Azerbaijani Defence Ministry Nagorno Karabakh
Azeri troops conducting an operation during clashes in the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh Image Credit: AFP

Small wars can tell you a lot about the biggest geopolitical and military issues of the day. Consider the present conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. Most Americans have probably never heard of that disputed region in the Caucasus. But the fighting there reveals key fault lines in an increasingly disordered global environment, and it underscores crucial trends in the evolution of modern warfare.

In some ways, there is nothing new about what is happening in Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnic Armenian enclave inside Azerbaijan’s borders. The clash over that region is one of many “frozen conflicts” left behind by the disintegration of the Soviet Union. After the Soviet collapse, Armenian forces occupied Nagorno-Karabakh in a brutal war that ended in 1994. The fighting caused tens of thousands of deaths; it included massacres of non-combatants and the expulsion or flight of perhaps hundreds of thousands of Azeris.

Not surprisingly, the ceasefire that ended the war has proven perpetually fragile. So the current round of fighting, which began in late September when Azerbaijani forces sought to reclaim control of Nagorno-Karabakh (in response, Azerbaijan claimed, to Armenian provocations) is simply the latest flare-up in a long-simmering struggle.

Yet it would be a mistake to downplay the importance of the fighting, for two reasons. The first is the disarray it reveals within the international system. It is tempting to see the clash as a US-Russia proxy war, given that Turkey, a Nato member, is backing Azerbaijan, whereas the Armenians have close ties to Moscow. (Russia also enjoys good relations with Azerbaijan, but is friendlier with Armenia, which is a member of the Kremlin-led Eurasian Economic Union.)

More significant, though, are the tensions the war highlights within the Western world.

Turkish support of Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan isn’t simply a Turkish puppet, but it has enjoyed outspoken support from Ankara in the conflict. Indeed, the resumption of hostilities against a longtime enemy of Turkey indicates that the war is part of a larger Turkish power play for influence in its geopolitical neighbourhood, an effort that also includes interventions in Syria and Libya in recent years.

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan certainly isn’t acting at Washington’s behest in this endeavour: His government has declared that it is “fully ready” to help Azerbaijan reoccupy Nagorno-Karabakh from Armenia, which has an influential diaspora in America and has appealed for US help in ending the fighting.

Erdogan has also reportedly used F-16s and Syrian mercenaries against Armenia, although these allegations remain unconfirmed. Even so, Erdogan’s policy has provoked a stern reaction from French President Emmanuel Macron, who has warned that his government will “not accept” any Turkish-backed escalation of the conflict.

France and Turkey also back opposing sides in Libya’s civil war, leading to an incident in June in which a Turkish naval vessel allegedly targeted a French ship with its fire-control radar. The French-Turkish dispute has become a sharp cleavage within the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, which was already struggling to maintain its cohesion in the vacuum of constructive US leadership.

If the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is a mess of conflicting interests and geopolitical intrigues, so too, increasingly, is the alliance that has kept the peace in Europe for decades. Russian President Vladimir Putin could “lose” the present crisis if Azerbaijan inflicts a military defeat on Armenia, but he could still win if the larger legacy is to weaken an already-divided transatlantic community.

The second reason to take the conflict seriously is that small wars have historically served as dress rehearsals for bigger ones, because they offer a testing ground for emerging concepts and capabilities. The Spanish Civil War allowed the fascist powers to experiment with terror-bombing of civilians. It provided Germany with valuable lessons about armoured warfare. In the same way, the fighting in the Caucasus is one of a series of recent wars that yield clues about how the next great-power conflict might play out.

The Russian example

Russian intervention in Ukraine in 2014 was arguably the first warning. That conflict showed how a resurgent American competitor was now fusing cyberattacks with kinetic strikes, using world-class electronic warfare capabilities to detect and disorient enemy forces, and employing drones, precision-guided artillery and other advanced strike capabilities to wreak havoc on Ukrainian defences.

Similarly, the Syrian civil war was notable, not because of the primitive brutalities deployed by the Bashar al-Assad regime, but because of how effectively Moscow used its precision-strike capabilities to target the Syrian opposition and its advanced air defences to limit American freedom of action. Both conflicts previewed what the US might face in a conflict with Russia — combat on an incredibly lethal battlefield, where even relatively advanced American capabilities would struggle to survive.

Neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan has a particularly sophisticated military, but the conflict between them is telling. Missile strikes against residential areas are a reminder that America’s great-power adversaries could target rear areas and logistical nodes (in Central Europe, for instance) that Washington has long considered secure. Footage of drones destroying tanks and armoured vehicles demonstrate how vulnerable mechanised forces can be when pinpointed by advanced sensors and targeted by precision munitions.

It’s true that armour has long been vulnerable to air attack, and part of the reason mechanised forces have suffered in the current fighting is the use of poor tactics and old equipment. Tanks are not becoming obsolete, and US forces would need heavy armour to stand up to a Russian thrust in the Baltics. Yet on the modern battlefield, it will still be difficult to preserve assets such as tanks absent air superiority or in the face of sophisticated, precision-strike attacks.

The conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh may seem like a remnant of the Soviet past in an unfamiliar part of the world. Yet the fierce fighting underway there could actually be a preview of the future.

Hal Brands is an opinion columnist, and a professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.

Washington Post