Letter From the Editors

Several political events unfolded like a card trick this week, relying on sleight of hand to mislead the opponent. As fighting resumed in Nagorno-Karabakh, events quickly spun out of control. Stepanakert came under heavy shelling, and Armenia and Azerbaijan exchanged recriminations. In the escalating conflict, the advantage quickly went to Baku: “Rich Azerbaijan is buying weapons and equipment in Russia, Israel and all over the world,” writes military expert Pavel Felgengauer. The Armenian side, conversely, “is well armed, but with relatively obsolete equipment inherited from the Soviet Armed Forces or taken as trophies during the first war in Nagorno-Karabakh,” Felgengauer continues.

Then, a new wrinkle to the plot was added in the form of an alleged Turkish F‑16 jet, which by all indications downed an Armenian bomber. Initially, Ankara staunchly denied its direct involvement in the conflict. However, evidence is starting to pile up that Turkey not only has Baku’s back, but is actually leading the charge in the confrontation. But while it is openly backing Baku on the political stage, it apparently prefers to use proxies on the ground. Both Reuters and The Guardian have reported that Syrian mercenaries are fighting for Azerbaijan in Karabakh. According to Аnna-news.info, “Ankara is seeking to become a direct participant in the events on the ground in the South Caucasus, and acquire a status on a par with Russia.”

Turkey is not the only one keen to use proxies to tackle its geopolitical objectives – retired Russian Lt. Gen. Valentinov sees the same motive behind Washington’s choice of ambassador to Ukraine. According to Valentinov, dispatching a career military officer to Kiev shows that “Ukraine is the most likely battleground for military confrontation between Russia and the US.” He is echoed by commentator Dmitry Babich: “For the US, Ukrainian leaders can be used as proxies for a war with Russia, allowing [the US] to avoid a retaliatory Russian strike and making it possible to keep US service personnel out of the fighting.”

Meanwhile, a war over hearts and minds is brewing between the West and Russia. In an interview with Germany’s influential Der Spiegel, Russian opposition politician Aleksei Navalny directly accused Russian President Putin of being complicit in an attempt on his life. The Kremlin’s response was swift: Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin called Navalny a “shameless scoundrel,” fuming that “Putin saved his life.” Accusations that Navalny is working with the CIA soon followed. The Kremlin was particularly miffed that Navalny was visited in the hospital by none other than German Chancellor Angela Merkel. And while this was not an official visit, the writing was on the wall: The visit cemented Navalny’s status as a major Russian political figure and undeniable leader of the opposition. At the same time, it undermined “the inaccessibility and uniqueness of the Russian president, who is the only person in the country able to sit down to a cup of tea with the US president or the German chancellor,” writes Fyodor Krasheninnikov. Another political card trick this week was the inauguration of perennial Belarussian leader Aleksandr Lukashenko. “A public inauguration ceremony would have been marred by clashes between protesters and security forces,” says Belarussian expert Valery Karbalevich. So Lukashenko opted for a secret inauguration, which was shown on the Belarus 24 TV channel after the fact. “The very fact that the inauguration was held in secret tells us that Lukashenko does not place much hope in public support. He is relying on brute force and Russian support,” Karbalevich goes on to say. But even Russia seems to be keeping batka at arm’s length these days, as demonstrated by the absence of a high-ranking government delegation at the annual Belarussian-Russian Forum of Regions. By doing so, the expert maintains “Moscow is hinting that contacts with Russian governors are more [Lukashenko’s] level.” Like in a card trick, watch his legitimacy…disappear!