YEREVAN – Following months of bellicose threats, Azerbaijan launched on Sunday a coordinated military offensive against the Armenian-held breakaway republic of Nagorno Karabakh, leaving dozens dead and raising the specter of a protracted open war.
On Monday morning, Karabakh officials announced 32 Armenian soldiers had been killed, as well as two civilians, a woman and child. Baku said an Azeri family of five were killed by Armenian shelling but did not announce any casualties among its armed forces.
Azerbaijan, a gas-rich state run by an authoritarian dynasty, declared martial law on September 27, as did Armenia, whose president called for a general mobilization of military personnel.
The eruption of hostilities over the vast and strategic mountainous territory comes two months after Azeri forces launched a cross-border attack, which only differed by targeting Armenia proper.
Since that foiled July incursion, Azerbaijan has been increasingly open about its disdain for diplomacy and desire to rely on the force of arms. “Karabakh is ours! Karabakh is Azerbaijan,” Azeri President Ilham Aliyev tweeted on Sunday.
For the nearly three decades since the implosion of the Soviet Union, unresolved conflicts continue to litter the landscape. One of those is over Nagorno Karabakh, seized by Armenian forces during the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Azerbaijan, following the loss of the enclave which it had been granted during the Soviet era, continues to claim Karabakh as part of its territory – a claim recognized by the United Nations.
The unresolved nature of this and other lingering conflicts of the Soviet breakup have served to distort economic development, discourage democratization and, in most cases, defend Russian influence and interests.
For Armenia and Azerbaijan, the Nagorno Karabakh conflict poses its own burden, as an imperative for Armenia’s embrace of Russia for security and as an impulse for Azerbaijan to challenge the status quo.
After decades of peace talks, Azerbaijan is frustrated by the lack of any substantive progress in negotiating the status of the 4,400 square kilometer territory.
Defined by a sense of national humiliation over the loss of the historic region, Azerbaijan’s frustration has now reached a dangerous level as it drives a resolution to the conflict by military means. The country is armed with billions of dollars worth of armaments purchased in recent years with its vast gas wealth.
This latest military offensive shows Azerbaijan’s desire to negotiate on the battlefield rather than at diplomatic summits.
Despite a sometimes confusing war of words over who started the fighting, the military reality on the ground suggests that the purely defensive force posture for the Armenian and Karabakh sides greatly reduces any offensive threat, thereby revealing little logic and even less validity in Azerbaijan’s claims that Armenia attacked first.
From a military perspective, the Karabakh defenders would be unlikely to cede their advantage by launching a risky offensive that negates or diminishes tactical advantages inherent in their entrenched fortified defensive positions.
Unlike the political and diplomatic context, however, it is less important and largely irrelevant who attacked first. Once forces are engaged in combat operations they tend to follow their own logic and tempo.
Context of conflict
In the opening round of fighting on early Sunday morning, the Azerbaijani attacks left 10 Karabakh soldiers and at least one civilian dead, with more wounded. By Monday morning, the toll had risen to 32 soldiers announced dead by the Armenian defense ministry.
This latest round of fighting is markedly different than previous clashes, opening a new chapter of the Karabakh conflict. This latest Azerbaijani offensive has been much grander in scale and space, with coordinated attacks all along the line of contact separating Nagorno Karabakh from Azerbaijan proper.
Unlike the two sides’ previous round of fighting in April 2016, which at the time was the most serious seen since a fragile ceasefire was reached in 1994, the latest salvos are marked for their intensity and use of heavier firepower.
A second new aspect of the offensive is rooted in the scope of combat operations. For example, this sudden offensive opened with preliminary massive artillery and rocket barrages.
Those were then followed by an assault on three areas along the line of contact between Karabakh and Azerbaijan that involved the use of armored units in support of an infantry ground assault that was bolstered by the deployment of more than two dozen UAVs, or military-grade drones.
After inflicting the initial damage and casualties in the surprise attack at dawn on Sunday, later that morning Karabakh defensive units were able to repulse the broader offensive, although fighting continued well into the early evening in border areas along the north- and south-east.
A third defining feature of the initial offensive was the Azerbaijani forces’ ability to seize and secure at least one and perhaps as many as four Armenian military positions in the area. By the end of the first day of fighting, the Armenian side also reported more than 100 wounded, largely from artillery bombardments.
Armenian military sources also showed evidence of the destruction or capture of some 33 Azerbaijan tanks, 11 armored personnel carriers and, in another rare achievement, the downing of four helicopters as well as a number of UAVs.
The coordination and logistical preparation necessary to conduct this expansive offensive demonstrated Azerbaijan’s improved capacity. Such preparation confirms that this latest round of fighting was a calculated and planned act of aggression.
Beyond the surprise nature of the attack, Azerbaijan’s willingness to target civilian areas and population centers in Karabakh also demonstrates an apparent new disregard for the loss of civilian life.
This may stem from the failure of the initial July offensive, which was quickly halted and decisively repulsed due to the tactical advantage of the defenders in terms of terrain and topography, and as a result of the quick loss of the tactical element of surprise in the location and intensity of the attack.
From this perspective and based on Azerbaijani military performance in the past, local unit frustration and strategic failure on the ground have translated into a desperate and deadly reliance on artillery and rocket attacks on civilian areas that inflict damage with little or no real military value.
External actors and factors
Despite its localized nature with no foreign presence on the ground, the Karabakh conflict has the potential to morph into a much wider confrontation of competing interests of larger, more powerful regional actors including Russia, Turkey and Iran.
For Russia, the Karabakh conflict offers the most effective leverage for maintaining its power and influence over both Armenia and Azerbaijan, especially as it now serves as the primary arms supplier to both sides.
As a key external actor, Russia is now seen and generally accepted as having a legitimate interest in the conflict. That’s due mainly to its diplomatic engagement and initiative as a co-chairing nation, along with France and the United States, of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) “Minsk Group,” the sole diplomatic entity empowered to mediate.
At the same time, the conflict is also a challenge for Russia, as it has only revealed and deepened the weakness and inherent limits of its “strategic partnership” and security alliance with Armenia.
Beyond the Karabakh conflict, there has been a profound crisis in Armenian-Russian relations for several years. That stems from Armenia’s deepening dissatisfaction with the unequal terms of the relationship, marked by frustration with the asymmetry and disrespect afforded to its alliance and exacerbated by a sense of betrayal by Russia.
While Azerbaijan looks to Russia and Israel for military equipment, it is Turkey – now engaged in proxy wars as far afield as Libya and Syria – that has taken a most active and assertive policy in response to the Karabakh conflict by forcefully backing Azerbaijan.
Turkey’s vocal defense of fellow Turkic Azerbaijan is partially driven by a desire to regain its past role as Azerbaijan’s primary military patron that Russia and Israel now serve. The Turkish response to the latest eruption in violence was immediate and harsh, endorsing Azerbaijan’s version of events well before the state of affairs on the ground was determined.
Diverging domestic drivers
Every modern Azerbaijani leader up until the current President Aliyev has either risen to or fallen from power due to events on Karabakh’s battlefield.
It thus follows that resorting to force and resuming war is a risky gambit for the Aliyev dynasty in Baku. Yet the use of military force and an appeal to nationalism by the Azerbaijani leadership has also served as a convenient, if temporary, distraction from domestic problems, as was the case with the 2016 fighting.
On the other side, since a rare victory of non-violent people power in 2018, Armenia has emerged as a respected and legitimate democracy. Yet this has only exacerbated the divergence and divide between the two rival states.
This divergence is evident in the very nature of the regime in Azerbaijan, whose political legitimacy is founded not on free and fair elections but rather derived from family tradition and genetics, with power passing from father-to-son through the rule of the Aliyev dynasty.
Armenia and Karabakh now stand alone, with no partner for peace and little hope for sincere or serious negotiations with Azerbaijan. The imperative now is to focus on a back to basics diplomacy, aimed less at substantive peace talks and more on preventing a further escalation of renewed hostilities that threaten to lure in rival regional powers.