Increasing of the Russian and Turkish Military presence in the South Caucasus

Gayane Novikova
October 20, 2010

Russia legalized its military presence in Abkhazia and South Ossetia and secured it on the territory of Azerbaijan, continuing the exploitation of the Gabala RLS. It also prolonged its military presence on the Armenian territory. However, in accordance with the recently signed Protocol on the introduction of amendments to the Agreement on the Russian Military Base in Armenia (August 2010), not only the term of its presence was extended, but also the sphere of its geographic and strategic responsibility was enlarged. In particular, the new version of Article 3 of the Protocol states that, in addition to the function of defending the interests of the Russian Federation, security to the Republic of Armenia across the entire perimeter of its borders will be provided together with the Armenians armed forces. The real threat to Armenia can come only from aggressive actions by Azerbaijan directed against the Nagorno Karabakh Republic. The Armenian-Russian Protocol has actually stopped speculation on how Russia would behave in case of the resumption of military actions in the confrontation area. Russia will not participate for several objective reasons:

– First, de jure the Nagorno Karabakh conflict is considered as an intrastate conflict,[1] thus, the membership of both Russia and Armenia in the Collective Security Treaty Organization will have no bearing in this particular case;

– Second, both Armenia and Azerbaijan are strategic partners of Russia, as the high-ranking Russian political leadership has frequently stressed;

– Third, Russia, after the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, prefers to avoid further aggravation in its relations with the Western powers.

Indirectly, Russia’s policy of non-interference in the Nagorno Karabakh conflict if it again becomes overt was confirmed during the visit of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in Azerbaijan in September, 2010.[2]

However, an updated version of the Agreement on the Russian Military Base provides Armenia with some space for maneuvering. It stands in accordance with the Military Doctrine of Armenia, which constitutes that the latter is “a guarantor and supporter of security for the population of the Nagorno Karabakh Republic and the course of development it has chosen.”[3] Hence, theoretically the joint Armenian-Russian protection of the Armenian border provides the possibility for a greater concentration of Armenia’s armed forces to confront expected and/ or potential aggression from the Azerbaijani side.

For Azerbaijan the war for Karabakh still has not reached a conclusion. Its aftermath is considered exclusively in the context of territorial losses and revenge. Despite the fact that in accordance with Chapter II, Article 9 of the Constitution, “The Azerbaijan Republic rejects a war as a means of infringement on independence of other states and way of settlement of international conflicts,”[4] for quite some time along with the infusing of a militarist mood in the society at large, preparation of the legislative basis for resumption of the armed conflict continues in Azerbaijan. Accordingly, the Military Doctrine of Azerbaijan, adopted in June 2010, envisages the possibility of taking back by force the territories that came under Armenian control in the aftermath of the Karabakh war.

The document lists the factors that impact the national security of Azerbaijan. Many are directly related to the situation around Nagorno Karabakh and Armenia, in particular. It notes the instability of the geopolitical situation “as a consequence political, military, economic and negative social factors;” “unresolved military-political conflicts, including a separatist one,” and “the increased negative influence of the regional conflicts on economic interests,” including a threat of the integrity of the energy and transport infrastructure of the countries of the region. The document’s second chapter lists the main factors that negatively impact the national security of the Azerbaijani Republic, namely the “policy of ethnic cleansing and destruction of the socio-economic infrastructure in the Azerbaijani-populated regions of Armenia and in the occupied territories of Azerbaijan”, as well as “the continuing occupation of the Azerbaijani lands.”[5]

Thus, Armenia is blamed for ethnic cleansing, the settlement of the territories around Nagorno Karabakh by Armenians, and the violation of a number of treaties and conventions on conventional arms, etc. Based on these accusations, Article 6 of the Azerbaijani Military Doctrine stresses that it is “necessary to raise the military units up to the required level in order to strengthen the strategic pressure on the occupant and, if necessary, to use force to settle the conflict with the Republic of Armenia in the soonest possible terms and with minimal losses for the Azerbaijan Republic.”

The Azerbaijani Military Doctrine contradicts Article 11 of the Constitution. It stipulates that “no part of territory of the Azerbaijan Republic may be estranged” and that “the Azerbaijan Republic will not give any part of its territory to anybody.”[6] This implies, first of all, that the establishment of the military bases by foreign countries is forbidden on the territory of Azerbaijan. However, in accordance with the newly adopted Military Doctrine, “in case of  radical changes of the military-political situation, Azerbaijan reserves the right for a temporary deployment of foreign military bases on its territory, or a foreign military engagement in some other form, if the national interests require it.”

The adoption of the Military Doctrine was followed by several steps aimed at strengthening the Azerbaijani-Turkish strategic partnership. On August 16, 2010, a Treaty on Strategic Partnership was signed; its details are still unknown. However, a joint press-conference of Presidents Gul and Aliyev revealed that one of the main issues is military cooperation, and a priority goal is the settlement of the Nagorno Karabakh conflict, in a manner that maintains the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan.[7]

At the same time, in an interview on Azerbaijani private ANS TV the Turkish Foreign Minister A. Davutoğlu stressed, that the parties “will realize cooperation in military areas. There will also be defense activities in other areas related to joint military cooperation. But let me note that this agreement is not directed against any country. We signed it and then Russia and Armenia signed [their agreement]. The entire world knows that Turkey considers the defense of Azerbaijan as Turkey’s defense.” “It is a sign of our everlasting friendship with Azerbaijan,”[8] Davutoğlu added.

Against this background rumors about the possible creation of a Turkish military base on Azerbaijani territory – in the Nakhijevan Autonomous Republic, in particular – have been discussed quite intensively. Several reasons stand behind these discussions:

First, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and especially after the Karabakh war, Nakhijevan was considered by Turkey and Iran as a probable zone for their economic – and then – political activity. It is obvious that Turkey’s activity in this region is more preferable for Azerbaijan than Iran’s; moreover, an appearance of the Turkish military base will contain Iran.

Second, the new round of Turkish activity aimed at Nakhijevan has closely coincided not only with the freezing of the ratification of the Armenian-Turkish Protocols, but also with shifts toward a normalization of bilateral Armenian-Turkish relations.  Taken by the Azerbaijani side as a diplomatic victory, it has stimulated a strengthening of militarist and revanchist sentiments in the country.

Third, the issue of ratification by Armenia of the Kars Treaty of 1921, which is the logical continuation of the Moscow Treaty of 1921, has special significance for Turkey and Azerbaijan. Both Treaties defined, among other issues, the status of Nakhijevan as an “autonomous territory under the protection of Azerbaijan, on condition that Azerbaijan will not give up [this] protectorate to any third state” (Article 3 of the Moscow Treaty and Article 5 of the Kars Treaty).

Without here addressing the detail, it should be noted that the possible appearance of a Turkish military base in Nakhjevan is considered by the Azerbaijani and Turkish leadership in the context of preventing:

– A revision of the borders between Armenia and Turkey (although the Armenian side has not raised this issue);

– A revision of Nakhijevan’s status (although, according to the Moscow Treaty, Russia is also a guarantor of this Nakhijevan’s status);

– An activization of Iran in Nakhijevan.

It is also significant for both states to demonstrate a firm Turkish-Azerbaijani alliance or, in their term, “brotherhood” vis-à-vis Armenia.[9]

The possible appearance of the Turkish military base in Nakhijevan most probably will be considered by Russia with “understanding.” First, Russia has its military base – the Gabala radar station – on Azerbaijani territory; second, Russia has no visible problems with Turkey as a potential rival in  the military and political sphere, – perhaps first of all because Turkey more frequently acts as a regional power with its own scale of priorities in terms of national security rather than as a NATO member state; third, the Russian-Georgian war possessed high significance for Russia: Russia indicated its priorities and methods of defense of its strategic interests in the extreme situation. At the same time, since August, 2008, Russia’s actions have become much more cautious and restrained. Russia’s behavior during the recent ethnic clashes in Kyrgyzstan constitutes a salient example.

It is worth also pointing out that, in connection with the events in Kyrgyzstan, a direct threat is emerging both to Russian and US interests in the Central Asia. The change of power in Kyrgyzstan in April 2010 has already let to consideration of some reserve options involving a relocation of the US base away from Manas.

The instability in this region should accelerate the search for an alternative. In this context the Azerbaijani territory might be useful from all points of view: the Azerbaijan’s Military Doctrine removes the ban on deployment of foreign bases on its territory in a very timely manner; both Russia and the USA possess military bases in Central Asia[10]; in addition, Russia has proposed to the United States a joint use of the Gabala radar station. The only obstacle to a direct military presence on the Azerbaijani territory may be the fact that the Nagorno Karabakh conflict remains unsettled and the militarist statements and actions of the Azerbaijani highest leadership.

Most probably if such a base appears the possibility for joint US-Turkish use of the base will be considered.  Attaching the status of “NATO base” remains almost impossible.

As for the Russian and Turkish military presence in the South Caucasus, it is necessary to emphasize that, undoubtedly, these two regional powers will not allow themselves to be engaged in a military confrontation in the region. However, the enlargement of their military presence is an evidence of the qualitatively new balance of forces. It introduces adjustments into the situation related to the normalization of the Armenian-Turkish relationship and to the settlement of the Nagorno Karabakh conflict.

[1] Most probably, Russia will behave as it did during the events in Kyrgyzstan, which reached their peak in June 2010.

[2] “It is certainly very important for Russia to maintain stability here in the Caucasus. Russia is a Caucasian and Caspian nation. This is the main concept for building relations with our closest neighbor and friend, Azerbaijan. Thus, we are interested in maintaining peace and order in the region. The decision made during my visit to Armenia should be viewed in that light – that of extending the agreement to maintain a Russian military base in Armenia. There aren’t any hidden or other considerations. The base is intended to ensure peace and order, to preserve stability, and to lessen all the complications we have today.” See: A joint press-conference on the results of the Russian-Azerbaijani negotiations. September 3, 2010, Baku.

[3] The Military Doctrine of the Republic of Armenia. Approved on December 25, 2007. The official website of the Ministry of Defense of Armenia.

[4] The Constitution of the Republic of Azerbaijan. Official website of the President of Azerbaijan.


[6] The Constitution of the Republic of Azerbaijan. Official website of the President of Azerbaijan.

[7] Press-conference of Ilham aliyev and President of Turkey Abdullah Gul of August 16, 2010, 21:00

[8] Turkey: Azerbaijani-Turkish deal not against any country. Today’s Zaman, August 28, 2010.

[9] In particular, during the visit of the Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev to Istanbul on September 15, 2010, a declaration was signed on the formation of the Council of strategic cooperation between Turkey and Azerbaijan. It is necessary to note the fact that the Azerbaijani leaders exclusively used the definition “one nation, two states”; now (during the press-conference after the signing of the document) the Turkish President repeated this phrase several times in various contexts. Answering the question about the role of the Council in the settlement of the Nagorno Karabakh conflict, Ilham Aliyev said: “The strength of Turkey is our strength, because we are brothers. … That is why Turkey’s strengthening as such is a positive factor in the settlement of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict. The Turkish government conducts a very active and flexible policy regarding this conflict. I am convinced that this policy will have positive results, and the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan will be restored.”

[10] However, the experience is controversial: the US base was “pushed out” from Uzbekistan, but the United States and Russia have a quite fruitful cooperation in Kyrgyzstan.