Little War in the Caucasus Has Big Lessons for U.S. and Russia

(Bloomberg Opinion) - Small wars can tell a lot about the biggest geopolitical and military problems of the day. Consider the current conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. Most Americans have probably never heard of this controversial region in the Caucasus. The battles there, however, uncover important fault lines in an increasingly disorderly global environment and underline the decisive trends in the development of modern warfare.
In a way, there is nothing new about what is happening in Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnic Armenian enclave within the borders of Azerbaijan. The clash over this region is one of many "frozen conflicts" created by the breakup of the Soviet Union. After the collapse of the Soviets, Armenian forces occupied Nagorno-Karabakh in a brutal war that ended in 1994. The fighting caused tens of thousands of deaths; These included massacres of non-combatants and the displacement or flight of perhaps hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijanis.
Not surprisingly, the truce that ended the war has always proven fragile. The current round of fighting, which began in late September when the Azerbaijani armed forces tried to regain control of Nagorno-Karabakh (Azerbaijan claimed in response to the Armenian provocations) is simply the latest flare-up in a long smoldering battle.
However, it would be a mistake to downplay the importance of the fighting for two reasons. The first is the disorder it exposes within the international system. It is tempting to view the clash as a proxy war between the US and Russia, as Turkey, one of America's NATO allies, supports Azerbaijan while the Armenians have close ties with Moscow. (Russia also has good relations with Azerbaijan, but is friendlier with Armenia, which is a member of the Kremlin-led Eurasian Economic Union.)
More significant, however, are the tensions that the war is highlighting in the western world.
Azerbaijan is not just a Turkish puppet, but Ankara has given strong support in the conflict. Indeed, the resumption of hostilities against a longtime enemy of Turkey shows that the war is part of a larger Turkish power game for influence in its geopolitical neighborhood, which includes interventions in Syria and Libya in recent years.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is certainly not acting at Washington's behest in this endeavor: his government has declared that it is "fully prepared" to support Azerbaijan in the reoccupation of Nagorno-Karabakh from Armenia, an influential diaspora in America and has appealed for the US to help stop the fighting.
Erdogan has also reportedly used US-supplied F-16s and Syrian mercenaries against Armenia, although these allegations remain unconfirmed. Nonetheless, Erdogan's policies have sparked a stern reaction from French President Emmanuel Macron, who has warned that his government will "not accept" an escalation of the conflict backed by Turkey.
France and Turkey are also supporting opposing sides in the Libyan civil war, which resulted in an incident in June where a Turkish naval ship allegedly targeted a French ship with its fire control radar. The Franco-Turkish dispute has become a sharp split within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which has already struggled to maintain its cohesion in the vacuum of constructive US leadership.
If the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is a jumble of conflicting interests and geopolitical intrigues, it is increasingly also the alliance that has kept peace in Europe for decades. Russian President Vladimir Putin could “lose” the current crisis if Azerbaijan inflicts a military defeat on Armenia, but he could still win if the greater legacy is to weaken an already divided transatlantic community.
The second reason to take the conflict seriously is that, in the past, small wars have served as a dress rehearsal for larger wars, as they provide a testing ground for emerging concepts and skills. The Spanish Civil War allowed the fascist powers to experiment with terrorist attacks on civilians. It gave Germany valuable lessons about tank warfare. Likewise, the fighting in the Caucasus is one of a number of recent wars that provide clues as to how the next great power conflict might develop.
The Russian intervention in Ukraine in 2014 was arguably the first warning. This conflict showed how a resurgent American competitor fused cyber attacks with kinetic strikes, using world-class electronic warfare capabilities to detect enemy forces, and disoriented and deploying drones, precision-guided artillery and other advanced strike capabilities to destroy the Ukrainian defenses.
Similarly, the Syrian civil war was noteworthy, not because of the primitive brutalities employed by the Bashar al-Assad regime, but because Moscow used its precision strike skills effectively to attack the Syrian opposition and because of its advanced air defense to curtail American freedom Action. Both conflicts showed what the US might experience in a conflict with Russia - fighting on an incredibly deadly battlefield on which even relatively advanced American skills would struggle to survive.
Neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan have a particularly sophisticated military, but the conflict between them is significant. Missile strikes against residential areas are a reminder that America's great power opponents could target rearward areas and logistical hubs (in Central Europe, for example) that Washington has long considered safe. Footage of drones destroying tanks and armored vehicles shows how vulnerable mechanized forces can be when located by advanced sensors and attacked by precision ammunition.
It is true that armor has long been vulnerable to air attack, and part of the reason mechanized forces have suffered in the current fighting is the use of poor tactics and old equipment. Tanks are not getting out of date, and US forces would need heavy armor to withstand a Russian advance into the Baltic. However, in the modern battlefield, it will still be difficult to obtain assets like tanks with no air superiority - which the US likely wouldn't have in the early stages of a conflict with Russia - or in the face of sophisticated precision attacks.
This adds to the need to find ways to bring U.S. combat power to fruition without rallying forces in extremely vulnerable formations, as well as the fact that war against a great power would be far more deadly than anything the American military has done since Vietnam has experienced.
The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict appears to be a holdover from the Soviet past in an unknown part of the world. But the fierce fighting there could actually give a preview of the future.
This column does not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Hal Brands is a columnist for the Bloomberg Opinion, the Henry Kissinger Distinguished Professor in the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, and a researcher at the American Enterprise Institute. Most recently he is co-author of "The Lessons of Tragedy: Statecraft and World Order".
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