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War in Nagorno-Karabakh: Azerbaijani progress but no strategic breakthrough

This post was published in Defence24. The point of view expressed in this article is authorial and do not necessarily reflect BM`s editorial stance.

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WARSAW, (BM) – In the fourth week of the war, Azerbaijan made progress in the south. Still, the only city within Nagorno-Karabakh before 1991 that was occupied by Azerbaijan is Hadrut. The only success would be to conquer Martuni or Martakert or to cross the Goris-Stepanakert road. The powerlessness of Russia, which the West should take advantage of, is also becoming clearer and clearer until Russia decides to include the Karabakh issue in the Astana format.

Azerbaijani progress on the front is not surprising, given that the country had an advantage from the very beginning in terms of the size of the army, armaments, GDP, financial capacity to purchase weapons, and has clear support from Turkey, the Syrian jihadists it imported after September 27, he received fresh supplies of military equipment, including drones, from Israel, Belarus and most likely Ukraine. There is also evidence that Georgia, which has declared neutrality and closing military transports (including by air) to both sides, has nevertheless allowed flights with military support for Azerbaijan. Publicly available data show, among others Il-76 flights over Georgia.

Meanwhile, the Arcach Defense Army is supported only by Armenia, whose military potential is much smaller than that of Azerbaijan, let alone Turkey. The question of the scope of Turkey’s direct participation in hostilities remains unknown, but Azerbaijan is probably supported by several hundred Turkish military advisers. According to the Armenians, Turkey’s involvement is much greater. According to the expert of the “Oibeli” Analytical Center Vladimir Wartanjan, “Turkey is not limited to military advisers, but takes part in hostilities in the full sense of the word”.

After Azerbaijan and Turkey carried out joint maneuvers in the summer, Turkish air force troops were left in Azerbaijan with equipment such as F16 and combat helicopters. He added that the Bayraktar drones involved in the attacks on the territory of Arcach are probably operated not by Azerbaijani operators, but by Turks. However, the Turkish troops he mentions are probably in Nakhchivan, and their direct participation in the fighting at this stage is not confirmed. However, all indications are that it is Turkey, and not Azerbaijan, that plans military operations and takes key decisions during this war. This is why the ceasefire negotiated by Moscow on October 10 and 17 did not enter into force. Turkey was not a party to the arrangements.

Therefore, Azerbaijan’s progress should be assessed in the context presented above. He managed to launch an effective offensive in the south, occupying the entire border with Iran, the Araks River valley and then moving north. However, these are not areas of Nagorno-Karabakh, but an uninhabited buffer zone. Of course, the loss of these territories is painful for the Armenians, but it is not yet a disaster. One of the soldiers of Arcach, asked by me yesterday in Martuni to comment on the increasingly frequent suggestions that the Arcach Defense Army has already suffered a defeat, said: “we have lost the battle, not the war.”

Only the next few days will show whether Azerbaijan is able to use the achievements so far to achieve its strategic goals or not. It is worth remembering that time is playing against him for two reasons: the coming winter and the US presidential election. And that is why Turkey and Azerbaijan expected a quick victory and, as I wrote in the previous analysis, the lack of this blitzkrieg is a defeat for these two countries [which is by no means synonymous with the thesis that Armenia is winning this war].

The areas that have been occupied so far are of no strategic importance, as long as they do not allow Azerbaijan to interrupt communication on the Goris-Stepanakert road. It is currently the only safe connection between Armenia and Arcach, as the northern road has been within the range of the Grad rockets since the beginning of the war. It is worth remembering, however, that the Azeris had theoretically been able to shell this road with Smierch missiles before, as well as attack with kamikaze drones. Smiercz was used once to destroy a small bridge on this road, which, however, did not block communication, as a detour was quickly built.

The Armenians claim that the less effective use of drones in recent days by Azerbaijan is due to their increasingly frequent shooting down. There are unconfirmed suggestions in Stepanakert that this is possible thanks to technological support from Russia, but it is not confirmed. The fact that drones are used less frequently may also be due to economic reasons. Armenians claim that they have shot down more than 200 drones, including at least 2 Turkish Bayraktars, but these numbers are certainly overstated, as are any information on enemy losses provided by both sides. However, the cost of one Bayraktar is as much as 5 million dollars. The fate of this war may depend on whether the Azerbaijani-Turkish side will be able to secure its air dominance.

However, access to the Goris – Stepanakert road from the Araks valley side is limited due to the mountains. There are already signals about attempts to penetrate lightly armed Azerbaijani troops (or rather Syrian mercenaries) to the north, which, however, failed. The dragging of heavy military equipment across the mountains under the conditions of Armenian fire seems doubtful. It is worth paying attention to the fact that most of the so far captured areas are not mountainous. So the actual start has not yet taken place.

However, if Azerbaijan manages to somehow cross the mountains in the coming days and master the Goris-Stepanakert road, it will be a strategic success for Azerbaijan. If not, it will mean that the Arcach Defense Army is far from being broken, contrary to the propaganda films shown by the Azerbaijani side. The Azeris want to head north along the valley of another river, ie Voghja. Another question is to what extent Azerbaijan will decide to fire the Goris-Stepanakert road with Grad missiles, which are incomparably cheaper than Smerch, and to what extent the fire will be able to effectively block the transport along this route. For now, Armenians are convinced that they will keep control over this road (at least in the coming days) and the mood in Stepanakert is still good. Moreover, blocking the Goris-Stepanakert road may also have negative political consequences for Azerbaijan, prompting the West to intervene more actively.

Azerbaijan’s success would also be the capture of Martuni or Martakert, the most important cities in the eastern part of Arcach. Since the beginning of the war, they have been heavily fired upon by Azerbaijan, which destroyed, among others, the local military hospital. The war in this region, however, has a positional character for the time being, although the Armenians mention the Azerbaijani attempts to break the front, but so far it has not worked. In recent days, the shelling of Martackert and Martuni has become more intense, and on October 23, information about fierce fighting in the Chartar-Maczkalaszen area, south of Martuni appeared.

Mackalashen is located less than 30 km from Stepanakert. Currently, it is Martuni that is most vulnerable to an attack by the Azeris and the fall of this city would certainly be a serious blow to the Armenians. Moods in a city where 5,000 There are 500 inhabitants left, but they are moderately positive, although not all my interlocutors in the city are as sure of victory as a few days earlier. Overall morale is still good though.

On the evening of October 23, there was also the bombing of Stepanakert, the first in a week. This time, however, no drones were used, but probably Smerch rockets (there are also rumors and the plane, but so far it has not been confirmed). There were 10 explosions, but no fatalities, although one of the houses burst into flames and a gas pipeline in one of the districts of the capital Arcach was damaged. Night bombings also took place in other towns and villages, in particular in Martuni. Previously, rocket (outgoing) shots were heard all day in Stepanakert.

The attack on Stepanakert, after a week of calm, coincided with the meeting of the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo with the heads of diplomacy of Azerbaijan and Armenia. Although the fact that the United States is increasingly involved in the conflict in Arcach is positive, Friday’s talks did not bring any progress, and the fact that Stepanakert was attacked at the same time may be a signal from Turkey that no talks without her participation make sense. Meanwhile, the US does not want to (although it could) put pressure on Turkey, and the actions themselves result from the increasing pressure of the Armenian diaspora in the US and the possibility of Trump losing votes of the religious right.

After the elections, however, the situation may change radically, especially if the Democrats and Joe Biden win. There have already been many initiatives in Congress to condemn Turkey and Azerbaijan, and Joe Biden [whom Erdogan and his team have offended many times before] criticizes the excessively passive position of the current administration on the conflict. On October 23, Democratic Congressman Frank Pallone of New Jersey submitted a draft resolution in the House of Representatives condemning Turkey and Azerbaijan for aggression on the Arcach and calling for recognition of its independence. 34 congressmen from both parties signed the bill.

Therefore, the possible recognition of Arcach by the US cannot be ruled out, especially if the Democrats take power in both houses of Congress after the elections and Biden moves into the White House (such an election result is of course not certain, but it is very likely). Democrats have long been much more skeptical about the importance of the alliance with Turkey and treat it as a problem [some Republicans also share this opinion]. So you can imagine that after the elections there will be much tougher US steps towards Turkey. Americans, however, have a large arsenal of tools in this regard.

Pressure on Turkey will push it against the wall, and Erdogan knows perfectly well that with the tightening of relations with the US, his bargaining capacity in relations with Moscow will shrink dramatically. So he will have to make concessions. Americans, meanwhile, have an alternative to the current geopolitical system. Their recognition of Arcach could lead to a strategic return of Armenia, its exit from the Collective Security Treaty Organization and the replacement of the Russian base with an American base.

For the US, gaining a foothold there would be of great geostrategic importance, as it is located between Russia, Turkey, Iran and at the intersection of trade routes, including the road from China to Europe. Such a step by the Americans would mean the end of the war, because Turkey and Azerbaijan would not risk a confrontation with the United States. It is also worth remembering that the fact that the USA is an exporter of hydrocarbons, and in addition Exxon is involved in the exploration of Cypriot deposits [which is threatened by Turkey], shows that blocking transit routes going through the Caucasus or Anatolia may be beneficial for the long-term interests of the USA.

If the US recognizes Arcach, it can be expected that other countries will follow the Americans, including Canada, Australia and France. In the French parliament there has also been an initiative to recognize this republic, while in Australia it was done by the parliament of New South Wales (the country’s largest state). A similar initiative has also emerged in the Ontario Province of Canada. Earlier, declarations condemning Turkey and Azerbaijan were adopted by the Luxembourg parliament and the Flemish parliament in Belgium.

For Russia, such a development of events would be a total disaster, especially since it itself shows a lack of readiness to engage directly on the side of Armenia, and in particular to recognize Arcach. On the contrary, Russia, which intervened in Georgia in 2008 to support the separatist Ossetians, stresses in this case that Arcach is part of Azerbaijan and that international law must be respected.

Previously, however, Russia did not have such problems with the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and the Armenians remember these double standards (as well as the recognition of Kosovo by the West). The problem is that the Russians would like to continue playing Azerbaijan and Armenia, keeping an equal distance, which, however, seems less and less real. The Russians also proposed introducing their “mirotors” to Arcach and giving Azerbaijan a buffer zone. However, the Armenians are aware that for them it would mean full dependence on Russia and they reject this solution.

It is important to understand that the game in the South Caucasus is multi-vector, not two-vector. The fact that Turkey gains greater influence in this region will not be beneficial for the West, on the contrary, it will weaken, if not completely eliminate, the possibility of the West influencing this region. Turkey wants to bring about a new Turkish-Russian pact that will divide the region into spheres of influence where there will be no room for anyone else.

Alternatively, according to this plan, it is possible to include Iran in this agreement and lead to the replacement of the role of the OSCE Minsk Group with the Astana format (Iran-Turkey-Russia). This in turn would mean a complete defeat for Europe and the US. If Russia decides that it cannot maintain full control of the situation in the South Caucasus, it will enter into negotiations with Turkey, preceded by attacks on pro-Turkish jihadists in Syria. It will be a kind of auctioning of positions and the inclusion of Armenia in the tendering system currently covering Libya and Syria. Europe and the US cannot allow this to happen.

With the consensus of the great powers, it would be very easy to find an optimal solution to the conflict over the Arcas. The Armenians would give Azerbaijan a buffer zone, with the exception of the Lachin corridor, and Azerbaijan would recognize the independence of Arcach. The Security Council could adopt an appropriate resolution on this matter and then send international [not only Russian] observers [of course excluding Turkey, as it is a party to the conflict]. The fact that there was no such solution to the conflict shows a lack of will to bring about peace.

On the other hand, negotiations certainly make no sense if Azerbaijan precludes holding an independence referendum in Arcach. There is no doubt that the restoration of Azerbaijani administration in these areas will mean the end of the Armenians in Arcach. Moreover, there is a high probability that if Turkey and Azerbaijan succeeded in capturing Arcach in the absence of the international community’s reaction, hostilities would be launched in the Armenia province of Zangezor.

In this way, Turkey will try to connect with Azerbaijan [Zangezor separates Nakhichevan from Karabakh]. It is by no means a foregone conclusion that Russia would make a military intervention in such a situation, fulfilling its obligations under the Collective Security Treaty Organization, if the West also remained passive. However, there are many indications that the USA and Europe will not leave this game to Turkey and Russia.

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