YEREVAN — One month into a massive military offensive for Nagorno-Karabakh and hours into a failed US-brokered truce, Azerbaijan is facing a crucial choice that could define the war’s outcome.
Azerbaijani troops, having advanced on the open terrain along the Iranian border, have the momentum and appear to be fast approaching the strategic Lachin corridor. But with its troops overstretched and the Karabakh defenders having retreated to the forested high ground, Baku is at a crossroads.
The choice is one of following military logic and sound strategy or opting instead for a decision with greater political and diplomatic dividends. But Azerbaijan can’t have it both ways.
Military logic suggests a choice of focusing on targeting the Lachin corridor, the critical lifeline between Karabakh and Armenia. Any success in cutting off the Lachin lifeline would be devastating, endangering the resupply and flow of reinforcements to Karabakh and subjecting the Karabakh Armenians to a months-long siege.
Yet for an Azerbaijani populace eager for full control of Karabakh itself, that would not be enough, as such a choice would be neither politically palatable nor sufficient in the face of dangerously high expectations for complete victory.
And that leaves the second choice: a turn away from the Lachin corridor for an attack on the city of Shushi within Karabakh itself.
The capture of the historic cultural center of Shushi, known to Azerbaijanis as Shusha, would offer significant political rewards for the government of President Ilham Aliyev. It would also enhance Baku’s diplomatic bargaining power in any future negotiations.
Yet such a move would also incur tremendous military losses and usher in a new, even more intense period of guerrilla warfare as Karabakh forces would hold an advantage in mobility and surprise in an insurgency-style campaign against the Azerbaijani forces.
Given the over-extended vulnerability and strained supply routes for the Azerbaijani forces in the field for a month already, that may be an especially risky decision.
Already, the Azerbaijani column – its advance driven more by political objectives in Baku than military science – is inherently vulnerable due to stretched supply lines and broken lines of communication.
This defiance of Clausewitzian military science may be tempting in order to rush the advance and seize more territory, but Baku is dangerously ignoring essential limitations and necessities.
Winter is coming
As some Western military observers have noted to Asia Times, Baku’s “teeth to tail” offensive lacks the staying power of supporting logistics.
In addition, the Azerbaijani attacking column is increasingly spread much too thin, with no rear-guard deployment of units or men capable of holding the territorial gains they have achieved in areas south of Karabakh.
This weakness will only return as a looming challenge for the Azerbaijani attackers as any counter-attacks by the Karabakh Armenian forces will face little resistance and could offer a much-needed element of tactical surprise and “out-flanking” of exposed Azerbaijani units.
Winter is now fast approaching, meaning any further Azerbaijani combat operations will be especially difficult if not impossible in the coming weeks due to low visibility and impassable snow-covered mountainous terrain.
A second, often overlooked factor in the strategic context is the operational doctrine and combat experience of the Karabakh Armenian side. In the major past confrontations, most notably the initial Karabakh war of the early 1990s and the five-day war of April 2016, the Karabakh Armenians were initially losing before regrouping and securing victories based on counter-attacks and repelling invasions.
This historical pattern offers another advantage for the Karabakh defensive position beyond the already important edge of terrain and topography, suggesting the real burden is on the attackers.
Beyond the daily reports of severe losses, high casualties and an increasingly costly tactical campaign to both seize territory and defend positions, it may be too early to discount the Karabakh Armenian defenders.
After a weeks-long consistent Azerbaijani advance, a successful and orderly retreat by the Karabakh forces allowed them to reposition and regroup for a secondary defensive line based on the defenders’ advantages of terrain and topography.
After suffering serious losses in equipment and nearly 1,000 casualties, their counter-attacks and stubborn resistance have begun to turn the tide of battle.
In recent days, the new defensive positions succeeded in halting the Azerbaijani advance to within roughly 25 kilometers of the strategically vital Lachin corridor, the sole highway connection between Karabakh and Armenia.
At the same time, the retreat into the mountains and forests have allowed the Karabakh forces to launch small unit attacks against the more exposed Azerbaijani infantry and armored support.
And with such forested and mountainous terrain, the Azerbaijani advantage of an air threat from their formidable Turkish and Israeli military drones will be significantly diminished.
Yet with President Aliyev having promising full victory, the prospect of stopping short of either Lachin or Shushi could risk political suicide.
Against this backdrop, even tripartite diplomatic engagement has fallen short. Moscow, in an attempt to demonstrate its diplomatic dominance, sought to force an agreement on the Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers in a hastily arranged meeting on October 9.
Backed by France and the United States, the two other co-chairing nations of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) so-called Minsk Group, this Russian initiative was initially seen as a potent assertion of diplomatic power.
Yet both Azerbaijan and Turkey showed uncharacteristic courage in resisting what they saw as Russian bluff and bluster, and the Azerbaijani offensive continued unencumbered.
Such open and outright defiance of Russia stems from an Azerbaijani determination fortified by an unprecedented level of direct Turkish military and diplomatic support. Azerbaijani military gains in territory and tactical success against the Karabakh Armenian defenders have only deepened their reluctance to abide by a ceasefire.
In the wake of that rather surprising rebuke, a second diplomatic initiative was launched. This time it was France, in a round of American-style, shuttle diplomacy, with an emissary of French President Emmanuel Macron flying into Yerevan and on to Baku for a series of meetings with each side on October 15-16.
Despite accolades for innovation and initiative, that second effort at securing a ceasefire also fell short.
Emboldened by territorial gains and encouraged by popular domestic support rare for his authoritarian rule, President Aliyev flouted his newfound victories and echoed Turkish complaints of the OSCE Minsk Group, suggesting a greater role for Ankara in the mediation at the expense of Paris.
And in the weakest and least promising round of diplomatic engagement, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met separately with the Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers in Washington on October 23.
This belated American gesture was largely doomed from the start, and was as much a move to show geopolitical relevance as to boost an embattled Trump administration in the waning days of a contested presidential election campaign.
While the US did succeed in securing an agreement to abide by yet another cessation of
hostilities, it already appeared to break down within an hour of implementation.
Conflict mediation is never an easy task, dependent on a degree of sincere political will among the parties to the conflict, and in nearly all cases, a degree of conflict fatigue. In the case of Nagorno-Karabakh, war-time diplomacy has failed, with dynamic developments on the battlefield now driving the situation.
The latest commitment by the warring parties to a diplomatic summit in Geneva, slated for October 29, can be expected to follow and not force operations on the ground.