A Frozen War in Russia's Backyard Heats Up

Armenian soldiers at the 2015 Victory Day parade. Kremlin.ru

Who would win in an Azerbaijan-Armenia face-off?

More than two months ago, an escalation in the Azerbaijan-Karabakh conflict without precedent since 1994 occurred in Nagorno-Karabakh. From the night of April 1 to April 2, combat operations continued until April 5, having begun in two parts of the contact line between the Nagorno-Karabakh Defense Army and the Azerbaijani Armed Forces. On that day, the parties agreed to an armistice, signed in Moscow. The four-day war answered many questions regarding military balance, while posing new ones. Since the threat of another escalation is not excluded, it makes sense to analyze the condition of the armed forces of Armenia, the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic and Azerbaijan, taking into account the results of the short but bloody April war. But first, we must talk about the early history of the Azerbaijan-Karabakh conflict.

Roots of the Conflict: The Early Twentieth Century

Bloody collisions occurred between Armenians and Azerbaijanis twice at the beginning of the twentieth century: from 1905 to 1907 and from 1918 to 1920. During those years, after the end of the First World War, the Soviet Union was taking shape. During this process, in 1921 the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, approximately 90 percent of its population Armenians who practiced the Christian religion, was allocated to the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic. Some years later the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region (NKAR) was created, and was deprived of any direct land connection with the Armenian SSR.

During the years of the USSR’s decay in the late 1980s, a reunification movement arose in Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia. It was fueled by the policy of pushing Armenians out of the NKAR; by 1989, the share of the Armenian population in the NKAR was down to 76.9 percent. Additionally, in 1988 the local Muslim population in the Azerbaijani city of Sumgait implemented the most brutal programs regarding the Armenian population, at which the Soviet leadership completely lost control over the processes underway. The NKAR declared its independency from Azerbaijan, resulting in the outbreak of war in 1991. The war continued until May 12, 1994, when three parties—Armenia, the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic and Azerbaijan—signed a provisional cease-fire agreement. The Armenians gained victory in this war, having established control over the NKAR and the territories around it by renewing the land connection with Armenia.

Upon signing the armistice, the parties led negotiations within the framework of the OSCE Minsk Group. However, this process did not yield any actual results. In recent years, violations of the state of cease-fire and constant losses from both sides have become regular occurrences.

The Four-Day War Is a Bloody Stalemate without Hope of Success

As a result, in April 2016, Azerbaijan attempted to resolve the conflict through military means. About one hundred men from the Armenian side, and more than one hundred from the Azerbaijani side, died during these four days (despite the fact that Azerbaijan officially recognized thirty-one losses, only fifty dead bodies were found on Armenian territory, and the opposition media counted more than one hundred killed persons, some neutral media even spoke of some three to eight hundred casualties). A significant quantity of armor was destroyed, and villages near the border met with significant harm.

As for the results, Azerbaijan was able to move forward three to four kilometers in two directions during the first day, because of the suddenness of attack and the posting of a detachment of special forces in the village of Talysh. However, from the moment the Nagorno-Karabakh Defense Army began its full-scale military operation, the attackers’ successes withered. The detachment of special forces was almost completely annihilated in Talshyn, together with its commander, and some of the lost positions were forcibly retaken. By the time the armistice was signed, Azerbaijan was able to occupy several hills, with an overall area of about eight hundred hectares. Nevertheless, there are no signs of serious success—any attempt at blitzkrieg had no real chance, and by the second day, the war already had the character of a bloody stalemate, with dozens of people dying to advance or retreat by one hundred meters.

The Existing Balance of Forces Will Not Allow Azerbaijan to Attack

Before the conflict, the media often advanced the opinion that Azerbaijan, having purchased billions of dollars in arms from Israel, Russia, Ukraine and Turkey, could tilt the balance in its favor. Azerbaijani officials said they would be able to retake Nagorno-Karabakh by force in the space of one or two weeks. Nevertheless, as we have already said above, any attempted blitzkrieg had no chance in April. Let us see what existing balance of forces we are left with.

Regarding manpower, there are approximately sixty to seventy thousand men in the armed forces of Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. Approximately seventy thousand men are in the Azerbaijani army; however, it has a higher mobilization potential, taking into account Azerbaijan’s larger overall population.

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