ISTANBUL - Military clashes between Armenia and neighboring Azerbaijan continued Thursday, further raising tensions between Turkey and Russia, which back opposing sides in the conflict.
The fighting erupted after a day of calm that had raised hopes of an end to the confrontation. At least 16 people have been killed since clashes started Sunday.
What sparked the latest violence was not clear, but the two sides have blamed the other for the trouble. The two former Soviet Republics have been at odds for decades over Azerbaijan's breakaway, predominantly ethnic Armenian region of Nagorno-Karabakh. In the 1990s, Armenia and Azerbaijan went to war over the disputed territory.
According to the Reuters news agency, Armenia’s defense ministry accuses Azerbaijan’s army of moving positions and using people in one village as human shields. Azerbaijan denies the allegation and has made similar accusations against Armenia.
The latest clashes indirectly pit Turkey against Russia. Turkey backs Azerbaijan, while Russia supports Armenia.
"Turkey will never hesitate to stand against any attack on the rights and lands of Azerbaijan," Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Tuesday.
Erdogan suggested a wider conspiracy lay behind the latest fighting.
"This is not a border violation and conflict but a deliberate attack on Azerbaijan. Undoubtedly this attack shows Armenia is punching above its weight."
Turkish pro-government media have been quick to accuse Moscow of encouraging Armenia to attack Azerbaijan, albeit without substantiating the allegation.
Moscow dismisses such accusations, with Kremlin spokesman Dimitri Peskov on Tuesday calling for restraint on both sides and offering Russian mediation.
Ankara and Moscow are already involved in proxy confrontations by backing rival sides in the Libyan and Syrian civil wars.
"Armenia and Azerbaijan are faced with the challenge of becoming the next spot, like Syria and Libya. The Russian military is already deployed in the region," said Zaur Gasimov, a Russia expert at the University of Bonn.
"Turkey is the only player in the [Caucasus] region representing to a certain extent Western values and interests, and can prevent domination by Russia and Iran," Gasimov added.
Where the latest fighting between Armenian and Azeri forces is occurring is in itself cause for suspicion among observers.
"The location is very strange," said Gasimov, referring to Azerbaijan’s remote Tovuz region, adding, "Normally fighting occurs in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh.”
The Tovuz region is close to Azerbaijan's crucial South Caucasia pipeline. The SCP channels natural gas to Turkey's TANAP pipeline and is a key component of Ankara's efforts to decrease its dependence on Russian energy.
"Turkey is heavily dependent on Russia for gas supplies," said Mehmet Ogutcu of the London Energy Club policy group.
“Turkey is paying almost twice the price of EU buyers for [Russia's] Gazprom gas," Gasimov said.
"Turkey is now trying to reduce its intake from Russia," he added. "Azeri gas is coming through TANAP (pipeline), which is cheaper than Russian gas that Turkey is buying. Turkey depends on 98% of its gas on imports and 92% on oil. It’s a national security issue."
Azerbaijan, one of the major oil suppliers to the European Union, is Turkey’s biggest foreign investor — mostly in the energy sector.
The Azeri-Turkish partnership could deepen further as a new opportunity arises in 2021, when a major gas deal between Turkey and Russia is up for renewal.
The 25-year-old deal has obliged Turkey to buy a set amount of Russian gas annually, ensuring Russia's dominance of the Turkish energy market.
"With the contract coming to an end, Turkey will use this opportunity to rebalance its energy relations with Russia," said Ogutcu.
Leaders in Russia worry their country is losing ground in Turkey’s energy market.
"Russian-Turkish talks in April on gas prices ended without success,” Gasimov said. “Azerbaijan, Iran, and Qatar are set to become as prominent as Russia as gas providers [in Turkey]."
Analysts say Ankara's energy diversification efforts play favorably for the U.S. administration.
Washington has been intensively lobbying its European allies to curtail energy cooperation with Russia as part of the Trump administration efforts to curb the Kremlin's economic leverage over Europe.
The United States is also threatening sanctions over Russia's Nord Stream 2 pipeline serving Germany and TurkStream, opened in January by Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
U.S. administration officials say both pipelines violate the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act of 2017.
In remarks Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described the two projects as “the Kremlin's key tools to exploit and expand European dependence on Russian energy supplies” that he said “ultimately undermine transatlantic security.”
"It is a clear warning to the companies aiding and abetting Russia's malign influence projects. Get out now, or risk the consequences," Pompeo said.
The rift between Turkey and Russia has coincided with a rapprochement between Ankara and Washington, but analysts are not rushing to declare an end to the Russian-Turkish partnership.
While Ankara seeks to reduce its dependence on Russia's energy, both Erdogan and Putin are aware of a mutual dependency between the two countries. “Turkish-Russian relations are not based only on Russian gas," said Ogutcu.
"It’s a package. You have a [Russian] nuclear energy plant being (built) in Turkey, you have a security issue in Syria. Turkish construction exports to Russia and Russian tourists coming to Turkey," Ogutcu said.
As some observers see it, Moscow is likely to avoid a rupture with Ankara and they warn the latest tensions in the Caucasus could be a message to Turkey that there is a cost to rebalancing ties with Russia.