The South Caucasus is a new battlefield for India and Pakistan - The strategic factor of Greece and Cyprus

Indian pinaka rocket system South Caucasus

The South Caucasus is no stranger to external powers competing for influence and advancing their own interests. During the Cold War, for example, the region was at the forefront of the ideological conflict between the West and the former Soviet Union.

Due to the region's close proximity to the wider Middle East, the Soviet Union sought to use the Caucasus to exert its influence there, particularly in Iran and Turkey. Today, these two regional rulers are also vying for influence following the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war and ongoing border conflicts between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

With Russia apparently determined to maintain its post-Soviet sphere of influence in regional states, the South Caucasus has once again become a theatre of conflict. The 2020 war, which ended in favour of Azerbaijan, was widely seen as a confrontation between Turkey and Russia.

Despite their differences in other conflicts such as Syria and Libya, Moscow and Ankara have managed to cooperate and balance their relations not only throughout the ongoing military operation in Ukraine, but also over Azerbaijan.

The extent of Russia's complicity in the outcome of the conflict has led Moscow to be accused of betraying long-time ally Armenia and facilitating Baku's aggressive stance, most recently after the September 13 clashes.

The Armenian government and members of the Armenian public have become critical of Russia's failure to support their country in its time of need, given that both countries are members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).

Taking advantage of any potential rupture, US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made a historic visit to Yerevan last month, condemning Baku and discussing possible security guarantees.

However, the hypocrisy of the West and more specifically the EU has been exposed by its unwavering solidarity with Ukraine, as opposed to its seeming abandonment of Armenia, while courting energy-rich Azerbaijan.

Turkey and pan-Turkism

For its part, Turkey is an advocate of pan-Turkism and wants to work with Baku to create the so-called Zangezur Corridor, a transportation project that bypasses Armenian checkpoints and connects it to the Nakhichevan enclave of Azerbaijan.

If done, it would also undermine the interests of Iran, which shares a land border and maintains strong ties with Armenia. As far as Tehran is concerned, this is a red line as it would lose its role connecting Turkey with Central Asia and East and West.

Iran's archenemy Israel has also found value in its alliance with neighbouring Azerbaijan. Israel is Baku's third largest export destination, supplying the occupying state with 40% of its energy needs.

Israel in turn was the main arms supplier to Azerbaijan and accounted for almost 70% of arms imports in 2020.

The complex and paradoxical geopolitics of the South Caucasus is such that one can find Israeli flags flying in Azerbaijan, while Iranian flags can be seen flying in Christian Armenia.

The South Caucasus is now set to become even more complicated, thanks to the rivalry between South Asian neighbors Pakistan and India, which could find its way into proxy play between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

The Pakistan factor

Following Turkey's footsteps, Pakistan became the second country in the world to recognise Azerbaijan's independence in December 1991. In June this year, they completed 30 years of diplomatic relations.

Pakistan is also notable for being the only country in the world that does not recognise Armenia as a state.

This policy stems from Islamabad's solidarity with Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, most recently over last month's clashes, supporting "Baku's right to defend its territorial integrity".

In response, Armenia sided with Pakistan's enemy, India, over the disputed Kashmir issue.

Military ties between Baku and Islamabad have grown over three decades of close relations and were significantly upgraded last year after the first joint military exercises between Turkey, Pakistan and Azerbaijan, "The Three Brothers - 2021", in Baku.

Additionally, Azerbaijan has previously expressed interest in acquiring Pakistani-Chinese JF-17 Thunder fighter jets.

Politically, all three countries signed the Istanbul Declaration in July 2022, aiming to strengthen existing ties, deepen inter-parliamentary dialogue and reiterate their support for each other's territorial claims.

Not surprisingly, India perceives this flourishing tripartite arrangement with apprehension.

Last week, the Economic Times noted that Azerbaijan's victory against Armenia represents a potential model for Turkey-Pakistan military cooperation and serves as a warning sign that India can no longer ignore, especially if one day decide to play together in other theaters, including Pakistan Occupied Kashmir.

This coincided with New Delhi's decision to sign an order to export missiles and ammunition to Armenia, including the first export of India's Pinaka multiple launch missile system.

While the value of the deal has yet to be disclosed, it is reportedly worth $250 million and is set to close within the next few months.

According to Indian military analyst and retired Air Force pilot Vijainder Thakur, this move marks not only a breakthrough for India's overseas arms industry, but also heralds a paradigm shift in the country's foreign policy of avoiding overt involvement in foreign zones conflicts.

Tactically, the Pinaka M-1 looks more suited to an adversary known for its heavy reliance on drone warfare.

Proxy war in the Caucasus

The South Caucasus would not be the first proxy theatre for conflict between Pakistan and India, as the two countries continue to face each other in Afghanistan, with Islamabad's historic support for the Taliban and India's support for the Northern Alliance and the former government of Afghanistan.

However, Pakistan could lose its influence as the Taliban-ruled state is open to forging closer ties with India.

"India will have to widen the scope of support to Armenia," believes Indian Kashmiri scholar and Central Asia expert KN Pandita. "It should train Armenian fighters with the latest war tactics as was done in the case of the Afghan National Army."

While Pakistan has poor diplomatic relations with Armenia, India has taken a more pragmatic approach and maintained an "initial position" on the Karabakh issue, omitting to explicitly name Azerbaijan as the "aggressor" when calling on it to cease hostilities.

Trade is also an important factor to consider as India became Azerbaijan's fourth largest export partner in the first half of 2022 and Baku is unlikely to be willing to jeopardise this as it is seen as being too close to Pakistan to like India.

Therefore, due to its geostrategic importance, the South Caucasus is again fertile ground for proxy conflicts.

During the Cold War, nuclear deterrence between the US and the USSR played an important role in ensuring that proxy wars were the primary source of military confrontation.

Nuclear-armed rivals Pakistan and India may also find themselves engaged in indirect conflict in the South Caucasus, although, unlike in the Cold War, there will be less of a zero-sum game mentality for the simple reason that business ties are also important.

Greek involvement?

The Turks have already involved Greece in the geopolitical rivalries of the Caucasus, with the retired admiral Cihat Yaycı seeing a conspiracy of Armenians and Greeks against the Azeris.

Cyprus also enters the equation, after the official visit to Armenia carried out by the Chief of the General Staff at the beginning of this year, where the importance of the bilateral military cooperation program between Cyprus and Armenia, as well as the tripartite one with Greece, was reaffirmed.

Greek-Indian relations are on a continuous course of strengthening in all sectors, with particular emphasis on security and information exchange, a cooperation that arises and is strengthened by the uninterrupted Turkish-Pakistani "axis of evil" in the Aegean-Mediterranean, Kashmir, but also elsewhere.

The Indian position is that the convergence against Ankara-Islamabad is a strategic imperative as Turkey is tormenting Greece in the Mediterranean and India in Kashmir.

Greece's close relations with India and Armenia, as well as the crucial factor of Cyprus , are the antidote to the axis of evil formed by Turkey, Azerbaijan and Pakistan.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis may be shaking hands and smiling next to Azerbaijan's dictator and war criminal Ilham Aliyev, flirting energetically with Baku over the energy crisis, but it is clear to all decision makers that strategic interests of the country is with Armenia.

Abandoning Yerevan is not an option, and therefore, strengthening defence, security and intelligence cooperation in the foggy landscape of the Caucasus is a necessary condition for strengthening Greek positions vis-à-vis Turkey - in combination with common interests governing the relations between Greece, Armenia and India.

Evangelos D. Kokkinos is a columnist for Penta Postagma.

READ MORE: The defence of Greece begins in Armenia.

Guest Contributor

This piece was written for Greek City Times by a Guest Contributor