ISTANBUL - A two-day visit by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Azerbaijan marks his latest bid to expand Turkey's influence in the Caucasus, and analysts are warning his ambitions could stoke a rivalry with Russia.
Erdogan is scheduled to attend a victory parade Thursday in Baku, celebrating last month's defeat of Armenian forces in Azerbaijan's Nagorno-Karabakh enclave, which both countries claim.
"This victory will only strengthen our belief in two nations, one people," Erdogan told reporters Wednesday before leaving for Baku. Ankara's military support of Baku is widely seen as key to Azerbaijan's victory.
Erdogan, during his scheduled talks with Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev, is expected to discuss Turkey's military role in the peacekeeping operation brokered by Moscow to end the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
"For Turkey itself, a military presence in any part of Azerbaijan would become an important element in Ankara's security landscape," said Zaur Gasimov, a Russia and Caucasus specialist at the University of Bonn.
"For Azeris, the Turkish presence has a huge moral asset. Turkey is perceived as a certain guarantee of Azerbaijani territorial integrity," Gasimov said.
But Ankara's aspirations to expand its influence in the Caucasus face resistance.
"Armenians oppose the Turkish military presence, and Moscow is reluctant to accept it as well. The same goes for Tehran," said Gasimov.
Turkish and Russian military officials agreed last month to a joint Russian-Turkish Center for controlling the cease-fire. But the number of Turkish forces and where they will be deployed remains unresolved.
Erdogan is also expected to discuss Turkey becoming a co-chair with Russia, France and the United States in the OSCE Minsk Group, the international body created to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The OSCE is the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
"We are looking to take up a leading role in the Minsk group," said Turkish presidential adviser Mesut Casin of Istanbul's Yeditepe University.
Moscow has so far appeared to rule out any change to the Minsk group's composition, a stance strongly backed by French President Emmanuel Macron.
In recent years, Moscow and Ankara have deepened relations economically and diplomatically, much to the alarm of Turkey's NATO partners. Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin have worked closely on managing the Syrian civil war despite backing rival sides in the conflict.
Turkey's efforts to expand its influence in the Caucasus, however, are being interpreted as a sign of increasing strain in what has otherwise been a rapprochement.
"I don't think Putin and Erdogan are as close as they used to be," said Atilla Yesilada, an analyst at U.S.-based Global Source Partners. "So, I think Erdogan wants Putin to know he can hurt him as much as Putin can hurt him and wants to leverage the Azerbaijan issue to extract concessions over Syria," Yesilada said.
Adding to Moscow's unease, Ankara's ambitions in the Caucasus are not confined to Azerbaijan. "Turkey is now a balancing power in the Caucasus," Turkish presidential adviser Mesut Casin told VOA. "Turkey is supporting Azerbaijan; Turkey is supporting Georgia in the Caucasus. A lot of military equipment without money is given to Georgia by Turkey," he said.
Erdogan is also courting another Russian regional rival, Ukraine. "Turkey sees Ukraine as a key country for ensuring stability, security, peace, and prosperity in our region," Erdogan said in October at a joint press conference in Istanbul with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
In comments analysts say will irk Moscow, Erdogan said, "We have and always will support Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity, including over Crimea," the region Russian forces annexed in 2014.
Turkey and Ukraine consolidated their ties with a defense agreement in October. The deal includes a commitment to increase defense industry cooperation, including in the area of drone technology.
Ukrainian engines power Turkish military drones, which played a decisive role in Nagorno-Karabakh. Engine technology is, according to analysts, a weakness in Turkey's rapidly growing defense industry.
In a further sign of Turkey-Russia strains, last week authorities announced two Russian journalists were detained in Istanbul on suspicion of espionage after police allege the two were caught filming outside one of Turkey's drone manufacturers. Observers say such occurrences, while not unusual, are usually not publicized by authorities.
Trade at stake
Experts point out that Turkey and Russia retain important trading connections that help maintain the relationship. Russia is currently building Turkey's first nuclear power station, while Russia's Gazprom is Turkey's leading energy supplier. Russian tourists are second only to Germany in visiting Turkish resorts. Russia, however, is the overwhelming beneficiary in the relationship, enjoying a trade surplus with Turkey worth around $15 billion annually.
Observers say Ankara is aware of Moscow's ability to hurt Turkish interests from the Caucasus to Syria to Libya. Yesilada says any repositioning of Turkey's relationship with Russia will depend on improving ties with its traditional Western allies.
"Before he leaves the bear hug of Russia, he [Erdogan] needs to buy insurance against what Russia can do to Turkey, and that is either the United States or NATO," said Yesilada.