On April 2nd, the Nagorno-Karabakh region, a strip of highlands situated between Azerbaijan and Armenia in the South Caucasus Mountains, a region caught within a one of many frozen wars left over by the Soviet Union’s break up, went hot. An Azeri helicopter was shot down by the Karabakh Defense Forces, largely under the control of Armenia. Within an hour, violence erupted across the border as tanks, artillery, and aircraft of both Azerbaijan and the Republic of Armenia exchanged fire. The lines were drawn as Russia backed Yerevan’s efforts to defend its territory, while Turkey declared it would stand with Baku. In a region known for its virulent ethnic-driven conflicts, this weekends flash-war echoed other campaigns of ethnic cleansing and civil war fought in the aftermath of the 1991 breakup. By Sunday morning, both sides were reporting over 30 dead combatants and multiple civilian casualties before the Azeri foreign ministry announced a cease-fire on April 4th.
But it did not end there. The Azeri government in Baku announced that further action would be taken if Armenia continued military action against Azeri forces, setting the two countries up for a longer, potentially more dangerous confrontation over the region. The episode was the first since 1994 that violence with heavy tanks, artillery, and air forces were undertaken. 1994 was different however, because the conflict was localized to just the Caucasus between the two countries, with little outside interference other than Russia. The current episode of violence could yet ignite a larger regional war throughout the Southern Caucasus and the northern Middle East. As Putin’s Russia, seeking to extend and maintain its influence in the region, and Reccip Erdogan’s Turkey, which is recasting itself as a Middle Eastern power, collide, the region could become a potential flashpoint for a wider conflict between the regional powers.
Nagorno-Karabakh is a remnant of the Soviet breakup, where ethnic and nationalist unrest divided the constituent Republics of the once great superpower. The collapse of the Soviet Union created fifteen other states, each containing ethnic groups that were also swept up in the nationalist fevers challenging Perestroika and Democratisya, the Gorbechev reforms meant to reform and reinvigorate the Soviet state. As the various constituent republics broke apart, dozens of dormant ethnic rivalries erupted in violent struggle, as the heavy hand of Moscow and the communist party were no longer present to keep order, and new state boundaries did not reflect ethnic realities on the ground. No region has been more affected by the break up than the Caucasus region, where fiercely nationalist Azerbaijan and Armenia began fighting over ethnic enclaves to maintain the integrity of their countries. Russia, in order to exert influence over its successor states, armed both Armenia and Azerbaijan in their fight over Karabakh, a region of ethnic Armenians that sought to join Greater Armenia at the expense of the Azeris.
As the conflict devolved into ethnic cleansing without any recourse to a diplomatic solution, the United States and Russia negotiated a ceasefire in 1994. Since 1994, the international community has attempted to resolve the dispute, through the Organization for European Security and Cooperation (OSCE) Minsk Group, and by way of the Organization for Islamic Cooperation (OIC). All have failed, because neither side has incentive to resolve. Though Azerbaijan has declared a ceasefire, it is unclear whether the violence will only escalate as Armenian-backed separatists in the region engage with Azeri troops. It is also unclear whether Baku will hold back when it has a clear military advantage, and how Armenia will react to further incursions on the frontier.
The Shadow War
Given the Caucasus’ history of ethnic and separatist conflicts in the post-Soviet era, a small brush fire of violence could easily escalate into a full blown regional war between the two republics. The most troubling aspect of this conflict, however, is its position in a larger and emerging strategic rivalry between both Armenia and Azerbaijan’s key supporters: Russia and Turkey. The Southern Caucasus is divided into two armed camps: Armenia backed by Russia, and Azerbaijan by Turkey. The ongoing conflict in Ngarno-maybe the prelude to larger covert or “shadow war” between the two countries as they increasingly invest in each other security.
Russia retains a largely dominant sphere of influence over most of its former Soviet Republics, which as a whole make up the region of Eurasia. Through exploiting ethnic conflicts in the region, Russia has maintained dominance over the former republics like Georgia, as was the case in the 2008 intervention in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The two Chechen Wars, while deeply scarring to Russian pride as a world power, helped Moscow restore its prestige and strength within its borders, and halting the disintegration of the country. For Armenia specifically, Russia has heavily invested in maintaining the country’s military security, and convinced Yerevan to join Russia’s security and economic bloc. Going further beyond Eurasia, Vladimir Putin took Russia on its first international foray beyond Eurasia into Syria, protecting Assad’s embattled regime from rebels in the country’s ongoing civil war. The Syrian action is notable in that it has strengthened a perception that Russia cannot be excluded from the international scene, and that it has friends beyond Eurasia as evidence of its slowing recovering international presence. Iran, for example, has slowly been pulled into its orbit, in no small part to Russian advocacy during the nuclear negotiations with the P5+1 (the UNSC Permanent Members and Germany).
The Syrian Civil War, destabilizing both Syria and Iraq, created opening for a more assertive Turkey, led by Reccip Erdogan, to become more involved in determining the region’s future. Turkey has waged a limited and restrained war in Syria against Assad, opening military bases in Qatar, and increasing its support of the Turkman tribes in Syria fighting Assad. In the last two months, Erdogan has directed attacks at Kurdish rebels in both Syria and Iraq as they claim statehood and autonomy respectively. Ankara has also renewed its suppression efforts of Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), citing the increased terrorist attacks against the country, but also to forestall the emergence of an independent Kurdistan. Turkey’s reaction to the unstable security environment in the region and its assertion of power in the Middle East are signs the country looks to revive its Ottoman past, for which Erdogan can be labeled as a Neo-Ottoman. The Turkish guarantee of assistance to Azerbaijan and increasing expansion of its sphere of influence in a chaotic Middle East threatens to make the Southern Caucasus part of this challenge, placing Erdogan on a collision course with Russia. Finally, given Armenia’s tense relationship with Ankara over the still outstanding issue of the genocide committed during World War I, it may increase chances of larger ethnic violence throughout the two regions.
The Strategic Nightmare
Turkey, as a NATO member, is nearly shielded from a military attack by Russia, as any provocation against the alliance will ignite a major conflict in Eastern Europe. At the same time, no country is better positioned than Turkey to challenge Russia in Eurasia, especially in lieu of Ukraine’s destabilization and China’s turn to the Asia-Pacific region and the South China Sea. Turkey can (and at this point is) support Azeri military operations in the region, placing Russia on the defensive in a potential war in which it has little control over its scope and scale. Furthermore, an alignment between Turkey and Azerbaijan provides easier access to Baku’s oil reserves, and creates a geographical bloc between Russia and its Middle Eastern allies should the Assad regime, though no longer in danger of collapsing, be forced to concede to a new political regime following the war.
While such actions at this moment would threaten Turkish chances of being accepted into the European Union, it would also put Europe between a rock and a hard place. Both the US and Europe are indebted to Turkey for accepting refugees from Syria. The recent agreement, while ceding moral grounds from the standpoint of European, relieved the the burden that many of its member states have carried through the refugee crisis, having come under increasing pressure from anti-democratic, xenophobic parties for allowing more refugees into the Schengen Zone. If Turkey continues to pursue integration with the EU, it will place a greater security burden on its members by engaging in local, military adventurism in the Caucasus. It would go beyond the expanding security cordon provided by the 2015 Readiness Action Plan NATO implemented in response to the Crimean Crisis, and actively provoke Russia to intervene on behalf of Armenia. Here, the ticking time bomb begins to wind down.
Both Russia and Turkey have strongmen for presidents, each hoping to deflect troubles at home or improve the legitimacy of their cause by flexing foreign policy and military muscle. The same can be said of their allies. The Azerbaijani and Armenian Presidents, Ilham Aliyev and Serzh Sargsyan respectively, are looking deflect domestic troubles by engaging militarily in the region, strengthening their national positions. The result is a thaw in the so-called frozen conflict and an uptick in violent confrontations. Russia and Turkey, thanks to Erdogan’s ambition and Putin’s shrewd geopolitics approach to Russian security, are on a collision course of differing foreign policy outcomes, with conflicting visions for a region both countries want a greater say in. As Turkey seeks this stronger role (in spite of its desire for closer cooperation with the EU) and Russia retrenches in the Middle East and Caucasus, we are going to see a return to redress of the balance power in the Caucasus, much like we did in World War I.
In a region already known for its ethnic violence and penchant for producing terrorists like those Chechens who worked for Al Qaeda, it has the possibility of becoming a wider conflict carrying the risks of regional destabilization, ethnic warfare, and ultimately a proliferation of terrorism in the greater Middle East. US policymakers need to move quickly to defuse tensions, and restart a defunct peace process based on a “bartering of interests” process, just as I previously suggested in the Syrian Peace Process. Rather than attempt to hold fast on principles of state soveriegnty and non-intervention that failed in the Crimea and Ukraine, we should search for ways to defuse Russian and Turkish interest in maintaining the status quo, by exchanging peace in the Caucasus for something they need in return. Compromising the peace in the region by not negotiating based on interest would sacrifice further efforts to contain the already growing violence in the Middle East by creating greater instability elsewhere.
Correction: The previous iteration claimed “the Azeri helicopter was patrolling the borderlands when shot down.” The current correction now reads: “An Azeri helicopter was shot down by the Karabakh Defense Forces“