In December 1991, Turkey was one of the first countries to recognize the independence of the Republic of Armenia. The relationship between the two countries was complicated and negotiations to establish diplomatic relations were not smooth. In January-March 1992, when the UN, the Council of Europe and the OSCE were examining Armenia's and Azerbaijan's membership applications, official Ankara mentioned several preconditions. Among them was the removal of the international recognition of the Armenian Genocide from Armenia's foreign policy agenda, recognition of Turkey’s territorial integrity by Armenia, absence of territorial claims against Turkey, and removal of the image of Mount Ararat from the coat of arms. However, a turning point in Armenian-Turkish relations came with the success of ethnic Armenian forces in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in 1992. The liberation of Shushi and the opening of the Lachin Corridor angered the Turkish leadership, which made belligerent statements and expressed readiness to start its own war against Armenia.
Shushi’s liberation was a turning point in the Karabakh movement as it changed the trajectory of the war, causing a dramatic shift in the military progress of ethnic Armenian forces. It was implemented on May 8-9, 1992, and considered an example of military strategic genius, which allowed the ouster of Azerbaijani forces from the city. Perched on a hill, Shushi was a stronghold from which Azerbaijani forces were targeting the civilians of the capital Stepanakert. The Armenians of Nagorno Karabakh were under a communication blockade by both land and air. The permanent bombings of Stepanakert threatened essentials such as electricity, gas and water. Without liberating Shushi, the population of NKR would have been sentenced to death.
The liberation had a huge psychological impact as it led to advances on the strategically important Lachin (Berdzor) corridor, which restored the land connection between Artsakh and Armenia and paved the way to upcoming victories of Armenian forces, making the independence of Artsakh a future reality.
Along with victories on the military front, the Armenian side prepared the ground in the international arena. Among them was an address by the NKR Supreme Council to the UN Secretary-General and the leaders of the OSCE, presenting the war crimes committed by the Azerbaijani side. A week before the Shushi military operation, the Presidium of the NKR Supreme Council again addressed the international community, explaining how Azerbaijan was depriving the Artsakh population from its water supply, medicine, gas and electricity. It was explained that the liberation of Shushi was needed to ensure the safety of the population. The international community tried to address the appeal of the NKR Supreme Council and arrived in the region. Among them was UN Special Representative State Cyrus Vance , the OSCE Officer Yan Kobich, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Iran Mahmoud Vaezi, Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev.
The prime minister of Turkey Suleyman Demirel described the actions of the ethnic Armenian forces as terrorism against Azeribaijanis. Moreover, he proclaimed that, in consequence, Turkey would no longer act as a bystander.
Though the liberation of Shushi was the trigger, Turkey had already been trying to find a justification for its own military intervention. In May 1992, the Turkish side started spreading news that Armenian forces had attacked the heights near the town of Sadarak in Nakhichevan, something the Armenian side denied. In response to which Turkish Land Forces Commander Muhittin Fisunoglu said that “all necessary preparations have been made and the army is waiting for Ankara's order to attack.”
The decision of the Turkish Cabinet of Ministers on May 18 warned that “Armenia is going in the wrong direction and will be held accountable for all its actions if it does not quit its aggressive policy.” The Speaker of the Turkish Parliament Hikmet Zindoruk also stated, “Turkey's patience also has a limit. You can't try it too long.”
This seemed to be a serious threat from Turkey to invade the region, which met with a harsh response from the Commander-in-Chief of the CIS Collective Armed Forces Marshal Yevgeny Shaposhnikov, who said, “Turkey's invasion could lead to World War III.” This counter-threat was one of the factors that prevented Turkey's direct intervention in the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict.
It should be noted that, in the first years of independence, Turkey allowed humanitarian aid to flow to Armenia through its territory. In 1992, when the economic crisis in Armenia escalated, Turkey agreed to send 100,000 tons of grain to Armenia, as well as electricity, which was in short supply in Armenia. That decision sparked a wave of protests in Azerbaijan. Following a visit by Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Erdal Inonu to Baku on December 8, 1992, the supply of electricity to Armenia was banned, stating that normalization of Armenian-Turkish relations would only be possible after the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. This step created the precedent of tying Armenian-Turkish relations to Armenian-Azerbaijani relations.
In 1993, Armenian forces achieved new successes on the battlefield, which significantly affected Armenian-Turkish relations. In particular, in April 1993, after the military operation in Kalbajar (now Karvachar), Turkey closed the H-50 international air corridor, banning flights to Armenia through its airspace, closed the Gyumri-Kars railway, and banned the delivery of humanitarian aid to Armenia through its territory. The supply of wheat was stopped. Armenia found itself sandwiched between an Azerbaijani-Turkish two-sided blockade. Thus, since the liberation of Shushi, Turkey tried to put various forms of pressure on Armenia to prevent the further success of the Armenian forces. By closing its border with Armenia, Ankara cemented the connection between the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and Turkish-Armenian relations.
The success of the Armenian forces in Artsakh raised the issue of direct Turkish military intervention against Armenia. In July-August 1993, Armenian forces managed to liberate Aghdam (now Akna), Fizuli (now Varanda), Jebrail (now Mekhakavan) and Kubatlu (now Vorotan). Concerned with the success of the Armenian forces, in September 1993, Turkey deployed more than 50,000 troops along the Armenian-Turkish border. This was a clear warning to Armenia that further military actions could have serious consequences at the Armenian-Turkish border. Nevertheless, plenty of deterrent factors forced Turkey to avoid direct military intervention against Armenia, including the following:
The approach of the Turkish leaders: President Turgut Ozal and Prime Minister Suleyman Demirel held the opinion that, since Azerbaijan was an independent state, it must overcome its problems on its own; Turkey must not directly intervene in a conflict with another independent state. Even though this approach angered Turkish nationalists, who claimed to support their fraternal state of Azerbaijan, Turkey could not be guided purely by nationalist ideas, as it could pay a very high price for it.
Alliance with the West: Turkey was a member of NATO and it was responsible to that union. Engaging in a new conflict could lead to wider global consequences. Furthermore, Turkey was not certain that it would receive the support of NATO member states. Moreover, since May 15, Armenia was a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which included its own mutual defense clause [Article 4]: “If one of the Member States undergoes aggression, it will be considered by the Member States as aggression to all the Member States of this Treaty.” In the event of a Turkish invasion, escalations could lead to outright war between Russia and the United States.
Internal political problems: The Kurdish issue was also a factor. The United States had provided significant assistance to Turkey in its fight against the marxist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). Turkey feared that this support could be withheld if it became more involved in the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict.
The political desire to join the EU: Turkey feared that direct involvement in the war could derail its European aspirations. In 1987, Turkey submitted its application for full membership, wishing to get the status of a candidate country without any delay. Turkey's actions would be described as aggression, "in the long run, closing the doors of the EU to Turkey."
Relations With Russia: Turkey had ambitions to achieve regional dominance, but in the first years after the collapse of the USSR, it was less assertive. The reason was not only political but also economic. The huge Russian market had just opened up attractive prospects for Turkey, which could only be tapped in to if relations did not become strained. In 1992, Russia's trade with Turkey was five times greater than that with Azerbaijan and the Central Asian republics. Therefore, Turkey gave preference to pragmatic cooperation. Moreover, Turkey was interested in Russian weapons, which could be used to fight Kurdish militants, as Western allies refused to assist. In this context, the decision of the U.S. Congress in 1994 to reduce military aid to Turkey by 10% should be considered. On top of this, Russia was the flagship of the CIS and CSTO. Any actions against Armenia would be considered as actions against the CSTO and Russia itself, which was one of the pivotal reasons stopping Turkey.
Cyprus issue: Another obstacle for Turkey was the international reaction to the 1974 occupation of Northern Cyprus. Less than 20 years had passed since the Turkish invasion. Starting a second bloody conflict would carry international repercussions.
Turkey tried to take the role of the chief reformer of the Azerbaijani army. The pillar of Turkish-Azerbaijani cooperation in the military sphere became the “Military Training Cooperation Agreement,” signed on August 11, 1992. In addition to providing military-technical assistance, Turkey sent more than 150 high-ranking army officers, including 10 generals, to Azerbaijan to take part in planning and training of military operations. According to Hayk Demoyan’s book “Turkey and the Nagorno Karabakh Conflict,” the officers were paid $7,500 a month by Turkey. During the Karvachar operation, about 30 trucks full of Turkish fighters were transported to Ganja from Turkey every day, through the territory of Nakhichevan.
In April 1993, Turkey and Azerbaijan signed a military agreement, under which the Turkish side undertook to supply light military equipment to Azerbaijan and train military specialists. By signing the document, Turkey was grossly violating the February 28, 1992 decision of the OSCE in Prague, which put an embargo on arms supply to the conflict zone. It stipulated that “All participating States and all states in the region impose an immediate embargo on all deliveries of weapons and munitions to forces engaged in combat in the Nagorno-Karabakh area, and inform the Conflict Prevention Centre of steps taken in this respect.”
Turkish aid was not limited to military assistance; it was also an important diplomatic actor in the international arena. After the liberation of Shushi, Turkey tried to paint Armenia as the “aggressor” in the conflict. At the initiative of Turkey, the UN Security Council adopted four resolutions on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, which the Azerbaijani government habitually refers to. Turkey took on the role of Azerbaijan’s advocate at the OSCE and put in tremendous effort to make the issue a pan-Islamic one.
Together with Azerbaijan, Turkey tried to add a religious dimension to the conflict and distort the essence of the conflict at the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (now, Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, OIC). The main goal was to manipulate the idea of Islamic solidarity and gain the support of the member countries. However, this enterprise was not successful as many member countries were aware of the essence of the conflict and did not find a religious element to it.
Thus, if we summarize this historical period, it can be stated that, during the Nagorno-Karabakh war, Turkey's assistance to Azerbaijan consisted of the supply of military equipment, training of military personnel, financial support, and assistance in the diplomatic arena. Over the years, Turkey has always been a diplomatic supporter of Azerbaijan through various platforms and international forums. It should be noted that the expectations of the Azerbaijani side were much higher from their "big brother," however. They did not view the scale of assistance as satisfactory.
Armenian-Turkish relations have reached a deadlock ever since the liberation of Shushi and the unilateral closure of the border by the Turkish side. Turkey refused to establish diplomatic relations with the Republic of Armenia without preconditions tied to Artsakh.
Despite the heavy burden of history, Armenia expressed readiness to establish diplomatic relations with Turkey without preconditions. It was officially enshrined in the 2007 National Security Strategy under former President Robert Kocharyan’s administration, which states “Armenia has long advocated the establishment of diplomatic relations without any precondition and will continue its efforts to surmount the obstacles and improve the bilateral relations between Armenia and Turkey.”
In keeping with that policy, in September 2008, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan invited Turkish President Abdullah Gul to Yerevan to watch an Armenia-Turkey football match. The move was baptized by international journalists as “football diplomacy” It should be noted that, initially, both sides insisted that the normalization of relations could occur "without preconditions."
On October 10, 2009, in Zurich, Switzerland, the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Armenia and the Republic of Turkey signed the “Protocol on the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Republic of Armenia and the Republic of Turkey,” and the “Protocol on development of relations between of the Republic of Armenia and the Republic of Turkey.’’
In response, a few days before the signing ceremony of the Zurich Protocols, Azerbaijan announced a reduction in funding for the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway. The State Oil Company of Azerbaijan also signed an agreement with Russia’s Gazprom, pledging to sell 500 million cubic meters of gas per year for $350 per cubic meter. The response was an ultimatum by Azerbaijan to Turkey, forcing the latter to include the conflict in its foreign policy agenda and make it the main precondition for establishing relations with Armenia. Turkey, given the influence of Azerbaijan, reversed course and began to put forward a clear precondition associated with Artsakh on its relations with Armenia. As a continuation of Turkey’s approach since the liberation of Shushi, Turkey ultimately rejected the implementation of the agreements within a reasonable timeframe and without any preconditions, linking the ratification of the Protocols in the Grand National Assembly of Turkey to the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
The current President of Turkey, and former Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has made announcements further proving that the Artsakh factor plays a decisive role in Armenian-Turkish relations. Turkish TRT Haber TV channel aired a statement by then-Prime Minister Erdogan in 2011, stating that Turkey will support Azerbaijan in resolving the conflict. "The settlement of the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan will play a role in the normalization of Armenian-Turkish relations," Erdogan said in the 2011 speech.
Armenia waited until March 1, 2018 to terminate the procedure. Thus, since the earliest days of Armenia's independence, Armenian-Turkish relations and the Artsakh conflict have remained interconnected. Armenia, which has very complicated historical relations with Turkey, has never made genocide recognition a precondition for restoring relations.
Azerbaijan, which in the post-Soviet period had turned toward Turkey, did not receive the level of support it expected. It gradually began to use its economic leverage, particularly in the energy sphere, to force Turkey to adopt its prefered foreign policy.