This past month marked two very interesting events the bilateral relations of four different countries. Fighting once again broke out in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and the UK made a very strong statement about their ability to obliterate an Argentine attack on the Falklands in a short amount of time should another conflict ever occur.
Much has been made of Russian foreign policy in regards to exploiting frozen conflicts in order to retain a post-Soviet periphery, be it in Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova, or Tajikistan. But this is hardly a behavior unique to Russia. It is only the scale and multiplicity of Russian interests that mark it out as most noteworthy. But frozen conflicts play a large role in the foreign policies of many smaller nations. In fact, a single seemingly minor dispute can be an all-consuming issue in a smaller nation’s outlook on international affairs. Sometimes, these disputes are useful rallying cries for fragile nations, but they can also be quagmires which reasonable policymakers know are useless but are forced to continue on with thanks to domestic pressures. It can also be both of these things at once.
When Argentina invaded the Falklands and South Georgia Island in 1982 it was after the failure of decades of diplomacy. The risk was high but Britain was obviously in steep decline compared to its great power days and would have a massive logistical problem to overcome to re-take the islands, located near the Antarctic Circle. Even with this accomplished, they would still be in range of South American based fighter attack and far away from the nearest British base on Ascension Island. Considering the internal instability and economic fragility of the Argentine junta, this was seen as a risk worth taking to rally the people to their cause.
But while the Argentine air force performed well, crippling several British ships in succession, their navy chickened after the General Belgrano was sunk by a submarine and their mostly conscript army rapidly folded once the professional British forces landed and began to make their way across the wind-swept islands. Britain seemed to reverse its former historical record by performing impressively on land and awkwardly at sea, but considering the timidity of the Argentinian Navy this ended up working out.
In the end the total count of killed and wounded on both sides would slightly outnumber the population of the islands in that era.
The dispute, which technically began in the 18th century between Spain and Britain, is still ongoing, with the UN currently contemplating that the islands are in Argentine waters. Having turned the conflict into a post-WWII rallying cray, Britain is unlikely to voluntarily hand over the territory without some kind of joint-administration agreement, if at all.
The Nagorno-Karabakh War is another hold over, of a more recent but more deadly nature. It was a region where both Armenians and Azeris lived in Soviet times, though rising nationalism throughout the Caucasus in the latter-Soviet era was present. Before even the unraveling of the USSR it was apparent that Armenia and Azerbaijan were fast moving into independence and conflict with each other over the demarcation of their borders. It became ethnic and both sides committed mass deportations against the ethnic populations of the other. This eventually spiraled into full blown conventional conflict with newly unemployed Russian officers and tank units even selling their services to both sides as mercenaries.
The Armenians, despite the initial odds, wiped the floor with the Azeris. And yet, much like in the Falklands, a dispute was not actually ended by a strong showing on one side. It became politically toxic for the losing side to give up the ghost, so they simply did not. Perhaps in the hope, not unreasonable, that if one is patient but dedicated one can get with negotiation what they failed to retain by fighting.
But the main point here is that these are not isolates. If anything, I would expect to see more of these big military and diplomatic blow ups over remote and disputed territories. It can be both a legitimate way of asserting sovereignty and a useful distraction at home. From the present military build up in the South China Sea between China, the Philippines, the USA, and Japan over various disputed and sometimes even artificial islands to various tiny islands between Greece and Turkey to the potentially rekindled fires of Nagorno-Karabakh and the Falklands, the future of conventional warfare could very well be tied up with these kind of disputes. Average civilians in the core regions of countries are probably under little threat, but those on the frontier and in the armed forces might just have to be aware that these kinds of frozen conflicts are highways to the danger zone.
For a real life example of *Danger Zone* check out these low level Argentinian bombing raids on British ships in 1982: