Ankara-Moscow duel behind the scenes in Karabakh

Azerbaijani soldiers at Zengilan. (Photo: Twitter)

The war between Azerbaijan and Armenia that began three weeks ago has ended the 25-year-old status quo in Karabakh. Armenia occupied more than 11,000 square kilometers of Azerbaijani territory at the time of a ceasefire signed in 1994. Roughly 4,000 square kilometers of this is the Nagorno-Karabakh region where Armenians make up 75{4a62a0b61d095f9fa64ff0aeb2e5f07472fcd403e64dbe9b2a0b309ae33c1dfd} of the population. The remaining 7,000 square kilometers are the territories around Karabakh, whence hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijanis have been driven out. For any peace agreement, Armenia has set forth two main conditions including complete control over the region of Karabakh as well as two corridors, Lachin and Kalbajar, located between Armenia and Karabakh. Under this scenario, which Baku would consider absolute defeat; Yerevan would return control of the remaining 5 regions (Jabrail, Fuzuli, Agdam, Kubatli, Zengilan) to Azerbaijan.  Yerevan has not compromised or stepped back from this maximalist position since 1994. 

The quarter-century status quo is no longer there

After 3 weeks of fighting, the balance of power has completely changed. Azerbaijan’s military has advanced, especially on the border with Iran in the south. Baku has taken back the towns of Fuzuli, Jabrail, and Zangilan. The town of Hadrut in Karabakh proper and the mountainous region just to the north are also under the control of the Azerbaijani army. Overall, Baku has pushed back the Armenian occupation on roughly 16{4a62a0b61d095f9fa64ff0aeb2e5f07472fcd403e64dbe9b2a0b309ae33c1dfd} of its occupied territory thanks in large part to the Azerbaijani military’s effective deployment of UAV’s (unmanned aerial vehicles) purchased from Israel and Turkey. The stark difference in weapons technology is evident in most battlefield videos that have emerged which show the Armenian military stuck with 20th-century weaponry as it gets pummeled by the Azerbaijani armed forces equipped with 21st-century air technology. The military analyst Stijn Mitzer summarized the military situation of the Armenian army as follows: “You can’t win a war of the future by fighting a war of the past.”

At this stage, Azerbaijan’s gains are not just limited to the territory. More than 100 tanks, mostly T72s that belong to the Armenian military, have been destroyed. That means Armenia lost nearly 20 percent of all the tanks in her inventory within a three-week period. In comparison, Azerbaijan has lost only 23 tanks. Armenia announced it has so far lost more than 700 soldiers in the conflict although images and reports from the front line suggest Armenia’s losses could be much greater. Baku, on the other hand, has not released the number of its military casualties. Despite all the losses, so far the Armenian military remained steadfast particularly in the mountainous regions of the east and north, and has largely managed to defend its territory except the southern front.

Progress of the Azerbaijani army on the South line

Advancing from the south, the Azerbaijani military has come within 30 kilometers of Hankendi (Stepanakert), the center of Karabakh, and the Lachin corridor connecting it to Armenia. This means the Karabakh center and supply roads are within the range of Azerbaijani artillery. Therefore, in the coming days, the war can be expected to intensify not only in the front line but also widen to the interior parts of Karabakh. Two ceasefires have been declared to date but Baku has stressed the pause in hostilities are only to allow for retrieval of corpses of soldiers who died on the front line and are limited in scope. Both sides share images of civilian settlements being bombed. Several civilians were killed when Armenia launched a Scud missile into the city of  Ganja in Azerbaijan. Yerevan, on the other hand, claims that a military hospital was destroyed by Azerbaijani military strikes whereas Baku claims the same incident in fact hit a fuel and ammunition depot. Needless to say, the civilian toll of the war so far has been a mounting tragedy.

How long and in what direction will the conflict continue in Karabakh? Will the parties return to negotiations?  Moscow and Ankara’s positions will be decisive in how both the armed conflict and negotiations will play out.

Russia’s growing influence after the collapse of the Soviet Union

Armenia is Russia’s most important ally in the Caucasus. Armenia’s economy and defense are under complete Russian control. However, there are those in Armenian politics who advocate close ties with the West and who are uncomfortable with Moscow’s hegemony. They were influential in electing Nikol Pashinyan as prime minister in 2018. 

The Kremlin had signaled that it would not intervene in the first phase of the conflict which began in late September. However, after the unexpected advances made by the Azerbaijani military, Moscow has changed its stance. Russian President Vladimir Putin himself has stepped in to declare a ceasefire. Examining Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s statements, it is possible to understand the Kremlin’s game plan for Karabakh. Moscow wants the fighting to stop immediately and for the five Armenian-occupied regions to be returned to Baku. After this stage, Russian troops will enter Karabakh as “peacekeepers.” The remaining two territories, Kalbajar and Lachin, will be given back to Azerbaijan eventually within a framework which will keep the corridor between Karabakh and Armenia open under Russian control. The status of Karabakh will be determined in the course of negotiations. 

Russia’s strategy seeks to give Azerbaijan control over the occupied territories outside of Karabakh while Armenia holds on to Karabakh proper with a Russian military guarantee. Deployment of Russian troops in Karabakh will allow Moscow to keep both Baku and Yerevan under its control. This would then enable Russia to rebalance the domestic politics within Armenia and remove the pro-Westerners from power completely. In short, Moscow’s strategy towards Karabakh is aimed at reinforcing Russia’s influence in the Caucasus.

What will Turkey do?

One of the most important reasons the Azerbaijani army has taken the upper hand in the conflict is the Bayraktar TB2 UAV’s purchased from Turkey. The foundation of close military relations between Ankara and Baku dates back to the 1990s. Russian newspaper Kommersant claimed that 600 Turkish military members were involved in the latest military operation in Azerbaijan. The paper also claimed Turkish National Defense Minister Hulusi Akar and Commander of Turkish Land Forces Ümit Dündar went to Azerbaijan on September 28-30 to inspect the conduct of the operation on site. Akar’s doctoral dissertation at Boğaziçi University was written on the Armenian issue in Eastern Anatolia and the Caucasus after the First World War and highlights his personal interest in the region.

Azerbaijan, which currently holds military superiority in the field with Turkey’s support, may want to capture strategic locations in the mountainous region of Karabakh before winter arrives. Azerbaijani advances in strategic junction points in Azih and Kirmizi Pazar in the center of Karabakh could irreversibly alter the course of the fighting. If Baku were to take over the whole of Karabakh, the Kremlin will not monitor these developments from the sidelines. Russia will consider Azerbaijan’s regaining the entire Karabakh with the support of Turkey as an attack on its hegemonic position in the Caucasus. What would Russia do to change the military balance of power in Karabakh? After 2015 Ankara faced a similar scenario in Syria against Russia. Now Russia should be expected to act in a similar way when it sees threats to its interests in the Caucasus, which it describes as the Near Abroad.

In the last three weeks, Azerbaijan has changed the status quo in Karabakh with its military successes. If Baku and Ankara see the final solution in a definitive military victory, Russia could go down to the field and respond militarily. In this case, the Caucasus will face great destruction in the ensuing chaos just like in Syria. The final off-ramp before a complete disaster is a return to the negotiating table and to reach a peaceful solution that will have to mean mutual concessions instead of stubbornly insisting on unrealistic maximalist positions. As the Emperor of Prussia Frederik the Great said “if you try to hold everything, you hold nothing.”


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