Since the initiation of hostilities on September 27, 2020, fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan has claimed nearly 1500 lives and result in untold damage to public infrastructure. Although the conflict is now in its sixth week, exact details regarding the disposition and composition of combat units remains difficult to confirm due to operational security measures enacted by both militaries. Western observers have warned that combat intensity has escalated significantly since the original Azerbaijani advance, with more and more residential areas being targeted by artillery and air support under the control of both Baku and Yerevan.
Before a clear understanding of the current situation can be reached, one must understand the background of the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia.
On July 7, 1923, the Soviet government officially established the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region (NKAR) within the legal borders of Azerbaijan. For unknown reasons, policymakers in Moscow did not foresee the issues that would be created by placing the NKAR within Azerbaijanian territory. This is odd, especially given the fact that nearly 92% of the region's population was composed of ethnic Armenians. Even so, from the 1920s through the 1980s, the Soviet Union was able to contain tensions between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the NKAR and mediate minor disputes over border territory.
When the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) began to collapse in the mid 1980s, both Baku and Yerevan began taking aggressive steps to advance their strategic interests in the disputed region. This came to a head in 1988, when residents of Nagorno-Karabakh voted to declare independence from Azerbaijan and to unite with the Armenia. The Azerbaijani's did not react well, and in 1992 a full scale conflict erupted on the border of the two nations. By the conclusion of the war two years later, the Armenian military had secured control over the majority of the NKAR. After the newly established Russian Federation mediated a ceasefire between both parties, Azerbaijan was forced to accept strategic and tactical defeat.
Despite some small scale clashes along the agreed upon 'Line of Contact', the situation remained largely calm until 2016. In that year alone, nearly 101 soldiers from Armenian and Nagorno-Karabakh perished, while anywhere from 41 to 102 Azerbaijanian soldiers were killed. Although both sides agreed to a z the norm until September of 2020.
As previously mentioned, formal hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan resumed on September 27, 2020. Below, The Intelligence Ledger has provided a detailed stage-by-stage timeline of the conflict.
(Day 1 - 4)
As the sun rose on September 27, Azerbaijani artillery, air, and armor assets began targeting ill-prepared Armenian defensive positions along or behind the Line of Contact. This was done not only to cause confusion amongst the ranks of Nagorno-Karabakh's defenders, but to also to soften up defensive fortifications for advancing Azerbaijani infantry and armor units. Within the first four days, the majority of Armenian units had withdrawn from their first lines of defense to hardened positions further behind the border. Yet, despite this withdrawal, Azeri forces were only able to make small gains in the south. By all accounts, Armenian personnel assigned to rear guard positions successfully preformed multiple delaying operations, with many Azeri main battle tanks (MBTs) and armored personnel carriers (APCs) falling victim to artillery, drones, or anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs).
During this time, both parties enhanced their control over the flow of information to public entities and foreign intelligence agencies. As a result, accurate order of battles (ORBATs), unit locations, and unit strengths were extremely difficult to ascertain. The Intelligence Ledger was able to confirm the destruction of at least ten Armenian surface-to-air missile platforms of various types, along with dozens of MBTs, APCs, and support vehicles during this period. On the Azerbaijanian side, several dozen armored and unarmored vehicles were reported destroyed. The number of combat casualties sustained by both sides at this point in time remains unknown.
(Day 4 - 6)
The second stage of the Nagorno-Karabakh campaign saw the arrival of greater numbers of Armenian armored units to the frontlines. Some in Armenia's high command began to see the light at the end of the tunnel, especially given the fact significant, albeit slow progress was being made in northern Nagorno-Karabakh. Yet, as more and more Armenian armored units advanced into exposed positions, that light proved to be little more than a pipe-dream. Azerbaijani technology, command and control (C2) infrastructure, and support personnel rose to the occasion, and thus was able to meet the threat head-on. Loitering munitions, drones, artillery, and air support began to rain down hell on Armenian armor and infantry, with the low number of antiquated Armenian air defense systems (ADS) proving unable to address the overwhelming number of threats.
On October 2, the sixth day of Azerbaijani offensive operations, the regional capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, Stepanakert, was hit by multiple 300MM rounds from a multiple launch rocket system (MLRS). This was the first of many times long range fires that was used to hit targets within the city's limits.
In stage three, the Armenian military attempted counter-offensives. Despite overwhelming courage and knowledge of the terrain, the majority of these initiatives failed due to a lack of C2 infrastructure, logistical interruptions, intelligence failures, and Azerbaijani air superiority. For most of this period, the Azeris made little progress and proved unable to enhance territorial gains.
Using ceasefire negotiations as a cover, Azerbaijani units advanced slowly across Nagorno-Karabakh. In fact, The Intelligence Ledger has received information indicating that Azerbaijani troops neared Shushi, a municipality less than 15 kilometers from Stepanakert, on October 24. If this is correct, Baku currently has two realistic options: an advance on Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, or a move towards Lachin, a major Armenian supply line.
As of the release of this article, the frontline has been stalled for a week. Thus, neither side appears close to achieving their respective strategic objectives.
Impact on Civilian Population
Throughout the six weeks conflict, accurate numbers of casualties and refugees have been difficult to ascertain. The fog of war has the made compilation of reliable data difficult, but not impossible. The Intelligence Ledger has thus far been confirmed that the non-combatant death toll in Nagorno-Karabakh has surpassed fifty, with hundreds more injured. Compelling issues in the disputed territory is the movement of nearly 90,000 of Nagorno-Karabakh's residents who have been forced to re-locate due to the fighting. In Azerbaijan, approximately ninety civilians have perished as a result of Armenian airstrikes. An unknown number of Armenian civilians have been killed or injured.
Making matters worse, the United Nations has confirmed the use of cluster munitions, long range fires, and air support by both Armenian and Azerbaijani forces in or near civilian and residential areas. Although both states declared in public forums their intent to refrain from such measures, it is clear that near side is adhering to those promises.
The international response to the war in Nagorno-Karabakh has varied from calls for peace, promises of support, and active participation.
Attempts by the United States, Russian Federation, France, and the United Nations to mediate the conflict have failed, with multiple ceasefires and truces being negotiated and consequently broke over the past six weeks. In an attempt to bring both combatants back to the negotiating table, Russian President Vladimir Putin held several calls with the leaders of Azerbaijan and Armenia on the evening of November 2. It is unclear if this initiative will prove successful.
The success or failure of Azerbaijani forces near Shushi will make or break ceasefire negotiations. If Azerbaijan can maintain its position and continue its drive towards Armenia, there is little reason for the former Soviet puppet to halt. On the other hand, if Armenia is somehow able to drive Azerbaijani forces back, there is little reason for it to negotiate with the aggressor.
There is growing fear amongst analysts, diplomats, and security personnel that the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict could become simply another front in the gray zone war being waged between Turkey, Russia, and the United States. If this was the case, Nagorno-Karabakh could become extremely similar places such as Libya, Ukraine, and Syria, where great powers utilize local issues for their own interests.
Turkey, a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member, has taken a very active roll in the conflict in defiance of US requests and to the detriment of the international community. In October, Armenia claimed that a Turkish F-16 had shot down an Armenian fighter. This was promptly challenged by leaders in Baku, which declared no Turkish airframes were currently stationed in Armenia. Satellite images captured by a private American company soon revealed this statement was false, with several Turkish F-16s being parked on the tarmac of an Airfield outside Baku around the same time of the shoot-down. Furthermore, Turkey has supplied Azerbaijan with advanced technology, airframes, and munitions.
Given Turkey's proximity to Russia, there is an underlying competition between the two powers. As previously mentioned, these states have clashed in places as varied as Ukraine, Syria, Georgia, and Libya. By supporting Baku, Turkey can challenge Russian interests along the former USSR's southern perimeter, and thus potentially draw resources away from Moscow's other geopolitical objectives.