A little war in the Caucasus has opened a big window into the future of conflict.
With the strategic importance of drones and the reaffirmation of Russia’s grip over its own backyard, the bloody faceoff between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the hotly long-contested Nagorno-Karabakh region has again proved the immense value of technology in modern-day warfare and underscored the geopolitical undertones that represent a given in virtually all 21st-century battles.
For the U.S., specialists say, the six-week confrontation and the terms of its conclusion should be troubling, as Washington took a back seat in negotiations last week while Russia and Turkey used their diplomatic muscle to reach a cease-fire deal.
Perhaps the most enduring legacy of the war, specialists say, could be a mad dash by nations big and small, rich and poor to acquire cutting-edge weapons that will define other engagements.
With the conflict over, the better-equipped Azerbaijan is widely viewed as the victor because it regained key portions of Nagorno-Karabakh and forced Armenian forces to withdraw from strategically important areas. That outcome was possible only because Azerbaijan, armed with low-cost, high-tech unmanned aerial systems — drones — it bought from Turkey and Israel, was able to rack up a series of impressive wins on the battlefield and wreak havoc on Soviet-era equipment fielded by the Armenians.
The conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, an enclave totally inside Azerbaijani territory that has been controlled by ethnic Armenians for more than a quarter century, had been “frozen” since the collapse of the Soviet Union but was upended in a matter of weeks.
The proliferation of drones proved to be a game-changer and left Armenia, which defeated Azerbaijan during a 1994 clash over Nagorno-Karabakh, with few viable military options this time. That led Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan to make “unspeakably painful” concessions that sparked widespread protests across his country.
“Relatively small Azerbaijani mobile groups of crack infantry with light armor and some Israeli-modernized tanks were supported by Turkish Bayraktar TB2 attack drones, Israeli-produced loitering munitions, and long-range artillery and missiles,” Russian military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer wrote in an analysis for the Eurasia Daily Monitor last week. “Their targeting information was supplied by Israeli- and Turkish-made drones, which also provided the Azerbaijani military command with a real-time, accurate picture of the constantly changing battlefield situation.”
Armenian forces, Mr. Felgenhauer wrote, “were left baffled.”
The cease-fire accord gives Azerbaijan control of areas around Nagorno-Karabakh and strategic parts of the enclave that were seized in the recent fighting.
Kalbajar, home to a famous monastery of the Armenian Apostolic Church, was to be turned over Sunday, but Azerbaijan agreed at the last minute to give Armenian forces and civilians until Nov. 25 to withdraw, The Associated Press reported.
Other nations recognize that ground warfare has entered a new era.
“Much of the fighting took place by drone and by artillery shelling. Baku had invested substantially in building up its military and acquired advanced drones from Turkey and Israel, which gave it the advantage in this war,” said Ann Phillips, senior adviser to the Nagorno-Karabakh Project at the United States Institute of Peace. “Armenian forces acquitted themselves well on the battlefield but did not have the armed drones which were critical to Azerbaijan’s success this time compared to the earlier war that ended in ‘94.”
“The drone advantage may unleash an unhealthy arms race in an already turbulent region,” she said. “Add to that the prospect that war may become more palatable because drones remove militaries from the human suffering that they cause.”
Indeed, military observers and foreign analysts have a deep fear that as governments and nonstate actors increasingly conduct warfare with remote-controlled drones and artificial-intelligence-aided weaponry, they could grow numb to the carnage and perhaps become more willing to embrace violence. At the very least, a host of nations with average militaries can suddenly be in possession of vehicles and weapons capable of inflicting significant casualties at relatively little risk to themselves.
Analysts also have pointed to the recent conflict as another example of how tanks and other traditional ground combat vehicles are no longer the deciding factors on the battlefield. Throughout the war, both Armenia and Azerbaijan boasted that their drones, artillery and air power were able to destroy the other side’s ground vehicles.
Azerbaijan, in particular, routinely released on social media footage of burning Armenian tanks that had been struck by drones. The war also has underscored the dire need for defensive systems able to fight off swarms of small armed drones and to protect land vehicles and troop formations.
Beyond the battlefield, the fight over Nagorno-Karabakh quickly became one piece of a much larger geopolitical puzzle playing out across parts of Europe, Asia and the Middle East. Russia and Turkey, which are locked in a proxy war in Libya and have troops patrolling parts of war-torn Syria, rushed to ensure that the Azerbaijani-Armenian war did not escalate, though they sought to capitalize on the situation politically.
Turkey is a strong ally of Azerbaijan, and Russia has been a vocal supporter of Armenia.
Both nations gained influence during the negotiation process. Ankara positioned itself as a rising power, and Moscow cemented its status as the leading regional power broker. Azerbaijan’s clear military successes, though, may lead Armenia to doubt it can always rely on Russia for unwavering military protection.
“At the end of the day, it was [Russian President Vladimir Putin] who imposed a settlement on the parties. And it is Russian peacekeepers who will enforce it. That gives Moscow a new lever to use,” said John E. Herbst, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and director of the Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council.
“So this counts as a diplomatic victory for the Kremlin, even if it strengthens the influence of its principal outside competitor (Turkey) in the region,” he wrote in an analysis last week. “But Moscow will also take comfort from the fact that the United States has not played a decisive role in the settlement.”
Indeed, a Trump administration effort to secure a cease-fire quickly fell apart last month, and Mr. Putin will see the Kremlin’s ability to make a deal where Washington failed as a victory.
Meanwhile, Turkey made clear that it intends to play an outsized diplomatic and military role. Ankara gets bragging rights for the simple fact that its ally came out ahead in the war and subsequent peace talks and that its drones and other military equipment made that outcome possible. Turkish officials said the peace agreement represents a “great victory” for Azerbaijan.
Regardless, analysts caution against viewing the Caucasus conflict as another proxy war between Russia and Turkey and stress that decades-old tensions between the two belligerents were the main accelerant.
“Establishing a cease-fire was relatively easy, since both Azerbaijan and Armenia need peace,” Mr. Felgenhauer wrote. “But figuring out a regional equilibrium with [Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan] could prove much more complicated.”
Russian and Turkish officials met over the weekend to hammer out details of the peace process. It was not clear whether Turkish troops would play any significant role in peacekeeping operations, though Moscow has argued that Ankara is far too eager to use force to settle the dispute.
“Turkey has consistently taken the position to approve a military operation,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told the media outlet RT. “We seriously disagreed and still disagree about this with our Turkish colleagues. But this does not prevent us from continuing close interaction at all levels, including at the highest level.”
Russian media reported that Turkey will not have ground troops in the region but that Ankara will play a role in “monitoring” the situation.