Turkey's Erdogan has been humiliating Putin all year — here's how he did it

  • Turkey is currently backing Azerbaijan's fight against Russia-backed Armenia over the contested Nagorno-Karabakh region.
  • Over the past year Turkey has also involved itself in proxy conflicts against Russia in Syria and Libya.
  • A NATO military analyst told Insider that Turkey's boldness in joining proxy fights actually comes from President Erdogan simply acting like Russian President Putin.
  • The source added that Erdogan was likely emboldened by how little pushback Putin has received from the West for previously military actions.
  • The analyst described Erdogan as "a guy who cares as little as Putin does what the world thinks and, at least for now, has set back most of Putin's plans for 2020."
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Turkey is increasingly wading into proxy conflicts against Russian-backed forces, and its success in them have been humiliating President Vladimir Putin all year.

Most recently Turkey backed Azerbaijan's fight against Russia-backed Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh. The region is a remnant of the Soviet Union's collapse and is based in Azerbaijan, but has a largely ethnic Armenian population and leadership.

Turkey is allies with Azerbaijan, while Russia supports Armenia and has a military base in the country.

'More Putin than Putin'

Military analysts believe that Turkey's increasing boldness stems from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan simply acting like Putin.

"Erdogan has become more Putin than Putin," said one NATO military analyst based in the Middle East. This source does not have the permission to be named in the press, but their identity is known to Insider.

They believe that Erdogan was emboldened by how little pushback Putin has received from the West while establishing long-term presences in Syria and Libya, and absorbing large chunks of Ukraine.

Over the past year Turkey has also entered conflicts in Syria and Libya.

"Erdogan looks at his cheap but effective drone program and thinks, why not do the same?" the analyst said. "These tactics turn out to work best in the exact places Putin is using them himself."

The source was referring to Turkey's deployment of a series of domestically-produced and inexpensive armed drones, which have been able to destroy large numbers of expensive armored vehicles. Turkey has also used the drones in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Earlier this year, Russia sent mercenaries, weapons, and air support to forces in Libya loyal to the warlord Khalifa Haftar to drive on the capital of Tripoli and fight the country's government.

At the time, Putin — and his allies in Egypt and the UAE — thought they would head to an easy victory that would result in lucrative oil deals, a long-term military presence, and a friendly government in a key part of the world.

But Turkey, too, saw an opportunity for a role of its own, and sent forces to back the Tripoli government — which ultimately stopped the Russian advance, and forced a ceasefire and negotiations.

Last October, the Turkish military entered Syria's Idlib province for the first time to force an advance by Russian-backed Syrian government troops.

After several weeks of exchanging fire, the Turks, once again backed by drones, stopped the Syrian advance.

A key highway in the region is now being jointly patrolled by patrolled by US, Russian, Kurdish, Syrian regime, Iranian regime and Turkish government troops, as well as a gaggle of variously aligned Syrian militias.

"It's the drones that makes it so cheap and easy," the NATO analyst told Insider.

"Erdogan can afford to risk some drones and mercenaries he picks up from various Syrian groups, and each time it works: There's some criticism from NATO and some phone calls but just as he saw with Putin in Crimea, nobody is going to do anything."

'A no-lose situation'

Turkey's cheap success in Libya and Syria have only made it easier for it to intervene on behalf of Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh now.

"The Turks see it work in the Middle East and decide its a no-lose situation: helping the Azeri cousins against Armenians will always poll well in Turkey, the military cost is some replaceable drones and Syrians, and now you have just started a war in the former Soviet Union at almost no cost that's got to be driving Putin mad."  

Russia, meanwhile, has limited its response to the conflict. While it is technically aligned with Armenia via a defense pact, it does not have a bad relationship with Azerbaijan.

On Thursday Konstantin Zatulin, a key member of the Russian Duma's intelligence committee, said that Russia would not honor Georgia's request that its airspace not be used to supply either side of the conflict, according to a translation by researcher Max Fras.

Georgia borders Russia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, and its request would have made sending aid to landlocked Armenia difficult.

Nate Schenkkan, director for special research at Freedom House, tweeted that in wading into the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Turkey appears to have decided to ignore the possibilities of international criticism or short-term sanctions — a gamble that Putin has repeatedly made as well.

 

But while the long-term consequences for such aggression by Turkey remain unclear, the short-term consequences for Putin's plans in the Middle East and Caucuses are, the NATO analyst said.

"Until Russia can stop" Turkey from deploying its cheap drones, "Putin is going to have a problem," the analyst said.

Referring to Erdogan, they added: "Here's a guy who cares as little as Putin does what the world thinks and at least for now has set back most of Putin's plans for 2020." 

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