Dangerous Precedent: Military Force Works (For Some)

Predictions are tricky matters in world affairs – and as it turns out, prescience produces little in the way of public or personal vindication. There’s scant satisfaction when one’s subjects tend towards the tragic. Take the (for now) paused 44-day war in the South Caucasus. Back in an October interview, I offered this (then) seemingly provocative prognosis:

"If this thing gets solved, or put back in the freezer, which is about the best we can hope for right now, it will be Putin playing King Solomon and cutting the Nagorno-Karabakh baby in half."

Think Moscow will merit plaudits from mainstream media? After all, four weeks ago, a U.S.-brokered truce held a whole few hours!

Snark aside, intellectual merriment loses luster when it amounts to dancing on thousands of fresh graves filled with family members of the tens of thousands more newly displaced. Only the implications of the ceasefire’s terms – under which Armenian troops withdraw from Nagorno-Karabakh after a 26 years occupation and replaced by Russian peacekeepers – are also disturbing. The outcome also set potentially long-lasting precedents.

Make no mistake this was no small victory for the initiator – if not aggressor – nation of Azerbaijan. That under the agreement, Azeri troops stay in place within areas of Nagorno-Karabakh they seized in battle, has profound ramifications. War worked. Furthermore, seven odd weeks of combat proved – once again – that it often does, at least in certain contexts.

What are those (not-so) special situations, you ask? Easy: be in the esteemed and wealthy Western camp. Kow-tow diplomatically and play ball economically – especially in energy sales – with multinational corporations headquartered in North American and European capitals. Thus, win powerful friends and influence prominent people and nearly anything is permissible.

Anyway, both people and leaders in Baku – especially the mini-Stalinist Aliyev dynasty running the family fiefdom – are thrilled with the outcome. Same goes for folks in Ankara, and madcap Erdogan – the man who would be sultan – himself. Instructively, there’s no less enthusiasm in Tel Aviv – not just by Bibi Netanyahu’s dominant rightist ethnocrats. Because this much you can’t make up: pro-Baku rallies and the waving of Azeri flags in Israel!

Look, Ankara hates their Armenian late genocide victims for surviving to tell the Turk-indicting tale. Besides, Erdogan is pursuing neo-Ottoman adventurism region-wide, and more than happy to tap in into ethno-Turkic and co-religionist solidarity to grease those grandiose wheels. Israel’s self-styled Jewish and Democratic hybrid state support for Shia Islamic majority Azerbaijan seems stranger – unless one’s in the know on the lengthy and sordid ties between Bibi and Baku.

Not so among Armenians in Yerevan – where protesters stormed the parliament, physically accosted the speaker and reportedly looted the prime minister’s own office. Something tells me we haven’t heard the last of Armenia’s army in Nagorno-Karabakh – given the soreness and inherent instability of losing sides in long-standing and externally-escalated ethno-religious conflicts.

And here’s the troubling rub: if not quite smoking guns there’s plenty of smoke indicating that Turkey – and to a lesser but significant extent, Israel – conspired with Azerbaijan’s petty autocrats to conquer (or reconquer) Nagorno-Karabakh. The preparatory collusion was years in the making, ramped up mightily in the months before D-Day – yet unfolded largely under the U.S. and broader international radar. Consider a cursory recitation of the salient sequence.

Ankara’s support for its Azeri Turkic-brethren has grown gradually more overt for years. So have its long-standing arms-sales to Baku. Then came a decisive pivot – according to one report, a six-fold jump in weapon’s transfers to Azerbaijan over the last year. Then, this past summer, Turkish troops trained and did joint exercises with Azeri forces. Consider it a pre-invasion capstone.

Finally – now here’s a cute catalyst – Ankara reportedly moved those implausibly-deniable Syrian mercenaries into Azerbaijan two weeks before Baku’s attack. Don’t take my radical word for it, though. Consider the conclusions of the decidedly establishment-friendly Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s resident Caucasus expert. Fellow longtime NK-watcher Tom de Waal was as clear as he was concise:

"It’s pretty obvious that Azerbaijan has been preparing for this. Azerbaijan decided it wanted to change the status quo and that the Armenian side had no interest in a war…" and "Clearly, the decisive factor in this conflict is Turkey’s intervention on Azerbaijan’s side. They seem to be heavily coordinating the war effort."

All told, that indirect intervention, coordination, and the combat-proven capabilities of allied arms sales bonanzas – especially Turkish Bayraktar TB2 and Israeli kamikaze drones – were decisive. Thousands of Yerevan’s troops were killed, about a third of its tanks were destroyed, and at least 50,000 Armenians have fled in the face of Azeri gains.

Then, in the eleventh hour breach – as if to force friendly peace terms from Russia – Turkey threatened to intervene outright. Just how did big, bad, unhinged and the 10-foot-tall Putin of Democrat-delusions respond to Erdogan’s provocation? Well, he essentially folded – or settled – in the interest of temporary tranquility in Russia’s restive near-abroad. Recall that Moscow eschewed even much menacing – let alone actual intervention – on behalf of its official Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) Armenian ally.

That this was all so represents nothing less than a paradigm-shifting precedent-setter. Or at least a reminder of force’s forever utility…for some. Boost your batch of backers, gather the tech-savvy arsenal that’s thus available, and ready your patron-trained troops for war. Invade only once the green-light comes from on-external-high, and the "rules-based" international order that isn’t – but is dominated (for now) by Washington – will avert eyes long enough to enable Nuremberg’s "supreme crime” of armed aggression to work its magic.

So force pays if your government has coveted energy resources, the cash they produce, the weapons they buy – plus powerful patrons willing to sell you the cutting edge stuff. Just ask sundry Gulf Arab autocrats! (Though it rarely turns out as well for internal – especially Shia dissidents or, you know, Yemeni kids).

To take it a step further, maybe your benefactor even tosses in some third-party mercenaries, trains and advises your army just before game-time, and threatens outright intervention if your little-bro-government doesn’t get it’s way. It also helps if your patron’s patron is still a hyper-hegemon that bullies – I mean, "leads" by principled example – much of the wealthy world into silence or complicity, and looks the other way long enough for facts on the ground to turn your way. Now there’s a formula for force as solution to frozen conflicts!

No doubt other parties paid attention. Heck, they want in on the violent game-changing game! Believe you me, there are plenty of neo-fascists, adventurist American "allies," and frenemies – all in need of a little citizen-distraction from Covid, corruption, and economic collapse – who are all in for applying the new NK-formula. Ukrainian fascists, Georgian Euro-aspirants, frightened and ever-opportunist Baltic bros or Taiwanese troops, Egypt’s military coup-artists, Arabian princely theocrats, and no doubt Israel’s Bibi bunch – yea, they all took careful Caucasus-notes.

So where does America’s president-elect, Joe Biden, stand on the Russian-brokered truce, you ask? About as you’d suspect from a fella inside the beltway cult of "collusion." Biden picked partisan point-scoring over principled consistency. He “slammed” Trump’s supposed slow response to the NK-fighting and accused him of “delegating the diplomacy to Moscow." In fact, his campaign’s initial statement singled out Moscow’s ostensibly "cynical" arms sales to both conflict parties and failed to name even once the war’s Beetlejuice of bellicosity – Turkey.

Never known for nuance, the gut-player-elect failed to couch his rather bold critique with admissions of US security assistance to both sides, acknowledge the Tel Aviv and Ankara accelerants, nor the circumscribed options for any administration in an unfrozen conflict in which Washington has no real "dog in the fight.” Well, that’s strange – seeing as the Russian-led settlement pushed past achieving one of Biden’s publicly stated goals: to "make clear to Armenia that regions surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh cannot be occupied indefinitely."

Well, so it goes with Russia-obsessed Democratic administrations beset with the clinical-narcissism of American exceptionalism. No matter how distant the conflict, no matter how far off the citizenry’s obscurity-radar: the maelstrom must be about us. See everything, everywhere, is apparently about US interests, anxieties, and obsessions. Today’s obsessive flavor of the moment – and for most of the century since Bolshevik Red October – is Moscow.

Therein lies the problem, and what I’ve been boy-who-cried-wolfing about regarding the real risk regarding the coming Democratic administration. That is, after making everything about Trump and Russia for four years, they might begin believing their own exaggerated alarmism and follow through with legit escalation and acceleration of theater numero uno of a dual-front, Eurasia-spanning Cold War encore. If Moscow and Beijing are forever branded bad boys – in motive and machinations – then on shall continually churn the war state, with all the pecuniary and professional benefits to both the outgoing Trump team and incoming Biden bunch alike.

Few Americans will notice, or bother to bother themselves about it – pandemic preoccupied and social media distracted as they be – until the fruits of folly flash in front of their eyes (pun intended).

Forget Condi Rice’s farcical foreboding of a mushroom cloud as smoking gun. Even the Bushies’ bald-faced lies rarely reached past Saddam’s singular nuclear blasts – Washington and Moscow might end the world in an afternoon.

So permit me one final prediction: if they do, some staunch US"ally" learned-of the latest Caucasus-conclusions will be the one to drag us down to oblivion.

Danny Sjursen is a retired U.S. Army officer, senior fellow at the Center for International Policy (CIP), contributing editor at Antiwar.com, and director of the new Eisenhower Media Network (EMN). His work has appeared in the NY Times, LA Times, The Nation, Huff Post, The Hill, Salon, The American Conservative, Mother Jones, Scheer Post and Tom Dispatch, among other publications. He served combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge and Patriotic Dissent: America in the Age of Endless War. Along with fellow vet Chris "Henri" Henriksen, he co-hosts the podcast “Fortress on a Hill.” Follow him on Twitter @SkepticalVet and on his website for media requests and past publications.

Copyright 2020 Danny Sjursen