Aliyev’s conflict with Pashinyan: Open warfare erupts in the South Caucasus

  • + Full-scale warfare erupted in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region.
  • + Involvement of regional powers impacts the regional balance of power. 
  • + Warfare based around combat UAVs has given Azerbaijan a military advantage.
Source: Asbarez

Ilham Aliyev is the president of Azerbaijan and has been in office since 2003. The Azerbaijani president has overseen a strong economic development through energy policies and the emergence of Azerbaijan as a regional power in the South Caucasus. He has cemented a strong alliance with Turkey.

Nikol Pashinyan is the Prime Minister of Armenia and has been in office since 2018. He led and came to power amidst Armenia’s “Velvet Revolution”, which called for more freedoms and democratic political processes. A former journalist, he has led an “Armenia-first” foreign policy but is described by analysts as a “Western friendly” president.

Why is Aliyev at war with Pashinyan?

Answer: Azerbaijan wants to retake the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region from Armenia.

The Nagorno-Karabakh region was taken by Armenia from Azerbaijan in 1994 following 6 years of war. 30,000 Azeris were ethnically cleansed and the region is inhabited today by an Armenian population. Azerbaijan has never ceased its objective of taking back the disputed region.

When clashes erupted on July 12th this year between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, leading to another military stalemate, international observers hoped a peaceful solution would soon emerge between the rival leaders. However, hope is short-lived, and a full-scale military confrontation broke out between Azerbaijani and Armenian troops in Nagorno-Karabakh on the 27th of September. Extensive propaganda from both sides make identifying the true casualty count extremely difficult, but it’s clear that a week of fighting has left hundreds of soldiers dead, along with substantial military material losses. Military clashes are now spilling out of the contested region, while the involvement of regional powers on both sides has only exacerbated the intensity of the fighting. A full-scale war is developing under our eyes in north-central Asia. 

Aliyev came under significant pressure politically and from public opinion following the July 12 clashes. No military gains had been made and Armenia was further strengthened by holding its ground in Nagorno-Karabakh. Large Azerbaijan protests demanded open war with Armenia, while the country is united around retaking the disputed region. The Azerbaiajani people see Armenia’s hold over Nagorno-Karabakh as a historical and ongoing humiliation, demanding that Aliyev increase his efforts to restore the territories to Azerbaijan. The Azerbaijani president also expected the Armenian government to be weaker following the 2018 Velvet Revolution and more willing to engage in resolution talks over Nagorno-Karabakh, but this was not the case.

In response, Azerbaijan’s president fired his longtime foreign minister, Elmar Mammadyarov, saying the time of useless negotiations had come to an end. On the 27th of September, minor clashes erupted once again between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the disputed region. This time, Aliyev broke the deadlock and instigated a large-scale Azerbaijani offensive in Nagorno-Karabakh, marking the beginning of a full-scale military confrontation between both countries. The Azerbaijani president knows he needs a positive outcome to this conflict, and promptly at that, or his 17-year rule may be coming to an end. Aliyev’s timing was hardly a coincidence: Russia is embroiled in saving its interests in Belarus, the Libyan Civil War, Syrian Civil War and Ukrainian Civil War, creating an opening for an Azerbaijani offensive. 

Why was Aliyev emboldened to break the deadlock? The answer lies in the arrival of a new major player in the conflict: Turkey. Indeed, Russia had formerly been the only regional power heavily invested in the conflict between the two former Soviet bloc countries. In order not to choose sides, maintain its influence over the conflict and prevent full-scale war from breaking out, Russia used what it calls the “pivotal deterrence policy”. The base of this Russian policy is to supply arms to both countries, maintain an ambiguous strategic language, make alliance commitments to both sides and mediate peace initiatives. This way, neither Azerbaijan nor Armenia knew whose side Russia was really on. The uncertainty of who Russian supported kept the deadlock in place: Azerbaijan was forced to exercise military restraint in case the Russians intervened on the Armenian side, while the promise of Russian support kept Armenia firmly within the Russian sphere of influence. 

However, Turkey’s sphere of influence is rapidly expanding in its Eurasian geographic zone, and support for Azerbaijan has subsequently increased in recent years. Erdogan fully pledged to support the Azerbaijani operation to retake Nagorno-Karabakh, claiming “the brotherly state of Azerbaijan has started a great operation both to defend its own territories and to liberate the occupied Karabakh. (…) Turkey stands with and will continue to stand with friendly and brotherly Azerbaijan with all our means and all our heart.” Having broken the Russian “pivotal defense strategy” (for now), with the backing of Turkey, Aliyev is free to pursue the goal of retaking the disputed region. The Azerbaijani president is confident that Putin will not immediately risk another direct confrontation with Turkey after their entanglements in Syria and Libya and thus is pushing for a quick victory against Armenia. 

Source: IGTDS

How is Aliyev pursuing his objective?

Answer: Developing a modern military with Turkish assistance and exploiting regional alliances.

Azerbaijan is a key supplier of European energy (petrol and gas) and guarantees European energy security while being a crucial energetical partner for Turkey. The proceeds of these energetical policies have funded Azerbaijan’s development in infrastructure, standard of living, and most notably, military forces. Thus, in 2019, Azerbaijani petrodollars helped allocate $14.8 billion to defense and national security, accounting for 13.4% of state expenditures. 

Aliyev has used these resources to adapt his armed forces to a new approach of military warfare, essentially led by combat UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle). Azerbaijan has bought and operates a large number of Turkish manufactured Bayraktar TB2, which are mid-range strike UAVs capable of flying for 24h hours, rising to 7300 meters and have a range of 150km. Equipped with advanced surveillance equipment, adjustable and laser-guided bombs, the Bayraktar provides highly efficient ground support and offensive capabilities. Aliyev also purchased and continues to receive Israeli Harop drones, which are kamikaze drones equipped with explosives. In a week of fighting, this arsenal of drones has proven incredibly effective at attacking Armenian ground targets such as tanks, APCs (Armored Personnel Carriers), anti-air systems and bunkers, leading to mounting Armenian casualty rates. The air support provided from UAVs has been crucial to the gains made so far by the Azerbaijani ground troops and points to a new direction in conventional warfare. 

The Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict confronts the mounting Turkish geopolitical power in its geographical zone of influence, but also the outstanding success of the Turkish armaments industry. This industry has made Turkey militarily independent and free to pursue its own geopolitical interests, greatly contributing to the Turkish “resurgence” observed since 2010. Erdogan’s decision to develop highly advanced combat UAVs paid off significantly and was the driver of Turkish success in Libya and Syria. Notably, the Bayraktar TB2 has completely overrun the Russian made Pantsir S1 air defense systems, seemingly overtaking Russian defensive technology. In Libya and Syria alone, up to 23 Pantsir S1s have been destroyed by Bayraktar TB2, while Russian-supplied Armenian air defense systems have been similarly overwhelmed. In light of this success, Erdogan sought to further reinforce Aliyev in August 2020, leaving large amounts of military material to Azerbaijan following the July 29th-August 10th joint military drills. 

Aliyev not only benefits from Turkish military technology, but also from Turkey’s ability to draw manpower from its zones of influence. Thus, Turkey has sent Syrian mercenaries to fight alongside Azerbaijani forces, giving those troops a significant boost in manpower and military experience. The Azerbaijani president has been able to leverage his personal and cultural relationship with Erdogan to maximize Turkish support. However, such a strong Turkish involvement in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has brought substantial criticism and potential for an escalation of the fighting. Russia is likely to see the presence of Syrian mercenaries as a provocation and send military reinforcements to Armenia, while Macron has already blasted Erdogan for bringing “jihadists” to the conflict. Thus, there is a real danger that the current war could evolve into a regional conflict. 

What does Pashinyan want?

Answer: Keep the Nagorno-Karabakh region and bring in Russian support.

Although offering stiff resistance, Armenia is under considerable military pressure from the Azerbaijani offensive, which has made headway into Nagorno-Karabakh. With Turkish support for Azerbaijan, the Armenian military is outmatched and needs foreign military help or a ceasefire to hold their territory. Armenia has been receiving some military material aid from Iran, but this foreign aid is not enough to change the tide of the war. Pashinyan knows that the foreign support should be coming from Russia, notably because Azerbaijan has broken the “pivotal deterrence policy”, but the Russians have not truly manifested themselves so far. Pashinyan is asking himself “Where is Russia?

According to the Russian “pivotal deterrence policy”, if Azerbaijan were to take aggressive military measures against Armenia, Russia would step in to maintain the balance of power between both nations. However, Russia has not intervened so far in favor of Armenia, despite operating a military base with 5,000 active personnel in the country. It’s possible that Putin was distracted by the complicated situation in Belarus, and unprepared for an Azerbaijani offensive on such a large scale. The Russian president may also be hesitating to enter in direct conflict with Turkey on another theatre of war, diverting resources from other conflicts and potentially escalating the clashes further. However, it’s more likely that Putin is biding his time, as Armenia’s current difficult position serves Russian interests

In 2018, Armenia went through its “Velvet Revolution”, when long time strongman Serzh Sargsyan was ousted from power by popular movements led by Nikol Pashinyan. The revolution intended to bring legitimate democratic processes to Armenia and expand individual freedoms. As such, Pashinyan’s ascent to power was not popular within the Russian leadership, which is wary of such freedom movements in its zone of influence, naturally threatening Putin’s governance model in Russia. Although Armenia is still heavily reliant on Russia militarily, economically and politically, Pashinyan and Putin have had a strained relationship. Pashinyan notably made overtures to the EU and sometimes showed willingness to gain more independence from Russian influence. As such, Armenia’s difficult situation in the war against Azerbaijan reinforces Putin’s power over Pashinyan, who relies on Russian assistance. To emphasize Pashinyan’s dependence on Putin, the Russian president may be holding Russian support back to teach the Armenian president a lesson and solidify Russian influence over the region for the long term. 

Another key element to Russia’s lack of intervention in the conflict is the influence of the OSCE Minsk Group (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe). The OSCE Minsk Group, created in 1992, is chaired by Russia, France, and the US, and aims to find a peaceful resolution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Putin is hostile to the Minsk Group, which he sees as encroaching on a Russian zone of influence. Thus, by prolonging the conflict, Putin can display the inefficiency of the Minsk Group and the failure of the OSCE. The Russian president can then resolve the conflict how he wishes, without the overview of Western countries.

Thus, Pashinyan is stuck between Russia’s geopolitical machinations and the West’s incapacity to impose a peaceful resolution to the conflict. However, the Armenian Prime Minister knows that successful defense of Armenian territory in Nagorno-Karabakh goes through either Russian intervention or successful mediation by the OSCE Minsk Group. In the meanwhile, Armenian forces are resisting the Azerbaijani and Turkish onslaught to keep the disputed territory, but they could be running out of time. 

What does this mean for you?

Answer: Necessity to protect human rights in conflict zones.

As mentioned in our previous article on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the “Ganja Gap” is key to European energy security and allows the EU to be independent from Russia or Iran in its supply of petrol and gas. Prolonged conflict, destruction of the infrastructure or increased Russian presence threatens the EU’s energy security. 

However, what is truly at stake is the well-being of tens of thousands of civilians living in the disputed region. An Azerbaijani region according to the international community, Nagorno-Karabakh is populated by around 150,000 people, 90% of which are Armenian. If Azerbaijan were to take the region, ethnic cleansing and huge displacements would inevitably take place, as the Azerbaijanis would seek to repopulate their region with Muslim Turkic peoples. OSCE Minsk Group must rise to the occasion and fulfil their duty by finding a peaceful resolution to the conflict. The well-being of the 150,000 human beings living in Nagorno-Karabakh, as well as civilians in both countries, must be guaranteed not only for the current conflict but in the long term as well. 

David Salinger

R&A Editor in Chief