Nagorno-Karabakh: a new Turkish front against Russia ? – by Pierre Razoux

Pierre Razoux, Academic and Research Director of the FMES Institute

ABSTRACT

By encouraging Azeri President Ilham Aliyev in his attempt to regain Nagorno-Karabakh, President Erdogan opened a new front facing the Kremlin to boast a symbolic success with his population and to force Vladimir Putin to accept a compromise on the other Syrian, Libyan, Mediterranean and energy fronts.  This strategy is not without risk because the conflict could spread to the secessionist republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in neighbouring Georgia. Above all, it could provoke an escalation of tensions with Iran. The relatively even military balance between Armenia and Azerbaijan does not allow either of the two belligerents to conduct a victorious blitzkrieg against the territory of the other, a fortiori in the very mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh. Any confrontation will structurally lead to a war of attrition, leaving time for the Turkish and Russian presidents to negotiate. Forcing his luck, Recep Tayyip Erdogan could be tempted to annex the northern part of Cyprus soon, exchanging his disengagement from the South Caucasus for the silence of the Kremlin.

By encouraging Azeri President Ilham Aliyev in his attempt to reconquer the secessionist province of Nagorno-Karabakh defended by Armenia (launched on September 27, 2020), has President Recep Tayyip Erdogan voluntarily opened a new front against the Kremlin to force Vladimir Putin to find a compromise on the other Syrian, Libyan, Mediterranean and energy fronts? It must be noted that the counteroffensive of Fayez el-Sarraj in Libya, supported by the Turkish President, is trampling on in front of Sirte[1], that the battle of Idlib is not turning to the advantage of pro-Turkish forces in Syria – even if the death-blow of the Syrian regime, supported by Moscow, is slow in coming – and that Turkey has had to back-pedal in the Eastern Mediterranean under triple pressure from the United States, NATO[2] and the Europeans[3]. It was thus time for the Turkish President to create a diversion – or to encourage it – so as to boast of a symbolic success with his population and make it forget the economic difficulties. What could be better for him than to agitate the Armenian scarecrow, the issue most likely to federate all the strata of a Turkish society still hostile to Christian Armenia? This time he favored the indirect approach by targeting Nagorno-Karabakh, through an intermediary proxy, without taking the risk of a direct attack on Armenian territory that would have undoubtedly led to a direct response from Russia.

PRESIDENT ERDOGAN’S NEW SOMERSAULT

The Turkish President is undoubtedly taking advantage of the war between Azerbaijan and Armenia to strengthen his power on a background of exacerbated nationalism and expansionist ambition, as the press correspondents present on the spot testify[4]. His unabashed tweets go in the same direction, especially when he declares, less than an hour after the outbreak of hostilities : “The Turkish nation supports its Azerbaijani brothers with all its means, as always,” and then when outbids a few days later, saying, “We support our Azerbaijani brothers in their struggle to save their occupied lands and protect their homeland” and “Every unpunished crime (the annexation of Nagorno-Karabakh) makes its perpetrator more insatiable; every uncounted crime invites new persecution”.[5]

The presence of a handful of Turkish F-16 fighters pre-positioned in Azerbaijan during the summer of 2020 within the framework of bilateral exercises between Ankara and Baku, then deployed on the air base of Ganja a few days before the launch of the Azerbaijani offensive[6], leaves little doubt about the premeditation of the Turkish President. This henceforth proven presence gives more credibility to the words of the spokesman of the Armenian Ministry of Defense indicating that one of its Su-25 ground attack aircraft had been shot down by a Turkish F-16 the day after the outbreak of hostilities. This may also have been one of the reasons why the Nagorno-Karabakh army fired some venerable SCUD missiles at the town of Ganja near the air base where the Turkish F-16s were apparently based.

The presence of Syrian fighters on the battlefield, close to the Iranian border, constitutes the second tangible element in favor of the premeditation thesis. On October 1, 2020, during the European summit in Brussels, President Emmanuel Macron pointed at Turkey’s responsibility by asserting that 300 Islamist fighters from Syria had transited through the Turkish city of Gazantiep, not far from the Idlib front in Syria[7]. His remarks have not been denied, but reinforced by those of Iranian President Hassan Rohani, who was moved by the presence of these fighters near Iranian territory, at the extreme south of the front line[8]. Is this to be seen as an additional message from the Turkish President to his Russian and Iranian counterparts, his two partners in the Astana process[9], in the mode « I have the capacity to cause a nuisance against you two if we do not get along »? His risky gamble illustrates in any case the fact that the Astana Process is not the panacea that Moscow, Tehran and Ankara want to convince us of.

This strategy of the boutefeu is not without risk because the conflict could spread to the secessionist republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in neighboring Georgia, at the risk of leading to a new Russian military intervention in the Caucasus. Above all, it could provoke an escalation of tensions with Iran, if the mortar fire that targeted Iranian territory during the first week of fighting were to intensify. Tehran did not hesitate to utter barely veiled threats in the direction of Baku and Ankara. In a telephone conversation with Ilham Aliyev, President Hassan Rohani stressed “the importance of respecting the territorial integrity of the IRI, as well as the lives of Iranian citizens in the regions bordering Nagorno-Karabakh … The Islamic Republic of Iran will not tolerate the targeting of its citizens”[10]. The day before, the diplomatic adviser to the Supreme Leader had stated: “We advise our Turkish friends to stop fanning the flames of conflict and to join us in helping to find a negotiated solution”[11]. To give more weight to their words, the Iranians massed infantry, artillery and drones on their border with Azerbaijan. In the very uncertain context which precedes the American presidential election, the Iranian government is nonetheless seeking to calm the situation in the region in order to be able to engage in dialogue with a new American administration, even as Washington envisages closing its embassy in Baghdad after repeated harassment by Shiite militias subservient to Tehran. The Iranian regime is all the more embarrassed because it is strategically close to Armenia[12], even though the latter is Christian Orthodox, and because it distrusts Turkish-speaking Azerbaijan, even though this country is predominantly Shiite. It is true that Azerbaijan has never abandoned its ambitions to reforge “Great Azerbaijan” and that the Azeri population is numerous within the Iranian ethnic mosaic. Some Iranians believe that the reconquest of Nagorno-Karabakh could be only a first step in the agenda of the Aliyev family. All are wary of the instrumentalisation of the ethnic factor, as are many academics[13]. Iran also distrusts the close military cooperation between Azerbaijan and Israel.

One element seems certain: given the ambient hostility and the weight of history, Recep Tayyip Erdogan did not need to deploy much effort to convince President Aliyev to launch an assault on Nagorno-Karabakh. Indeed, President Aliyev kept telling his people that the time had come to regain the territories lost in 1994. The skirmishes of 2016 and then of July 2020 only served to stir up the determination of the Azerbaijani President, all the more so since he needed a success – even symbolic – to justify his spending on arms (when the price of a barrel of oil was high), to restore his coat of arms and to erase the memory of the war of independence (1988-1994) which resulted in nearly 20,000 Azerbaijani deaths.

A WAR OF ATTRITION

Without going back over the historical causes of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict – there is a plethora of articles summarising the positions of the two camps – let us analyse the battlefield, the military balance, what is known about the fighting and the consequences of all this on the probable continuation of operations if the provisional ceasefires that came into force on October 10, 2020 and then on October 18, 2020 were to shatter.

Nagorno-Karabakh is a mountainous area of rocky highlands to which some deep valleys lead. It is thus a compartmentalised terrain that is very easy to defend, especially since the 1988-1994 war, since the Armenian militias, which physically dominate the gaps through which the assailant could emerge, have entrenched themselves in bunkers scattered along the front line. Most of the population is concentrated around the “capital” Stepanakert, itself protected by a circus of fortified hills. The Latchin corridor that links Nagorno-Karabakh to neighboring Armenia constitutes the zone best defended by the Armenian militias, because it is through this umbilical cord that all military and economic assistance from Armenia transits. Located far behind the front, it has not been the object of Azerbaijani attacks for the time being.

Only the eastern façade of Nagorno-Karabakh, consisting of plains and valleys conquered by Armenian militias at the end of the civil war, is vulnerable to massive attacks by the Azerbaijani army. In fact, it was along this façade that the latter launched its most determined assaults, which enabled it to re-conquer some villages in the northeast (Tartar, Talysh and Madagiz), in the center near Aghdam and Martuni, but above all in the southeast where the Azerbaijanis succeeded in seizing Fuzuli, then pushing their advantage in the direction of Djabrayl. It was in this last sector of the plain near the Iranian border that Syrian fighters were engaged, at the head of a vast mechanised offensive supported by mobile artillery and armed drones.

Map of military operations in Nagorno-Karabakh (September 27- October 12, 2020)

At no time did the town of Stepanakert suffer the threat of direct capture, especially since the Azerbaijani army, consisting mainly of conscripts, has only a limited number of commandos and airborne means to transport them by helicopter. On the other hand, Stepanakert has been the regular target of artillery fire and bombardments intended to weaken the morale of its inhabitants, forcing half of them to take refuge in the western part of the province, or even in Armenia. This is a great classic of recent military history: when the aggressor fails to penetrate the battlefield and threaten his opponent’s center of gravity, and the front becomes largely static, he attacks the population in an attempt to weaken its morale and combativeness. As always, the other side retaliated by targeting the enemy cities, which the Armenian militia did by targeting the large city of Gandja located not far from the front. And as always, the belligerents resorted to propaganda and psychological warfare to spread false news and try to influence the course of the fighting[14]

Despite the reconquest of several border towns and some sectors of the plain by the Azerbaijani army, the front remained largely static, each camp trying to crush the entrenched positions of the other under a deluge of shells. In this war of attrition, the Armenian militias overlooking the battlefield, well equipped with anti-tank missiles, were able to multiply their blows to the goal on Azerbaijani armored vehicles. The latter would have suffered heavy losses.[15] On the other hand, the Armenian artillery and Air Defense missile batteries were strangled by the armed drones of Israeli and Turkish origin equipping the troops in Baku. The Turkish (or Israeli, which would explain the dismissal of the Israeli ambassador stationed in Armenia) advisers did a very effective job in precipitating their Israeli ‘kamikaze’ drones of the Harop type against Armenian targets of high technological value (certain Turkish experts mention the destruction of several batteries of S-200 and S-300 surface-to-air missiles).[16]

For the moment, it does not seem that there has been massive fighting along the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Local observers have reported the occasional bombing of crossing points between Armenia and the autonomous republic of Nakhichevan (attached to Azerbaijan), as well as skirmishes north of Lake Sevan. Thus, it is not yet a direct war between Azerbaijan and Armenia, even if the latter supplies the militias of Nagorno-Karabakh with arms, munitions, advisors and probably fighters.

In any case, the relatively balanced military balance between Armenia and Azerbaijan, illustrated by the table below, would not allow either of the two belligerents to conduct a victorious blitzkrieg against the territory of the other. Neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan is capable of aligning a sufficient ratio of ground forces to break through a very mountainous front, even more compartmentalised than that of Nagorno-Karabakh, so as to threaten its capital. Yerevan is protected by a line of high mountains, but also by the presence of Russian troops deployed within the framework of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) to which Armenia is linked. Azerbaijan, for its part, is not formally part of any defensive alliance, although it has a partnership with NATO and close military cooperation with Russia, Turkey, Israel and the United States. But Baku, located in an isthmus of the Caspian Sea, is far from the front and easily defensible by a network of rivers and swampy land that can easily be flooded.

TABLE : MILITARY BALANCE BETWEEN BELLIGERANTS

ArmeniaNagorno-KarabakhAzerbaijan
Active Armed Forces
45,000 (42 000 within land forces) = 1.6 % of the population [mostly professionnal soldiers] 7 combat brigades 7 asset brigades (mostly artillery)20,000 (40 battalions) = 12 % of the local population      70,000 (57,000 within land forces) + 10,000 Internal Security Forces = 0.8 % of the population [mostly conscripts] 24 combat brigades 6 asset brigades
Active Land Forces :
62,00067,000
Reserve : 200,000Reserve : 40,000Reserve : 300,000
Main Land Fighting Equipment
  100 T-72 Tanks 280 other Armoured vehicles (BRM & BMP-1/2) AT-14 Kornet-E Antitank missiles 230 Artillery 16 conventional SRBM (including 4 Iskander-E)    A hundred of Tanks AT-6 Spiral Antitank missiles 200 Artillery A dozen of conventional SRBM (mostly Scuds) + Large quantities of Armenian equipment    440 Tanks (including 100 T-90) 250 other Armoured vehicles 560 Armoured personal carriers AT-15 Khrizantema Antitank missiles 600 Artillery (including 150 LRM) 6 conventional SRBM (4 SS-21 & 2 Israeli LORA)  
Air Force
  17 combat aircraft  (4 Su-30*, 13 Su-25) 27 combat helicopters (12 Mi-8/17 & 15 Mi-24) Une quinzaine de drones israéliens « Krunk »   * 8 other Su-30 should be delivered by Moscow    1 or 2 Su-25 10 combat helicopters (Mi-8 & Mi-24) + Armenian UAVs  35 combat aircraft (15 MiG-29, 2 Su-24, 18 Su-25) 46 combat helicopters (20 Mi-17 & 26 Mi-24) 30 UAVs (20 Israeli: 1 Heron, 4 Aerostar, 10 Hermes 450, 5 Hermes 900  ; 10 Turkish UAVs Bayraktar TB2 + « Kamikazes » Israeli UAVs Harop  
Most effective Air Defence systems (SAMs)
S-300 (+ A2AD Russian Bubble)S-200 (+ SA-18 Manpad)S-300

Sources: Military Balance 2020, IISS, London; SIPRI’s annual Report 2020, Stockholm; CIA World Factbook 2020; Wikipedia: « Armenian & Azerbaijani Armed Forces ».

In terms of combatants, Azerbaijan has at best a military balance of 1.5 to 1 against Armenia, which is very insufficient to break through the front, even if the Azerbaijani army can locally reach a military balance of 3 or 4 to 1, enabling it to conquer some symbolic gains. Even if it has a real advantage in terms of the number of tanks and armor, the latter are of little use in the mountainous zone. Both sides possess a large arsenal of conventional artillery that allows them to harass the opponent and slow down any breakthrough thanks to the saturation fire of their highly mobile multiple rocket launchers.

On the air front, Azerbaijan has the numerical advantage, both in terms of combat aircraft and helicopters and armed UAVs and surveillance. In this respect, the recent delivery of Turkish and Israeli UAVs has given it a real tactical advantage, since it can locate and attack targets that would have been more difficult to engage before. However, Armenia enjoys a triple qualitative advantage: 1) its Su-30 fighter-bombers far superior to the venerable Azerbaijani MiG and Sukhoi; 2) its modernised S-300 surface-to-air missile batteries integrated into the CSTO’s air defense network; 3) the presence of a Russian air group consisting of 18 modernised MiG-29s based in Erebuni.

In the event of a rise to extremes, the two belligerents would be able to rely only on their conventional ballistic missile launchers to attempt to strike the capital or the main opposing cities.

In the end, these factors combine to structurally transform any confrontation between Azerbaijan and Armenia into a war of attrition condemned to bog down. This observation is not to displease the Turkish President and the master of the Kremlin, who thus know they have the necessary time for possible negotiations that they might be intrested to make last.

RUSSIA IN THE POSITION OF PARTIAL ARBITRATOR

The thawing of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict places the Kremlin in a delicate position, especially since it has always considered the South Caucasus as its strategic backyard. On the one hand, Russia is the historical ally of Armenia, which is a founding member of the CSTO (1992). This explains the presence of the 102nd Russian base at Gyumri (Armenia), northwest of Mount Arara. This base was initially intended to protect Yerevan from NATO member Turkey. Since the end of the civil war, it has also been intended to dissuade Baku from invading Armenian territory. In fact, Russian leaders would find it difficult not to intervene militarily if Azerbaijan invaded or directly bombed Armenia. The Russian garrison at Gyumri today comprises 3,300 soldiers (the equivalent of a reinforced mechanised brigade) equipped with 74 modernised T-72 & T-80 tanks, 160 BMP-1/2 armored vehicles, 24 self-propelled artillery vehicles, 12 multiple rocket launchers, 12 Mi-24 combat helicopters, and a battery of Iskander ballistic missiles, all protected by batteries of S-300 surface-to-air missiles and by the fighter squadron deployed at Erebuni. These substantial means are not likely to fundamentally change the military balance, but their punctual engagement could cause the defeat of an Azerbaijani offensive on a symbolic objective. By interposing themselves between the belligerents, the Russian military can above all question them about their willingness to confront Moscow, thus playing the role of a very precious dissuasive shield to avoid an uncontrollable escalation.

The Kremlin is at the same time annoyed by the liberal line of Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pachinian who since 2018 has been pursuing a policy deviating from the pro-Russian line. This former Armenian opposition leader has imprisoned corrupt oligarchs with strong ties to Moscow.

On the other hand, Vladimir Putin knows that he can hardly enter into a frontal clash with Azerbaijan if he wants to preserve his energy interests in the Caucasus region. To prolong the conflict in order to show both sides that they need Russia, while at the same time exercising a potential threat to Turkey’s energy supply[17], may be an interesting way out for the Kremlin. But for the Russian president, it is clear that at the end of the game, he will have to be the arbitrator of the conflict. It is no coincidence that Sergueï Lavrov, his illustrious Minister of Foreign Affairs, became personally involved in negotiating a first ceasefire agreement during the night of October 9 to 10, 2020, after two weeks of inconclusive fighting. Recep Tayyip Erdogan knows this and is certainly waiting for the right moment to put his commitment to Azerbaijan in the balance.

The annexation of Northern Cyprus as the next step?

In the opinion of the observers and journalists who try to decipher him, the Turkish President has only one idea in mind: to ensure his political survival by chaining together a series of foucades and power grabs that will allow him to flatter the nationalist fibre of his population.[18] And what could be stronger and more symbolic than annexing the northern part of Cyprus? It could be a double win for him if Brussels did not react, thereby demonstrating the weakness of a Europe that could explode over this symbolic crisis, a bit like the European democracies were unable to anticipate or face the Sudeten crisis in the 1930s.

Let us imagine the following scenario: at the beginning of November 2020, the outcome of the American presidential election is uncertain and contested by the two parties in contention. Tension is rising and the Pentagon is studying scenarios for the engagement of the federal army on American territory (it is already leaking rumors to that effect). The country, on the brink of civil war, is fracturing a little more. The traditional allies of the United States panic and try to obtain guarantees from the White House and Congress, without success. Taking advantage of the regional vacuum and the tensions following the “presidential” elections of the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, which they had provoked by provocations aimed at the local population[19], the Turkish authorities annexed the northern part of Cyprus manu-militari, then organised a referendum on self-determination which concluded a few days later with the formal attachment of this territory to Turkey. The Crimea scenario, in short. The annexation did not technically pose any difficulty for Ankara since Turkish troops had been present on the spot since 1974 and controlled all the strategic points. Their apparatus, including naval and air (in the form of drones and helicopters), has been reinforced for a year. It is thus sufficient for Turkish officers to hoist their flag, without even provoking armed conflict with the Republic of (Southern) Cyprus. 

Who will react? The United States will have other, more crucial concerns; perhaps it will take advantage of this to repatriate its Turkish base in Incirlik to Cyprus? The Chinese will be all the more discreet since they may have taken advantage of this strategic vacuum to take pledges of the South China Sea, or even of Taiwan, by forcefully occupying the fortified islands of Quemoy and Matsu, close to their coastline; the British certainly have an imposing military apparatus along the demarcation line, but they know they have several tens of thousands of pensioners – potentially hostages – living in the northern part of Cyprus[20]; the European Union will protest vigorously in unison with France and Greece, but it risks showing its divisions, as at the recent European summit in Brussels when the German Chancellor refused to associate herself with the proposed sanctions against Turkey; only Russia could react vigorously, especially since it has financial and naval interests to defend in Cyprus and is determined to hold the Turkish president high on all other fronts. In this case, the latter could be tempted to exchange his disengagement in the Caucasus for Russian silence in Cyprus, pointing out to Vladimir Putin the precedent of the Crimea. President Macron could then find himself quite alone.

But the worst is never certain. What seems likely, however, is that Recep Tayyip Erdogan, blinded by his ego and his court, could make a miscalculation leading to an uncontrollable military escalation. This is what European leaders fear, much more than his ranting. To quote the ancient Roman adage, when Jupiter wants to lose the powerful, he drives them mad, therefore imprudent.


[1] Ahmed Eleiba, « Ankara islosing hand in Libya », Egyptian Center for Security Studies, October 3, 2020. Observation confirmed by several institutional observers contacted by the author.

[2] The Turkish government accepted on October 1, 2020 a mediation mechanism with the Greek government under the aegis of Jens Stoltenberg, Secretary General of NATO.

[3] Didier Billion, « Pourquoi la Grèce et la Turquie ont finalement opté pour le dialogue », France 24, September 24, 2020.

[4] Gabriel Détrie, Le Point, Octobre 8, 2020 :https://www.lepoint.fr/monde/haut-karabakh-la-nouvelle-guerre-d-erdogan-08-10-2020-2395511_24.php

[5] President Erdogan’s Twitter account, September 27, October 1 and 2, 2020.

[6] Laurent Lagneau, « L’imagerie satellitaire confirme que des F-16 turcs sont basés en Azerbaïdjan », OPEX 360, Octobre 8, 2020 : http://www.opex360.com/2020/10/08/limagerie-satellitaire-confirme-que-des-f-16-turcs-sont-bases-en-azerbaidjan-a-80-km-du-haut-karabakh/

[7] Although he did not specify precisely where these fighters entered Azerbaijan.

[8] At a Council of Ministers meeting; FARS Agency, October 7, 2020.

[9] The Astana Process, set up on May 4, 2017 between Russia, Iran and Turkey, aims at resolving the frictions and enforcing the ceasefire zones in Syria but also the respect of the zones of influence claimed by these three countries.

[10] Agence FARS, October 6, 2020.

[11] Ali Akbar Velayati, Diplomatic Advisor to the Supreme Leader, Kayhan, October 5, 2020.

[12] A fake news campaign (on social networks) denied by Tehran on September 30, 2020 claimed that Iran had allowed Russian arms to transit through its territory to Armenia in the early days of the war; which seems all the more surprising given that Russia has a large military base in Armenia!

[13] Elaheh Koolaee & Fahimeh Khansari Fard, ” The impact of historical narratives on ethnic conflicts in Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia and South Ossetia “, International Studies Journal (Téhéran) vol. 17, numéro 1, n° 65, Summer 2020, pp. 137-168.

[14] As evidenced by the emails sent to the community of French researchers and experts (including the author of this article) by the Azerbaijani embassy in France, accusing the Armenian side of systematically violating the ceasefire and specifically targeting civilians.

[15] Sébastien Roblin, « Tanks ablaze as Azerbaijani forces attack Armenian troops in disputed Nagorno-Karabakh », Forbes.com, September 27, 2020, update October 9, 2020.

[16] EDAM, October 1, 2020 : https://edam.org.tr/en/the-hunt-for-armenias-s-300-assessing-azerbaijans-most-sensational-sam-system-hit-in-the-ongoing-war/

[17]Azerbaijan provides 20% of Turkey’s gas supplies and guarantees it substantial revenues thanks to the royalties paid for the transit on its territory of hydrocarbons extracted from Azerbaijan and the Caspian Sea (eurasianet.org via Le Guetteur, CDEM Newsletter, No. 2020-13, September 30, 2020).

[18] Delphine Minoui, « la dangereuse surenchère d’Erdogan », Le Figaro, October 11, 2020.

[19] Such as the reopening of the Greek ghost town of Varosha, which had been a forbidden zone since 1974; confer Alexis Kefalas, “La Turquie avance ses pions dans la partie nord de Chypre”, Le Figaro, October 11, 2020.

[20] Pierre Razoux, « BREXIT will have consequences on the Mediterranean », FMES, February 5, 2020 : https://fmes-france.org/in-english-brexit-will-have-consequences-in-the-mediterranean/