Garvan Walshe: Strife in the Caucasus. How Armenia and Azerbaijan are pawns in a new great game between Russia and Turkey.

8 Oct

Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party

The Soviet Union’s strategy of ruling its non-Russian subjects by giving them autonomous regions where they would be in the local majority unravelled with the USSR’s collapse. Instead of having locally-rooted patronage networks controlled by the Communist Party, Russia’s periphery became a zone of chaos, terrorism and frozen conflicts.

Vladimir Putin, who exploited the Chechen war in his rise to power, learned to live with this. He was able to disrupt neighbouring states enough by allowing “frozen conflicts” to fester, threatening their territorial integrity and ensuring they didn’t, as the saying goes, poke the bear. This strategy is starting to wear thin in the Caucasus, however, as an increasingly assertive Turkey has begun to boost its own influence in the region.

The last big war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian-majority region which had some autonomy from the Azerbaijan Soviet Republic, ended in 1994 with an Armenian victory. Nagorno-Karabakh itself was ruled by supposedly independent institutions under Armenian protection. Armenia, meanwhile, helped itself to land between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia, guaranteeing access to the former enclave.

Azerbaijan considers these territories to be illegally occupied by Armenia and promotes a narrative and eventual “return” for the tens of thousands Azeris displaced from there and Nagorno-Karabakh itself, while Armenia tolerates the settlement of the territories with the support of major funding from the Armenian diaspora (incidentally, Israel has good relations with Azerbaijan, which it sees as a check on Iranian influence).

Russia maintains two military bases in Armenia, including one near the capital Yerevan, and has signed a defence pact with the country, but the power balance has tilted in Azerbaijan’s favour since the 1990s. First, Azerbaijan has prospered thanks to plentiful natural gas, but more importantly it now has strong backing from another important regional power and, historic enemy of the Armenians whose genocide it denies ever committing, Turkey.

Tensions have been building between Yerevan and Baku for the best part of a year, and serious skirmishes broke out in June. Azerbaijan’s irredentism as been appears to have been turned up a notch, while Nikol Pashinyan, Armenia’s new Prime Minister, who came to power following a popular revolution in 2018, has also been happy to keep the temperature high.

Last week, Azerbaijan launched a much larger than expected offensive, even reportedly commandeering civilian trucks, and deploying mercenaries demobilised from the Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army. It has bombed Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, and threatened the main highway supplying the enclave from Armenia (Armenia retaliated by bombing Ganja). It does not seem to have yet met with much success, in part due to the mountainous terrain, and there’s not much time left before winter makes offensive operations difficult.

It also appears that Turkey is egging Azerbaijan on, adding to the flare-ups between Erdogan and Putin. Having long been at loggerheads in Syria and Libya, Nagorno-Karabakh forms a third front in their proxy war. Russia, which backs the Assad regime has the upper hand in Syria thanks to a major error of judgement by Erdogan. The Turkish leader persuaded Trump to withdraw American protection for Kurdish forces in Syria, tilting the balance of the war towards Assad. In Libya, Turkey which supports the internationally recognised Libyan government, has come out on top, and General Haftar, backed by both Russia and France, is much weakened.

By backing Azerbaijan so strongly, Turkey is making two strong geopolitical claims. First, it is getting involved against Russia not in North Africa or the Middle East, but in a conflict between former Soviet states. Second, Turkey is not currently a member of the Minsk Group, convened by the OSCE to address the Armenian-Azerbaijani dispute, but will surely have to be involved in any new ceasefire. This is partly due to Erdogan’s ambitious (some would say neo-Ottoman) foreign policy, but it also reflects Turkey’s growing economic importance.

This significant shift would normally attract the attention of the United States. It has a close ally of its own in the Caucasus – Georgia – and a significant and influential domestic Armenian constituency (there are between half a million and a million Armenian Americans). Though if an election campaign is never the best time to attract Washington’s attention, the Trump Administration’s evisceration of the State Department meant the US couldn’t use its weight to damp the conflict down.

America’s absence has left two aggressive powers – Russia and Turkey – to begin to test their strength against each other in the small countries that border them. Whatever happens in this particular conflict, it seems a new Great Game is afoot in the Caucasus.

Matt Kilcoyne: Anti-democratic China is testing the West’s resolve, and it’s CANZUK that has risen to the occasion

11 Aug

Matt Kilcoyne is Deputy Director of the Adam Smith Institute

When I was growing up, I believed that the West had won. Not just won militarily, economically, or even culturally. But philosophically.

The enlightenment values of the United Kingdom, the free market popularised by thinkers in the United States, and the pragmatism of European countries converging after decades spent tearing each other asunder. No more a half-century long battle between communism and capitalism, no more chance of fascism or socialism holding down the liberties of the world’s peoples.

Slowly, but surely, the world had changed. Gradual liberalisation was inevitable. I thought, foolishly, that the empirics of a world made richer, with more choice, happier, freer, more tolerant people, engaged in commerce with others right across the world would be obvious to all.

I had not yet got that old enmities die hard and traditions die harder, or even that institutions really matter. I had misunderstood that, to a great degree, the victory of the liberal world order was one built on universal claims of the rights of men, but predicated on an uneasy realist peace between American, CANZUK (Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the UK), and European ideals.

I had mistaken the peace and prosperity that coincided with the end of the Cold War as a victory of our civilisations – when really other rulers, some far colder and more cruel, were always waiting to stake their claim.

To do so was wrong. Russian expansionism has re-emerged in Ukraine and Georgia and Putin has spent the past decade sabre rattling at Middle Eastern and Baltic states. Erdogan’s Ottomanite expressions in Turkey and his dalliances in Syria and Libya stand out too. And, of course, China – in its outwardly hostile relations to Taiwan, military skirmishes over the border with India, and treaty-defying legislation over Hong Kong.

Each of these states are nations, but I suspect that the leaders of them think of the international order they find themselves in as too limiting of their ambitions. They mean to mould the world around their vision for their own seemingly exceptional civilisations.

I suspect you know this in your heart of hearts. Russia’s consecration of the Main Cathedral of the Russian Armed Forces was egregious in its scale and its pomp. Christ has been co-opted to glorify the victories of the Red Army. Erdogan’s reconversion of the Hagia Sophia to a mosque marks the effective end of the secular republic of Ataturk. China’s placement of party power in Hong Kong, in silencing critics and arresting students for holding flags, shows a commitment to its communist ideology above that of international treaty obligations.

Foreign policy is not something the Adam Smith Institute focuses on too heavily. We prefer the domestic, and learning from the best of the rest around the world. The relations between foreign governments and our own is a fascination of some policy wonks, but we’d far rather ambassadors were left handing out Ferrero Rocher than having any real bearing on the everyday dealings between companies, scholars, friends, and family.

To that end our policies are focused on trying to make life as free as possible for people here, while proposing policy that would open up new opportunities overseas for trade and exchange. Sometimes though, the rest of the world comes knocking and you should not ignore when wolves are at the door.

Adam Smith said in his Lectures on Jurisprudence that “Opulence and Freedom, [are] the two greatest blessings men can possess.” I do not for a second suppose that he mistook the order of his words. People can tolerate lower levels of freedom if they’re rich enough to have choices left. However, there comes a point where a lack of freedom threatens the peace of a place.

In his first book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith makes the correct observation that “little else is requisite to carry a state to the highest degree of opulence from the lowest barbarism, but peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice: all the rest being brought about by the natural course of things.”

I’m afraid to say that Hong Kong’s opulence looks set to diminish. Yesterday the tolerable administration of justice was tested right to breaking point.

The arrest of the founder of Apple Daily, journalist Jimmy Lai, the arrest of ITV News freelancer and British National Wilson Li, young pro-democracy activist Agnes Chow and the likes of Reuters, AP and AFP from a news conference show that individuals are now targets of the state. It shows too that the commitment under Article 4 of the new National Security Law supposedly upholding freedom of the press is not worth the paper it is printed upon.

This is a test of the West’s resolve and our ability to act. But the West is splintered. Macron’s acquiescence to Xi Jingping showed up a coward’s response. The French president is a man of action as his stint in Lebanon shows but no action is forthcoming on China. Merkel decided her little chats with Beijing were worth more than the rights of Chinese people. The EU Commission called the National Security Law deplorable but again did nothing beyond pushing the press release to save face at home.

The CANZUK states though, and the US, have risen to the occasion. Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom joined the USA in condemning moves to shut down free and fair elections in Hong Kong this autumn. Australia and the UK joined Taiwan in offering refuge from those looking to escape communist control of the city.

The universal values that we preached, that we set in the basic law of Hong Kong, have been an inspiration to Hong Kongers that took to the streets. It was the Union Jack and the Stars and Stripes that flew in protestors hands.

Yes the fact of easy geography plays to regional blocs strengths. But our common cause in recent months with CANZUK states on Russia and Chinese aggression has shown the ease with which we, with common language, common political systems, common history, common sense of purpose, translate into a sheer force of fact re-emergence of a global role that has eluded the mandarins in the foreign office for far too long.

Our civilisation needs champions to save it from opponents and challengers abroad, but also nationalists at home. Greater freedoms for us all, and expanded out to include those in our sister countries overseas allow us all to be the champions of it through our deeds. We must defend the gains of globalisation for the whole of the world, while challenging those that seek to usurp the norms that made those gains possible.

Adam Smith was right when he argued that there was a great deal of ruin in a nation. But there might yet be a great deal of good in our civilisation.

At 6-7pm tonight, the Adam Smith Institute is hosting an event titled: In Defence of Globalisation. Click this link to register your place.