The Balance of Power: Turkey, Armenia, and Azerbaijan


A picture taken on June 24, 2008 shows Azeri soldiers participating in the dress rehearsal of a military parade in Baku. Baku, the capital city of Azerbaijan, will host the nation’s first full-scale military parade in 20 years on June 26, 2008. AFP PHOTO / OSMAN KARIMOV (Photo credit should read OSMAN KARIMOV/AFP/Getty Images)

Black Sea Relations: Introduction

The region of the Black Sea is today still characterized by unresolved disputes and tensions. The postmodernist theories inspired by global governance and globalization are coming at odds with the realities on the ground in this part of the world. In this piece of writing we want to question the relevance of material factors in the relations between states, more specifically if distribution of power has any weight in establishing friendships or identifying enemies.

In our endeavour, we will refer to the interaction between three Black Sea states: Turkey, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. First, we want to establish the level of military power reached by each of the countries. We are doing this in a simple manner, comparatively, by analysing the amount of military spending of our protagonists. What we want to question is whether the asymmetry in the distribution of power has any tangible effect on how the states in this triangle treat one another.

balance of power

Distribution of Power: The Military Spending of Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Armenia

First, as regards Turkey, we can observe an overall decrease in its military spending tendency. Starting from the 2000s, it has been steadily reduced the amount of GDP invested in this sector. It went from 3.7% in 2000, to 2.5% in 2005, to 2.2% in 2014. The spending has been almost reduced in half since the first part of the 1990s, years with spending levels revolving around 4% of the GDP[1]. The comparison with other countries requires us to express this percentages in real terms, in $U.S[2]. Thus, if we take the year 2000, Turkey was spending an estimate of $9.9 billion. In 2007, the sum spent was approximately $15 billion. Finally, in 2014 Turkey was spending more than $22 billion[3].

Azerbaijan on the other hand has been showing a percentage increase in the spending in relation to its GDP. If in 2000 the level was at 2.3%, in 2006 it was reaching 3.4%, and eventually 4.6% in 2014[4]. This means precisely a doubling of the expenditure. In monetary terms, Baku was spending in 2000, a sum of $120 million. In 2007, the sum increased to $947 million. Finally, last year Azerbaijan was spending more than $3.5 billion[5].

Finally, the Armenian example appears as well to show an increase in the percentage of GDP destined for the military. However, the increase has not been as sharp as it had been in the case of Azerbaijan. Thus, 2.7% in 2002 became 3% in 2007, and 4.2 % in 2014[6]. This means that Yerevan was spending circa $68 million in 2000 on defence. In 2007, a level of $280 million was reached. Eventually, last year Armenia allocated $470 million of its budget for the same purpose[7].

The summary can be redrawn as follows:

Country / Year 2000 2007 2014
Turkey $9.9 billion $15 billion $22 billion
Azerbaijan $120 million $947 million $3.5 billion
Armenia $68 million $280 million $470 million

Ministry of Defence of the Republic of Armenia

What can be seen is that Turkey has been spending more than both countries. In relation to Azerbaijan, Ankara’s expenditure has changed from 82 times, to almost 16 times, and to 6 times more than that of Baku. As for Armenia, its military spending has evolved from 145 times, to 53 times, and to 46 times less than that of Turkey.

The comparison between the two lesser powers is useless at this point as we know that their negative relation is affected first and foremost by a territorial dispute. Their direct military engagement in the Nagorno-Karabakh makes any attempt to analyse their relations in terms of military spending futile.

Analysis: Turkey-Armenia-Azerbaijan

Not the same can be said though for their bilateral relations with Turkey. Assuming as starting point the claim that the worst positioned state in a hierarchy of power distribution would be the most vocal against the best positioned one (i.e. the strongest state), we would expect Armenia to show the most antagonism towards Turkey. Is this the case? We could argue for a positive answer.

It is enough to consider the humiliating position that Yerevan has put Turkey in in recent times because of the so-called ‘Armenian genocide’. For example, Turkey’s relations with the European Union appeared to be at a very low point after the EU Parliament’s recognition of the 1915 events as a genocide through a resolution that the Foreign Ministry in Ankara has accused of mutilating history and law[8]. According to Armenia’s president Sargsyan, the shortest path to reconciliation between the two countries would be for Turkey to acknowledge the genocide as well. At the moment, there are no diplomatic relations between Yerevan and Ankara[9]. Diplomatic relations is the most symbolic element in state interaction. In response to Armenia’s attempts at putting pressure on Ankara, Turkey has recently played its card on the Nagorno-Karabakh issue by refusing to recognize the parliamentary elections taking place in the separatist region. The Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs portrayed such elections as a violation of international law, and as a violation of the sovereignty of Azerbaijan[10].

As for Turkey-Azerbaijan, a solid proof of their positive relations must be this month’s joint tactical exercises of the two countries’ land forces[11]. Additionally, Armenia’s support for Turkey in the debate over the events in 1915 is another sign of friendship. Illustrative is the interpretation put forward by the Azerbaijani media, according to which Armenia could not do anything else but complain to more fortunate countries (the Armenian strategic trick). The ‘genocide’ topic is precisely an example of historic grievance that Armenia was using in its relations with the neighbours with whom it is not able to establish normal relations. Under such conditions it is only logical that Armenia’s economy would not develop[12].

Turkey Army

Turkish soldiers commemorate the anniversary of Victory Day in Ankara on Aug. 30. (ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images)


It is clear then that Armenia is indeed more vocal than Azerbaijan when dealing with Turkey. Not only, but Azerbaijan and Turkey can be seen as friends. This seems to be in line with our claim founded upon the material factor of power distribution. Yet, the story cannot be described so simply. In the region, there is a state stronger than Turkey, namely Russia. It can easily be argued that Armenian-Russian relations are far better that Armenian- Turkish ones. What can we extract from this example?

That there is something more at play than simply asymmetric distribution of power. There is history, threat perception, and other material factors such conflict itself. For example, it could indeed be the case that the relative inequality in military spending contributes to worsening Turkish-Armenian relations. But it could also be sustained that their shared history, most importantly the 1915 events, is the main self-standing factor to influence their interaction. Also, despite Russia being militarily more powerful than Turkey, Armenia cannot but treat it as a friend because of the former’s guarantees regarding the Nagorno-Karabakh frozen conflict. Armenia does not perceive Russia to be as threatening as it does Azerbaijan. The same logic applies for Baku’s approach towards Moscow. It knows that the recent discoveries of natural resources in the Caspian turns Russia into a direct competitor for the European market. After all, its readiness to spend such a high sum on military could be linked to extremely high oil revenues[13].


In conclusion, the analysis of international or regional affairs is always enriched by pursuing a complex approach. Each concept tells one side of the story. The more perspectives, the more accurate the explanation. The gravest mistake would be for experts to limit themselves to a single line of interpretation, and to dismiss all the others. Surely, there must be a choice made at some point. But also an acceptance that one’s work is not unlimited in explanatory power.

[1] SIPRI Military Expenditure Database (2015), Share of GDP – Turkey

[2] We are not comparing the level of spending per capita. Surely, this would show how much each state truly spends on its military force. It would be useful for comparing the states’ propensity to invest in this sector. But only an aggregate indicator would allow us to confront how much actual firepower each state would be able to acquire. For example, by knowing that in 2000 Turkey was spending $9.9 billion on buying weaponry (among other expenses on other parts of defence: personnel, administration, etc.), we can assume that the country’s capability must have been higher that Armenia’s, who was spending at the same time more than 145 times less. In a sense, we can consider Armenia’s military 140 times less capable than Turkey’s in that year. This is of course an exaggerated interpretation, but useful to make us understand the choice of indicators.

[3] SIPRI Military Expenditure Database (2015), Current USD – Turkey

[4] SIPRI Military Expenditure Database (2015), Share of GDP – Azerbaijan

[5] SIPRI Military Expenditure Database (2015), Current USD – Azerbaijan

[6] SIPRI Military Expenditure Database (2015), Share of GDP – Armenia

[7] SIPRI Military Expenditure Database (2015), Current USD – Armenia

[8] Republic of Turkey, Ministry of Foreign Affairs website:

[9] ‘Sargsyan: Turkey’s acknowledgment of the Armenian genocide is‘shortest path’ to reconciliation’, Arka News Agency, April 23, 2015

[10] ‘Turkey does not recognize upcoming ‘elections’ in occupied Nagorno-Karabakh’, News.Az, April 30, 2015:

[11] ‘Azerbaijan and Turkey to start joint military exercises’, News.Az, May 7, 2015:

[12] ‘Well done strategic Armenian trick’, Today.Az, April 23, 2015:

[13] Stewart W., ‘Filthy rich: Britain’s favourite dictatorship had so much oil its heiresses bathe in it… but beneath the fabulous wealth of Azerbaijan lurks very murky secrets’, Daily Mail, November 24, 2012:–beneath-lurks-murky-secrets.html

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