30 September 2020

A new Armenian-Azerbaijani war has started in Nagorno-Karabakh

Sandu Valentin Mateiu

Unhappy with negotiations’ postponement, but also due to internal political reasons, the Azerbaijani president, Ilham Aliyev, decided to start a war between Azerbaijan and Armenia, starting an offensive against the Armenian separatists in Nagorno –Karabakh. Turkey supports Baku, offering military support and encouraging it to start this conflict. The Armenians have reacted, as usual, harshly, for the Azerbaijani to withdraw, overwhelmed with loses, but, this time, the Turkish involvement, especially with drones, has complicated the situation a bit. After two days of fighting, the front situation met a deadlock: the Azerbaijani did not create a great offensive, nor the Armenians managed to fight back completely and provoke huge loses, and they even had loses they cannot afford. The question here is whether the situation will be stable again, reaching a weak ceasefire or will it escalate? This is a political decision to be made in Baku, after consultations with Ankara, and the situation on the front will have an important role when adopting the following steps. We will only focus on the general military situation and the current military developments, the political and diplomatic perspectives of this situation to be further analyzed in different articles.

Image source: Mediafax

The overall picture

The stake of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh is the mountainous region adjoining Armenia, mostly inhabited by Armenians, however being an autonomous region, within the RSS Azerbaijan, since the Soviet times. When the Soviet empire disappeared, the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh, with the support of those from Armenia, have militarily defeated the Azerbaijanis, in a harsh conflict, marked by war crimes and ethnical purifications, the Azerbaijanis in the region taking refuge in Azerbaijan, just like the Armenians in Azerbaijan took refuge in Armenia. In order to get a strong defensive position, the Armenian forces have occupied Azerbaijani territories adjoining Nagorno-Karabakh, so they have created a continuous defence line, generally on the North-Southern direction (with an expansion, in the North, on the East-West direction), the Armenians occupying the mountainous region, and the Azerbaijani positions were exposed in the relatively flat field around the bases.

The Achilles tendon for Nagorno-Karabakh region is the Lachin escalation corridor, which connects the region’s capital, Stepanekert, to Armenia, on the East-West direction, from Susa to Lachin, a true “umbilical cord”, being protected through the adjoining Azerbaijani territories conquered by the Armenians. Thus, the Azerbaijani have a mountainous fortress ahead, on the North-South direction (with the Northern mountainous flank, on the East-West direction, and the Southern one at the border with Iran), the contact line following a parallel line, at their bases, being forced to take these heights by force. This mountainous line is bored into by a few valleys on the East-West direction, which guide each Azerbaijani attack, both the field at mountains bases and the entries in these valleys being like death fields, as any offensive welcomed by the coordinated fire carefully guided by the great positions on these heights.

The Armenians, just like the Azerbaijanis, have organized their defence deeply, on many defence fronts, with elaborated works, wherein the infantry, armored technique as well as the artillery are protected. Behind this devices there are the maneuver forces of the Armenians, which have to block any offensive of the Azerbaijanis that could pass by these defence fronts. Besides this field advantage, the Armenians have the advantage of the inside communication lines (the M11 highway), but these can quickly disappear if the Azerbaijani decide to interrupt them by occupation or by managing to focus the artillery on them, after a limited offensive. In this still device, an important danger is the observation capacity of drones, wherefrom their extensive use by both parts and the necessity for their troops’ air defence to be able to identify such hardly detectable targets.

The Azerbaijani have invested in drones (but the Armenians as well), but the Armenian air defence coped with it so far. The disequilibrium came from the use of Turkish drones (controlled by Turkish military? this would be a direct involvement, even it is difficult to prove it) which, due to the superiority within the electronic warfare, repeating the Libyan lesson (where these were way better than the Russian electronic warfare and air defence systems), have attacked the Armenian air defence systems (short range of action systems 9K33 Osa), then, targetting the armored technique’s, the artillery and the logistic system (munitions deposits). The Armenians will have to find a quick solution[1] to this threat, otherwise they will register huge loses and they cannot afford that.  All in all this is Armenians’ problem: the major disequilibrium comparing to the Azerbaijani enemy in terms of demography, which is reflected as well in the number of the united Armenian fighting troops (Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh), which, on paper, are different.

Furthermore, the budget different is huge, the Azerbaijani military budget being basically the same with the entire Armenian budget. Armenia coped with this situation through its tied relation with Russia, within the CSTO (but, within that framework, Russia is forced to defend only Armenia, but not Nagorno-Karabakh, whose “independency” is not recognized by the Russians) and through a judicious equipment policy, seeking to maintain a quantitative closeness, however, balancing through the quality of its troops, which are better trained and motivated, especially those in Nagorno-Karabakh, which follow a great military tradition.  Hereof, Turkey might dislocate the Syrian jihadists in Nagorno-Karabakh (information start to be confirmed, Reuters)  and that is, despite breaking the international norms, a real danger for the Armenian military, as the Jihadists are raising the counterattack capacity of the Azerbaijani infantry.

Both camps are mainly equipped with Soviet armaments, and the Azerbaijani acquisitions of foreign armaments, although notable, cannot change the balance. Both sides have close-to-ground fire support aircraft (Su-25), but the ground is proper for their intensive use. Relatively recently, Armenia has acquired four Su-30 SM aircraft, which gives it an extra chance to gain air supremacy, with Azerbaijanis having only MiG-29 aircraft, although there are many more (15). Air supremacy is, as everywhere, key in this conflict, with the possible involvement of Turkish F-16s posing a particular danger to Armenia, which Yerevan has threatened with ground-to-ground missile attacks on Iskander.

In the current confrontation, as in the past, especially the Azerbaijanis (but also the Armenians), used intensively the artillery, including the long-range reactive artillery, to hit the opponent's defense device, in its depth, but also the strategic infrastructure, as well as and civilian targets (localities were also hit, which caused civilian casualties). The terrain largely dictates the plan of attack: the "shell fortress" NK can be conquered by a double cloak, from the north, on the west/southwest direction and from the south, on the east/northeast direction, to cut the "umbilical cord", Lachin-Susa corridor. It should be borne in mind that, of course, Armenians do not only have a static defense device, but maneuvering forces, excelling in mobile defense (generally in mobile/maneuver warfare).

Despite the quantitative superiority in the military, tanks and artillery, the Azerbaijanis do not have the capacity to successfully carry out an offensive of this magnitude. However, any Azerbaijani attack will follow these directions, as is the case in the current offensive. Given that the center of gravity is the land, but not the entire Nagorno-Karabakh, but a significant portion of land, enough to produce the feeling of victory, internally, and lead to the resumption of negotiations, forcing Yerevan to concessions, the goal of any offensive is visible: in order to get as much territory as possible, an offensive limited on both directions, the southern one being advantaged by the more accessible terrain, and the northern one bringing the advantage that, once it reached the Armenian communication lines (M11), turning the defense device, the situation of the defenders becomes difficult.

For the Armenians, the goal is to counter the Azeri offensives close to their starting line (the Line of Actual Contact), with as many losses as possible for the Azerbaijanis, which would discourage the transition to a war of attrition, which Armenia cannot afford. However, the direct intervention of Turkey, more than the current one (drones, Syrian jihadists), will provoke a harsh reaction from Armenia (Turkey, not Azerbaijan is the existential threat to Armenia) and its allies, so the strategic reserve of Nagorno-Karabakh troops it is represented by Armenian troops, and the Armenian reserve is represented by the CSTO ally, Russia. This explains the general mobilization in Armenia, generated not only by the partial mobilization in Azerbaijan, but also by the almost present danger of Turkey's direct involvement.

 Armenia is forced to end the crisis quickly, unable to afford a war of attrition, because it cannot absorb large human losses and cannot accept the effects on its economy (in this sense, there are many similarities between the politico-military situation of Israel in Golan, in 1973, but also in 1967, and that of Armenia, in Nagorno-Karabakh). Azerbaijan has to get a piece of land, regardless how small it is.

Military actions

Alike the previous ones, the Azerbaijani offensive started with an artillery barrage along the entire line of contact, followed by probing attacks (and diversion, in modeling operations) along it, but the main attacks were executed in the South and North, in the two directions mentioned. Most likely, the Armenians were not surprised, as evidenced by the political actions (meetings between leaders) and military (artillery duels) prior to the offensive.

The novelty, this time, was not so much the intensive use of drones (they were also used, including intelligent ammunition), but the successful use of Turkish drones, which put the air defense, in general, the troops in the defense device from contact line in difficulty. The Azerbaijanis also used vertical maneuvering, probably trying to launch air landing (probably special operations forces) in certain positions to ensure their observation (in order to correct the artillery fire) or mandatory crossing points, but failed (Three helicopters were shot down by Armenians). After heavy fighting, the Armenians halted the southern offensive at Fuzili and repulsed the Azeris to the line of contact. In the north, the Azeris failed to conquer Mount Mrav, but on the main Azerbaijanis resumed the artillery barrage that preceded the infantry and tank offensive (although they did not excel in their coordination or support with artillery fire), with the Armenians preparing to repel a massive attack both in the north and in the south. In all this misinformation, each side praising its victories, there are some clear indicators: the occupation of the localities, respectively of the opponent's positions.

Thus, so far, beyond the images that show the destroyed technique and the destroyed human force, we do not have documented the occupation by the Azerbaijanis of some localities, respectively of some important Armenian positions. Even if they stop the offensive, the mission of the Armenians will not be over, their goal being to produce Azeri losses so big that Baku will give up the offensive completely, not going to war of attrition. In addition, beyond the current involvement (drones, intelligence, counseling, jihadists), the sword of Damocles of a direct Turkish intervention complicates the situation in Yerevan. However, Russia is watching, ready to interfere, if Ankara takes this decisive step.

The escalation danger is visible, but even without escalation, the Armenians must force the rapid rejection of the Azeri offensive, causing them as much loss as possible, while the Azeris must conquer and keep under their control at least a small portion of land, even if they fail a decisive breakthrough. This is the military context the political decisions will be made in in Baku, Ankara, Yerevan and Moscow (and, in this case, the West has little say, with the US voluntarily withdrawing and the EU promoting soft power).

[1] It seems that the solution was found, as there are information according to which Armenia’s S-300 air defence systems were dislocated in Nagorno-Karabakh.