With both countries only a stone’s throw away from each other and holding considerable missile stocks, the risk of civilian deaths and urban devastation are higher than ever before.
Azerbaijan and Armenia are locked in an intense conflict over the long-disputed occupied Karabakh region, with high casualties reported by both countries only days after hostilities broke out.
Armenian authorities in the Karabakh region have reported at least 84 military deaths thus far. Azerbaijan has not confirmed any casualties, but has announced 35 civilian deaths due to Armenian artillery fire. Officials in Armenia claim that hundreds of Azerbaijani soldiers have been killed.
At the same time, Azerbaijan’s ministry of defence claims that at least 2,300 Armenian soldiers were killed and wounded since the fighting broke out.
Azerbaijan is accusing Armenia of targeting the country’s critical energy infrastructure, on top of hostile acts of aggression against Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh region occupied by Armenia in 1991 and internationally recognised as Azerbaijani territory. The resulting war led to over 30,000 deaths and displaced more than a million people.
The rapidly escalating conflict is different from the war fought nearly two decades ago by the two countries.
Azerbaijan’s military has significantly expanded its drone fleet, most recently with Turkey's increasingly sought-after Bayraktar TB2 unmanned drone. It has already seen action, destroying a number of Armenian mobile surface-to-air sites and tanks.
Armenian-backed forces in the occupied Karabakh have also destroyed multiple Azerbaijani tanks and military vehicles using largely Russian-produced anti-tank guided missiles (ATGM).
Fighting began with border clashes on September 27, 2020, after Azerbaijan reported Armenian forces targeted civilian sites and military positions leading to casualties.
Shortly after parliamentary approval, Azerbaijan spearheaded an advance through the border separating Azerbaijan’s military from the self-declared Republic of Artsakh, which controls the majority of occupied Karabakh.
Azerbaijan and Artsakh have both declared martial law, while Armenia’s proxy state has called for the full mobilisation of its military.
In spite of a ceasefire deal in 1994, periodic flare-ups of conflict and steady low-intensity fighting, have been the norm since then. The last major fight took place in 2016, followed by another conflict escalation in July 2020.
While it is difficult to independently verify losses on both sides, or how much territory may have been retaken, both countries have shared multiple videos of their strikes against enemy vehicles.
The Azerbaijani Ministry of Defence released a series of videos showcasing drone strikes of what appears to be Armenian militaries. This is in addition to several videos circulating on social media.
Based on these clips, Azerbaijani air and land forces seem to have destroyed at least nine surface-to-air missile systems, both of Russian origin.
While the Azerbaijani ministry of defence has not announced what type of drones were being used in these precision strikes, they likely made use of Turkish flagship unmanned drones, the Bayraktar TB2, which it began procuring only months prior.
The TB2 drone is capable of firing small precision-guided bombs, and has a proven track record in combat, particularly against short-range air defences in Syria and Libya. In both countries, the unmanned drones were behind the destruction of multiple Russian-made Pantsir air defence systems.
While it is not immediately clear if they have been used in the conflict thus far, they have seen limited use in past skirmishes. On the other hand, Armenia’s drone capabilities are nowhere near the ones in Azerbaijan’s possession.
Videos also show Azerbaijani tanks, infantry combat vehicles and at least one wheeled armoured infantry vehicle demolished using guided anti-tank missiles.
In past years, these weapons have seen an increase in use in a number of conflicts including Syria, where they have emerged as vital force multipliers especially for non-state actors. These anti-tank missiles are being used in mountainous areas of occupied Karabakh, where it’s already difficult for heavy vehicles to manoeuvre.
Armenian forces also allegedly shot down four helicopters and multiple drones. Azerbaijani authorities acknowledged the loss of one helicopter, but reported that its crew survived. A video circulating on social media showing the Azerbaijani helicopter’s crash, was later established to be misinformation, and taken from a different incident in Syria.
While the conflict is rapidly escalating, Azerbaijan has yet to make use of its more advanced weaponry or fully mobilise its forces.
Armenia on the other hand, is fielding some of its latest defence acquisitions, which includes the fighter jet that was downed on Tuesday, September 29. A year ago, Armenia received 4 out of 12 purchased Russian state-of-the-art Su-30SM fighter jets, as well as more than a dozen older models.
As vicious as the conflict has been since it emerged, both countries have yet to resort to their considerable short-range ballistic missile arsenal, which has been steadily growing for years.
Armenia’s ministry of defence has threatened to use these stocks wholesale if any Turkish fighter jets support Azerbaijan, raising the risk of civilian casualties and total war.
In line with this, Armenia has started relocating its S-300 missile systems from its capital Yerevan to border areas along occupied Azerbaijani territory, according to Azerbaijan’s Defence Ministry.
Armenia is heavily invested in the Russian Iskander-E short-range ballistic missile, which features borderline illegal cluster bomb warheads. The missile was in violation of international arms control agreements, necessitating its redesign with a maximum range.
Azerbaijan issues footage of Smerch/Kasirga MLRS strikes on Armenian positionspic.twitter.com/yuvK6liGeL— The Wolfpack🔎 (@TheWolfpackIN) September 27, 2020
Armenia and Azerbaijan also have a significant number of Scud missiles it gained after the USSR’s breakup, while Azerbaijan has procured modern Israeli short-range ballistic missiles since.
Azerbaijan’s capital Baku, and its vital oil fields, are only 560 kilometres from Armenia’s eastern border, while Armenia is itself no more than 160 km wide at most. This would make ballistic warfare devastating.
Both countries are within immediate range of the other’s arsenals. Azerbaijan already reports strikes on its power and energy infrastructure, which poses risks to oil and gas supply headed towards Europe.
Your occasional reminder that Armenia and Azerbaijan have a small ballistic missile arms race going on with Armenia operating Tochkas, Scuds and Iskanders, Azerbaijan operating Loras and Tochkas and Karabakh's army using a few Scuds. https://t.co/EV0RsFGPdB— Fabian Hinz (@fab_hinz) September 28, 2020
Meanwhile, the conflict continues to be defined by Azerbaijan’s heavy reliance on artillery and drones; Armenia seems to be favouring anti-tank missile teams. While the current potential to incur significant losses on both sides is high, it remains to be seen whether the conflict will move towards full mobilisation and total war.