The risk of renewed hostilities over Nagorno-Karabakh

The risk of renewed hostilities over Nagorno-Karabakh

In what was the most serious escalation of fighting in over two decades, the formerly “frozen” conflict of Nagorno-Karabakh recently erupted into an open conflict, with a real danger of a resumption of hostilities. A guest post by Richard Giragosian, Founding Director of the Regional Studies Center (RSC), an independent think tank in Yerevan, Armenia.

After more than two decades of a fragile ceasefire, Nagorno-Karabakh has been largely viewed as a manageable yet unresolved conflict. Although its unresolved status was seen as a fundamental impediment to regional development, the diplomatic engagement of France, Russia and the United States in mediating talks between Azerbaijan and Armenia tended to downplay any risk of renewed hostilities.

Nevertheless, the diplomatic deadlock of the peace process and the bleak outlook for any real tangible progress have only compounded an unacceptable “status quo” for Azerbaijan. More dangerously, however, this “status quo” was also a major driver of Azerbaijani frustration and impatience. And that frustration reached a dangerous “tipping point” in recent weeks, as Azerbaijan resolved to change the situation by force, launching a coordinated offensive along the “line of contact” separating Karabakh from Azerbaijan.

The broader context of Nagorno-Karabakh

Against that backdrop, the launch of a serious military offensive by Azerbaijan on 2 April is actually best understood as a culmination of three key factors in a broader trend of military escalation and diplomatic frustration.

First, Azerbaijan has led an arms race for several years through consistent increases in defense spending. This has fostered a significant military buildup by the Azerbaijani side that has included the procurement of more modern weapons systems. In turn, Armenia has been compelled to keep pace, albeit on a smaller scale, and has increased its own defense spending and arms procurement.

A second factor underlying this recent outbreak of hostilities was evident well before this offensive, defined by a pronounced escalation of clashes over the past two years. That broader escalation, which included skirmishes and artillery exchanges along not only the Karabakh line of contact but also along the Azerbaijani-Armenian border itself, was matched by an intensification of clashes involving heavy weapons.

The third related element of this underlying context was the appeal of domestic dividends, and the necessity to distract from an economic crisis sparked by the global slump in oil prices and exacerbated by a sharp decline in value of the national currency, the manat. Within this context, the Azerbaijani leadership saw an opportunity to leveraging the conflict in an appeal to nationalists and distracting attention away from the worsening socio-economic situation.

Thus, the combination of each of these three factors demonstrates that despite its unexpected scale and scope, Azerbaijan’s recent military offensive is not necessarily a surprise. Moreover, the risk of war by accident has been notably present in recent years, defined more by the danger of miscalculation and threat misperception.

Significantly different from earlier clashes

Despite that broader context, however, this latest round of fighting holds a new significance, for several reasons.

First, this particular offensive campaign was different by virtue of its intensity, as it was the most serious attack since the 1994 ceasefire and was based on a new Azerbaijani strategy. Unlike past attacks, this campaign was rooted in a much more ambitious, yet operationally limited new objective: to seize, secure and sustain control of territory. This a significant departure from the previous Azerbaijani strategy of simply attacking for the sake of pressure and posturing, but rather, represents an important turning point in the context of military strategy.

It is also different in terms of Azerbaijan’s military capabilities, which demonstrated an improved use of combined arms, consisting of the coordinated combination of supporting artillery, with improved target range and precision guidance, and an improved deployment of tanks, armored personnel carriers (APCs) and helicopters to support infantry assaults.

Nevertheless, the efficacy of the combined arms operation quickly decreased, however, and the Karabakh advantage of defensive fortifications and better use of topography and terrain negated the early advances from a blitzkrieg-style offensive operation. Hence, the nature of the Karabakh warfare, therefore, is more similar to World War I trench warfare, with territorial gains hard to seize and even harder to secure.

This recent improvement in Azerbaijani military capabilities, although insufficient to permanently alter the geography of the conflict, did demonstrate the capacity to attack and seriously threaten the Karabakh defensive perimeter and positions. This was also due to a change in tactics, with an increased operational tempo that consisted of an accelerated pace of offensive advancement that exceeded previous reconnaissance missions and probes of defensive positions. This was also due to the expanded use of better-trained Azerbaijani units brought in from Baku and endowed with greater operational autonomy and authority than standard front-line conscript units.

Another factor was evident in the expanded battlespace, in terms of a new “air war” dimension to the theater of operations, with the deployment and use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones along the line of contact separating Karabakh forces from the Azerbaijani side. This endowed the Azerbaijani forces with a greater degree of situational awareness and real-time operational intelligence, but in some cases, also involved the use of Israeli-made “kamikaze” drones as offensive weapons.

Therefore, given the new Azerbaijani strategy, and its improved performance, the likelihood for yet another round of combat operations is high. And despite the cessation of combat operations, any lasting suspension of clashes over the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict remains dangerously precarious, especially as there is little leverage and even less deterrence to prevent a resumption of warfare.

Richard Giragosian is the Founding Director of the Regional Studies Center (RSC), an independent think tank in Yerevan, Armenia. He serves as a Visiting Professor and as a Senior Expert at the Yerevan State University’s Centre for European Studies (CES) and is a contributing analyst for Oxford Analytica. Giragosian previously served from 2009-2011 as the Director of the Armenian Center for National and International Studies (ACNIS). From 1999-2008, he was a regular contributor to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) publications, and also served as a contributing analyst for the London-based Jane’s Information Group from 2003-2010. He is active on Twitter as @Richard_RSC.

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Guest Post

This article was published as part of the GRI Guest Post Series. GRI guest posts come from leading experts in business, government, and academia. The series strives to bring a diverse range of perspectives on the critical issues of our time. The views expressed in this article are solely that of the author and do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of GRI.