As in the 1990s, border skirmishes in Nagorno-Karabakh between Armenia and Azerbaijan appear to be escalating into full-scale conflict.
The mountainous enclave is part of Azerbaijan but is run by its mostly ethnic Armenian inhabitants. It is not recognised internationally as independent. Following the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, war in Nagorno-Karabakh led to the deaths of 30,000 people.
In 2020, there is an important difference. The fighting that broke out over the past week involves the use of foreign armed drones and, allegedly, mercenaries. This increases the potential for the conflict to devolve into a grinding battle as the supply of men and materiel from mercenaries and weapons from other nations will lower the cost to the main combatants.
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Turkey has already declared its full support for Azerbaijan, while Armenia is part of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO). This means the fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh represents a possible third indirect front involving Russian and Turkish proxies, after Syria and Libya.
Armenia’s Ministry of Defence has claimed the Azeri military is escalating operations, including the deployment of Turkish combat air support and Syrian mercenaries. Moscow has signalled that it prefers to mediate the conflict instead of joining it but any escalation risks drawing in more regional powers such as Iran and the United Arab Emirates.
Adding fuel to the fire, the governments of Armenia and Azerbaijan have exchanged Twitter barrages that rival their artillery duels in intensity.
The exchanges, heightened by nationalism and foreign states’ sponsored trolling, highlight the prominent role played by social media networks in modern warfare.
Armenia says facing ‘historic threat’ as Karabakh clashes intensify
Azerbaijan has accused the Armenian military of complete disregard for civilian casualties by employing long-range artillery barrages. Armenian accusations are no less pointed. Both sides have denied such allegations.
In the past, psychological warfare was the domain of loudspeakers and airdropped leaflets. Now it has moved into cyberspace – there is even an Azeri YouTube video featuring crunching heavy metal riffs.
Perhaps appropriately for the genre, the video features rockers performing against a backdrop of helicopters, tanks and mobile missile launchers, which predictably explode into action as the music approaches its climax.
Most worrying, though, is the reported presence of Syrian mercenaries allegedly contracted by Turkey in support of Azerbaijan. There has been no official confirmation but the use of mercenaries appears to be expanding from the Middle East and North Africa to the Caucasus.
The fear factor associated with the presence of ruthless foreign fighters is not new. The employment of mercenaries known for their combat skills and blatant disrespect of the rules of war permeates history.
For example, the Byzantine army from the 10th to the 14th century included the Varangian Guard: Norsemen from Scandinavia and Kievan Rus fighting with axes and spreading terror in the enemy’s camp by their mere presence.
News of thousands of Syrian mercenaries imposing sharia law has already surfaced online, with the same effect as the Varangian raven banners fluttering on the battlefield.
Russia says foreign fighters joining Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict
Moscow has vociferously condemned the alleged use of foreign mercenaries and terrorists in Nagorno-Karabakh, and considers their presence a threat to the entire region. The irony, though, is that Russia invented this blueprint: Turkey has merely developed its own version of the hybrid warfare battle-tested by Russia in Ukraine and Libya.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, regarded as the mastermind behind President Vladimir Putin’s privatisation of warfare via the Wagner Group, has been emulated by Adnan Tanriverdi, the founder of the Sadat Inc International Defence Consultancy and another specialist in the dark arts.
Tanriverdi, a former brigadier-general in the Turkish armed forces, spearheads President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ambitions for a Turkish private army. However, Tanriverdi has always publicly denied any active involvement by Sadat Inc in the ongoing conflicts.
Events in Nagorno-Karabakh reflect the fundamental shifts that will characterise warfare for the foreseeable future. We are at an inflection point: hybrid conflicts in Ukraine, Libya, Yemen and Mozambique are clear indications of what is to come.
The demise of the bipolar global order has propelled the rise of private corporations that offer military-style services as part of their core business model. The era of private military and security firms operating out of sight, waging wars on behalf of or over the assets of central governments, has arrived.
Their services differ in terms of price and capabilities but mercenaries all offer one valuable deliverable: public deniability. Using mercenaries is also an efficient way to preserve the lives of national soldiers in well-trained but small armed forces.
If the benign pressure from external powers on Armenia and Azerbaijan does not ease the fighting soon, any negotiations for a quick peace will be derailed.
Many people will be hard-pressed to find Nagorno-Karabakh on a map, much less care about what happens there. But it will be worth paying attention to the fighting to discern several important trends which could spread: the use of private military contractors to fight on a state’s behalf; the sophisticated use of social media to bring nationalist sentiments to a boil; intensifying geopolitical rivalries; and strong men leaders – in this case, Erdogan – who view military muscle as a ticket to a seat at the big table.
Dr Alessandro Arduino is principal research fellow at the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore, specialising in the roles played by private military contractors and technology in modern warfare.
This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (www.scmp.com), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.
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