'Where we deploy our own troops within our own borders is nobody’s business but our own,' Kremlin press secretary Dmitry Peskov said a few months ago, as tens of thousands of Russian soldier gathered close to the border with Ukraine. 'They pose no threat to anybody.'
Now, with Russia's brutal invasion of the neighbouring country stretching into its fifth week, president Vladimir Putin’s credibility is dead, along with his reputation as a master strategist and countless young men he sent in to wage what was supposed to be a swift war. However, the tactics he has used time and time again to undermine his opponents, wrong-foot the West, and stretch red lines as far as they will go, have clearly found favour in another conflict threatening to break out between two former Soviet Republics.
More than a thousand miles south of Moscow, across the Caucasus mountains, a tense standoff is unfolding over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh. Home to a majority ethnic Armenian population but located inside Azerbaijan’s borders after the fall of the USSR, it has been governed by separatists loyal to Armenia for almost three decades. Following a brief but bloody war in 2020, during which Baku attempted to re-assert its control, Russian peacekeepers were deployed to prevent further fighting.
Over the past few days, however, fresh fears have emerged that a full-blown conflict could be on the cards. In a rare show of unity, Moscow, along with the US and France, has issued a statement warning that Azerbaijani troops had begun advancing into the area, sparking evacuations and claims from Armenia that a campaign of 'ethnic cleansing' could soon be underway. At the same time, a drone strike is said to have killed three Armenian servicemen in Nagorno-Karbakh, adding to the risk of an outright military confrontation.
It is clear that Russia does not want another war in its back yard, which was why peacekeepers were deployed in the first place. But with the Kremlin distracted by its catastrophic campaign in Ukraine and the increasingly crippling effects of sanctions back home, it appears Azerbaijan is taking advantage of circumstances in a way Putin was once masterful at, probing at the weak spots in the line of contact.
The secretary of Kyiv’s Security Council, Alexey Danilov, has even pointed to the worsening tensions in Nagorno-Karabakh as a sign Moscow cannot hold onto all its priorities. 'If second fronts open, these could help us qualitatively,' he said. 'We understand the support Russia promised to Armenia is potentially unlikely to appear there.'
At the same time, its veteran president, Ilham Aliyev, has clearly learned other lessons from Putin. While international observers have reported Azerbaijani troops on the move, Baku has consistently refuted claims anything of concern is taking place, arguing its forces have the right to position themselves anywhere within its 'recognised borders.' While this principle is guaranteed under international law, the past few months have shown that such deployments can easily be precursors to escalation.
This process of building up troops and staging provocations, then waiting to see whether there is a response before pressing on, is one that Putin himself has pioneered. Yet now he is on the receiving end of it, and is being forced to decide if the developments are a serious concern, and whether to divert resources away from his disastrous invasion in Eastern Europe to uphold the status quo in the Caucasus.
The sting in the trick is that by themselves, no single step is significant enough to cause outright alarm abroad. When one village changes hands or a lone drone strike is carried out, a harsh response from Moscow or the West would look like an overreaction. But slowly the picture on the ground starts to change. These are the so-called ‘salami tactics’ that Putin had used to slowly gain ground in Ukraine since the 2014 Euromaidan, cutting it up slice by slice.
Both sides have also deployed Putin’s favourite feint: redefining the conflict. While the Kremlin has attempted to sell the war in Ukraine as a 'special operation' to protect ethnic Russians in the Donbas from 'aggression,' similar narratives are swirling around Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenia insists that the breakaway region, also known as the Republic of Artsakh, is effectively autonomous, and has deployed troops there, despite it being formally part of Azerbaijan. Baku, for its part, brands local authorities 'armed gangs' and 'terrorist groups,' effectively creating a pretext for action to 'protect its borders'. At the same time, it denies that Nagorno-Karbakh even exists, as the administrative entity was dissolved years before, and demands others stop referring to it as such.
Leveraging the plight of the civilian population was never beneath Putin either, with analysts warning that war crimes in Ukraine and the deliberate targeting of residential areas are designed to break the spirit of the nation. Likewise, in Nagorno-Karabakh, local officials accuse Baku of turning off gas supplies as temperatures plunge below freezing and snow settles on the ground, meaning thousands of people, including young children, going cold. Yerevan, similarly, has also used the presence of ethnic Armenians to justify sending in its troops and is presenting itself as solely concerned with the humanitarian situation, despite long-standing calls from within the country demanding Artsakh be effectively annexed.
Although Putin is the champion of these kind of tactics, few now seem to want to be associated with him, and Azerbaijan has begun to paint Russian peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh as a malign influence. One major media outlet has accused Moscow of 'covering up' purported Armenian aggression in the region and said its soldiers are allowing Yerevan to move troops and hardware through a humanitarian corridor. On Monday, a piece published by a Turkish news outlet went viral, claiming that Armenia had offered up four Su-30 fighter jets to Moscow for use in the war in Ukraine. Despite no evidence being presented, the claim caused consternation and helped reinforce the narrative that the country is a Kremlin puppet.
For now though, as millions of Ukrainians flee their bombed-out homes, it appears a new humanitarian crisis could be about to unfold on the edges of Europe. Putin might have written the book on this kind of warfare, but it is clear others have been reading it closely.