Out of the Freezer for Good: The Seeds of the Next Nagorno-Karabakh War

This past September, Turkey and Israel encouraged Azerbaijan’s "mini-Stalin" of a strongman to forcefully seize the disputed mountainous patch of Armenian-inhabited Caucasus-earth known as Nagorno-Karabakh. These treaty or decisively de-facto allies, respectively, armed and backed Baku’s decision to take what’s been called a "frozen conflict" out of the freezer for good – thereby committing the "supreme crime” of aggression, according to the postwar Nuremberg Principles. Some 6,000 soldiers and civilians were killed; tens of thousands were displaced. Washington stood aside, and mostly mute. Moscow brokered a truce in its own backyard, and – more selflessly than the West cares to admit – deployed peacekeepers that are more put upon than an American soldier (trust me) would ever care to be. In the end, the Russian-mediated "peace" will probably prove more suspended-stasis than settled-stalemate, sowing the seeds of the next war – which may go big and turn regional – that’s likely to kick-off sooner than later.

During and just after the collapse of the Soviet Union, between 1988-94, some 30,000 people were killed in this ethnic and territorial conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh – which has long been (despite Baku’s protestations) inhabited mostly by ethnic Armenians. After the last truce, both sides settled into World War I-style trench lines separated by a few hundred kilometers, and occasionally slogged it out for a few minutes or hours – but mostly the conflict slowly "froze," without any real progress towards a long-term diplomatic settlement.

These days, after a clear – if not exactly decisive – Azeri victory, the antagonists now sit sometimes less than 15 meters apart, weapons ever-trained on one another. Armenian and Azeri soldiers occasionally confer at the "contact line" in No Man’s Land, and – as ubiquitous internet videos show – this rarely ends well. Scuffles ensue, as the hated foes hit each other with rifle butts, shoot in the air and curse – many sustaining injuries ranging from bruises and cuts (for now). It’s a touchy and tenuous situation, and there’s scant chance that a few thousand awkwardly – if admirably – situated Russian troops can do much more than delay the next implosion.

The real problem is the American-allied accelerants – Israel, and especially Turkey – who’ve not ceased catalyzing conflict, and aiding and abetting Azeri aggression along the way. Both parties – poor and under-equipped Armenia and resource rich military-tech savvy Azerbaijan – are even now jockeying for micro tactical advantage in the hills, bidding their time until the next nonsensical flare-up. This last blowup was more violent than most other contemporary regional conflicts. For example, the month and a half long Nagorno-Karabakh War was (per capita) about 60 times as bloody, per capita, as the war in Ukraine’s Donbas Region – which garners far more media attention – with an average of 130 killed a day, versus about eight a day in the more than seven year old Ukraine conflict.

Furthermore, the half-life of major Nagorno-Karabakh combat cataclysms seems to be nose-diving. Fighting first started between the two sides in the wake of the 1917 Russian Revolution, until it was put-down by civil war-victorious Soviet troops. After that matters calmed until 1988 – some 70 years of status quo. After the 1994 ceasefire, the next major combat held off until 2016 – 22 years. The most recent outbreak, however, was barely four years later, and – if I were a betting man – the next madness will be in the offing within a year or two.

Unlike the American-allied Turks and Israelis, the international community ought be thanking – rather than reflexively demonizing – Russia, which has shown enormous restraint, and is currently guiding the "Cold Peace" between the two sides. As I predicted in an interview towards the tail-end of the recent fighting, "If this thing gets solved, or put back in the freezer…it will be Putin playing King Solomon and cutting the Nagorno-Karabakh baby in half."

Consider this: Armenia is a member of "Russia’s NATO," the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) – yet even when Azerbaijan targeted SCUD ballistic missile launchers and S-300 air defense systems inside Armenia itself, Moscow chose to ignore the incidents and eschew its arguable obligation to come to Yerevan’s defense. Instead, after sequential failed attempts by France and the US, the other parties to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group – that has long overseen the unsuccessful diplomatic efforts to settle the longstanding conflict – Russia threaded the needle and negotiated the current truce.

The Russian troops on the ground are in a tough spot – only don’t expect any empathy from American service-members who’d whine endlessly in the same situation. Beyond serving as an – always off-putting – "tripwire” between the hair-trigger-ready foes, Moscow’s mediators are stuck in an almost impossible intervention, often managing the most mundane of matters. The Russian peacekeeping-portfolio extends to everything from mediating disputes over water access or stray cows – Moscow even established a hotline locals can call for help with lost cattle! – plus removing shards of missiles stuck in orchards.

Nevertheless, Russia gets no credit, and realizes it’ll be in for only blame if something goes bad on the border. "You will see, the moment something goes wrong in Karabakh, Russia will be blamed for that and more. As the usual suspect, Russia is always a fall guy," said one Russian government-linked analyst – and he’s not wrong. This, despite the exceedingly obvious fact that Moscow brushed aside Armenian requests for its treaty-obligated intervention, negotiated the truce, bears the awkward peacekeeping burden – and ultimately has nothing to gain, and plenty to lose, in the doing. In Nagorno-Karabakh, at least, it’s all-risk, no-reward, for the Russkies.

The war ended with Azeri troops recapturing significant swaths of Nagorno-Karabakh, and has – not altogether inaccurately – been buzzword-dubbed the "first postmodern conflict,” and a "technological victory.” Baku has Israel and Turkey to thank for that, along with ample natural gas revenues, that allowed Azerbaijan to purchase Tel Aviv’s HAROP loitering "suicide drone" UAV system – designed to destroy targets by diving and exploding on them – and a batch of Bayraktar TB2 missile-armed UAVs from Turkey. These unmanned aerial killers amply-attritted Armenia’s lumbering Soviet-era armored forces so sufficiently that – unlike in the 1988-94 war – apparently the two sides’s tanks never even got within shooting distance of one another.

All told, Armenia lost half of its total tank fleet and two-thirds of its mobile air defense batteries. The gig was up for the Armenians once Azeri special forces seized the strategic city of Shusha, overlooking the Nagorno-Karabakh region’s capital city of Stepanakert – which was, at that point, inside enemy mortar range – and Yerevan had no choice but to accept a humiliating ceasefire, beefier the mountainous enclave was cutoff.

Would that that were the end of it. Unfortunately, Baku – backed and bolstered by Turkey’s Madcap neo-Sultan Erdogan – isn’t satisfied with its newly-won gains, and Azeri authoritarian-in-chief, Ilham Aliyev, has only escalated his irredentist-absolutist ethno-chauvinist rhetoric. At a troubling, yet instructive, December 10 victory parade in Baku, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan joined President Aliyev on the reviewing stand as some 3,000 Azeri soldiers triumphantly marched past. In his post-parade remarks, Aliyev then delivered a not-so-veiled threat to reopen the war and conquer swaths of Armenia proper – three regions of which, including the capital of Yerevan, he called "historically Azeri lands." Naturally, that’s nonsense – on the historical merits – but worse still, such bellicose bluster is near-certain to cause an all-but-obligatory reaction.

Aliyev’s rants – and proclaimed goals – essentially erase Armenia as a viable and legitimate state. That’s just bound to existentially frighten, and elicit an equal and opposite hyper-nationalist response from Armenian descendants of genocide victims – which the Turkish perpetrators still officially deny – of an ethnic-cleansing suffered barely a century ago. Besides, unless Yerevan stands ready (it doesn’t!) to surrender over all of its Armenian-majority brethren in Nagorno-Karabakh – along with its national pride – it has little choice but to fight further, even if the endeavor is hopeless against a more populous, wealthy, and well-armed adversary.

After all, de-facto autonomous Nagorno-Karabakh’s economy has shrunk to one quarter of its former size since the latest war: what with almost half of its farmland – agriculture being the region’s second largest employment sector after the military – now under Baku’s control. An entity so circumscribed is no longer viable. The status quo can’t and won’t suffice from Armenia’s perspective. For Yerevan, it may be fight-or-flight time in the crazed Caucasus.

So mark my words: when that Armenian counterattack comes, or Azeri revanchist re-engagement kicks off, Washington will be caught flat-footed, busy blaming Moscow for anything and everything under its peripheral sun. Meanwhile, its conflict-catalyzing Israeli little brother and Turkish NATO-frenemies will raise the regional stakes, and risk a real regional war, with Russia – the one real adult in the riskiest room in town.

Danny Sjursen is a retired U.S. Army officer, the director of the Eisenhower Media Network (EMN), a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy (CIP), contributing editor at Antiwar.com, and co-hosts the podcast “Fortress on a Hill.” His work has appeared in the NY Times, LA Times, The Nation, The Hill, Salon, The American Conservative, and Mother Jones, among other publications. He served combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and taught history at West Point. He is the author of three books, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge, Patriotic Dissent: America in the Age of Endless War, and most recently A True History of the United States. Follow him on Twitter @SkepticalVet.

Copyright 2021 Danny Sjursen