The Crazy Monopoly Game between Erdogan and Putin

Turkey and Russia oppose each other in many conflicts. Their armies or mercenaries fight each other, thousands of people die. But at the last minute, Putin and Erdogan always come to an agreement, because both rulers have a great common interest.

By Alfred Hackensberger journalist for newspaper Die Welt

Die Welt (14.11.2020) – Thousands of people have been protesting for days in a row on Freedom Square in the Armenian capital Yerevan. They are immensely disappointed, full of anger and saddened at the same time. “Traitors, traitors,” the protesters chant and loudly demand the resignation of the government. The next moment, some of them have big tears running down their cheeks.

The Armenian nation has been in shock since Prime Minister Nikol Paschinyan, on Sunday, announced the ceasefire agreement in the Nagorno-Karabakh war. What it comes down to, whether you like it or not, is in the end nothing else but an unconditional surrender.

The war is lost. From an Armenian perspective it could hardly have been worse. Only a third of the contested mountain region of Karabakh remains in Armenian hands. The rest is now part of Azerbaijan, which started its campaign of conquest in Nagorno-Karabakh six weeks ago.

The protesters in Yerevan blame Pashinyan and his government for this dramatic result. But the defeat of Armenia and its army was inevitable, because Ankara and the Kremlin are pulling the strings in the background.

The large-scale attack on Nagorno-Karabakh was only possible for Azerbaijan because Turkey supplied modern drones, dispatched military advisers, and sent several thousand Syrian mercenaries to the front to fight.

At the same time, Armenia’s ally Russia watched with its hands on its lap, waiting. Only at the last moment, when the whole of Nagorno-Karabakh threatened to fall, did President Vladimir Putin speak a word of power and dictated the terms of peace. Pashinyan took office in 2018 after mass protests. He distanced himself from Russia. Political observers believe that Putin has now used the opportunity to put Armenia back in its place.

Little Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh got crushed under the massive wheels of the geopolitical power game of Turkey and Russia. A geopolitical power game that has shaped the Middle East and North Africa for years and which has now been extended to the Caucasus. Those in power in Ankara and Moscow can sit back pleased with the result. Russia is providing a 2.000 strong peacekeeping force to monitor the ceasefire in Nagorno-Karabakh for an indefinite period of time.

In the ceasefire agreement, the peacekeeping contingent force is planned to be supported by Turkish soldiers. Russia and Turkey have set themselves a firm foothold. Both countries underline their claim to leadership in the strategically important Caucasus, which is rich in oil and natural gas. Strategic pipelines run from the Caucasus to Europe.

Always ready to compromise

With Nagorno-Karabakh, Moscow and Ankara have added another piece to their hegemony. Both may appear on the world political stage as dogged rivals whose proxy armies fight each other in some places… But they are always ready to compromise and share power in conflict areas – provided that some measure of their economic and political interests is met. Two years ago, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke of a “strategic partnership” linking his country with Russia.

The basis of this “partnership” is the economic relations between the two countries. They stand on “solid ground” and have “positive interdependencies,” as Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko explained a few months ago in Moscow. He gave the large-scale joint projects TurkStream Pipeline and the Akkuyu nuclear power plant as examples.

Economic cooperation between Turkey and Russia has been intensifying for years. According to the Turkish Foreign Ministry on its website, the trade volume between the two countries reached 22.26 billion euros last year. Turkish companies launched projects in Russia in 2019 with a total worth of 64 billion euros. Furthermore, NATO member Turkey – much to the annoyance of the United States – bought the billion-dollar Russian air defense system S-400.

The economic aspect of Russian-Turkish relations is likely to be an important reason why foreign policy non-political disputes in conflict zones are repeatedly settled – although both sides support opposing conflict parties and do not refrain from using force. Russia bombs the rebels in Syria who are fighting against the Assad regime. Turkey, in turn, is training and arming the opposition.

Putin sent mercenaries from the infamous Wagner company to Libya to support General Khalifa Haftar and also stationed some of the best Russian fighter jets in the south of the country. Turkey armed the militias of the internationally recognized government of National Accord in Tripoli led by Fayez Sarraj, and had Syrian mercenaries fight against General Haftar.

So far, Putin and Erdogan have always managed to contain the armed escalations between them before they could get completely out of control. The heads of state talked to each other on the phone and then sent off their diplomats to negotiate a compromise. Ceasefire agreements were negotiated at numerous conferences, so-called road-maps were drawn up, and buffer zones were set up.

It is a game of give and take, deal after deal. Turkey is handing over rebel regions in Syria to Russia and in return is given the green light for offensives against the detested Kurdish YPG militia.

The “strategic partnership” in foreign policy between Turkey and Russia seems like a crazy game of Monopoly. Cities and regions are swapped. Entire countries divided up. Today there are four different zones in Syria. Libya is split in two and Nagorno-Karabakh has shrunk to a third. The civil populations of the three countries bear the costs of this “game”: hundreds of thousands have lost their homes and are on the run, thousands of people have been killed.

Despite all the rivalry, there seems to be a fundamental understanding between Ankara and Moscow. “This is a modern interpretation of the historical, diplomatic dance between Turkey and Russia,” says Nicholas Heras of the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) in Washington. For hundreds of years, both countries have been oscillating between partnership and enmity. And this pattern continues today, explains Heras in an interview with DIE WELT.

“Russia and Turkey may cooperate when it comes to excluding the U.S. and Europe from zones of influence in the enlarged Middle East,” says Heras. “They make compromises because neither of them can achieve a decisive advantage on its own.” The security expert is convinced, however, that Russia and Turkey cannot coordinate their effectively incompatible geopolitical interests in the long term, but only for a short time.

In any case, it has worked out well over the past five years. Last week on Tuesday, Erdogan and Putin discussed the current situation in Nagorno-Karabakh. As so often before in crisis situations, they did this in person on the phone. According to the Turkish protocol, “Nagorno-Karabakh shows how necessary the cooperation between Turkey and Russia is for the settlement of regional conflicts,” said Erdogan to his Russian counterpart.

In the same spirit in which the crisis in the Caucasus was resolved, Erdogan added, that a mechanism of cooperation should be established in Syria. Putin’s response to this proposal is not known. It is highly doubtful whether he is enthusiastic about such a proposal. In Syria, Putin wants to reinstate the Assad regime as sole ruler over the entire country. But you never know what the two presidents are negotiating among themselves.

Disclaimer: Translated from the original German as published on 14 November 2020 by Die Welt. For the Original here