On Sunday morning, Azerbaijani artillery, rockets, drones and combat aircraft began a series of attacks on Armenian positions in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, just two months after clashes in July left at least seventeen dead. The shelling and air strikes were apparently followed by ground attacks.
Already the new round of fighting has reportedly resulted in civilian deaths and the destruction of multiple armored vehicles and combat aircraft. Both sides accuse the other of inventing the losses. Armenia has declared martial law and is mobilizing its reservists.
The conflict also threatens to entangle regional powers Russia and Turkey in support of the opposing nations.
The website of Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Defense claims it was “striking enemy command posts…along the length of the entire front” in retaliation for Armenian artillery fire. The attack, which began around 8 AM local time, extended to the Nagorno-Karabakh capital of Stepanakert and reportedly resulted in the deaths of at least two civilians: a girl and a woman.
A spokeswoman for the Armenian Defense Ministry claimed its forces shot down four Azerbaijani helicopters and 15 drones, and destroyed ten tanks and infantry fighting vehicles.
It also released multiple videos appearing to show at least five tanks hitting mines or being struck by munitions, as well as several lighter vehicles apparently being destroyed.
A tank struck by a munition may not necessarily be destroyed. However, one video appears to show ammunition stores cooking of internally inside a tank, resulting in a horrific jets of flame leaping from the turret. Another video shows a very tightly grouped unit of tanks being hit by shellfire—a significant tactical error.
Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Defense responded by stating the Armenian claims were “false and disinformation”, conceding only the loss of one Azerbaijani helicopter, the crew of which reportedly survived.
In turn, the Azerbaijani military claimed to have destroyed twelve Armenian 2K33 Osa (SA-8) short-range air defense systems. It released a video appearing to show three being knocked out by drone strikes.
Azerbaijan’s military also claims to have captured over a half-dozen villages in territory formerly controlled by Armenian forces. Armenia denied the loss of territory.
The Thirty-Two Year’s War
The two small Central Asian nations—Armenia counts nearly 3 million citizens and Azerbaijan, over 10 million—have been locked in conflict for over three decades over the fate of the ethnically diverse Nagorno-Kabarakh region, which has an Armenian majority but which was administratively designated an autonomous region in Azerbaijan during Soviet rule. Violent clashes over the region’s status began in 1988, before the Soviet Union’s dissolution.
Full-scale warfare ended in 1994 after 30,000 deaths and atrocities committed by both sides. Today, Armenian forces back a de facto Nagorno-Karabakh (or Artsakh) Republic which is not recognized by Baku. But Armenian and Azerbaijani forces never stopped skirmishing over the heavily fortified border, even escalating to a brief but intense border war in 2016.
Armenian forces well-entrenched in mountainous terrain have historically prevailed in most skirmishes with Azerbaijan. However, Azerbaijan has over three times the population and can draw on substantial oil wealth—and in the last decade Baku has used it to purchase billions of dollars in advanced military systems.
Israeli drones in particular seemed to have facilitated some Azeri tactical successes, and also conveniently provide drone strike footage which can be used to support narratives of military success.
Looming over the region is Russia, which is supplying powerful weapons like TOS-1 thermobaric rocket artillery to both sides of the conflict despite its alliance with Armenia. Other potent hardware Moscow has sold to the belligerents include T-90 tanks and Mi-35M armored helicopter gunships for Azerbaijan, and Iskander-E ballistic missiles which Armenia could use to strike Azerbaijan’s oil industry.
At the same time, Russia is involved in the OSCE’s Minsk Group alongside France and the United States, which is attempting to mediate a peaceful resolution to long-running Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
Turkey, meanwhile, has openly supported Azerbaijan, and its recent offensive against Armenia, which it Erdogan described Sunday as “an obstacle to peace.” The Turkish leader has in the past invoked shared Muslim faith and ethnic affinity with Azerbaijan. Erdogan also appears increasingly drawn to foreign adventures in places like Libya and Syria in a bid to reclaim the former regional influence of the Ottoman Empire.
There are unconfirmed claims that Turkey may have recruited and airlifted refugee fighters from Syria to support Azerbaijani forces in Nagorno-Karabakh, but Ankara denies the allegations.
There are also indications that it’s possible Turkey may have supported Azerbaijan’s offensive with its own very capable drone forces, possibly performing surveillance or even air strikes using precision munitions.
The July Clashes
The latest round of Azeri-Armenian clashes was preceded by hostilities begun on July 12 on the northern end of the Azeri-Azerbaijan border, ostensibly when Armenian forces opened fired on an Azerbaijani UAZ jeep heading towards their position. (Azerbaijan claims the Armenian forces opened fire unprovoked.)
Fighting rapidly escalated to involve mortar and heavy artillery bombardments, armored vehicles, and combat and surveillance drones. Azerbaijan employed Israeli Spike-NLOS loitering precision strike missiles against Armenian positions and targeted the Armenian internet with a wave of cyberattacks. Armenia deployed Su-30SM jet fighters on air patrols and domestically built X-55 drones on reconnaissance missions. Both sides claimed to have destroyed well over a dozen drones.
Perhaps most consequentially, on July 14 over 30,000 nationalist protestors gathered in Baku calling for an escalation in the conflict. The protests eventually took on anti-government tone, leading to the storming of the parliament before being broken up.
Fighting petered off a week later, by which time twelve Azerbaijanis were killed, including a Major General and a 76-year-old civilian. The Armenian side lost five dead and one mortally wounded soldier.
Senior U.S. officials barely made any note of the crisis. Paul Stronski wrote for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace that “the administration of President Donald Trump has yet to issue a policy on the South Caucasus region, creating a vacuum that other powers—including Iran and Russia—appear eager to fill. The lack of senior level response to the latest violence shows once again that Washington does not see the Caucasus as a priority.”
Given the distractions of the U.S. presidential campaign, U.S. diplomatic disengagement seems likely to continue.
In an article in Foreign Policy magazine, Neil Hauer notes that Azerbaijani governments were toppled twice in the 1990s due to military failures in the conflict with Armenia. Thus the escalation of the protests on July 14 were a particularly alarming experience for autocrat Ilham Aliyev, who has ruled Azerbaijan since 2003.
Therefore, the current Azerbaijani offensive may be a bid by Aliyev to stabilize his government by seeking to satisfy nationalistic demands for military escalation and victory, while diverting attention away from domestic problems.
Moscow, in turn, may pressure Baku to deescalate as the attack weakens the credibility of the military deterrence Russia provides Armenia. Reportedly, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov has already had telephone conversations both with Armenian foreign minister Zohrab Mnatsakanyan and Turkish foreign minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu.
Whether the new offensive can deliver military success, real or perceived, for Aliyev’s government and to what degree the fighting may escalate remains to be seen.
Whatever the case, the renewed fighting is a blow to hopes for peace in the region and the civilian communities exposed to deadly heavy artillery and drone strikes.
Article updated 8:40 AM EST on Sunday with new claims, links and videos pertaining to losses in the conflict.