Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan called Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday amid spiraling tensions between his nation and Ankara’s close regional ally Azerbaijan, part of what regional diplomatic sources say is an ongoing effort aimed at getting Ankara to rein in an increasingly aggressive Baku. The Turkish presidency said in a statement that Pashinyan had congratulated the Turkish people on the occasion of the Muslim Feast of Sacrifice or Eid al-Adha, an unusual move for the leader of a majority Christian nation.

According to the readout of the conversation, the two leaders also touched upon ongoing normalization talks aimed at restoring full diplomatic relations and reopening the land border between the two countries. Regional officials speaking not for attribution to Al-Monitor said that Pashinyan continues to believe that detente with Ankara is the best guarantee of fending off another full-scale attack by Azerbaijan and is courting Erdogan to that end. Armenian officials hope that former Turkish spy chief Hakan Fidan’s appointment as foreign minister will bring new impetus to the talks.

Pashinyan was among the first leaders to congratulate Erdogan over his May victory in twin polls that saw his right-wing alliance win a majority in parliament as well.

According to protocol, Armenia’s president, Vahagn Khatchaturyan, should have attended Erdogan’s extravagant inauguration bash. However, Pashinyan elbowed him aside and showed up instead.

Wednesday’s phone call, initiated by Pashinyan, came amid reports that four Armenian servicemen had been killed after Azerbaijan carried out strikes early Wednesday along the contact line in Nagorno-Karabakh. The day prior, Azerbaijan claimed one of its own men had been killed in the zone by Armenian forces. The spike coincided with US-mediated talks in Washington aimed at securing a lasting peace deal between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The two countries last went to war in 2020 over the disputed enclave that is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan but has an ethnic Armenian majority.

Azerbaijan emerged victorious with Turkey's and Israel’s help, wresting back all of its territories occupied by Armenia in a previous war over Nagorno-Karabakh in the early 1990s.

Olessya Vartanyan, the International Crisis Group’s senior analyst in the South Caucasus who recently traveled to Yerevan, noted that Armenia has a pretty low bar. “I didn’t get the sense that there are hopes that Ankara can pressure Baku,” Vartanyan said. “Rather, they are maintaining the strategy of engaging Ankara in order to avoid its full-scale participation (on the side of Azerbaijan) in case of a new war.”

Fears of conflict have been brewing since last year when Azerbaijan imposed a blockade on the sole route connecting Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia proper, starving civilians of vital supplies and escalating attacks on Armenian forces inside Armenian territory.

Russian peacekeepers deployed to the region in keeping with a truce brokered by the Kremlin in November 2020 have failed to halt the violence. “Moscow is absolutely useless, no matter whether it attempts to resolve the crisis or not,” Vartanyan observed.  

The International Crisis Group reckons that at least 1,200 military personnel have either died or been wounded since then. The bulk of those killed along the front lines are Armenians. Azerbaijanis constitute the majority injured or killed by landmines.

Turkey-Armenia normalization talks that kicked off in Moscow in January 2022 have yielded little so far, even after Pashinyan formally conceded that Nagorno-Karabakh belongs to Azerbaijan.

A first, minuscule reward came a full year later when Turkey lifted its ban on direct cargo flights with Armenia. The sides are still working on the details of allowing third-country nationals and bearers of diplomatic passports to use the land border that was sealed by Ankara in solidarity with Baku in 1993 at the height of the first conflict, which was won by Armenia.

“Erdogan’s position is very clear: ‘Satisfy (Azerbaijani President Ilham) Aliyev’s desires and you will have something tangible on Turkish-Armenian relations,’” noted Benyamin Poghosyan, a Yerevan-based political analyst. As for Pashinyan, “I believe he simply wants to create a positive image of himself in the United States and the EU that, despite Erdogan’s position, he is a constructive guy.”

The United States and the EU have urged Azerbaijan to lift the blockade, but Azerbaijan’s strongman Aliyev has grown ever more intransigent due to growing European dependence on his country’s vast natural gas supplies that are piped to the continent via Turkey. The invasion of Ukraine has further eroded the Kremlin’s influence over former Soviet states, allowing Aliyev to grow ever more aggressive and for Turkey to expand its footprint in Russia’s backyard.

“Baku continues escalating despite (the US-brokered) talks,” Vartanyan said. “The region is left hoping that only US and EU involvement can prevent another war.”

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