What does Nagorno-Karabakh conflict mean for the post-Ukraine great powers’ competition?

Austro-Prussian War of 1866, one of three wars that were fought for German unification, had an ironic result: It made both countries become more friendly with one another than before the War. Why? Because as Austria lost its ambitions in Prussia, it decided to turn to Balkan, and there, Austria and Prussia needed to cooperate against the Russian and Ottoman Empire. Knowing that, Bismarck did not go too far and was careful not to humiliate Austria. Now, by the same token, one can say that if Russia loses in Eastern Europe, this old historical pattern might be going to reoccur and Russia will focus on other places like Caucus and Central Asia and it might become conceivable that the US and Russia will cooperate there against Chinese and Turkish influence. With the new security structure that has emerged after Sweden and Finland joined NATO and more NATO presence in countries like Poland (link), Russia is likely losing the whole of Eastern Europe.

So far, the West had no serious interests in Caucasus and Central Asia and the region was fairly secluded from outside influence. Russia dominated its energy resources, and these countries have no access to international waters, so they are heavily dependent on Russia. Kazakhstan’s border with Russia is the second longest border in the world after the US-Canada border (link). Russia has also military bases in Tajikistan and Kirgizstan. But by weakening Russia following its catastrophic war with Ukraine, the peripheral actors started to play a more independent role and voice their grievances more loudly. Recently there was some parliamentary debate in Georgia to de-occupy occupied territories because the opposition thinks the war in Ukraine “opens a certain window of opportunity” for Georgia (link). As another example, Kirgizstan and Tajikistan broke into a fight regardless of Russia’s presence and its military bases in each other’s territory. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine brought a seismic shift in the regional balance of power and centrifugal forces are now taking form. So, the US can exploit this fluid situation to build an influence, cooperate with Russia, and in the end, contain China.

This region used to be part of the USSR and now is Russia’s backyard, but China has started extending its influence there through its belt and road initiative too (link). China, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan signed a landmark railroad deal a few weeks ago (link). Turkey is also growing its influence there, especially after the Nagorno-Karabakh war in 2020. It does this by pressing on the common Turkish origins between Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and the Kyrgyz Republic, all sons of Genghis (link). At first, Turkey had EU ambitions which has been lost with no prospect of membership. Then it turned to the Middle East and tried to gain dominance during the Arab spring, based on religious causes and the Muslim Brotherhood crescent. After the coup in Egypt and following events in Tunis, Libya, and Syria, this plan failed too. Now it seems that Turkey is trying to define a sphere of influence in Caucasus and Central Asia. China may welcome this role because it can challenge Russia’s.

By the war in Ukraine, sooner or later, Russia will understand that it will not be a major power anymore. So it is thinkable that it will more focus on competing with China for its second place in the world order. Chinese economic decline is alluring in this context. Although it would be naive if one thinks that Russia will join the US against China on the international level, at the regional level it makes sense to cooperate with the US. But it requires the US to manage the conflict over Ukraine in a way that while it assures the Russian defeat, it prevents it from being humiliated. It is exactly what Bismarck did in its war with Austria. He tried not to humiliate Francis Joseph I, the Emperor of Austria.

In the Nagorno-Karabakh war, Turkey supported Azerbaijan, while Russia is mainly behind Armenia. Iran, at first, had a vague position, but later it was inclined more towards Armenia, as the Zangezur corridor which is going to link Azerbaijan to its exclave, Nakhichevan, cuts off the land connection between Iran and Russia. Previously, Iran used to provide that connection and this new corridor divested it of its transition income. Now, this corridor can connect pro-Turkey countries on the eastern side of the Caspian Sea to Azerbaijan and finally Turkey itself through the sea. This connection is crucial for fulfilling Turkey’s ambitions in this region.

On the other side, Israel indirectly supports Azerbaijan. The two countries cooperated in different areas in the past (Link). So, as the war goes on, gradually Turkey, Israel, and Azerbaijan join together on one side and Russia, Iran, and Armenia on the other side. In the short run, by siding with the first group, the US can weaken Russian and Iranian influence at the same time, but in the long run, cooperating with the second group is also useful for the US in containing China in the region. This is also one of the areas in which the US and the EU can cooperate with Iran and Russia. If the US wants to pursue wedge diplomacy in today’s great power competition, it should not take sides in this region. It should wait and see which side China will finally stand on, then build a regional balance of power against it.

Right now, Russia controls the flow of oil and gas in the region. By the war in Ukraine, the EU is in dire need of gas resources. The EU may think of exploiting Iran’s gas resources in case of reviving the JCPOA. Turkey can also help the EU to exploit these resources. But dependence on Turkey with its unpredictable foreign policy may bring more problems in the future. Therefore, in the long run, it is better to have a balance of power between Turkey and Russia in this region. It is in this context that Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Armenia, a Russia’s ally, amidst the war in Ukraine makes sense.

To sum up, it is possible that the war in Ukraine will create détente between the US and Russia as it may decrease the importance of Eastern Europe and mitigate the desire to compete with the US and NATO. Then, Russia will possibly focus more on its relative position with China in the world pecking order and its influence in this region, than competing with the US, and in both cases, the US can cooperate with Russia and furthers its interests accordingly. But before that, first, Russia must be defeated totally and this analysis gives another reason why Russia must lose this war.

Issa Adeli
Issa Adeli
US foreign policy researcher