The Caucasus Flare Up- Background and Early Lessons, Armenia Vs Azerbaijan

Article by Vivek Jha

It has been an interesting week in the ever fuming muzzle of the global politico-military gun. The long standing ethno-religious conflict in the Caucasus erupted again in full scale after remaining mostly dormant for about a century. Azeri forces attacked the Nagorno-Karabakh region, controlled by Armenian supported Artsakh republic. The region is recognised internationally as a part of Azerbaijan but remains independent as Republic of Artsakh.

The history of the region is complicated, thanks to it being at the centre of all kinds of divisions possible – geographic, ethnic, religious and historical. The Artsakh area along with Azerbaijan and Armenia were part of Azerbaijan Soviet Republic of USSR in early days of the Soviet Union but the Nagorno-Karabakh area, being mainly Christian and wanting to remain close to Christian Armenia opposed it and the resulting problems caused Soviets to establish an independent Oblast of Nagorno-Karabakh. Upon the fall of Soviet Union, the old rivalries flared again and Armenians/Artsakhs fought with the Muslim majority Azerbaijan in early 90s leading to the formation of Republic of Artsakh in the highlands between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Though it is recognised by UN as an Azeri territory, Azerbaijan has no control over it and Artsakh intends to unite with Armenia. The current crisis started as Azeri forces, supported by Turkey attacked Nagorno-Karabakh, the declared intention being to gain control of what they maintain is a legitimate Azerbaijan area. While there can be a lot of discussion and debate over how things are panning out, let us focus on just 3 key points- Local support and international response towards the warring parties, the weapons used with implications and lessons and parallels drawn for India. Azerbaijan has been historically supported by Turkey, both being Sunni majority nations. The region was a part of Ottomon empire before the Russian Empire gobbled up the Caucasus. Though the area under question is mostly Christian, the Azeris claim it under historical clout. Turkey is the major supporter of Azerbaijan in the current fighting, calling the problem the biggest danger to peace and security in the region. Moreover, Azerbaijan remains the biggest supplier of oil to Turkey. Armenia has, on the other hand, has accused Turks of genocide of Armenians both during Ottomon rule and after the establishment of modern Turkey, which Turkey constantly denies. Apart from Turkey, Azeris have been supported surprisingly by Israel, though their support seems more about commercial interests in form of arms deals than about historical or religious support. But finding Israelis and Turkey on the same side of a conflict is a surprise for many and a lesson for India, though we will come back to it later. Iran, though has shown some support for Azeris before, is now being blamed for sending arms to Armenia, which Tehran denies. Officially, Tehran has called for dialogue and end to hostilities..playing its cards carefully. Russians called for peace and have offered to mediate. Russia and Armenia are part of CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organisation) and Russia maintains a military base in Gyumri, north of Yerevan. The commander of the Russian base had in 2013 said that Russian troops could openly side with Armenia in case Azerbaijan tried to restore its jurisdiction over Nagorno-Karabakh by force, as reported by Radio Free Europe.

Others including US and France have all called for peace and end to expansionism. Indian social media is seeing quite a bit of activity from Armenian side, given Turkish interference in Kashmir issue and resulting Indian displeasure against Turkey in recent times. After the Syrian civil war and ISIS conflict led the world to draw major lessons on 21st century warfare, the Caucasus conflict is turning to be another chapter in the study of warfighting. Syrian/ISIS battles saw widespread use of SUVs adapted to every possible role from machine gun platforms to assault to AAA batteries to ATGM launchers. Major militaries of the world realised how effective SUVs are in semi desert areas where their speed and adaptability made them a headache for common armoured vehicles. Russians as a result raised an entire brigade equipped with SUVs with APCs supporting them. India ordered Light Strike Vehicles for its army. ATGMs saw proliferation thanks to the USA or Russians or Turkey supplying them to their favourite parties. All these lessons will be carried forward into the geographically connected Caucasus conflict. What makes this conflict a new experience is the extensive use of armed drones and readily available footage, mostly from the Azeri side who are using the Turkish supplied Bayraktar TB2 drones to target Armenian/Artsakh forces releasing gory videos of strikes consistently, in a possible attempt to demoralise Armenians, the 5th generation warfare coming into itself .

Israel too has supplied Azerbaijan with drones and missiles, in spite of Azerbaijan opposing Israel in many international forums along with most Muslim states. Source- Azerbaijan has used IAI Harop loitering munitions from Israel in Nagorno-Karabakh conflict before too in 2016. The far off war in the Caucasus barely rings any bells among Indian public. But looking closely, there is a lot for India to draw from it. The recent thaw in India-Israel ties since Modi government took over has gained Israel quite a fandom in general Indian populace. But given the Israeli stance on Azerbaijan-Armenian conflict, notwithstanding Armenian support to Israel in international forums, raises eyebrows. One can’t help but wonder how friendly Israel would be with India if it weren’t for Pakistani belligerence towards them. Moreover, India regularly voting against Israel in many international bodies makes India hardly likeable for Israelis without the common enmity with Pakistan. India would do well to remember that there are no free lunches in geopolitical sphere and tread carefully with Israel, in spite of its apparent friendliness. Global relationships are usually driven by commercial and strategic interests, and in absence of Pakistan I wonder how well we would be received by Israel. This war has also a sense of déjà vu for India. When the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, they left behind thousands of well trained and experienced Mujahideens who fought against them. Along with them were thousands of foreign fighters who had joined the Afghan jihad against Soviets through transit camps along Pak-Afghan border. Pakistani ISI made use of this opportunity to redirect these armed mercenaries and terrorists into Kashmir valley from the beginning of 90s thus beginning a now 30 year long terror-insurgency which claimed thousands of lives of both civilians and uniformed personnel and made thousands refugees in their own country, effectively wiping out a whole religious minority from the valley. While the Syrian civil war plus ISIS conflict is dying down, at least for now, in the middle east, just like Afghanistan, it has left behind thousands of well trained armed men- terrorists, militias and mercenaries. While quite a lot are controlled now by Syrian government (YPG), the once active opposition to them was and is supplied and controlled by Turkey, which has taken it seemingly straight out of ISI playbook to now redirect them towards Armenia. In spite of Turkey denying it, based on the number of videos of militias of Syrian National Army (Turkey controlled), arriving in or leaving for Azerbaijan, it is quite clear that Turkey is supplying not just arms but men to fight on Azeri side against Armenia. Some reports have also mentioned the presence of Pakistani forces in Azerbaijan. It wouldn’t be a surprise if Pakistan and Turkey were found to be in active cooperation about this.Though this war might not appear to be an important one, happening in one of the less covered areas of the world, the effects will be far reaching and interesting. This could be the point where Russia finally draws the line against Turkish open belligerent stance. But again, Putin seems to be keeping his options open for when Turkey is completely cut off from NATO and the west. Less than appropriate response to Turks downing 2 Russian jets over Syria and one more Russian made Armenian jet just now does give that impression. Also important to note is that the American idea of supplying Europe with gas from mid-east can be possibly highjacked by Turkey through extension of South Caucasus Gas pipeline project, gaining Turkey lot of capital through transit fee, replacing the now dead Nabucco pipeline project. Turkey hasn’t been happy with the Russian prices for gas it has to pay. Given Russia supplies about half of Turkish gas needs, obviating Russia from its suppliers would be profitable for Turkey. But then the question remains- if that is Turkey’s plan, why Erdogan is pulling out of NATO hold. Is it just Erdogan’s quest for domination or something else? South Caucasus Pipeline and other projects

There is more on stake in this war in the Caucasus than it appears at first glance. Whether it serves as a major punctuation in Turkish aggression or not, remains to be seen. But Russians will definitely be drawn in. Where the Americans stand, with or without Europe and NATO, is a difficult guess to make…

Article by Vivek Jha

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