Whilst everyone distracts themselves with commentary, justifications, and criticism of U.S. President Donald Trump’s tax returns, Armenia and Azerbaijan are preparing for war. (Everyone, that is, except us and Kim Kardashian. 2020 is weird, y’all.) Both sides have declared martial law and mobilized troops after sustained fighting in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, a landlocked Azerbaijani exclave with an Armenian majority that functions as a de facto autonomous state. As of this writing, two days of fighting have resulted in wildly different estimates of casualties on all sides, ranging from 16 killed in action to many hundreds dead. War is bad, but what makes the fighting over this small territory with a population of roughly 150,000 is the possibility that it could drag Turkey and Russia into a much broader conflict. Turkey has already pledged to support Azerbaijan “with all its means” and Armenia says it is ready to ask for Russia’s military assistance if it needs it.
This is the second bout of hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan this year. Back in mid-July, Azerbaijan and Armenia took potshots at each other leading to the deaths of at least 16 soldiers, including an Azerbaijani Major-General and Colonel. At the time, we noted that round of fighting was strange because it happened nowhere near Nagorno-Karabakh, which has been a flashpoint in the South Caucasus region since 1988, but near Armenia’s Tavush province. Then, as now, it is unclear who started the fighting or what their goal was, though we would not suggest admitting such ignorance on social media. This is one of the most intense conflicts most of the world has never heard of, and even during times of calm, the ever-festering issue of Nagorno-Karabakh produces strong nationalist sentiments in both Armenia and Azerbaijan, which makes it especially hard to decipher who started what and what is actually happening on the ground.
All that said, and without dismissing the heightened risk of escalation that comes with any military conflict due to the potential for mistakes on the ground or local commanders taking matters into their own hands, a full-scale Armenia-Azerbaijan war does not make much sense for either side right now, and makes even less sense for the much more powerful security patrons of each, Russia and Turkey. If this were about to become a serious conflagration, Armenia would not be announcing that it is ready to ask for Russian military assistance – it would be demanding it. And Turkey would not be promising that it is ready to do whatever is necessary to defend Azerbaijan’s interests – it would be deploying troops and making moves. Turkey and Russia are long-term geopolitical rivals, but in the short-term, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is presiding over an economic crisis and proxy wars in northern Syria and Libya while Russian President Vladimir Putin is facing a second wave of COVID-19 and is focused on propping up the tenuous rule of Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko.
Turkey’s recent decision to be more accommodating in the eastern Mediterranean does give us some pause. In recent weeks, Turkey has sought to deescalate geopolitical tensions in a region that looked poised to surpass the South China Sea as the world’s most unstable seascape. Turkey has agreed to talks with Greece, called for making the Mediterranean a “basin of peace,” and even suggested an upcoming summit with the European Union could lead to a “reset’ in Turkey-EU ties. It would be easy to ascribe this to Ankara feeling overburdened with the plunge of the Turkish lira and its myriad proxy conflicts to manage, but we would be remiss if we did not at least note the coincidental timing of the move to deescalate in the eastern Mediterranean and the outbreak of fresh Armenia-Azerbaijan hostilities. The U.S. is also apparently threatening to relocate military assets currently station at Incirlik base in Turkey to Crete, a sign of significant deterioration in U.S.-Turkey ties less than a year after the U.S. sacrificed the Syrian Kurds for better relations with Ankara.
Even so, the most likely scenario is not a major South Caucasus war but that Turkey and Russia find a way to use their political influence to calm the situation down, at least temporarily. This would fit with the pragmatic relationship Putin and Erdogan have managed to establish in recent years even as Russia and Turkey find themselves on the opposite sides of conflicts in Syria and Libya. If the 2015 downing of a Russian jet by Turkish fighter jets in 2015 didn’t lead to a Russia-Turkey war, a renewed Armenian-Azerbaijani squabble probably won’t do the trick either. Resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh issues is a can routinely kicked down the road and with the world in the midst of a global pandemic, Russia and Turkey preoccupied with more pressing matters, and with the U.S. distracted by a fractious election cycle, the overwhelming pressure on both Yerevan and Baku will be picked some other time to settle decade’s old scores over Nagorno-Karabakh’s status some other time.
The broader lesson to learn is that this sort of proxy conflict is going to become more common in the years ahead. In the same way COVID-19 augurs an “increasing and very significant threat to global health” in the form of new diseases and antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and one of the most active hurricane seasons on record (there was a hurricane in the Mediterranean this year for Pete’s sake) foreshadows future climate change disruption and volatility, the latest Nagorno-Karabakh scuffle portends small-scale conflicts in strategic borderlands between rising and falling great powers. The South Caucasus is an “in-between” region, lying at the intersection of Christianity and Islam and caught between numerous regional powers and cultural centers of gravity. Regions like Central Asia, East Africa, the Balkans, the South China Sea, and Central America – these are the regions where political competition between rivals that are either unable or unwilling to face each other directly will play out.
It is not a coincidence that 2020 has not just been the year of COVID-19, but the year of numerous small-scale conflicts like the recent flare-up in Nagorno-Karabakh. These have ranged in seriousness from India and China fighting their worst border conflict in decades to the Argentine government making noise about the Falklands/Malvinas Islands. Other conflicts like this include the status of the United Kingdom post-Brexit, India’s assertion of its rule in Kashmir, China’s National Security Law for Hong Kong and clamp down on Xinjiang and Tibet, the interminable Kosovo-Serbia conflict, the persistence of the Libyan, Yemeni, and Syrian civil wars – to mention just a few. In a world where the rules are changing, where power is up for grabs, and where political decisions are being driven primarily by fear, this is the sort of conflict that occurs, and the can cannot be kicked down the road forever – just for now.