Due to the destructiveness of modern military arsenals, war between states has become less frequent than in the past. However, growing instability and competitiveness in the international system indicates that we could be facing into a future where the likelihood of inter-state war might rise once more. The fact that climate change will result in severe shortages of resources, with accompanying instances of territorial disputes, in the coming decades only increases this possibility.
Presently, there are numerous unresolved disputes between heavily armed nations that could conceivably escalate into all-out war. What follows is a short explanation of five such cases.
Azerbaijan vs Armenia
The disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh has seen its deadliest flare-up of violence since the 1994 ceasefire that ended the war between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Armenian backed fighters have clashed with Azerbaijani troops in recent days, with the death toll reaching at least ninety-five, a figure that includes eleven civilians. On Tuesday, the Armenian government claimed one of its warplanes had been shot down by Turkey, a strong ally of the Azerbaijani government.
The dispute goes back to the collapse of the Soviet Union when both Armenia and Azerbaijan gained their independence. At the time, Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnic Armenian area within Azerbaijan, broke away from Azerbaijan and declared independence. The resultant war between the two countries claimed 30,000 lives and witnessed bouts of ethnic cleansing that saw the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people. The Russian brokered cease-fire that followed left Nagorno-Karabakh as a de facto independent statelet within Azerbaijan, albeit one unrecognized by the international community. Since then, multiple rounds of peace talks have failed to resolve the territory’s future and there have been intermittent flare-ups of violence, with Azerbaijan seeking to take back the territory from Armenian-backed fighters. On Monday, Azerbaijan launched yet another offensive to reclaim the territory.
At the time of writing (1st October), the threat of all-out war between Armenia and Azerbaijan seemed increasingly likely, with the fighting spreading beyond the immediate region of Nagorno-Karabakh, and with both sides rejecting the idea of peace talks. A war along the lines of the conflict in the 1990s with the potential to claim tens of thousands of lives is a real possibility, as is a wider regional conflagration that could draw in Turkey, which has strong ties to Azerbaijan, and Russia, who is Armenia’s closest ally.
Greece vs Turkey
The battle over the future of Nagorno-Karabakh is not the only potential conflict Turkey finds itself embroiled in. In recent months, tensions in the eastern Mediterranean have risen to the point that some analysts are warning that war could break out between Greece and Turkey. The two nations have a long and acrimonious history, with the Turkish Ottoman Empire occupying Greece for long periods and both sides backing competing claimants to sovereignty over the island of Cyprus.
The latest round of tensions stems from an increasingly assertive Turkey seeking to challenge the regions maritime borders, which skew heavily in favor of Greece. Fueling the Turkish attempts at maritime border revision is a gas and oil boom in the eastern Mediterranean. The issue came to a head in August when Turkey sent warships into Greek territorial waters to accompany a research vessel prospecting for energy resources. Greece responded by moving its own warships into the area.
Since then, both nations navies have been on high alert and have been performing competing naval exercises in the sea between Cyprus and Crete. An outright war remains unlikely but analysts argue that Turkey, under President Recep Erdoğan has been pursuing what amounts to a neo-Ottomanist policy of assertiveness and expansion. Greece, with the backing of the EU, might feel that it needs to take a stand against Turkey’s aggressive stance. There is thus significant scope for a catastrophic miscalculation leading to war.
India vs China
Two other countries with a seemingly intractable border dispute are China and India. Both nations share a 3,440 km border which, despite its inhospitable terrain, is hotly disputed. Tensions have been flaring in recent months. In May, Indian army sources alleged that China occupied an area encompassing sixty square kilometres in the Indian region of Ladakh. The following month, Chinese and Indian troops fought a battle in which at least twenty Indian soldiers died. What was unusual about the battle was that it was fought not with military weapons but with sticks and clubs; a result of the fact that both nations have agreed not to militarize border regions in order to prevent any confrontation from escalating into military engagement. In August, tensions simmered once more as India accused China of conducting “provocative military movements” at the border. Last month, the demilitarized nature of the border was called in to question when both sides traded accusations of gunfire from opposing sides. As the BBC noted, “The allegations, if true, would be the first time in 45 years that shots were fired at the border”.
With neither country in a mood to compromise, further escalations may follow. Exacerbating the situation is the nature of the regimes governing both countries. China’s ruling Communist Party appears to be resorting to a more nationalistic style of rhetoric in order to shore up its own popular support. Furthermore, the increasing centralization of power into the hands of one man, Chinese Premier Xi Jinping, does not auger well for the prospect of a sane approach to seeking a solution with its neighbor. China’s recent actions in Hong Kong and the South China Sea attest to the fact that it is becoming increasingly aggressive on the world stage. In Narendra Modi, India too has a ruler with authoritarian tendencies who seems happy to deploy nationalistic rhetoric in order to bolster his own support. As with China, Modi’s India has exercised a much more assertive foreign policy, one that at times borders on recklessness. Recent Indian crackdowns in the disputed province of Kashmir demonstrate Modi’s willingness to risk escalating tensions with neighboring countries.
While the possibility of an outright war between India and China remains relatively remote, such a conflict would have cataclysmic consequences given that both countries possess considerable nuclear arsenals.
Iran vs USA/Israel/Saudi Arabia
Another potential conflict under the shadow of nuclear weapons is that between Iran and the allied nations of the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia. Recent years have witnessed numerous proxy conflicts fought between these nations. Iran has backed rebels fighting against Saudi Arabia in Yemen whilst the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia have supported rebels fighting against the Syrian regime of Bashar Al-Assad, who in turn is allied with Iran. The proxy battle for hegemony across the Middle East has occasionally threatened to spiral out of control and lead to all-out war. In 2019 Iran was accused of using drones to destroy an oil facility in Saudi Arabia. Iran denied the charge but if they were responsible, the attack was tantamount to a declaration of war. In January 2020, the US assassinated Qasem Soleimani, a senior figure in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. The Iranian response was to launch missiles at a military base hosting US troops in Iraq, although no US soldiers were killed. Further tit-for-tat attacks followed but thankfully both sides pulled back from the brink.
Much of the current tensions have been exacerbated by the Trump administration’s decision to pull out of the 2015 nuclear deal, under which Iran agreed to stop enriching weapons grade uranium in return for an alleviation of the economic sanctions that had been crippling the country’s economy. With the sanctions reimposed, Iran relaunched its nuclear weapons program. The result is that Iran’s two main regional rivals — Israel and Saudi Arabia — might feel that a full-scale war against Iran may be desirable before it gains actual nuclear capabilities. If such a war occurs, there is a potential for the largest global conflict since World War II. Iran is closely allied with China and Russia, two nuclear armed military superpowers who would perhaps be unlikely to sit idly by were Iran attacked by Israel, Saudi Arabia or the United States.
Egypt vs Ethiopia
Our final potential conflict concerns a resource that is essential to human life: water. In 2011, Ethiopia began construction on a hydroelectric dam on the Blue Nile, the main tributary of the Nile, which supplies more than 90% of Egypt’s water supply. For Ethiopia, the Grand Renaissance Dam offers economic development and is set to provide electricity to tens of millions of citizens previously without a secure source of electricity. Egypt fears that the dam has the potential to significantly reduce its access to fresh water, particularly in times of drought. Tensions between the two nations have been rising since July, when the dam was completed. At the crux of the issue is a technical argument about the filling up of the dam’s reservoir and how much water the dam should release. Egypt wants the pace of the reservoir filling to be dependent on rainfall and for Ethiopia to ensure a minimum flow in the event of a drought. Ethiopia says such a guarantee is unacceptable. In July, tensions were heightened when Ethiopia began filling the dam against Egypt’s wishes.
Unfortunately, the matter goes beyond simple resource management. For the governments of both countries, the dam is not just a piece of infrastructure. It has become, in the words of Foreign Policy Magazine, “a nationalistic rallying cry for both Ethiopia and Egypt — two countries scrambling to define their nationhood after years of domestic upheaval”. Ethiopia is a deeply divided country and the dam has proved a rare point of national unity, meaning that the government is less likely to accede to Egypt’s requests. Yet Egypt is unlikely to temper its own demands as its military dictatorship seeks to base much of its legitimacy on a nationalistic platform of promoting national security. With the Nile being a vital matter of national security, as well as a core part of Egypt’s identity as a nation, backing down may not be an option.
The result is that some analysts are warning that war between two of Africa’s strongest militaries could be “the only possible scenario”. Indeed, the Egyptian Foreign Minister has said as much, warning the UN Security Council that Egypt viewed the matter as an existential threat that would justify war with Ethiopia.
Given the human and economic cost of war between states, each of the conflicts outlined above are, on the balance of probability, unlikely to escalate into an outright war. Nonetheless, a miscalculation by either side in any of the above conflicts could lead to a situation where inter-state war breaks out. The current global geopolitical system is one characterized by a superpower (the United States) now seemingly in perpetual decline as well as a rising power (China) who seeks to aggressively assume the mantle of global leadership. The UN Security Council is divided to the point of paralysis and powerful nations across the globe are shifting to a more protectionist economic model. Governments, whether they be democratic administrations or dictatorial regimes, increasingly seek to bolster their domestic legitimacy by adopting nationalistic and antagonistic stances toward their neighbors. Such trends make conflict more likely, even without the fact that the planet is facing an ongoing environmental crisis that will inevitably be the source of much conflict into the future.
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