Armenia-Azerbaijan War: Military Dimensions of the Conflict
(Russia Matters – russiamatters.org – Michael Kofman – Oct. 2, 2020)
Michael Kofman is a senior research scientist and director of the Russia Studies program at CNA.
On Sept. 27, Azerbaijan launched a military offensive, resulting in fighting that spans much of the line of contact in the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is de facto occupied by Armenia. As of this writing, artillery and rocket strikes are taking place through the depth of Armenian lines, including in the regional capital of Stepanakert. This is the most serious fighting to take place between the two sides since 1994. It is a large scale conventional war between the two countries that is likely to upend the status quo of territorial control in the region. Turkey has publicly, and militarily, backed Azerbaijan in this conflict, while Moscow will be forced to reassess its long-standing policy of maintaining relations with both sides and upholding the status quo, which may not be possible given the rapidly unfolding events. What can be surmised about the course of the war thus far is that Armenia is at a disadvantage, but Azerbaijan will pay a considerable price for any territorial gains.
The war should not come as a surprise. In 2016, Azerbaijan conducted a limited offensive, seizing minor tracts of territory in a brief four-day conflict. That war proved an early test of Azerbaijan’s growing qualitative and quantitative military superiority against Armenian defenses in the region, demonstrative of revanchist intent. More recently skirmishes took place in July 2020 after a border incident between the two sides. This fighting was not centered on Nagorno-Karabakh, but rather the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan proper and cost the life of an Azerbaijani Major General. Moscow brokered a ceasefire, but Azerbaijan’s desire to revise the status quo has been met with Armenian recalcitrance.
Baku claims Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan, while Yerevan has what has been occasionally described as an ambiguous stance on the region’s status, though it has consistently opposed integration of Karabakh into Azerbaijan. Yet in August, Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan publicly declared that “Artsakh is Armenia, and that’s it.” Negotiations between the two sides have not been taking place in earnest. Baku’s motivations appear to be straightforward revanchism, having grown frustrated with a lack of progress at the negotiating table, while facing internal economic pressures and nationalist sentiment.
A week before the war began, there was news that Azerbaijan had called up reserves and began taking stock of private vehicles available for a war effort. Although it does not appear that any fighting had been taking place, Baku alleged that the situation on the front line was deteriorating. It appears preparations had been made, together with Turkey, to conduct an offensive in September. Armenia has accused Turkey of leaving its F-16s in Azerbaijan following an exercise in late July, and of operating these aircraft in support of Azerbaijan’s forces. While it is unclear if Turkish F-16s are indeed flying in this conflict, evidence is mounting that Turkey did transfer several groups of mercenary fighters from Syria, and there are suspicions that some of the most combat-capable drones in the Azerbaijani military (Bayraktar TB2) are not just bought from Turkey, but are also being operated by Turkish personnel. Beyond providing niche capabilities, such as unmanned combat aerial vehicles, it seems Syrian Turkomans and other groups have been sent through southeastern Turkey. France and Russia seem to agree that this is an established fact.
Although Azerbaijan’s leader, Ilham Aliyev, has vowed to take all territory currently under Armenian control outside the boundaries of the Republic of Armenia, the Azerbaijani military simply does not have sufficient military superiority to attain such maximalist aims. Even with Turkish support, it is more realistic they will only be able to recapture the outer lying buffer territories that once belonged to Azerbaijan. Azerbaijani advances have concentrated on the relatively unpopulated southern Fuzuli and Jabrayil regions. However, fighting is taking place in northern parts of Nagorno-Karabakh, where Karabakh Armenian forces claim to have taken some commanding heights in the course of fighting. It is more accurate to describe the current conflict as a full-scale offensive against Armenian defensive lines both in the north and the south, met by Armenian counter attacks. Azerbaijani drones, artillery and surface-to-surface strike systems are targeting Armenian ground lines of communication and reserves, pressuring the entire military effort.
As terrain shifts, with heights or observation posts captured and then recaptured, materiel losses have quickly mounted. Both sides are losing ground equipment, air defense systems, drones and sustaining casualties. Azerbaijani forces have met stiff resistance in ground advances, but are attriting Armenian defenses from the air, having acquired an arsenal of Israeli and Turkish drones, along with numerous loitering munitions (sometimes referred to as suicide drones). Strategic communications campaigns from both sides post daily images and videos on social media, but these are intended to paint a distorted picture of the fight taking place, as some weapons utilize modern video capture while others do not. Consequently, both sides can claim victory in public even if their combat effectiveness does not substantiate these claims.
Turkey’s role has changed considerably in this conflict, from politically backing Azerbaijan to actively supporting Baku’s military effort. This poses a challenge to Russia’s long-standing policy of maintaining a balance between the two local actors and keeping the status quo. Although Russia is Armenia’s ally, with security commitments under the Collective Security Treaty Organization, Moscow is unlikely to enter the war unless Turkey’s reported involvement in combat becomes official and grows in scale. A fair bit hinges on Armenian military performance, as Russia would be loath to see a dramatic upset of the status quo between these militaries, even if Turkey does not become directly involved.
Yerevan has not asked for Russian assistance, but this may be because it has not been invited to ask by Moscow. Armenia may not want Russian assistance at this point, since simply freezing the war after some limited Azerbaijani gains would mean that Baku could repeat the process in a few years. In this manner Armenia’s combat potential could be steadily exhausted, one war at a time. Unless Armenia’s situation becomes desperate, it seems Russia will use diplomatic pressure and other instruments to pressure Azerbaijan into a ceasefire. Russia does not have a great reputation for treating allies well and is likely to live up to it once again in this conflict. While Moscow does retain a large military base in Armenia on the border with Turkey, it is doubtful that Russian security guarantees extend beyond Armenia proper to Nagorno-Karabakh, or to the much larger territory under Armenian control currently in contest.
However, dealing with Turkey is a different matter. Ankara has challenged Russia’s role as the dominant military power able to determine security outcomes in the Caucasus. This is the third in a series of contests that have taken place between the two countries in recent years, including Syria and Libya. Conversely, the two countries also share strong economic ties, which undoubtedly generate mixed impulses in Moscow. Hence, Russia is unlikely to intervene unless the status quo is altered so dramatically that Armenia’s situation begins to politically impinge on Russia’s credibility as a security provider in a region it considers its own “near abroad.”
One of the long-standing problems in the lens used to understand these types of conflicts is that great and regional powers are often unable to impose their will on local actors. They may not wish to admit it, typically serving as dealmakers, but in many cases their superior power is irrelevant because it cannot be leveraged to coerce others toward desired outcomes. Armenia is not on its own, but Russian diplomatic pressure, together with that of France or other interested countries, is unlikely to end the war until Azerbaijan is either satisfied with its battlefield gains, or has paid too high a price to sustain combat operations. The OSCE Minsk Group has already issued a statement calling for an immediate end to hostilities, which was quickly rebuffed by Turkey. That said, as the conflict escalates, and it inevitably will, the pressure will mount on both parties to agree to a ceasefire. Azerbaijan and Armenia retain long-range strike systems capable of reaching each other’s territory, destroying critical civilian and economic infrastructure. These weapons are steadily entering the fight. Week two or three in this war could see the emergence of a more existential battle.
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