June 16, 2021

Turkish presidential visit to Azerbaijan shows growing regional influence

Turkish presidential visit to Azerbaijan shows growing regional influence

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrived in neighboring Azerbaijan on Tuesday to meet with his counterpart and long-time ally Ilham Aliyev. The two traveled to the city of Shushi in the partially-recognized breakaway state of Artsakh. Azerbaijan has occupied the city, as well as other parts of Artsakh, since its brief and victorious conflict with Armenia last October.

Aliyev has been courting Erdogan since the start of the conflict, when he sent a letter thanking his Turkish counterpart for making "open and harsh statements" on what he called a "treacherous act of aggression at all levels" by Armenia. The letter declared Turks a "fraternal people" to Azeris and called Erdogan's support "yet another example of Azeri-Turkish unity." Now, Erdogan has announced that Turkey will be opening a consulate in Shushi, a move likely to increase Turkish influence in Azerbaijan and pressure on Armenia. A Turkish diplomatic presence in Artsakh is also likely to raise the political cost of any future attempts by Armenia to reclaim the territory.

Azerbaijan's victory in the conflict last fall, and particularly the heavy materiel losses it inflicted on the Armenian military, came as a surprise to some observers. Azerbaijani forces destroyed or captured up to 180 tanks and other armored fighting vehicles, 250 conventional and rocket artillery pieces, 40 air defense missile and radar systems, and 380 trucks and other utility vehicles. The total cost of Armenia's losses has been estimated at just over $4 billion, an amount equal to the country's entire national budget in 2020.

Azerbaijani forces were able to inflict such disproportionate damage on the Armenian military through extensive use of Turkish-made unmanned combat aerial vehicles. (The most popular of these drones is the TB2, produced by the Bayraktar corporation owned by President Erdogan's son-in-law.) These remote-controlled aircraft, some armed with guided missiles and some functioning as munitions themselves, have appeared in many recent regional conflicts, including Syria and Eastern Ukraine. In Artsakh, they were the bane of any Armenian troops or armor caught in the open. Cheaper than manned ground attack aircraft and easier for low-skill troops to operate, they are helping non-state actors and second-world militaries close the gap with better-equipped competitors.

For now, it seems that Turkey will be able to continue expanding her sphere of influence until she crosses a more serious regional power, such as Russia. And Azerbaijan's Aliyev seems happy to serve as a junior partner to Erdogan so long as the relationship helps him stay in power and act on his own ambitions in the region.