As Azerbaijan Gains Ground in Nagorno-Karabakh, Russia Must Step Up

Neil Hauer

AFP photo: Dmitry Kostyukov

Yerevan, Armenia – After limited initial advances, Azerbaijan’s armed forces by October 21 blew past Armenian positions in Nagorno-Karabakh’s south. This resulted in a lightning grab of territory that has left nearly the entirety of the region along the border with Iran in Azeri hands. On October 20, Azerbaijan’s defense ministry posted footage of Azeri troops raising the flag in the town of Zangilan – nearly 70 kilometers from the former line of contact and just 10 kilometers from the border of Armenia itself. Already, this has been a brutal war, and if there is to be any chance of peace soon, it will need the increased intercession of Russia.

The recent advance by Azerbaijan is strategically significant. Ultimately, Azerbaijan’s goal is to outflank the more difficult territory of Karabakh’s interior by driving north, up the Aghavno river valley toward the border town of Lachin and Armenia’s sole major supply route into Karabakh. There is at best 50 kilometers separating Azeri positions from Lachin, across ground that is also mostly flat and sparsely inhabited. Barring some unforeseen shift in dynamics, defending it against Azeri drones is all but impossible.

This paints a very grim picture for the ability of Armenian and Karabakhti forces to maintain their position. If and when supplies and reinforcements through Lachin are interdicted, Karabakh will be effectively besieged. From there, the humanitarian situation as winter approaches could become dire. The fighting could then extend into populated areas of central Karabakh, bringing with it mass military casualties for both sides and the near-certainty of abuses against the civilian population. It is thus imperative to prevent this by any means necessary.

The key problem is that Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev, has clearly indicated he is not interested in settling for anything less than total control over Karabakh. Given this, there is very little reason to believe Aliyev will halt his army’s advance without some major external pressure appearing.

Russia is the only player with the assets in place to potentially thwart Azerbaijan’s plans. Russia is in close contact with Turkey, whose backing has enabled and emboldened Baku’s current offensive. Yet, even if a deal could be reached between the two “frenemies” for a settlement to the conflict that would be acceptable to Armenia and Azerbaijan, it is unlikely that Ankara would be able to induce Aliyev to stop from exploiting his advantage.

To actually achieve a halt in fighting, Moscow instead will need to resolve to move beyond the toothless diplomatic overtures it has offered to date. It will need to signal to Azerbaijan that further advances will not be tolerated. This could take a number of forms, with or without Turkey’s blessing (although the task will obviously be far simpler if Ankara were to be on board).

Russia could move assets from the 102nd Military Base in Gyumri, western Armenia, closer to the frontier with Karabakh. Armenian authorities in the southern province of Syunik already have signaled local residents to arm themselves in case of any potential cross-border incursions by Azeri forces. Stationing Russian forces nearby, as signs indicate may already be underway, would at least end the risk of such a move by the Azeris, although it might not have much impact on halting the fighting in Karabakh itself. That could necessitate a more forceful move.

Russian aerial assets in Armenia, primarily the 18 MiG-29s with the 3624th Aviation Base outside Yerevan, are likely capable of downing Azerbaijan’s Bayraktar TB2 drones. Destroying a handful of drones would send a powerful signal to Baku, while carrying little risk of seriously escalating tensions – downing the unmanned drones would not cause any loss of life on the Azeri side, while it is highly unlikely any of Azerbaijan’s forces would be cavalier enough to attempt to engage the Russian jets. Conveying clear red lines to Azerbaijan’s government beforehand about what would trigger this Russian action would also be crucial in keeping the engagement limited.

It is still possible, however, that Azeri forces could try to advance into Karabakh proper despite this. That is where a final option comes into play. Russia could introduce its own observers on the ground in Karabakh, either unilaterally or following a backdoor deal with Turkey. This tactic has been one of Russia’s most successful in Syria for years, where Russian military police have regularly deployed to tense areas and their mere presence has been enough to halt conflict. No one is going to be willing to fire on Russian forces and risk Moscow’s response.

All of this must be coupled with clear guarantees to Turkey and Azerbaijan that Armenia and Karabakh will not merely use this time to regroup and reinforce, but will sign onto a plan that will relinquish the areas around Karabakh proper. Some special dual status will likely have to be conferred on Shusha as well.

International guarantors must also sign off on such a plan, in order to give it added legitimacy and eventually prepare an international peacekeeping force that will be essential in preventing a renewed Azeri assault.

At the time of this writing, Armenian forces reportedly shot down their second Bayraktar drone in as many days, possibly indicating that they have found (or have been provided with) an effective method of countering these drones. However, it is already likely too little, too late.

The international community, led by tangible moves on the ground by Russia, must engage to halt the fighting and prevent what would be a brutal military reconquest of Karabakh by Azerbaijan. Armenia’s leadership and society are going to find this hard to stomach; but then, so would Azerbaijan’s. However, preventing further mass bloodshed and displacement is worth the discomfort.

Neil Hauer is a security analyst currently in Yerevan, Armenia, where he is observing the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan. He was recently in Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh. Usually based in Tbilisi, Georgia, his work focuses on, among other things, politics, minorities and violence in the Caucasus.