In a remote, mountainous and rural region of the Caucasus, disputed by Armenia and Azerbaijan, an old war has turned into the war of the future. Amid trenches, poorly trained troops and artillery dams in the style of World War II, a fleet of Turkish and Israeli drones, serving Azerbaijan, devastates the Armenian defenses of Nagorno-Karabakh. Cheap, armed with missiles and explosives, the drones destroyed anti-aircraft systems, tanks and buses full of soldiers, recording their last moments on video, for propaganda purposes.
Images of the carnage are available on YouTube, released by the Azeri armed forces – some videos have more than half a million views. Azerbaijan even released a bizarre heavy metal music video, in which a local band, in uniform, surrounded by tanks, helicopters and missile launchers, glorifies the conflict, in a song called ‘Ates’, or fire, with a very professional production. Armenia released a video of a tank burning, to the sound of dramatic music, with a touch of opera by Wagner, in a Twitter post where it read, in English: «annihilation of tanks and Azerbaijani people, you shall not pass », Or will not pass, reference to the most famous cue of the trilogy The Lord of the Rings.
While users of social networks fight each other in comment boxes, casualties in the mountains accumulate by the thousands. It is difficult to count the dead, with both sides proclaiming victories and hiding defeats. However, there is no doubt that the military offensive in Azerbaijan, financed by large oil reserves, supported by Turkey, clearly outperforms Armenia’s former Soviet weaponry.
A was two drones
At the dawn of the drone era, a few weeks after September 11, 2001, with the revelation of the famous American Predators, it seemed that this technology would be reserved for superpowers and dedicated to asymmetric conflicts, against insurgents without airpower.
“The widespread understanding among analysts used to be that drones would have little role in interstate wars, as they are vulnerable to anti-aircraft fire,” Ulrike Franke, a researcher at the European Council on International Relations, explained to the Economist. However, in an increasingly complex world, defined by many small localized conflicts, some ambitious countries quickly realized the potential of this technology, such as Israel and Turkey, which developed their own fleets.
This year, Ankara had already shown the power of its drones, destroying hundreds of tanks of the Bashar Al-Assad regime, which were heading towards strongholds of Turkish allied rebels, launching attacks against the Libyan forces of General Khalifa Haftar. However, perhaps his biggest test is Nagorno-Karabakh – so far, the results have been overwhelming.
In the early hours of the conflict, at the end of last month, dozens of Armenian anti-aircraft systems – valued at tens of millions of dollars each – were destroyed by Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drones, which carry small but accurate missiles, and cost a few million dollars. . Several drones were shot down by Armenia, but at the cost level it was a winning operation for Azerbaijan, like exchanging a pawn for a horse in chess.
Azeris also rely on Israeli Harop drones – Israel imports much of its oil from Azerbaijan, and it is estimated that in return it supplied them with around 60% of Azeri weaponry. As far as the Harop are concerned, they are a sort of guided missile, capable of flying for hours and crashing against the target, or returning to base if you don’t find it. And there is also a whole panoply of reconnaissance drones, facilitating artillery work.
The advantages are obvious. Maintaining fighters and bombers is expensive, training pilots is time-consuming and complicated – hence Azerbaijan and Armenia have a total of a few dozen manned aircraft. The use of drones, on the other hand, allows for more aggressive bombing in areas where pilots’ lives would never be risked. The populations suffer the most, subject to the imprecision of remote controllers.
“We don’t see them,” said Katarina Abrahamyan, who works at a cashier in a supermarket in Nagorno-Karabakh, hidden in the basement of a music school. “We heard them,” he explained, humming his mouth to a Los Angeles Times reporter.
Perhaps the biggest weakness of the Turkish drone program is the production itself. “We still can’t produce engines, and obviously we don’t have a chip factory, so all the smart parts, all the software on these drones has to be imported from the West or from China,” noted Atilla Yesilada, an analyst at Global Source Partners, USA Today. Since the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict broke out, Canada has pledged to no longer sell parts essential to the manufacture of Bayraktar TB2 drones to Ankara.
Still, “it’s easy to create alternatives, that’s the magic thing about drone technology,” argued Mevlutoglu, a Turkish analyst, to the American magazine. «The technology to develop sophisticated drones is becoming even cheaper and more accessible with each passing day, in more and more countries».
Frustration and Jerusalem
The conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh escalated in the last month after the arrival of Turkish forces, but it is not a war today. It comes from the Soviet Union’s last gasps in 1991, when the newborn Armenia and Azerbaijan vied for the region. The result was 30,000 deaths, an Armenian separatist government not internationally recognized, and more than one million displaced people, mainly Azeris, eager to return to their homes.
“For us, the war never ended,” an Azerbaijani journalist, Khadija Ismayil, told the Guardian. “This is about ordinary people who have suffered in the past 30 years, victims of an occupation and the hardship of refugee life.” For Armenians, whose political leaders are largely from the enclave, “their independence is inseparable from Nagorno-Karabakh, it is the Jerusalem of Armenia,” explained Thomas de Waal, a journalist specializing in the region, to the Economist.
To the rest of the world, Nagorno-Karabakh looks like a worthless piece of mountain. However, looking at the rich oil reserves in the Caspian Sea, we see that there are only two possible routes to Europe. One to the north, through Russia; the other through a pipeline that runs west, very close to where they fight Azeris and Armenians. Its breakdown would undermine Europe’s dreams of energy independence from the Kremlin, which sells arms to both Azerbaijan and Armenia, and watches the conflict closely.
Come back home
Even with the technological superiority that its drone fleet gives it, it is not certain that Azerbaijan will win. Right now, the Armenian separatists’ greatest ally is the same as ever, the mountains.
After all, Armenian troops have been preparing for this moment for years. «You have prepared targets, exact coordinates, grids. They know where to charge so that the first round of mortar or artillery they fire falls exactly on the target, “described Rob Lee, a researcher at King’s College in London, to Al Jazira. “In a war, when you break the front line, you can exploit that weakness and take back immense territory. But in Karabakh it is difficult because there are only a couple of roads ».
For the inevitable old-fashioned combat, AK-47 in hand, Turkey brought with it Syrian fighters, whom it had previously recruited to fight Assad and Haftar. “This is horrible here,” said Mohammed al-Hamza, a 26-year-old boy from the outskirts of Aleppo, who was wounded by Armenian bombings, speaking to the Guardian. «I was posted to Libya and it was dangerous, but nothing like this. Some 250 of us have already asked to go home ».