Drones and missiles tilt war with Armenia in Azerbaijan’s favour

When Armenia’s foreign minister flew to Moscow last week on a diplomatic tour in search of a ceasefire in the war against neighbouring Azerbaijan, enemy troops had advanced to just 65km from their prime target: a critical road that links his country with the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.

By the time the ceasefire came into effect five days later, following talks in Washington, the picture was even more bleak: Azeri troops were just 30km from the winding mountain pass, and well within firing range.

That rapid progress by Azerbaijani forces is just one of many reasons why the ceasefire — the third attempt at an internationally-mediated truce since fighting broke out a month ago — collapsed after mere minutes in a salvo of artillery fire.

Backed by far superior military equipment and an airborne fleet of Israeli and Turkish drones that has inflicted major damage on Armenian tanks, air defences and heavy weapons, Azerbaijan’s army has made significant gains over the past fortnight, seizing back land surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh previously occupied by Armenian forces.

“The Armenians have been caught flat-footed,” said Jack Watling, research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, a UK-based defence think-tank. “One side is deploying modern weaponry and the other is using weaponry from the 1970s and 1980s.”

The mountainous region of Nagorno-Karabakh lies inside Azerbaijan but is populated by ethnic Armenians and has been controlled by a Yerevan-backed administration since a 1994 war, which also saw Armenia seize roughly 7,000 sq km of Azeri territory to the south and west of the region.

It is in the south, between Nagorno-Karabakh, the border with Iran and Armenian sovereign territory, where Azerbaijan has had the most success in recent weeks, advancing rapidly across the flat, sparsely populated region where its air superiority has been most effective.

“What we see is that there was a factor of invincibility that Armenia had tried to propagate over many years . . . but they relied too much on old military doctrine and thinking: tanks, heavy artillery and fortifications. It simply reminded us of the second world war,” Hikmet Hajiyev, foreign policy adviser to Azerbaijan’s president Ilham Aliyev, told the Financial Times. “Instead, mobile forces, drone technology and a modern approach has been applied by us.” 

While a lack of international observers and conflicting propaganda claims make tracking the front line difficult, video evidence of captured towns and villages shared by Baku and analysis by military experts suggest Azerbaijan has gained close to 1,500 sq km of territory previously controlled by Armenian forces. Yerevan on Tuesday claimed Azerbaijan was shelling its border.

“Yes, the enemy is successful in certain sectors and has approached the [southern border of Armenia], but the situation is not critical,” Armenia’s defence ministry spokesperson Artsrun Hovhannisyan said on Monday.

Fuelled by billions of dollars in oil and gas sales, Azerbaijan’s military spending over the past decade totalled $24bn, according to data from the Stockholm International and Peace Research Institute. Armenia spent $4.7bn in the same period.

Before fighting broke out on September 27, Azerbaijan boasted twice as many military aircraft as Armenia, more than double the number of artillery launchers, and scores of armed drones. Armenia uses mainly Soviet-era air defence systems that are not integrated with modern radar to target drones.

“Azerbaijan was able to purchase weapons from Israel, Russia and Turkey to attain a substantial military edge,” said Michael Kofman, director of the Russia Studies Program at CNA, a US-based national security research centre. “In general what you see is Armenia fielding a sizeable tank and artillery force that lacks the ability to defend itself from modern precision-guided weapons.”

Evidence presented by Azerbaijan, but disputed by Armenia, suggests that an Israeli Harop “suicide drone” destroyed one of Armenia’s S-300 air missile batteries in late September. Azerbaijan has also relied heavily on armed TB2 drones sold by Baykar, a defence company owned by Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s son-in-law Selcuk Bayraktar and his family, to destroy scores of Armenian tanks.

“Having high-tech military equipment is not the same as using it properly,” said Mr Watling. “Given the competence that they are now showing, it’s obvious that they have received significant levels of advice from Turkey.”

An Armenian soldier runs to his trench position on the frontline as a drone is heard flying overhead © Alex McBride/Getty Images

Can Kasapoglu, director of security and defence studies at Edam, an Istanbul-based think-tank, said the tactics used by Azerbaijan clearly echoed those used by the Turkish military in its campaign against Syrian government forces in Idlib last February and March. “Turkey has transferred not only weaponry but also concepts of operations,” he said.

Mr Hajiyev said Turkey had provided “extensive defence training” but denied that Ankara was playing a direct role in the conflict.

But despite the superior military equipment, most experts agree that future Azeri gains will be much harder to achieve as their forces head north towards the mountains and the crucial Lachin pass, which connects Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh.

“The rest of the region is mainly mountains covered with forests, which would require much more military investment to move forward to take over new territories,” said Olesya Vartanyan, senior analyst at the International Crisis Group. “One should also remember that winter is coming, which would make fighting even more difficult.”

Mr Kofman said Armenia considered much of the lost territory to be “buffer space” and is focused on maintaining control of Lachin.

All three ceasefire agreements — to exchange prisoners and the bodies of those killed — have fallen apart almost immediately, with both sides blaming the other for a failure to adhere to the terms. Turkey has criticised efforts by Russia, the US and France to broker peace talks.

“In terms of diplomacy, I am afraid we are still at a square one, similar to the situation on the first day of this war,” said Ms Vartanyan. “We are left with the only option: when one or both sides feel exhausted with the fighting. Only then probably there can be a chance for diplomacy.”

Additional reporting by Max Seddon in Moscow and Laura Pitel in Ankara

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