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 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 troops occupied Nagorno-Karabakh in a brutal war that ended in 1994. The fighting caused tens of thousands of deaths — including massacres of noncombatants and the expulsion of perhaps hundreds of thousands of Azeris.
The ceasefire that ended the war has proven perpetually fragile, so the current round of fighting, which began late last month when Azerbaijani troops 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 because of the disarray it reveals within the international system and because small wars have historically served as dress rehearsals for bigger ones.
It is tempting to see the clash as a US-Russia proxy war, given that Turkey, one of the US’ NATO allies, is backing Azerbaijan and Moscow has close ties with the Armenians. Russia also enjoys good relations with Azerbaijan, but is friendlier with Armenia, which is a member of the Kremlin-led Eurasian Economic Union.
More important, however, are the tensions that the war highlights within the West.
Azerbaijan is not simply a Turkish puppet, but it has enjoyed outspoken support from Ankara in the conflict.
The resumption of hostilities against a long-time enemy of Turkey shows that the war is part of a larger Turkish power play for influence in its geopolitical neighborhood, an effort that includes interventions in Syria and Libya.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan certainly is not acting at Washington’s behest in this endeavor: His government has declared that it is “fully ready” to help Azerbaijan reoccupy Nagorno-Karabakh from Armenia, which has an influential diaspora in the US and has appealed for US help in ending the fighting.
Erdogan has also reportedly used US-provided 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 said that his government would “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 France-Turkey dispute has become a sharp cleavage within NATO, which has struggled to remain cohesive in the vacuum of constructive US leadership.
If the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is a mess of conflicting interests and geopolitical intrigues, so 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.
Small wars offer a testing ground for emerging concepts and capabilities. The Spanish Civil War allowed fascist powers to experiment with terror-bombing civilians and gave Germany valuable lessons about armored 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.
Russian intervention in Ukraine in 2014 was arguably the first warning. That conflict showed how a resurgent US competitor was 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 defenses.
Similarly, the Syrian civil war is notable, not because of the primitive brutalities deployed by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, but because of how effectively Moscow has used precision-strike capabilities to target the Syrian opposition and advanced air defenses to limit US 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 US 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 the US’ great-power adversaries could target rear areas and logistical nodes — for example, in Central Europe — that Washington has long considered secure.
Footage of drones destroying tanks and armored vehicles demonstrate how vulnerable mechanized forces can be when pinpointed by advanced sensors and targeted by precision munitions.
It is true that armor has long been vulnerable to air attack — and part of the reason that mechanized forces have suffered in the current fighting is the use of poor tactics and old equipment — but tanks are not becoming obsolete and US forces would need heavy armor to stand up to a Russian thrust in the Baltics.
Yet on the modern battlefield, it would still be difficult to preserve assets such as tanks absent air superiority — which the US probably would not have in the early stages of a conflict with Russia — or in the face of sophisticated, precision-strike attacks.
This reinforces the need to devise ways of bringing US combat power to bear without gathering forces in highly vulnerable formations, as well as the reality that war against a major power would be far more deadly than anything the US military has experienced since Vietnam.
The conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh might seem like a remnant of the Soviet past in an unfamiliar part of the world, but the fierce fighting underway could be a preview of future wars.
Hal Brands is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist, the Henry Kissinger Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, and a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board, or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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