Azerbaijan’s next move will make or break Karabakh war

Asia Times



Baku seems determined to fight through a US-brokered ceasefire as its
conflict with Armenia reaches a crucial crossroads

By Richard Giragosian


YEREVAN — One month into a massive military offensive for
Nagorno-Karabakh and hours into a failed US-brokered truce, Azerbaijan
is facing a crucial choice that could define the war’s outcome.

Azerbaijani troops, having advanced on the open terrain along the
Iranian border, have the momentum and appear to be fast approaching
the strategic Lachin corridor. But with its troops overstretched and
the Karabakh defenders having retreated to the forested high ground,
Baku is at a crossroads.

The choice is one of following military logic and sound strategy or
opting instead for a decision with greater political and diplomatic
dividends. But Azerbaijan can’t have it both ways.

Military logic suggests a choice of focusing on targeting the Lachin
corridor, the critical lifeline between Karabakh and Armenia. Any
success in cutting off the Lachin lifeline would be devastating,
endangering the resupply and flow of reinforcements to Karabakh and
subjecting the Karabakh Armenians to a months-long siege.

Yet for an Azerbaijani populace eager for full control of Karabakh
itself, that would not be enough, as such a choice would be neither
politically palatable nor sufficient in the face of dangerously high
expectations for complete victory.

And that leaves the second choice: a turn away from the Lachin
corridor for an attack on the city of Shushi within Karabakh itself.

The capture of the historic cultural center of Shushi, known to
Azerbaijanis as Shusha, would offer significant political rewards for
the government of President Ilham Aliyev. It would also enhance Baku’s
diplomatic bargaining power in any future negotiations.

Yet such a move would also incur tremendous military losses and usher
in a new, even more intense period of guerrilla warfare as Karabakh
forces would hold an advantage in mobility and surprise in an
insurgency-style campaign against the Azerbaijani forces.

Given the over-extended vulnerability and strained supply routes for
the Azerbaijani forces in the field for a month already, that may be
an especially risky decision.

Already, the Azerbaijani column – its advance driven more by political
objectives in Baku than military science – is inherently vulnerable
due to stretched supply lines and broken lines of communication.

This defiance of Clausewitzian military science may be tempting in
order to rush the advance and seize more territory, but Baku is
dangerously ignoring essential limitations and necessities.

[Photo: A volunteer fighter in a valley outside a village south-east
of Stepanakert on October 23, 2020, during the ongoing fighting
between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces over the breakaway region of
Nagorno-Karabakh. Photo: AFP/Aris Messinis]

Winter is coming

As some Western military observers have noted to Asia Times, Baku’s
“teeth to tail” offensive lacks the staying power of supporting
logistics.

In addition, the Azerbaijani attacking column is increasingly spread
much too thin, with no rear-guard deployment of units or men capable
of holding the territorial gains they have achieved in areas south of
Karabakh.

This weakness will only return as a looming challenge for the
Azerbaijani attackers as any counter-attacks by the Karabakh Armenian
forces will face little resistance and could offer a much-needed
element of tactical surprise and “out-flanking” of exposed Azerbaijani
units.

Winter is now fast approaching, meaning any further Azerbaijani combat
operations will be especially difficult if not impossible in the
coming weeks due to low visibility and impassable snow-covered
mountainous terrain.

A second, often overlooked factor in the strategic context is the
operational doctrine and combat experience of the Karabakh Armenian
side. In the major past confrontations, most notably the initial
Karabakh war of the early 1990s and the five-day war of April 2016,
the Karabakh Armenians were initially losing before regrouping and
securing victories based on counter-attacks and repelling invasions.

This historical pattern offers another advantage for the Karabakh
defensive position beyond the already important edge of terrain and
topography, suggesting the real burden is on the attackers.

Beyond the daily reports of severe losses, high casualties and an
increasingly costly tactical campaign to both seize territory and
defend positions, it may be too early to discount the Karabakh
Armenian defenders.

After a weeks-long consistent Azerbaijani advance, a successful and
orderly retreat by the Karabakh forces allowed them to reposition and
regroup for a secondary defensive line based on the defenders’
advantages of terrain and topography.

After suffering serious losses in equipment and nearly 1,000
casualties, their counter-attacks and stubborn resistance have begun
to turn the tide of battle.

In recent days, the new defensive positions succeeded in halting the
Azerbaijani advance to within roughly 25 kilometers of the
strategically vital Lachin corridor, the sole highway connection
between Karabakh and Armenia.

At the same time, the retreat into the mountains and forests have
allowed the Karabakh forces to launch small unit attacks against the
more exposed Azerbaijani infantry and armored support.

And with such forested and mountainous terrain, the Azerbaijani
advantage of an air threat from their formidable Turkish and Israeli
military drones will be significantly diminished.

Yet with President Aliyev having promising full victory, the prospect
of stopping short of either Lachin or Shushi could risk political
suicide.

[Photo: Doctor Lucine Tovmasyan swabs the nose of an elderly woman as
she administers a Covid-19 test in the city of Stepanakert on October
23, 2020, during the ongoing fighting between Armenian and Azerbaijani
forces over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh. Photo: AFP/Aris
Messinis]

Ceasing fire

Against this backdrop, even tripartite diplomatic engagement has
fallen short. Moscow, in an attempt to demonstrate its diplomatic
dominance, sought to force an agreement on the Armenian and
Azerbaijani foreign ministers in a hastily arranged meeting on October
9.

Backed by France and the United States, the two other co-chairing
nations of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s
(OSCE) so-called Minsk Group, this Russian initiative was initially
seen as a potent assertion of diplomatic power.

Yet both Azerbaijan and Turkey showed uncharacteristic courage in
resisting what they saw as Russian bluff and bluster, and the
Azerbaijani offensive continued unencumbered.

Such open and outright defiance of Russia stems from an Azerbaijani
determination fortified by an unprecedented level of direct Turkish
military and diplomatic support. Azerbaijani military gains in
territory and tactical success against the Karabakh Armenian defenders
have only deepened their reluctance to abide by a ceasefire.

In the wake of that rather surprising rebuke, a second diplomatic
initiative was launched. This time it was France, in a round of
American-style, shuttle diplomacy, with an emissary of French
President Emmanuel Macron flying into Yerevan and on to Baku for a
series of meetings with each side on October 15-16.

Despite accolades for innovation and initiative, that second effort at
securing a ceasefire also fell short.

Emboldened by territorial gains and encouraged by popular domestic
support rare for his authoritarian rule, President Aliyev flouted his
newfound victories and echoed Turkish complaints of the OSCE Minsk
Group, suggesting a greater role for Ankara in the mediation at the
expense of Paris.

And in the weakest and least promising round of diplomatic engagement,
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met separately with the Armenian and
Azerbaijani foreign ministers in Washington on October 23.

[Photo: An image grab taken from a video made available on the
official web site of the Azerbaijani Defence Ministry on September 28,
2020, Photo: Handout /Azerbaijani Defense Ministry/AFP]

This belated American gesture was largely doomed from the start, and
was as much a move to show geopolitical relevance as to boost an
embattled Trump administration in the waning days of a contested
presidential election campaign.

While the US did succeed in securing an agreement to abide by yet
another cessation of hostilities, it already appeared to break down
within an hour of implementation.

Conflict mediation is never an easy task, dependent on a degree of
sincere political will among the parties to the conflict, and in
nearly all cases, a degree of conflict fatigue. In the case of
Nagorno-Karabakh, war-time diplomacy has failed, with dynamic
developments on the battlefield now driving the situation.

The latest commitment by the warring parties to a diplomatic summit in
Geneva, slated for October 29, can be expected to follow and not force
operations on the ground.


 

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