The Alphen Group V-Conference: “The Geopolitical and Defence Strategic Implications of the War in Nagorno-Karabakh” December 9th, 2020

“Peripheral conflicts are geopolitical conflicts”.

Core message: The brief but brutal war in Nagorno-Karabakh saw identity, religion, nationalism, geopolitics and military technology combine. As such, it merged and masked the hitherto neat policy and strategy prescriptions the West prefers between wars amongst the people and state on state conflict and suggests escalation from one to the other could be far faster than expected. More indicators, improved Western understanding and quicker responses, both political and military, are needed, and with it the means and ways to undertake such a response. The war revealed the ‘competition’ underway over the willingness of major powers to take risk.  

The Meeting: The meeting first considered the geopolitical implications of a war in which Azerbaijan decisively defeated Armenia. An exercise in Realpolitik, the war saw Israel support the Azeris to consolidate its position against Iran, the strengthening of Russia’s regional position, and the “strategic ambivalence” in the Russo-Turkish relationship, where Turkey’s regional influence was also strengthened, not least through the use of Turkish commandoes and Syrian mercenaries on the Azeri side.  Turkey both confirmed its importance to NATO and the challenge Ankara’s neo-Ottoman behaviour represents to Western statecraft. This not only concerns transatlantic cohesion, but also the “polluting of the Franco-German relationship” given the contending positions of Berlin and Paris.  

The strategic competition implicit in the war suggests consequences if the West fails to compete for influence in regions close to it, particularly the lack of a coherent NATO strategy for the Black Sea Region. However, before any such strategy can be properly fashioned North Americans and Europeans need to better understand such conflicts, what would be needed to effectively engage, and to what ends.  The alternative? The West simply accepts that Armenia and Azerbaijan are in Russia’s sphere of influence and that any Russia adventurism therein is simply a consequence.  Sudetenland 1938? 

Some aspects of the fighting, such as the impact of drones, and precision targeting of long-range artillery, confirmed the frequently predicted future of war.  However, Armenia’s rapid defeat was mainly due to the poor quality of its forces and equipment with the war “May 1940 conceptually” because the Azeris “out-invested” the Armenian military. The very rapid deployment of 5000 Russian peacekeepers also implies that the Kremlin was not at all surprised by the rapid defeat of their Armenian client given tensions between Moscow and Yerevan. Key lessons for NATO could be the high rate of equipment attrition from a minor military power, the danger to Allied forces from a lack of short-range air defence (SHORAD) and the need for far greater numbers of small to medium drones. 

The war took place due to a failure of mediation and peace-building. Azerbaijan won because it is oil-rich and Armenia is not and “quantity in such a war has its own quality”. Moscow did not signal to either Ankara or Tel Aviv that their support for the Azeris ran counter to any critical Russian interests. Sadly, the hatreds that spawned the war remain. Azerbaijan’s pre-planned 2020 war in and over Nagorno-Karabakh begs a further question: how can the rules-based system prevail in a world in which those with burgeoning power prefer Realpolitik and Machtpolik? 

Julian Lindley-French