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The South Caucasus Conflict: Beyond Business As Usual

This past week has seen a spike in clashes along the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan, resulting in the most combat casualties since a major flare-up in fighting between the two countries in 2016. In many ways, the clashes are familiar, with the two South Caucasus neighbors engaging in periodic fighting over the past three decades. However, a new global context amid the COVID-19 pandemic and a shifting geopolitical order raises the potential for a different trajectory for the conflict, with important implications for the major external powers involved, including Russia, Turkey, and the United States, depending on the political and security outcome. 

Current Tensions and Russia’s Reluctance

Fighting reportedly erupted between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces beginning July 12 on the northern border of the two countries in the Armenian region of Tavush and Azerbaijani region of Tovuz. Notably, the clashes have taken place far away from the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, the site of a war between the countries from 1988-1994 amid the collapse of the Soviet Union. 

The fighting this month has included shelling and drone attacks and has led to more than a dozen deaths, including the loss of an Azerbaijani general and colonel, before an uneasy cease-fire was reached July 16. The specific trigger remains unclear, and both sides have blamed the other for initiating the conflict. Tactically, the situation remains fluid, and fighting could resume at any time. 

In a strategic sense, it is in Armenia’s interest to preserve the status quo, reached after it was able to wrest de facto control over Nagorno-Karabakh and seven surrounding districts in the 1988-1994 war, and it is in Azerbaijan’s interest to challenge it. Baku has long called for a return of the disputed territories to its control, and due to unsuccessful efforts to find a diplomatic solution, periodic flare-ups in fighting have occurred ever since. This was especially the case in April 2016 when Azerbaijani forces attacked Armenian positions in Nagorno-Karabakh and seized a sliver of territory, leading to several hundred deaths before a cease-fire was reinforced. 

While the fighting historically has been limited to remote border territories of the two countries, its importance is magnified by the complex power balance and alliance network in the South Caucasus region. Armenia is allied with Russia, which deploys 5,000 troops on Armenian territory and is the leader of the Collective Security Treaty Organization military bloc of which Armenia is a part. Azerbaijan is a strategic partner of Turkey, with which it shares close military and economic ties. The United States, European Union, Iran, and China also have ties to and measures of influence in the region. Thus, any major eruption in fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan risks pulling in these powers in some way. 

Of the external powers active in the South Caucasus, Russia has the most sway due to its direct military presence throughout the region, not only in Armenia but also in the breakaway Georgian territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Moscow has expressed concern over the current fighting, with Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov stating July 17 that Russia was prepared to mediate peace talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan. In fact, Moscow has long played the role of mediator, but the Kremlin’s interest rests in preserving the status quo of a frozen conflict rather than a diplomatically mediated resolution because the current state of affairs gives Russia influence over both countries (Russia sells weapons to both, though its overall security support is far greater for Armenia). 

That said, Russia has shown hesitation to get directly involved in the conflict. In the April 2016 escalation, the Russian military did not come to the direct aid of Armenian forces despite their official alliance, in part because Moscow wanted to avoid getting dragged into a local conflict. Moscow did, however, play a role behind the scenes to prevent Azerbaijan from launching a broader attack, with Baku aware that crossing a certain combat threshold could trigger Russian intervention. In the meantime, Turkey provided rhetorical backing for Azerbaijan while players like the United States and European Union condemned the fighting, but these powers were unable or unwilling to provide the kind of direct intervention that Russia is capable of. 

COVID-19 Comes Into Play

Such dynamics are what have prevented a larger conflict from breaking out, and they are likely to continue to do so this time around. However, the COVID-19 pandemic and its resulting political effects do provide a new environment worth considering. Countries around the world are fixated on their own COVID-related problems — Russia has one of the highest caseloads in the world — possibly making them less willing to intervene over clashes between Azerbaijan and Armenia. This is a potential factor driving the latest flare-up and something that could make the trajectory of fighting more unpredictable this time around.

The pandemic has had direct impacts on Armenia and Azerbaijan, with both countries struggling to contain their caseloads. As with other countries, this has brought greater criticism and scrutiny of their respective governments, with both Baku and Yerevan possibly looking for distractions and a rallying cry among their populations. This, however, has the risk of backfiring, as has been seen in Azerbaijan where large-scale protests emerged in Baku on July 15, with demonstrators calling for stronger military action against Armenia and some protesters taking on a broader anti-government message. Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov was subsequently dismissed on July 16, a notable move given that he had served in that position since 2004 and another sign of political uncertainty. 

Thus, the new environment can have unpredictable consequences for the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, both within these countries and in the broader regional order. Russia is likely to use its offered meditation to preserve the status quo, but the Kremlin’s own political and economic constraints may make it even less willing to intervene militarily to prevent an escalation than it had been previously. Turkey, too, has significant limitations in terms of its role in the conflict, despite its rhetorical defense of Azerbaijan and repeated condemnations of Armenian actions. Both Russia and Turkey have their own complications over the Syrian conflict and thus prefer to keep the Armenian/Azerbaijan conflict contained at this time. Firat News Agency has reported that Turkey is rumored to be redeploying some of its mercenaries from Syria to Azerbaijan, but both Ankara and Baku have denied the rumors, and in the current context, they are unlikely to be true.

Given these factors, the United States has a significant interest in the evolution of this conflict, even without playing a direct military role in either country. While Washington has neither Russia’s proximity to nor direct involvement in the South Caucasus, it does have an interest in lessening Moscow’s influence in the region and has worked to try to wean these countries toward the West. This could include efforts to expand economic and limited security ties with the countries in the event that either’s relations with Moscow are compromised. Such efforts have proven difficult in the past, but renewed fighting and a more uncertain global environment could have a different and more unpredictable outcome this time around, with potential ripple effects well beyond the Caucasus. 

Eugene Chausovsky is a Nonresident Fellow with the Center for Global Policy. Previously, he served as Senior Eurasia Analyst at Stratfor for 10 years. His work focuses on political, economic, and security issues pertaining to the former Soviet Union, Europe, and Latin America. He tweets at @EugeneChausovsk

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not an official policy or position of the Center for Global Policy.