An Old Conflict and a New Way of War

As the decades-old Nagorno-Karabakh conflict flares up, we are being given a glimpse of the future of war.

By Michael Cruickshank

On the 28th of September 2020, two very different Azerbaijani aircraft took to the skies above Nagorno-Karabakh. One was a Soviet-made Antonov An-2 propeller biplane designed in the 1940s. The other was a Turkish-built Bayraktar TB2 drone first used in Syria in 2018. The An-2 was shot down by an anti-aircraft missile, crashing to the ground in a ball of flame. The TB2 drones continued to strike several armored vehicles and anti-air systems with apparent ease.

In many ways, this juxtaposition of the old and the new illustrates the strange dichotomy at the heart of this war. Even though this conflict has its roots in over a century of ethnic animosity, and decades of ‘frozen’ conflict, the last few days of all-out war have shown a remarkably modern way of fighting. In fact, the specifics of this conflict open a window to the way in which wars will be fought in the coming decade.

Nagorno Karabakh has been scarred through decades of fighting. 
Image: Michael Cruickshank.

Nagorno-Karabakh (or Artsakh as it is known in Armenia) is a mountainous region in the Southern Caucasus. Populated by ethnic Armenians for centuries, it operates as an unrecognized state within de-jure Azerbaijani borders. During the collapse of the Soviet Union, the ethnic Armenian majority of the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) voted in a referendum to join Armenia (Avakian, 2005). Mounting ethnic unrest eventually drew in the newly independent state of Armenia which fought a war with Azerbaijan in the early 1990s (International Crisis Group, 2019). When a ceasefire was declared in 1994, Armenia, and the Nagorno-Karabakh Defense Army, had effectively defeated Azerbaijan and occupied significant portions of the country beyond the original borders of the NKAO.

Over the next three decades, the ceasefire largely held, with only sporadic fighting. During this period, however, Azerbaijan grew wealthy due to its hydrocarbon exports and rearmed, buying modern military equipment from traditional suppliers like Russia but also Israel and Turkey. In 2016, it made an abortive attempt to retake part of Nagorno-Karabakh – known as the Four Day War. However little progress was made before international pressure stopped the conflict (International Crisis Group, 2019). This year, the situation deteriorated, with a brief skirmish between the two sides in July, followed by increased support by Turkey for Azerbaijan and worrying indications of a military build-up. Then, in the early hours of the 27th of September, the region was rocked by the first strikes of what would become a near-full-scale war between the two countries.

Unmanned and Unchecked

Over the three and a half decades since the conclusion of the first Nagorno-Karabakh War in 1994, many facts on the ground have changed, and new technologies and methods of fighting have gained traction. The most important of these is the use of armed drones (also known as Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles, or UCAVs) as part of tactical military operations. Deployed first by the US in the 1990s, armed drones were primarily used for assassination campaigns and irregular, low-intensity strikes (Zwijnenburg and Jansen, 2020). Despite this, innovations in the role of UCAVs were not driven by the US, but rather by Middle Eastern actors. In the Battle of Mosul, ISIS first deployed swarms of armed drones to significant psychological effect (Rassler, 2018). Later, in northern Syria, Turkey began using its indigenously manufactured Bayraktar and Anka drones to support its ground troops against the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and forces aligned with the regime of Bashar al-Assad (Crino and Dreby, 2020). These tactics were then applied in Libya to support the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) (Rakesh, 2020). In every instance that these drones were used, they proved to be highly effective, rendering many anti-aircraft systems obsolete, and rapidly changing ‘facts on the ground’.

Such tactics now appear to have been exported from Turkey to its close ally Azerbaijan, alongside the drones themselves. The Azerbaijani Ministry of Defence (MoD) released multiple videos of its drones striking apparently defenceless Armenian positions, taking out armoured vehicles, artillery equipment, and anti-aircraft systems with precision-guided munitions while terrified Armenian troops ran for cover. Such is the concentration of UCAV use in this conflict, that in one of these Azerbaijani MoD videos, taken from a Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 drone, another Israeli-manufactured Orbiter 1K ‘kamikaze drone’ uninvolved in the strike can be seen flying across the frame (Azerbaijani Ministry of Defence, 2020). While it remains to be seen if the use of drones will play a decisive role in this conflict, given the massively favourable terrain advantage Armenia enjoys, it is probable that the recent acquisition of these systems played a hand in the Azerbaijani government’s decision to re-intensify the conflict and attempt to reclaim its lost territories.

Notably, this is the first time UCAVs have been used in battle between two near-parity state actors. The fact that these systems are inexpensive, viable, and near unassailable by relatively modern anti-aircraft systems will likely lead to a flood of nations rushing to acquire such systems. Taken alongside the fact that their use appears to have lower political risk for the aggressor (Zwijnenburg and Jansen, 2020), it is likely that UCAVs will be a staple of future conflicts in the coming years.

The aftermath of an Azerbaijani drone strike on an Armenian / NKR position. Image: Azerbaijan Ministry of Defense. 

War Outsourced

Another disturbing feature of this war is the use of quasi-state mercenary forces. Several weeks before the fighting in Nagorno Karabakh, rumours on social media suggested that Turkish-backed Syrian militants were being transferred to Azerbaijan. At the time these were dismissed as the figments of an overactive imagination. Such fighters (members of the so-called ‘Syrian National Army’ (SNA)) were first deployed against the SDF in northern Syria, before later being sent to fight in Libya on behalf of the GNA (McKernan and Akoush, 2020). However, it was viewed as unlikely that these Sunni fighters would be used to support the government of Shia Azerbaijan.

Nonetheless, at least some of these fighters were certainly transferred to Azerbaijan. Since the beginning of the war, several journalists and researchers have revealed that “hundreds” of former SNA fighters are in Azerbaijan, having been offered $2000 a month by recruiters for what they were told would be non-combat guard duty (Ibrahim, 2020). Despite these promises, the fighters confirm that they were sent to the front lines, where several are reported to have been killed (Ibrahim, 2020).

Much as Turkey’s Bayraktar drones made their way first to Syria and then to Libya before finally reaching Azerbaijan, the country’s proxy forces too have followed Turkey’s foreign policy whims from warzone to warzone. While the individual combat effectiveness of these irregular troops is debatable, they have proved useful when deployed simply to shore up existing state militaries. That other countries are following the same model is a testament to this fact. Russia has deployed the quasi-state mercenary outfit known as Wagner Group to a wide range of conflict zones around the world, first in Ukraine and then Syria, Libya, the Central African Republic and Mozambique (Cafiero, 2020). The Wagner Group has not enjoyed the same success on the ground as Turkish-backed mercenaries. However, its continued use by the Russian state shows that the combination of (somewhat) plausible deniability, reduced political fallout, and low cost remain an attractive proposition. Going forward it is highly likely that the use of these quasi-state mercenaries will proliferate over the coming decade, especially in low-intensity conflicts.

Distracted and Disinterested

The outbreak of war in Nagorno-Karabakh has been attributed primarily to political factors, most notably a massive shift in the level of political and material support from Turkey (Nersisyan and Melkonyan, 2020). But another issue looms behind this, allowing the conflict to continue and escalate — global distraction and disinterest.

Much has been written about the transition to a multi-polar world, often with the warning that this shift would bring a greater threat of state conflict. In Karabakh, we are seeing evidence of this trend, with no great power, or multilateral bloc apparently willing to end the fighting. The geopolitics of the region partially explains this neglect. On the fringes of former-Soviet space, the region is far from the attention of major powers like China, the EU, and the US. Even the long-time hegemon in the region, Russia, appears unwilling (so-far) to get involved in a meaningful way, despite nominally being the guarantor of Armenia’s security. The only significant power which appears to be interested in the result of the conflict, Turkey, is instead playing an escalatory role.

One likely explanation for this indifference is that the major powers of the world are highly distracted. The most visible and far-reaching cause of this distraction is of course the coronavirus pandemic, but other events are also involved (Euronews, 2020). The U.S. is grappling with months of violent political unrest, tensions with China and Iran, devastating natural disasters, a divisive election season, and a president suffering from COVID-19. China has no interest in risking its rapidly eroding international standing in the wake of the pandemic and deadly clashes with India in the Himalayas. Finally, Russia is distracted by a political crisis in Belarus, a country with significantly more geostrategic importance to it than Nagorno-Karabakh.

While the argument could be made that these circumstances are unique and unlikely to happen again, the opposite might also be true. Indeed, data shows that political unrest around the world spiked following the Arab Spring in 2011, and has remained high since then (Ianchovichina et al., 2020), suggesting a new stable state of global instability. Climate change is supercharging natural disasters – an ever-intensifying process causing countries to focus their limited resources domestically (Van Schaik et al. 2020). Finally, an increasingly isolationist U.S. is creating a power vacuum, leaving the world without a powerful and willing global player that can apply decisive political or military power to end conflicts (Jennen et al., 2020). Taken together, this state of global distraction and disinterest may, in-fact, characterise the norm for conflicts going forward.

To summarise, what we are seeing in Nagorno-Karabakh is not just the revival of an old conflict, but also something new. Beyond the tragedy of the war itself, the first major state-on-state conflict of this decade should be viewed as a harbinger of what is to come. The effective and overwhelming use of armed drones and the deployment of quasi-state mercenary forces are likely to become the norm, especially in low-intensity conflicts in the developing world. The failure of international actors to apply de-escalatory political pressure due to distraction is also likely to be an increasingly common occurrence. Policymakers would do well to pay attention to these developments and the more dangerous world they create.


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