10 December 2020

The Caucasus conflict. Some questions that were never asked

Laurenţiu Sfinteş

We already know what happened between the end of September and the beginning of November in Nagorno-Karabakh. Do we? We know from the Armenian side how the Armenians fought and lost. Azerbaijan posted videos with its drones’ war. Russia told the combatants: That’s it, you must stop now! And there was someone else there, oh, yes, Turkey, which asked for its aircrafts back, the ones that were sent to Azerbaijan during the TurAz Kartali 2020 drill, in August. There are five years of peace ahead. There is plenty of time to find out what worked and did not work in the six weeks war, a kind of return victory for Azerbaijan, a war that is already said to open the way to understanding how the conflict of the future will look like. Until a report gets published, however, a discussion on the less debated topics should take place. The answers will be found, however, only if the correct questions are asked.

Image source: Profimedia

Was it Russia’s constraint attitude on its strategic partner that was going through difficult times, Armenia, besides the equidistant diplomacy, a punishment from Moscow for the Pashinyan regime?

Kremlin does not enjoy revolutions taking place in its influence area. Not even the ones that are only peaceful demonstrations, assumed by an enthusiastic population, willing to provoke some reforms. Thus, Pashinyan’s leadership was not that welcomed in Moscow. Being reckless and populist, he thought that he can try other partnerships as well besides the ones with Moscow. His attempts to get closer to the European Union provoked some suspicions in Russia.  

The Armenian estimations, according to which Moscow needs Yerevan more than the other way around, were firstly misunderstood.

A short summary: for two years, at the end of the First World War, Armenia was independent and had larger borders than it has today, including the Nagorno-Karabakh. The Red Army has interfered and put an end to this republic. It followed an Armenian demonstration in 1921. The result was, of course, the victory of the Red Army not just in Yerevan, but also in the Armenia Republic, which continued to exist, only for a few months, in south of Armenia and in Karabakh. The Soviets, who were not that pleased by the independence will of the Armenians, have transferred to Azerbaijan the territory that is still being disputed today.

And then, just like now, the Azerbaijani oil was more convincing for Moscow than the Armenian historical arguments.

Why did not Armenia use the Su-30SM aircrafts to fight the Azerbaijani drones?

Some analysts are highlighting that the Azerbaijani air supremacy in Nagorno Karabakh comes from the fact that Armenia did not use its air forces enough, and when that happened, it did not use the Su-30M aircrafts, the most recent and advanced procurement of the Armenian arsenal.

Some say that these could have countered the Azerbaijani drones, which are slower and lack protection.

Was it a political decision?

Was the presence of the Turkish F-16 aircrafts which are still on Azerbaijan’s territory, from the TurAz Kartali 2020 drill discouraging?

Was there any technical issue or an interdiction from the Russian producer?

Anyhow, the Azerbaijani drones dominated the Armenian defence lines, destroying tens of tanks and armored carriers, air defence systems and even the S-300 ones.

Why did not the Azerbaijani offensive stop when it was leading the fight and seemed able to get back all the territories claimed by Baku?

With Turkey’s support, but also the international legitimacy of its demands (ok, except for France and maybe the US), Azerbaijan could have ignored Moscow’s truce proposal. Just like it happened with the past truces, also mediated by Moscow, even by Washington for one of them. Maybe it would have done so if:

- Moscow’s proposal would not have followed a tragic accident which, if Moscow would have wanted to use it differently, could have allowed it to join the war along Armenia;

-the fight operations would not have moved in the mountain area of the region, the “Armenian heart”, which would have involved the entrance in a bloody phase of the military campaign;

-the weather would not have been so bad to block the Azerbaijani drones.

What role did the mercenaries from Syria have in the military operations?

There were many discussions about the presence of Syrian mercenaries with the Azerbaijani army in military operations in Karabakh. A route was also taken for them, including photos from the dislocation and the paramilitary formations’ origin were identified: most often the "Hamza Division"/"Firqat al-Hamza" or the "Ahrar al-Sharqiya" group, a rebel movement dislocated from eastern Syria by the regular Syrian army.

The Armenian propaganda presented them as Jihad soldiers, the Azerbaijani one avoided the subject. Something must have been there, otherwise Sergei Narishkin, the head of the SVR (SIE equivalent), would have criticized the Turks and Azeris in early October. Even the other Sergei, Lavrov, insisted on the topic.

They insisted so much so that one October morning, the Syrian opposition training camp at Jebel Al-Dweila in Idlib, not far from the Turkish border, so that Turkish instructors could commute, woke up surrounded by planes with some bombs falling from them. About 80 dead, as many injured, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the British organization that voluntarily monitors developments in Syria. It may be a coincidence, but since then, the mercenaries’ topic has disappeared from public debate.

Azerbaijani propaganda also found mercenaries, this time Syrian Kurds, fighting on the other side.

As a rule, when they are adversaries, the newcomers are "mercenaries", when they are ours (that is, theirs, let's face it), they are "volunteers".

Mercenaries have been a hot topic, but according to analysts, we now have "Wagner's boys", there is the French Legion, why shouldn't the Bedouin Syrians also visit the Caucasus?

Beyond the propaganda, there was not much information on the battlefield about their effectiveness.

Why was Aliev satisfied with the Russian proposal?

I know, it would be a continuation for the question of why the Azerbaijani offensive stopped. And yet ... the explanation could be that the Azerbaijani president did not want to push his luck. Azerbaijan relies on Turkey, but the balance is still fragile. Luckily for the South Caucasus, Russia is now the dominant power, but not the hegemonic one. Things could change.

Dictator Aliyev was more diplomatic than the Pashinyan Democrat. It did not extend beyond the Karabakh, it did not risk the partnership, even non-strategic, with Russia. He has not yet got all the claimed territory, but 70% of it is not really bad. And time, it turns out, works on his side.

Why has Armenia not used electronic warfare to disrupt the operation of Azerbaijani drones?

I know, this question could join the previous one as well. There was information about the proper functioning of the Krasuha, the Russian jamming system, in the fight against Bayraktar drones (imported from Turkey) and Harop (imported from Israel) near the Russian base in Gyumri. And then....? Did Russia not consider it necessary to support its ally? Was it something else?

Did Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu know anything on January 29, 2020, when he said that this year the Karabakh problem must be solved?

At a meeting with the International Federation of Journalists, Çavuşoğlu announced, in January 2020, that this year would be decisive for Karabakh, adding that it would happen with Russia’s help.

Maybe it was a premonition, although the foreign ministers are not soothsayers. Perhaps it was, rather, a professional interpretation of the development, launched in 2010, of Turkish - Azerbaijani bilateral military relations.

Then, in August 2010, the Agreement for Strategic Partnership and Mutual Support between Turkey and Azerbaijan was signed.

At first glance, there are about 12 joint exercises. The 13th, fortunately, was Turaz Kartali 2020. In August, the five Turkish F-16 military planes forgot to return to their base in Turkey. As was the case with similar exercises developed in previous years. It was a kind of insurance policy that was used this year.

Azerbaijani special forces were specially trained in Nakhchivan. Turkey has also dealt with Azerbaijani contingents deployed in Afghanistan.

In the end, it was worth the effort. Which brings us to another question:

Is the war in the Caucasus a demonstration that, however, the military solution remains the solution to the frozen conflicts?

In a video recently presented to the Turkish ambassadors, during the annual dialogue with the Turkish diplomatic body, the Foreign Affairs Minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, redefined this concept, stating that the “frozen conflict” concept is misleading. The conflict is, actually, one of “frozen solutions”, and the example is what happened in Nagorno Karabakh.

Because the “international law” is on Azerbaijani’s side, it is obvious that the military solution was not the natural choice for Turkey, which followed, also naturally, the Armenian “aggression” from September 27th. Who attacked who is still being debated, most of the sources pointing out the other way around, but what matters now, when it is all over and the force of law and the military one won.

The Baku regime cannot even be accused for it. In all these 30 years, there were a few moments when calling on the “territories vs peace” principle seemed the solution. Hopes were too big after Pahinyan came to power, in 2018. In 2019, it was all over, and the political solution started to seem too far away.

And the military one entered the scene, from September till November 2020.

Let’s see how what works.

Translated by Andreeea Soare