Over the last week, there have been bloody clashes between two old enemies in the Caucasus region of Europe (or Eurasia, depending on how you ask), that have caused many (including myself) to wonder if one of the "frozen conflicts" of the post-Cold War era is about to become VERY hot..
Who are these old enemies? To explain that, a little background first..
20 years ago, one of the deadly conflicts of the post-Soviet Union finally ended with a ceasefire agreement, one that holds to this day, barely. This conflict was between the not-yet independents nations of Armenia and Azerbaijan. That's right, this conflict began BEFORE these two nations declared their independence from the Soviet Union, which should give you some hint at how deep this conflict goes..
The immediate cause of this conflict was the fact that both countries had significant minority populations of the others' majority ethnic group in their borders and rising nationalism in both regions was causing ethnic friction. In particular, the large population of ethnic Armenians in the Nagorno-Karabakh region within Azerbaijan's borders became the focus of conflict.
This region was not only home to a large population of Armenians, but also a decent Azerbaijani minority as well. Violence between the Armenians and the Azerbaijanis in this region, and the ethnic Armenians hope of joining with Armenia were the immediate cause of the conflict.
The conflict soon spread into full-scale war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, a war that would last for over 6 years and end with a ceasefire agreement, but no lasting armistice or peace. The Nagorno-Karabakh region became a de facto independent state and the Armenians came out as the "victors" of the overall conflict.
During the 20 years that have passed, many aspects of this conflict has changed dramatically, largely in favor of the "loser", Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan is now one of the world's growing energy powers (thanks to her large petrochemical resources, which the Soviets took great advantage of during their rule over the region) and has used this new wealth to fund a large military build-up over the last decade or so.
Arms have been imported from Ukraine, Russia, Turkey and they established a quiet but quite successful relationship with Israeli arms manufacturers. This arms build-up is not unlike that accomplished by Georgia before the 2008 Georgian-Russian war..
Armenia on the other hand, has struggled economically since the conclusion of the war and thus has not been able to maintain the same kind of arms build-up as Azerbaijan has and thus has been growing concerned that Azerbaijan may attempt something similar to what Georgia attempted that sparked their war with Russia: take back territory they claim to be theirs.
Armenia has instead, done what it can to improve her defenses: allied closely with the Russia. To this day, the Russians have a large military base on Armenian soil (which houses a single division and a small unit of MiG-29 fighters). Russian military presence on Armenian soil will almost certain complicate matters for any future war..
Which brings us back to the last weeks events. Regardless of the exact causes, there have been several bloody clashes between the Azerbaijani military and the Armenian forces of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic that have left dozens dead. Further, there are growing signs that these clashes may not be the end of it.
Numerous images posted on Twitter are showing armored vehicles of the Azerbaijani military seemingly moving towards the border with the NKR, leaving we observers to wonder: is this simply precautionary movements by Azerbaijan in light of the recent clashes? Or is it the beginning of something more, prolonged..
What impact does this have on us? The Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict is one of the oldest and bloody to occur in the aftermath of the Soviet Union's fall and for it to re-ignite today could spell chaos throughout the entire region. Russia, who has apparently had no problem selling Azerbaijan arms while simultaneously stationing forces in Armenia, will be put in a difficult position: enter the conflict on the side of Armenia and thus entangle itself in a potential long and drawn-out war, or simply sit on the sidelines and whole the conflict remains contained just outside Russia's border.
The US too would be in a problematic position. While US interests are not necessarily at stake in such a conflict, their relationship built up with Azerbaijan over the last 10 years or so could not be easily ignored and the fact that Azerbaijan's closest ally in the region is fellow NATO-member Turkey could further complicate matters.
The short answer: such a conflict, while not well known to most in the US or the world for that matter, has all the potential for making an already volatile region tip over the edge and make the Georgian-Russian War of 2008 look like a school yard fight...