The Coming Regional Conflict and the Strategic Importance of Nakhijevan
Armenian News Network / Armenian News
Review & Outlook
By Grigor Hakobyan
In a time of pandemic where all warring countries and entities were asked to stop various conflicts to focus on containing the spread of COVID-19 virus around the world, Azerbaijan decided to conduct large scale military exercises on Armenian-Azerbaijani front lines along the borders of Artsakh and Republic of Armenia between May 18-24 without advance warning as required by international norms and conventions. While major military exercises were taking places at a distance of 800m-1km from the Armenian-Azerbaijani frontlines, a group of Azerbaijani special forces attempted to penetrate Armenian defense lines in the south of Artsakh. Unable to make any progress the Azerbaijani commando team was forced to retreat to its original position while sustaining casualties inflicted during clashes with the Armenian defense forces in the area. In the meantime, the geography of the Azerbaijani military exercises with live fire included the Nakhijevani exclave also.
The present-day Nakhijevan exclave resembles more of a springboard for Azerbaijani-Turkish invasion of Armenia rather than a region of calm and peace. The amount of firepower concentrated in Nakhijevan, less than 50km away from Yerevan is enough to constitute a direct threat to the security of the Republic of Armenia and its capitol. Furthermore, the present ruling elite in Armenia just like its predecessors relies on a false assumption that somehow the presence of Russian forces in Armenia will deter Azerbaijani-Turkish aggression from its south-western direction. If Syrian war is any guide, the presence of Russian military contingent in Syria didn’t deter Turkey from invading Syria and occupying various parts of the country. Similarly, membership of Greece in NATO and EU didn’t prevent Turkish forces from occupying Greek territory on the east bank of the river Evros, near the town of Feres.
If history is any guide Armenia cannot fully rely on foreign countries and foreign armies to defend itself against existential threats coming from Turkey. It needs to actively prepare itself to be able to hold off and destroy invading Turkish troops before they cross the Arax river on its own. At this point what needs to be asked is whether present day Armenia is ready for another Battle of Sardarabad? Is Armenia ready to liberate Nakhijevan and to move its battles to the territory of “Western Armenia”? Is Armenia ready to defend and rescue Armenian communities in the Middle East from the Turkish onslaught? Is Armenia ready to fight on its own and ensure a favorable solution to the Armenian Cause? Is the Armenian diaspora ready to rally in defense of Armenia when all hell breaks loose? If not, then what can be done to get ready?
Nakhijevan itself is a territory of about 5,000 sq. km. with a population of over 400,000 people. It presently hosts about 20,000 Azerbaijani troops which constitute its ground forces, air forces, air defense forces, rocket-artillery units and special forces. They are further reinforced with Turkish military advisors and Israeli and Turkish made weapon systems such as LORA short range ballistic missiles with a range of 300km-400km and 300mm RTG-300 Turkish MLRS which have a range of 90km-120km, Belorussian POLONEZ ballistic missile systems with a range of 300km, Israeli and Turkish made combat drones and other aircrafts. The economy is primarily based on agriculture, trade and tourism.
The recent Azerbaijani military exercises involved 10,000 troops, 30 combat aircrafts, 200 MLRS and other units of artillery, a few hundred tanks and armored personnel carriers such as T-72, T-90 and BMP-82A. The military exercises were offensive in nature as they simulated the format of the Azerbaijani attack during the Four Day War in April 2016 when Azerbaijani armed forces utilized large number of special forces, Turkish military advisers and ISIS/Al Qaida related fighters from Syria in their attempt to take over frontline Armenian positions in the north and south of Artsakh with the intent of diverting the Armenian forces along its northern and southern directions, while preparing an opening for the main invasion force made up of armored column and hundreds of infantrymen concentrated near Akna to break Armenian defenses in the Askeran region and take over Stepanakert.
The distance between the closest Azerbaijani military positions in Nakhijevan and Armenia’s capitol, Yerevan, is less than 50km. For example, one of the Armenian border towns called Yerashxavan is less than an hour drive from the center of Yerevan. As such, the accumulated firepower in Nakhijevan in such a close geographic proximity to Yerevan presents itself a clear and present danger to the capitol and other cities surrounding Yerevan along with a number of towns and villages that are located next to the Armenia-Nakhijevan border such as Ararat, Yegheghnadzor, Vayk, Areni, Zangagatun and others.
What needs to be noted further, based on this and previous military exercises in Nakhijevan, is that the next attack against the Republics of Armenia and Artsakh will involve the Nakhijevani direction also. This time the attack is planned to occur from at least five directions: north and south of the Republic of Armenia in addition to north-east, east and south-east directions of the Republic of Artsakh. The sixth potential direction of attack may come from the west of the Republic of Armenia, Turkey. Interestingly these events have taken place at a time when oil and gas prices are at their lowest, when social upheaval is taking shape in Azerbaijan due to economic downturn, amidst corruption scandals in the government and in the middle of the ongoing reshuffling of the government to transfer power from Ilham Aliyev to his wife, Mehriban Aliyev.
The military exercises have taken place on a background of complicated regional rivalry unfolding between Russia and Turkey and the ongoing conflict between Russian-led and Turkish-led forces in Syria and Libya where pro-Russian forces have suffered major setbacks, inability to defeat political opposition in the province of Idlib and failure of Haftar-led forces to take over Tripoli before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. As mentioned previously, the amount of firepower accumulated in Nakhijevan presents a clear and present danger to the Republic of Armenia. Specifically, Armenian provinces of Syunik, Vayots Dzor, Ararat and Gegharkunik can easily be targeted by Azerbaijani rocket-artillery forces and air force.
The present situation in the region is further complicated due to aggressive Turkish diplomacy that threatens to start another war with Russia and to destabilize the region of Northern Caucasus in case of direct clashes with Russian forces in Syria. Considering that about more than a quarter of the population in Russia is Sunni Muslim and that there have been a number of civil wars in the Northern Caucasus already in the early and mid-1990s, the threats made by Turkish officials cannot be easily ignored.
On the other hand, effective neutralization of Azerbaijani military threats in Nakhijevan will allow Armenia to reduce its border with Azerbaijan by about 250 km and expand its geographic territory by 5, 000 sq. km. which will increase the security of the abovementioned Armenian provinces and enhance the overall geopolitical security of the Republic of Armenia in the long term. Furthermore, it will allow to reposition significant number of Armenian troops on the border with Azerbaijan from the south-west to the north and north-east of the country while leaving the border troops to guard Armenia-Iran and Armenia-Turkey border in Nakhijevan. Additionally, a few hundred thousand of people and thousands of small and medium size businesses will be added to Armenia’s population that will contribute to the growth of Armenia’s economy.
Careful analysis of current geopolitical rivalries between above-mentioned forces and historical events that preceded these conflicts from the beginning of the twentieth century, right at the end of WW-1 leads one to conclude that the Azerbaijani-Turkish alliance is preparing for a military revanche in the region that is meant to reshuffle status quo in the Greater Middle East and to further undermine Russian influence outside of Russian Federation and European Influence in northern Africa and the Mediterranean. The major question that is yet to be answered is “when” to expect for such events to unfold. Considering present realities on the ground and tense competition between Russia and Turkey in the region, it will be reasonable to expect for such developments to take place within the next few years as soon as the international political climate in the region and the world at large creates an opening for such nefarious plans to be realized.
The geography of the coming regional conflict will not be limited to the territories of Russia, Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Iran, Syria, Turkey and Libya and may extend to the E.U., Greece and Cyprus specifically, which have their own conflicting claims with Turkey over large natural gas deposits and a number of islands found in the Aegean Sea and Mediterranean Sea. De-facto annexations of Greek and Syrian territories by Turkish forces are solid examples of aggressive Turkish foreign policy in the region. Moreover, the political tensions between Turkey and EU are further complicated by frequent influxes of tens of thousands of foreign migrants and refuges coming to Europe from Turkey. In fact, Turkey manipulates the flow of migrants to Europe as a way to extort billions of euros from the European Union.
Instead of effectively countering Turkish pressures the European Union is trying to appease Turkey for lack of other effective strategies at hand. Giving billions of euros in economic aid to Turkey doesn’t resolve the issue of foreign migrants flooding Europe. It only postpones the inevitable, the coming collapse of the European civilization within the next ten-to-twenty years. Similarly, Europe tried to appease Hitler before WW-2 to its own detriment. In the end it was utterly destroyed during WW-2. If it wasn’t for the American Marshal Plan at the end of the WW-2 the European Continent would have resembled present day third world countries in South America. However, this time around there may not be another Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe.
On the background of waning American influence in the region and aggressive Turkish expansionism in the Mediterranean region and the Middle East, the post COVID-19 world resembles a calm before a big storm. Just like the geopolitical situation before WW-1, any number of issues left unaddressed may quickly evolve and become a trigger for a regional conflagration, among them the resumption of Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict and the Russian-Turkish conflict in the Middle East. The situation is further complicated with growing tensions between the United States and China in the Pacific Ocean and unresolved Russian-Japanese dispute over Kuril Islands, expansion of Chinese military bases into the African continent and appearance of Turkish military bases in Libya and Qatar. The present world order is unstable and risks falling apart. The system of checks and balances that was created during the Cold War is no longer there. The post-Cold War system that was based on American military and economic dominance is also not there. In the meantime, the post COVID-19 global system of checks and balances hasn’t been created yet.
Considering slow phase of judicial reforms and constitutional changes in Armenia and internal divisions caused by the struggle between the former ruling regime and the present authorities in Yerevan, Armenia doesn’t appear to be ready for the coming conflict. While dark clouds are quickly gathering on the horizon, the internal political life in the country appears to be revolving around local issues. In the meantime, the Armenian military is preparing for a local conflict with Azerbaijan rather than preparing for a regional war that will involve Turkey and other non-state actors with conflicting interests.
Careful observation of the present geopolitical situation leads one to conclude that at this point nobody is preventing Turkey from occupying and annexing territories of its neighboring countries, as such there is no guarantee that anyone will prevent Turkey from crossing the Arax river and attacking the Republic of Armenia during a resumption of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict. How different would things have been if every Armenian had a weapon and knew how to fight to defend themselves and their families during 1988-1994 war? Mistakes of the past cannot be repeated again yet they are being repeated by present and former governments of Armenia. The culture of military readiness is not fully developed and inhabitants of border towns and villages are not being armed and trained.
The Armenian defense doctrine is based on a false assumption that the first line of defense will not be broken and therefore it is not necessary to arm inhabitants of border towns and villages. Yet as the Four Day War has shown, the first line of defense around villages of Talish and Madagis was broken and civilian villagers were killed in the process of Azerbaijani breakthrough. Similarly, war crimes committed by the Azerbaijani forces against the Armenian civilians and captive soldiers both dead and alive during the Four Day War were not condemned by international community through imposition of any type of political or economic sanctions against Azerbaijan. As such, how can one expect them to do anything significant to deter Turkey from invading Armenia in case of resumption of Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict?
Based on present political climate in Armenia, slow phase of reforms and constitutional changes, and limited military capabilities of Armenian armed forces, it is very hard to sustain an argument that its military is ready to face the Turkish army on its borders. While Armenia is busy with constructing skyscrapers and shopping malls in Yerevan, not much attention is given to constructing bomb shelters in the city and other towns and villages along its borders. Furthermore, no nation-wide civil defense drills have been conducted for more than thirty years while very few if any civilians know where the closest bomb shelter is located. Moreover, if there are any bomb shelters around in most likelihood, they are not stocked up with any emergency food, water, blankets, medicine, emergency radios and electric generators.
Majority of people are not trained in delivering First Aid and CPR. Furthermore, not enough is done to train Armenia’s reserve forces. Thousands of men with prior military experience, now in their 50s and 60s are not in the right physical condition to run, crawl or do any other physical activity that will be required of them to save their own lives or those of others on the battlefield. Most of them have not shot from any weapon or done much running in a very long time. In the meantime, soldiers serving on the frontline do not possess any side arms except for the commanding officers and many of them have limited knowledge of other weapon systems to use them effectively in the battle besides the assault rifles that they have been trained with. Furthermore, the duration of military service is too short to cross train them all in effective use of sophisticated weapon systems such as MANPADS, mortars and anti-tank weapons in addition to small arms.
To correct the abovementioned shortcomings, there are many changes that need to be done. Among them Armenia should consider starting to dig modern bomb shelters near populous areas and frequently conduct civil defense drills not only in Yerevan but also in other cities, small towns and villages. Israeli experience is an example to follow. Every person should know where the closest bomb shelter is located. Additionally, the population must be trained in delivering First Aid and CPR. In fact, CPR and First Aid should be incorporated into the school curriculum for all schools throughout the country. Furthermore, self-defense and martial arts should be incorporated into school curriculum the same way it is done in a number of Asian countries. Chess is a good training for the mind while any form of martials arts is a good training for the body.
During next regional conflict the safety of Armenian communities in the Middle East will be in jeopardy. As the recent conflict in Syria have shown, the Republic of Armenia was not prepared to receive tens of thousands of Armenian refugees from Syria. As a result, great number of them had to leave to other countries while a small portion of them remained in Armenia. Problems with settling Armenian refugees were many, among them lack of permanent housing and financial support. In some cases, Syrian Armenians chose to return back to war-torn Syria instead of remaining in a peaceful Armenia as their expectations for attaining high standards of living were found to be unjustified. Very few if any government and/or private programs were present to assist Syrian refugees with the integration into the mainstream life of their fellow countrymen. Therefore such programs need to be created in anticipation of what may happen rather than trying to figure out at the last moment, post-factum.
Furthermore, military training of young recruits needs to be revamped to incorporate cross-training on various weapon systems which will allow any soldier to effectively use any type of machine guns, RPGs, mortars and MANPADS as good as their assault rifles. If necessary, the duration of mandatory military service should be extended by another six months or a year. Moreover, basic military training should also incorporate knife-fighting and knife-defense techniques in addition to open hand-to-hand combat. These types of trainings shouldn’t be limited to special forces and frontline troops only, as any member of any branch of the Armenian military may end up in a situation of close-quarter combat at any point during a battle.
Additionally, women who reach the age of 18 should undergo mandatory basic boot camp training just like their male counterparts and serve in the military similarly to how it is done in the Israeli military. Special women-only training battalions should be created to allow women to receive military training and complete their mandatory military service. The duration of their mandatory training could be shorter and the intensity of the training could be modified if needed. As such, the concept of Nation-Army shouldn’t be just a slogan. Armenia should aim towards becoming a nation-army through rigorous and frequent trainings of its population and through maintaining active reserve forces similar to those found in Israel, Singapore, Norway, Switzerland and even in the United States.
Moreover, command-control infrastructure should be decentralized throughout the country and different branches of government should be moved to different provinces. Having them all concentrated in Yerevan doesn’t make sense from a strategic point of view, especially when they are located less than 50km from Azerbaijani military positions in Nakhijevan. Similarly, large military barracks need to be downsized and spread out throughout the frontline. Having more than one hundred soldiers under one roof is an easy target for any modern projectile containing enough explosive power to blow up everything and everyone within one large building into pieces. Present day format of stationing military troops in large barracks was effective a few hundred years ago, but not now, when modern day rocket-artillery and air forces are capable of destroying stationary targets hundreds of kilometers away from their original bases.
To avoid detection, more tunnels need to be created to expedite the arrival of reinforcements to the frontline positions in time of war. Furthermore, most of the towed artillery should be repositioned unto moving platforms for better mobility and for increasing the chances of survival during a counter attack by enemy’s rocket-artillery forces. A greater emphasis must be placed on acquiring and developing supersonic missiles, maneuverable combat drones, fully automated weapons systems run by A.I. (artificial intelligence), and non-traditional weapons systems based on high energy physics. More can be done and more needs to be done because as of now, the population of Armenia is not ready to survive the resumption of large-scale hostilities on its borders and will not be able to fight effectively if called upon to do so. The next battle of Sardarabad should not happen on the territory of the present-day Republic of Armenia but rather needs to be fought on the other side of the Arax river.
Grigor Hakobyan is an independent political, defense and security analyst residing in Phoenix, AZ. He holds a Bachelors degree in Political Science from Arizona State University and has written for the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute of John Hopkins University. Mr Hakobyan has interned at the US House of Representatives where he researched ethnic conflicts and terrorism in Russia, Caucasus and Central Asia regions, and the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies at the International Center for Terrorism Studies where he researched terrorist networks operating in Russia, Central Asia and Caucasus Region. He writes political analysis articles for ANN/Armenian News.
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