by Hannah Papachristidis
Azerbaijan’s victory in the recently concluded war with Armenia over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh can be defined by the former’s extensive military capabilities and its close relationship with Turkey. In particular, the use of Turkish-supplied drones to secure aerial dominance distinctly shaped the conflict in Azerbaijan’s favour. With fighting intensifying in late October and early November, it was feared the conflict would extend into the winter, risking significant humanitarian issues. On the evening of 9 November, however, the conflict abruptly ended with the signing of a peace deal, brokered by Russia. The deal cemented Azerbaijan’s territorial gains and, whilst not including Turkey as a co-signatory, provides significant benefits to it, as Azerbaijan’s critical ally.
The dispute surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh, where ninety-five per cent of the population is ethnically Armenian, can be traced to the Armenian Genocide in 1914 and the independent Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) region within Azerbaijan that the Soviet Union created in response to the genocide. As the Soviet Union dissolved, the NKAO sought to formally join Armenia and, in 1991, the region declared independence from Azerbaijan. This led to war between Armenia and Azerbaijan and similarly ended with a Russia-brokered cease-fire in 1994. Under this deal, Nagorno-Karabakh and other surrounding regions fell under Armenian control. The cease-fire was designed to be temporary and Nagorno-Karabakh is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan however, this status quo has remained in place for 26 years, that is until the events of this year.
Russia’s historic support for Armenia on the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh has meant the two countries have remained closely allied since 1994, albeit with Armenia becoming increasingly reliant on its ally – Russia maintains a military base in Armenia and the two countries are part of a multilateral defence agreement. Azerbaijan, on the other hand, sought to balance both Western and Russian influences in the period after 1994 and, only more recently, has the country taken steps to become closer to Moscow. It is not, for example, a party to the same treaty as Armenia. In recent years, however, Baku has come to see Russia as the key player in efforts to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. In a signal towards improved relations, Baku has made significant investments in Russian weapons in recent years. In terms of the recent Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, however, Azerbaijan has relied on remaining close to its Turkish ally, with whom it shares ethnic, cultural and historical ties.
For Armenia and Azerbaijan, military capabilities are a significant part of national identity. Over the last ten years, both countries have committed a similar proportion of GDP on military expenditure and, as of 2019, both countries rank in the top 10 most militarised countries in the world. Whilst Russia has extensively supplied weapons to both countries since the end of the Nagorno-Karabakh War in 1994, there is a clear asymmetry between the two foes. The value of exports from Russia to Azerbaijan in the period 2009-2019 is over 4.5 times greater than Russian exports to Armenia.
Armenia lacks the cash of its oil-rich adversary in Baku and, therefore, has relied almost entirely on Russia for its arms, provided primarily through Russian credit. Azerbaijan, however, has invested both more significantly in Russian weapons, as well as in other suppliers. When the fighting started in September, therefore, Azerbaijan was far better equipped for war than its adversary.
In Azerbaijan’s efforts to diversify its arms procurement, it has looked to the arms industries of key allies, Turkey and Israel, and it is these weapons which ensured Azerbaijan’s military strength over Armenia. In the year leading up to the outbreak of fighting, exports from Turkey rose six-fold, with sales reaching $77 million in September alone and included drones and rocket launchers. Azerbaijan was also the second-highest receiver of Israeli major conventional weapons between 2015-2019, with Israel providing sixty-one per cent of arms to Baku in the last year.
Of these exports, the weapons which shaped the conflict were, without a doubt, drones and loitering munitions systems. Turkey is a growing drone power, and reports in July suggested Azerbaijan acquired a fleet of Turkish-made armed drones, including the Bayraktar TB2. In addition to these, Israel, also a major drone exporter, has supplied Azerbaijan with the SkyStriker and IAI Harop. These loitering munitions systems, known as ‘suicide drones’ are silent aerial vehicles, capable of long-range, precise strikes, which are built to crash and explode on impact. The Harop was used extensively by Azerbaijan alongside the Bayraktar TB2 unmanned aerial vehicles. According to RUSI, the two systems destroyed more than half of Armenian T72 main battle tanks since the fighting began in September.
In response to the use of Turkish drones in the conflict, Canada suspended exports of drone parts to Turkey after reports by Project Ploughshares showed that Turkish drones were using sensor technology produced by a Canadian subsidiary of the US defence contractor L3Harris. Whilst this move angered Ankara, it did not appear to dissuade Azerbaijan from using Turkish-made drones in their campaign.
As the conflict swung in Azerbaijan’s favour, the violence escalated. In early October, Human Rights Watch documented the repeated use of internationally banned cluster munitions (such as the Israeli-made M095 DPCIM) by Azerbaijan in residential areas of Nagorno-Karabakh. On 28 October, Armenia fired retaliatory Smerch rockets, containing 9N235 submunitions into the city of Barda, Azerbaijan. The use of such explosives to indiscriminately target civilian populations not only goes against the UN treaty on cluster munitions but also violates international humanitarian law. Unconfirmed reports in both Armenian and Azeri media made claims that white phosphorus munitions, another internationally banned substance, had been fired by both sides.
Azerbaijan’s upper hand was secured by the taking of Shusha, the second-largest city in Nagorno-Karabakh. Significant emphasis has been placed on the city, as it gives strategic dominance over the enclave, as well as being of great cultural importance. On the same day, Aliyev received the Turkish Foreign Minister and the National Defence Minister, further signs of the countries’ intimate relationship. There is little doubt that Azerbaijan’s battlefield gains had been guaranteed through Turkish support and weaponry.
Despite its bellicose calls throughout the fighting, it seems like that Turkey will have encouraged Azerbaijan to accept the deal, in part to maintain Turkey’s relationship with Russia. Turkey has complicated relations with Russia given that they support opposing sides in Syria, Yemen and Libya however, they appear to have worked together to bring Armenia and Azerbaijan to the table. For Turkey, the deal promises a corridor across Armenia via Nakhchivan and Azerbaijan to the Caspian Sea, linking Turkey to Central Asia and China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a suggestion of Erodgan’s desires to spread his influence deeper into the South Caucasus.
The various involvements of Russia and Turkey in encouraging, fuelling, and ending the conflict reflect the nuances of geopolitical relations in a highly-militarised and volatile region. That the peace deal was drawn-up by Russia, with significant advantages for Turkey, suggests the diminishing influence of the OSCE Minsk Group and the US in the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute and the extension of Russia and Turkey throughout the region. Whether the Russian-brokered peace will last, however, seems uncertain. The deal consists only of nine points, with no specific details on humanitarian support nor the status of Nagorno-Karabakh itself. The Armenians remain angry and it seems likely that Prime Minister Pashinyan will not survive the crisis. Regardless of what happens next, Russia and Turkey have now embedded themselves closely in the dispute.
The conflict, moreover, succeeded in showcasing the power of cheap but efficient drones in challenging traditional ground forces. Azerbaijan’s use of these weapons provided clear evidence of how future battlefields will be transformed by unmanned attack drones and loitering munitions.
Hannah Papachristidis is a project officer at Transparency International Defence & Security, where she manages research outputs for the 2020 Government Defence Integrity Index. Hannah holds an MA in International Affairs from Columbia University and is an Emerging Expert at Forum on the Arms Trade.