Could Turkey get closer to Armenia just to anger Russia?

Could Turkey get closer to Armenia just to anger Russia?

Turkey managed to avoid reacting strongly against Moscow during both the Russia–Georgia conflict in 2008 and the Russia–Ukraine conflict in 2014.

In 2008, Turkey even used its veto right to block NATO from sending an Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) to the Caucasus in a show of support for Georgia. Ankara also avoided Western-led sanctions prompted by Moscow’s annexation of Crimea; the official Turkish reaction to the annexation was mild, despite its affinity with the Crimean Tatars. Ankara has also resisted efforts to have an additional NATO presence in the Black Sea.

All this changed after relations with Moscow took a nose dive following Turkey’s downing of the Russian warplane at the Syrian border last November.

Russia’s strong reaction, which included economic sanctions against Turkey, and its refusal to mend fences in the months since the incident, has pushed the Turkish government to take counter measures. These are most visible in the Black Sea region. 

The tension between Ankara and Moscow has spurred Turkish security cooperation with Georgia, and especially Ukraine. In addition to reciprocal visits between Ankara and Kiev, the blossoming of the Ukraine-Turkish relationship saw increased cooperation in the defense industry, as well as the staging of joint training and naval exercises in the Black Sea. What’s more, Turkey’s Russia policy within NATO also started showing signs of change.

One wonders whether these developments could provide a widow of opportunity for a modest move in the frozen dialogue between Turkey and Armenia?

Before answering that question, it might be useful to remind ourselves of the current state of affairs in Turkey–Armenia relations. 

Ever since the collapse of the most significant attempt to normalize relations in 2009, it has proven difficult for the two capitals, still lacking diplomatic relations, to restart dialogue. Disappointed by the failure of protocols signed to normalize relations, Armenia showed no enthusiasm for any new attempt, diverting all its attention to 2015, the centenary of the killing of Anatolian Armenians at the hands of the Ottomans.

Azerbaijan, which played a serious role in the failure of the protocols, started to invest even more in Turkey through energy policies and lobbying activities. Increased Turkish–Azerbaijani cooperation consolidated Ankara’s stance of avoiding any new step with Armenia at the expense of Baku. In addition, Turkey also started to concentrate on counter-measures for the 2015 centenary commemorations. It became obvious that nothing tangible would take place between Turkey and Armenia until after 2015. 

It should be said that the 2015 commemorations did not further deteriorate the situation between Turkey and Armenia. But leaving 2015 behind is not enough for the two capitals to restart dialogue. What’s more, Turkey’s hectic domestic and foreign agenda has kept normalization with Armenia down on the list of priorities. 

But can the change in Turkey–Russia relations provide an incentive for Ankara to make a move? Indeed, economic relations seem to have benefited from the situation, as Turkish–Armenian trade has tripled over the past three months, according to Armenian sources. (Yes my dear Russian friends, it seems you are still eating Turkish vegetables.) Atlas, the private Turkish airline, has increased its flights to Yerevan, and it seems there are now talks about facilitating the ticketing activities via Turkish Airlines in order to lure more passengers to and from Armenia.

What’s more unofficial backchannel talks are ongoing about accrediting the Turkish ambassador in Tbilisi to Armenia, or at least opening crossing points at the border on certain days of the week.

Could these unofficial talks lead to tangible results? Highly unlikely. First of all, the current tension with Russia would actually discourage Turkey from making a move toward Armenia, as doing so would only be counterproductive. Russia would become a major obstacle in front of any normalization. Secondly, Turkey would avoid taking such a step without the blessing of Baku, and that blessing does not appear on the horizon in the absence of a breakthrough in the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

One positive side effect of the lack of any move at the political level has been the intensification of “Track II diplomacy” through civil society activities. The most significant factor on the Turkey–Armenia front at the moment is the fact that the two governments are not obstructing - and are even encouraging - these works.