russia, Vladimir Putin, meets with President of Turkey, Recap Tayyip Erdoğan in Moscow in June 2013. Image credit:


Ongoing Militarization of the Caucasus

Rising tensions between Russia and Turkey over Syria have quickly spilled into the Caucasus, where Russia maintains significant military facilities. As Russian engagement in Syria intensified in late 2015, Moscow began to reinforce its military bases in Armenia.  Following Turkish allegations of Russian violations of its airspace in early October 2015, Turkish military transport helicopters crossed into Armenian air space on two occasions (6 and 7 October).  Subsequently, Russia continued to reinforce its military contingent in Armenia.  In December 2015, Russia was reported to have deployed additional attack and transport helicopters to its airbase in Armenia.  In February 2016, Russia deployed a further contingent of advanced fighter and ground attack aircraft to Armenia.  Russia also announced military exercises in its Southern Military District to test the readiness to respond to crisis situations.


Even before the onset of the conflict in Syria, the South Caucasus was highly militarized.  As a result of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict (1988-94), in which the majority Armenian populated region was violently separated from Azerbaijan and came under Armenian control, the two countries have each built large arsenals.  These are deployed along the unstable Line of Contact around the breakaway region, and increasingly along the Armenia-Azerbaijan border.  Despite over twenty years of mediation by the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs, the conflict has defied resolution.  In recent years, rising violence and deaths along the Line of Contact and the first use of heavy artillery since the 1994 ceasefire has raised concerns that the conflict is destabilising with a risk of a return to full-scale warfare.


Map of Armenia and Azerbaijan and surrounding countries.
Map of Armenia and Azerbaijan and surrounding countries. The light orange region is under Armenian military control. The dark brown region is Nagorno-Karabakh.


A close security relationship with Russia has been a key part of Yerevan’s defence plan for the disputed Karabakh region, currently under Armenian control.  Russia has provided Armenia with large quantities of armaments. Just last month, the Russian government revealed details of a $200 million loan agreement for the purchase by Armenia of military equipment from Russia, potentially including the Smerch multi-launch rocket system, capable of delivering 12 300-milimeter rockets in less than a minute, as well as Russian-made anti-tank weapons, shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles, demining and communication equipment, armored personnel carriers and heavy military trucks.


As well as arms supplies from Moscow, Armenia also relies upon the presence of two Russian military bases within its borders as a further security guarantee.  Armenia hosts a Russian air base at Erebuni airport near Yerevan, the Armenian capital. It is situated around 40 kilometres from the border with Turkey, and has MiG-29 fighters, Mi-24 helicopter gunships and Navodchik-2 and Takiun aerial drones. The country also has a Russian base for ground troops in Gyumri, Armenia’s second largest city, which hosts an estimated 3-5,000 Russian soldiers, with tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, and artillery.


Entrance to the Russian military base in Gyumri, Armenia.
Entrance to the Russian military base in Gyumri, Armenia. Image credit: Flickr/billert

The Russian military presence in Armenia has usually been viewed in the context of the security issues of the South Caucasus and notably in relation to the Karabakh conflict. The bases were, however, established initially in the early 1990s to prevent Turkey entering the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict on the side of Baku. As a result of these tensions, the Turkish border with Armenia has been closed since 1993.  Rising Russia-Turkey tensions have brought back into focus the possibility that Russian military facilities could function as a staging base to strike neighbouring countries, notably Turkey.


Rising Political tensions

The current escalation of Russian-Turkish confrontation over Syria has raised security issues long thought settled.  In early February 2016, two Russian Communist Party parliamentarians wrote to Russian President Putin demanding the abrogation of the Treaty of Moscow (also known as the Treaty of Friendship and Brotherhood) signed between Bolshevik Russia and the Grand National Assembly of Turkey established by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in March 1921. The Treaty, together with later the Treaty of Kars (October 1921), established Turkey’s borders with Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia—even though Georgia and Armenia have never recognized the transfer of territories from their jurisdiction to Turkey.


The Russian lawmakers who petitioned the Kremlin underscored that escalation of the conflict in Syria by Ankara would face the danger of Turkey’s state’s borders in the Caucasus unravelling. With Turkey already concerned about a possible encirclement by Russian military forces and facing near civil war in areas of southern Turkey, such statements have fed into a growing insecurity in the country.


The rising tensions in the South Caucasus as a result of Russia-Turkish confrontation risk further destabalising a region that has already experienced some of the most serious conflicts in the post-Soviet space. Any violent confrontation involving Russia, Turkey and Armenia would inevitably also draw in Azerbaijan, Turkey’s ally, while Russia would seek to resupply its Armenian bases through Georgia, the only overland route, risking further confrontation with Tbilisi, where tensions are already high following the Russia-Georgia war of 2008.


Yerevan, capital city of Armenia. Credit: Serouj Ourishian
Yerevan, capital city of Armenia. Image credit: Serouj Ourishian


The complex ethno-territorial mosaic of the South Caucasus would also feed into any conflict. The decision in February 2016 by the Russia authorities to allow the opening in Moscow of a representative office of the Kurdish Administration of north-eastern Syria has already brought back memories in the region of a time when the ethno-national groups of the Caucasus and Middle East were part of wider geopolitical games to promote instability, and to justify military interventions and territorial revisions.


The fragile ceasefire in Syria has occurred at a key moment when the conflicts of the Middle East have threatened to jump beyond the region into the Caucasus. The confrontation that has already been created in the Caucasus is unlikely to abate until a full peace agreement has been put in place. Even then, developments in the Caucasus and in the Russia-Turkish relationship underline that peace will ultimately have to be a regional process designed to rebuild the security relations that have been strained and broken by the war in and around Syria.



Dr Neil John Melvin was a Senior Researcher working on the Horn of Africa and the Indian Ocean Security.