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  1. International
31 March 2022

With Russia tied down in Ukraine, other frozen conflicts are thawing

From the Caucasus to the western Pacific, Russia’s opponents are eyeing their chances of redressing the balance of power.

By Gabriel Gavin

YEREVAN, ARMENIA – For the Russian soldiers high up in the Zangezur Mountains, Armenia, the war in Ukraine must seem very far away. On Sundays, truckloads of young conscripts drive down from their outposts to the Armenian city of Goris for rest and relaxation, laughing, smoking and looking for a home-cooked meal. While their comrades fight and die in eastern Europe, they were sent here to keep the peace.

However, that peace is looking increasingly fragile. Just across the border lies the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, formally inside Azerbaijan but held by Armenian separatists since the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, and run as a de facto part of Armenia. Two years ago, a brief but bloody conflict broke out, with Azerbaijan’s forces capturing swathes of territory in the breakaway province and evicting the ethnic Armenians who had lived there. Now, despite a Moscow-brokered ceasefire, there are fears the fighting could start up again.

“Honestly, it was hell,” Tigran, a 32-year-old handyman from Yerevan said of his time on the front lines during the 2020 war. “But if I need to go back, I’ll go back. To defend my wife, my kids, my mum – my country.” He proudly carries his military service card with him everywhere and takes out his phone to show me pictures of him and his friends in army fatigues. “He’s dead now,” Tigran added, pointing to one. More than 4,000 Armenian troops lost their lives defending Nagorno-Karabakh, with Azerbaijan deploying fearsome attack drones provided by its long-standing ally, Turkey.

Last weekend, one of those drones carried out a strike on an Armenian position, killing three servicemen and injuring several others. At the same time, Azerbaijani soldiers were accused of having rolled past Russian outposts to take a village in the demilitarised zone, sparking evacuations and fears that a return to full-scale hostilities could be on the cards. Yerevan has accused Moscow of doing nothing to stop the incursion, with the Armenian prime minister Nikol Pashinyan calling the Kremlin to “stress the need for Russian peacekeepers to return the Azerbaijanis to their starting positions”.

[See also: How will the war in Ukraine end?]

Baku denies it is launching a new effort to retake the region, but insists it has the right to position its forces wherever it chooses “within its internationally recognised borders”, while top politicians call for action against “separatist terrorists”. Azerbaijani officials say no country would accept foreign forces on its sovereign soil, and that they have a right to defend their territory.

The timing could not be worse for the Russian president Vladimir Putin, already bogged down in his catastrophic invasion of Ukraine and now being forced to decide whether to commit personnel and equipment to maintain the status quo in the Caucasus. Kyiv has even welcomed the distraction, with the secretary of its security council, Oleksiy Danilov, saying that “things seem to really be escalating in Nagorno-Karabakh… if second fronts open up for the Russian Federation, as a result of the decisions it has made throughout its short history, these will have a measurable effect in helping us.”

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In theory, Moscow is obliged to protect Armenia, as a member of its Collective Security Treaty Organisation defence pact. But with the reputation of its armed forces shattered as a result of its botched offensive in Ukraine, it is looking like a less reliable partner with each passing day. Gegham Stepanyan, the human rights ombudsman for the self-proclaimed Republic of Artsakh – as Armenians refer to Nagorno-Karabakh – told the New Statesman that “a peacekeeping mission based only on Russia’s political influence is vulnerable”. According to him, “the Azerbaijani side is trying to question the reputation of the Russian peacekeepers and their mission.”

Putin’s woes, however, present an opportunity for another regional power looking to assert itself. The Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has presented himself as a mediator between Moscow and Kyiv, with a series of peace talks being held in Istanbul and Antalya. However, simultaneously, he has openly provided Ukraine with the same advanced Bayraktar attack drones that Azerbaijan has used in Nagorno-Karabakh, helping them to take out vast numbers of Russian tanks and troop transports. Across eastern Europe and the Caucasus, Erdoğan is unpicking the webs of Russian influence that have held fast for more than a century and is moving in to fill the gaps.

The threat of war now looms large in Armenia, a country where almost everyone knows a soldier who lost their life in Nagorno-Karabakh or a family displaced by the fighting. For the Kremlin, though, this could just be the start of a series of problems on its doorstep, with once-frozen conflicts beginning to thaw as a result of Russia’s army having spread itself so thin over Ukraine.

In nearby Georgia, a series of videos have been shared widely online calling for an assault on Abkhazia, a region of the country occupied by Moscow-backed rebels since the country's war with Russia in 2008. Hundreds of Georgian fighters are believed to have gone to fight in Ukraine against Russia and, in one clip, armed volunteers near the front lines told those back home: “we urge you to take up arms and strike at the enemy. We will never have such a chance again.”

On the other side of the globe, just a week after the invasion began, Japan doubled down on its claims to the Kuril Islands in the western Pacific Ocean. The archipelago has been governed from Moscow after it was captured by the Soviet Union at the end of the Second World War, despite Tokyo’s claims to sovereignty. With Moscow increasingly isolated on the world stage, the Japanese foreign minister Yoshimasa Hayashi sought to secure support for reopening the row, saying Russia’s control of the islands contradicted “international order”.

Putin’s miscalculation might have begun in Ukraine but, with foes from the Zangezur Mountains to East Asia smelling weakness and desperation, it is unlikely to end there.

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