Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party
The Soviet Union’s strategy of ruling its non-Russian subjects by giving them autonomous regions where they would be in the local majority unravelled with the USSR’s collapse. Instead of having locally-rooted patronage networks controlled by the Communist Party, Russia’s periphery became a zone of chaos, terrorism and frozen conflicts.
Vladimir Putin, who exploited the Chechen war in his rise to power, learned to live with this. He was able to disrupt neighbouring states enough by allowing “frozen conflicts” to fester, threatening their territorial integrity and ensuring they didn’t, as the saying goes, poke the bear. This strategy is starting to wear thin in the Caucasus, however, as an increasingly assertive Turkey has begun to boost its own influence in the region.
The last big war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian-majority region which had some autonomy from the Azerbaijan Soviet Republic, ended in 1994 with an Armenian victory. Nagorno-Karabakh itself was ruled by supposedly independent institutions under Armenian protection. Armenia, meanwhile, helped itself to land between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia, guaranteeing access to the former enclave.
Azerbaijan considers these territories to be illegally occupied by Armenia and promotes a narrative and eventual “return” for the tens of thousands Azeris displaced from there and Nagorno-Karabakh itself, while Armenia tolerates the settlement of the territories with the support of major funding from the Armenian diaspora (incidentally, Israel has good relations with Azerbaijan, which it sees as a check on Iranian influence).
Russia maintains two military bases in Armenia, including one near the capital Yerevan, and has signed a defence pact with the country, but the power balance has tilted in Azerbaijan’s favour since the 1990s. First, Azerbaijan has prospered thanks to plentiful natural gas, but more importantly it now has strong backing from another important regional power and, historic enemy of the Armenians whose genocide it denies ever committing, Turkey.
Tensions have been building between Yerevan and Baku for the best part of a year, and serious skirmishes broke out in June. Azerbaijan’s irredentism as been appears to have been turned up a notch, while Nikol Pashinyan, Armenia’s new Prime Minister, who came to power following a popular revolution in 2018, has also been happy to keep the temperature high.
Last week, Azerbaijan launched a much larger than expected offensive, even reportedly commandeering civilian trucks, and deploying mercenaries demobilised from the Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army. It has bombed Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, and threatened the main highway supplying the enclave from Armenia (Armenia retaliated by bombing Ganja). It does not seem to have yet met with much success, in part due to the mountainous terrain, and there’s not much time left before winter makes offensive operations difficult.
It also appears that Turkey is egging Azerbaijan on, adding to the flare-ups between Erdogan and Putin. Having long been at loggerheads in Syria and Libya, Nagorno-Karabakh forms a third front in their proxy war. Russia, which backs the Assad regime has the upper hand in Syria thanks to a major error of judgement by Erdogan. The Turkish leader persuaded Trump to withdraw American protection for Kurdish forces in Syria, tilting the balance of the war towards Assad. In Libya, Turkey which supports the internationally recognised Libyan government, has come out on top, and General Haftar, backed by both Russia and France, is much weakened.
By backing Azerbaijan so strongly, Turkey is making two strong geopolitical claims. First, it is getting involved against Russia not in North Africa or the Middle East, but in a conflict between former Soviet states. Second, Turkey is not currently a member of the Minsk Group, convened by the OSCE to address the Armenian-Azerbaijani dispute, but will surely have to be involved in any new ceasefire. This is partly due to Erdogan’s ambitious (some would say neo-Ottoman) foreign policy, but it also reflects Turkey’s growing economic importance.
This significant shift would normally attract the attention of the United States. It has a close ally of its own in the Caucasus – Georgia – and a significant and influential domestic Armenian constituency (there are between half a million and a million Armenian Americans). Though if an election campaign is never the best time to attract Washington’s attention, the Trump Administration’s evisceration of the State Department meant the US couldn’t use its weight to damp the conflict down.
America’s absence has left two aggressive powers – Russia and Turkey – to begin to test their strength against each other in the small countries that border them. Whatever happens in this particular conflict, it seems a new Great Game is afoot in the Caucasus.