On the day of 27th September Nagorno-Karabakh was again on the headlines of many of the most important European newspapers.
Clashes have erupted between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces once again, the most intense since 1994 when the “first” war for the unrecognised Caucasic Republic ended. Since then, fights erupted sporadically, the last of them in 2016, but in no case did they end with a change in the established status quo. Now the picture seems to have changed: not only is Azerbaijan willing to throw in its armed forces to solve the 30 years impasse rhetorically, but it looks like it is really doing it. And this time, it looks much stronger than before. Armed with Russian made T90 mbts, Turkish and Israeli drones, new and better self-propelled guns, long years of preparation, might all well suggest that the balance of power is shifting. The Armenians, with far less modern resources and man-power, even if armed with powerful air defence system (the s-300) but with limited coverage to Armenia and the Iskander-M ballistic missile, are in a position of disadvantage. A massive offensive, surely prepared beforehand, seems taking place. Tanks, artillery, infantry, and aviation are attacking the unrecognised enclave on the hole line of demarcation. But why now? Surely these combined strikes were not rare in the past. Then why risking everything in 2020?
Coronavirus might be one answer. The pandemic has hit Azerbaijan badly: Baku has seen a dramatic decrease in the price of oil, a resource on which its economy heavily relies, which won’t return to pre-crisis level in the short-term. President Aliev may have seized the occasion to tackle its internal opposition and finally make his dream of a “liberated” Azerbaijan real. Other incentives for war might also come from Azerbaijan’s bigger neighbours: Russia and Turkey. With the attention of Putin elsewhere, with mounting unrest in Minsk and Siberia, Aliev could have seized the opportunity for military manoeuvre. Further encouragement by Erdogan, which foreign policy is becoming even more aggressive and centred on neo-ottoman ambitions, has further destabilised the situation in the area. But does Aliev really mean it, when he states that his country will take the fight until the end?
No one is really interested in the resolution of the conflict because keeping the enclave alive may well be a political tool for both sides. Besides, openly attacking Armenia would be a suicidal mission, as it would imply a direct attack to the ODKB alliance, a military block between ex-USSR republic chaired by Russia. Even with direct Turkish support, which is in part already happening on the battle ground through Syrian militias directly flown in from their home country to the combat zone on Turkish airplanes and through assistance by military experts on the combat use of drones, a war with Russia could be catastrophic.
This war shows how much importance drones have acquired on modern battlefields and how Turkey is becoming more influential worldwide. The deployment of the Turkish Bayraktar TB2 has shown notable success. The Azeri have just bought the Bayraktar this June, mainly because of its successful deployment by the Turkish army in Syria and its usage in Libya. It is powered by a small 100 hp engine, with a maximum payload of 55kg and 650-kg maximum take-off weight. The armament consists of guided missiles and bombs, the standard ordinance being 4 UMTAS missiles. Beside its small dimension, this vehicle is able to create havoc on the battleground. It showed how UAVS can be effective when the opponent doesn’t have strong air defence systems and a deeply structured line of defence. Even if the Armenians used the s300 system, its scarce numbers, alongside with lacks in radar coverage on the combat area would not have drastically changed what we’re seeing today: dozens of tanks, armoured vehicles, trucks and artillery pieces burned to ashes. This is because the benefit/cost ratio of shooting down a drone is really low: the Bayraktar cost is far less than the one of a complex anti-aircraft missile.
Israeli kamikaze drones have also shown their effectiveness. The Azeri Armed Forces’ daily reports of drone strikes have shown the destruction of Armenian radar stations by these complex weapons. The Israeli foreign ministry, however, is not expressing the country’s position on the matter, even if 60% of Azeri military expenditures are on Israeli weapons.
It looks like Armenia has heavily underestimated this treat as it currently doesn’t have any unmanned vehicles in service. Nevertheless, the new Azeri tactics consisting on the mass usage of UAVS and less focus on traditional blitzkrieg, won’t secure victory. In order to achieve it, a full-scale war is needed and unfortunately it is coming. The ceasefire signed on the 10th of October has already proved to be ineffective. Nothing was settled between the two militaries: diplomats only agreed on a temporary halt, no borders were determined, none questions were resolved. The South Caucasus is likely to be destined to more suffering.