The US-Russia-Turkey Triangle and Armenia

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There are some countries in the world which are affected by their location in the thick of crosscurrents of international relations and the resulting instability.

Armenia happens to be one of those countries, particularly now that it is on its own, trying to navigate through turbulent waters.

It is a hostage to the developments in the Caucasus. For centuries, the dominant forces in the region have been Iran, Turkey and Russia and their rivalries have defined or determined Armenia’s destiny.

Today, the US has been added to that mix, playing a forceful role.

Media coverage touches only the surface of the ongoing rivalries, whose outcome may be revealed many years in the future.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey has been using those rivalries to his advantage. But that policy is not a recent invention. The Ottoman Turks managed to rule an empire for almost six centuries and sharpened their diplomatic skills, which involved experiencing tremendous exposure to blunders and opportunism.

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In 1878, Russia had almost achieved its perennial dream of reaching the warm waters of the Mediterranean by defeating Ottoman Turkey. But its fortunes were overturned at the Berlin conference of the same year, through the help of British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. At that same conference, Armenia’s destiny also suffered a setback through Articles 16 and 61.

The same scenario was repeated in 1921, this time with new actors, namely Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and Vladimir Lenin, clipping Armenia’s wings through the Treaty of Kars (1921). Some rumors indicate that the Treaty of Kars is to be revised on its centennial anniversary. That, of course, will depend on the developments of the volatile situation in the region.

Today, Mr. Erdogan is a new actor in an old play. One thing he has learned well is that in order to come up successful, he has to turn his country into a strong pawn on the chessboard of international relations. To the chagrin of Armenians and all victim minorities in Turkey, that country is a powerful one and able to enter tussles with major countries and come out victorious.

Despite Erdogan’s transgressions, President Donald Trump still characterizes him as a “hell of a leader” and a “friend.”

Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400 defense missiles had angered not only the US but also the other NATO members.

After its purchase of Russian arms, voices were heard in major Western capitals to force Turkey out of the alliance.

The US took some punitive measures in the form of sanctions and Mr. Erdogan threatened to retaliate by expelling the US forces from the Incirlik air base, where 50 US nuclear weapons are believed to be stored.

In addition, the US refused to budge on the extradition of Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen and proceeded with the federal prosecution of the Halkbank culprits, who had undermined the US trade embargo on Iran.

But it looks as if the pendulum is tipping back. Erdogan’s brinksmanship has lost its steam as has the US’s intransigence.

Normally, shifts in US policies are heralded by the media, only to be confirmed later by official sources. It is becoming apparent that Washington will not push the envelope any further in opposing the Russian arms acquisition by Turkey. Indeed, in a commentary in “War on the Rocks,” Ray Rounds writes: “By using the F-35 embargo to explicitly coerce Ankara, the United States is far more likely to further damage relations with a NATO ally than find common ground.”

Then the article refers to the US embargo in 1975 to force Turkey to come to the bargaining table after the latter invaded Cyprus.

The writer concludes that the embargo backfired and Turkey is still in Cyprus.

In the article, the sanctions are interpreted as a measure to protect the security of the US weapons systems rather than punishing Turkey. This means that a gentler policy toward Turkey is in the offing. Ankara is equally sensitive to the shifts of US policy in Washington and has been responding in kind.

As a gesture toward the US, Erdogan donated $50 million in military aid to Ukraine (which Trump had delayed!) and then made a belligerent announcement that Ankara refuses to recognize Crimea’s annexation to Russia, a favorite political theme at Foggy Bottom.

Then moving tactfully, Mr. Erdogan is fine tuning his policy in Syria, where Turkish forces have clashed with Russian forces, although both parties are blaming their respective surrogates.

In the meantime, the US forces are receding from the Syrian battleground, allowing Russian and Assad’s forces to advance.

Mr. Erdogan tried to give a bloody nose to Russia to appease the US, although Turkey has other interests in Syria, with the top of the agenda being stopping the advance of the Kurds.

What is the reflection of all these movements over Caucasus and Armenia?

For all its belligerence, Turkey has been moving cautiously in its Russian policy because the Turkish Stream gas pipeline and the construction of a nuclear power plant at Akkuyu are important projects. But above all, Turkey’s assets in Azerbaijan are equally important.

There seems to be a power transfer in Azerbaijan. The recent reshuffling in the government and First Lady Mehraban Aliyeva’s increased prominence in Baku and Moscow are indications of internal and external political shifts in Azerbaijan. In light of those changes, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Çavusolgu has twice announced that there is an opportunity to settle the Karabakh issue where Mr. Putin’s input is considered to be essential.

Turkey has never given up its position of solving the Karabakh issue in Azerbaijan’s favor. Therefore, Mr. Putin’s input can only strengthen Turkey’s hand.

Moscow has been maintaining parity between Yerevan and Baku, despite its strategic alliance with Armenia.

Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, who  as an opposition leader was adamantly opposed to Russia’s boots on the ground in Armenia, has come to the painful realization that his country’s relationship with Russia, no matter how torturous, is an indispensable one.

On the other hand, the young leadership and pro-government media are spewing venom against Russia.

Looking back in history, we have to avoid the scenarios of 1878 and 1921 in our current actions.

 

 

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