Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh – Since September 27, Armenia’s and Azerbaijan’s forces have slugged it out over the contested territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, the de facto independent region that remains de jure a part of Azerbaijan. The losses inflicted have been heavy. Winter, too, is on its way. And it is particularly the latter that offers a glimpse at Azerbaijan’s reason for starting the war, with help and perhaps prompting by Turkey.
First, the casualties. Armenia and its ethnic compatriots in Karabakh have announced over 500 combat deaths so far, a staggering number given their combined population of barely three million. Azerbaijan has refused to release statistics, although videos of Azeri soldiers’ bodies piled together following various battles suggest they are also high. Most significant are the Armenian/Karabakhti armored losses from the deadly Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drones: independent analysis of video evidence shows Yerevan and Stepanakert have lost no fewer than 80 tanks, 50 conventional and rocket artillery pieces and 170 trucks and transports.
But while these losses are devastating, the military reality on the ground does not match them. Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev has repeatedly declared that this will be the final battle for Karabakh, intoning that “the time has finally come to liberate all of our occupied territories.” His October 3 announcement that Azeri forces had captured their first village of the war, the settlement of Madaghis in Karabakh’s extreme northeast, was met with unrestrained jubilation on the streets of Baku. Since then, Azeri forces have taken the village of Talish (also in the northeast) and a number of abandoned villages in the southeast.
And that is it. Despite complete domination of the skies and severe degradation of the Armenian and Karabakhti armies’ equipment, the Azeri advance has stalled. A recent analysis of the amount of Karabakh territory captured by Azeris since the start of the war estimated it to be a paltry 2.8 percent of the total.
Were it earlier in the year, this would not seem to be a discouraging prognosis. Given time, Azeri forces could likely continue to claw forward into the settled areas of Karabakh, taking advantage of their drones’ ability to degrade enemy formations and materiel. Late September, however, is an inauspicious time to have begun an offensive in the Caucasus. Now, in mid-October Karabakh, winter is coming.
Within the next two weeks, snow will fall. In a month, the land will be covered. Offensive operations will bog down, movement of troops and vehicles will become difficult. Logistics and supply lines will experience additional strain. Severe storms will impact the operation of drones, periodically removing the greatest advantage on the Azeri side.
This is to say nothing of the terrain. To date, Azeri forces have advanced through the lowlands, taking advantage of the few areas where the difference in elevation between their positions and those of their enemies being only a few meters. Now, they will have to go up. Up into the mountains, toward the positions from which Armenian troops will be able to pick their targets. It is not for nothing that the Russians named this land “Mountainous Karabakh.”
Azerbaijan’s soldiers have also just begun to fight their first urban battles. To date, they have largely seized just empty ground or long-abandoned settlements; even Talish and Madaghis consisted only of a few dozen houses.
Now, Azeri troops have encountered their first real settlement, the town of Hadrut with its peacetime population of 4,000. Fighting has been ongoing there since Azeri special forces managed to enter the town, eventually being pushed out in fierce house-to-house combat. Drones can intercept reinforcements, but they can’t enter a building and kill enemy soldiers entrenched inside.
Winter offensives are difficult enough for well-trained armies fighting on even ground. Azerbaijan’s armed forces enjoy neither of these advantages. While the infantry’s performance has been acceptable, military experts have not judged it to be exemplary, as it would likely need to be to advance uphill, through snowdrifts, into enemy-held urban towns.
The Azerbaijan Armed Forces are thus on a clock. They have just a few weeks to advance as much as possible before weather conditions alone make further progress all but impossible. Judging by the rhetoric from Aliyev, it does not seem that Baku is planning to back down anytime soon. With no cessation of hostilities likely, and no opportunity to advance, the war could settle into a stalemate of attrition.
Azeri forces could dig in, awaiting spring weather to resume their advance, while their Armenian opponents ferry in fresh equipment and do the same. In the meantime, Stepanakert and other settlements in Karabakh, already nearly emptied of their civilian populations, will remain largely bereft of inhabitants, subjected to regular, senseless shelling for its own sake.
But the change of seasons could also bring hope: hope that the realities on the ground will force Aliyev to recognize what some have already suspected his true motives always were, and to resume negotiations based on Azerbaijan’s improved territorial position.
In many ways, he has made his point. Armenia’s political leadership cannot have failed to realize that their long-term military position in Karabakh is untenable – losing 10 tanks and even more other vehicles a day to drones they have not been able to counter is not a rate of loss they, or Armenia’s population, can sustain. With international guarantors and mediators, they should come to the table prepared to finally accept that they will need to hand over some of the occupied regions surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh “proper” to truly resolve this decades-long conflict.
None of this is set in stone, but it is a reasonable approximation of two paths the conflict could take as October turns to November. As winter inhibits conflict, so does it also offer to enable peace.
Neil Hauer is a security analyst currently in Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh, where he is observing the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Usually based in Tbilisi, Georgia, his work focuses on, among other things, politics, minorities and violence in the Caucasus.