If you’ve turned on the TV over the last month, you’re probably aware that Russia has conducted a massive military buildup on the borders of its neighbor, Ukraine. Thousands of Russian tanks, artillery and other military vehicles have been shipped from as far away as the Pacific to staging grounds in southwest Russia and Belarus. By some accounts, 70 percent of the country’s entire military power now rests ready to strike Ukraine within days, should the order be given. Moscow now possesses somewhere in the region of 170,000 professional soldiers alone in areas adjacent to Ukraine, not to mention National Guard militia and support units.
There are signs that a major operation may not be as imminent as once thought: Russia’s defense ministry announced on Tuesday that some of its assets in Belarus had finished exercises and would be withdrawing. However, President Joe Biden said the withdrawal had not been verified and that Russian forces remained in a threatening position with an attack still “very much a possibility.”
With such an overwhelming buildup of firepower across such a vast area, below are some of the objectives the Russians would be likely to attack in the event of a war.
A large contingent of Russian forces are present in Belarus, as the two allies conduct 10 days of joint war games named Allied Resolve 2022. These include the 35th Combined Arms Army (CAA) in south-central Belarus and the 5th and 36th CAAs near the Belarusian city of Gomel. Also nearby are the 41st CAA and 90th Tank Division, just across the border in Russia itself. In the event of an all-out offensive, these are the units that would likely combine for a drive on the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, only 80 kilometers from the Russian border. There are no major natural obstacles barring their path, and the only significant settlement between the capital and the border is the city of Chernihiv on the Dnieper River’s left bank. If an assault is ordered, an immense amount of artillery and guided rocket fire would precede an advance, utilizing Russia’s major advantages in heavy weaponry before a ground assault commenced.
Further to the east, Russian forces have also massed near the city of Belgorod, roughly 15 kilometers from Ukraine’s northeast border. Units here include the 6th CAA and 1st Guards Tank Army, a formation best known for its operations in the same area against Nazi German forces in World War II. Also nearby is the 20th CAA further southeast. These units would likely be tasked with conducting a broad sweep across the plains of northeastern Ukraine, capturing or surrounding the country’s second largest city Kharkiv, before driving to the Dnieper river that splits Ukraine roughly in two.
While Ukrainian troops have fortified their positions in the area in recent months, the nature of the terrain – open and without natural barriers – makes defense across such a vast area difficult. Russian forces would likely seek to exploit this via a lightning offensive employing maneuver warfare; again, after a devastating opening barrage designed to destroy or degrade as many Ukrainian units and static defenses as possible.
On Ukraine’s eastern border, we come to the longest-running conflict zone in the country: The Donbass, where the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (DNR/LNR) have eked out a miserable, Moscow-backed existence since 2014. The front lines in this area are properly fortified, having had roughly seven years to settle since large-scale combat in the first phase of the Donbass conflict stopped in early 2015.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which conducts a ceasefire monitoring mission in the area, also estimates that the region is one of the most landmine-saturated in the world, slowing heavily a possible assault. Furthermore, these areas would probably be lower priority for Moscow in the event of a full-scale invasion, making the resources allocated to them lower. Nevertheless, the Russian 8th and 49th CAAs are both stationed in the area and could be employed to at least tie down Ukrainian forces in the area, threatening to sweep across into the port of Mariupol and elsewhere if Kyiv redeploys its forces.
Finally, the Crimean theater. Moscow has deployed a wide range of assets in the peninsula since annexing it in 2014 and has recently reinforced them, meaning Crimea currently plays host to both the 58th CAA and 22nd Army Corps. These units have also received two unique assets to bolster them: First, one of the largest contingents of attack helicopters seen anywhere in the recent buildup, and secondly, extensive naval power amidst ongoing Russian drills in the Black Sea, including amphibious assault craft. This gives the forces in Crimea the ability to threaten not only a ground assault towards Kherson and central Ukraine, but also a potential landing at Odessa, the Russian-speaking port that is Ukraine’s third largest city and a widely speculated Russian target. Even if such an operation does not come to pass, the credible threat of an amphibious landing would again tie down Ukrainian forces which would be unable to deploy elsewhere.
Ukraine, then, finds itself in an extremely unenviable position. Russian forces currently have the ability to conduct full-scale assaults on the country across three of its four borders, with only a few hours’ notice required. Whatever Moscow’s true intentions, however, Russia’s military capabilities vis-a-vis Ukraine leave the Kremlin with nearly any conceivable option at its disposal.
By Neil Hauer is a security analyst currently in Kyiv, Ukraine. Usually based in Tbilisi, Georgia, his work focuses on, among other things, politics, minorities and violence in the Caucasus.
This article was produced by Syndication Bureau to publish on Telegraf.
A Turning Point in German-Gulf Ties?
As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine complicates European energy security, many countries are being forced to scramble for new sources of oil and gas. For Germany, which imported 34 percent of its oil and 55 percent of its gas from Russia before the war, diversification has become existential.
Topping the list of potential suppliers are nations of the Arabian Gulf. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz recently visited Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar to secure gas deals and stabilize skyrocketing prices.
With those visits now in the rearview mirror, many are wondering what was accomplished beyond a few energy contracts. Did Scholz’s tour signal a deepening of German-Gulf relations?
While German-Gulf ties aren’t new – Germany has traded with GCC states for decades – Germany is today engaging with the Gulf from a position of vulnerability. The more that German energy security gets entangled with the Gulf’s energy markets, the more invested Berlin will become in the region’s stability, including its maritime security.
It remains to be seen what comes of Scholz’s visit, particularly given that the contracts are modest compared to what Germany lost with Russia (in recent years, Germany has been by far the biggest European Union buyer of Russian fossil fuels). In Qatar, for instance, no liquified natural gas (LNG) deal was concluded because of differences over the duration of contracts that would contradict Germany’s target of becoming carbon-neutral by 2045. A contract signed in the UAE, meanwhile, secured just 137,000 cubic meters of LNG, a fraction of the 56.3 billion cubic meters Germany received from Russia in 2020.
But no matter what the visit yields, there’s little question Russia’s war in Ukraine has accelerated a trend that was already underway.
As a globalized market economy that is heavily export oriented, Germany has always prioritized the free flow of goods, stable oil and gas prices, and the safe passage of fossil fuels. By becoming a direct importer of Gulf energy supplies, German interest in the region’s security will only grow.
The Arab region, including the Gulf, will also be essential if Germany is to meet its green energy targets. Carbon neutrality will be impossible without the import of large quantities of green hydrogen, which countries in the Gulf are planning to produce in abundance. Germany had already concluded hydrogen agreements with several countries, including the UAE and Saudi Arabia, before Scholz’s trip, and the energy source was a key issue during his visit.
While Germany – and the rest of Europe, for that matter – is increasingly reliant on the Gulf for energy, this will not necessarily translate into major shifts in Germany’s security policy vis a vis the Gulf. The “historic turning point” – or Zeitenwende – that Scholz spoke of in February after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine didn’t mean that Berlin would strike a more militarized security policy in its bilateral relations. Rather, only that Germany would dramatically increase its defense spending to modernize its armed forces.
German opposition figures want Scholz to go further and have called for security cooperation and arms sales to the Gulf, the rationale being that it would give Germany more bargaining power and status in the region, akin to that enjoyed by other European heavyweights the United Kingdom and France.
But such a policy shift will not occur under the current government, and rightly so. No matter how many weapons Germany sold it would never obtain substantial influence on national or regional politics given the Gulf’s financial resources, its decade-long emancipation from the West, and its profitable navigation of the multipolar world order.
Germany has reason for restraint. There are often large discrepancies between Germany and some of the stances from Gulf countries on regional conflicts like Yemen, Libya, Syria, and Iran. Given these differences, diplomacy and dialogue will continue to top Germany’s policy approach when tackling security challenges in the region and, as before, it will operate within Western multilateral settings.
While arms sales and military cooperation are off the table, Germany and its Gulf allies will continue to focus on issues such as energy security, climate mitigation, and bilateral trade and investment. There will likely be more coordination and joint action in humanitarian assistance and development aid, and more cultural and societal exchanges. Each of these areas are aligned with the EU’s strategic partnership for engagement and cooperation with the Gulf.
One aspect of German foreign policy that has changed is a softening of critique over human rights issues in the region. The existential nature of the current energy crisis subordinates all policy areas where the two sides do not converge.
Germany has long pursued realpolitik in the region, and Scholz is betting that criticism for putting the economy over human rights concerns will wane and pragmatism will prevail. Odds are he’s right. With mounting hardships fueled by high inflation, soaring energy prices, and the looming possibility of a shortage of basic goods, there’s a good chance that the government’s view will find its way to society as well.
Germany has been badly burned by an energy policy that made it too reliant on Russian gas and the Ukraine war has led to a rethink on longstanding defense and economic policies.
And, as Europe’s largest economy, which for decades walked the path of dialogue and financial prudence, Germany’s fresh approach to the Gulf will be watched closely by other EU countries as the continent looks to navigate through what many believe is the greatest crisis since World War II.
Dina Fakoussa is an Associate Fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations and an expert on Germany’s policies toward the Middle East and North Africa. From 2011 to 2020, she served as head of the Council’s MENA Program.
Putin Faces Mobilization Backlash in the North Caucasus
Vladimir Lenin once said, “there are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks where decades happen.” The latter certainly seems to be the case in Russia today. As Vladimir Putin’s faltering invasion of Ukraine stumbles on, September saw one Rubicon crossed after another, beginning with the stunning rout of Russian forces in Ukraine’s Kharkiv oblast and continuing with Putin’s announcement first of military mobilization and then of the annexation of the Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine.
As with nearly every other aspect of Putin’s war, however, mobilization has not gone according to plan. While tens of thousands of draft-eligible men have flooded out of the country, in some areas mass protests have erupted against the draft, despite the severe repercussions threatened. The center of these protests: the North Caucasus, the southern fringe of Russia’s empire.
Shortly after Putin’s mobilization declaration on September 21, videos began to appear showing disaffected men being rounded up by recruitment officers. Like with most of Russia’s manpower in Ukraine, these new recruits disproportionately came from the country’s backwaters: the Far East and the ethnic minority republics in the Caucasus and along the Mongolian border.
These regions had already formed the backbone of Russia’s “shadow mobilization” over the past six months of war. The Russian military and private contractors such as the Wagner Group had canvassed these areas heavily, offering high salaries for contracts, with correspondingly high regional death tolls in the war. Since the official mobilization, these efforts grew to sometimes all-encompassing heights: Videos of conscription vans driving through Derbent, Dagestan’s third city, calling for all able-bodied men to immediately report to the recruitment office attest to this.
But the North Caucasus has not laid down quietly. Within days of the mobilization order, protests across Dagestan sprung up, calling locals to resist the campaign. Videos showed women screaming at recruitment officers to release their husbands and sons, with some women going so far as to state this was “Putin’s war, not ours” and that “we [Russia] attacked Ukraine, not the other way around” – an incredibly brave public act in 2022 Russia. Other protests were more violent: demonstrators blocking the highway in Khasavyurt, Dagestan’s second-largest city, had to be dispersed by gunfire into the air.
Russia’s recent history shows how dangerous this moment is for Putin. The Russian president began his tenure by invading Chechnya, bringing Moscow’s rule back to the region using brutal tactics now repeated in Ukraine. Putin then became engaged in a struggle with a sprawling insurgency across the North Caucasus, one that saw local militants regularly range into Moscow with devastating effect. It took more than 15 years of concerted effort by the then-undistracted Russian security services to finally crush the insurgency.
The present recruitment drive threatens to upend this entire arrangement. While Dagestan, Chechnya and other areas of the North Caucasus may have been violently suppressed, the socio economic problems that led to the insurgency’s popularity were never addressed. All seven of the ethnic republics that constitute the Russian North Caucasus suffer from severe economic depression: Development is sparse and inconsistent, finding a decent job nearly impossible, and the federal funds that subsidize the region largely drained by corrupt officials.
This is to say nothing of the social aspect: The people of the North Caucasus are the target of deep-seated racism within Russian society (and especially Russian government and security organs), finding themselves alienated and ghettoized even when they move to Moscow, Krasnodar or elsewhere in search of job opportunities. Add in the new reality that the state is now actively dangerous to one’s physical well-being, and you now have all the elements that made the original insurgency so appealing to disaffected populations to begin with.
While these issues plague the region as a whole, there is nowhere they are quite as acute as in Chechnya. The republic received the most Faustian bargain of all, as Putin made a simple deal with its Kremlin-installed head: take the government’s money and keep the calm by any means necessary. Ramzan Kadyrov, who has ruled Chechnya under this arrangement for nearly two decades, is a strongman whose cruelty knows nearly no bounds, and he has tortured and executed his territory into obedience. Even here, however, the cracks are beginning to show: Around 100 Chechen women demonstrated in central Grozny against the mobilization, the first open protest in Kadyrov’s entire tenure. All of them were quickly arrested (and their husbands and sons sent off to serve in Ukraine), but Kadyrov himself has also been forced to deny that his government is carrying out mobilization, even as it continues to do so. In Ukraine itself, meanwhile, pro-Ukrainian Chechen formations have announced that they intend to take the fight back home to Kadyrov after Russia is expelled from Ukrainian territory. Chechnya’s status as “the most peaceful region of Russia,” as Kadyrov likes to boast, is teetering ever closer.
All of this portends a slow-burning catastrophe for Putin. Even others smell the blood in the water. In a September 30 address, Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky, standing in front of a statue of the 19th-century anti-Russian Dagestani warlord Imam Shamil, called for North Caucasians to resist and not to “die for Putin’s imperial war.” Among Chechens in particular, one hardly meets a member of that nation who does not believe a third Chechen war (when Putin and Kadyrov are weak enough) is in the offing. The North Caucasus is where Putin began and solidified his reign over Russia. It would be a fitting place for it all to unravel at the end.
Neil Hauer is a security analyst based in Yerevan, Armenia. His work focuses on, among other things, politics, minorities and violence in the Caucasus. Twitter: @NeilPHauer
Impact of Italy’s Far-Right Government Will First be Felt Abroad
The election victory of Giorgia Meloni in Italy has left journalists scrambling around for adjectives. Is her Brothers of Italy political party fascist? (It certainly uses the same logo as a party formed by Mussolini’s lieutenants.) Is it neo-fascist, or far right, or merely populist?
This confusion is mirrored in the ambiguity surrounding Meloni herself, who has on occasion struck a more conciliatory tone and, after her victory, vowed to govern for all Italians.
And it is reflected most strongly in the wider questions that are now inevitably asked about Europe’s fourth-largest economy: What does it mean for an openly far-right party to win in Europe in the 21st century?
Meloni’s victory took place just over 100 years since Benito Mussolini formed his fascist political party, amid the invasion of Ukraine that the head of NATO has called the most dangerous moment for Europe since World War II, and with spiraling economic conditions. Journalists who read the tea leaves of history can’t help but see parallels.
Curiously, though, few of these questions are about Italy itself. Instead, they are about the wider context in which the election victory has occurred. There is a good reason for that: The effects of Italy’s far-right government won’t immediately be felt inside the country, but in the rest of Europe and the Middle East.
For one thing, the victory of the Brothers of Italy brings with it its own narrative momentum. This is now the third time in six months that a far-right political party has come within touching distance of real power in Europe, after Marine Le Pen came runner-up in France’s presidential election and the Sweden Democrats became the country’s second largest party two weeks ago.
The ideas of the far right are seeping into European politics. Social conservatism, the challenges of immigration, the effects of Russia’s war in Ukraine and a cost of living crisis – all have become part of the national discourse in every major European country.
Italy has its own peculiarities, of course, particularly falling birthrates and high youth unemployment, but the challenges that Meloni highlighted in her election campaign are shared across the European continent. Therefore far-right candidates will also be watching her win for messaging or tactics they can apply to their own countries. Indeed that is already happening – the far-right French agitator Eric Zemmour said Meloni’s strategy of presenting a united far-right slate for the election could work in France, too. Considering how close Le Pen came in April, that is a significant threat.
And not merely the far right. Mainstream conservative candidates across the continent have sought to “steal the clothes” of the far right and appropriate and mainstream their ideas. Meloni’s avowed conservatism and preference for the nuclear family is one other conservatives could adopt; the focus on law and order is always a conservative mainstay, though in Italy, and other southern European countries, it has the additional strength of being connected to immigration, and the wars across the Mediterranean fueling it.
All of which means that the challenges that propelled Meloni and her alliance to power exist elsewhere on the continent – and equivalent parties will be eager to offer similar solutions.
That is particularly the case across the European Union’s southern flank, because it is here that the external events that have had the most to do with Meloni’s rise to power occurred.
Simply because of geography, the majority of migrant arrivals by boat end up on the European Union’s southern border, mainly in Italy and Greece, but also Spain.
Although technically migration is an EU-wide issue, under the Dublin agreement of 2013, the country where asylum seekers first land is the country obligated to deal with and process them. This has, inevitably, placed enormous strain on the southern Mediterranean countries, and pushed them to try many ways of stopping the arrival of migrants.
If Matteo Salvini, the head of the far-right League party, becomes interior minister, a job he held previously, he will no doubt bring back his controversial “closed ports” policy from 2018, under which boats that had rescued migrants at sea were denied access to Italian ports.
That caused a firestorm of criticism within Italy and Europe, but also had a knock-on impact in North Africa. This will be the second place the effect is felt, as smugglers seek alternative routes, or the government seeks separate deals with countries like Libya to stop the boats crossing and crack down on smugglers.
It is, however, a fiercely domestic issue. So much of the right-wing vote is concentrated in northern Italian districts, because these districts have had to deal with large numbers of migrants. Many of those who arrive in Italy prefer to head north to France, the UK or Germany, where economies are bigger and there are more “grey-market” jobs. That means the migrants congregate in northern Italy as they seek to find a way over the border.
EU countries have spoken about reforming the Dublin agreement and imposing a quota system across the bloc, but northern European countries have dragged their feet, happy to delay the issue for another election cycle or another government. Now however, they may be forced to accept some change as the numbers of migrants northern countries take increases.
She may have been elected to face challenges at home, but the real impact of Italy’s new far-right premier will be felt first abroad.
Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa. Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai
How Russians Read the Conflict in the Caucasus
In the early morning hours of Tuesday, September 13, Azerbaijan launched an aggressive military assault along the borders of the Armenian Republic. Observers of politics in the post-Soviet space may be forgiven for thinking that the center of fighting was the disputed, Armenian-inhabited region of Nagorno-Karabakh (also known as Artsakh by Armenians). In fact, however, the attack targeted several towns and villages within Armenia proper, notably Vardenis near Lake Sevan, Jermuk in the rocky Vayots Dzor province, and the leafy town of Goris in Syunik.
The attack was only the latest in a series of provocations initiated by Baku, with Ankara’s backing, since the conclusion of the 2020 Karabakh war, and especially since the commencement of the Ukraine conflict in February 2022. One might expect there to be renewed hostilities in a face-off involving only Armenia and Azerbaijan. However, these attacks are even more significant, given the fact that Russian forces and peacekeepers have been present in the conflict zone since 2020. Moscow’s reaction to Baku’s brazen bellicosity has so far been restrained, reflecting not only its difficult balancing act between Armenia and Azerbaijan, but also concerns about potentially upsetting political ties with Turkey amid the conflict in Ukraine. However, while restrained for now, Moscow’s patience with Baku and Ankara is wearing thin and will not last forever, especially in the context of the current international situation.
Russia’s historical association with Transcaucasia and its peoples dates back centuries, although its first major political foray into the area was Peter the Great’s Persian Campaign of the 1720s, an intervention involving an alliance with local Georgian and Armenian leaders. The roots of the Karabakh quandary itself are at least just as old. For some, the conflict can be dated back to the late 18th century, with the onset of competing interests between local Armenian princes and Tatar khans. For others, it can be dated to 1917-20, when the upheavals of the Russian Civil War led to ethnic violence in Transcaucasia. A 1919 decision by British interventionist forces left the Mountainous Armenian Karabakh under the control of the newly established Azerbaijan Republic. The British, who entered the fray in opposition to the Reds, were less concerned with ethnic peacebuilding and more interested in seizing the strategic oilfields of Baku. By the time the Bolsheviks managed to Sovietize Transcaucasia in 1920, they encountered a Karabakh that, although majority Armenian, was under the control of Azerbaijani forces. Therefore, as scholar Arsène Saparov reminds us, the eventual Soviet decision to officialize the status of the region as part of Soviet Azerbaijan was intended to be a “quick fix” for a new ruling elite eager to begin work on building a new socialist state. Yet, this “fix” ultimately left both Armenians and Azeris unsatisfied.
The immediate origins of the Karabakh problem date back to the late 1980s, when Karabakh Armenian demands to unify with Soviet Armenia found expression under the banner of Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika. Peaceful protests in the Armenian capital Yerevan and the Karabakh capital of Stepanakert were soon met with anti-Armenian pogroms in the Azerbaijani industrial town of Sumgait. From there, a vicious cycle of violence ensued, pitting Armenians against Azeris, and Azeris against Armenians. A forceful population exchange traumatized the two communities. By the time of the Soviet dissolution in 1991, the conflict had erupted into a full-scale between Armenia and Azerbaijan. It ended only with a Russian-brokered ceasefire in 1994, leaving Armenian forces in control of most of Mountainous Karabakh, plus seven adjoining districts.
For the next three decades, the situation remained essentially “frozen.” Peace talks between the sides saw limited results and effectively hit a dead end after the failure of the 2001 Key West peace talks. The death of longtime Azerbaijani leader Heydar Aliyev and the ascendancy of his more nationalistic son, Ilham, to the presidency further dimmed the prospects for peace, fueled by massive Azerbaijani arms purchases made with its new oil revenues. Baku’s newfound belligerence found willing allies among the American war party in Washington, which hoped to use the former Soviet republic as a NATO-backed “bridgehead” across the Caspian, and to undermine Russian influence in energy-rich post-Soviet Central Asia.
Russian interests and realities
However, aside from periodic ceasefire violations, the situation in Karabakh remained relatively stable. Only the 2016 “four-day” war seemed to allude to the challenges that were to come. Russia’s position toward the region during this period was to preserve its influence and maintain regional stability for the sake of its state security. To that end, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov advanced the so-called “Lavrov Plan,” advocating the return of certain districts to Azerbaijan (excluding Kelbajar and Lachin) as well as the introduction of Russian peacekeeping forces in the region. However, neither Yerevan nor Baku ultimately accepted it.
Turkey’s intervention in the Caucasus in the 2020 Karabakh War changed the entire dynamic. Ankara tested the waters for such an intervention with its staunch support of Baku in 2016. However, it was the 2020 Karabakh war that increased Turkey’s influence in the Caucasus considerably, with an eye to enhancing its influence in post-Soviet Central Asia, at the expense of Moscow. Although Russia managed to secure entry of its peacekeepers into the Karabakh conflict zone at the end of the war, the new presence of Turkey now meant that it had to balance its traditional interests with actively combating the expansion of Turkish influence in the region. At the same time, it sought to avoid a direct entanglement with Ankara.
In practice, the Russian peacekeeping presence in Mountainous Karabakh should have acted as a guarantor for regional stability, deterring the prospect of renewed hostilities. Indeed, the idea behind the peacekeeping mission reflected the logic of the earlier Lavrov Plan, i.e., that Russian troops would be able to stabilize the Armenian-Azerbaijani frontlines in a way that the Armenian forces never fully could. Although the presence of Russian troops initially acted as a strong deterrent to renewed clashes, the peacekeeping mission ultimately failed to provide the lasting stabilization that was envisaged by policymakers in Moscow. The reasons stemmed partially from the greatly diminished territorial size of the self-proclaimed Artsakh-Karabakh Republic as a result of the 2020 war, combined with the limited number of Russian peacekeepers. The loss of the strategic districts of Kelbajar and Lachin (which were envisioned as remaining under Karabakh Armenian control in the original Lavrov Plan) also meant that the peacekeeping mission’s physical connection to the Russian forces in Armenia was severely curtailed and limited to a single road, the Lachin corridor, which itself has recently become an object of dispute.
In addition, the outcome of the war destroyed any remaining balance that existed between the two sides, hindering Moscow’s ability to navigate the diplomatic waters between Baku and Yerevan. Armenia was catapulted into a state of political crisis, centered on its combative Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and his opponents. Meanwhile, Azerbaijan, with Ankara’s blessing, went on a “victory high,” and rather than content itself with its gains and pursue peace, sought to press its advantage by snatching up small strategic border territories in clashes with Yerevan. The Russian leadership foresaw the potential for even more provocations and flare-ups from Baku after the start of the 2022 conflict in Ukraine. Therefore, on the eve of the conflict, Putin met with Aliyev to bolster state-to-state relations. However, these steps failed to incentivize Baku from ceasing its attacks. Indeed, the attacks on Armenia and Mountainous Karabakh only increased soon after the conflict commenced, despite the Russian presence.
Meanwhile, some Azerbaijani analysts, channeling classic Caucasian bravado, began boasting that Baku had become the “leading great power” of the region and that it could easily defeat Russia in a war. Although it is highly doubtful that Azeri troops will ever march on Moscow, the fact that Azeri public intellectuals started speaking in this manner did not go unnoticed in the Kremlin, reflecting the fact that Baku’s hubris was reaching unacceptable levels. Some Russian observers even perceived Baku’s latest attacks as part of another Western-led effort to provoke a “second front” of the Ukraine conflict in Transcaucasia, something that neighboring Georgia has strongly refused to do in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Limited in scope and territorial control and faced with constant provocations from an Ankara-allied Azerbaijan, the Russian peacekeeping mission has been hamstrung in its ability to perform its basic mandate – to provide security for the civilian population, as well as greater stability in the region. Politically for now, Moscow has focused on quick and quiet diplomatic resolutions to put out the fires that periodically erupt between Baku and Yerevan, an approach that is informed largely by its effort to avoid antagonizing Turkey. However, the reality remains that Ankara’s growing influence in the Caucasus and Azerbaijan’s unrestrained bellicosity fundamentally contradict Russia’s long-term strategic interests in the region. For now, the Kremlin has opted to tiptoe around Turkey, but as in Ukraine, the time will come when its patience becomes exhausted, and it will have to turn to tougher and more decisive measures against provocations in Karabakh.
Already, the more conservative focus on quiet diplomacy is beginning to appear incongruent with the challenges facing both Russian peacekeepers and Armenian civilians on the ground. It is also starting to undermine Moscow’s soft power in the region. The more aggressive the Azerbaijani attacks and the more reserved the Russian reactions, the more that Armenian civilians will begin to see Russia as being an unreliable ally, thus lending credence to pro-Western Armenians who wish to see the back of the Russians. Eroding public perceptions of Russia in Armenia, along with the perceived inaction of the Russian peacekeepers, were especially highlighted by the recent visit of US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Yerevan. Indeed, although Pelosi’s move will not realistically provide the Armenian people with any tangible security benefits, it was politically calculated to antagonize Moscow, just as her visit to Taiwan was politically calculated to antagonize Beijing.
Overall, the current situation surrounding Mountainous Karabakh has profound security implications for Moscow that are arguably just as serious as those in Ukraine. From the Kremlin’s perspective, if NATO-allied Turkey comes to dominate the Caucasus, they will also dominate Central Asia, and suddenly NATO’s influence will be felt as far as the Altai mountains. Such a scenario is naturally intolerable for Russia, and the fears over security along its southern parameter undoubtedly informed its swift reaction to the events in Kazakhstan in January, dealing a blow to Ankara’s post-Soviet ambitions. These same concerns continue to fuel anxiety in the Kremlin over the border clashes between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in the past week. Indeed, in Eurasia, Russia seems left with few easy decisions, but at some point, it will be forced to get tough in the Caucasus. Like a bear defending its territory, Moscow will not hesitate to defend its vital national security interests. The Russians are a patient people, but their patience is not infinite.
Pietro A. Shakarian is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Centre for Historical Research, National Research University–Higher School of Economics in St. Petersburg, Russia
What Azerbaijan’s Armenia Assault Says About the New World Order
The latest round of fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan will come as little surprise to most. After all, the two states have been locked in various levels of conflict for three decades, ranging from low-level exchanges of fire to the full-scale warfare that engulfed the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region in 2020.
Yet the latest bout marks a major escalation, one that, if allowed to continue, could lead to a humanitarian catastrophe and even a regional war.
Just after midnight on Tuesday, September 13, Azerbaijani forces launched a wide-ranging assault on Armenian positions across nearly 200 kilometers of their shared border. The offensive included drones, artillery and armored vehicles, and Azerbaijani strikes reached targets up to 40 kilometers inside Armenia. Artillery fire rained down upon Armenian towns and villages, including the resort town of Jermuk, destroying civilian homes and apartment blocks. By the time fighting stopped with a tenuous ceasefire on Wednesday evening, more than 200 soldiers had been killed (135 from Armenia, 71 from Azerbaijan), 7,500 Armenian civilians had been displaced, and Azerbaijani troops had advanced more than seven kilometers into Armenia.
There was little doubt who started the fighting. Azerbaijan initially claimed that it was merely responding to Armenian “provocations” – a claim echoed by its ally, Turkey – but largely dropped this rhetoric in the following days in favor of other justifications. The same pattern has been seen repeatedly in the past two years, including during the 2020 war – in which a long-prepared assault was initially billed as a “counteroffensive” – and Azerbaijan’s attack last month on Armenian positions in the Lachin corridor connecting Karabakh with Armenia proper.
The goals of the assault were not immediately clear, but they fit with Azerbaijani policy since the end of the 2020 war. Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev believes Armenia made a major mistake when it failed to force his country to sign a full treaty enshrining the gains from Armenia’s victory in the First Karabakh War, which ended in 1994. Aliyev is determined not to repeat his enemy’s error. Instead, he is seeking to force Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan to the table to sign a document which would relinquish what remains of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic to Azerbaijani control. Similarly, Aliyev wants Armenia to give his forces exclusive control over a sovereign corridor connecting mainland Azerbaijan with its exclave of Nakhchivan – something he claims Azerbaijan is owed as a result of a false interpretation of the final clause of the 2020 ceasefire agreement.
Perhaps most importantly of all, the attacks occurred simply because they could. With Russia bogged down in Ukraine and other powers in no position to intervene, Aliyev took the chance to humiliate his Armenian enemies and demonstrate Azerbaijan’s continued primacy on the battlefield.
The Russian absence from all of this has been striking. Russia is a major ally to Armenia and where Moscow once wielded enough influence over Azerbaijan to halt its aggression, bringing the 2016 “April War” to an end in just four days, it now appears helpless before Baku. The present offensive took place just days after Moscow’s forces were routed by Ukraine in the Kharkiv region, reinforcing growing perceptions of Russian impotence. The Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a defensive bloc including Armenia and four other former-Soviet states, was meanwhile fully exposed as a paper tiger after failing to honor Armenia’s invocation of the mutual defense clause its charter contains. With Russia ever more politically and economically isolated, Vladimir Putin has evidently decided there is nothing to be gained by standing up to Azerbaijan or Turkey, two countries whose friendly relations he desperately needs.
That leaves the response of other powers. The European Union has provided little of anything beyond soft calls for “restraint by both sides.” Many Armenians rightfully point to a July visit by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to Baku, where she posed beaming for the cameras alongside Aliyev to sign a gas deal, as further emboldening Azerbaijan’s actions. The EU’s search for alternative energy partners amidst its break with Russia has left Brussels loath to condemn, let alone punish, Baku’s brazen aggression.
Iran, meanwhile, the other major state in the region, has repeatedly stated that it considers any change in the borders of the region “unacceptable,” especially anything that would cause it to lose its transit corridor through Armenia to the Black Sea (via Georgia). It remains unclear, however, whether Tehran is willing to do anything tangible that might affect Baku’s calculus.
That leaves the United States. As the only other actor capable of influencing Aliyev’s appetite, Washington’s response has been surprisingly robust. State Department officials have shifted their tone from the usual calls for restraint from both-sides and placed the blame for the fighting unequivocally upon Baku. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Armenia at the weekend where she condemned Azerbaijan’s “illegal and deadly attacks.” It will require more than just words to cow Aliyev, but tangible measures may be forthcoming: By all accounts, it was American pressure that convinced Baku to cease its offensive on Wednesday night.
The reality is, however, that more attacks are probably coming. Azerbaijan, which never confirmed the ceasefire itself, spent the next few days spreading news of alleged Armenian “saboteur” groups being discovered and destroyed, including in the enclave of Nakhchivan, from where Armenia has warned of a new offensive. Azerbaijani officials started to openly call for a “buffer zone” on Armenian territory, one that would be large enough for the settlement of those displaced by the fighting. Pelosi’s visit made it clear that the US is watching the region closely and would use levers at its disposal to dissuade Azerbaijan from attacking again. One must hope they are enough.
Neil Hauer is a security analyst based in Yerevan, Armenia. His work focuses on, among other things, politics, minorities and violence in the Caucasus. Twitter: @NeilPHauer
Evil Empire: Let the Monarchy Die Along With Elizabeth
There is no good reason to allow the evil empire to retain any legitimacy as the British royal family papers over the pillage it continues to benefit from.
The death of Queen Elizabeth II, the longest-serving monarch of British royalty, has sparked global fascination and spawned thousands of clickbait reports of the details of her funeral. Americans, who centuries ago rejected monarchy, are seemingly obsessed with the ritualism, bizarrely mourning the demise of an elderly and fabulously wealthy woman who was born into privilege and who died of natural causes at the ripe old age of 96 across the ocean.
Perhaps this is because popular and long-running TV shows about British royalty like “The Crown” have convinced us that we know intimate details about the royals—and worse, they cause us to believe we should care about a family that is a symbolic marker of past imperial grandeur.
But for those who are descended from the subjects of British imperialist conquest, the queen, her ancestors, and her descendants represent the ultimate evil empire.
India, my home country, celebrated its 75th anniversary of independence from British rule this year. Both my parents were born before independence, into a nation still ruled by the British. I heard many tales while growing up of my grandfather’s absences from home as he went “underground,” wanted for seditious activity against the British. After independence in 1947, he was honored for being a “freedom fighter” against the monarchy.
Despite the popularity and critical acclaim of “The Crown” and movies and shows like it, I found a far stronger connection to the new superhero series “Ms. Marvel,” if for no other reason than the fact that it tackles the horrors of partition, a little-known (in the U.S.) legacy of the evil empire.
As Pakistani writer Minna Jaffery-Lindemulder explains in New Lines, “The British changed the borders of India and Pakistan at the eleventh hour in 1947 before declaring both nations independent, leaving the former subjects of the crown confused about where they needed to migrate to ensure their safety.” As a result, 15 million people felt forced to move from one part of the South Asian subcontinent to another, a mass cross-exodus with an estimated death toll ranging from half a million to 2 million.
Today, those contested borders, callously and recklessly drawn in 1947 by British officials acting at the behest of the crown, remain a source of simmering tensions between India and Pakistan that occasionally erupt into full-blown wars.
This is the legacy of British monarchy. The United Kingdom enjoys a hideous distinction in the Guinness Book of World Records, for “most countries  to have gained independence from the same country.”
One could argue that Elizabeth, who was gifted the throne and its title in 1952, did not lead an aggressive empire of conquest and instead presided over an institution that, under her rule, became largely symbolic and ceremonial in nature. And indeed, many do just that, referring to her, for example, as an “exemplar of moral decency.”
Rahul Mahajan, author of Full Spectrum Dominance and The New Crusade, has a different opinion, referring in an interview to Elizabeth as a “morally unremarkable person with a job that involved doing extremely unremarkable things.”
Mahajan explains further, saying that this was “a highly privileged person, given an opportunity to influence world events in some degree, which she had to do nothing to earn, who never did anything particularly remarkable, innovative, or insightful.”
While Elizabeth’s 70 years on the throne were mostly spent overseeing an ostensible unraveling of British Empire in a world less tolerant of occupation, enslavement, and imperial plunder, just a few months into her role as queen, the British violently put down the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya. According to a New York Times story about how citizens in African nations today have little sympathy for the dead monarch, the squashing of the rebellion “led to the establishment of a vast system of detention camps and the torture, rape, castration and killing of tens of thousands of people.”
Even if Elizabeth was not responsible for directing the horrors, they were carried out in her name. Over the seven decades that she wielded symbolic power, she never once apologized for what was done during her rule in Kenya—or indeed what was done in her family’s name in dozens of other nations in the Global South.
It’s no wonder that Black and Brown people the world over have openly expressed disgust at the collective fawning of such an ugly legacy.
Professor Uju Anya of Carnegie Mellon University, who is Nigerian, is under fire for her frank dismissal of Elizabeth after posting on Twitter that she “heard the chief monarch of a thieving and raping genocidal empire is finally dying. May her pain be excruciating.”
Kehinde Andrews, a Black studies professor at Birmingham City University, wrote on Politico that he cannot relate to his fellow Britons’ desire to mourn Elizabeth, a woman he considered to be “the number one symbol of white supremacy” and a “manifestation of the institutional racism that we have to encounter on a daily basis.”
Elizabeth may have appeared a benign, smiling elder who maintained the propriety expected from a royal leader. But she worked hard to preserve an institution that should have long ago died out. She was handed the throne after her uncle, the duke of Windsor, abdicated in order to marry a twice-divorced American. Both the marriage to a divorcee and the fact that the couple turned out to be Nazi sympathizers marked a low point for the royals.
“The monarchy was in a really good position to fade away with this kind of clowning around,” says Mahajan. But it was Elizabeth who “rescued the popularity of the monarchy.”
Further, Elizabeth quietly preserved the ill-gotten family fortune that she and her descendants benefitted from in a postcolonial world. “One thing she could, and of course should, have done and said something about is the massive royal estate,” says Mahajan. Observers can only estimate the royal family’s worth (Forbes puts the figure at $28 billion), assets that include stolen jewels from former colonies, pricey art investments, and real estate holdings across Britain.
Britain’s new king, Charles III, now inherits the fruits of the evil empire. According to Mahajan, Charles “is apparently very bent on taking his fortune and investing it in such a way as to make himself as rich as possible.” According to the New York Times, “As prince, Charles used tax breaks, offshore accounts and canny real estate investments to turn a sleepy estate into a billion-dollar business.”
The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists in 2017 found that both Elizabeth and Charles were named in the leaked “Paradise Papers,” indicating that they hid their money in havens to avoid paying taxes.
Fleecing taxpayers and living off stolen wealth—monarchy’s original modus operandi appears to be central to Elizabeth’s legacy, one she passes on to her son (who also won’t pay an inheritance tax on the wealth she left him).
The British monarchy, according to Mahajan, “mostly represents a real concession to the idea that some people are just born better and more important than you, and you should look to them.”
Mahajan adds, “It’s a good time for the popularity of this institution to fade away.”
Independent Media Institute_______________
Sonali Kolhatkar is the founder, host and executive producer of “Rising Up With Sonali,” a television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV and Pacifica stations. She is a writing fellow for the Economy for All project at the Independent Media Institute.
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