“Burya na Kavkaze” [Storm in the Caucasus]
Russian Studies Series 1/22
by Rob Lee1
“Burya na Kavkaze” [Storm in the Caucasus]
Edited by Ruslan Pukhov, Moscow, CAST, 2021
The 44-Day War between Armenia and Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh from September to November 2020, which concluded with a decisive victory for Azerbaijan, aroused substantial international interest not least because of the critical role played by unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAV), loitering munitions, and long-range precision-guided munitions. The conflict proved that countries still use superior military force to seize terrain from other countries in the 21st Century, and it has received attention for the possible lessons it offers for future warfare.
It was also the most recent conflict to be covered extensively on social media, which provided a tremendous amount of information for open-source researchers, and both Baku and Yerevan made information operations a key component of their strategies. Despite the large number of videos and information spread across social media, both sides deliberately tried to hide their mistakes and failures and provided false information about the war. Only now, more than a year since the war ended, are many of the secrets and details being released, which provides a fuller understanding of the war and its lessons.
The Russian defense-focused think tank the Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (CAST) has published Storm in the Caucasus, a collection of essays from Russian, Armenian, Turkish, and British authors examining the Second Karabakh War. The book delves into a variety of topics but most chapters either attempt to explain how Azerbaijan won the war, including details of the weapons employed and lessons for modern warfare, or the geopolitical ramifications of the conflict, particularly for Russia and Turkey. The foreword was written by former Chief of the General Staff Yuri Baluyevsky – now an advisor to the leadership of the Russian national guard – and the epilogue by the director of the Carnegie Moscow Center Dmitri Trenin.
CAST has previously published accounts of the 2008 Russo-Georgian War and the Russian annexation of Crimea. CAST also published book assessing the four-day war between Armenia and Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh in 2016, Waiting for the Storm: South Caucasus (also reviewed in this series),2 which analyzed that conflict looking in depth at both countries’ military reforms and procurement decisions preceding that conflict.
This offers much useful background for Storm in the Caucasus, which continues CAST’s usual approach of providing granular-level details of a conflict with an emphasis on weapons. The authors approach the war from a variety of angles. Anton Lavrov, a defense journalist for Russia’s Izvestia newspaper, provides a chronological account of the war, summarizing the major events. Maxim Shepovalenko, a retired Soviet and Russian naval officer, writes about the military, political, and economic steps Azerbaijan took since 1998 that set the stage for its victory in 2020. Leonid Nersisyan, an Armenian defense expert, and Mark Cazalet from Jane’s focused on Armenia’s actions during the war and the mistakes that led to Azerbaijan’s victory. Doug Barrie from the International Institute for Strategic Studies analyzes the role played by aviation during the war. The directorship of CAST, Ruslan Pukhov and the late Konstantin Makienko, examine Russia’s geopolitical position after the war and the conflict’s modern warfare lessons.
The role of aviation in the war
One point of emphasis is that Azerbaijan’s victory was largely a result of the success of Azerbaijan’s air and artillery strikes at the very beginning of the war. According to CAST, the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR) lost 60 percent of its air defense systems and 40 percent of its artillery in “the very first minutes of the conflict”, (the director of CAST, Ruslan Pukhov, told me this meant the first 30-40 minutes of the war). Those losses significantly degraded NKR’s ability to defend its airspace and forced Armenia to use some of its air defenses piecemeal afterwards to protect them. Although Azerbaijani forces did not begin to capture significant portions of territory until the second week, the NKR’s devastating losses of its air defenses, artillery, and armor at the onset set the stage for Azerbaijan’s victory as it possessed air supremacy for the rest of the war. The armor losses and ever-present threat posed by TB2s meant that Armenia could not reinforce its positions when they were under attack and the TB2s wreaked havoc on resupply efforts, affecting morale and degrading their ability to defend against Azerbaijan’s offensive. Nersisyan and Cazalet also argue that Armenia’s chances were negligible once they retreated into the more mountainous terrain of Karabakh. Armenian radar coverage was significantly limited by the mountains, and the terrain also limited the ability of armor or air defense systems to maneuver without being detected and destroyed by Azerbaijani UAVs as there were only a few main roads.
Nersisyan and Cazalet note that the decision of Armenia’s leadership to not invest in modern air defense systems capable of countering UAVs, camouflage positions against aviation, or to improve their fortifications, which had not been significantly upgraded since the 1990s, was critical to Armenia’s failure. These failures were surprising given Azerbaijan’s very public emphasis on procurement of UAVs, aircraft, and helicopters. Nersisyan and Cazalet write that the NKR lost 90 percent of its Osa-AK/AKM air defense systems during the war, which they noted were not designed to counter UAVs and were often unable to function properly due to Azerbaijani electronic warfare (Armenia’s UAVs also struggled due to EW interference).
Although Armenia reportedly possessed Buk-M1-2 medium-range air defense systems and had purchased Verba MANPADS in 2016, Nersisyan and Cazalet said Armenia had not received any of the MANPADS by the beginning of the conflict, and it is not fully clear whether Armenia actually possessed any Buk-M1-2. Their sources said that Russia allowed Armenia to paint some Buk-M1-2 systems in service with the Russian military and display them during a parade, but they were not in Armenian service when the conflict began (a senior NKR official said they were in Armenian service but five of six systems were not operational when the conflict began). Another indication of the poor state of Armenia’s air defense network is that, according to CAST’s sources, five Armenian aircraft were shot down by friendly fire during the war, including two Su-25 attack aircraft by aging S-125 systems while returning to Armenia from Karabakh.
Armenia’s most modern air defense system, the Tor-M2KM, appeared to be the most successful system against Azerbaijan’s UAVs. But Armenia only possessed six Tor-M2KM launchers before the conflict and reportedly lost four of them (there is video evidence published by the Azerbaijani MoD of at least one and possibly two Tor-M2KM launchers being destroyed). One of Nersisyan and Cazalet’s sources claimed that the NKR shot down 180 aerial targets during the war, including seven TB2. There is only photographic evidence of two or possibly three TB2 losses during the war, though other TB2 could have crashed in Azerbaijani territory, which likely would not have been published on social media.
Storm in the Caucasus’ authors generally agree that Turkish TB2 UCAVs and loitering munitions played a critical role during the conflict, both to conduct strikes themselves and to facilitate strikes from ground-based fires, loitering munitions, and air strikes. But as Douglas Barrie correctly points out in his chapter, the war did not demonstrate that armor or manned aviation are obsolete as some analysts have claimed. Something of a mythology has emerged regarding the effectiveness of the TB2 and other UCAVs in modern warfare. They proved highly effective in Idlib, Libya, and Karabakh, but they have only faced insurgent groups or relatively weak militaries that lack sophisticated integrated air defense systems, air forces, or long-range fires capabilities. Indeed, one of Cazalet and Nersisyan’s key criticisms of Armenia’s handling of the war was its misuse of Iskander-M and other ballistic missile system against strategically questionable targets, instead of targeting Azerbaijan’s TB2 on the ground or their control systems.
Despite primarily facing older air defense systems manned by less well-trained crews, Turkey still likely lost 20 or more TB2 or Anka-S UCAVs in 2020 in Karabakh, Idlib, and Libya. Turkey could sustain these losses for short periods of time because it has more than 100 UCAVs in service, but TB2 would clearly fare worse against a peer adversary with a capable integrated air defense system or air force. These conflicts demonstrated that older air defense systems are not very effective against UCAVs and loitering munitions; but more modern short and medium-range systems, such as the Pantsir-S1, Tor-M2KM, and Buk-M2E, can still defeat them when properly employed.
Of course, manned aviation also played a critical role. Turkey deployed F-16 fighters to defend Azerbaijani airspace during the war, and many strikes were conducted by Su-25 attack aircraft, which could carry heavier bombs than the TB2 whose munitions struggled to penetrate Armenia’s most fortified positions. Likewise, the notion that the conflict demonstrated that tanks or armored vehicles are now obsolete is hyperbole: Azerbaijani ground forces used armor to penetrate the main Armenian defensive lines and to exploit that success. What the conflict instead demonstrated was the familiar lesson that armor is vulnerable to aerial threats without sufficient air defense coverage, camouflage, and other countermeasures. Despite their importance, UAVs cannot seize or hold terrain, and Azerbaijan still lost nearly three thousand soldiers even with air supremacy and technological advantages.
The war’s geopolitical consequences
The authors in the volume disagree on the geopolitical consequences for Russia and Turkey. Although Ankara’s active participation in the war was partially designed to extract concessions from Russia in Turkey’s “near abroad”, Kerim Has argued that Russia’s position in the region was actually strengthened at the end of the war. The Russia-brokered trilateral ceasefire that ended the conflict was conducted without Turkey’s participation, and, eight years after closing its Gabala Radar Station, Russian troops returned to Azerbaijani soil once again. Furthermore, Has argues that both Armenia and Azerbaijan are now even more dependent on Russia than previously, and Russia’s control over the Lachin and Nakhichevan corridors and other economic and transport links will ensure its influence.
Equally, Dmitri Trenin cautions that the Russian peacekeepers only have a five-year mandate for their presence in Karabakh and any extension will not be automatic and will be politically fraught. He argues that Russia has been tactically successful in dealing with the situation but the current status quo is not sustainable and Moscow likely cannot continue its role as the arbiter between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Trenin considers a reconciliation between the warring parties to be unlikely, and that Azerbaijan may simply resort to force to achieve its ultimate objectives. He also believes Russia should reassess its relations with both countries, and push back against the further spread of Turkish influence in the Caucasus.
Likewise, Pukhov and Makienko argue that Azerbaijan’s decision to launch a large-scale offensive against Russia’s CSTO ally and ignore Moscow’s repeated calls for a ceasefire challenged Russia’s position. Although Russia’s security commitments did not formally cover Karabakh and the other Armenian-occupied regions, Azerbaijan struck targets in Armenian territory repeatedly during the war but Russia never activated its bilateral or CSTO collective defense requirement. They argued that this caused reputation damage for the organization and made it clear that Russia will not automatically come to the defense of its statutory allies if attacked. Pukhov and Makienko note that this was the first direct military intervention in the former Soviet Union by an external power since the end of the Cold War. Instead of viewing the presence of Russian peacekeepers as an advantage, they argue that they are almost hostages of Baku and Ankara since they are dependent on communications and transportation lines through Azerbaijani territory, and thus Russia is at risk of being pressured or blackmailed, particularly as one arena in the larger Russian-Turkish geopolitical rivalry. Pukhov, Makienko, and Trenin all noted that Ukraine, which has also purchased TB2 from Turkey, could look at Azerbaijan’s success in Karabakh as a model for retaking the Donbas.
Storm in the Caucasus is a valuable resource for anyone interested in the war or the lessons for modern warfare. There are still a number of unknowns about the war, including Armenian decision-making and the full extent of Turkey’s involvement, and it is likely that we will never receive a complete understanding of the war since neither side has sought to publicize their mistakes. However, Storm in the Caucasus provides a number of answers that could not be gleaned from the videos released on social media and offers a more complete understanding of the war and its consequences. It may end up being the most comprehensive look at the Second Karabakh War, and, given the Alliance’s partnerships in and concern about the region, makes for recommended reading.
1 (back) Rob Lee is a former Marine infantry officer, PhD student at King’s College London’s War Studies Department, and non-resident fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. As a disclaimer, he previously worked at the Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies as a visiting fellow in 2015-2016.
2 (back) See R. Finch, “Waiting for the storm: South Caucasus”, Russian Studies, 1/19, NATO Defense College, January 2019, https://www.ndc.nato.int/research/research.php?icode=572. See also K. Giles, “Understanding the Russo-Georgia conflict two years on, reviews and commentaries”, review of R. Pukhkov (ed.), “The tanks of August”, Moscow, CAST, 2009, Russian Studies, NATO Defense College, September 2010.