The clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan that began Sunday morning appear larger than usual. After similar clashes in July it is clear that the southern Caucuses are becoming increasingly important.
After decades in which the Caucuses were largely ignored internationally, they are there has major ramifications for the Middle East because Turkey, Iran and Russia all have a potential role.
The Caucuses experienced conflict after the fall of the Soviet Union. A series of unresolved disputed were left to freeze, sometimes percolating to the surface in new rounds of war. The conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia is one of those.
Azerbaijan has an exclave near Turkey and it claims Nagorna-Karabakh, an area between it and Armenia
That area declared itself the separate Republic of Artsakh in the 1990s. With Russian backing, Armenia remained in control.
Further north, clashes between Georgia and Russia erupted in 2008 that humiliated Georgia as it was defeated after an ill-fated attempt to retake South Ossetia, a self-declared republic that had emerged in 1991. With backing from Russia, Georgia had been kept out of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
A Russia that was being reformed under Vladimir Putin was quick to show Georgia who was stronger in the 2008 clashes. Similarly. Putin had been able to put an end to the Chechnya wars that plagued Russia in the 1990s. Russia also put down Islamist insurgencies in the northern Caucuses.
The end of fighting in 2008 brought a period of relative calm to the Caucuses. But all these conflicts were unresolved. They were also linked to tension in Ukraine that exploded in 2014 with war there between Russian-backed separatists and the government. Russia annexed Crimea and supported two new republics in the Donbass. The guns never fell completely silent in Ukraine.
Today, Russia holds frequent military drills to show off its power, both in southern Russia, the Caucuses, the Baltic and near Belarus. The overall picture is an emerging powerhouse of Russian power. Slavic Brotherhood drills were underway with Serbia and Belarus last week, for instance. Caucuses drills were also held in early September with China, Armenia, Iran and Myanmar.
In July Putin ordered massive drills involving 150,000 soldiers to secure southern Russia. The message from Moscow is clear. Russia is sharpening its knife to be ready for any eventuality, whether problems in Belarus or the Caucuses.
Putin is fond of military riddles. Asked several years ago about a man whose son trades his father’s military knife for a new watch, Putin told a story of the man telling his son “And when robbers come tomorrow to kill the whole family and rape your big sister, you will be able to go out and tell them ‘the time in Moscow is…'”
The crowd laughed at the annual discussion with Putin in 2018, but the message was clear: Russia will not trade its knife for relaxing under the sun and being content with trade and peace. Russia will sharpen its military. It has done so through deployments in Syria and Libya.
Russia is not yet involved in the Armenia-Azerbaijan clashes, but it looms larger over them. Russia cannot have its allies defeated and Armenia has been an ally. Russia also prefers its allies dependent and relatively weak.
Turkey, but contrast, is on a militarist binge. It has invaded northern Syria, bombed Iraq and put military bases across northern Iraq; it has sent forces and Syrian rebels to Libya and daily threatens Greece and other countries. Turkey wants a role alongside Azerbaijan fighting Armenia.
In past Russia has tried to engineer defeats for NATO and the West by signing deals with Ankara. Russia is selling Ankara the S-400 air defence system and does joint patrols in Idlib in Syria. for instance.
If Ankara involves itself too heavily in clashes with Armenia, Russia may seek another deal with Turkey, one that guarantees Russia becomes an arbiter of what comes next. This is the Russian model at Astana, Sochi and in Libya, to discuss all these files that Russia shares with Turkey. Russia both shares and is at odds with Turkey.
But Russia’s goal is to get the Western powers out first. That is its goal in Ukraine, Belarus and in the 2008 war with Georgia. Russia is angered at Western meddling in the Baltic states, for instance. Putin must look at all these files and decide where to put Russia’s weight.
Meanwhile, Iran also eyes the Caucuses for trade, intelligence gathering and other factors. Iran has been pushing a new railway project with Azerbaijan. Iran’s real goal is closer relations with China and Russia, amid US sanctions and a desire to create a more multi-polar world to challenge the US.
The goal here may involve Turkey as well because Iran and Turkey have relatively warm relations. A conflict on Iran’s northern border between Azerbaijan and Armenia is not in Iran’s interest. It would prefer that things not spill over. Iran has many Azeri citizens and it cannot predict what instability could look like.
This means that the potential conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh or a wider conflict involving Turkey, could have major ramifications for the Russia-Iran-Turkey nexus. China is also keen on watching because of its Belt & Road initiative.
It wants stability and trade, not more wars. The US no longer seems to care about crafting peace agreements and stopping fighting, as it would have done in the 1990s, which means the chanceries of Moscow, Tehran, Ankara and other countries will play a role in fueling or stopping the fighting in the Caucuses.
The European Union no longer plays a meaningful role and most countries in the region know that European countries generally talk and issue statements but don’t do anything. They learned that from watching how the EU talked about Syria but did nothing. The EU can’t even agree on a common policy on Belarus or on Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean or enforcing an arms embargo on Libya.
What else might be at play in the conflict? Russia and Turkey and other states want to test air defence and military systems. Everyone is watching to see if Azerbaijan’s decision to invest heavily in drones will help it win the clashes.
Drones help reduce casualties for the user, but they have never been successfully used tactically to win a major battle. Russia has been deploying Pantsir and other air defence in Syria and selling systems that were used in Libya. It would like to know how these systems work in the real world.
Lastly, the conflict could have ramifications for Syria. Turkey has accused far-left Kurdish groups of sending “terrorists” to support Armenia, an imaginary propaganda claim by Ankara. However, Ankara used these claims in the past to then recruit Syrian rebels to fight abroad. Turkey may want to use Syrians to fight in Armenia to distract them.
It’s not clear yet if the conflict develops and could give Turkey more excuses for involvement in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere. Turkey wants this involvement and would like nothing more than to have more boots on the ground in the Caucuses. Iran and Russia may oppose that. This illustrates the different bets that regional powers are taking in the Caucuses.