The Nagorno Karabakh War Why it happened and what India should learn from it!

Sub Title : Important lessons for India both military and geopolitical

Issues Details : Vol 14 Issue 5 Nov – Dec 2020

Author : Rajesh Soami

Page No. : 47

Category : Military Affairs

: December 4, 2020

Armenia and Azerbaijan have been involved in violent conflicts over identity for a very long time. Modern day Armenia and Azerbaijan  became part of the Soviet Union when it was formed in the 1920s. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the conflict between the two resurfaced. The recent war is another manifestation of the tension, that keeps simmering, between the two. The article brings out important lessons for India both military and geopolitical.

Armenian and Azerbaijani forces fought a bloody month-long war, which started on 27th September 2020 in the Nagorno Karabakh region. More than 4000 people including civilians died on both sides before a Russia-brokered ceasefire stopped fighting on November 10th. Azerbaijan was the more successful side in the conflict as it forced its terms on Armenia and the breakaway region of Nagorno Karabakh before agreeing to a ceasefire.

The small states of the Caucasus are inhabited by many different ethnicities and identities. Throughout the hilly region, numerous conflicts have broken out after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, which ruled over these territories with an iron hand. While Russia fought two wars in Chechnya, Georgia has been in conflict with its breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and south Ossetia, the latter leading to a larger conflict with Russia in 2008. Almost all of these conflicts are due to long suppressed ethnic tensions boiling over. The Nagorno Karabakh dispute itself is a product of long history that meanders through language, ethnicity and religion.

Conflict over Identity

The Armenians consider themselves to be an ancient people with unique identity who have lived in the mountains of Caucasus and Anatolia since thousands of years. According to history, they were among the first people to convert to Christianity in the region. They have their own church, different from the catholic and orthodox churches, which is also among the oldest. The Azerbaijanis are of Turkish origin, although, unlike their kin in Turkey, they follow Shia sect of Islam. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan were forcibly incorporated into the Russian empire in 1828.

Violent conflicts between Russians, Armenians and Azerbaijanis took place almost every time there was pressure on the Russian empire. Suppressed nationalist feelings of the minorities led to conflict, after Russia’s defeat to Japan in 1905 and again during the Russian revolution in 1917. By 1920, however, the Bolsheviks had gained full control over the two regions. The USSR created the administrative units of Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic and Azerbaijani Soviet Socialist Republic after taking over the region. During this division, the region of Nagorno-Karabakh was established as an autonomous province within the Azerbaijani SSR.

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, conflict between Armenians and Azerbaijanis resurfaced. While the nascent state of Azerbaijan insisted that Nagorno Karabakh was part of its territory, the Armenians in the region declared independence. This led to the first conflict between Armenians (including Nagorno Karabakh) and Azerbaijanis lasting from 1992 till 1994. Armenia was victorious in that war. The Armenians of Nagorno Karabakh declared an independent state which is not recognised internationally. During the war, the Armenians of Karabakh also occupied some Azerbaijani territory. Ceasefire was reached in 1994. The conflict which eventually cost more than 30,000 lives also displaced more than a million people. Minority Armenians and Azerbaijanis in the neighbouring states either left willingly or were forcibly expelled. This led to hardening of attitudes on both sides.

Armenia in particular feels that it has been treated harshly by regional powers including Turkey which had committed a genocide of the Armenians during the first world war. The Armenians maintain a memory of sacrifice, pain and suffering and believe themselves to be victims of devious mechanisms of larger powers. They therefore see every move, where they are asked to accommodate others, as further attempts at suppressing them. As a result, they take maximalist positions on most issues including the Nagorno Karabakh dispute.

The Azerbaijanis similarly feel that their expulsion from Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh was both unjust and cruel. Not only did they lose territory of Nagorno Karabakh but also of Azerbaijan proper. While both sides were willing to negotiate after the 1994 ceasefire, completely opposing positions of the two states made a solution impossible to achieve. Meanwhile, violence flared up in the region at regular intervals, most notable in 2016, which caused the death of dozens of soldiers. Such violent eruptions have further inflamed public opinion in the two states against the other.

International Intervention

Both the states, Armenia and Azerbaijan came into existence in 1991 after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. However, they have pursued different directions in their foreign policies after establishment of statehood. Armenia maintains close ties with Russia. It is a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), which is a military alliance of some post-Soviet states. Apart from Armenia, CSTO’s members are Belarus, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Armenia is also a part of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), which promotes free trade between its members. Both CSTO and EAEU were created on Russian initiative.

Azerbaijan, in contrast, has pursued an independent course. However, unlike some other post-Soviet states which have looked west towards Europe and the US, Azerbaijan has maintained equal distance from larger powers. This has enabled it to maintain good friendly ties with Russia. At the same time, Azerbaijan has built extremely close ties with Turkey, which it sees as a fraternal state. Azerbaijan also has close relations with Pakistan.

In view of friendly ties with both the countries, Russia has been most active in seeking out a solution to the Nagorno Karabakh dispute. As stated earlier, the 1994 conflict was brought to an end with Russia-brokered mediation. At the same time, Russia has also tried to ensure that outside powers do not gain a political foothold in the region. As such, it has tried to limit their activities to peace-making alone.

The main attempt to solve the Nagorno Karabakh dispute is, or at least was, spearheaded by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The OSCE is the largest organisation of its kind and was created in 1973 to promote peace and stability in Europe at the height of the cold war. Its mandate includes activities such as conflict management, crisis prevention and post-conflict rehabilitation. The so-called Minsk group of OSCE, jointly chaired by France, Russia and the US, has been working since 1997 to find a peaceful solution to the Karabakh dispute. Despite their efforts, progress towards attainment of this goal has been negligible.

The reason for this is obvious. Armenia wants to maintain status quo in the region because of its advantageous position. On the other hand, Azerbaijan wants the restoration of the territory of Nagorno Karabakh to it. However, the deeper reason is the complete breakdown of trust between the two countries. This is also because of different national narratives which have been propagated in the two states for more than 25 years. Both sides have their own versions of history in which only they are right and only they have suffered. The other side’s version is rejected outright as a lie. Moreover, complete lack of people to people contact between Azerbaijanis and Armenians has only deepened this complete alienation.

The 2020 war

Azerbaijan was growing increasingly impatient with the dragging peace process which had failed to grant it the return of its own territory, leave alone any part of Nagorno-Karabakh, in the last 26 years. There was a general agreement in Azerbaijan that it would not be able to recover any territory without military means.

Beginning in 2006, Azerbaijan began to spend large sums of money to buy advanced weapons from different sources. The fact that it was a petroleum exporting state helped in this endeavour. The high oil prices till 2014 gave Baku an economic windfall which it utilised towards an arms build-up. In 2015 alone, Azerbaijan spent around $3 billion on armaments, which was more than the entire budget of Armenia. Apart from Russia, which was the traditional weapons supplier to both Armenia and Azerbaijan, Baku spent vast sums of money procuring arms from Israel and Turkey.

After the bloody conflict in 2016, the meaninglessness of the Minsk group’s peace-making efforts had become apparent. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan were already moving towards a larger conflict due to territorial claims, intractable differences and bellicose societies. It was only a matter of time before violence broke out.

On September 27, largescale violence broke out on the ceasefire line between Nagorno Karabakh and Azerbaijan. Western experts are of the view that this was a planned offensive by Azerbaijan to take back territories it had lost in 1994. Prior to the offensive, Azerbaijan had conducted largescale military exercises including one with Turkey. These were deemed to be preparation for a larger military assault on Nagorno Karabakh.

Over the course of the conflict which went on for around a month and half, the invading Azerbaijani forces stopped temporarily a number of times owing to Armenian resistance. However, they were able to overwhelm the Armenians after regrouping and renewing their attacks. The primary reason for this was the qualitative advantage deployed by Azerbaijan.

As stated earlier, Azerbaijan had acquired modern weaponry in the preceding years. Important among these were the loitering munitions (also known as suicide drones) from Israel and armed drones from Turkey. Both of these were extensively used by Azerbaijan to degrade and break through Armenian defences. The value of these aerial systems therefore cannot be overstated. However, the frequent portrayal of video graphic content through social media gave them a more prominent role than they may have had.

Ground based kinetic weapon systems remained relevant throughout the conflict. Both sides extensively used rockets, artillery systems and tanks. The total numbers of casualties on the two sides are also similar showing that Armenia, despite being in a technologically disadvantageous position, didn’t just roll up.

Despite attempts by outside powers to stop the violence, fighting continued unabated. Russia brokered ceasefires on 10th and again on 17th October quickly broke down. Similarly, a US brokered ceasefire on 26th October was also ignored. It was only after the capture of the second largest town in Nagorno Karabakh, Susha, by Azerbaijan that fighting finally stopped through yet another Russia-backed ceasefire.

It is prudent to say that Azerbaijan won the war. Not only did it capture territory in Nagorno Karabakh, it also forced Armenians to withdraw from other territories under their control. Also, Russia retained its influence in the region, as the chief backer of the ceasefire. Also, it is Russian troops who will act as peacekeepers in the region, at least for five years as per the terms of the agreement by all parties. Apart from Azerbaijan, Turkey also gained influence in the region. It provided unlimited diplomatic support to the winning side Azerbaijan going so far as to state that it will “support the country both on the table as well as the battlefield” . The biggest loser of the 2020 war is undoubtedly Armenia. However, the West also lost whatever influence it had in the region.

Lessons for India

Conflicts based on identity are difficult if not impossible to solve. Also, arguments that modern welfare states with high literacy rate will lead to the creation of a liberal world order, devoid of deep identity-related conflicts, may not be entirely true. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan are almost 100% literate. Despite this, 26 years of trying has not been able to achieve peace in the region.

Like the rest of the Eurasian landmass, various identity-fault-lines run through South Asia, including in our neighbourhood. While the democratic political system within India gives an outlet of expression by different identities, the same cannot be said about our neighbouring states. Lacking in democracy, they may be sitting on identity fault-lines waiting to explode.

Moreover, larger outside powers may have limited influence on local dynamics. Despite their best efforts, their attempts at peace building may fail if the same desire is not reflected in local populace. Apart from the conflict in Nagorno Karabakh, this has been amply and repeatedly demonstrated in Afghanistan.

Thirdly, in a military conflict, there is no substitute to a good plan. This holds true for long-term rearmament plan as much as a detailed short-term general staff plan. Moreover, fighting tactics must continue to evolve. From winning outright in 1994, Armenians lost badly in 2020. This may be attributed as much to Azerbaijani evolution as to Armenian stagnancy.

Fourthly, unmanned aerial vehicles have come of age. Although, they still cannot win wars on their own, they do have the ability to influence conflicts sufficiently to affect the outcome. Although, Armenia and Azerbaijan are smaller states with less developed air defence systems, the UAVs will retain their importance in some spectrums of war in the near future. As such, India should accelerate its own drone development programme. In this context, it is worth noting that both Turkey and India started their UAV programme at the same time. While Turkey has already operationalised its drones, India is still in testing phase for its Rustom II drones. Also, it needs to be mentioned that air defence systems must also evolve to counter cheap, slow moving drones. This must be done at both, detection as well as deployment of countermeasures, levels.