Today a ceasefire has been agreed upon between Azerbaijan and the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, which unlike the unilateral ceasefire declared by Azerbaijan three days ago seems to be holding.
This allows us to make some more conclusions observations on what happened.
Nagorno-Karabakh War 1.5
First, the Azeris have made gains, but their advance was ultimately quite modest – only around a quarter of a kilometer across a narrow stretch of the northern front – and ultimately ground to a halt. A total of eight defense positions were lost, as well as the village of Talish in the north. There are conflicting reports on whether Mataghis was captured – the weight of the evidence suggests that the Azeri assault failed with high casualties – while the main town and operational center for that front was never seriously threatened. It did suffer a bombardment, and was the target of intensive Azeri drone surveillance. Several Azeri drones were shot down around that area. The conflict also saw the first use in anger of the Israeli Harop “kamikaze” drone by the Azeris, which was remotely steered into a bus carrying Armenian volunteers, resulting in seven deaths.
Second, as has become familiar from the War in Donbass, official and unofficial casualty figures differ by an order of magnitude. Oficially, there had been to date 35 Armenian military deaths 37 Azeri deaths, although each side claims 300-400 enemy casualties. I suspect it is closer to around 50-75 for the Armenians (especially once the 28 listed as MIA, most of which usually end up dead in the end, are accounted for) and up to 150 for the Azeris. The photographic evidence appears to show a lot more Azeri than Armenian troops, and in any case it stands to reason since it was the Azeris who were assaulting well-fortified positions.
Furthermore, the NKR’s tally of how many tanks it lost – some fourteen of them – are virtually the same as Azeri claims of how many tanks it destroyed. In contrast, Azerbaijan implausibly acknowledges the loss of only one tank, whereas the Armenians claim they destroyed 29 tanks. Since it is harder to hide hardware losses, this suggests an NKR-Azeri combat loss ratio of 1:2. Apart from this, the Azeris have also lost several APCs, 1-2 Mi-24 helicopters, and tons of Israeli UAV’s (one of them was apparently downed by a hunter with a rifle! Not very good PR for Israel’s defense export industries).
All in all, it’s safe to say that at least so far, this has been a comprehensive defeat for Azerbaijan, regardless of how earnestly President Ilham Aliyev prevaricates on Twitter and the rather unconvincing assertions of Azeri propaganda.
Their purely military gains were insubstantial, and attained at the cost of much higher losses in personnel and equipment than the worse-armed but far more motivated, skilled, and dug in NKR Army. This was accomplished without any reinforcements from Armenia proper. Any hopes for a blitzkrieg campaign have been dashed. Consequently, if the Azeris also intended to test the limits at which Russia would start moves to intervene, they failed at that as well through their failure to achieve any major military successes against NKR in the first place.
The Azeris also lost the information war. Although this flareup elicited very little European or American official commentary, it was clear that public opinion outside Turkey and Azerbaijan itself – at least as gauged by social media on Twitter and Reddit – was overwhelmingly on Armenia’s side. This was especially so after evidence of Azeri war crimes began to crop up, including the execution and mutilation of three Armenian civilians in Talish and the ISIS-style parading of the decapitated head of a Yazidi soldier from the NKR ranks (note that both links are probably NSFW). While the provenance of the former is uncertain, the latter appears to have definitely happened, appearing on a pro-Azerbaijan military Vkontakte page. There were also claims from pro-Armenian media sources that many Azeris in the ranks of Islamic State were turning to Azerbaijan. There is reason to be skeptical about this since it is unlikely that the sorts of Azeris who would go off to Raqqa would return to fight for a secular Shi’ite state.
If the intent was to use military assault to catalyze the diplomatic process, that too must be considered a failure. Apart from Erdogan’s boorish but entirely predictable expression of unconditional support for Azerbaijan, nobody else followed suit. Instead, everybody from Russia and Iran to NATO and the US issued formulaic injunctions to observe the ceasefire and resolve the issues through the OSCE Minsk Group (i.e. back to the status quo of doing nothing).
Even the US was noncommital, with a State Department spokesman saying that the final status of Nagorno-Karabakh will be determined on the principles of “non-use of force or threat of force, territorial integrity of states, and the equal rights and self-determination of people.” The second and third points are of course self-contradictory in this case, but the reference to “threat of force” might have been a veiled rebuke against the Azeri Defense Minister for his threats to bomb the NGK capital Stepanakert.
The only countries of note apart from Turkey to assume a decidedly pro-Baku position were Pakistan, Georgia, and Ukraine – but this ghost of the GUAM alliance is not really a diplomatic triumph by any stretch of the imagination.
There was however one Azeri success, though. Or rather an Aliyev success. In Azerbaijan’s current economic circumstances, one might think the ruling dynasty could certainly do without is the media quacking about its offshore network of secret holding companies revealed by the Panama Papers. And unlike with Putin, Aliyev’s family members are directly mentioned as owners. It is worth noting that Mossack Fonseca had informed its clients of the data breach several months in advance, and they would have been aware of the approximate dates of its publication.
Is there a conspiracy theory here? Who knows. It need not have been a decisive factor, since the mainstream media doesn’t have the freedom to talk about such things anyway, while foreign journalists can be fobbed off with the always reliable “[the children] are grown up and have the right to do business” excuse. Even so, it might well have been a significant contributory factor.
After all, it is better to have people rhapsodizing about a “short victorious war,” or failing that at least about “our heroic shahids,” than grumbling about the plummeting currency and the offshore secrets of the elites.
A Final “Optimistic” Note
As I pointed out in my last post, this year represents the likely peak of Azeri military power relative to Armenia for at least the next decade. With Baku getting engulfed by financial crisis in the wake of the collapse of oil prices, it is cutting its military budget by 40% this year, in addition to already substantial cuts in 2015. This means its military modernization efforts will crawl to a stop. Those hi-tech toys its been “testing” these past few days are probably not going to be replaced anytime soon. Meanwhile, while the Armenian economy is hardly booming either, it can at least expect to maintain spending at similar levels or even increase them further considering the rising incidence and fierceness of its clashes with Azerbaijan.
This means that for Azerbaijan, it is a question of now or later… where later might either be decades down the line, or even more likely, never.
On the other hand, though these skirmishes were a far cry from what a real large-scale war would look like between Azerbaijan and Armenia-NKR, they were exceedingly useful from a calibration point of view in that they allowed the Azeris to get a good gauge on the actual combat effectiveness of their rebuilt army. They might well have concluded that the oil-splurge spending of the past decade didn’t automatically translate to much higher proficiency or combat effectiveness, with all that it entails for the prospects of a future large-scale operation to reconquer Nagorno-Karabakh (even putting to the side the issue of Russian intervention).
In this sense, the continued bellicose rhetoric of the Azeris – and the Turks – regardless, the chances of a serious war in the future for Nagorno-Karabakh may well have actually diminished in the past few days.