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Conflict on the border of Armenia and Azerbaijan: will there be a war and what does Russia have to do with it

The aggravation on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border was the largest incident since 2016. However, it bears very little resemblance to the full-scale war feared in the region. Air force.

Photo: Shutterstock

The likelihood of such a conflict, especially its outcome, is difficult to predict even without taking into account the political will of Yerevan and Baku.

On the one hand, Armenia and Azerbaijan have been actively purchasing new weapons in recent years, and now each side is more ready for war.

But the nature of the potential theater of military operations, the readiness of each side for defense and the composition of weapons, according to military experts, complicate the conduct of hostilities so much that the existing forces in the region will not be enough for either side to succeed.

The clashes on the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan are an episode in an ethnic conflict centered on a territorial dispute over the status of Nagorno-Karabakh. In Soviet times, this territory was part of the Azerbaijan SSR in the status of an autonomous region, but was populated mainly by Armenians. Disputes over her ownership led to a full-scale war that ended in 1994 with a truce.

Now the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh and seven adjacent regions are under the control of the Armenian forces - the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR). Baku considers this territory occupied. Yerevan does not officially recognize the independence of the NKR, but calls itself the guarantor of its security, and the republic's budget and army are closely linked with Armenia.

Strength against strength

There are no exact data on the armament of the armies of Armenia and Azerbaijan in the public domain. Both sides also try not to disclose the number, quantity and range of weapons and military equipment. The situation is aggravated by the fact that on the Armenian side, part of the military equipment is located on the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, and even less is known about it.

After the collapse of the USSR and the war in Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenia and Azerbaijan still had outdated weapons in their hands, and the purchases made after it largely determined the fighting efficiency of each country.

It was possible to assess this level based on the results of the conflict in April 2016, also known as the “four-day war”.

As a result of this clash, the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh lost control over the area, according to various sources, from 500 to 800 hectares, but the main thing is that the war demonstrated the superiority of Azerbaijan in offensive weapons, which, however, did not allow Azerbaijani troops to take control of a significant territory.

By the time of this conflict, Azerbaijan was noticeably ahead of Armenia in terms of the number of new weapons in the army. Moreover, this concerned not only quantitative superiority, but also qualitative.

According to the CIA, in 2014, Azerbaijan spent 5,1% of GDP on military needs, while Armenia - 4,29%. In both cases, these numbers grew in all previous years, but the ratio remained the same - Baku armed itself much more actively than Yerevan. This was especially noticeable in such an important area as aviation, where Azerbaijan had a noticeable superiority in combat aircraft.

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Tanks and planes

According to BBC estimates, in 2016 it could be said that Azerbaijan had from 314 to 750 tanks, Armenia - from 100 to 166; Azerbaijan had 1100-1500 armored vehicles, Armenia 140-636; heavy artillery systems, respectively, 240-469 and 150-240. However, even such very rough estimates could be wrong, especially considering the weapons that were in Nagorno-Karabakh.

The UN Register of Conventional Arms states that from 2006 to 2011, up to 27 MiG-29 fighters were delivered to Azerbaijan from Ukraine, and up to 11 Su-25 attack aircraft from Belarus. The data in the register are indicated from the reports of two countries (suppliers and buyers) and differ from each other - in this material we give a large figure.

It also mentions the supply of 12 Ukrainian Mi-24 attack helicopters and the supply of 2013 unnamed helicopters from Russia in 25. Most likely we are talking about a contract for the supply of 24 shock Mi-35 - a deeply modernized version of the Mi-24. An additional 12 unnamed helicopters were delivered from Russia in previous years.

In the Armenian part of the UN register, it is said about the deliveries in 2004 of 10 Su-25 attack aircraft from Slovakia and four combat training L-39S from Ukraine in 2004 and 2010. The deliveries of military helicopters to Armenia are not registered in the UN register.

According to the same source, for 2016 Azerbaijan purchased 482 tanks (122 T-72 from Belarus, 48 ​​T-72, 50 obsolete T-55 and 100 unnamed from Ukraine, 162 unnamed from Russia, but it is known that Moscow supplied Baku with the latest that moment version of the T-90 tank).

Russia reported on deliveries of 35 tanks to Armenia in 2013. In 2014, she delivered one tank - it was the prize won by the Armenian crew at the tank biathlon competition in Moscow.

According to the register, Azerbaijan imported about 2016 armored vehicles by 400, Armenia - 110; Azerbaijan - about 900 artillery systems, Armenia - 12.

However, these data are very approximate - each country got the weapons of the Soviet army, which are almost impossible to take into account. In addition, Armenia is deploying part of its weapons on the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.

For example, according to Leonid Nersisyan, head of the defense research department of the Armenian Research & Development Institute, now, in 2020, Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh may have a total of 300 to 400 tanks. Of these, in Karabakh - about 250.

Catch up with Baku

The April War changed Yerevan's attitude towards arms spending.

First of all, the volume of purchases was increased. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the volume of Armenia's military imports from 2014 to 2019 is three and a half times more than from 2009 to 2014, despite the fact that in 2014-2015 ., according to the institute, the country did not make any serious purchases.

There is no information for 2020 in the SIPRI database, but judging by press reports, Yerevan continues to actively arm itself - in March, a 40 millionth contract was signed with India for the supply of four Swathi Weapon Locating Radar artillery radars for counter-battery warfare (effective in countering, which occurs along the border with Azerbaijan).

In June, a licensed production plant for Kalashnikov AK-103 assault rifles began operating in Armenia.

Not only the quantity of purchases has changed, but also the quality.

“For the first time, Armenia began to buy a lot of new weapons from factories, and not rely only on supplies from the storage of the armed forces of the Russian Federation,” Leonid Nersisyan explained.

This became possible thanks to two large loans for 100 and 200 million dollars, which Moscow provided to Yerevan at 3% per annum.

“The Smerch multiple launch rocket systems, a large number of anti-tank weapons, portable anti-aircraft missile systems, kits for the modernization of armored vehicles, tank engines, modern communications equipment in large quantities, the“ Aqueduct ”radio station both for equipment and for personnel [... ] anti-aircraft missile systems "Tor M2KM", well, and various smaller things for the army. Of the portable air defense systems Armenia “Verbu” (the newest Russian MANPADS 9K333) was the first to buy, no one else bought it, ”the head of the Department of Defense Research said.

At the same time, Armenia not with credit, but with its own money bought in Russia in 2016 (delivery took place after the war) a division of Iskander-E missile systems and in 2019 - Su-30SM fighters. Four fighters have already arrived in Armenia, eight more are expected to arrive later.

These weapons are dramatically changing the balance of power in the region - the 12 newest heavy Su-30SM fighters are indeed a much more serious force than the light front-line MiG-29s.

True, in the case of Armenia, the new aircraft turned out to be a little "big" for a small theater - the Su-30, with their long range, are designed for larger-scale combat operations.

In addition, both countries are armed with long-range and effective air defense systems S-300, and in the event of a full-scale conflict, Armenian aircraft, risking rather expensive aircraft, will often have to operate in the air defense zone.

However, Armenia was able to purchase these expensive fighters at a very discounted price as a member of the CSTO, and parity will arise between the two countries in military aviation after receiving the remaining eight aircraft.

Iskander complexes are also highly effective weapons, even in the export version, with a range reduced to 280 kilometers and reduced performance. Such complexes can be used against ground-based strategic targets, such as headquarters or positions of anti-aircraft missile systems.

Finally, Russian troops are also located in Armenia - the 102nd Russian military base in Gyumri and the airfield in Erebuni near Yerevan, where Russian fighters are based.

In addition, Armenia is a member of the CIS joint air defense system and is likely to receive information from Russian radars. The military of Russian and Armenian air defense systems are conducting combat coordination exercises.

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Baku: goodbye to Russian weapons?

Against the background of Armenia, Azerbaijan greatly reduced its arms purchases just before the war. If you look at the dynamics of arms imports in the SIPRI database for ten years from 2009 to 2019, you will see that the volume of annual exports begins to decline sharply in 2015 and continues in subsequent years.

For several years before the war, Azerbaijan was one of the main buyers of Russian weapons, and Russia was the largest, main supplier. The total amount of completed contracts, according to official figures, is $ 5 billion.

Baku tried to buy all the best - multiple launch rocket systems "Smerch", heavy flamethrower systems TOS-1A "Solntsepek", BMP-3, a division of self-propelled artillery mounts "Msta-S", two battalions of long-range air defense systems S-300 and several "Tor-M2E".

After 2016, supplies from Russia fell sharply, and Israel took the first place among suppliers. Azerbaijan bought from Israel multiple launch rocket systems, light armored vehicles, several self-propelled howitzers and drones. However, the total volume was still less than in previous years.

Azerbaijani military expert Uzeyir Jafarov explained that this process has nothing to do with politics - Azerbaijan has simply already bought everything it needed in Russia.

“Azerbaijan now has enough of those weapons and equipment that we acquired some time ago. Why should we spend extra money on weapons that today fully satisfy all the needs of the Azerbaijani armed forces? Azerbaijan today directs funds from the state budget for other purposes - improving the material and technical condition, personnel and other needs, ”he told the BBC.

Drone war

Armenia loses a lot in quantity and, which is very important, in the quality of unmanned aerial vehicles. Meanwhile, drones are usually very widely used in such conflicts - for reconnaissance strikes on individual targets, headquarters, fortified positions, warehouses, and so on.

The main supplier of tactical drones for the Azerbaijani army is Israel, which is considered one of the world leaders in this field.

Even before 2016, Israel supplied Azerbaijan with Spike-LR anti-tank missile systems and Lynx MLRS, as well as Heron and Searcher unmanned aerial vehicles.

In July, Azerbaijan disseminated footage of drone strikes against Armenian targets, claiming they were military targets. “If we said that we fired at a military barracks, we showed it. If we said that we fired at military equipment, we showed it, ”said Uzeir Jafarov.

According to the Azerbaijani expert, the Azerbaijani drones made it possible to avoid casualties among the civilian population, while as a result of the Armenian strikes one person died.

Leonid Nersisyan, in turn, said that Armenia has relied on the production of its own drones, which, as the expert himself admits, are lagging behind Israeli ones in terms of combat characteristics, but at the same time much cheaper.

During the July incident, among the casualties on the Azerbaijani side were two officers from the headquarters of the 3rd Army Corps - Chief of Staff General Polad Gashimov and Chief of the Corps Artillery Colonel Ilgar Mirzaev.

According to Nersisyan, they were killed as a result of the strike of an Armenian kamikaze drone, but there is no confirmation of this data from independent sources. Azerbaijan confirmed the death of these officers, but did not disclose the circumstances of their death. Uzeyir Jafarov told the BBC Azerbaijan Service that Polad Gashimov came under shelling when he was inspecting a military unit in the conflict zone.

In any case, Armenia, like Azerbaijan, publishes on the Internet footage taken, according to the Armenian military, by drone cameras during precise strikes against Azerbaijani targets, and assures that its unmanned systems are not inferior to Israeli ones.

Could a war start?

The current aggravation is not a full-scale war over enemy territory, but a struggle for control over a strategic height. True, neither Baku nor Yerevan has territorial claims in this region.

However, as noted by military experts with whom the BBC Russian Service spoke, Armenia and Azerbaijan found themselves in a situation where a military solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh problem is impossible.

After the end of active hostilities in Nagorno-Karabakh in 1994, the armed formations of the unrecognized republic began to actively strengthen their defenses. More than two decades later, the confrontation line has turned into an echeloned defensive fortified area.

Andrei Frolov, editor-in-chief of the Russian Arms Export magazine, believes that if a full-scale war breaks out between Armenia and Azerbaijan, it will become very bloody, and both sides understand this.

“Apparently, the Azerbaijani side will attack. In any case, when you are attacking a prepared defense, no matter how superior you are, there will still be losses. And given the fact that they do not have an overwhelming superiority, in order to knock out Armenia for months so that it itself will ask for peace, it means that people will have to be thrown into prepared engineering structures. Azerbaijan does not have so much potential, it is not the United States and Iraq, ”the expert said.

Another Russian military expert, editor-in-chief of the magazine Arsenal of the Fatherland, Viktor Murakhovsky, told the BBC that, in his opinion, none of the armies of these two countries has sufficient combat capability to win such a war.

“Neither in terms of the number of personnel, nor the saturation of weapons, nor the level of training of personnel, commanders of headquarters of units and formations. And, given the complexity of the physical and geographical theater of military operations, I am one hundred percent convinced that Azerbaijan, even with a general formal superiority in these components, is not capable of achieving decisive success, ”he said.

According to him, in the mountainous terrain there are very few "operational directions in which it is possible to conduct combat operations in the spirit of a traditional war with a breakthrough of the front, development of success in depth, encirclement of enemy groupings, and so on."

According to Murakhovsky, neither side has strong combat aircraft, but at the same time, the air defense systems, on the contrary, are quite effective, so that it will be impossible to provide air support to either side.

In any case, the expert believes, the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict can be resolved only by political means.

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