Assessing Azerbaijan’s Military Threat to Retake Karabakh

BY MICHAEL MENSOIAN

The United States director of intelligence, Dennis Blair, in written testimony to a Senate committee has said that “[A]lthough there has been progress in the past year toward Turkey-Armenian rapprochement, this has affected the delicate relationship between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and increases the risk of a renewed conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh.”

This may not be as dire an assessment as suggested. The ability of Karabakh to maintain its independence and “prosper” has vexed and embarrassed the political and military leadership of Azerbaijan for the past 15 years. For all of his public posturing, Azeri President Aliyev’s strident rhetoric only reminds the Azerbaijanis of his ineffectiveness in retaking Karabakh. Karabakh is a fait accompli and the de facto boundary is reorienting the activities and thinking of the people on either side. Frustration and an unwarranted reliance on the numeric superiority of their military arsenal encourages the Azeri leadership’s predilection for a military solution. For obvious reasons, conventional wisdom does not support their publicly expressed confidence that the number of tanks, artillery pieces, or aircrafts determine a nation’s military capability.

The combined military budgets of Karabakh and Armenia cannot come close to achieving parity with Azerbaijan’s expenditures. However, topography, fortifications, and the combat readiness and devotion of its personnel to the cause being defended are the great equalizers for Karabakh. As for the Azerbaijani military, there are problematic areas associated with the rapid expansion of its military forces.

Azerbaijan’s rational for renewing hostilities

A decision by Azerbaijan to seek a military solution would border more on political desperation than on an objective evaluation of its likely success. To have any chance of victory, Azerbaijan would have to mount an operation able to maintain sufficient momentum and willing to accept heavy losses of men and equipment in order to achieve its objectives within a limited window of opportunity measured in days. This would be a political and tactical necessity simply because a protracted conflict would not be in the interests of the international community. Within hours of the first shot being fired, there would be a call for a ceasefire. Given this highly likely possibility, any Azeri operation would have to be well planned with respect to objectives, deployment of troops, real-time coordination on the battlefield, and with sufficient forces in reserve to rapidly exploit any weaknesses in Karabakh’s defenses. These requirements would place a heavy burden on Azerbaijan gaining a military victory.

Problematic areas for Azerbaijan

The likelihood of success under any conceivable scenario would be influenced by several interrelated factors inherent in any rapid expansion of a nation’s military force. Azerbaijan’s rapid expansion would be no exception. Expanding the military establishment requires more than purchasing hardware and increasing the number of men in uniform. Accordingly, problematic areas that would commonly exist include, but are not limited to:

1. The personnel strength, training, and the level of integration of units considered combat-ready on paper that can be reliably deployed;

2. The cadre of officers and noncommissioned officers properly trained to lead these units under combat conditions;

3. creating an operational structure, tested during appropriate field exercises, that integrates and can effectively control and coordinate operations under simulated battlefield conditions;

4. The existence of an effective command structure that has been rigorously “tested” by appropriate field exercises;

5. The capability of the command staff to plan, deploy, support, and maintain real-time evaluation and coordination of battlefield conditions. Turkish officers have been stationed in Azerbaijan as advisers to the Azerbaijani command staff to assist in achieving competence in these vital areas;

5. The decision to absorb, if necessary, heavy losses

6. The instilling of loyalty and dedication in its enlisted personnel and junior officers that would sustain them on the battlefield under a range of combat conditions. Within the civilian population there is a palpable disconnect between the small ruling elite/upper class and the remainder of society. It is to be expected that with a rapid military build-up, newly enlisted personnel and junior grade officers would mirror this disconnect lessening their sustained loyalty and reliability in combat situations;

7. The capability of the command staff to effectively respond to a wide range of operations by the Karabakh defense force.

It is obvious that each of these problematic areas, if objectively analyzed, could mitigate against the renewal of hostilities. However, Aliyev is facing considerable popular pressure as well as pressure from the military to regain control of Karabakh. The thought that Artsakh (Karabakh and the liberated territories) could be irretrievably lost if nothing is done is more than sufficient motivation for him to accept the military alternative. However, Azerbaijan and its enabler Turkey must consider that once conflict is renewed, it could easily have unintended consequences affecting the greater Caucasus/Kurdish Anatolian region. Is this a situation that Russia, Iran, the United States, or, for that fact, Turkey would want?

The Azeri command staff officers

Karabakh would have complete dossiers on the general and field grade officers who will plan and execute any military action, as well as detailed information on the order of battle, which includes the strength, command structure, and disposition of personnel, units, and equipment of the Azeri military. This is basic intelligence that all nations compile on potential adversaries. In addition, the topography and the strategic objectives that may be selected limit the operational options available to Azerbaijan and, as expected, Karabakh would be aware of these options as well. The crucial factor for Azerbaijan would be in planning the operation, and the capability of the deployed units to successfully carry out the required tactical maneuvers on the battlefield.

Within the command group, the most senior (and “older”) officers would have served in the Soviet military. Many of the “younger” officers in this group would possibly lack the breadth of training and combat experience that would normally be commensurate with their rank and position. Some would have participated in the Karabakh war of the early 1990’s. It’s to be expected that since the ceasefire, a considerable number of these officers have trained in Turkey and participated in field exercises there. During this same period, Turkish officers have been stationed in Azerbaijan to advise on matters relating to planning, tactical operations, unit deployment, identifying strategic objectives and targets in Karabakh, and logistical operations. The command staff plays a vital role in the conduct of the war and its ultimate outcome. It’s a key component of any military operation. Their competence is part of the intelligence that Karabakh and Armenia would have gathered and evaluated in anticipation of renewed hostilities.

Of equal and possibly greater importance are the company grade officers and the non-commissioned officers (NCO’s) who are the “field generals” in combat and who must quickly respond to rapidly changing conditions on the battlefield. The organizational structure and the combat e
ffectiveness of any military is based on the interrelated concepts of integration and coordination where the smallest unit (squad) supports the next higher unit (platoon) on up to company, battle group, etc. The failure of any unit to advance, seize a specific objective, or hold its assigned position can have serious consequences to the units on its flank or in a rearward position. These units (squad, platoon, company) are the backbone of any military operation on the ground. Their effectiveness is directly related to the training and reliability of their officers and NCO’s, and the loyalty and trust the men have in the competence of these officers and NCO’s to lead and effectively respond to the ever-changing conditions on the battlefield. This is a definite problematic area for the Azerbaijani military.

Azerbaijan’s objectives

With the limited window of opportunity Azerbaijan may expect to have before a ceasefire is demanded by the international community, a full-scale operation in the central sector of the Line of Contact (LoC) at Agdam could be expected. The occupation of Agdam would overshadow the heavy loss of men and equipment that might result, and allow Azerbaijan to claim a public relations victory. From Agdam, their forces would attempt to push toward the settlement of Askeran. At the same time a secondary operation to the south would have Fizuli as its immediate objective. If successful, this operation would attempt to reach the settlements of Hadrut and Martuni. The objective would be to “stretch” the front from Askeran in the north through Martuni to Hadrut. This would put Karabakh’s core area (Stepanakert-Shushi) in a vulnerable position. Obviously, this is an overly optimistic assessment of Azerbaijan’s capability to achieve these objectives against a well-prepared and determined Karabakh defense force.

Karabakh’s advantage of topography

Karabakh occupies the mountainous region west of the Kura River floodplain, a low-lying region crisscrossed by numerous tributaries and canals. Generally, the present Line of Contact (LoC) between Azerbaijan and Karabakh follows the crest of the higher mountains that lie primarily along its northern border and the lower crests in the northeast and east. Forward of this eastern LoC lies a triangular area whose base extends for about 100 miles from Horadiz on the Arax River north to Mingacevir, the site of a major Azeri hydroelectric generating facility. From either Horadiz or Mingacevir to Baku (the apex of the triangle) is approximately 135 miles. Within this region encompassing about 6,000 square miles lies the floodplain of the Kura River and the likely location of the Azeri base of operation for any action along this eastern front.

Since the 1994 ceasefire, in anticipation of a possible renewal of hostilities, Karabakh would have strengthened and expanded its defensive positions. Occupying the high ground and in control of the mountain passes, Karabakh would have developed a system of fortified positions and denial measures that would canalize the attacking Azeri forces into predetermined fields of fire. This would allow the smaller Karabakh defense force to lay down a sustained base of fire from their fortified positions, mobile missile units, mortars and tanks that could exact a heavy toll on the Azeri forces. Unlike the more fluid situations during the war to gain independence, it could be expected that the Azeri forces assaulting these heavily fortified positions would suffer a disproportionate ratio of five to eight casualties to one, possibly two Armenian casualties and an equally heavy loss of equipment. Under these conditions, maintaining combat effectiveness and evacuating casualties would present a difficult challenge. The extent to which this would contribute to a serious deterioration of morale would depend on the discipline of the individual Azeri soldier.

The Azeri options

While the Karabakh defense force must be prepared to engage Azeri forces along the entire front defined by the present LoC, the principal attack could be expected in the vicinity of Agdam with significant operations in the vicinity of Fizuli to the south and along the Kashatagh-Mardakert frontier to the north. This northern operation would most likely focus on a drive from the Shahumian district to put pressure on the Agdam-Askeran defenders to the south, where the principal attack would be launched. Depending on the number and type of units previously deployed in the vicinity of Ganca, additional men and equipment to support an operation along this northern LoC would have to be funneled through Yevlakh. This would facilitate the monitoring and immediate engagement of opportune and preselected targets by the Karabakh defense force once hostilities have commenced.

Why might Agdam be the initial objective? As the largest Azeri city closest to the de facto boundary, its occupation within the first few days of hostilities would provide a psychological boost to the military and to Azeri President Aliyev. Given this significance, Azerbaijan would consider the heavy losses of men and equipment as an acceptable price to pay to score a public relations victory. If Karabakh decided to defend the city (there are sufficient reasons why it would not) and succeed, it would be a decisive defeat for Azerbaijan. The occupation of Agdam would allow the Azeri forces to concentrate on their ultimate objective, the settlement of Askeran. However, if the Karabakh defense forces held Agdam or prevented Azerbaijan from exploiting their initial success, the Azeri military command would be forced to rethink its overall strategy.

The operation at Fizuli would seek to retake that city and push the Karabakh forces back toward the settlements of Hadrut and Martuni. If successful, it would put Karabakh’s core area (Stepanakert-Shushi) in a vulnerable position. The front, obviously fragmented, would then stretch from Mardakert to Askeran through Martuni to Hadrut. This would increase the pressure on the Karabakh forces, but it would also require Azerbaijan to commit more men, equipment, and logistical support, and to maintain the real-time evaluation and coordination of battlefield conditions. As the front expands, the Azeri losses in men and equipment should tend to increase significantly. Whether or not Azerbaijan could achieve this operational level is doubtful and it is questionable whether it could or would want to accept the heavy casualties that could result. Also, this is not a strategy that guarantees success.

In anticipation of a major Azeri attack in the Agdam sector (or elsewhere along the LoC), Karabakh would have constructed parallel systems of heavily fortified positions extending in considerable depth utilizing the defensive advantages of topography. The limited availability of high-speed approaches that would allow the rapid deployment of tanks and mechanized infantry to any sector of the LoC extending from the Arax River north almost to Naftalan would prevent a full-scale surprise attack that, on its face, favors Karabakh. Those approaches that do exist can be effectively interdicted by tank, missile, mortar, and artillery fire, which could result in heavy Azeri losses as they attempt to advance to their predetermined line of engagement. A downside to Azerbaijan’s reliance on any extensive use of tank-supported infantry requires constant real-time coordination to prevent the faster moving tanks from outrunning their infantry support, which would leave both tanks and the infantry, whether on foot or in carriers, vulnerable to attack by Karabakh defense forces.

The Karabakh defense force

From a tactical standpoint, the smaller combat-ready Karabakh defense force, operating over shorter interior routes, would have the advantage of being able to regroup and with greater mobility rapidly deploy to any sector of the front as needed. North of the Kashatagh-Mardakert frontier the movement of Azeri troops, m
echanized equipment, and supplies is limited by distance, the lack of roads, and the topography. Traversing this region is the major east to west highway and railroad connecting Baku via Yevlakh and Ganca to Tbilisi, Georgia. The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan Pipeline (terminal located at Sangachal south of Baku) also transits this region, which begins at Yevlakh and is sandwiched between Karabakh to the south and Georgia and Lake Mingacevir to the north. Preselected targets within this region could be immediately engaged by the Karabakh  defense force to impede or prevent any Azeri operation.

Given the advantage that topography and heavily fortified positions provide the Karabakh defense force, Azerbaijan would need to commit forces from two to three times greater than the Karabakh defense force—estimated at 25,000 to 30,000 officers and enlisted personnel. This would require Azerbaijan to deploy a minimum of 50,000 to 65,000 men, which possibly represents the most dependable and better trained units of their military force. Since Azerbaijan would not have the option of conducting a protracted war where attrition of the Karabakh defense force would be an objective, their strategy would rely on a full-scale infantry, tank-supported operation against Agdam with its obvious rewards should it succeed. Such a decision would have to accept the heavy casualties that would be sustained. An enforced ceasefire by the international community before any significant objective is achieved would have serious ramifications for Aliyev and the military. It might end any realistic hope Azerbaijan may have of regaining Artsakh (Karabakh and the liberated territories).

The Azerbaijan decision to resume hostilities would allow Karabakh to immediately engage pre-selected targets in support of its defense. Targets might include Azerbaijan’s system of natural gas transmission lines and the electric power grid. Disrupting the flow of gas or electric power would have an immediate far-reaching impact on a range of civilian and economic activities. Other options might include rapid strike operations to regain control of the eastern margins of the Mardakert and Martuni districts presently occupied by Azerbaijan, or possibly pushing the front north into Shahumian before an expected ceasefire is enforced. In protecting its independence, Karabakh has the right to conduct whatever operations are necessary to defend its independence, including the liberation of additional territory to meet its strategic requirements.

The intangibles of loyalty and dedication

The quality of the men and women, both enlisted and commissioned, is a vital component in assessing a nation’s military strength. The determination of the individual soldier to endure the hardship of combat; his willingness to sacrifice his life if need be; his devotion to the land and the values he is called upon to defend; and the mental and physical strength engendered by the bonds of unit camaraderie and a cohesive civilian population supporting the military, are the intangibles that determine a combatant’s effectiveness on the battlefield. The loyalty and trust the men and women have in the officers who lead them is equally important. Measured by these characteristics, the men and women of the Karabakh defense force are superior to their Azerbaijani counterparts. This was proven during the war that liberated Karabakh during the early 1990’s.

Response of the international community

In the world of realpolitik, how any nation with geostrategic interests in the region would respond to a renewal of hostilities is difficult to predict. How Russia, Iran, Turkey, the United States, and western Europe would determine that their interests are enhanced or weakened by a renewal of hostilities depends on the interplay of too many variables to predict. However limited the geographic area may be initially, the war has the potential to impact the entire Caucasus-Kurdish Anatolian-Iranian Azeri region in ways that cannot be anticipated. Given this uncertainty, the preference of the interested nations would be to maintain the status quo. This would be the basis for an immediate call for a ceasefire. Maintaining the status quo benefits Karabakh. However, with the constant monitoring of the situation by the Minsk Group, Azerbaijan may not have the opportunity to go from strident rhetoric to conflict renewal.

Conclusion

The Azerbaijan leadership will conclude that a military option is the only viable course of action if they believe that Artsakh is on the verge of being irretrievably lost. The public utterances by Aliyev and his subordinates to take Karabakh by military force if necessary should be accepted as a vacuous attempt to intimidate Karabakh (and Armenia) to accept a negotiated settlement as the safer alternative. A negotiated settlement ends any hope that Karabakh can ever become independent. It means the end of historic Armenian Artsakh. And it means that the sacrifices of some 7,000 azatamartiks were in vain. Are these men and women no less martyrs? The Nagorno-Karabakh Republic has a legal and human rights claim to its independence. That fact should never be forgotten. If for a moment Azerbaijan believed that it could defeat Karabakh, military operations would have replaced rhetoric. Karabakh not only represents the key to Armenia’s future political and economic viability, but its defense is an affirmation of Hai Tahd.

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13 Comments

  1. B. Baronian said:

    OK…All well and Dandy…all Armenia has to do is look at 2 countries, study their strategies, implement their theories, ask them for help and get on with it…
    1- Israel…look at their defence strategy, training, and implementation…study the concepts by sending our generals there…to look at their methods….
    2- Singapore….Look at how they came from poverty to World success…study this by sending intelligent people over there and negotiate with Singapore to get it done.
    The rest is bull

  2. Norin Radd said:

    This assessment is accurate and dead on. The only thing it left out is the outpouring reaction from 7 million Armenians in support of their homeland which includes Armenia AND Arstakh. The most dedicated, ruthless, and vicious defenders of Armenia and Arstakh live outside their homeland as Diasporans. Suffice it is said that every single able bodied Armenian in the Diaspora with a sound mind will at the very least given physical, intellectual, or financial aid to crush the Azeris once again, and to underestimate this might may cost Baku another 16% of land.

    The Armenian people will NEVER be oppressed again, and if attempts are made to swindle, hurt, or displace one single Armenian soul in Arstakh or Armenia, those responsible directly or indirectly will be held accountable one way or another, and the international community should heed this fact very carefully before deciding to involve themselves on the wrong side on the matter.

  3. Kamo said:

    This is was a very good report. A bit objective, a bit pro-Armenian. Also, Young Diaspora Armenians would join the Kharabagh forces, and that only benefits Armenians more and more.

  4. Hagop said:

    One thing that was left out is the assistance of the diaspora. This time around the diaspora involvement in the defence of the Nagorno Karabakh Armenians will be multiple to what it was during 1988-1994. Diaspora and Armenians in general are more organized and networked then ever before. The time has also matured I beleive to create a reserve and mobile army of diaspora Armenians.

  5. Elvin said:

    One has to face reality before typing these kinds of facts. There is sufficient threat of war at present and the war will most likely end in the victory of Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan’s current military budget is at present larger than the current OVERALL government budget of the whole Armenia. The purchase of new updated weapons as well as the creation of the defense industry (with the production of the sniper rifle Istiglal and manufacturing of South African military vehicles Matadors and Maradeurs) Azerbaijan’s current military is much more capable and stronger than that of Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia, even with the Russian support to Armenia

      • Varej said:

        As an American of Armenian descent who served in the United States Marine Corps. Wars are won by (grunts) Marine slang for infantry. Armenian soldiers will fight for their country to the death because we will never again be subjugated or slaughtered by Muslim soldiers! The Armenian Diaspora contains thousands of able bodied men who will fight for Mother Armenia and Nagorno-Karabgh! We have the advantage in topography, morale and military leadership. I would rather see a negotiated settlement , however the hatred and bloodshed already shed and the cost in human life will not really solve anything except to reestablish the status quo! ARMENIA will never never ever be subjected to Genocide by another natio!

        • Yustas said:

          Well, jarhead. If those thousands will fight as “well” as they did in Iraq and Afghanistan, their participation is an advantage to azeris.

  6. winner said:

    Wars may be fought with weapons, but they are won by men
    Armenian gave to USSR 4 marshals of military (highest rank in military)
    Ivan Bagramian, Ivan Isakov (Admiral), Hamazasp Babajanian and Armenak Khanferiants (Sergei Khudiakov).

    azerbaijan none 0000000000000
    this should tell somtehiing to azeris

  7. Hans said:

    IMHO This is a very rational and wel written study. What I do miss however is the potential role of the respective air and air defense forces. If a fast ground attack by Azerbaijan would be as difficult as expected, a surprise air attack on e.g. Stepanakert city, Stepanakert airport, Lachin corridor might be feared. One may also bear in mind the Turkish and US training of Azeri forces. The U.S. are traditional albeit not always successful, believers in the use of air superiority. Arzerbaijan’s built up of the air force has far outpaced Armenia’s and NKR’s. Can NKR’s air defence, acknowleging it’s reported capabilities, withstand such attacks in the early hours until other forces might intervene?

  8. Yustas said:

    Man, you guys are scared… ) “So what they spend more, our officers are battle-ready”. And what makes them more battle-ready than Azeris? To the bonehead that suggested Armenians learn from Israelis, who do you think provided Azeris with military technologies? US, Israel and Turkey are AZs allies. And to those asking what Azeris are waiting for? The answer is obvious… While Russia controls the region you will keep barking from behind their backs… So, AZ is waiting for Russia to look away… for just a couple of weeks. And you know, that aaaaall this bravado and marshall-counting and terraine-studying will come to an end. You knoooooow))))

    • Costas said:

      Well, there’s only one answer to that really, isn’t it? One that’s 2000 years old but still the only one that really counts. Molon lave. Come and get it. My prediction? Azerbaijan will not come. And if it does, it will lose more ground. Again.

  9. Pingback: Underground Intrigue: A Conjectural Assessment of Incursion Tunnels in a Future Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict | Karabakh Security Analysis

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