A low-level war has broken out anew between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the southeast of the Intermarium, in the Caucasus, just east of the Black Sea. Both sides blame each other for the outbreak of the hostilities.
This unfrozen conflict is simply a continuity of the previous ones that have plagued the area since the First World War. As usual, Russia backs Armenia, and it is a good thing, too. Otherwise, Yerevan would be outmatched. The Armenians not only square off against the Azeris but they fear the looming Turkish danger as well.
The Armenians are the ultimate survivors. They endured over a millennium of Muslim occupation. Initially, it was indirect, a function of the balancing power of the Byzantine Empire, and, for a short period, of Christian crusader states in the Levant.
The Armenians usually sided with other Christians, but not always. Sometimes they tried to play their own game of survival, submitting to the Muslims tactically, if they calculated that those Christian powers could not be relied upon to protect the Armenian principalities. After the demise of the Crusader kingdoms and the Byzantine Empire, the Armenians found themselves on their own. Their states destroyed, they were incorporated into either the Ottoman Empire or the Persian Empire.
The latter tended to be a rather more tolerant overlord, which even today translates into unsurprisingly proper, and sometimes even cordial, relations of Yerevan with Teheran. On the other hand, the Ottomans exercised harsh rule over the Armenians. In their national narrative it was a vale of tears of discrimination and prosecution punctuated by pogroms which culminated in the Armenian genocide (1915-1921).
That is perhaps the single most important formative event in Armenian history. For Armenians, Turkey means death. The reality of genocide was so vivid that, upon establishing their fragile independence, the Armenians preferred to capitulate to the Bolsheviks rather than fall under the Turkish boot again in 1920.
Genocide looms large in the Armenian imagination and Yerevan views its geopolitical predicament largely through the prism of that tragedy. The Armenians see themselves as cornered by "the Turks," by which they also mean the Azeris. What keeps Baku and Ankara at bay is Moscow. Russia looms large in the geopolitical game in the Caucasus. Russian Army units are still stationed in Armenia, which Yerevan does not mind because those troops are the best deterrence ever against genocide. At least so goes strategic thinking among the Armenians.
Like Armenia, Azerbaijan is a post-Soviet successor state. During the implosion of the USSR, Azerbaijan witnessed the Kremlin's attempt to foment inter-ethnic unrest there. The KGB is said to have provoked anti-Armenian pogroms in Baku. The more chaos, the more the people would miss Soviet control and the Communist peace of the prison, as Angelo Codevilla terms this sort of predicament. In this case, urban pogroms metastasized into rural fighting.
In 1988 uprisings broke out in regional enclaves of Nakhichevan and Nagorno Karabakh, where the Armenians enjoyed a majority. The former failed and the latter succeeded. Both sent waves of refugees, both Christian Armenians and Azeri Muslims fleeing from violence. Both sides committed atrocities against the civilian population, even if the Azeris were more prolific at that sordid pursuit.
Circa 30,000 people died before a cease fire went into effect in 1994. Ultimately, the Armenians managed to establish a self-proclaimed separatist republic, the Artsakh, smack in the middle of Azerbaijan, recognized virtually by no one but Erevan.
The end result is a landlocked Cyprus. A chunk of land to the west separates the Artsakh from Armenia proper. The main difference is that the enclave never enjoyed a frozen conflict. It has always been half-frozen at best. It has simmered continuously. There were cyclical armed forays and counterforays by both sides, sniping, and other acts of violence, in addition to a constant propaganda war.
And now the conflict has spilled into Armenia proper. It is not that there were cordial Azeri-Armenian relations before: not at all. It is that now Armenia has proclaimed a general mobilization, and it is not kidding. Even the captain of the national soccer team, Warazdat Harojan, has been drafted, and, is reportedly now at the front line.
Live on national TV, prime minister Nikol Pashinyan, who is the nation's Commander in Chief, proclaimed his willingness to die in battle. Armenia proclaimed martial law, and so did Azerbaijan in response.
The fighting is definitely more intense than the last time around, which was in 2016. We do not know exactly what's going on but it looks more serious than usual.
Both sides have deployed heavy artillery and tanks. There is urban combat and strafing in Azeri Terter. The Armenians brag about ambushing Azeri armor. The Azeris boast about routing Armenian infantry, allegedly killing 27 troops in one place on September 28 alone.
So far 59 Armenian soldiers have died. According to Armenian sources, which can't be verified, the Azeris suffered "about 200 casualties and more than 30 pieces of destroyed military hardware." There are further reports of downed "20 drones and three helicopters." The war also rages in the cyberspace. Both sides have attacked cyberassets of the enemy. Both indulge in hyperbolic war propaganda, on Twitter and other platforms.
More troubling are Yerevan's accusations that Baku's troops have targeted the Armenian civilian population. Azerbaijan refuses to reveal its losses and denies hitting non-military targets.
Even Moscow is alarmed. Its MIG-29 planes have overflown Yerevan in a show of solidarity. Vladmir Putin has called for a cease fire. And so has the European Union, the Vatican, and France. Baku is disappointed that Kiyv refused to back its strategic ally and expressed its wish for a peaceful solution of the conflict.
Meanwhile, however, the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has appealed to the world to support Azerbaijan.
The U.S. should observe closely the developments in Armenia. It is in our interest to see a breach between Russia and Turkey. It is not in our interest to let Ankara drag us into its mess in the Caucasus.
We should not help Azerbaijan against Armenia even indirectly. We should let Moscow handle the situation. We should also look forward to Teheran's firmly deterring Ankara's aggressive moves. It would be wise to extend humanitarian aid to the civilian refugees on both sides as an incentive to stop the fighting.
And the Trump administration should be helping to calm things down all around. Nothing less; nothing more. That's the best type of genocide prevention at this stage.
Marek Jan Chodakiewicz is Professor of History at the Institute of World Politics, a graduate school of statecraft in Washington D.C.; expert on East-Central Europe's Three Seas region; author, among others, of "Intermarium: The Land Between The Baltic and Black Seas." Read Marek Jan Chodakiewicz's Reports — More Here.
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