Written by J.Hawk exclusively for SouthFront
The three-decades-old Nagorno-Karabakh conflict’s major escalation is to a large extent the reflection of the decline, temporary or not, of US power, and the efforts to fill that vacuum by other actors, not the least of them being Turkey. The fluidity and unpredictability of the situation owes a lot to the absence of a clear regional hegemonic power capable of enforcing peace in the region and keep rivals out.
The Warring Parties
In spite of many years of preparations, Azerbaijan proved to be ill-prepared for the offensive which was intended as the N-K equivalent of Croatia’s Operation Storm that destroyed the Serb enclave of Krajina. Aside from the large fleet of drones, few elements of Azerbaijan’s military machine proved effective. At the same time, while Armenia appears to be holding its own and is keeping its territorial losses down to a minimum, it is also unable to go on the offensive and expel Azeri forces from N-K. The war has settled into attrition by long-range fires, punctuated by occasional assaults and ambushes in mountainous terrain that strongly favors the defender.
With neither warring party apparently able to deliver a knock-out blow, the outcome of the conflict is increasingly in the hands of outside powers who are evaluating their own interests in this conflict and eyeing potential allies and adversaries.
The not-quite-yet Neo-Ottoman Empire is the most heavily engaged country in the war, almost to the point of Azerbaijan acting as its proxy in asserting regional interests. Turkey’s support for Azerbaijan is extensive and is the single most important factor behind Azeri effectiveness, such as it is. Consistent with Turkey’s earlier forays into Syria, Libya, and the Aegean and Mediterranean, here too its leadership is both seeking to expand its sphere of influence and, in the words of its Foreign Minister Cavusoglu, it is sending a message that no issue in these regions can be definitively settled without Turkey’s assent.
This approach is not without risks. Turkey’s deepening involvement in regional conflicts is alienating potential and actual allies, and is moreover undermining the country’s economy which is bleeding financial reserves and suffering from major devaluation at the same time. Moreover, Turkey seems careful not to provoke Russia by actually having Azerbaijan launch a large-scale assault against Armenia proper, as opposed to the N-K enclave that is still de jure part of Azerbaijan, since doing so would lead to a repeat of the defeat Turkey suffered in Idlib province. The relatively mild Russian diplomatic language suggests Turkey might have even consulted Russia beforehand on its “red lines”—the Syria experience suggests that while Erdogan may be opportunistic, he’s far from reckless.
Although Russia has a military base in Armenia and is tied by Armenia through the Collective Security Treaty Organization which implies coming to Armenia’s defense in times of need, neither Russia nor Armenia seem eager to trigger that treaty’s collective defense clauses. At the same time, Russia has been an important supplier of weapons to Azerbaijan, selling offensive weaponry in the form of T-90 tanks, 300mm Smerch long-range multiple rocket launchers, TOS-1 armored tracked fuel-air explosive launchers, and BTR-80A APCs, all of which have been visible in the recent fighting. This suggests that Russia does not have a far stronger commitment to Armenia than it does to Azerbaijan, particularly in the wake of the Pashinyan government pursuing closer relations with NATO. Moreover, to the extent that Azerbaijan is being drawn into Ankara’s orbit, Moscow may view it as preferable to it being drawn into Washington’s. Ankara has proved a difficult partner, to be sure, but it showed itself respectful of Russian interests and solicitous of its support, which is more than can be said for Washington, Brussels, Berlin, or Paris, who harbor far more aggressive intent toward Moscow than Ankara does.
In the military realm, a Syria-style deployment of a small Russian air group with associated air defenses, support personnel, and advisors, would instantly inflict defeat on Azeri forces, though a protracted campaign would be difficult to sustain since Armenia is land-locked and not accessible to Russia except by air. Such a mission does not appear to be in the offing at this time. One reason may be the unwillingness to push Azerbaijan definitively into the open arms of Ankara and possibly even Washington, especially if there exist understandings between Ankara and Moscow as to the extent of Ankara’s support and Baku’s military aims. The other reason might be that, as in the case of Syria, Russian military deployment would need to be preceded by far-reaching diplomatic commitments by the host country, Armenia, to address Russia’s own concerns and interests. Moscow should not be expected to shoulder the burden of defending a country that’s sidling up to NATO and the EU, after all, particularly when there is no major security threat to Armenia proper.
On the one hand, Washington has a brilliant opportunity to be the “good cop” to Turkey’s “bad cop” vis-à-vis Armenia, by offering Yerevan the sort of military protectorate that Georgia is de-facto enjoying already. It may or may not be an accident that the Azeri initiation of hostilities occurred shortly after the end of the Noble Partner 2020 NATO exercise on Georgia’s territory—the timing is such that it’s difficult in the extreme to believe there was no desire there to send a signal to Armenia that Georgia’s immunity to Turkish ambitions could be had by Armenia as well, as long as it signs over its sovereignty to Washington.
On the other hand, Mike Pompeo is no Henry Kissinger. While he may share the latter’s cynicism and brutality, he lacks the insight and acumen necessary for agile diplomacy. Pompeo’s ham-fisted approach to diplomacy was evident during his visit to Greece where he proceed to discuss the threat posed by…Russia, which is about the last country on Earth the Greeks are worried about. It is also possible there is concern in Washington that US outreach to Armenia would alienate Azerbaijan which would then turn to Turkey, even China, for political and military patronage. Given a choice between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Washington would surely opt for the latter, on account of its control of and access to hydrocarbons that Armenia does not have.
Remarkably enough, Emmanuel Macron has an opinion here too, though it is more related to France’s concern Turkey is muscling in on what France considers “its” sphere of influence in Libya, Lebanon, even Syria, than concern for ethnic Armenians. Still, the joint statement issued by US, French, and Russian foreign minister calling for an unconditional ceasefire is remarkable in and of itself, particularly since it comes at the same time that France is calling for EU sanctions against Russia over the dubious Navalny case.
Overall, though, France is an inconsequential player of limited credibility. Macron’s foreign policy shows some resemblance, as implausible as it sounds, to Erdogan’s, in that both leaders are determined to expand their countries’ regional influence. The difference is that Macron cannot overcome his inbred sense of Western superiority over both Russians and Turks, not to mention the “lowly” Lebanese whom he lectured on the need for “reforms”, which dooms his diplomatic proposals right from the start. Neither Turkey nor Russia treat him as a credible partner, a situation that is not helped by France’s inability to project anything resembling a credible military force into the region in quantity sufficient to force others to take notice.
The limitations of Azeri and Armenian military machines combined with Turkey’s unwillingness to push too hard and the other major players’ relative disinterest means the campaign will probably peter out in the coming weeks due to attrition and exhaustion. Neither country’s finances can sustain a prolonged military campaign that will moreover inflict damage to their respective national economies. It still remains to be seen who will be the mediator or mediators attempting to reach a compromise that makes both Armenia and Azerbaijan seem like plausible victors in the end. Russia and Turkey seem like the most likely partners yet again, and an Idlib-like situation, with joint Russian-Turkish patrols in Nagorno-Karabakh, seems rather probable at this point as it would further cement Russo-Turkish collaboration in establishing something resembling strategic stability in the era of growing US and European weakness.
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