Wednesday, 06 April 2016 11:11

Troubled times with Russia and Turkey

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by Ron Chapman

This will be a difficult read because of its complexity… but the complexity makes the situation all the more dangerous.

The world is in turmoil.  No matter where we look, it appears conflicts are erupting and threatening further chaos.  Making matters worse, some long smoldering international issues are re-igniting.  In particular, a new crisis may have arisen regarding relations between Russia and Turkey.

    There is a long and confusing relationship between Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh (see map). The latter region is an isolated enclave within Azerbaijan (Muslim) that is populated by a majority of Armenians (Christian).  Armenia itself lies just to the west of Azerbaijan. There is a long history of conflict in this disputed region, aggravated by the genocide of 1.5 million Christian Armenians by Ottoman Turkey during World War I.   Armenia distrusts Turkey as a result.

    Tensions within this region died down during the Soviet era because the Soviet Union prevented any military actions among its divergent populations all of whom were under Soviet control.   However, with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, long simmering tensions arose as Christian Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh sought independence and union with Armenia.  Azerbaijan demanded to maintain its territorial integrity so war broke out.  In the resulting conflict nearly 30,000 people died and 1 million were displaced.   In 1994 Russia brokered a tentative peace which has been maintained up to this point.

    Suddenly, this week violence broke out in the region resulting in the death of 64 soldiers and civilians from both sides of the conflict.  The potential for this violence to spiral into outright war raised concerns throughout the region and Europe.   After four days of violent fighting, European nations and Russia were finally able to broker a cease-fire…hoping it will last.

This is where the situation becomes dicey.  We know that Turkey and Russia are on opposite sides on Syria.  Turkey aggravated the situation by shooting down a Russian bomber.   Russia added to the tension by opening a “Kurdish Information Center” in Moscow and helping arm the Kurds in Syria.  The Turks consider Kurds terrorists, so Turkey responded by attacking the Kurdish forces in Syria who also have been American allies against ISIS. Confused? Not surprising.

Were this not complicated enough, Russia recently heavily armed Armenia, a natural foe of Turkey bordering just to the east of that nation.  It appears the cards were in play for a major confrontation in the central Caucasus region between Russia and Turkey.  Anything could ignite the tinder box and it happened this week.  

Suddenly, the eruption between Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh has placed Turkey and Russia at dagger point while raising the specter of another Christian/Muslim conflict.  

The question is:  Was this sudden outbreak of violence between Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh an isolated, internal incident wholly unrelated to regional conflicts?  Or, has Turkey been working behind the scenes to create a crisis for Russia in response to its arming of Armenia and the Kurds?  Turkish President Erdogan has vowed to support Azerbaijan.  “We pray our Azerbaijan brothers ill prevail in these clashes with the least casualties.”  He further commented that he would stand by them “to the end”, which may say a lot.

Should the latter be true…this raises concerns that President Erdogan of Turkey is aggressively prodding the Russian bear.  He is confronting Putin in a tug-of-war for power and influence in Central Caucasus region.  This is serious and has the potential of quickly spiraling out of control.  

Erdogan’s recent actions both domestically and internationally have given rise to the belief that he is determined to establish a Turkish dictatorship driving an aggressive religious and military agenda in the region.  Putin’s belligerent posture is well known.  Since neither of these men have a reputation for standing down which should generate cause for deep concern.

Further complicating matters, Turkey’s persistent confrontations with Russia has caused heartburn for NATO.  Turkey is a member of NATO and NATO would be committed to defend Turkey in a war with Russia.  Thus Turkey’s aggressive actions have raised concerns among all peace loving nations.  

  We live in troubled times!

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