03 November 2020

One month of total war in Nagorno-Karabakh

Sandu Valentin Mateiu

Image source: Mediafax

- The Azerbaijani offensive in the South continued, but the Armenians managed to level off the this frontline as well, even if it meant yielding this buffer zone region composed of Azerbaijani sectors, which do not belong to Nagorno-Karabakh. The Azerbaijanis conquered five important villages in this region: Fuzuli, Hadrut, Jabrail, Zanghilan and Qubadli, controlling the entire border with Iran, up to the one with Armenia. They could not get to the strategic corridor Lachin-Susa (up to Stepanakert), but they started to attack the two villages, Lachin and Susa, with artillery, and the Stepanakert  village with air strikes. The Azerbaijanis are just close to Nagorno-Karabakh. The Armenians are forced to stop them here, otherwise there are big chances for them to lose the war and, implicitly, a great part of Nagorno-Karabakh.

-The ceasefire agreement mediated by the US (26.10) did not stay in line, this one being the third one that fails, after the agreement negotiated by Russia and the one supported by France. Now it’s Iran’s turn to try to mediate a ceasefire, but Turkey is the one to have the last word. The Genève negotiations (29 .10) did not have the expected results, as Turkey was not allowed to be, not even indirectly, involved in these talks.

- The phone talk between the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, and the Turkish one, Recep Erdogan, might be the diplomatic moment that could lead to a ceasefire and the start of the negotiations, if Turkey would be allowed to take part in this. Ankara assumed a position at the negotiation table, but Russia continued to support the paramountcy of the Minsk’s Group co-presidents (US, Russia and France), conditioning Turkey’s involvement by the sides’ agreement.

- Given that the final situation of the frontline will be the foundation wherefrom the negotiation of the future borders will start, the fight will continue until a ceasefire will be imposed.  Both sides are close to the moment when they will no longer have the combat capacity to allow them to continue, respectively the frontline’s stabilization and the counteroffensive.  There are huge losses on both sides.

- the political positions of both sides are already well-shaped, “adapted” to the new situation on the field. Baku wants the withdrawal from Nagorno-Karabakh of all Armenian troops, before the negotiations’ start, and Yerevan is willing to yield all Azerbaijani territories around Nagorno Karabakh, in exchange of a quasi-independency status to this region, inhabited mostly by Armenians. As we can observe, there is no common field to allow a compromise.

-The Azerbaijanis  and the Armenians are not simply proxy of Turkey or Russia, each of them having their own interests, but the two sponsors will have a bigger contribution, together with the frontline developments, in both sides’ decision on when to stop the fire. So far, Baku, with its army on the offensive and being supported by Ankara, did not consider that a ceasefire agreement is something that will bring an advantage, so it promised something, yet did the opposite. Yerevan, which is in a difficult situation, sought a ceasefire agreement, but did not accept the Azerbaijanis’ conditions, as that would mean surrender.

- the thing that concerns the most is the total character of this war. Using “imported” jihadists, bombing civilians (by both sides), executing prisoners, threatening with ethnical purge (like the ones that happened three decades ago) are enough reasons to seriously think on the severity of this armed confrontation, which cannot be included in the Clausewitzian concept of war.

-this conflict is not that far as it seems to be, as it represents a total war that brings the conflicting tensions between “partners” Russia and Turkey in the Wider Black Sea Region. The two states were the dominating powers in the region, but now the situation got more complicated, Russia’s aggressiveness in keeping its influence sphere being complemented by a Turkey that is no longer acting as usual. The West seems helpless and even indifferent in actually imposing a peace solution in the complicated situation from the Caucasus. Summarizing, we see that the only states in the Wider Black Sea Region which were not involved in an armed conflict in the region, in the decades following the URSS’s collapse, are Bulgaria and Romania, also being the only democracies which were integrated in EU and NATO. However, the sea is not a border, each of these regional conflicts being, in fact, nearby. And the West, with all of its norms, keeps pulling back.

I. The military situation

The Armenian side admitted that it lost important positions in Southern Nagorno-Karabakh, but it defined the situation as a desperate one, considering that the withdrawal allows the effective defence of the Hakari river valley, the access to Lachin. After conquering Zanghilan and Qubadli, the Azerbaijanis have moved forward to the West, up to the border with Armenia, entering in a firefight with the Armenian military. For the moment, both sides are simply accepting the situation, and Yerevan did not call on CSTO (basically, calling on Russia, as Armenia is under attack) and Baku repeated that it does not want to attack Armenia. Pashinyan announced (28.10) that Russian troops were dislocated at Armenia’s borders with Turkey and Iran and at the border with Nagorno-Karabakh. We will see if Baku will maintain this position, given that its troops, which are moving forwards towards Lachin, might be attacked in their Eastern flank, from Armenia’s territory. The withdrawal of the Armenian troops from these Southern regions might also have a political-military reason behind. There were some information about complaints among the Armenian military on the ineffectiveness of some fights to keep this buffer zone (inhabited by Azerbaijanis, before being occupied by Armenians after the 90’s war, being now inhabited for almost three decades), especially that, in the context of a peace solution, it will be returned to Azerbaijan (following the “territory for peace” logic, but what if one loses the territory?). Loosing Hadrut, a village near Nagorno-Karabakh, inhabited by Armenians, would be a symbolic loss for Yerevan (indeed, all the Armenian inhabitants have left the town). Losing the Southern “buffer zone”, as the Armenians are now fighting in Nagorno Karabakh is an important operative-strategic backlash, which can be decisive for the fights to follow. The Armenians had some unlucky counteroffensives (28.10), so they are trying, at least locally, to come to the fore.

After reaching the strategic village Bala Soltanli, the Azerbaijani forces have changed directions and headed North, on the Hakari River, towards Lachin/Berdzor. This is the main access to the Lachin-Susa corridor, the crucial communication line of the Armenian forces. The Azerbaijani president, Ilham Aliyev, announced (28.10) that the Azerbaijani forces have reached Gushchular/Aghavnatun, only 18 km away from Lachin, but this is a questionably statement, as it could only be about an isolated infiltration. The Armenians announced (28.10) that they have stopped the Azerbaijani offensive towards Lachin. The attack was focused on the Hakari river valley and the Azerbaijani forces are vulnerable to attacks coming from flanks, but no one knows if the Armenians still have the ability to exploit this opportunity. A different attack direction is the one from the recently-conquered Hadrut, towards North-East and, after the meeting points with the forces moving forwards to Fizuli, a North- West attack, towards Susa, although the mountainous field is not favoring the attack on this direction.  The Azerbaijanis tried to open a new front, on the Western direction, from the old contact line towards Martuni, attacking this village, but they could not move forward.

This is the current situation and the battlefield is, in general, leveled off by the Armenians, and the following days are crucial for stopping the Azerbaijani offensive towards Lachin and also the one moving towards Susa, both targeting the Armenian villages in the central nucleus Lachin, Susa, Stepanakert, and for stopping new attacks towards the Eastern mountain side, like Martuni, Agdam and Martakert. In the North, even if they were stopped, the Azerbaijanis occupied strategic villages in Nagorno Karabakh, from the Eastern mountain side, like Mataghis and Talis, with a starting point for an attack on the Western direction, towards M11. This second line of communication, essential for the Armenians, is being threatened by a possible offensive from the Azerbaijanis from the occupied positions on the Mrav Mountain.  Most likely counseled by Turkish military, the Azerbaijanis proved to be flexible, alternating the Northern offensive with the Southern one, changing their main attack direction when the field allowed it, in the South, after breaking the fortified defence lines of the Armenians .

The force relation seems balanced. In terms of the airfield, the Armenians’ qualitative advantage has decreased, managing to take down the Turkish TB-2, most likely not by using the well-known Russian air defence systems. The available information according to which the Armenians were supported by Russian military, which are using Krasukha-4 electronic warfare systems could be an explanation[1], but these could also be coverage for using other types of systems. Anyhow, this did not stop the air strike executed against the convoy of the Nagorno-Karabakh minister of defence. This attack is also a remarkable intelligence strike. Therefore, the Armenian counterintelligence commander was fired. He is not the only one, as many Armenian commanders, like the border troops’ commanders and the special police detachment commander, were fired by Nikol Pashinyan. The Azerbaijani defence minister, general Zakir Hasanov and the chief of the General Staff, Najmaddin Sadigov, have disappeared when the war started, proving that there were many political military disagreements between them. There are also information according to which the Turkish military leaders are leading the all their military operations, not just the air ones. But certainly the commanders of the two army units involved in the heaviest fights are Azerbaijani, as they are strongly motivated to do so (born in the regions occupied by the Armenians in the 90’s).

The Azeris continue to enjoy the modern weapons systems acquired, in general, from the West, as well as the numerical one, although the Armenians say that the strengthening of the Azeri fighting forces is no longer following the needed rhythm to continue the offensive, especially that the Azeris suffered heavy losses. Given the large losses, over a thousand, the Armenians resorted to a general mobilization, the inability to generate fighting forces being their main vulnerability. Armenians are trying to adapt to the operative-tactical novelties of the Azeris. They responded to the infiltration tactics of the Azeris, with the flexibility of the volunteer’ detachments, who know the field, who are motivated and prepared (but can hardly reach the level of the Azerbaijani military in the special forces). Armenians have learned that many Soviet operational-tactical concepts are no longer valid in the fight against a more or less Western-equipped Azeri army. Thus, they no longer rigidly applied the concentration and counterattack supported by armored vehicles in open ground (as they tried on the sixth day of the conflict, with heavy losses). But even with the fact that we have many Soviet combat systems and the concepts of fighting cannot change overnight, in both cases we have a combination of Soviet heritage and modernization, a mixture of D-30/Smerci and TB- 2/Harop, this conflict being the war of artillery and drones. The Armenians say the Azeris have suffered significant casualties and equipment, but so far this has not been significantly reflected in their deteriorating fighting ability. We will see, in the coming days, which side will be able to cope with the losses accumulated after intense fighting that lasts for a month, the short ceasefires being used to regenerate the force. Sustainability has become the watchword.

II. The political situation

Both societies seem to be resilient, the Armenians being united by the fear of losing Nagorno-Karabakh and the ethnical purge, and the Azerbaijanis being motivated by their wish to get back the region. Thus, the Armenians stay united around the “churchillian” Pashinyan, who is always presenting them the reality, who is impulsive, lacks experience and he is a populist who provoked the Azerbaijanis through his speeches about Nagorno Karabakh.  The Azerbaijanis are going through a national union moment and have a president like Ilham Aliyev who promises them the final victory, one to bring them back not only the region, but also the honor of liberating it, forgetting, for one moment, about his authoritarian regime’s sins.  Both leaders have a similar internal policy, characterized by general mobilization, however more prominent for the Armenians. Pashinyan told the Armenians that if defeated, there will be no negotiations, hence the “result will come out of the fight”.

On a foreign plan, the Armenians have sought to increase international pressure, primarily from Russia and the West, on Ilham Aliyev and Turkey, identifying it as a historical instigator and threat to Armenians. On the other hand, Ilham Aliyev promised the Azeris total victory, the liberation of the entire territory through fight. His condition for a ceasefire is nothing more than a request for capitulation (and evacuation), which the Armenians cannot accept. Aliyev sought to counter the external pressure for peace to which he is subjected by an acceptance of the ceasefire, which he immediately violated, not being interested in peace as long as the Azerbaijani forces are on the offensive. Aliyev avoided open confrontation with Russia, although he challenged its impartiality, and called for a change in the negotiations’ format by including Turkey, even suggesting a Turkish-Russian mediation (excluding the United States and France). He argued that the current format of negotiations, consisting of the co-chairs of the Minsk Group (Russia, USA, France), was not effective, delaying the settlement, and could not be contradicted. Both leaders know that they must resist these political positions, and their armies must resist on the ground.

Pashinyan knows that the Armenians must resist militarily, losing as little as possible from Nagorno-Karabakh, otherwise they have no solution, and Aliyev knows that the Azeris must conquer as much as possible from Nagorno-Karabakh before the ceasefire. Both leaders realize that if they fail, there will be political consequences for them. If for Pashinyan it is only a resignation, normal in a relatively democratic political system, for Aliyev it would be an existential threat to his regime. Therefore, Azerbaijani military losses are and will remain "confidential data". In the internal political context in Baku, the pressure of regional and global powers (Russia, USA and France) to end the fighting is neutralized by the support provided by Turkey.

III. The diplomatic situation

Even if the last ceasefire agreement was mediated by the US, and the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tried to implement it, president Donald Trump’s indifferent position shows that the US is not committed to stopping this war. The French-Turkish tensions as well as the pro-Armenian position France has are making the French success less likely to happen. The US and France do not want to add more pressure (economical or military) to the diplomatic one. Russia, the power that commits to a sphere of influence according to which both states would belong to it, although Baku presents a quite bothersome independence for Moscow, has no other option but to negotiate with Turkey, the regional power which interfered in this conflict as a sponsor of Azerbaijan. The phone talk (27.10) between Presidents Putin and Erdogan is the first sign that something can happen diplomatically. The two mainly discussed the Nagorno-Karabakh war. The Russian side has expressed "deep concern about ongoing military action and the growing involvement of Middle Eastern terrorists"[2]. Putin briefed Erdogan on contacts with leaders of the two sides in the conflict and measures taken to "quickly ceasefire and escalate the crisis". It was agreed on future coordination between the foreign and defense ministries and the secret services of the two states. It is hard to believe that the two found, beyond reproaches and warnings, the common ground that would open the way to a ceasefire, but their dialogue is based on mutual blows, and in this case, this way of working would be could be effective[3]. Most likely, something was set in motion, the foreign ministers of the two states having a phone conversation (28.10). The news of a possible meeting between the two presidents would be the signal that the ceasefire agreement is close. But we are probably  still a long way off.

IV. When will a ceasefire be implemented?

Out of the three dynamics, the military, political (internal) and diplomatic one, the battlefield results are the ones that matter the most.  The internal political impact, especially in Baku, will determine, together with the results of the Russian-Turkish “talks” the moment when that ceasefire will actually be considered by both sides. Only then we will be able to talk about the learned military and political lessons, if we have learned anything by then.

Translated by Andreea Soare

[1] The Krasukha electronic warfare system can jam the frequency bands used by TB-2 drones to communicate with the ground control station, which do not appear to have an automatic return-to-base system when communications are interrupted. However, older versions of the Krasukha system were not effective in Libya, being blown up by TB-2 drones. However, Turkey has problems with TB-2 from Westerners who deliver components. After Canada, Austria also stopped component delivery.

[2] Moscow might also use the presence of Syrian jihadists to intervene in the conflict, in order to eliminate the "terrorists". The Armenian side is already talking about their training camps. Syrian Sunni jihadists have become normal mercenaries (keeping jihadist-terrorist habits). Turkey is accused of recruiting and deploying them to Nagorno-Karabakh. So, authoritarian Sunni nationalist-Islamist regimes in a NATO member state (an alliance of democrats), by virtue of its ideological-religious rapprochement, would send these Syrians to fight, for money, for a post-secularist and authoritarian regime. KGB member from a Shiite country, Azerbaijan, by virtue of the ethnic ties between the two states (two states, one Turkish nation). What do we mean by this? That the world has changed and that we must make an effort to understand it, not to "dress" it with old, simple and clear models, but which are no longer valid.

[3] Syria was also among the discussions, where Russia attacked camps where jihadists were preparing to be deployed to Nagorno-Karabakh. Thus, Moscow sent Ankara a double message, one on the use of jihadist mercenaries in the Caucasus war, and another on the fragility of the ceasefire agreement in Syria: if Ankara does not cease the Caucasus crusade, Moscow will resume the Syrian one, and Turkey will have to bear the consequences, especially the Sunni and Syrian migrants’ wave.