Russian-Turkish Standoff May Create Fallout for Armenia


Edmond Azadian

Edmond Azadian

By Edmond Y. Azadian

It is the unwritten code of international relations that major powers will take an interest in the causes of weaker nations only if those causes can serve their interests. It took perhaps 50 years for Armenians to understand and accept this political postulation. We have always maintained that since the Armenian Genocide took place in full view of the international community, Armenians are entitled to some redress, while the most that the major powers can offer is charity or relief assistance, which of course, do not substitute for reparations.

Finally, we have come to realize that when there is a motion in the Israeli Knesset to recognize the Armenian Genocide, the underlying reason is that the Israeli government has some scores to settle with Turkey.

Similar scenarios have developed, and many may even develop in the future, in the US Congress, the French Parliament and elsewhere. And when the underlying causes dissipate, the interest in the Genocide issue mysteriously disappears.

Today we are facing the same issue with our strategic ally, Russia, in the wake of the Russian-Turkish standoff as a result of Russia’s SU-24 combat aircraft downed by the Turkish air force.

Tensions between the two countries rose to the boiling point and the parties began considering the reactions to hurt each other.

The US came to Turkey’s rescue when President Barack Obama said, “Turkey is a NATO ally. Along with our allies, the United States supports Turkey’s right to defend itself and its airspace and its territory. We are very much committed to Turkey’s security and its sovereignty.”

But in the same statement, he added, in a more conciliatory tone, “We discussed how Turkey and Russia can work together to de-escalate and find a diplomatic path to resolve this issue.”

Although Turkey’s President Erdogan expressed “regret” at the loss of Russian pilots, he refused to issue an official apology as Moscow demanded.

It is not the first time that Turkey has forced NATO to reach the brink of a full-scale conflict, relying on Article Five of NATO’s charter. But this time around, perhaps the US chided Mr. Erdogan privately, but France and Germany were furious. Germany’s Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel had harsh criticism for the “unpredictable player” of NATO. Others even called for Turkey’s expulsion from the alliance.

President Vladimir Putin is well aware that he cannot wage war against Turkey, whose leadership has historically sought protection from the West in confronting Russia, and that is why he has said, “Erdogan will regret what’s been done, but Russia is not going to engage in sable rattling with Turkey.”

Russia, however, has a series of options at its disposal, which it can use to retaliate against Turkish aggression.

Moscow can intensify — and has already intensified — its attack on the Turkmen region in Syria, bordering Turkey. About 100,000-200,000 Turkmen live in Syria. They have been armed and trained by Turkey to fight the Assad regime. Ankara was counting on its Turkmen allies to push for a no-fly zone in their area. When the Russian air force began cleaning up the Turkmen area, it touched a raw nerve in Ankara and moved it to commit the reckless act of taking down the Russian combat plane. Turkmen were involved in the illicit oil trade in Syria to benefit ISIS. They were also the armed gangs which joined the Turkish regular forces in massacring the Armenians in the Kessab region.

Turkey was shortsighted in the attack on the Russian plane, as the aggression helped obliterate its strategic plan of the no-fly zone, as the Turkmens are currently in disarray against Russian advances in the region.

The other option that Moscow has in its arsenal is the economic boycott of Turkey. President Putin has already ordered the implementation of sanctions against Turkish imports, especially food and agricultural items. He even has put on hold the Southern Stream pipeline, which intended for Russia to bypass Ukraine and export energy to the Balkans. Turkey is also heavily dependent on Russian gas supplies, which may become a casualty in the process. But most damaging for Turkey will be the ban on Russian tourism and the construction industry, as Turkish companies have in place many construction contracts in Russia.

Armenia’s Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamian has appealed to the nation’s companies to fill the vacuum left by Turkey, especially boosting the agricultural sector’s output. Since the West began implementing sanctions against Russia, there has been a noticeable surge in Armenian exports to Russia.

Although the Russian sanctions will impact the Turkish economy, the latter’s economy is still sturdy enough to absorb the shock even after the last few months’ slump.

What will be most effective are political and historic treaties, where Ankara is more vulnerable.

Moscow is reinforcing the military hardware at its base in Armenia. A new air defense system has been installed on Armenia’s border with Turkey. On the one hand, that move may be reassuring in defending Armenia’s sovereignty, but on the other hand, Armenia is being pushed to the front of the ensuing cold war as it is located at the contact point of NATO and CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organization) forces, pitting the West versus the former Soviet Union. Russia has been launching long-range missiles from the warships in the Caspian Sea to the war theater in Syria. Should the Russian command decide to use also the base in Armenia, the latter will become a party to the Middle Eastern imbroglio.

Russia recognized the Armenian Genocide some time ago, but there has not been any talk of criminalization for its denial. Now, it looks like it is politically expedient to legislate the criminalization of the denial, much like the bill pending at this writing in the French parliament.

Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the Donald Trump of Russia, politician and the founder of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia fired the first salvo. He said that if we allow Armenians to claim their historic lands from Turkey, they would do it gladly. He also called on Russia to support the Kurdish insurgency in Turkey. But on more practical grounds, Spravedliva Rossia Party submitted a bill to the parliament to criminalize the denial of the Armenian Genocide.

If the standoff continues between the two countries, Moscow can abrogate the Friendship and Cooperation Treaty signed in Moscow in 1921. Also, it can instigate Armenia to renounce the Treaty of Kars, singed in October of the same year. That treaty finalized the present borders between Turkey and the three Caucasian republics, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. But it is on shaky grounds, since it was signed by the Turkish Gen. Kazim Karabekir on behalf of Turkey’s Grand National Assembly, while the Ottoman Constitution was in force, which designated the prerogative of the Sultan to sign international treaties. Although the treaty was ratified in 1922 by Armenia, the representative of the Armenian Republic had signed the Treaty under duress, and not by free will. Georgia quietly and unilaterally renounced the Kars Treaty in 2005.

The validity of the treaty came under question before. On June 7, 1945, Soviet Foreign Minister Vyachaslav Molotov asked the Turkish ambassador in Moscow to return the provinces of Kars, Ardahan and Artvin to USSR in the name of Georgian and Armenian SSRs. By the autumn of the same year, Soviet forces in the Caucasus were assembling on the border for a possible invasion of Turkey, but Winston Churchill dangled the threat of newly discovered atomic bomb to dissuade Stalin from going through with his plan.

The last time the issue was raised at the UN was in 1948 by Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Vyshinsky, demanding Kars and Ardahan again, on behalf of Armenia and Georgia, respectively.

Turkey’s main motive in signing the Protocols in 2009 was to have Armenia ratify and finalize the Treaty of Kars sealing the fate of the current borders for the foreseeable future.

Russia and Turkey have waged 12 wars against each other over the past 400 years. Some journalists in Armenia are questioning whether the 13th war has already begun.

As the tension between Russia and Turkey continues, Armenia’s destiny will hang on the rivalry of these regional powers.

The fallout may prove to be a mix of blessings and curses.