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The Embers of War: Insecurity in the Russosphere

September 2022 witnessed outbreaks of violent conflict between the armed forces of multiple nations within the Russian sphere of influence which resulted in over 300 casualties over the course of a few days. The first of these conflicts occurred when Azerbaijan launched an offensive along the Eastern Armenian border claiming it was in response to Armenian aggression but resulted in Azerbaijani troops briefly occupying portions of Armenian borderlands. Meanwhile, deadly clashes erupted between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan as they engaged in combat along their disputed border. Whilst the death toll alone should be enough to capture the attention of the international community, it is also important to note that these conflicts erupted soon after Russia suffered a setback at the hands of Ukrainian forces during their Kharkiv counteroffensive. Furthermore, three of the four nations (Armenia, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan) involved in this conflict are members of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) headed by Russia. Therefore, the security of these nations is intimately tied to Russia’s ability to guarantee security in the region.

These conflicts did not originate in September 2022. The conflict between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan is a legacy of the Soviet Union’s collapse and the resulting disagreements between Central Asian successor states concerning the proper delimitation of borders that were essentially porous before 1991. These countries share a 970 km border of which only 503 km is considered to be settled. This has resulted in over 150 clashes between the two countries and their border communities in the past 11 years with a marked escalation in 2021 followed by the most recent clashes which were the deadliest yet. The conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia is much older with its origins lying in the particularly brutal wars during 1918-1920 between their predecessor states. The conflict then lay dormant as both countries became part of the USSR. However, hostilities were renewed as the USSR began collapsing with Armenia and Azerbaijan clashing over the status of the Armenian-majority Nagorno-Karabakh region within Azerbaijan. These clashes resulted in the First Nagorno-Karabakh war which ended in 1994 with the Bishkek protocol and the establishment of the largely internationally unrecognized Armenian-allied Republic of Artsakh. Artsakh controlled the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region and occupied seven Azerbaijani districts located between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia. This occupation continued until the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war which resulted in an Azerbaijani victory with the victors reclaiming the seven districts lost earlier whilst also reclaiming parts of Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan also secured a protected transportation route through Armenia connecting the newly liberated districts to the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhchivan. To maintain the new ceasefire, a 2000 strong Russian peacekeeping force was deployed in the region for a minimum period of five years.

Few states that emerged after the fall of the USSR have enjoyed an extended period of time free from war, conflict, and other internal insecurities. However, it has been argued that the CSTO has played a relatively important role in shielding signatory states, especially non-Russian post-Soviet states (Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan), from foreign state-led intervention. An important mechanism through which this was achieved was Article 4 of the CSTO which compels the military alliance to collectively respond to external aggression directed at any of the signatory states. The last time that this article was invoked was in January 2022 when the Kazakhstani government appealed to the CSTO for assistance in quelling violent anti-government protests. In response to this, the military alliance mobilised a multi-nation peacekeeping unit which assisted government forces in restoring stability in the country. This was the first time Article 4 was invoked to address internal security issues. However, no such aid was forthcoming when Armenia invoked the Article in response to what it considered to be Azerbaijani incursions into Armenia. Instead, the CSTO sent a fact-finding mission headed by its Secretary General to assess the extent of the damage which many Armenians considered to be an ineffectual response to the Azerbaijani attack. When this is viewed in conjunction with the failure of Russian peacekeepers to prevent the outbreak of fresh conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia, it casts a dim light on Russia’s ability to guarantee security in the Caucuses either through the CSTO or by itself. Furthermore, the CSTO has also proven to be largely ineffective in dealing with intra-signatory state conflict as in the case of the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan clashes where both states can block resolutions that could send peacekeeping forces. Both countries are hosts to Russian military bases that are important to Russian regional security infrastructure. So, Russia has largely relied on personal diplomacy to iron out most differences between these countries because it needs to ensure that any solution to the border problem is acceptable to both sides. Therefore, as Russia mobilises more troops and expends greater resources on the war in Ukraine, it becomes less likely that Russia would also be able to pay attention to the various mechanisms that are in place to maintain security within other parts of Russia’s sphere of influence.

The Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan conflict has seen a de-escalation with both sides entering new rounds of discussions to resolve the border delimitation issue. However, tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan remain high as both countries rush to arm themselves while calling on their regional allies for increased support. As Europe plans to ramp up its import of gas from Azerbaijan, any prolonged conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia would further threaten European energy security. Furthermore, Turkey’s close strategic and military ties with Azerbaijan increase the potential for official or unofficial NATO involvement in a conflict at Russia’s borders with a country that the CSTO is beholden to protect. Finally, Iran has also promised to act in response to any attempt to ‘change the borders’ between Armenia and Iran. All in all, any potential prolonged conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan has the possibility of quickly spiralling out of control and becoming a multi-state conflict and because of this, it is crucial for the international community to step in with high-level diplomacy and stem any further outbreaks of violence.

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