Fierce fighting between Azerbaijani and Armenian forces represents a dramatic escalation in longstanding tensions, with the two countries on an all-out war footing following over a week of battle. Although the fighting has already dramatically eclipsed previous spikes in violence since the 1994 ceasefire, the most recent conflagration shows no signs of abating anytime soon, and raises the specter of even greater escalation among regional and global powers.
By most accounts, the current bout of violence began with an overnight attack by Azerbaijani forces against Armenian positions in late September at the so-called line of contact (LOC), where forces from the two countries face off in their extended mutual conflict over the Nagorno Karabakh region. Previously a majority Armenian-populated autonomous region within Soviet Azerbaijan, a 1988-1994 conflict saw Armenian forces eject Azerbaijani troops and civilians from Karabakh and surrounding Azerbaijani territories. Azerbaijan sees international legal consensus on its side and has funded a massive military buildup in the decades since, with the two countries on the precipice of open war for years.
Beyond press reports, an Azerbaijani attack is consistent with past spikes in major fighting. Azerbaijani forces were widely understood to have launched the 2016 Four-Day War, the previous high water mark for fighting since the 1994 ceasefire, as well as a more recent escalation this past July, which broke an unusually quiescent two-year period following Armenia’s domestic political revolution. And in the days leading up to the fighting, Azerbaijani media reportedevidence of general mobilization, suggesting a new round of conflict may have been in the offing. It is also true that because the status quo ante at the LOC and over Karabakh overwhelmingly favored Armenia, the onus for revising that reality fell on Azerbaijan -- whether through diplomatic pressure or military means. Baku, frustrated by what it perceives as international apathy to Armenia’s extended dominance over Karabakh and undisputed Azerbaijani territory, has increasingly emphasized military force as the most viable means to reversing the perceived indignities of Armenia’s commanding strategic position. Relative success in the Four-Day War, and wasted opportunities during the interregnum of Armenia’s monadic democratic peace, did little to disabuse Baku of this notion. Armenia, for its part, see its conflict with Azerbaijan as existential, and broadly inseparable from the traumas of historical insecurity, including the Armenian genocide. Azerbaijan’s regular use of militant rhetoric and increased reliance on arms have only hardened this view among Armenians, which see its position as a matter of civilizational survival.
Assessments of the intense fighting between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces have correctly focused on the propensity for the conflict to spiral beyond the confines of the LOC area of operations, radiating regionally and ensnaring nearby major powers. This view is underscored by the alignments at play in the conflict. Armenia is a treaty member of the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which under its Article 4 obligates the alliance to come to the aid of a member under attack. Armenia also hosts multiple Russian garrisons and military infrastructure on its soil, and in 2017 inked a treaty with Russia creating a unified battle group. Meanwhile, Azerbaijan has its own treaty alliance with Turkey, which Armenia accuses of actively participating in the fighting. Although Turkish vocal support for Azerbaijan’s offensive has been full-throated, Ankara appears to be considering the degree of its involvement deliberately, likely calibrated to Azerbaijani military progress, Russia’s response, and other exigencies.
This is also the case for Russia and Armenia, where the politics and context surrounding their mutual defense arrangements are similarly complex. For one, Russia almost certainly does not want an extended, open war between its treaty ally and Azerbaijan, with which it has generally close relations (and has been a reliable buyer for its arms). In this respect, Russia is likely to be wary to commit itself directly to Armenia’s defense except unless it has no other viable option -- potentially succeeding at both angering Azerbaijan for meddling, and Armenia for acting belatedly or insufficiently. Even if Russia were willing to act on Armenian invocations of the CSTO’s Article 4 mutual defense clause, unanimity within the alliance -- which includes members that may be sympathetic to Azerbaijan, or simply unwilling to be involved -- may be hard to achieve without significant pressure from Moscow. And, not unlike with the Turkey-Azerbaijan pact, or even NATO’s Article V, the composition and manner of CSTO member contributions are not formally outlined, and may depend in great part on Russian leadership (and cajoling).
In this sense, direct and open Turkish or Russian intervention into the conflict is not seamless nor a foregone conclusion, and there are significant impediments before the doomsday scenario comes to pass of mass formations of Russian and Turkish forces participating in a dramatically expanded conflict across multiple theaters and domains. That said, such an eventuality looks to be more likely with each passing day without de-escalation. What has been particularly concerning is that after over a week of ferocious fighting, relatively little territory has evidently changed hands so far, suggesting that Azerbaijan’s operational objective may not be incremental, symbolic gains, but significant territorial reversals -- and is willing to accept heavy costs in blood and treasure to do so. In turn, facing unprecedented Azerbaijani attacks, Armenian perceptions of an existential emergency appear validated, contributing to a feedback loop of mutual desperation and compounding violence.
Even if world war is not necessarily in the offing (if very on brand for 2020), the risk of a regionalized conflict is in some ways already realized. Aside from the looming roles of Turkey and Russia amid proceedings, echoes of the conflict are reverberating in significant ways well beyond the LOC and Karabakh theater. Iranian forces are on high alert and have reportedly downed Azerbaijani drones over its airspace; Iran’s pro-Armenia neutrality has contrasted against growing protests among its large ethnic Azeri population over Iran’s position; and Israel’s arms deals with Azerbaijan are again in the spotlight.
More broadly, the renewed Karabakh fighting joins a growing archipelago of conflicts and disputes over which Russia and Turkey are major, active players. In Syria, Russia and Turkey and their proxies increasingly compete for influence in the power vacuums created by the end of that country’s ruinous civil war. In Libya, Turkey and Russia have faced off backing rival governments in its own civil war. And the two countries also sit on opposite sides to varying extents in other nearby conflicts and contests, such as the Russian backed war in Ukraine and Russian domination over separatist Georgian regions. From this perspective, the new Karabakh war is not wholly separable -- its unique circumstances notwithstanding -- from this larger narrative of calibrated Turkey-Russia rivalry.
One year ago, Russian regional ascendancy was broadly unquestioned, with Moscow’s adventures in Syria, Libya, and the Eastern Mediterranean having gone largely uncontested, while its hold over Eastern Ukraine and Georgian separatist regions having turned fait accompli. Buttressed by the mystique of Russian “anti-access, area denial” (A2AD) systems, particularly advanced anti-air and missile platforms, Russian gains across the wider region were treated in the West as denied areas, contested only by those willing to court world war three. Yet it was quixotic Turkey, fielding homemade armed unmanned combat aerial vehicles like the Bayraktar TB2, that ravaged Russian-made armor and anti-air systems, allowed local proxies to go on the offensive, and sharply reversed Russian proxies’ fortunes in Syria and in Libya. Almost single handedly, Turkey succeeded in doing what Western powers long could not or would not -- confront Russian-equipped forces directly in theater, destroy them, and draw hard lines on Russian freedom of action.
It’s notable then, that Bayraktar UCAVs have seen heavy action (likely operated by Turkish drivers) in the Karabakh war. Although the recent Karabakh offensives are almost certainly primarily an Azerbaijani enterprise, it may also be the case that in the Armenia-Azerbaijan theater, Turkey found another opportunity to revise local conditions commensurate to its own preferred interests. Buoyed after a string of victories against Russian proxies and advanced weapons systems elsewhere, made possible in part by doctrinal and technological innovations in the deployment of its UCAV-s, Ankara may have turned its attention to revising the “facts on the ground” in Karabakh to hand victory to its close ally Azerbaijan and further constrain Russian options in the region.
Georgia in the middle
Georgia’s position amid the fighting deserves consideration as well. Although Georgia has declared itself neutral in the conflict, its proximity and its own regional and international relationships prevent it from being a passive observer. In many respects, a hot war in Karabakh puts Tbilisi in an essentially impossible position. Not only does Georgia look upon Russia’s garrisons in Armenia and their mutual defense treaty with extended apprehension, but it also regards Armenian control over Karabakh and undisputed Azerbaijani territory as legally untenable, and a painful cognate to its own separatist conflicts that are perceived as long calibrated and maintained by Moscow -- its chief regional threat. As such, Georgia is strategically and normatively aligned with Turkey and Azerbaijan, and has over the years forged a durable entente with its Turkic neighbors that encompasses energy, economic, and even political-military cooperation. More quietly, Georgian officials consider Turkey a kind of strategic ballast in its own dealings with Russia, even if the two states do not have a formal treaty relationship.
That said, for all of Tbilisi’s institutional tethers to Turkey and Azerbaijan, there is likely greater (for lack of a better term) popular civilizational affinity for Armenia, whose own historical narrative would appear to mirror Georgia’s in certain ways -- culturally distinctive, ancient Christianized civilizations, and fiercely independent despite centuries of invasion, subjugation, and historical trauma. And yet, it is also not lost on Georgians that it cannot countenance in Karabakh a status quo that would, directly or indirectly, seem to validate the ethnic cleansing of its own citizens from separatist Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Strategically, too, Tbilisi is in a terrible bind. Its relationships with Turkey and Azerbaijan suggest that Georgia’s position is and would be expected to be at least a friendly neutral to their cause. However, doing so risks its own cordial ties with Armenia, and, more urgently, potentially exposes Georgia to reprisals if CSTO’s Article 4 is invoked and Russian forces demand air or land corridors to Armenia. In that scenario, Georgia could refuse and face invasion, or submit and be seen by its Turkish and Azerbaijani partners as pro-Armenian parties to the conflict and may deploy their own forces to arrest Russian resupplies or reinforcements. In either scenario, Georgia becomes a battleground in a war in which it wanted no part.
Georgia’s decision to suspend permits for the transit of military cargo by land or air to either side is an understandable one, and probably correct for now. But it may also prove to be unsustainable unless a ceasefire or some other sharp curtailment of the war is soon effected. Georgia has also offered itself frequently as a mediator between Armenia and Azerbaijan, given its serviceable to good relations with all parties involved, though this is unlikely to prove immediately fruitful or decisive under the current circumstances. Where Georgia goes from here depends in large part on the shape of the conflict, and its decisions could help prevent or contribute to a broader escalation of the fighting, and keep from becoming an adjoining theater of that war.
The new Karabakh war has laid bare the poverty of the regional security architecture, with neither the Euro-Atlantic West, the Russian alliance system, nor the OSCE’s Minsk Group, whose co-chairs (Russia, France, and the U.S.) have offered little so far to arrest the burgeoning conflict. In its relative absence, little exists to contain or limit a widening arc of violent contestation between warring local powers, would-be regional empires, and transnational and non-state actors. As a result, pathways to peace would seem to traverse a knife’s edge, and depend firstly on the forbearance of the warring parties, and secondly on the diplomatic entrepreneurship of rival regional powers competing across multiple theaters -- or the hope that an outside power possesses the focus and strategic capital to incentivize an outbreak of peace. At the moment, however, the near future appears cloudy.
Michael Hikari Cecire is a non-resident scholar for MEI's Frontier Europe Initiative and Director of the Eurasia Democratic Security Network (EDSN). The views expressed here are his own.
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