The oil-rich Caucasus country of Azerbaijan oscillates between US and Russia, but its foremost ally is Turkey
Although the last few days in Georgia have been very eventful, Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili found the time to travel to the Turkish city of Kars, where he met with his counterparts from Turkey and Azerbaijan. The three presidents attended the groundbreaking ceremony of the Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (TANAP), which aims to carry gas from Azerbaijan's Shah Deniz II field in the Caspian Sea through Georgia and Turkey to Europe. Margvelashvili hailed the project as "a good example of fruitful regional cooperation." TANAP is an essential part of the Southern Gas Corridor but the first gas shipments will be destined only for Turkey until 2020, when the Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) is expected be completed. TANAP and TAP play a decisive role in Washington's and Brussels' plans to lessen European dependence on Russian gas. That is one of the reasons why Turkey prioritizes the construction of TANAP over the construction of Russia's Turkish Stream pipeline project:
A long awaited plan by the European Union to import Caspian gas moved forward this week as construction work began on the Trans Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (Tanap) in Turkey. Tanap is the central link in the EU-backed Southern Gas Corridor, a jigsaw of existing and planned pipelines designed to diversify Caspian energy export routes and reduce European dependence on Russian gas.
Estimated to cost $10bn, Tanap will tie into the existing South Caucasus pipeline that already supplies Azerbaijani gas to Georgia and east Turkey, and transport gas over a distance of 1,850km to Turkey’s western border with the EU. From there, gas is expected to enter the planned Trans-Adriatic Pipeline crossing Greece and Albania to Italy.
Turkey and Azerbaijan are the driving forces behind the TANAP and TAP pipeline projects, which are of strategic importance for both countries. Even as some companies have pulled out of the projects due to soaring costs and delays, Ankara and Baku kept on pushing the construction of the pipelines in accordance with instructions from Washington and Brussels. It remains to be seen if this will pay off, but it is safe to say that the close cooperation in the energy sector has cemented ties between Turkey and Azerbaijan. As frequently discussed, Turkey is Azerbaijan's closest ally, and Azerbaijani leader Ilham Aliyev often turns to his buddy Erdogan when he needs support. During his visit to Kars, Aliyev used the opportunity to stir up hatred against a common enemy - "the invader Armenia, that is laying down groundless claims against Turkey and Azerbaijan." The conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh has escalated a few times in recent months and shortly after Aliyev gave this bellicose speech in Kars, Azerbaijani forces launched another attack:
Armenian soldiers killed in clashes with Azeri troops near Karabakh
At least three Armenian soldiers were killed and four wounded in clashes with troops from Azerbaijan on Thursday near the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region, but the two sides gave conflicting death tolls and disputed who was to blame.
Renewed violence this year along the border area has underlined the risk of a wider conflict breaking out in the South Caucasus, which is crossed by oil and gas pipelines.
The separatist region's defense ministry said in a statement that three Armenian soldiers had died after Azeri commandos attacked their position. "The Armenian side forced the enemy to escape after a two hour clash," the statement said.
The attack appears to have failed miserably. According to the Armenian side, 14 Azerbaijani soldiers were killed. As the Armenians picked up the Israeli gear left behind, Azerbaijan's notoriously unreliable Defense Ministry tried to win the propaganda war by claiming that 20 Armenian soldiers had been killed and wounded. Both sides regularly exaggerate the casualties of the enemy, but in contrast to Azerbaijan, Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh release the names of their dead soldiers. The propaganda war is currently Armenia's least problem. Yerevan is primarily worried about Azerbaijan's arms procurement binge and where these weapons are coming from. A recent report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) highlighted that Azerbaijan was the second-largest arms importer in Europe over the past five years and that 85 percent of these arms imports came from Russia. Armenia has long complained that its strategic ally is supplying its arch-enemy with weapons, and the SIPRI report is adding fuel to the fire:
Armenia leader: Russia's selling weapons to Azerbaijan is a problem
President of Armenia Serzh Sargsyan thanked Russia for the support that the country has provided to Armenia since independence.
Speaking during a media forum in Yerevan, he said military and technical cooperation plays a great role in relations with Russia.
“In this term, we are concerned about the fact that Russia, due to different reasons, is selling weapons to Azerbaijan, and the problem is not the quality of weapons, but the fact that an Armenian soldier standing on the border realizes that they are trying to kill him from Russian weapons,” President said during “At the Foot of Mount Ararat” media forum.