Little Armenia Could Play a Big Role if Russia and Turkey Ever Go to War
Are recent Russian maneuvers signs of increasing hostilities or just part of a long-term plan? It’s no secret that the relationship between Russia and Turkey is dismal, with the countries clashing over their respective roles in the Syrian civil war. Russia backs the Syrian regime. Turkey backs the regime’s opponents.
What is less-known is a little country that has huge geopolitical significance and a long, checkered history with both antagonists — and could become a significant player in any standoff between them.
That country is Armenia.
Once a part of the Soviet Union, Armenia became an independent republic in 1991 when the USSR dissolved. It was also once a part of the Ottoman Empire. Ottoman Turks slaughtered a million Armenians during World War I, an atrocity that become known as the Armenian Genocide.
Modern Armenia is a landlocked country in the South Caucasus that shares a 165-mile border with Turkey and has cordial relations with Russia – so cordial that some observers believe Russia is taking advantage of the relationship in order to expand its military presence right next to Turkey.
In February 2016, a snap drill in cooperation with the Armenian military involved 8,500 Russian troops, 900 ground weapons, 200 warplanes and around 50 warships. In December 2015, the two countries signed a cooperative air-defense agreement. There’s also a new basing deal between the two governments that allows 5,000 Russian troops to live in Armenia.
Some observers — including, officially, NATO — say those developments are really nothing new, and are part of a long-term Russian strategy that includes Russia’s much bigger troop movements near countries such as Poland and the Baltic states.
A Russian soldier in Ukraine. Youtube capture
But one thing is certain. Neither Russia nor Turkey is backing down in their tiff over Syria. And Armenia is, conveniently, a strong Russian ally and Turkey’s neighbor. If Russia and Turkey come to blows, Armenia is sure to play a role.
Since 2011, Russia and Turkey have supported opposite sides in the bloody Syrian conflict. In November 2015, a Turkish F-16 fighter shot down a Russian Su-24 bomber after the Russian plane apparently violated Turkey’s air space.
Even before that happened, Russian president Vladimir Putin told the Turkish ambassador to Russia to “tell your dictator president he can go to Hell along with his ISIS terrorists and I shall make Syria into nothing but a big Stalingrad.”
So far, that hasn’t happened. But God help us if it does.
Turkey is a member of NATO, which is obligated under Article 5 of the organization’s charter to defend member states from attack. Turkey is also an ally of the United States and hosts a substantial American military presence at Incirlik and Izmir air bases.
Is Russia’s actions in the Caucasus part of a calculated military build-up aimed at NATO’s southern flank? Adam Ereli, vice chairman of Mercury, a public affairs and strategy firm whose clients include the Turkish Institute for Progress, thinks so. “Putin is creating a new satellite state on NATO’s border and threatening an indispensable U.S. ally,” Ereli said.
“Make no mistake — the Russian military presence in Armenia represents a dagger pointed at the heart of NATO as the Armenia-Russian alliance strengthens,” Ereli wrote in Forbes.
Putin meets with commanders in 2013. Russian defense ministry photo
NATO takes a different view.
“From the NATO perspective, the situation is not provocative or aggressive,” a NATO official told War Is Boring. “Armenia is an independent country, it has a defense agreement with Russia and it has the right to participate in exercises with Russia.”
In fact, the recent drills are very similar to maneuvers the Russians conducted as long ago as 2008 in what Moscow calls the Southern Military District, the official said.
The Southern Military District oversees Russian forces in Armenia, as well as Crimea, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
There are two Russian bases in Armenia that are part of the district — the 102nd Military Base in Gyumri and Erebuni Airport near the capital city of Yerevan, which is the home of the 3624th Air Base that is under joint Armenian and Russian control. Erebuni airfield is 12 miles from the Turkish border.
However, the official also said that NATO is concerned with Russia’s “lack of transparency” regarding troop movements and snap drills. Similar maneuvers with even larger forces have also taken place near Poland and the Baltic states as well the Caucasus. “The Russian’s overall actions across the whole board are a cause for concern,” the official said.
Russia accepted the provisions of the Vienna Document, an agreement between the members of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which includes requirements for prior notification of certain military activities such as drills and an exchange of military observers during exercises.
Armenian troops on parade. Russian defense ministry photo
In addition, Russia signed the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe, which places caps on armaments that could be used in a sudden attack and allows for verification of compliance through means such as information exchanges and inspections.
NATO does not consider Russia in compliance with either agreement. In particular, both the United States and NATO consider the CFE politically binding — and vital to preventing accidental wars.
Armenia is also a member of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and is complying with the provisions of the Vienna Document, the NATO official said.
For its part, Russia blames NATO and the United States for breaches that prompted Russia to cease compliance with the CFE in 2015. As for the Vienna Document, the Russian government chooses to selectively implement the provisions of the document, which was updated in 2011.
Hugo Spaulding, a Russia and Ukraine analyst at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington, D.C., told War Is Boring that some journalists have drawn a connection between the recent military activity and the Russia-Turkey conflict in a way that is “thought-provoking but potentially misleading.”
But that doesn’t mean that that Armenia wouldn’t be a key asset if things escalated between Russia and Turkey, Spaulding said.
“Since the shoot-down, both Turkey and Russia have signaled their willingness to challenge one another’s interests in ways that escalate competition but generally avoid direct military confrontation,” Spaulding said. “Russia’s courting of Kurdish groups in both Syria and Turkey is an example of this, while we have likewise seen Turkish outreach to the Crimean Tatars, a Turkic minority from Crimea that opposes the Russian annexation.”
“I expect Turkish-Ukrainian military cooperation to increase as well since we have seen a number of high-level bilateral meetings,” he added. “All this is to say that the South Caucasus is an area that is worth watching because it has historically been contested by the Ottoman and Russian empires and could be the site of a proxy conflict between Russia and Turkey if that competition escalates in a certain way.”
That “certain way” remains a possibility. Across the Black Sea is Crimea, where Russia has undertaken a remarkable military buildup following its annexation of the peninsula. That included basing fighter jets there as well as permanent airborne forces — moves that challenge Turkey’s interests in the region.
Russia could challenge Turkey from the north via Crimea, from the east by way of Armenia and from the south via Russia’s military base in Latakia, Syria.
“All the while Russian maintain free access in the west through the Turkish Straits, which keep Russian forces in Syria ticking and Turkey can’t close … unless it is formally at war with Russia,” Spaulding said. “All in all, Turkey is right to feel a bit encircled.”