Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov categorically dismissed the classification of Turkey as an “ally” of Russia in an interview Wednesday after the two nations found themselves on opposing sides of yet another proxy war, this time in the Caucasus.
The two nations have a complicated history and Turkey belongs to NATO, a military coalition largely considered to exist as a check on Russian power. Recently, however, the two have attempted to mend fences for economic reasons, seeking to boost trade volume to upwards of $100 billion in talks last year. This has required some delicate diplomacy, including the Russian government largely overlooking the public assassination of its ambassador to Ankara in 2016.
The most recent conflict the two nations find themselves in is the ongoing crisis in Nagorno-Karabakh, a Caucasian region technically belonging to Azerbaijan that straddles its border with Armenia. Joseph Stalin gave Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan when both were Soviet Socialist Republics, despite its status as traditionally Armenian land populated by indigenous Christian Armenians. Experts believe as much as 95 percent of the region is inhabited currently by Armenians, not the Turkic Azeri people. Azerbaijan has no governing power in the region despite maintaining legal sovereignty. An independent entity that calls itself the Republic of Artsakh governs day-to-day life in the region. Armenia does not recognize Artsakh officially as a country.
Fighting erupted in the region in late September; both sides claim the other fired the first shot. Artsakh officials claim that Azeri shelling has displaced as much as half of the population and that Azerbaijan’s bombing constitutes war crimes. Amnesty International claimed last week that it had verified the use of cluster bombs, extremely inaccurate munitions whose use is widely considered a human rights violation, by Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh.
Armenia has only recently admitted that its troops have begun fighting in the conflict alongside Artsakh’s fighters and an assortment of ethnic Armenians from other parts of the world, as well as Yazidis and Greeks who have joined the fray. On the Azeri side, the governments of Armenia, France, and Russia have accused Baku of allowing the Turkish government to import hundreds, if not thousands, of mercenaries from the Syrian Civil War.
Turkey maintains friendly relations with Azerbaijan due to their shared ethnic and cultural background. Russia and Armenia are both members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a post-Soviet military alliance that requires each state to treat an attack on any member as an attack on all.
In that context, Lavrov reminded listeners in an interview on Russian radio Wednesday that, despite increasingly friendly relations between Russia and Turkey, Moscow was not surprised to find itself at odds with Ankara yet again.
“We have never considered Turkey as our strategic ally. It [Turkey] is a close partner, that partnership has strategic nature in many areas”, Lavrov asserted, adding that Russia adamantly rejected the Turkish position on Nagorno-Karabakh.
“We do not agree with the position voiced by Turkey, that was also expressed several times by [Azeri] President [Ilham] Aliyev. It is not a secret that we cannot agree with a statement that a military solution to the conflict is permissible,” Lavrov said.
Lavrov made the statement a week after speaking to Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, a conversation Turkish reports suggest centered around alleged Armenian violations to a tentative ceasefire agreement. Reports do not indicate the conversation was tense.
The language at the highest levels of power between the two countries remains friendlier. Russian President Vladimir Putin called his counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Thursday, according to the Kremlin, and the two appeared to agree on a call for a humanitarian ceasefire in the region.
“Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan have called for activation of political process, namely based on the progress reached within the OSCE Minsk Group,” according to an official statement from the Kremlin. “They have stressed a pressing need for solidary efforts with the aim to put an end to bloodshed as soon as possible and to move towards peaceful regulation of the Nagorno-Karabakh issue. They have expressed hope that Turkey, as a member of the OSCE Minsk Group, will make a constructive contribution to conflict de-escalation.”
The Minsk Group, named after the capital of Belarus, is a coalition founded in 1992, shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, to help resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh issue. Russia, France, and the United States co-chair the group. The three countries released a joint statement last week urging a full ceasefire in the region.
“The Ministers [representing the three states] stress unconditionally that recent attacks allegedly targeting civilian centers — both along the Line of Contact and on the territories of Azerbaijan and Armenia outside the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone — and the disproportionate nature of such attacks constitute an unacceptable threat to the stability of the region,” the statement read.
The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is the latest to place Turkey and Russia on opposite sides. In Africa, Russia spent years offering support to warlord Khalifa Haftar against the internationally-recognized Government of National Accord that took over the country after President Barack Obama supported the overthrow of longtime dictator Muammar Qaddafi. In January, Erdogan announced that Turkey had decided to intervene in the fighting surrounding the capital, Tripoli, on the part of the government against Haftar. In half a year, Turkey’s actions, which also reportedly included flooding the war theater with Syrian jihadis, resulted in Haftar withdrawing from Tripoli and Russia openly encouraging U.S. involvement. President Donald Trump declined.
In Syria, Turkey has actively opposed dictator Bashar al-Assad, a close Russian ally. Erdogan has repeatedly called Assad a “terrorist” and insisted that any Turkish involvement in Syria was exclusively “to end the rule of the tyrant Assad.”
Assad’s regime recognized the Armenian genocide of 1915 in February, in part as a way to condemn Erdogan. Turkey has never recognized that it committed the genocide, which killed upwards of 1.5 Armenians in addition to Greeks, Assyrians, and other Christians in Anatolia.