Tuesday, 10 May 2016

What the fighting in Karabakh means for Azerbaijan and Armenia

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By Emil Souleimanov

May 12th, 2016, The CACI Analyst

Due to its unprecedented scale, some commentators have termed the escalation of violence in early April along the Line of Contact in Nagorno-Karabakh the April War of 2016. In fact, the recent fighting saw an unprecedented involvement of heavy military technology – including tanks, armored vehicles, aviation, and drones – alongside hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of military personnel in multiple locations simultaneously. Having cost the lives of up to a hundred people on both sides of the frontline, the April War has challenged some common wisdoms that have held since the 1990s. 

stepanakert-parBACKGROUND: In the aftermath of the hostilities, observers focused on identifying the culprit of the escalation. Currently, most observers outside Azerbaijan agree that Baku made the initial thrust. In military terms, most independent experts and journalists agree that Azerbaijan attained some – rather limited, but still significant given the longstanding stalemate – successes on the battlefield and beyond. In an unexpected assault on the forward positions of Armenia’s and Nagorno-Karabakh’s armies, Azerbaijani troops succeeded in seizing control over several villages in the northeast and southeast of the republic, along with some strategic heights. In contrast to what the authorities in Baku assert, at least two villages in the northwest – Talysh and Madagiz – appear to have been recaptured by Armenian forces, while the strategic Laletepe mountain in the southeast appears to have remained in the hands of Azerbaijani forces. The exact scope of territorial changes in the area has been highly contested by the warring sides, and the justifiability of sacrificing dozens of troops for limited strategic gains is under question. However, several important inferences may be drawn from the April clashes.

IMPLICATIONS: First, in contrast to what many have claimed in and outside Armenia, the clashes illustrated that Armenia’s defenses along the Line of Contact are actually penetrable. Locally stationed Azerbaijani forces appear to have made advances without the reinforcement of additional supplies of heavy weaponry, military personnel, and technology. Still, they were able, at least for a limited period of time, to relatively easily penetrate the advanced positions of Armenian forces in the northeast and southeast of the unrecognized republic. The Azerbaijani offensive only lasted several hours and it is unlikely that Azerbaijani troops lacking reinforcements planned to thrust deep into Armenian-held territory. It appears that, contrary to popular belief, the Azerbaijani military has improved enough to be capable of breaking through Armenian defenses, although at a high cost. Many considered this unlikely before the April War.

In fact, Azerbaijan’s army has become a much stronger force to be reckoned with since the early 2000s. Baku has purchased technologically advanced weapons – mainly from Russia and Israel – that have enabled the Azerbaijani army to deal hard blows to the Armenian forces, which lack advanced equipment and weapons. While Azerbaijan possesses over a hundred T-90S tanks and substantially modernized T-72 tanks, Stepanakert has to rely on outdated T-55 and T-72 tanks, while the Armenian military largely relies on poorly equipped T-72 tanks. In addition, the Azerbaijani military has purchased modern anti-tank and anti-aircraft complexes from its strategic partner, Israel. Acquisitions include LYNX autonomous rocket launchers, which according to experts outperform competing systems, for instance the Russian-made Smerch launchers. Jerusalem has also sold Baku Heron and Searcher drones, and trained Azerbaijani military personnel to use them. The clashes showed that this asymmetry means a serious disadvantage to the Armenian forces. Azerbaijani forces can strike with far more accuracy than the Armenian military, which has to rely on outdated zone-based, and thus by far less effective, targeting. The Azerbaijani military’s deployment of a suicide drone that hit a bus carrying volunteers from Armenia cost the lives of seven people, but had a much higher psychological impact.

Second, the Azerbaijani army’s morale also appears to have strengthened. Armenians are depicted as the nation’s eternal enemy and the prospect of a renewed war is promoted to the masses by the media. Since the mid-1990s, Armenian society has gotten used to its self-perception as indisputable victors who won a relatively easy war with Azerbaijan. Azerbaijanis are routinely portrayed as incompetent soldiers, lacking morale and courage. Against this background, the eruption of hostilities – and the Azerbaijani advances – struck a psychological blow to the Armenian public, which has considered a return to war in Nagorno-Karabakh highly unlikely. Conversely, Azerbaijan’s propaganda machine has made a substantial effort to remind the population of the shameful outcome of the previous war, preparing it for the likelihood of renewed hostilities – and of the consequential need for self-sacrifice for the sake of “liberating the ancestral homeland of Karabakh.”

Third and related, as Pavel Felgenhauer has asserted, the Armenian counteroffensive got stuck in its earliest phase, despite the swift reinforcement of Armenian forces by weapons and military servicemen from Armenia. Armenian strategists hoped to attain an easy victory – taking the fight to the enemy’s territory as during the war in the 1990s. Given the flat terrain controlled by Azerbaijani forces to the east of the unrecognized republic – in contrast to the rugged mountainous terrain of Nagorno-Karabakh, which favors defense over offense – the Armenian top brass has traditionally considered their ability to push Azerbaijan’s forces to the east, and thrusting into its territory, as a given. The subsequent Armenian counteroffensive indeed seemingly managed to recapture most of the previously lost positions, particularly northeast of Nagorno-Karabakh. Yet it remains unclear whether the reinforced Armenian troops were actually willing – or able – to push the adversary farther into its hinterland. The fact is that Armenian troops either refrained from or failed to make advances into territory held by Azerbaijan before the hostilities, beyond the contested villages, while Azerbaijani forces managed to hold the strategically important peak of Laletepe in the southeast theater.

Fourth, the fact that Azerbaijan deployed many advanced weapons purchased from Russia, Armenia’s key ally, has sparked massive outrage in Armenia. Indeed, Armenian military experts, political analysts, and increasingly also members of the political elite, have questioned their strategic ally’s arms sales to Armenia’s key enemy. After all, Russian authorities must have been aware that the weapons they sold to Azerbaijan could be used in an armed confrontation with Russia’s single remaining ally in the region. The controversy was further compounded by Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin’s recent claim that Moscow would respect its previously agreed trade deals with Baku – and continue to provide its “strategic partner,” as Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev now terms Azerbaijan, with weapons in accordance with previous deals. Moreover, in the direct aftermath of the fighting, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov publicly spoke of the underutilized potential of Russian-Azerbaijani relations, inviting Baku to join the Moscow-dominated Eurasian Economic Community and Collective Security Treaty Organization. In Yerevan, some conspirators have gone so far as to suspect that a prior Russian-Azerbaijani deal emboldened Baku to attack Armenian positions in Karabakh.

CONCLUSIONS: In physical terms, with the partial exception of the Laletepe peak, Baku’s military advances in early April are negligible. The seizure of several square kilometers certainly cannot challenge Armenia’s domination over Nagorno-Karabakh, the overall status quo in and around the area, and the situation of the provinces around the unrecognized republic that remain under Armenian occupation. Only a major military confrontation could change the status quo. Such a confrontation, however, would be highly destructive, possibly dragging Russia, Turkey, and Iran into a risky regional war, and shaking the regimes both in Yerevan and Baku. Besides the tactical gains outlined above, Baku risks a major setback should its policy of “slow advances” in and around Nagorno-Karabakh continue. In the case of a major military confrontation with Armenia, Baku should reckon with Moscow’s involvement on Yerevan’s side. Unless Baku can strike a prior deal with Moscow, including significant concessions from Azerbaijan for instance in the energy, political, or economic fields, Moscow will be more than likely to aid its last remaining ally in the South Caucasus. As of today, Moscow is primarily interested in tactically utilizing the current – and rather minor – confrontation between the South Caucasian neighbors in an effort to boost its position, flirting with Baku to reestablish itself vis-à-vis an important regional country.

Touting the outcome as a significant tactical victory over the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh may, however, boost popular expectations in Azerbaijan of an easy victory. In a deteriorating socio-economic situation, the Aliyev government’s efforts to divert attention to an external enemy may backfire as the Azerbaijani population, encouraged by increasing revanchist appeals, could push the government to take serious action in Karabakh. But President Aliyev and his associates fully understand the dangers of a failure in Karabakh. Yet the temptation to play the “Karabakh card” may be too big to resist, which could eventually lead the government in Baku into its own trap.

AUTHORS’ BIO: Emil Aslan Souleimanov is Associate Professor with the Department of Russian and East European Studies, Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic (https://cuni.academia.edu/EmilSouleimanov). He is the author of Individual Disengagement of Avengers, Nationalists, and Jihadists, co-authored with Huseyn Aliyev (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), Understanding Ethnopolitical Conflict: Karabakh, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia Wars Reconsidered (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), and An Endless War: The Russian-Chechen Conflict in Perspective (Peter Lang, 2007).

Image Attribution: www.bbc.com, accessed on May 10, 2016

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