Nagorno-Karabakh War: One year since Armenia, Azerbaijan's last conflict

The ramifications of the war, including geopolitical shifts of power and the dangers of drone warfare on display, continue to be felt to this day.

A still image from a video released by the Azerbaijan's Defence Ministry shows members of Azeri armed forces firing artillery during clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh in an unidentified location, in this still image from footage released September 28, 2020 (photo credit: DEFENCE MINISTRY OF AZERBAIJAN/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)
A still image from a video released by the Azerbaijan's Defence Ministry shows members of Azeri armed forces firing artillery during clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh in an unidentified location, in this still image from footage released September 28, 2020
(photo credit: DEFENCE MINISTRY OF AZERBAIJAN/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)

September 27, 2021, marks a year since the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan broke out over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, a conflict lasting a little over a month with severe geopolitical ramifications that continue to unfold.

The conflict is rooted in longstanding border disputes between the two Caucus-region neighbors. The Nagorno-Karabakh region was claimed by Azerbaijan. Though the Azeri claim was recognized internationally, the region was de facto governed by the Armenian-backed breakaway state called Artsakh, also known as the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh.

The two nations have fought before over the region, with a seven-year war breaking out between 1988 and 1994 before it was ended by a ceasefire. However, simmering tensions always remained high between the two countries.

On September 27, 2020, fighting erupted again between the two. Soon, martial law was declared and both sides began mobilizing their armies. 

The war itself was characterized by two notable factors: geopolitical complexity and the widespread use of drone warfare.

Armenian artillery is seen near Nagorno-Karabakh's boundary, April 8, 2016 (credit: REUTERS)Armenian artillery is seen near Nagorno-Karabakh's boundary, April 8, 2016 (credit: REUTERS)

Drones were heavily used by the Azeri forces, compared to a comparatively greater emphasis on artillery by Armenia. This allowed the Azeris to inflict severe damage on Armenian tanks, defenses, artillery and personnel.

Using drones also gave the Azeris an edge in reconnaissance, allowing them a greater tactical advantage in outmaneuvering Armenian forces.

Both sides also utilized disinformation campaigns and cluster munitions - something banned by most countries but not by the two parties in question - including against civilian areas. 

Fireworks in Baku, Azerbaijan, mark end of Nagorno Karabakh conflict, December 10, 2020. (Credit: Maxim Churusov/TASS via Reuters)

In terms of geopolitical complexity, the conflict saw the involvement of many other regional and global powers. Specifically, Azerbaijan saw heavy support from Turkey, while Armenia saw considerable support from Russia, not to mention the alleged use of foreign mercenaries and militia groups.

ISRAEL CAME under particular criticism for its involvement. Although the Jewish state has strong ties with both nations, it was criticized for supplying military equipment and drones to the Azeri army.

Reports by Itai Anghel on Channel 12’s Uvda program, as well as an international arms sales report by SIPRI, illustrate how important Israeli arms sales to Azerbaijan have been over the last decade.

Israel was the source of 69% percent of Azerbaijan’s arms imports over the last five years, the report said, and Anghel revealed the large role that Israeli drones like the Harop played in the war between Azerbaijan and Armenian fighters last year.

Azerbaijan was also believed to have utilized the Orbiter 1K, an Israeli drone made by Aeronautics which the Drone Databook in the US asserts was sold to the country in 2011. It is what is called a “loitering munition,” which means it is designed more like a cruise missile to slam into a target and self-destruct on impact. Some media call them “kamikaze drones” or “suicide drones.”

Due to disinformation efforts, it is unclear how many casualties were suffered by both sides, though it is estimated by many that they were in the low thousands, with Armenia suffering more casualties. Nonetheless, civilians on both sides suffered, with many having been displaced after civilian territories were struck by artillery and drones.

HICRAN QULIYEVA stands in front of her house in Ganja, Azerbaijan, on Saturday, after it was hit by a rocket during the fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh.  (credit: REUTERS)HICRAN QULIYEVA stands in front of her house in Ganja, Azerbaijan, on Saturday, after it was hit by a rocket during the fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh. (credit: REUTERS)

Ultimately, the war ended via a Russia-brokered ceasefire as the territory changed hands.

The war was considered largely a victory for Azerbaijan. The Azeri managed to liberate considerable territory that had been in Armenian hands since the 1990s. The end of the war saw widespread celebrations break out in Azerbaijan, while reactions in Armenia have been considerably less positive. 

Azerbaijan held a military parade on the streets of Baku, with the attendance of Turkey President Recip Erdogan, to celebrate its "victory" against Armenia in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, December 10, 2020

Geopolitically, however, the war may have seen Azerbaijan win on the battlefield, but gave Russia control of the ceasefire and, as a result, control of the strategically important Lachin corridor, which in turn boosts Moscow's own presence in the region.

Beyond geopolitical implications, the war also showcased the relevance of drone warfare. Azerbaijan is an energy-rich nation, and as a result, its superior military budget gave it a significant advantage over Armenia.

However, this does not extend to just drone warfare.  As noted by British think-tank the International Institute for Strategic Studies, other factors may have played a role as well, such as a more professionalized Azeri army better adapted to modern warfare.

Overall, the Nagorno-Karabakh War was one of the first modern conflicts to truly showcase how drone warfare and modern tactics are changing the landscape of the battlefield. And as drones gain more prominence on the battlefield, especially in the Middle East, this may be the war's most significant implication going forward.

Seth J. Frantzman contributed to this report.