On February 23, 2012, the controversial leader of Russia’s Liberal Democratic Party Vladimir Zhirinovsky predicted the possible outbreak of World War III this summer. According to the former Russian army colonel, as soon as Syria is annihilated, a blow will be struck against Iran. At that point, “Azerbaijan might take advantage of that state to re-seize Nagorno-Karabakh. The Republic of Armenia will act in opposition to it, while Turkey will support Azerbaijan. That’s how we’ll in summer be caught in a war,” Zhirinovsky explained.
Although the Russian politician is not new to this kind of interventions, the risk that the Caucasus might indeed be the trigger of a new world war is all but unlikely. Earlier this year, Azerbaijan’s president Ilham Aliyev said Baku is buying up modern weaponry to be able to regain control of the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region quickly and with few losses should peace talks with neighbouring Armenia fail. Negotiations to end the conflict have been held under the auspices of the so-called Minsk Group since 1992, but so far results have been inconclusive.
Azerbaijan is a natural ally of Turkey and an adversary of Iran. NATO partner since 1994 through its participation to the Alliance’s Partnership for Peace program, Baku is also one of the most geo-strategically important allies of the West in the pipelines war against Russia, being both a supporter and a potential supplier of the Washington-backed Nabucco gas pipeline project. On the other side, Armenia is a close ally of Russia and Iran, both interested in countering Turkish and US influence over the Caspian region.
Given this geopolitical context, to which are added NATO-Russia tensions over US missile defense plans in Europe and Azerbaijani-Russian disagreements over the renewal of the Gabala radar station lease, a spike in violence in the Caucasus might indeed trigger a major conflict between a US-led coalition consisting of Azerbaijan, Turkey and Israel on one side, and a Sino-Russian bloc including Armenia and Iran on the other side. Nevertheless, although five of the eight countries involved are de facto nuclear powers, a World War III between them would not necessarily imply the use of nuclear weapons.
In fact, a conflict originating from tensions in the Caucasus-Caspian region would be local in scope, but global in extent and consequences, being thus able to be considered a world war. Such a confrontation would have some of the characteristics of the Cold War, being the result of at least three proxy conflicts (Azerbaijan against Armenia, Iran against Azerbaijan, Turkey against Iran); nevertheless, given the nuclear potential of the countries diplomatically involved, it could not last more than a few days, being decided by both compellence and deterrence strategies fielded by the United States, Russia and China.
According to the New York Times, Russian fighter jets stationed in Armenia have conducted about 300 training flights since the beginning of 2012, increasing the number of flying hours by more than 20 percent from last year. Although Kirill Kiselev, an officer of the press service in the Southern Military District in Gyumri, assured the “Intensification of flights of Russian air-unit of N102 military base has been recorded in the framework of combat training program,” such a hyperactivity of Russian air forces might be a warning that Moscow could intervene at any moment should a war break out.
Nevertheless, only strong Chinese support can allow Russia to successfully continue its deterrence strategy aimed at avoiding US-sponsored military interventions both in the Caucasus (Nagorno-Karabakh) and the Middle East (Syria and Iran). Strong of its 3 million soldiers, who make the People’s Liberation Army the world’s largest military force, China would in fact be able to wage any kind of conflict with an overwhelming conventional superiority. Should Beijing gain access to military facilities in countries such as Kazakhstan and Pakistan, a Western attack on Tehran and its allies would therefore become an extremely remote possibility. In that case, the setback suffered by the US–Israel axis of having to de facto accept Iran’s nuclearization would already be, in itself, a victory for the Sino-Russian bloc, as well a practical realization of what Sun Tzu considered as the “apex of strategy:” to win a fight without fighting.