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Hal Brands

Little War in the Caucasus Has Big Lessons for U.S. and Russia

What's going on in Nagorno-Karabakh? Maybe a dress rehearsal for a major-power conflict.

Dangerous neighborhood.

Dangerous neighborhood.

Photographer: Karen Minasyan/AFP/Getty Images

Small wars can tell you a lot about the biggest geopolitical and military issues of the day. Consider the present conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. Most Americans have probably never heard of that disputed region in the Caucasus. But the fighting there reveals key fault lines in an increasingly disordered global environment, and it underscores crucial trends in the evolution of modern warfare.

In some ways, there is nothing new about what is happening in Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnic Armenian enclave inside Azerbaijan’s borders. The clash over that region is one of many “frozen conflicts” left behind by the disintegration of the Soviet Union. After the Soviet collapse, Armenian forces occupied Nagorno-Karabakh in a brutal war that ended in 1994. The fighting caused tens of thousands of deaths; it included massacres of noncombatants and the expulsion or flight of perhaps hundreds of thousands of Azeris.