YEREVAN – The puncturing of a Russia-brokered ceasefire in Nagorno Karabakh by Turkish-backed Azerbaijani forces over the weekend marks a serious checkmate against President Vladimir Putin, boding a bloody October.
With Turkey openly supporting its Azerbaijani protege Ilham Aliyev in waging war to retake the Armenian enclave, Russia has been left exposed as unprepared for such a brazen challenge to its power and position.
The surprise Azerbaijani military offensive was launched on 27 September, days before the truce seemed to be losing momentum. Despite some initial gains and an opening advance, the ground assault was impeded by challenging terrain and the defensive advantage of mountainous topography for the soldiers in Karabakh.
Bogged down, Azerbaijani forces struggled to sustain efforts to seize and secure more territory, with a dramatic increase in the use of Turkish military drones. The turning point came with a switch in tactics, relying less on a precise ground advance and resorting to more indiscriminate artillery and rocket attacks on Karabakh cities and towns. This resulted in much higher civilian casualties and damage, triggering damaging artillery and rocket fire by the Karabakh Armenian side.
Against the backdrop of mounting losses in men and massive destruction of equipment on both sides, there seemed to be a brief opportunity to reach a much-needed ceasefire.
On the night of October 8, Russian President Putin spoke with Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and secured their consent for a summit between their respsective foreign ministers the next day in Moscow.
Together with France and the United States, Russia is one of the co-chairing nations of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) “Minsk Group,” the entity empowered to mediate the Karabakh conflict.
That meeting, between Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov and his Armenian counterpart Zohrab Mnatsakanyan, opened in Moscow on October 9 with the aim achieving a “humanitarian cessation of hostilities.”
After an apparently painful and often tense 10-hour meeting that was chaired by a frequently frustrated Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, the Armenian and Azerbaijani officials accepted a cessation of hostilities to come into effect by noon on October 10. Although not quite a formal ceasefire agreement, the agreement to cease firing was an important breakthrough.
It was also a breakthrough for Russia, as a way to reassert control and master the situation while sidelining and marginalizing Turkey from the diplomatic process.
As part of the deal, the Armenian and Azerbaijani ministers agreed to commit to four provisions. First, the two sides accepted the terms of a Russian proposal for a cessation of hostilities that would allow for the exchange prisoners of war and for the retrieval of the remains of fallen soldiers from the battlefield, to be facilitated by the International Committee of the Red Cross, the only trusted third-party engaged in the conflict zone.
A respite from combat operations on humanitarian grounds was the easiest point of agreement, as each side was anxious to demonstrate political will and maturity to recover the corpses and regain their prisoners. Moreover, amid the intensity of the combat, there was a recognition that to reject such a humanitarian move would be irresponsible.
The second measure was a pledge to hold further talks over the “specific parameters” of the ceasefire, although with no clear deadline or time frame. For the Karabakh Armenian side, the weak language and vague terms of reference for a ceasefire was a disappointment. This issue also revealed a widening divide diplomatically, as Azerbaijan was eager to continue their military campaign in the hope of garnering substantial gains in territory, while Armenia and Karabakh authorities were urgently pressing for a complete and immediate ceasefire after sustaining fairly significant losses.
On that latter point, although the Karabakh Armenian side suffered serious losses in manpower and equipment, this was more of a consideration because of the transparency and open nature of their democratic governance. The destruction of military equipment and casualties for Azerbaijan is believed to have been much higher, yet never disclosed due to the strict censorship and Internet restrictions imposed domestically.
Such a secretive approach to the management of battlefield information by Baku, while temporarily shielding the public, also risks an erosion of trust that could taint official statements and claims of victory moving forward.
The third and fourth points of the agreement refer to the need to return to “substantive negotiations” and reaffirmed the primacy of the existing OSCE model of mediation. Yet the two-week war only too clearly demonstrated the demise of diplomacy.
Frustration over the lack of progress from the peace process was a major factor in driving Azerbaijan to wage war.
Tipping the scales
Despite the Russian investment of diplomatic capital, the cessation of hostilities agreement that resulted from the marathon Moscow summit lasted little more than three hours.
By the afternoon of October 10, Azerbaijani forces resumed their drone attacks in areas to the north and southwest of Karabakh, intent on pushing forward and increasing the destruction of armored units and air defense facilities deeper within Karabakh. And in a sign that only confirmed the misplaced hope for a genuine ceasefire, combat operations intensified and widened to include a resumption of an exchange of artillery volleys and rockets attacks.
Beyond Azerbaijan’s decision to defraud Moscow by refusing to cease fire, the more significant obstacle came from Turkey’s determination to defy Russia by rejecting the ceasefire.
Looking back to that lost opportunity, it is now clear that Azerbaijan was never interested or committed to anything more than a minor respite or a temporary agreement to cease firing.
The agreement was doomed from the start for several reasons. First, the lack of any binding element of the agreement only exacerbates the existence of inequity and asymmetry in terms of power projection and battlefield dominance. A second factor stemmed from the reality that there was little leverage and even less punitive power behind the Russian bid to bully the combatants into changing course from renewed hostilities to any renewed diplomacy. There has thus far been no sign of any penalty or punishment for Azerbaijan from Russia.
This is an especially important factor in the failure to dissuade Azerbaijan from halting its military offensive. By leaving Armenia more vulnerable as the only side seeking an immediate ceasefire, this Russian effort was exposed as more of an empty gesture, relying on bluff and bluster that failed to intimidate either Azerbaijan or its patron state Turkey.
This resulted in a power exchange, defined by a deeper trend of a shifting balance of power, with a resurgent Turkey empowering an over-confident Azerbaijan to press ahead with the war.
That has translated into a widening scale of Azerbaijani air assaults, graduating from attacks using Turkish military-grade drones to Turkish-supported F-16 combat aircraft sorties and combat air patrols.
This new emphasis on air power is significant not only for the heightened operations tempo of combat assaults and attacks, but also in term of the Turkish projection of power into the area of operations that directly challenges and targets Russian air defense capabilities.
From this perspective of a looming confrontation between Russia and Turkey, it now seems clear that Azerbaijan and Turkey remain committed to continuing the war. With an expanded battle space for an unprecedented deployment of air power and assets, the month of October will be even more bloody and deadly if the war is allowed to continue.
As that hunt for a red October drags on, the only realistic deterrent to the aspirations of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan comes from President Putin. Despite Russia’s track record of losing friends and gaining enemies, as evident in Georgia, Ukraine and elsewhere, the only real chance for a return to regional security and stability may actually rest on the Russian leader.