Just like the Balkan Wars before World War I, there are interesting lessons to be drawn from the conflict, and as such I find it rather fascinating – if not surprising, given the quality of our chattering class – that it has receiving such scant journalistic and analytical attention. This is not just an insurgency or slugfest between poorly armed and trained semi-Third World militias militias. Both sides have reasonable modern armies which have bought up billions worth of NATO and Russian equipment and are manned by soldiers of reasonably high (by global, if not European, standards) and broadly comparable human capital. This makes this the most relevant conflict to how a larger conflagration between the Great Powers might look like that we’ve had in decades!
One as yet weak and preliminary observation (also made yesterday by Aris Roussinos) is that anti-aircraft systems struggle against drones, and armor struggles against both ATGMs and drones. This is accompanied by a ton of caveats. Mountainous terrain prejudices both armor (limits maneuverability; tank guns have limited angles of inclination) and anti-air systems (blocks radar, while drone AI can hug the landscape to avoid detection). Most Armenian tanks are T-72’s, AFAIK most of them don’t have either active defense or reactive armor, and most of their air defense systems, like the ubiquitous Osas, are old and dated. They don’t have Pantsirs which have been proven effective against cheap suicide drones at Khmeimim. On the other hand, it’s not like the Turkish TB2 drones that are wreaking havoc on Armenian armor and logistics lines are top of the line stuff amongst military drones. Even so, at just $5 million per unit, no physically present operators, and economies of scale that could potentially make them much cheaper still – and seemingly outperforming other systems by a vast margin, relative to their cost – they can be expected to play a central role in future warfare.
While the commentariat has yet to settle on a final name for the conflict, at this point it quite clearly is a war, with commenter Annatar making this point well:
I think we can use data from ww2 to estimate Armenian losses as casualty rates are likely similar as this is conventional warfare, casualty rates in Normandy were 4 per 1000 men/day, the Armenians have 20,000 men engaged, that’s the size of the Artsakh defense force, maybe they have a few thousand men from Armenia as well, to maybe 25,000 engaged overall, the fighting had been going on for 4 days, that should suggest 400 casualties, the fatality rate being 20-25%, let us say, again ww2 levels would suggest 80-100 dead Armenians.
The Armenian dead are now at 152+. Azerbaijan is more serious about military secrecy – perhaps also less concerned about its image with Western publics – so it’s not divulging any official data. The Armenians claim they killed 830 Azeris, but that is surely a huge overestimate. While it’s likely that the Azeris have sustained more casualties than the Armenians – they are, after all, assaulting heavily-fortified positions in mountainous terrain, which privileges the defender with an even better combat effectiveness multiplier than the standard 1.3 for the defense – I do not believe that the ratio is anywhere near 1:5. It’s not like the Azeris are doing human wave assaults like in 1993, when we actually did see such ratios. Besides, there are so many videos of Armenian troop concentrations being taken out by drone missile strikes that there’s a good chance that they’re understating their losses too. My guess is that it’s something like 1:1.5 or 1:2.
This picture is perhaps reinforced by the data we have on material losses. Unfortunately, LostArmor.info, the classic resource for this during the Donbass War, does not yet appear to be offering that service for the Karabakh conflict. However, a person called Stijn Mitzer has a blog post where he attempts to track the losses on both sides. As of the time of writing, they are as follows:
|Armored Fighting Vehicles||4|
|Infantry Fighting Vehicles||9||13|
|Multiple Rocket Launchers||11|
|Trucks & Vehicles||35|
This certainly does not look like a story of Armenians mowing down masses of zerg rushing Azeris, even if one should adjust for Azeris being better at hiding losses.
This is bad for Armenia. They resoundingly won during the previous conflict during 1992-1994, when Azerbaijan’s population advantage over it was just twofold (3.5 million vs. 7 million) but incurred five times as many casualties, eventually causing morale to crack. Now, the Azeri population advantage is over threefold, with Armenia’s population having since fallen to 3 million while the Azeris, not having experienced a severe post-Soviet fertility collapse and not having had as much emigration, have instead closed in on 10 million. Population is power.
Meanwhile, as I have previously pointed out, the “correlation of forces” has been sharply tilting against Armenia over the past 15 years, as measured by military spending or my CMP index.
The Armenians do have a patriotic diaspora they can draw upon, but the Azeris have an even readier stock of cannon fodder in the form of Turkish-sponsored Syrian mercenaries, some 2,000-4,000 of whom have been flown over by the Turks. Morale is low amongst them, since many of them are jihadists who resent having to fight for a secular Shi’ite state for ethnonationalist reasons that do not concern them. But it doesn’t matter, their point is to serve as meatbags in lieu of Azeri conscripts. Azerbaijan might be a dictatorship, but public opinion does still count, and morale will quickly wane if there’s too many casualties.
Another problem that the Armenians face, as suggested by the above map, is that their logistics is pretty shaky. There are only two major roads running from Armenia proper to Stepanakert, the capital of the Artsakh exclave. The northern M11 is vulnerable to being cut off, while just today, the bridge on the central M12 road over the Hakari River near Berdzor has been targeted by drones. At this point in time, the Azeris must have already drastically degraded the air defenses over Artsakh, so they might soon be able to bring their 12 Su-25s and 12 MiG-29s into play.
Finally, Azerbaijan is getting the better reception internally. To be sure, world public opinion is firmly on Armenia’s side – but how many divisions does world public opinion have? Nations as diverse and geopolitically opposed as the US, France, Russia, Iran, and Saudi Arabia have expressed varying degrees of implicit support for Armenia. But they are not getting involved, while Israel has been sending Azerbaijan more drones, and Turkey has not just explicitly endorsed Azerbaijan’s maximalist war aims but does everything for it short of direct military interference. The Armenian Lobby might be powerful, but the Israel Lobby it is not.
Meanwhile, Putin’s “chef” and mercenary chief Evgeny Prigozhin has expressed his opinion that Karabakh is Azeri, which suggests that we won’t be seeing Wagnerites there anytime soon. Russian public opinion is not enthused about intervention. This is understandable, considering that the color revolution which overthrew the old Armenian regime of Robert Kocharyan and his Karabakh vets was accompanied by anti-Russian rhetoric (to the effect of “stop occupying Armenia“) and was followed by the imprisonment of Russophile Armenian politicians. In 2016, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan refused to integrate the Armenian air defense system with Russia’s (“[We should] develop a system of air defence of sovereign Armenia. Why should we transfer our own air defence system under the command of Russia?“) and stated that “[Russia] cannot be considered a real guarantor of Armenia’s security.” The logic amongst some of the kremlins must be, if they insist that it is so – then let them be. I think allowing the Azeris to reconquer Artsakh would be a bad idea for Russian national interests too, due to knock-on consequences on its position in the Donbass and the ex-USSR in general, but it’s understandable why at least some members of the Russian elites might not hold that view.
So I think the most likely outcome is that Russia continues feeding Armenia arms, but Turkey and Israel can do the same for Azerbaijan, but as per above, offsetting the Armenian defensive advantage, Azerbaijan has four times Armenia’s military manpower, a better logistical position, and advances may also become progressively easier as its drones wear down Armenian resistance and the first lines of the defense are overrun. For what it’s worth, Armenia has already expressed readiness for a ceasefire.
And as if all that isn’t enough, Iran has been seeing protests from its large Azeri minority in support of Azerbaijan, which runs contrary to its official pro-Armenian position. It seems that diversity is not Iran’s strength either.
The main question now is whether the Azeris would be content with eking out a symbolic win and calling it quits, such as taking the town of Fuzuli in the east – an outcome that will be satisfactory and perhaps to the kremlins (Armenians humbled, Azeris and Turks don’t grow too big for their breeches). Or whether Aliev is intent on going all-in and trying to reclaim all of Artsakh – the regime’s rhetoric, both now and in the past, suggests that that is the goal, and that territorial pretensions may well extend beyond unrecognized Artsakh into Armenia proper.
There’s no way to tell at this point. If I were him, I’d probably try to finish the job unless Russia began threatening an outright intervention. Oil revenues are down, so Azerbaijan will not be able to lavishly fund its military as it did during the 2005-2015 period; the resultant military preponderance that had been acquired over Armenia is also going to start going down again. As I pointed out during previous, smaller clashes in 2018, Azerbaijan’s window of superiority is likely time-limited. I suppose we might see in another 1-2 weeks.