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Waiting for the Storm: South Caucasus

  • Last updated: 09 Jan. 2019 10:00

Russian Studies Series 1/19


by Ray Finch

Waiting for the Storm: South Caucasus

Review of M. Barabanov, M. Yesiltash, A. Lavrov, N. Lomov, Y. Lyamin, L. Nersisyan, A. Nikolsky в ожидании бури: южный кавказ (V Ozhidanii Buri: Yuzhniy Kavkaz), Ed. Konstantin Makienko, Moscow, Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, 2018.

A Yiddish proverb posits that “a bad peace is better than a good war” and this sentiment could certainly be applied to the South Caucasus. For centuries, great powers have fought for influence, while local ethnic elites have struggled to claim or occupy lands belonging to their neighbor. The Soviet period was marked by a “divide and conquer” strategy, where the Kremlin’s cynical drawing of borders helped to exacerbate ethnic strains among the locals. The collapse of the USSR took the lid off these simmering tensions, and over the past three decades, both major powers and regional leaders have made repeated attempts to retake territory and redraw the borders. According to the timely and well-documented study, ожидании бури: южный кавказ (Waiting for the storm: South Caucasus), published by a team of subject matter specialists from the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (CAST), while the situation today is relatively calm, there are dark clouds gathering on the horizon.

The book begins with an Introduction by the Deputy Director of the Center, K. V. Makienko, who argues that much has occurred in the region since the Center’s last publication dealing with the South Caucasus (The Tanks of August, 2010) and that the focus of instability has shifted from a possible Russian-Georgian conflict to one between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh. In their earlier work, CAST authors accurately describe the events leading up to the Russo-Georgian conflict, the actual fighting, some of the lessons learned, and many of the shortcomings which were revealed during the course of operations. While Russian provocations are mentioned, the authors insist that responsibility for the August 2008 conflict rests firmly on the pro-Western Georgian leadership.1 This same analysis of Russian intentions and the underlying belief that the Kremlin has legitimate interests in the South Caucasus permeates the current volume. Indeed, from their perspective, “a bad peace (managed by Russia) is better than a good war.”

Makienko asserts that given the positive relations that the Kremlin maintains with both Armenia and Azerbaijan, the challenge for Russia in dealing with Nagorno-Karabakh rests more on diplomacy than military force. Moreover, after reminding readers that Russia is currently military involved in Syria and the Donbas region, he suggests that the Kremlin would be stretched thin if an additional military presence was required in the South Caucasus. Given the stymied nature of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, where both sides have historical claims to the region, Makienko argues that resolution is not necessarily the Kremlin’s objective, rather it is using its diplomatic power to maintain the status quo and prevent military escalation.

Developments in the region: the roles of local actors

The first section of the text provides a detailed accounting of military developments and procured armaments (personnel, equipment, training) of all the local actors (Azerbaijan, Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh, Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia) from the collapse of the USSR to the present. Beginning with Azerbaijan, the authors describe the country’s economic and political instability in the early 1990s, exacerbated by the Azeri military defeat over Nagorno-Karabakh. Twenty-five years later, the wounds from this defeat are still raw, aggravated by the occasional fighting along the line of contact, bellicose rhetoric from politicians and pundits, and zealous claims of ownership by all sides. The leadership in Baku appears determined to re-establish their political authority over this breakaway enclave—even if this entails a resumption of military hostilities.

Once the political situation in Azerbaijan stabilized in the mid-1990s, and oil revenues began to pour in, the country’s leadership began to invest in reforming and modernizing their military. In a detailed annex, the authors provide a complete list of every major Azeri weapon purchase from 1994-2017. Authorities in Baku were willing to shop around, buying major weapon systems from Russia, Ukraine, Israel, Belarus, Turkey, South Africa and other countries. While initially their purchases covered the complete weapon spectrum, by 2008 Azeri leaders began to focus on the advanced weaponry needed to retake Nagorno-Karabakh (UAVs, deep strike weapons and so on). Indeed, as stated in their 2010 military doctrine, the return of Nagorno-Karabakh to Azeri control remains the top military objective.

This first section of the book then proceeds to trace military developments among the other main actors in the region. Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh have also worked to reform and modernize their armed forces, but lacking fossil fuel revenues, have had to rely mostly upon the Kremlin’s largesse. The authors divide military developments between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, as though the latter was truly independent. While the authors do not provide a detailed annex of weapon procurements for Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, they do describe the major weapon systems provided by Russia as well as weapon purchases from other countries and domestic production. There is not a perfect correlation, but it is clear that the Kremlin is attempting to offset any Azeri military advantage by supplying Armenia with similar weapon systems. Although the Russian leadership can help to balance arms between the two sides, they are powerless to equalize the growing demographic disparity, and as the authors point out, should current trends continue, compared to Azerbaijan, Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh will be heavily outnumbered in draft-age men.

Moving on to Georgia, while still intent upon modernizing their armed forces, the country’s leadership, chastened by their defeat in August 2008, and “forced to face reality”, has shifted their focus from building a military capable of restoring the country’s break-away regions to defense against their large northern neighbour. The authors claim that despite many challenges, and although the country’s accession is unlikely anytime soon, Tbilisi remains intent upon pursuing NATO membership. Nevertheless, the authors warn that “should a favourable international condition develop, Georgia could quickly and painlessly join this organization” (p. 96). While there is no description of what these “favourable international conditions” might entail, the authors claim that such a move would present a direct threat to Russia. Equally, given the leverage the Kremlin has gained by recognizing the “independence” of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, as well as its significant military presence in these pro-Russian statelets, Georgia’s accession into NATO appears highly unlikely for the foreseeable future.

As though mindful of their Kremlin audience, the authors include a section on the developments within the local armed forces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, portraying these Russian satellite-states as fully independent countries (the Russian military presence is described in the second section). Given their utter dependency upon the Kremlin, it is not altogether clear why these statelets need their own militaries, particularly when Russia has deployed its own robust forces into these regions. Besides helping to maintain the façade of independence, the authors suggest these local militaries provide a valuable source of jobs, as well as an extra layer of defense against the wiles of NATO and the US.

The roles of Russia, Turkey and Iran in the region

The second section of the book deals with the influence of the major external actors upon the region, Russia, Turkey and Iran, all of whom currently have interests in maintaining a stable status quo. The section opens with a comparison of the large Russian military presence in the region when the USSR collapsed and how these forces continued to shrink until 2008. After the brief conflict with Georgia in 2008, Russia fortified its position within the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In an echo of their observations in The Tanks of August, when they noted that Russia had failed to deter Georgia in 2008, the authors argue that conflict is more likely without a large Russian military presence in the South Caucasus, perhaps justifying the deployment of some 15,000 Russian military personnel on the bases in Armenia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The section describes the composition of these Russian forces and recent developments in each of these regions. This strong military presence provides the Kremlin not only with considerable influence in the region, but also serves as fortified staging areas should Russia need to strengthen forces in the South Caucasus.

Turkey has adopted a multi-faceted policy toward the South Caucasus, dictated largely by its energy needs and longstanding dispute with Armenia. It has sold arms to Azerbaijan and Georgia, but has no military personnel deployed in the region. Unlike their analysis of Russia and Iran, the authors do not describe Turkish military forces and equipment which could be deployed in the event of hostilities. Despite Turkey’s NATO membership, and notwithstanding the shooting down of a Russian warplane in November 2015, Ankara has pursued a much less confrontational policy toward Russia. It has agreed to purchase a Russian advanced air defense system, and, in mid-November 2018, Russian and Turkish officials celebrated the offshore completion of a major pipeline which will route Russian gas through Turkey into Europe. This energy dependency also plays a role in Turkey’s relations with Georgia and Azerbaijan. The conflicts in Syria and Ukraine, as well as Georgia’s NATO aspirations, have somewhat complicated matters for Ankara. Nevertheless, like Russia, according to the authors, the current status quo in the South Caucasus, while not ideal, remains acceptable to Turkey.

Somewhat similar to the Russian claims, given its long historical ties to the region, Iran maintains that the South Caucasus lies within its sphere of interests. The authors posit that both Iran and Russia have an interest in limiting US involvement in the South Caucasus. Like Turkey, Tehran’s involvement in the South Caucasus has been tempered by a desire to maintain good relations with Russia. Although Iran has deployed considerable forces in the northern part of the country (which are described in detail), its current military focus has been on Iraq and Syria.

The authors remind us of the millions of ethnic Azeris living in northern Iran, and how Baku has exploited this presence when necessary. The authors point out that many Azeris resent the role which Iran played at the beginning of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, when under the guise of holding peace talks in Tehran, Armenian forces consolidated their positions in the region. Iran’s good relations with Armenia are predicated upon the historical good ties between the two countries, as well as a possible antidote against Baku’s temptation to stoke separatist tendencies among the ethnic Azeris living in Iran. Tehran’s insistence that there is no military solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, and Baku’s concerns over the possible spread of Iranian religious fundamentalism within Azerbaijan have also complicated relations between the two countries.

Is war inevitable?

The third section of the book, entitled “The second Karabakh war: worst case inevitable?”, examines the April 2016 conflict, and the authors warn of the growing likelihood of another major war over Nagorno-Karabakh. The text offers a review of both the distant and proximate causes behind this latest round of major violence, with the authors noting that this has not been a “frozen conflict” and that hostilities have been simmering since 2008 when Azerbaijan began to focus on military modernization. The authors describe how, prior to the April 2016 conflict, the Azeri military conducted large-scale military exercises close to the line of conflict. Soldiers in Nagorno-Karabakh thus may have been lulled into complacency, when in the month proceeding the April attack, the Azeri military was able quickly to concentrate forces along the line of contact.

The authors also offer a detailed description of the major fighting during the four day battle. Though they faced some ongoing problems, in a swift, two-prong attack, Azeri forces were able to employ a variety of deep-strike weapon systems and to regain some eight square miles of territory formally controlled by Armenia. According to the authors, future large-scale conflict, should it occur, will likely follow this same formula: rather than trying to retake the entire Nagorno-Karabakh region in a massive, protracted conflict, Baku will likely adopt a quick strike strategy for limited objectives.

If a future conflict is deemed “inevitable”, the authors place the primary blame for future renewed hostilities with the leadership in Baku, the party most aggrieved at the current status quo, since upwards of 20 percent of Azeri land remains controlled by Armenia. The authors claim that Azeri leaders have not only ignored the limits imposed by the now defunct CFE Treaty, but after 2000, with their considerable fossil fuel revenues, focused on developing military forces capable of retaking the lands seized by Armenia. Alongside their legal claims to this territory, they (again) describe Azerbaijan’s growing demographic advantage: Azerbaijan’s population in 2014 – 9.5 million with 800,000 draft-age young men compared to Armenia’s 3.1 million with 225,000 draft-age young men. Thus, while Armenian forces have traditionally been regarded as superior to their Azeri counterparts, the disparities in weapon procurement and demographics have likely tilted the balance of power toward Baku.

This section also discusses how domestic political and economic factors have contributed to the ongoing violence and likelihood of future conflict. Authoritarian leaders in Baku have used the conflict as a convenient smokescreen to deflect criticism of political repression and economic injustice. Leaders in Yerevan and Stepanakert have also exploited feelings over Nagorno-Karabakh to secure their hold on power. The weak democratic institutions within the region provide little defense against nationalist rhetoric and appeals for vengeance.

It also includes its obligatory potshot at the US. In describing the events leading up to the April 2016 skirmish, the authors claim (citing a pro-Armenian source) that on 31 March, just a day before hostilities were to commence, President Aliev met with the US Secretary of State and received informal approval to begin military actions to restore Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity (p. 156). Such an aside aligns well with the current Kremlin narrative which asserts that Washington is the “global puppet-master”, capable of pulling any string to further its geopolitical interests. But the accusation ignores the considerable effort the US has made in trying to mediate this conflict toward a peaceful resolution.

The South Caucasus in the context of wider global rivalry

In the epilogue to the book, Dmitry Trenin provides a sober and clear perspective as to why the South Caucasus has again become a region of vital importance to Russia and other major powers. Trenin argues that the brief period of US military hegemony has ended, and the world has re-entered a period of great power competition. As though justifying the book’s detailed weapon inventory among the regional powers, Trenin insists that in this new global rivalry, experts must be aware of each side’s military capabilities. Moreover, since the South Caucasus region has traditionally been a playing field for great power rivalry, there are dangers that a local conflict (e.g. Nagorno-Karabakh) could explode into something wider.

Trenin asserts that the Kremlin leadership regards the South Caucasus with trepidation, pointing out that the collapse of the USSR began with the fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh. He posits that unlike the North Caucasus, where Russia has been able to construct a modicum of stability, other major powers (Turkey, Iran, China and the US) have interests in the South Caucasus, preventing Russia from acting independently to maintain peace in the region. Therefore, Trenin recommends that Russia should work closely with Iran and Turkey to prevent war and strengthen peace in the South Caucasus. In developing an effective strategy for this region, Russian leaders must be aware of the specifics, and according to Trenin, this book will help.

The resonance of the book in Russia and for NATO

Russian reviewers of this text have given it a mostly positive response. For instance, Kalashnikov Magazine was particularly impressed with the third chapter’s detailed description of the brief war in April 2016, commenting that in their desire to present a balanced account, the authors included all the conflicting data from the Azeri and Armenian sources. This review also highlighted the escalating arms race between the warring sides, positing that like the shotgun in Chekhov’s play, these lethal weapons will eventually be fired.

Sputnik, the Kremlin-supported news site, also gave the book a favorable review, reiterating the likelihood of future conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh as Azerbaijan continues to transform its oil wealth into advanced weaponry. This review stressed the assertion that Russia must take the lead in helping to maintain military parity between Armenia and Azerbaijan, claiming that this is “the most realistic mechanism for maintaining stability in the region”. A Voice of Armenia review downplayed the growing wealth disparity between the two countries, and asserted that despite its new weapons, Azerbaijan “is definitely not ready for serious military operations”.
Besides its slight pro-Kremlin and anti-Western bias, the only other weakness in the text is perhaps an over-reliance upon a mere cataloguing of major military equipment. The authors provide a detailed listing of the major armaments of all the major players in the region (except Turkey), but do not adequately consider issues related to the maintenance and upkeep. For instance, after spending billions of dollars on new weaponry, concerns over obsolescence may have spurred Baku to employ these armaments before they became inoperative or obsolete.

Twenty five years ago, in the euphoria of a post-Cold War Europe, NATO leaders developed the Partnership for Peace (PfP) program, with the intent “to increase stability, diminish threats to peace, and build strengthened security relationships between individual Partner countries and NATO, as well as among Partner countries”. Given that Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia are all active PfP members, it remains imperative that NATO understand the military capabilities, anxieties and intricacies among the countries and peoples of the South Caucasus. While sobering in its conclusions, Waiting for the storm: South Caucasus may assist in realizing the PfP mission, shedding light on Russian views of the dynamics in the region – and, perhaps as importantly – how Russian observers understand so-called “frozen conflicts” in the region.


1(back) For an assessment of this book, see the review in this series by Keir Giles (Sept. 2010), Understanding the Georgia conflict, two years on: reviews and commentaries – Part 1: “The tanks of August”, Pukhov, R. (ed.), Moscow, CAST, 2009,