Karabakh War: Week 4 (Updated)

Position on the battlefield at the time of the ceasefire on 26 October

During the fourth week of the war to liberate the occupied territories the Azerbaijan army again made steady progress. It launched a successful offensive in the direction of the Gubadli district with fighting centring on the village of Khanlig. Gubadli town was officially liberated on Sunday 25th. Zangilan district began to come under the control of the Azerbaijani Army, despite Armenian counter-attacks, which were not stronger because of the difficulty in transferring reserve forces of the Armenian army to this sector.

There has been much speculation by Armenians as to the lack of a successful counter-attacking strategy. It has been speculated that Pashinyan is a military genius who is holding back his main forces until the Azerbaijanis are held up by local forces and vulnerable to an attack from fresh battalions. Contrary to this has been the speculation that Pashinyan is an agent of the Azerbaijanis/and or Putin/and or George Soros and is preparing the surrender of ‘Artsakh’ in a covert plan. Take your pick.

In military terms there is a more simple explanation for the failure of the Armenians: The conventional front line of 100,000 Azerbaijani troops has almost doubled since the beginning of the war and the 50,000-strong Armenian army, conducting defensive battles on the northern front in the area of Aghdere and Kelbajar, in opposition to the advance of Azerbaijani forces in the Khojavend district and in Aghdam, is deprived of the ability and resources to move sufficient men to make a counter-offensive count.

Azerbaijani forces are also threatening along the Lachin corridor, which could be cut, preventing the transfer of new reserve forces from Armenia to Karabakh. This is the most direct supply route from Yerevan to Xankendi/Stepanakert. Also with part of the Armenian army (behind Russian flags) on the state border of Azerbaijan with Armenia, including Nakhchivan, then the availability of forces for transfer is severely limited. All the time Azerbaijani drones are focused on the main task of the systematic destruction of enemy personnel and military equipment and the losses that the Armenian side are suffering don’t even allow for a replenishing of lines, let alone their increasing.

Something should be, however, noted about Azerbaijan’s use of drone warfare that has so impressed Western military experts. Most of Azerbaijan’s weaponry is actually bought from Russia, Belarus and Iran. The drones come from Turkey and Israel. But the drones don’t do the liberating of territory. They soften the defences and prevent troop and equipment movement. Azeri ground troops do the fighting still, and suffer the cost of having to win back Azerbaijan’s sovereign territory.

To the south, in the area of the Khudaferin reservoir, Azerbaijani forces are engaged in the formation of infrastructure development and establishing new border posts on the frontier with Iran.

The two main Armenian groups in defensive positions from Aghdere to Aghdam and from Murovdag to Madagiz are threatened by a potential breakthrough of Azerbaijani troops to the Lachin corridor. They will need to use the only escape route through the humanitarian corridor before their encirclement and possible annihilation.

What we are seeing at present is a pincer movement by Azerbaijani forces from the North-East and along Southern front to the border with Armenian. The front along the Eastern line of contact has been left static and Azeri forces are carefully gaining control of strategic heights to force the withdrawal of Armenian forces below and ultimately secure settlements with the lowest cost possible.

Casualties, however, are inevitably mounting on both sides – though they appear to be far greater on the Armenian side, now running into the thousands.

During the week the Armenian Prime Minister stated that there “was no diplomatic solution” to the conflict (while his Foreign Minister stated there was ONLY a diplomatic solution). Pashinyan was showing he was unwilling to engage in a solution that would undo the occupation at the conference table, on the basis of international law, saving countless lives. This seems to strongly suggest that the Armenians are only interested in ceasefires for tactical reasons – to give breathing spaces for recuperation, strengthen defences, moving forces unmolested by Azerbaijani drones and perhaps hoping for the onset of winter to obstruct Azeri mobility and re-freeze the conflict.

Ceasefires are no good if they are merely opportunities to return to war and particularly if they are broken with fatal provocations against civilians, many miles from the battlefields. In such circumstances the Azerbaijanis have no choice but to continue the war, which while it costs precious lives, will hopefully save further lives in the future.

The Azerbaijanis face 3 potential problems in maintaining their advance:

First, the interference of other powers, primarily Russia. In this respect, the statements made during the week by President Putin will be disappointing for the Armenians. He stressed Russian neutrality toward Armenia and Azerbaijan stating that both were friends and it was inevitable that Azerbaijan would regain its lawful territory. This seems to be suggesting that Putin will allow the war to run its course in Karabakh, and the other occupied territories, and the only outcome will be their return, in one way or other to Azerbaijan.

Pashinyan got nowhere with the EU – which has serious problems with Covid and the British exit – in Brussels during the week and NATO were perplexed at exactly he wanted them to do, and why it was any of their business anyway. But Pashinyan’s crying to the West, in an attempt to get support there, must surely have produced a frown on Mr Putin’s face and a corresponding determination to allow the Armenian PM to stew in his own juices, which are largely of his own making.

In the US, Pompeo met the two Foreign Ministers, but blotted his copybook beforehand by uttering pro-Armenian sentiments. His intervention proved to be more of a media event than anything of substance, although it did secure a third ceasefire, it appears. President Aliev’s 30 minute interview with Fox News in which he impressively stated Azerbaijan’s case, proved much more interesting and decisive.

Second, the difficulty in dislodging Armenian opposition in more challenging terrain. As the Azerbaijani army moves further and further into the highlands of Karabakh progress is much more difficult. The Armenians are well dug in, with engineered strongpoints, and they have constructed large tunnel networks of defence. The precision technology has made assaults possible in this challenging obstruction but positions still need to be taken by ground forces that need to be careful of ambushes produced by suddenly emerging troops. The Armenians know the local ground well and their chief skill lies in this form of warfare, rather than conventional fighting on the battlefield.

Thirdly, there is the war from Armenia that cannot be responded to. As Azeri forces move toward the Lacin corridor they face the difficult problem of being bombarded from Armenian territory, without being able to respond. They can take up defensive positions but will find retaliation problematic without the Armenians claiming Armenia itself is under attack and “a genocide” is on the agenda. Of course, this is nonsense but it threatens justification for a Russian intervention if Armenia is attacked.

So this is the most serious problem for Azerbaijan – the Armenian ability to continue the war from positions on Armenian soil that cannot be neutralised by Azeri strikes, without risking Russian intervention to stall the war for liberation. Within this there are further possibilities of Armenian missiles being launched at the dead of night against Azerbaijani civilian targets.

Some Armenians have called for strikes against Baku and other strategic targets like pipeline infrastructure, using the formidable Russian missiles they are known to possess. However, it is probable that Moscow would not allow, at present anyway, such a drastic escalation in the war. That is not to say it might permit something like this to occur under certain circumstances (perhaps the risk of total Armenian collapse brought about by suicidal defence of ‘Artsakh’) but at present the Armenians are confined to using their Smersh missiles, which are very hit or miss in their effect.

So, the war continues, until Armenia does the sensible thing and participates in a managed resolution of the conflict on the basis of international law, providing for a durable solution for long-term peace and stability.

Update: At 08.00 GMT on Monday another “humanitarian ceasefire” has come into effect. What are the prospects of this holding?

On one side we have the Armenians giving out mixed and even contradictory messages – PM Pashinyan saying there is “no diplomatic solution” to the conflict while his Foreign Minister claims there is “only a diplomatic solution possible”. There are question marks about whether the Armenian/’Artsakh’ military forces are actually under the full military control of Yerevan. The opposition to Pashinyan, although united behind their forces in Karabakh, must surely be questioning the leadership of Pashinyan after he took on such a costly war that has already lost so much territory.

On the other side is Azerbaijan which is clearly united behind its President and winning the war. It does not want a breathing space for the Armenians to regroup their military forces under the cover of a ceasefire, or the possibility of Yerevan being allowed to spin out negotiations for years to come. The Azerbaijani army is successfully implementing the UN Security Council Resolutions on the battlefield. Baku wants a meaningful peace process and resolution of the conflict on the basis of international law that makes conflict in the future unnecessary.

Only time will tell what the outcome will be…

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