A new round of violence between Azerbaijan and Armenia erupted on the night of April 1, with both sides engaging in the fiercest clashes since 1994 along the contact line. The fighting, which has continued into April 3 despite Azerbaijan announcing a unilateral ceasefire, left dozens dead, including civilians. Both sides also reportedly suffered loses of military hardware.
Ever since a ceasefire was reached in 1994, intermittent violations have occurred by both Azeri and Armenian troops, who usually trade accusations as to the origin of the breach. The latest clashes are no different, as both sides accused the other of being responsible for the violence.
However, the flare-up is prompting concerns of a budding proxy battleground between Russia and Turkey, whose own relations took a precipitous drop in November when Turkish F-16s shot down a Russian Su-24 deployed to Moscow’s Syria intervention. In response, Moscow issued new sanctions on Turkey and confirmed that its advanced S-400 air-defense system would be deployed to Hmeymim airbase, in Latakia.
Russia announced during the following weeks that it would be deploying more Mi-24 helicopters to its airbase in Armenia. In February, more MiG-29s and a Mi-8MT arrived to Erebuni airbase, adding to the aircraft and military vehicles already deployed to the country. Moscow also concluded an air-defense agreement with Armenia, which has been under discussion for some time.
The Azerbaijan-Armenia dispute is not rooted in proxy conflict between Russia and Turkey. Though Russia is far more supportive of Armenia, it has not excluded itself from contacts with Azerbaijan. The overwhelming majority of Azeri arms come from Russia and their arms trade was valued at $4 billion in 2013. In 2010, news broke that Azerbaijan was negotiating with Rosoboronexport for the purchase of the S-300 air-defense system. Analysis by Bellingcat, citing satellite imagery from 2012, indicates that the system has been sold to and is operational with Azerbaijan, near the capital, Baku.
Even so, the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute could well be exploited by Ankara and Moscow moving forward, particularly if diplomatic relations between the two continue to deteriorate. In January, Eurasianet cited former Armenian Defense Minister Vagharshak Harutiunian as saying the Russia-Turkey relationship “will have a significant impact on the entire region of the South Caucasus, where Moscow’s and Ankara’s interests cross.” Ankara will certainly read the deployment of new aircraft to Armenia as hostile, especially when considered alongside Russia’s sizable detachment in Syria.
Turkey has left no doubts about its position on the Nagorno-Karabakh issue. In response to a question from reporters on the latest fighting, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reaffirmed that Ankara “will support Azerbaijan to the end” – a position Turkey has continually held. President Erdogan also criticized the slow diplomatic process, which Azeri officials have criticized as well, noting in February that a lack of political resolution to the situation could prompt an Azeri military solution.
Russia’s bases in Armenia underpin Armenian security, particularly given that Azeri defense expenditures dwarf Armenian expenditures. As evidenced by Russia’s new deployments to Armenia, Moscow does not intend to back away from that role, potentially putting the Russia-Armenia alliance in direct competition with the Turkey-Azerbaijan alliance.
A key point to watch over the immediate future will be Moscow’s relationship with Baku, for this is the most likely to be fluid of any of the bilateral relationships among these four countries. Azerbaijan is a lucrative market for Russian arms – a fact likely not lost on Russia as energy revenues slump – but arms sales have reportedly seen a hiccup recently, seemingly from Azerbaijan’s own budget troubles. Russian media reported last month that sales to Azerbaijan have been held up, either through Azerbaijan’s inability or unwillingness to complete payment.
Baku may be attempting to renegotiate the sale at a more favorable rate. Moscow’s willingness to entertain such demands or, more broadly, continue arms sales in general will be an important indicator of how seriously Russia views the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as a proxy battle against Turkey.