Was Russia the Biggest Loser of the Second Karabakh War?
This article was published in Storm over the Caucasus, by the Moscow-based Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies. The book is a collection of articles by Russian, Armenian and international experts on the political and military aspects of the Second Karabakh War. The article by Ruslan Pukhov, has been translated from Russian.
The Second Karabakh War that lasted forty-four days, from September 27 to November 10, 2020, ended in the painful if not downright crushing defeat of the Armenian side. As a result of the military confrontation, the Armenian authorities were forced to de-facto capitulate to Azerbaijan under safeguards provided by the Russian Federation. Apart from withdrawal from all the Azerbaijani territories adjacent to Nagorno-Karabakh that had been occupied for over twenty-six years, the war also resulted in the loss of a significant part of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic within the borders of the Soviet-time autonomous district, including its second largest town, Shusha.
The part of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic that has remained under Armenian control as a result of the war is manifestly unsustainable and dependent on communications crossing Azerbaijani territory; its survival and existence is exclusively safeguarded by the Russian peacekeeping force that has been deployed in the region with an official five-year limit on its mandate. Moscow had to use what amounted to a threat of military intervention to make Baku agree to an armistice and to rescue something for the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh. Yerevan had to accept a whole range of humiliating conditions, including the opening of a transportation route from Azerbaijan to Nakhichevan.
Meanwhile, the Azerbaijani side is openly savoring its triumph, making endless hints at the temporary nature of the status quo in Nagorno-Karabakh, holding Armenian war prisoners in custody, permanently taunting and provoking the Armenian side and, in places, even impinging on Armenian territory in the course of border ‘regulation.’
No Peace for Russia
Can one agree with the conclusion that the geopolitical consequences of the Second Karabakh War have been catastrophic for Russia as well as for Armenia? In practical terms, Azerbaijan’s military campaign against Karabakh has upset Russia’s policy line, elaborated over a long period of time, that allowed it to maintain the status quo in Transcaucasia and to balance between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Can one say that in a more general sense, this war has in fact put an end to Russia’s efforts to maintain its dominant influence over the post-Soviet space? A long time ago, Empress Catherine the Great derived a formula for imperial hegemony by demanding that ‘no gun in Europe would be fired without our knowledge.’ In this case, guns were fired without Russia’s knowledge. The very fact that Baku waged a large-scale war against Russia’s formal CSTO ally, in blatant disregard of Russia’s appeals for ceasefire, was an open challenge to Russia’s leadership.
Thus finding itself in the midst of events, Russia’s leadership watched for forty-four days as Armenia’s armed forces, supposedly ‘integrated’ with Russia’s army, were being trashed by the Azerbaijanis. Russian media prevaricated as best they could, arguing that CSTO commitments didn’t extend to Nagorno-Karabakh, and that Russia as the leader of the CSTO is somehow unconcerned and has no obligation to stick up for Armenia. Yet, as Vladimir Lenin used to say, it was ‘formally right but in essence, an outrage.’ It is quite obvious that Armenia joined the CSTO and closely cooperated with it in the defense realm first and foremost in the expectation that Russia would use the CSTO framework for military deterrence of the Turkey-Azerbaijan tandem. As it happened, Armenia’s main motive for jointing the CSTO had been in vain, because Russia’s military protection turned out to be flawed.
Did or shall these events bring about the moral and political downfall of the CSTO and of the entire architecture of Russian defense leadership in the former USSR? It is now clear to all members and non-members of the CSTO that Russia’s aid to its formal CSTO allies will not be automatic but dependent on Moscow’s political interests. This has caused reputation damage to the defense alliance, already considered by many to be a merely formal body, and undermined the CSTO members’ faith in Moscow’s powers.
One hears the view that it was the CSTO mechanism that defended Armenia from invasion by Azerbaijan’s armed forces. However, an Azerbaijani invasion into Armenia was arguably unlikely because of the international community’s predictably negative attitude to such a development (deservedly devalued that the very notion of this ‘community’ may be, had the ‘one nation – two states’ overestimated their abilities, they would have faced the consolidated disapproval of most major powers in both the West and the East). Still, it is a fact that the Azerbaijani side brazenly shelled Armenian air defense, artillery rocket and missile systems without triggering any CSTO mechanisms.
Finally, it is emblematic that Azerbaijan launched the war in alliance with Turkey and with active use of Turkish manned and unmanned aircraft that took off from the territory of Azerbaijan. Since the disintegration of the USSR, this has been the first and unique case when an external military power committed direct military intervention into the former Soviet space. And although Moscow typically displays an extremely strong reaction to every hint of Western interference into former Soviet territory, this time it chose to ignore Turkey’s direct military intervention. Likewise, Russia refrained from official comments on the effectively permanent stationing of Turkish armed forces on Azerbaijan’s territory. Once again, this begs the question whether it will become a tipping point for the entire former USSR/CIS, prompting Western countries to increase their interference into the affairs of former Soviet republics.
It has already revived all anti-Russian forces in the former USSR, including Azerbaijan, whose anti-Russian activists have started to sound defiant and bold in the overall style of Azerbaijan’s post-war politics. As a matter of fact, why would Baku need to maintain its prudent policy of balancing among three imperialist nations, Russia, Turkey and Iran, that have been the key players in this region for the last three centuries? Now that Baku has achieved its main national goal, i. e. the return of the bulk of the territories lost in 1994, and has opened direct communication routes to Turkey, it can afford to use a different tonality when talking to Moscow.
As a result, Moscow’s influence over Transcaucasia has decreased, whereas the standing of triumphant contentious Ankara has sharply increased in the Turkic-speaking Central Asian nations as well as in the Caucasus. Russia’s client and ally lost, Turkey’s ally scored a convincing victory. Doesn’t this make one wonder which project is more viable: post-Soviet integration or pan-Turkish revival? In the eyes of the general public, Turkey’s model of modernization and development in the political, economic and military realms has soared to unprecedented popularity, whereas Turkish drones have come to symbolize the military and technical excellence of a Muslim nation on a scope unmatched since the Middle Ages. And even though the unexpectedly rapid triumph of the Taliban in Afghanistan has made Central Asian nations revert to Moscow for help, the temptation of a Silver, if not quite Golden Age of the Young Turks can well prevail over unbiased estimates of the future inevitable, let us put this euphemistically, losses.
Another source of concern is that Azerbaijan’s victorious war against ‘separatists’ has clearly served as an inspiration to Kiev; emblematically, it was in autumn 2022 that the Ukrainian side cut short the partial peace process that had just started in Donbass. By spring 2021, things had escalated to a ‘war alert’ making Russia concentrate a large military force on the Ukrainian border in order to cool Kiev’s renewed belligerent ardor. Ukraine sharply intensified its cooperation with Turkey, increasing its purchases of Turkish weapons including the notorious Bayraktar TB2 reconnaissance and combat drones. There is no doubt that Ukraine views Azerbaijan’s military campaign as a model for a possible attack on Donbass at the earliest opportunity.
Nominally, Russia has been the main mediator instrumental to ending the Second Karabakh War, however, Turkey also had to be invited to co-sponsor the peace process, creating yet another unpleasant precedent for the post-Soviet space and institutionalizing Turkey’s interference into Transcaucasia. Technically, another region with a frozen conflict alongside Transnistria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia has become Russia’s protectorate, with peace and stability fully dependent on Russia’s peacekeeping force. What these conflicts have in common is that in every one of them, Russia’s military presence is aimed at preventing the military invasion of this territory by the former Soviet republic that used to include it and considers it its integral part. However, the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh is radically different in that, in contrast to Transnistria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which are claimed by Moldova and Georgia that aren’t strong enough to try and recapture them, Nagorno-Karabakh is claimed by Azerbaijan, which is stronger, made more confident by its victory and, ultimately, backed by Turkey with its newly gained strength. It is highly likely that once the five-year term prescribed by the peace agreements is over, Ankara and Baku will try to get rid of the Russian troops and finalize the takeover of Nagorno-Karabakh. It won’t be possible to ignore them the way Moscow is, for all intents and purposes, ignoring Moldova’s and Georgia’s claims. Accordingly, the current ‘peaceful resolution’ of the Nagorno-Karabakh issue is prone with a future highly destructive conflict. Even if Azerbaijan and Turkey avoid direct confrontation with Moscow over Nagorno-Karabakh, the fact that the peace resolution and the presence of the Russian peacekeeping force have temporary status has given them leverage that they can use to pressurize and bully Russia on a wide range of issues and to extort various concessions. In addition, Russian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh are cut off from Russia and depend on communication routes via Azerbaijani territory, which makes them Baku’s hostages to some extent.
As to the remaining part of Nagorno-Karabakh in its present condition, it has become Russia’s protectorate and, for all intents and purposes, dependent on Russian funding. Meanwhile, this territory has barely any significance for Russia and is merely a source of potential new conflicts with Turkey and Azerbaijan
Now that is has ended up as the guarantor of conflict resolution, ensuring that the remaining Armenian-controlled part of Nagorno-Karabakh survives as an autonomous Armenian enclave, Russia will presumably pursue a fact-based policy, carefully avoiding the topic of Nagorno-Karabakh’s status as long as this question remains uncomfortable for all parties involved. Of course, the effective existence of an Armenian enclave under Russian control will increasingly be a nuisance to Azerbaijan. The issues of citizenship of the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh and the enclave’s communication to Armenia will make matters worse. An additional negative factor is the presence of Turks, highly likely to enflame Azerbaijanis, especially given that Ankara can afford to act as an irresponsible negativistic force. Having provided Azerbaijan large-scale support in the war, Turkey has overall benefited from the Karabakh crisis clearly less than it expected, and might well take action to change this situation. Moscow thus faces a wide array of potential complications that it will apparently have to deal with by making new concessions to Ankara and Baku. The prospect that the withdrawal of Russian troops from Nagorno-Karabakh at the end of the five-year term will be discussed as an option, especially by Western countries that might adopt the advantageous attitude of irresponsible provokers, can create an additional confrontation point for Russia.
In the long-term, the outcome of the Second Karabakh War has clearly complicated Russian-Armenian relations. Without doubt, the Armenian society was deeply disappointed by Moscow’s assumed neutrality, which was, at least in spirit, contrary to its CSTO commitments. As to Russia, as a result of the war, it has faced the ironic need to support the government of Armenia’s prime minister Nikol Pashinyan, whom Moscow used to distrust as a pro-Western leader not entirely loyal to Russia. Having ended up as Moscow’s main guarantor of Armenia’s abidance by the peace agreements, Pashinyan’s regime did not just manage to survive but even strengthened its standing with Moscow. The 2021 elections in Armenia proved that, in spite of the devastating defeat in the war, the majority of Armenians support Pashinyan’s policies, whereas more pro-Russian political actors enjoy little popularity in Armenia. One can thus argue that Russia’s moral and political weight in the Armenian society has gone down, and sooner or later this can be expected to become manifest in politics.
At the same time, one gets the impression that Armenian society and elites have failed to learn important lessons from the 2020 military disaster and generally continue displaying a weird blend of irresponsibility, flippancy and conceited chauvinism including with regard to Russia. Russia can thus no longer count on the Armenians as a strong military power in Transcaucasia.
The military aspects of Russia’s resulting disadvantage in Transcaucasia
The Second Karabakh War has dispelled the surprisingly enduring myth about the superior combat power of the Armenian army and Armenian fighters, a myth that emerged following the First Karabakh War of 1991–1994 and was to some extent even believed by Azerbaijanis. In military terms, Armenia failed to become a second Israel. Armenia’s widely advertised fortifications in Nagorno-Karabakh turned out to be outright obsolete; in retrospect, one can only wonder how little the Armenians did about them during twenty-six years. Moreover, Armenian armed forces proved incapable of effective mobile warfare either in the lowlands or in the highlands.
However, the main reason for the defeat of the Armenian army wasn’t its weakness but the effective actions of the Azerbaijani-Turkish side. In contrast to all previous armed clashes (especially the one that took place in July two months before the war), Azerbaijan conducted this military campaign competently, identifying and exploiting all the flaws of the Armenian defense.
A key prerequisite to the success of the Azerbaijani-Turkish side in the Second Karabakh War was its efficient air supremacy, achieved by means of UAVs rather than manned aircraft. For the first time ever, drones were effectively used to achieve operative goals. In strict military-technical terms, we have witnessed what amounts to a new proto-revolution if not a breakthrough in military strategy.
It is accurate to speak of the ‘Azerbaijani-Turkish side’ because, as far as one can judge, the Turkish Bayraktar TB2 reconnaissance and combat drones that were used in the conflict in the largest quantities and most efficiently had been supplied to Azerbaijan by Turkey on the eve of the conflict and were guided by Turkish operators. It was the Turkish side that was able to suggest and make possible the wide innovative use of drones as a relatively inexpensive method of achieving air supremacy with the goal of isolating the zone of combat, on the one hand, and as a highly efficient means of reconnaissance and target detection, on the other hand.
The large-scale use of reconnaissance, combat and kamikaze drones by the Azerbaijani-Turkish side was clearly a big success. However, it was based on previous successes achieved in 2019-2020 chiefly by means of the same make of drone, Bayraktar TB2, used in Libya against the forces of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar and in Syria, in the offensives on Idlib. This included the effective use of Bayraktar TB2 drones to destroy air defense systems including state-of-the-art ones such as Pantsir-S1. However, in both previous cases, at least one of the parties in conflict was a sub-state actor (in the case of Libya, both), and the drones were used in almost shooting-range conditions in terms of the terrain and the density of the opponent’s air defense.
Contrastingly, in the Second Karabakh War, we witnessed large-scale use of drones and loitering munitions in a war between two regular armies including in wooded highland areas. Although the Armenian army’s air defense included fairly modern S-300P and Tor-M2E surface-to-air missile systems, they failed to protect the troops efficiently and were successfully suppressed and destroyed by the coordinated efforts of combat and kamikaze drones. In fact, Armenian troops proved unable to repel a consolidated attack by the opponent’s UAVs. As a result, two weeks into the war, Azerbaijani-Turkish drones were chasing literally every weapon, every military vehicle and every group of Armenian fighters. This led to considerable loss of morale as well as heavy losses in the Armenian troops.
Apparently, the Armenian side was not the only one taken by surprise by its opponent’s massive and efficient use of drones. Numerous videos in which Armenian munition of Soviet and Russian brands was destroyed by UAVs played a major part in the psychological warfare and at the same time became convincing advertisements for Turkish-made combat UAVs and new guided multiple rocket launchers, and of Israeli-made reconnaissance and kamikaze drones.
In the technical realm, the Second Karabakh War has demonstrated the ongoing transition to precision-guided munition (PGM, or smart munition) as the main type of munition used in military operations. Obviously, third-world countries have already gained access to PGMs and started using them on a large scale. In the future, non-guided munitions may become obsolete, including land missiles and artillery as well as aircraft (for which it is already largely the case in the West). In terms of value for money, and the efforts and costs that their use involves, PGMs are superior to non-guided munitions expended on a large scale. As their size and cost reduction continues, warfare relying on PGMs will become even cheaper; it is a matter of time rather than technology.
As a result, Azerbaijan (or, in reality, Turkey) was able to achieve effective aerial supremacy in the warzone by means of small PGMs carried by UAVs. Theoretically, manned tactical aircraft carrying PGMs would have produced the same effect but would have required much larger resources and incurred greater costs. Compared to manned aircraft, UAVs are not just cheaper to buy and use: they are an ideal disposable munition the loss of which is not very sensitive in political or operational terms. Besides, given their small size and technical characteristics, UAVs are less vulnerable to anti-aircraft weapons than manned aircraft. Kamikaze drones are an especially vivid example: these inexpensive high-precision weapons are also well concealed, which is why they are becoming widespread so quickly.
Another crucial factor for the proliferation of drones that became apparent in the Second Karabakh War is that they can be used to achieve a breakthrough in the sphere of intelligence, reconnaissance and target detection, primarily on tactical level. The fact that reconnaissance UAVs can loiter over the battlefield for long periods of time – in fact, all the time – leads to dramatic changes in the course and speed of warfare, making it possible to use modern technology to manage military operations, detecting and engaging targets practically in real time, including in a centralized fashion. The resulting synergy also paves the ground for a breakthrough on operative level.
The Second Karabakh War has highlighted the potential of using a combination of UAVs, smart munition and target detection in modern warfare, an approach that did not use to be viewed as mainstream. The war also revealed the fact that it is not only small countries like Armenia, reliant on traditional technologies, but also geopolitical heavyweights that have problems with prioritizing the most promising trends in military technology. Let us hope that the measures now being adopted by the Russian side will be in line with the popular saying that Russians are slow to saddle up, but ride fast.
Summing up, one could say that the main lesson that Moscow can learn from the autumn 2020 conflict in Transcaucasia that caused significant damage to Russian military-political interests is that one must never underestimate and spurn one’s opponent. This is especially true for our opponents in the post-Soviet space.