Armenia and Azerbaijan Are at War Again—and Not in Nagorno-Karabakh
Powered by Israeli weapons, Azerbaijan is facing off against Armenia far from the long-disputed enclave, placing civilians—and possibly the Aliyev regime—at risk.
The long-standing conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan escalated last month, and the two countries suffered their worst losses in four years. Between July 12 and 16, at least 16 service members from the two sides were killed: four Armenian soldiers and 12 Azerbaijanis, including a major general. (A fifth Armenian soldier died from his wounds later that month.) The fighting was the latest significant incident in a conflict that has continued without resolution since the fall of the Soviet Union.
July’s clashes, however, stood out in a number of ways. They occurred not along the oft-contested Nagorno-Karabakh front line but along the borders of Armenia and Azerbaijan proper, far to the north near the border with Georgia, in an area full of critical civilian infrastructure. Both sides deployed new technology, in particular drones.
And perhaps the most significant development took place far from the battlefield—in the form of a pro-war demonstration in Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku, that saw anti-government slogans and clashes with police. That served as a harsh reminder to Azerbaijani authorities of how quickly any military setbacks can become a lightning rod for public dissatisfaction with the government—the same catalyst that saw the country’s first two presidents toppled in the early 1990s.
Located on the southern edge of the South Caucasus, Nagorno-Karabakh is a parcel of land roughly the size of the U.S. state of Connecticut. The dispute over the territory goes back to the early days of the Soviet Union: In 1923, Joseph Stalin, then the Soviet commissar of nationalities, drew up the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) as an autonomous enclave within Azerbaijan despite the region’s 90 percent ethnic Armenian population.
The Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic would raise the issue periodically over the next 60 years, but it was not until the Soviet Union’s dying days that it exploded. In February 1988, with nationalism on the rise throughout the Soviet Union, mass demonstrations took place in the Armenian capital, Yerevan, calling for Karabakh to be detached from Azerbaijan and made a part of Armenia. Ethnic infighting between Azerbaijanis and Armenians broke out across both republics, including events such as the infamous Sumgait pogrom, which saw ethnic Armenians expelled from a town near Baku.
The NKAO’s local authorities soon after voted to join the territory to Armenia, while Soviet security forces spent the next three years conducting violent and haphazard crackdowns across Armenia and Azerbaijan in a futile attempt to stop the spiraling violence. As the Soviet Union crumbled in late 1991, Nagorno-Karabakh declared independence, and the conflict exploded into a full-scale war: Armenia and the new Nagorno-Karabakh Republic on one side, Azerbaijan on the other.
When a cease-fire was finally reached in 1994, 20,000 people had died, 1 million were displaced, and Nagorno-Karabakh stood as an unrecognized republic: de facto independent and entirely outside of Azerbaijani control but de jure lying within that country’s internationally recognized borders.
While it is often termed a “frozen conflict,” the front lines of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict are anything but quiet. The International Crisis Group has tracked nearly 300 cease-fire violations in the area since January 2015. That’s not including April 2016’s so-called Four-Day War, which saw nearly 100 soldiers killed on each side in the worst fighting since the initial conflict ended in 1994. A cease-fire agreement that year brought a halt to major combat operations, but it did not resolve the region’s status.
It’s still unclear how the latest Armenian-Azerbaijani clashes began. Armenia claims that its forces fired on an Azerbaijani military truck attempting to cross the border; Azerbaijan says Armenian artillery suddenly opened fire. Whatever the cause, Olesya Vartanyan, Crisis Group’s senior analyst for the South Caucasus, doesn’t believe it was premeditated. “If anyone was preparing for this, they did a bad job,” she said.
One reason behind increased tensions in the border area was the replacement of regular military units on the Azerbaijani side with border guard forces. Accompanying this was a sudden flurry of construction of new housing, roads, and other buildings, which caused “a lot of confusion on both sides,” Vartanyan said.
Both sides have plenty of reasons to avoid an escalation in this area. Two major oil and gas pipelines from Azerbaijan to Turkey pass through Tovuz district, only a few miles from the border. On the Armenian side lies the Yerevan-Tbilisi highway, a crucial transit corridor for both goods and people, crossing one of Armenia’s only two open international borders to Georgia.
A dense civilian presence near the depopulated no man’s land along the Karabakh front line compounds the risks of heavier fighting. Crisis Group estimated that around 150,000 civilians live within six miles of the border, with three-quarters of those on the Azerbaijani side. “In Karabakh, [each side] can use 120 mm heavy artillery without much problem. Here, it would be a massive story,” Vartanyan said.
While heavy artillery might be off the table, there are a lot of other shiny new toys each side can bring to bear—particularly Azerbaijan, which, thanks to an oil-funded defense procurement spree, has acquired high-end Russian and Israeli military equipment in recent years.
Azerbaijan’s defense spending ballooned in the late 2000s and early 2010s. A 2018 report by the Moscow-based Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies shows that annual defense spending rose from $700 million in 2007 to $3.7 billion in 2013. Included in this was roughly $5 billion in Russian arms purchases: Baku bought T-90C battle tanks, BTR-82A armored personnel carriers, Mi-35M helicopter gunships, and other equipment.
Baku’s Israeli purchases, however, have been most visible on the battlefield, in particular its drones. All eight drone types reportedly in Azerbaijan’s inventory hail from Israel, with which Azerbaijan has a long-running military relationship. The 2016 conflict saw Azerbaijan deploy the IAI Harop, a so-called kamikaze drone (named for its ability to dive directly into a target and detonate its explosive payload), against Armenian combatants. An Azerbaijani Harop struck a bus carrying Armenian volunteers to the front lines that year, killing nine and seriously wounding others.
It was these high-tech drones that Baku made most use of in July’s clashes. Among the most advanced of those purchases was the Spike anti-tank guided missile, a top-of-the-line Israeli weapons system that several Azerbaijani Defense Ministry videos showed hitting Armenian targets. The particular Spike model that Azerbaijan uses, the Spike NLOS, is capable of striking targets at a distance of up to 15 miles and beyond visual range. “This is literally the top stuff you can find in the world,” said Rob Lee, a Ph.D. candidate focused on Russia’s defense industry at King’s College London.
While Baku’s new technology is impressive, it doesn’t appear to have fundamentally changed the battlefield outcome in this round. “Most of the videos [of Azerbaijani strikes] showed them hitting targets of debatable military value,” Lee told Foreign Policy.
This partly explains the outcome of the current round of fighting. “It didn’t go well for Azerbaijan,” Lee said, citing its higher casualty count relative to Armenia. Azerbaijan has confirmed that 12 of its service members were killed, including a major general; by contrast, Armenia’s official losses were only five soldiers.
But drones have another important advantage off the battlefield: their suitability for propaganda releases. “Ultimately, while it was hard to view the recent fighting as a success for Azerbaijan, one of the upsides was the drone footage,” Lee said.
Even without significant battlefield success, flashy videos of shiny new drones still play well on state TV. “Even if you aren’t translating new military technology into battlefield victories, the demonstration of high-tech military equipment and footage of military strikes can somewhat placate domestic audiences by showing tangible results,” Lee explained.
Placating the domestic audience is not something Azerbaijan’s authorities are likely taking for granted these days. On the night of July 14, a large demonstration came together in Baku. While initially voicing support of the army, the mood of the crowd changed over the course of the evening. Anger over the deaths of high-ranking officers in the ongoing clashes began to emerge, and what had appeared to be a genuinely pro-government gathering ended with protesters demanding the resignation of various government officials. By the early morning of July 15, anger had taken over: Protesters stormed the parliament, before being forcibly dispersed by police.
While this event proved to be a one-off, it could be a dark omen for Ilham Aliyev’s government. “Unlike past rallies, which are always state-approved, this [rally] was spontaneous,” said Anar Mammadli, head of the Baku-based Election Monitoring and Democracy Center. “The government was shocked. They didn’t have a plan to deal with this.”
The scale of the demonstration—estimated at 30,000 attendees—was particularly large, in a country where police are not shy about violently dispersing rallies. And military setbacks, whether real or perceived, in the conflict with Armenia have a dangerous history for the authorities in Baku. In the early 1990s, during the war’s height, two previous governments were toppled as a result of battlefield failures in Karabakh, and the Aliyev family came to power in the resulting vacuum.
Even amid the general chaos of the Soviet Union’s breakup, Azerbaijan’s reemergence as an sovereign country was particularly turbulent. With Soviet troops departing the region as the USSR entered its final death throes in December 1991, the position of Azerbaijani forces in Karabakh began to falter. Meanwhile, back in Baku, the various political factions were more focused on jostling for control of the new state; the conflict in faraway Karabakh was a lesser priority than the ultimate prize of holding power.
In February 1992, Armenian forces took control of the town of Khojaly, killing hundreds of civilians and delivering a crippling blow to Azerbaijan’s president, Communist holdover Ayaz Mutallibov. Widespread outrage was harnessed by the Azerbaijani Popular Front to force Mutallibov’s resignation within weeks, resulting in their own leader, Abulfaz Elchibey, ascending to the presidency. But Elchibey was also unable to stem the Armenian momentum in Karabakh: His term in office was ended by a military coup in mid-1993. When the dust cleared, the presidency was held by Heydar Aliyev, previously general secretary of the Azerbaijan Communist Party from 1969 to 1982. Aliyev wisely negotiated a general cease-fire within nine months of acceding to power.
The current administration, especially President Ilham Aliyev (Heydar’s son, who took power following his father’s death in 2003), is keenly aware of this history. The present moment is a particularly inopportune one, with the economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic being felt. “After four months of lockdown, people have just been sitting jobless in front of their phones. They are angry,” Mammadli said. “With a rally like this, today it might be about Karabakh, but tomorrow it can be about anything: social issues, economic problems, even the fall of the government.”
In the meantime, new joint military exercises with Turkey have also been taking place. For the past two weeks, Azerbaijani and Turkish forces have conducted drills across the exclave of Nakhchivan, on the other side of Armenia from Azerbaijan proper. “This is partly also to show strength [to the people],” Mammadli explained.
There are signs that the tenuous peace may not hold.
Indeed, one of the less belligerent members of Aliyev’s cabinet was just removed. The day after the Baku demonstration, the Azerbaijani president sacked his foreign minister, Elmar Mammadyarov. Mammadyarov, who had held the post for 16 years, was known as one of the main proponents for dialogue with Armenia and had been the face of the government in international talks over Karabakh for over a decade. His dismissal does not suggest that Baku is in the mood for further talks.
Yerevan has even less reason to be interested in a new round of clashes; after all, the status quo in Karabakh is in its favor. Still, the recent skirmish was an important boost to Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s security credentials. The Armenian leader has been criticized by both Karabakh’s leaders and some in the Armenian opposition for allegedly being soft on security matters. Presiding over a relatively successful border battle has helped blunt that line of attack.
At the moment, a tense calm in the area prevails. For the hundreds of thousands of civilians in the range of artillery shells, this is enough.
Neil Hauer is a Canadian journalist and security analyst based in Yerevan, Armenia. His work focuses on the Syrian conflict and politics, conflict, and minorities in the North and South Caucasus region. Twitter: @NeilPHauer