By Grigor Hakobyan
Heavy border clashes between Armenian and Azerbaijani armed forces have been preceded by a number of social, political, economic and geopolitical factors shaping the region and directly impacted both countries, especially the political stability within Azerbaijan itself. The recent flareup saw active use of combat UAVs and special forces between militarily equivalent states of the region. Azerbaijani military is known for its quantitative advantages over Armenian armed forces, while the Armenian military is known for its qualitative advantages over Azerbaijani armed forces. Both sides of the conflict possess significant firepower sufficient to destroy each other over a short period of time. As such, the balance of power has contributed to relatively peaceful coexistence since the end of 1988-1994 Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over Artsakh with frequent escalations and border skirmishes for the last twenty-six years.
The largest escalation of Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict before recent events took place in Artsakh, April of 2016 which became to be known as the Four Day War. Considering the timing and the intensity of recent large-scale clashes on Armenia’s border it is timely to analyze the events that lead to these flareup and military objectives that Azerbaijani military failed to accomplish as a result of humiliating defeats on Armenia’s border. The recent conflict destroyed Azerbaijani self-propagated myths of its unstoppable and mighty military, and put the future of Aliyev’s regime into question. A number of significant errors in foreign policy coupled with military defeats in the Tavush Province has shaken the foundations of Aliyev’s rule in Baku. Consequently, it would be reasonable to conclude that Aliyev’s regime is on its last leg and most likely will fall within the next few years if not sooner.
Abrupt border clashes between Armenian and Azerbaijani troops in the Tavush Province of Armenia have unfolded from July 12-July 17 breaking the cease-fire regime established since the end of Artsakh’s Four Day War in April of 2016. The clashes began with an unprovoked attack against Armenian border positions in Tavush Province by Azerbaijani military. To this day, the Armenian side has confirmed four military deaths and thirty-five wounded in addition to one wounded civilian who was attacked in his front yard by Azerbaijani “kamikaze” drone. Meanwhile, the Azerbaijani side has officially acknowledged the deaths of only twelve soldiers and one civilian. However, the numbers provided by Azerbaijani government did not match the actual number of dead and wounded that the Armenian Ministry of Defense was able to visually verify using surveillance cameras and surveillance drones. The actual number of Azerbaijani dead and wounded significantly exceeds the number that they have officially acknowledged by three-to-four times.
According to Armenia’s Ministry of Defense as a result of military clashes between July 15-July 16 Azerbaijani military suffered at least twenty-one military deaths and several dozen wounded. One general and one colonel were among the dead. According to publicized estimates made by Armenia’s Ministry of Defense, just in one firefight that took place in the middle of the night between a group of Armenian soldiers guarding two hilltop positions and a detachment of over one hundred Azerbaijani “green berets” from a special operation brigade known as “Yashma” at least forty Azerbaijani “green berets” were killed and at least a dozen of them were wounded.
As a result of these clashes the Armenian military detachments were able to establish a new position on a hilltop called Sev Kar which provides a direct view of Azerbaijani oil and gas pipelines, roads and railroads connecting Azerbaijan with Turkey via Georgia and destroy several Azerbaijani positions in the process. Now, Azerbaijani military lost the ability to directly target Armenian villages of Movses, Chinary, Aygepar and Berd city as a result of positional losses on the above-mentioned mountain range. Instead, over a dozen of Azerbaijani villages making up the Tovuz District and the Tovuz city itself are now found within the direct view of the Armenian armed forces positioned on these hilltops.
For the past thirty years Azerbaijani military positions mentioned above have been shelling Armenian border villages and border towns by purposefully targeting civilians working in their fields, agricultural machinery, local schools, kindergartens, residential homes, local roads and cultural centers. Consequently, during border clashes the Armenian military was able to move forward by approximately one kilometer and establish a new position on the highest hilltop in the area called Sev Kar (Black Rock) which is part of a local mountain range with a few other hilltops overlooking the area. Armenian defense move was part of the newly established Armenian defense doctrine that focuses on the importance of proactive defense and entails permissibility of carrying out preventive and preemptive strikes against enemy positions that present a direct threat to the security of Armenian state and its inhabitants.
The new Armenian position shields border villages of Movses, Chinary, Aygepar, Nerkin Karmiragbyur and a small town called Berd; concurrently it overlooks over a dozen of Azerbaijani villages of Tovuz District along with the city of Tovuz itself located at a distance of fifteen kilometers. Furthermore, the new position provides a direct view of the Kur river which is located at a distance of twenty kilometers and is considered to be the main source of water that pours into the Mingechaur Hydroelectric Power Plant, the largest in Azerbaijan. Azerbaijani Baku-Jeyhan oil pipeline, Azerbaijan-Turkey TANAP gas pipeline along with Gyandja-Red Bridge interstate highway connecting Azerbaijan with Georgia and Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railroad connecting Azerbaijan with Turkey via Georgia are also found within the territory of Tovuz District. According to publicly available demographic information found online as of 2010 the number of people residing in the Tovuz city and surrounding villages was estimated to be around fifteen thousand.
The background context for recent clashes is Covid-19 pandemic which caused significant slowdown of economic activities around the world, low demand for oil and gas, frequent lockdowns meant to stop the spread of the virus and antigovernmental demonstrations that have rocked the capital of Baku for the past two weeks. It is worth mentioning that several months ago Azerbaijan refused to sign an international memorandum of understanding issued by United Nations calling on all countries to stop wars and military clashes amidst the pandemic. Instead Azerbaijan has continued its war rhetoric and making threats against Armenia by making unsubstantiated territorial claims towards the entire territory of the Republic of Armenia, including Yerevan-the capitol of Armenia as part of an imaginary “Western Azerbaijan” that never existed on the map. Same claims were further made towards the Georgian territories as well.
As a result of military failures in the Tavush Province and failure to make any diplomatic progress over the issue of Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict, long time serving Azerbaijani’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Elmar Mammadyarov was forced to resign from his position while large scale protest demonstrations have taken place in Baku followed by violent clashes with Azerbaijani police. In the meantime, Azerbaijan is going through a number of political clashes between ruling clans in Azerbaijan as Aliyev effectively neutralizes its political opponents by launching various criminal and corruption investigations against a number of government officials known to have been his longtime friends in the past. Socio-economic instability caused by significant decline of oil revenues, political persecutions and drought have further contributed to socio-political instability in the country preceding the protest demonstrations above.
The clashes also come on the heels of Russian-Turkish confrontation in Syria and Libya, along with Turkish-European confrontation and Turkish-Israeli confrontation over natural gas deposits found in the Mediterranean Sea basin. Aggressive Turkish foreign policy in the Middle East also comes in the middle of military escalation between Turkey and Egypt over civil war in Libya and international tensions with the United States and Europe over the conversion of iconic Christian church of Haigh Sophia into a mosque despite international criticism and military border escalation with Greece and Cyprus. Bold actions by the French navy in the Mediterranean Sea in failed attempts to intercept the illegal supply of Turkish weapons to Libya and targeting of French frigates by accompanying ships of Turkish navy has further escalated Turkey’s relations with Europe. Erdogan’s vision of foreign policy with zero problems with its neighbors has dramatically failed and contributed to its present belligerence.
The Armenian-Azerbaijani border conflict prompted Turkish Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Foreign Affairs to express their full support of Azerbaijani military actions and offer to fight and die for Azerbaijan if needed. Soon afterwards Turkish surveillance drones were found to be flying along the border of Armenia and Turkey, however that wasn’t all. Turkey began recruiting Islamic fundamentalists in Syria’s Afrin to fight for Azerbaijan as Turkish mercenaries in the coming conflict against Armenia. As such it is reasonable to view the Armenian-Azerbaijani border clashes from the prism of greater geopolitical competition in Near East and Middle East between Turkey and the rest of the world as Erdogan attempts to reestablish the borders of the Ottoman Empire and void the results of international treaties among them the Treaty of Lausanne (1923) which tore apart the Ottoman Empire at the end of WW-1 and laid the foundation for the emergence of secular Republic of Turkey under Ataturk.
Turkish invasions of Iraq, Syria and Libya must be viewed from the same prism of Turkish foreign policy aimed at revising international borders to its sole benefit, propagating Islamism and eliminating traces of Christianity found in Europe, Asia Minor and Middle East. Turkish response falls within the context of Russian-Turkish confrontation in the Middle East; however, it is unlikely that Turkey would be interested in the full resumption of Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict on its eastern borders. Although Turkish military capabilities are vast, fighting on three fronts at the same time will not be effective in producing desired results for Turkey.
Armenia and Georgia are considered to be a buffer between the Christian world in the west and the Muslim world in the east. Furthermore, it is a buffer zone between Russia and Turkey. Similarly, Iran views Armenia as a natural ally against Turkish expansion in the region which plays an important role in the long-term geopolitical conflict between Iran and Turkey. Armenia is considered to be a potential rout for Iranian oil and gas via Georgia to the European continent in the near future. Similarly, China views Armenia and Georgia as an important part of its own Belt and Road Initiative, a mega project meant to resurrect ancient Chinese Silk Road and provide Chinese manufacturers with additional transit routes for its goods to the European Continent.
As a response to public statements made by Turkish government expressing willingness to get involved in the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict the Russian military declared emergency widescale military drills in its Western and Southern Military Districts which activated nearly one hundred fifty thousand troops and tens of thousands of military equipment from all branches of Russian armed forces including short range ballistic missile battalions and medium range rocket-artillery (MLRS) forces capable of carrying out tactical nuclear strikes using mobile 240mm Tulpan and 203mm Malka heavy mortars. Even though the military drills are taking place about one hundred eighty kilometers away from the Azerbaijani border the target audiences for this show of force are unmistakably Turkey and Azerbaijan. They are meant to deter Turkey from getting involved in the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict.
In the meantime, Azerbaijan sent a military delegation to Turkey to request military aid from the later. Furthermore, Azerbaijani military contacted Israel and requested them to send drone specialist to Azerbaijan to investigate and explain the reasons behind the failure of Israeli drones in their battles against the Armenian forces and offer new training to its drone pilots. Between July 18-July 20 Turkish cargo plane fully loaded with military equipment (thought to be Turkish combat UAVs called Bayraktar TB2 known for their fierce reputation in battles against Russian air defense forces in Syria and Libya) and a delegation of Israeli drone specialists arrived in Baku. Considering that Israeli drones recently defeated by Armenia’s air defense forces are significantly better than the Turkish drones, it is reasonable to assume that they wouldn’t be too hard for Armenia’s air defense forces to shoot down in no fewer quantities as Israeli ones.
The recent Armenian-Azerbaijani flare up on the Armenian border couldn’t do without pompous declaration from Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Defense threatening to destroy Armenia’s Nuclear Power Station located in Metsamor, about forty kilometers away from Armenia’s capitol-Yerevan. It was not a surprising threat for the Armenian side considering that such threats were made by the highest ranking officials of Azerbaijani government before, however what Azerbaijani government failed to realize is that by making such threats it put itself in a position of a terrorist state which prompted a corresponding response from the international media and foreign governments including the United States Congress that has threatened to cut all American military aid to Azerbaijan.
The Azerbaijani threat of nuclear terrorism has also put Iran on the edge which in a similar manner returned the favor by threatening Azerbaijan with the loss of its territorial integrity if Azerbaijan undertakes any steps that undermine Iran’s national security. Its threat was publicized through the official media outlet run by IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps). It is evident that Azerbaijani leadership has significantly miscalculated the international response by seeking support where none was available thus undermining its own standing in the eyes of the international community and branding itself as a terrorist state by its own actions. Probably no Armenian foreign policy initiative could have achieved such a disarming move on its own if it wasn’t for the miscalculations of the Azerbaijani government that has clearly shot itself in the foot and undermined any international support that was still around for its territorial claims over Artsakh.
Seemingly irrational attempts by Azerbaijani military to take over a number of hilltop positions on Armenia’s side of the border indicate a significant number of miscalculations on the part of its military establishment that was planning to carry out another blitzkrieg against Armenian armed forces on the Artsakh’s line of contact. The failed attack against the border positions of Armenia’s armed forces were meant to misdirect Armenia’s military intelligence and draw away a significant number of Armenian troops from the Artsakh’s line of contact thus leaving the people of Artsakh less capable of withstanding an Azerbaijani onslaught in the making. It would be reasonable to argue that Azerbaijan failed not only militarily but also politically both in the eyes of the international community and in front of its own people who were expecting easy victories over Armenia.
The importance of neutralizing enemy positions that have been shelling Armenian towns and villages for the past thirty years was always at the forefront of the Armenian security thinking. However, it became possible only recently, after the new government led by Nikol Pashinyan put the necessary time and effort to develop Armenia’s new defense doctrine and come up with Armenia’s novel National Security Strategy that for various reasons was never the focus of the previous governments in Armenia. Accomplishments of Armenian military in recent clashes with Azerbaijani forces in the Tavush Province became possible due to the above-mentioned changes in strategic planning and extensive reforms carried out in Armenian armed forces under the leadership of Armenia’s Defense Minister, David Tonoyan.
Various flaws revealed during Four Day War in the April of 2016 were taken into consideration by the present government of Armenia and serious changes were made to address the needs of Armenian military. These changes included the process of introducing and imbedding semi-autonomous weapon platforms such as combat UAVs and other combat robots in defense units, creation of electronic warfare platforms and corresponding defense units, better training every soldier before they are taken to guard border positions, and substitution of border troops (formerly made up of eighteen years old recruits) with experienced Ministry of Interior troops and thousands of other professional contract soldiers in their thirties and forties who are often residents of the border villages that they are guarding.
Significant engineering improvements of Armenian defense positions were coupled with the introduction and utilization of night vision and thermal vision equipment capable of surveilling large areas surrounding border posts fifteen to twenty kilometers deep into enemy’s territory, and surface radars coupled with underground sensors capable of detecting approaching troops and vehicles as far as five kilometers away from the guard posts. These improvements were made in all Armenian defense positions along the Armenian-Azerbaijani border including those on the border with Nakhijevan and the Artsakh line of contact.
As of July 18, Armenia’s Ministry of Defense has reported the downing of fifteen Israeli-made Azerbaijani UAVs. Three of them were captured by Armenian electronic warfare units fully or partially intact. Additionally, Armenia’s Ministry of Defense reported the destruction of three Azerbaijani tanks, several military transport vehicles and a dozen of artillery and mortar batteries that were positioned in Agdam village located below the Sev Kar hilltop. Although by morning of July 19 the clashes on the border of Tavush Province have subsided a number of Armenian positions located on the Artsakh’s Line of Contact and Nakhijevan’s Line of Contact were shelled by Azerbaijani side using small arms. Consequently, Artsakh’s Defense Army managed to shoot down yet another Israeli-made Azerbaijani surveillance drone.
The number of killed and wounded among Armenian military personnel didn’t change. One military transport vehicle and one medical emergency vehicle belonging to Armenia’s Ministry of Emergency Situations were also destroyed during recent firefights. No other loses of Armenian military hardware has been reported thus far. Among thirty-five wounded soldiers previously reported by the Armenia’s Ministry of Defense only ten remained hospitalized while everyone else have already been treated and released from medical care. The soldiers returned to continue their active service. Despite recent clashes no military mobilization has been announced in the country thus far. Armenian troops on active duty continue to control the situation on the border with Azerbaijan.
On the same day, the Office of Armenia’s Human Rights Defender and Tavush Provincial governor have reported the destruction of over fifty civilian buildings, among them twenty-four residential homes, four passenger cars, one kindergarten, one gas pipeline, one water pipeline, one wine factory and one cognac factory, local cemetery, one green house and one local police station. The process of rebuilding damaged civil infrastructure and residential houses in Tavush Province has already begun. It is expected to be completed within short period of time before the weather gets cold in the Autumn. A number of private individuals, businesses, Armenian charity organizations and the Armenian government began fundraising and allocating funds to quickly rebuild affected border towns and villages of the Tavush Province. The situation on the border as of July 19th was relatively calm.
Since 1990s, the Republic of Armenia has lost about three thousand hectares of land that belong to its border villages. As such, border corrections made around the villages of Movses, Chinary, Nerkin Karmiragbyur and Aygepar should follow with additional border corrections in the other parts of the Tavush Province near Noyemberian to recover lost territories. Specifically, hilltop positions utilized by Azerbaijani military to shell villages of Berdavan, Dovegh, Barekamavan, Koti, Voskevan, Berkaber, Sarigyugh and others should be destroyed and taken over by Armenian armed forces to secure them from direct Azerbaijani aggression.
Similarly, Armenian towns and villages of Vayots Dzor, Armavir, Ararat, Aragatson and Syunik Provinces bordering Nakhijevan must also be secured. No less attention must be given to more than a dozen of towns and villages of Gegharkunik Province bordering Azerbaijan. Presently, the Azerbaijani border is less than a few kilometers away from the Lake Sevan and will present a clear and present danger to the security of Armenia during next round of escalation between Armenia and Azerbaijan if nothing is done about it.