A week of border violence in Eurasia, both between Armenia and Azerbaijan (just to the west of Central Asia), and Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan (on the far east), raises questions about the nature of major regional power relationships ahead.
In the past week, the terms “border clash” and “dispute” have been used to describe two conflict zones in Eurasia easily overshadowed by Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine, and recent news of Ukraine’s robust counterattacks. But such terms obscure the greater import of these situations: first in Armenia, where Azerbaijan advanced over four miles after hostilities began on September 13, and then along the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan border, where nearly 100 had died by Sunday reports, and where almost 137,000 Kyrgyz people had been displaced.
Along with updated Armenian-Azerbaijani death tolls (now 135 and 77 apiece), the global community recently received footage attesting to war crimes against Armenian soldiers: women dismembered and showing signs of elaborate torture. Confirmation of related details came alongside US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Armenia this weekend, where she expressed support and condemned the “illegal and deadly attacks” by Azerbaijan. This announcement was soon followed by President Joe Biden’s Sunday night 60 Minutes interview, in which he asserted that the US would also defend Taiwan in the case of an “unprecedented attack” by China.
And therein lies the bigger question about political coalitions.
Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan are all part of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a military alliance consisting of six post-Soviet states. When Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan engaged in hostilities, Russia stepped in to provide mediation: no easy matter, in a region where poorly drawn Soviet-era borders set the stage for intense resource conflicts around bordering waterways and grazing lands.
But Azerbaijan is not part of CSTO, and even though it retains strong ties to Russia, they weren’t enough to keep the last negotiated ceasefire (which saw 2,000 Russian troops installed to keep the peace) from breaking down. Azerbaijan’s ally is Turkey, a NATO country that strained the Western alliance with its actions in the region.
Azerbaijan and Turkey have sustained hostile relations with Armenia since well before its independence in 1991, with the fall of the Soviet Union. At greatest stake was the majority-Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous pocket of highly contested land in Azerbaijan. (Another outcome of poorly constructed Soviet borders.)
In the late 1980s and early ’90s, brutal conflict saw 724,000 Azerbaijanis expelled from Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, and over 300,000 Armenians from Azerbaijan. Death tolls range from 25-30,000, with the majority of civilian casualties by war crime disproportionately affecting the elderly on both sides: people who were often the last to leave, if they could leave at all.
In 2020, Turkey supported Azerbaijan in a six-week war that ended with Armenia ceding territory that had been providing a bridge to this remote enclave. Between 5,000 and 6,600 died in this 44-day assault, which Amnesty International reports also involved the indiscriminate targeting of civilians by military on both sides. Both Armenian and Azerbaijani histories include incidents of genocidal slaughter, which underpins the intensity of their current conflict, and the need for a peace sufficient to begin proper truth and reconciliation proceedings for all the violence to date.
And yet, with Russia mounting no direct protection of its CSTO-treaty ally, other local actors testing the depleted state of Russian military with escalating conflicts all their own, and the US expressly claiming a greater interest in defending smaller nations from invasion… we would do well to watch the other Eurasian wars. Not only to monitor for further human rights violations, and not only because these regions play a vital role in global energy economies, too. Also, to mark a potential shift in international power arrangements—of which there may be many soon.