9. Commentary: Azerbaijan's military option in Karabakh
by Michael G. Mensoian
Frustrated by its inability to gain control of Karabakh through
blockades and international lobbying, Azerbaijan now faces a difficult
decision: resigning itself to an Armenian fait accompli or launching a
new war to achieve its objective.
Already indicating its penchant for a military solution, Azerbaijan
boasts that it will steadily increase its military budget until it
equals and, if necessary, surpasses the total national budget of
Armenia-NKR. In large measure this inflammatory rhetoric by President
Ilham Aliyev is primarily for consumption within Azerbaijan where he
faces mounting expectations for military revanche.
Azerbaijan realizes that any initial leverage it may have had in its
negotiations with Armenia-NKR is no longer relevant. During this time
the NKR has become a viable political and economic entity under the
most difficult conditions.
However, a military option is not without serious consequences. The
increase in military strength of the magnitude contemplated by
Azerbaijan could be challenged by Russia and Iran, either of whom
would have reason to believe that their interests were being
threatened. Turkey could well be put on notice to rein in her ally.
For the United States, any deterioration of the situation south of the
Caucasus would be inimical to its interests there and in Central Asia.
* The larger balance of forces
Although Armenia-NKR would be hard-pressed to match the proposed Azeri
military outlay, tanks need not be challenged by tanks and aircraft by
aircraft. Less expensive effective counter measures exist. Moreover,
quantitative superiority of equipment per se is seldom the crucial
factor in any military engagement.
The qualitative superiority of the men and women using that
equipment is. Their willingness to endure hardship and sacrifice life
if need be; their loyalty to country and the cause for which they
struggle and their attachment to the land they defend are absolutely
vital factors in determining a combatant's effectiveness on the
This was shown during the war to liberate Nagorno-Karabakh where the
Armenian forces proved their superiority to the Azeri. Our men and
women have no illusions as to what an Azeri victory would mean. The
Genocide may be nearly a century distant, but it is seared in the soul
of Armenians no matter when or where they were born.
Some Armenians fear that an attack by a rearmed Azerbaijan could
easily overcome the small NKR defense force. This is overly
pessimistic. It is not likely that Armenia-NKR would be alone in this
An obvious ally would be Russia, intent upon regaining hegemony
within the region. The loss of Armenia-NKR would throw Russia back to
the northern slopes of the Caucasus Mountains, allowing Turkey and
Iran to fight for dominance south of the Caucasus.
A second likely ally would be Iran. Why this Islamic state would
support Armenia-NKR is clear. Although the population of Iran is
predominately Shi'a, it is a multiethnic state where only some fifty
per cent of its inhabitants are ethnic Persians. Approximately twenty
per cent of the population of Iran is ethnic Azeri. Although a Turkic
people, most belong to the same Shi'a sect as the Persians.
Politically significant is their concentration in the northwestern
part of the country adjacent to Azerbaijan. A victorious Azerbaijan
could be the catalyst precipitating an irredentist movement by the
Iran, as well as Russia, could represent a counterweight to any
additional deployment of Turkish troops along the Armenian border or
their occupation of Nakhichevan, presumably at the behest of
Azerbaijan. Should this occur, Turkey could pressure Armenia along
another 220 kilometers of its southern border which would require
Armenia to increase its units stationed in the Vayots Dzor and Syunik
* Tactical challenges
The Azerbaijani implementation of the military option would be borne
out of desperation rather than on a rational assessment of success or
failure. The planned military operation, to have any chance of
success, would need to achieve its objective within a short time span
measured in weeks. Their military offensive would have to hit hard and
fast; a political and tactical necessity.
A prolonged struggle reminiscent of the liberation movement that led
to the creation of the NKR would not be tolerated by the international
community. Azerbaijan could expect an almost immediate call for a
cease-fire once hostilities were initiated.
Since the last ceasefire the NKR, having anticipated a likely
resumption of hostilities at some future time, has developed a system
of individual and connected bunkers and various denial measures to
canalize tanks and foot soldiers into prepared fields of fire. The
battlefield topography facilitates this defensive objective.
In addition, Azeri forces would come under withering assault fire
from mobile units and fortified emplacements as they attempted to
dislodge the NKR forces entrenched on the high ground and in control
of the strategic passes. It would not be unexpected that the attacking
Azeri forces would suffer a disproportionate ratio of possibly five to
eight casualties to one Armenian casualty.
Evacuating the dead and wounded and maintaining morale at the
company, platoon and squad level under constant harassing fire would
significantly reduce the ability of the Azeri forces to fulfill their
mission. The soldier facing death on the battlefield without a cause
worthy to die for, easily becomes demoralized.
Before adopting such a dangerous option, there are several
questions that the Azeri military command must objectively answer.
1) The ability to adhere to a realistic timetable of their choosing
that would allow them to bring existing units to combat strength,
create new units and train a cadre of officers and noncommissioned
officers necessary to bring all units to an acceptable level of
readiness? A conservative estimate would be from four to six years.
2) During that time period, the consequences if internal or external
pressures forced a premature strike?
3) Their capability to deploy, support and coordinate the infantry
and mechanized units necessary to achieve their objectives within a
relatively narrow window of opportunity?
4) Are they prepared to sustain the heavy losses, both in men and
materiel that a full scale offensive operation would generate?
At the same time, the smaller, more mobile NKR defense force,
operating within the periphery formed by the line of contact, would
have the tactical advantage of being able to rapidly regroup and
redeploy men and materiel along any sector of the front as needed.
During Azerbaijan's preparatory period, the NKR would have access to
valuable intelligence to aid in planning defensive and counter
offensive measures. There is no question that numerous targets of
significance will have been identified. Missiles already deployed can
easily reach any part of Azerbaijan. Whether the NKR response is
primarily defensive or extends beyond the original line of contact by
means of offensive operations will depend on the situation as it
unfolds on the battlefield.
Tactically, Azerbaijan would have to commit forces at least two to
three times greater than the anticipated NKR defense force that has
the advantage of fortified positions and high ground. This would
require putting at least sixty-five to seventy-five thousand men in
the field; likely the "dependable and better trained" units of the
However, this concentration of combat power has its serious
downside. From the mountainous eastern frontier of NKR the land slopes
eastward to the low lying Kura River floodplain. Massing this number
of troops between Yevalkh south to the Arax River would make holding
areas, supply depots and supply lines vulnerable to artillery and
medium range missile attack. The NKR defense force has the capability
to interdict any area of operations available to the Azeri forces.
It is questionable if Azerbaijan has an effective complement of
general and field grade officers with tactical experience commensurate
with their rank. These are the officers who fill the staff and command
positions responsible for planning operations and tactical decision
making on the battlefield. Of equal importance is the competence of
the company grade officers and the non-commissioned officers who are
the true "field generals" in combat. Brigade, battalion and company
level units are only as effective as the competence of their officers
The element of surprise, always a valuable asset in any offensive
operation, would be difficult for the Azeri to maintain given the
ability of the NKR defense force to effectively monitor the deployment
of troops and materiel. Absent the element of surprise, these
objectives become more difficult to achieve.
* International, local factors combine to prevent escalation
During this "military build-up" period, encompassing from four to six
years, the chief conflict mediators from France, Russia and the U.S.,
would confront Azerbaijan. Armenia-NKR could be expected to withstand
any pressure to compromise.
The role that NATO might play in "limiting" Turkey, a NATO member,
in support of Azerbaijan could be significant. How that organization
could allow a member country to aid and abet aggression as a means to
settle a dispute would be difficult to justify. For Azerbaijan,
ignoring these diplomatic overtures and continuing its military
build-up could erode any support it may have with respect to the
Karabakh issue, let alone should it initiate hostilities.
The military command however, is not likely to be influenced by any
diplomatic entreaties. As mentioned earlier, Russia would welcome this
opportunity to increase its military presence in the Caucasus. This
development is something for Georgia to ponder.
This analysis is based on a hypothetical, yet likely scenario.
International relations will always be determined by national
interests. Given that axiom, Armenia-NKR should be able to anticipate
the support of Russia and Iran, at least covertly. A viable
Armenia-NKR better serves their interests than would a victorious
Turkey-Azerbaijan alliance. Georgia may finally realize that it has
more to gain and less to fear from a vibrant peaceful Armenia than
from its minority position within a Turkish- Azerbajani partnership.
Not only Russia and Iran, but Turkey and the United States have a
significant stake in any ill advised military venture that Azerbaijan
might undertake. Unqualified support by Turkey or the United States
some years hence is not guaranteed.
Finally, the Azeri military command's ability to build, integrate,
maintain and control an expanded military establishment; to improve
the combat readiness of its units; to instill loyalty and love of
country in its troops; and to plan, supply and execute a rapidly
evolving military offensive under real time battlefield conditions is
far from an easy task.
Should Azerbaijan seek a military offensive as their solution, there
should be no doubt concerning the Nagarno Karabakh Republic's ability
to defend its independence. This analysis does not take into account
the offensive operations that Armenia-NKR might undertake or the
assistance other nations may provide.
Should Azerbaijan-Turkey seek to impose an ill-advised military
solution on Armenia-NKR, it should be accepted by all Armenians and
friendly nations as a continuation of the Genocide unleashed by Turkey
in 1915. The remarkable post-independence development of Armenia-NKR
speaks to their ability to successfully counter any threat to their
existence that may come from a Turkish-Azeri alliance.
* * *
Michael G. Mensoian Ph.D., J.D., Maj (U.S. Army Ret) is geography
professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.