Azerbaijan’s War of Attrition: A New Strategy to Resolve the Karabakh Conflict?
The escalation of tensions between Armenian and Azerbaijani armed forces along the line of contact (LOC) saw the outbreak of a five-day exchange of fire, the bloodiest since the 1994 ceasefire agreement. The latest clashes ended with a mutually agreed ceasefire on April 5. According to official estimations from both sides, the Azerbaijani side lost 31 soldiers (Azadliq.org, April 6), while Yerevan’s last official statement—not updated—says they lost 20 men, with 26 soldiers missing (Panarmenian.net, 5 April). Both countries have also lost military equipment, including tanks and military helicopters.
The outbreak of clashes prompted speculation about the timing—both the Azerbaijani and Armenian presidents were in Washington, DC, for the Nuclear Summit. Russia’s approach also led to questions: Moscow contented itself with a statement calling for an end to the violence, rather than the expected intervention to demonstrate Russia’s key role in the Karabakh conflict. This is precisely what happened back in August 2014, when hostilities were cut short by Moscow’s involvement. It was suggested at the time that Moscow had manufactured the escalation of tensions in order to show off its mediation capacity to the West, emphasizing Russia’s regional influence on the eve of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) September 2014 summit in Wales (Caucasus Analytical Digest, September 17, 2014).
But Moscow did not attempt such an intervention during the recent clashes, despite their devastating outcome. Moreover, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), the Moscow-led military bloc in which Yerevan has placed its hopes, limited itself to calls to end the fighting. It did not support the Armenian position. On the contrary, one member state, Kazakhstan, released a statement of neutrality, while another, Belarus, declared that the conflict should be resolved based on international legal principles of territorial integrity, creating deep bewilderment in Yerevan (Euro Belarus Information Service, April 4). These two developments undercut early speculation by some analysts that Moscow had also manufactured this month’s skirmishes, in order to punish Azerbaijan for attempting to revitalize relations with the United States and the West, following a long period of relative disengagement.
Azerbaijan’s military offensive and its policies during the period of escalation may have been precipitated by a “gentlemen’s agreement” between Baku and Moscow; or Russia could have given Azerbaijan a kind of “green light” for military action, as long as the latter refrained from pushing Armenia to question its strategic alliance with Moscow. Whether or not such an understanding was reached, clearly Baku did not cross Moscow’s red line—i.e. April’s military operation did not lead to a full-fledged war. At the same time, Russia benefits financially from this situation and so is taking a business-like approach. The Azerbaijani army’s military offensive means that Baku will need to negotiate the purchase of replacement military equipment from Moscow in the future. At the same time, Yerevan is also requesting help to arm its military. This situation strengthens Russia’s role in conflict management.
However, Azerbaijan’s military strategy suggests this was not just a case of displaying military muscle. Rather, Baku apparently hoped to open up the way for the diplomatic resolution of the conflict, bringing Armenia to the negotiations table by militarily changing the status quo along the LOC.
The overall situation shows that Azerbaijan’s military commanders had planned in advance for their army units—with some degree of support from the air force—to be prepared to react to an Armenian violation of the LOC. Armenia’s strategy was to rely on a hazardous landmine zone on its side of the LOC. This zone would be much harder to penetrate for Azerbaijani forces, and would result in devastating personnel losses (Crisis Group, Europe Briefing no. 71, September 26, 2013). If they succeeded in getting through the second echelon of defense, Azerbaijani army units would face mobilized Armenian units.
The aim of the Azerbaijani forces was to isolate Armenian units that had been cut off near the various fortifications along the contact line, and operations were launched in five directions (Anadolu Agency, April 2). With that, the initial goal was to take strategic heights—providing an important advantage in terms of targeting military infrastructure. By April 3, when Baku declared a unilateral truce, Azerbaijani forces had taken Lele Tepe, a small peak in occupied Fuzuli region; a hill around the Talish village in the Aghdere region; and the Seysulan settlement (APA, April 2). Azerbaijani forces calculated that Armenian troops would mobilize to take back these lost territories, and Azerbaijan would respond by deploying Orbiter 2M weaponized drones with the Spike-LR missiles system. This response also enabled Azerbaijani troops to capture other nearby strategic locations. In total, Armenia lost three positions in the southern direction and three in the northern direction (Armenianow.com, April 4).
By not pursuing a limited war strategy, Baku demonstrated its strategic approach—a short, sharp intervention. This can be described as a policy of attrition: wearing down the enemy to the point of compromise through continuous losses. The idea is that Armenian defense forces will now be more vulnerable to targeting by Azerbaijani offensives from higher ground, leading to greater losses in the future, and/or a forced retreat.
However, the ultimate goal of Azerbaijan’s attrition strategy is actually to bring Armenia back to the negotiations table, as maintaining the military status quo along the LOC will now be more costly for Yerevan and could spark domestic turbulence in Armenia. The latest clashes destroyed the belief that Azerbaijan is not prepared to use force. Whether or not Baku’s strategy will work depends on the international environment, how the mediators and Yerevan react, and whether the situation achieves anything in terms of the diplomatic resolution of the conflict. This strategy also holds disadvantages for Baku: First of all, it will require the purchase of more armaments, which in the current economic conditions is problematic. Also, it may incur further losses on the front line, especially if Armenia tries to retake the military positions that Azerbaijan gained. Yerevan might also launch a preventive attack at any time. During the recent clashes, the majority of the population was very supportive of the government’s military actions. But more troop fatalities in the absence of a resolution could damage public backing.
In sum, the strategy of attrition warfare seems to demonstrate a new approach by Baku toward conflict resolution. It may achieve short-term success, if international mediation efforts capitalize on the current momentum to push for a resolution. Otherwise, in the long term, this strategy could spark a full-blown war.
By: Zaur Shiriyev