Armenia Caved, Azerbaijan Won, Putin Scored | Opinion

Six weeks since the Armenian-Azerbaijani war began, the cannons are silent once more.

According to the cease-fire announced by the Presidents of Russia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, the Azerbaijani military will remain in the parts of the Karabakh (Artzakh) self-proclaimed statelet it retook, and in the strategic Lachin corridor (see map below). Armenia will pull out of two districts in Lachin it has occupied since the previous war ended in 1994. This will be accomplished before December 1.

Vladimir Putin recognized the thousands of soldiers and civilians dead from each side, with the death toll nearing 5,000 in late October. Russia already started dispatching almost 2,000 peacekeepers to Karabakh, adding the deployment in the mountainous region to its massive military base in Gyumri. Russian troops are now stationed not just to Azerbaijan's north, but also to its west. Azerbaijan will be allowed to have a road link with the exclave Nakhichevan, located between Armenia and Iran, while Armenia will continue to supply Karabakh via the Lachin corridor.

The resulting patchwork of ethnic districts is the legacy of ancient Armenian and later Turkic settlements in the region, as well as the rule of the Persian, Ottoman, and Russian (later the USSR) empires in the mountains of the South Caucasus. Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin personally drew the borders between Armenia and Azerbaijan in such a way that minorities within the territory of one would be a trigger in a conflict with its neighbor.

It is ironic and symbolic that the current defeat of Armenia happened a century after the signature of the Gyumri Accords between Armenia and Kemal Ataturk's nascent Turkish Republic, in which Yerevan gave up Kars and Ardahan districts in today's Turkey, the symbolic and majestic Mt. Ararat, and renounced ambitions to reconstitute a Greater Armenia. Vladimir Lenin, the founder of the Soviet state, had ceded the Armenian territories to Ataturk in order to tear Turkey away from the West.

For Azerbaijan, the war was the logical conclusion of a long effort to reclaim Lachin's seven districts and the Karabakh, which formally belonged to it since the 1920s, but were lost in one of the bloodiest conflicts resulting from the collapse of the Soviet Union (1988-1994).

It was also a personal coup for Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, who is often compared to his larger-than-life father Heydar, a KGB general and Soviet Vice-Premier, who saved Azerbaijan from civil strife in 1993. Aliyev Sr. presided as an autocrat over his homeland's emergence as a major oil and gas producer. Now the son accomplished what his father could not, likely elevating to a legendary status at home. He will be credited with preparing his underperforming army for victory.

Russia, dictating the terms of the ceasefire, also appears victorious. Putin punished the populist Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan who came to power in the 2018 "Velvet Revolution," replacing the country's pro-Moscow leadership. His entourage is considered pro-Western, to Moscow's chagrin. Protests have erupted in Yerevan by pro-Russian opposition, which may lead to the toppling of the Armenian Premier. The Speaker of the Parliament was badly beaten and required an emergency medical procedure. The government building and the Premier's residence have been trashed and looted.

Russia will now boast a military deployment in Karabakh that will be close to the Turkish, Iranian, and Azerbaijani borders. As in chess, such a strategic location allows for the development of a multi-vector threat. Moscow will also be interested in maintaining tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan so that neither would demand the withdrawal of the Russian peacekeepers after their five-year term expires.

But Moscow should not celebrate victory too fast. Its weapons systems in Armenia's hands, — particularly anti-aircraft missiles, tanks, and drones — did not perform well, nor did their ally, Armenia, overall. Azerbaijanis and their Turkish advisors developed ingenious tactics to dismantle Armenian air defenses, flying antiquated Russian AN-2 biplanes while simultaneously wiping them out using Turkish Bayraktar drones. Israeli smart munitions, such as LORA rockets, took out high-value targets, including a vital bridge connecting Armenia with Karabakh.

Turkey also made gains. Its strategic support and military assistance supplied to its "brotherly" Azerbaijan were crucial in defeating Armenia and keeping Russia in check. If Russia sent volunteers, they would not be effective against Azerbaijan's Turkish-backed military. Russia declined to send regular forces, blinking in the face of a potential bloody confrontation with NATO's second-largest military.

Ankara has become, for the first time since the 19th century, a key player within the Russian sphere of influence in the South Caucasus. Turkey is likely to expand its reach into Georgia and the Russian-controlled Muslim North Caucasus, still seething from the two wars in Chechnya. Putin should be worried.

Military strategists around the world will study the Armenian-Azerbaijani war carefully, as there are several key takeaways. First, infantry and special forces still matter, especially in mountainous terrain. Azerbaijan is four times the size of Armenia in population and had sufficient manpower to enact a pincer movement from the north and the south of Karabakh to disperse Armenian forces. Second, money matters: Baku had enough resources from oil and gas revenues to train and equip an army that overpowered the decent, but outdated, Russian-equipped Armenian force.

Third, drones — in this case, Turkish and Israeli — are choice weapons in the high-tech wars of the future. While the Azeris did not have an AI-based drone swarm system, they built an ample force to take out ten times the number of Azeri tanks and armored personnel carriers that Baku lost. Drones also proved vital in providing strategic and real-time intelligence to the Azeris. Furthermore, tanks, which can be spotted and obliterated by drones and aircraft, are declining in importance. It is not clear if and when the tank, which ruled the 20th century battlefield, will return.

Finally, Russia needs to reevaluate the quality of its arsenal, particularly radar and anti-aircraft capabilities. These were successfully taken out by the Azeris with ease.

Thirty years of diplomacy managed by the Minsk Group failed to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Both sides were unwilling to commit to peace, and Yerevan wrongly believed that Putin had its back and that its military would forever prevail over Baku.

The current war put Armenia on its knees and foreclosed the option of the annexation of Karabakh to Armenia in its entirety in the foreseeable future. It is doubtful, however, that Armenia would entirely forego its ambitions to bring in its historic lands and re-emerge as a major power in the Caucasus and beyond.

Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is Senior Fellow (non-resident) at The Atlantic Council and Director, Program on Energy, Growth and Security at International Tax and Investment Center. He is the Founding Principal of International Market Analysis.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.