Russia’s Iskander Missiles Fail in Karabakh but Cause Crisis in Armenia

Jamestown Foundation
Feb 25 2021

The Second Karabakh War, between Armenia and Azerbaijan, began on September 27, 2020, and ended on November 9, 2020, with a Russian-brokered and guaranteed agreement. The conflict claimed the lives of thousands of Armenian and Azerbaijani soldiers. But after 44 days of fierce fighting, it concluded with Yerevan soundly defeated: Armenia lost territory occupied during the First Karabakh War in 1992–1994 as well as over 30 percent of prewar Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast—a region of Soviet Azerbaijan majority populated by ethnic Armenians. Today, the rump self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR or “Artsakh”)—still controlled by Armenians and not recognized by anyone—is fully surrounded by Azerbaijani troops and territory. The rump Karabakh “republic’s” perimeter is guarded by some 2,000 Russian “peacekeepers” who also control the so-called Lachin corridor, the only highway left open from Armenia proper to Karabakh through the city of Lachin. The future of the rump NKR and its Armenian population is unclear. Baku refuses to discuss any special administrative status for the territory, insisting Armenians born in the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast or their descendants must disarm and apply for Azerbaijani citizenships to stay as a minority inside Azerbaijan. In turn, the NKR leadership has declared Russian an official language alongside Armenian to avoid use of Azerbaijani Turkish (Izvestia, February 17). Officials in Stepanakert (Khankendi in Azerbaijani) apparently hope this may tempt Moscow to keep its peacekeepers in Karabakh permanently and maybe eventually agree to annex the NKR outright.

After the 44-day war, Armenia has been in turmoil, with military and political leaders blaming each other for the disaster. Former Armenian president Serge Sarkissian—who was ousted from power in 2018 through mass street protests by the present Armenian prime minister, Nikol Pashinian—bitterly and publicly criticized the way the conflict was conducted. In particular, he accused Pashinian of failing to make good use of the Russian Iskander mobile theater ballistic missiles Armenia acquired in 2016, when Sarkissian was in charge. The embattled Pashinian replied that, in fact, the Iskanders were fired at Azerbaijani targets but turned out to be useless—“a weapon of the 1980s”—ether not exploding upon impact or “only with some 10 percent effect” (Interfax, February 23). This statement and its aftermath transformed the tense situation in Yerevan into a full-blown crisis. The deputy chief of the Armenian General Staff, Lieutenant General Tiran Khachatrian, told journalists, in between laughter, that Pashinian’s statement about the Iskander’s “10 percent effectiveness” was nonsense. In turn, the prime minister demanded that Armenia’s President Armen Sarkissian (now a largely ceremonial role) fire Khachatrian, which he did on February 24.

This termination prompted an open confrontation between Pashinian and the Armenian Armed Forces’ top command. The General Staff issued a statement denouncing Pashinian as utterly incompetent and a threat to the future of Armenia, demanding his ouster: “We endured the attempts to discredit the military, but enough is enough.” Pashinian accused the uniformed leadership of attempting a coup, called on his supporters to come out into the streets of the capital, and demanded the ouster of the chief of the General Staff, Colonel General Onik Gasparian—Armenia’s top military officer (Interfax, February 25).

On February 25, Pashinian joined a small demonstration of supporters in Yerevan. Opposition protesters, who announced they backed the military, in turn began blockading downtown city streets with dumpsters, while Armenian Su-30MS fighter jets overflew the capital in an apparent demonstration of force. President Sarkissian, who obediently fired General Khachatrian, has hesitated to underwrite the order to fire General Gasparian. Two former presidents, Robert Kocharian and Serge Sarkissian—both bitter political opponents of Pashinian and heroes of the First Karabakh War—released statements calling on Armenians to support the military against the sitting head of government (Interfax, February 25).

Armenia was the first foreign country to receive Iskander missiles, which Moscow has long been promoting as one of its wonder weapon. Armenian sources have indicated the Iskander was used in the Karabakh clashes last autumn, but the Russian Ministry of Defense issued a statement denying that assertion: “all the Iskander 9K720-E missiles supplied to Armenia are safely in storage.” According to the Russian defense ministry, “The Iskander 9K720-E was successfully used in Syria against international terrorists and is internationally acclaimed as the best in its class of weapons. Apparently, Pashinian was misled by someone” (Interfax, February 25). Of course, this official defense ministry renunciation is itself ambiguous: Armenia may, indeed, have received the simplified, export version of the missile, or Iskander-E (9K720-E), which has a range of 280 kilometers compared to the 500 kilometers (or more) of the regular Iskander-M supplied to the Russian Armed Forces. But why would the Russian military have used in Syria this specifically inferior 9K720-E Iskander, as the defense ministry statement seemed to say?

Moscow has hyped the capabilities of the Iskander-M, the Iskander-K cruise missile version as well as the hypersonic Kinzhal, believed to simply be an airborne iteration of the same Iskander aero-ballistic (capable of maneuvering within the atmosphere) missile. The Kinzhal has a range of up to 1,500 kilometers due to it being launched, midair, at a height of some 10 kilometers. These weapons systems, though produced to this day, were initially designed in the 1980s. Their accuracy is lagging, the time required to program and insert a flight path takes time (sometimes days), and they are not designed to hit mobile targets. The Iskander as well as other Russian non-strategic missiles can be truly effective only with a nuclear warhead—apparently the way it is intended to primarily be used in any peer-to-peer conflict. The use of several conventional Iskanders in the Second Karabakh War would hardly have changed the overall outcome.

Pashinian has announced a reform of the Armenian Armed Forces “in close cooperation with Russia” and phoned President Vladimir Putin to seek support in his standoff with his own uniformed command. The Armenian military brass, in turn, are reportedly in touch with their Russian counterparts. Moscow never liked or trusted Pashinian but seems hesitant to take sides in the face of a possible coup and lasting destabilization of an important ally. On February 25, Putin reportedly simply called for both sides to stay calm (Militarynews.ru, February 25)
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