The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict of 2020 and the (technological) evolution of military operations


The "little" war of Nagorno Karabakh1, which ended with the ceasefire of November 9, 2020 after forty-four days of fighting, presents novelties in the conduct of noteworthy operations. It is not yet the revolution in military affairs, initiated by the United States, China - who knows who will win the game! - and from numerous other countries that possess research capabilities in the field of digitization and emerging & disruptive technologies2", But something to observe carefully because that revolution partly heralds it.

From a geopolitical point of view, it also represents a confirmation of Putin's ability to maintain Russian hegemony in the provinces of the former Soviet empire. Nonetheless, Erdogan has played and continues to play an important role, confirming himself as a very assertive player in the revision of regional balances.

And what to say about the local populations of that borderland between Europe and Asia3? They are close to us. The representation of Armenians in Italy is historically consolidated, as in the island of San Lazzaro degli Armeni, in the Venice lagoon, or in the Neapolitan district of San Gregorio Armeno, known for the tradition of cribs. And trade relations with Azerbaijan, a country rich in energy resources and open to the European market, are of considerable importance4.

The context

Armenia and Azerbaijan are two state entities of the Transcaucasian region (Soviet definition of that area which also includes Georgia), whose borders have undergone significant changes over the centuries, always leaving the problems of national identity open. The populations resident there are respectively 3,3 million (97,9% Armenians; Orthodox 72,9% plus others) for Armenia and 8,9 million (Azeris at 91,6%; Shiite Muslims 63% and Sunnis at 33% plus others) for Azerbaijan.

Throughout history, the Armenians have maintained a strong, sometimes contrasted identity. We remember the tragic deportations of 1895 (photo) and 1896 and then of the summer of 1915, by the Ottoman Empire (Pope Francis on 12 April 2015 recalled the massacre of the Armenians "generally considered as the first genocide of the twentieth century". The sentence, pronounced during a liturgical celebration of the Armenian rite in St. Peter's for the centenary of the Armenian martyrdom, sparked the immediate reaction of Turkey which withdrew its ambassador)5. Hence Stalin's imposition of borders that do not correspond to ethnic distribution in the 20s. Finally, the bloody events in Sumgait, a city of Azerbaijan, in which serious violence was perpetrated in 1988 to the detriment of Armenian residents. Furthermore, Armenians and Azeris still suffer from the geopolitical influence of neighboring powers, in particular Russia and Turkey.

The current dispute therefore has remote origins. But it was the dissolution of the USSR that made nationalisms resurface as identity and sometimes disintegrating forces of international order. Thus was born in September 1991 the Independent Republic of Artsakh6, by self-determination of the Armenians of Nagorno Karabakh, that mountainous region located in the eastern part of Azerbaijan. An independent republic, however, never recognized. A conflict followed between Armenia and Azerbaijan, interrupted with a ceasefire in 1993, but periodically rekindled due to accidents in the border areas.

An identity conflict, it was said and not religious, even though it is a question of peoples of different faiths. This was also the case on 27 September last, when the situation worsened with an Azerbaijani attack along the entire border line of Artsakh7.

If the first conflict, that of the nineties of the last century, giving victory to Armenia effectively established a new territorial structure, the last one in order of time allowed Azerbaijan to take back Shusha, the second most important city in the region , the Lachin corridor8, which is the main communication route between Artsakh and Armenia, (there was a second one, passing through the Kalbjar district, to the north west, now returned to Azerbaijan) and seven administrative provinces at the foot of the Nagorno Karabakh mountain range. Hence, a military defeat that has had very significant effects on geography.

Russia and Turkey

In this conflict Russia and Turkey have supported Armenia and Azerbaijan respectively, but in different ways. Although the two states are members of theOrganization of the Collective Security Treaty, led by Moscow, which provides for Russia's military support in the event of an attack, since Artsakh is not recognized as an independent state, Moscow did not intervene directly in the Azerbaijani attack, limiting itself to deploying its own military units in Armenia, along the border9. So, Putin, albeit a historical supporter of Armenia, kept a low profile, at least until the Azerbaijani forces directly threatened Stepanakert, the de facto capital of Artsakh.

Free to act, Erdogan has deployed soldiers, fundamentalist mercenaries with the Azerbaijani army10 and valuable armaments, which determined the military success of that part. Thus we arrive at last November 9, when Putin brings the contenders back to the negotiating table, sanctioning a ceasefire still in force, which freezes the situation on the ground, however foreseeing the deployment of a Russian military peacekeeping unit in Artsakh, to monitor on compliance with the agreement. Still Erdogan, after all, during the victory parade in Baku, declared: "We are here today to celebrate this glorious victory, the liberation of the occupied lands of Azerbaijan, however, it does not mean that the struggle is over."11.

Putin, for his part, declared on December 18 that "Nagorno Karabakh, from the point of view of international law, is Azerbaijani territory, not even recognized by Armenia". That “the roots are in the ethnic conflict, which began in Sumgait12, which then spread to Nagorno-Karabakh ”. Then, referring to the anti-Armenian pogroms of 1988, he continued: “Each side has its reasons. The Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh took up arms in their time to protect their lives and dignity. And the situation that existed at the time of the escalation of the conflict this year was created "13.

Since 1992, the OSCE has tried to resolve the dispute with the Minsk Group, led by France, the United States and Russia, which also sees the participation of Italy. But the facts show that this diplomatic forum has so far failed in its mission. It should also be remembered that Azerbaijan is an exporter of hydrocarbons (the TAP gas pipeline that arrives in Salento originates from Azerbaijani fields), with a GNP of about 50 billion US dollars, compared to Armenia which has a GNP of about 10 billion. . This difference in wealth between the two countries has certainly affected the military apparatuses, obviously in favor of the Azeris who were able to make use of advanced technologies, including those from Israel.

Negotiations aimed at resolving identity and territorial conflicts are always fraught with difficulties. However, in the specific case, Italy, present in the Minsk Group, could have contributed to settling disputes by making use of its own tradition of culture and experience. In fact, our country has always managed with sagacity and foresight the identity issues of the various communities present on the national territory, managing to settle the differences and dissolve the mistrust; all this without neglecting the experience gained in the field of peacekeeping. But Italy, in terms of strategic weight, is not a global player and even Europe in this conflict has deemed it necessary to keep a profile of distant equidistance from the parties.

But what characterized this conflict which was also ignored by the local media? The novelties appear numerous and all worthy of note.

The war operations, in summary

Although the size of the forces in the field was to Azerbaijan's advantage, nevertheless the rough terrain and the well-established defenses over time could have favored the Armenian forces, allowing the attackers to be channeled into areas of destruction, to hit them with mobile reserves: this is possible in compartmentalized soils. However, the information gathered shows that Azerbaijani forces have adopted advanced systems of command, control, target acquisition and delivery of destructive fire. Furthermore, the drones used in this part, both the remotely piloted and autonomous aircraft, which do not require piloting, have played a role of primary importance. This technological superiority has had the desired effect, enabling full success.

Therefore, the Azerbaijani attack seems to have started with the destruction of the command and control network of the Armenian army and immediately afterwards of the reserve armored units in the waiting areas. It is possible that self-searching flying bombs, the Harop UAVs (unmanned aerial veihcle), were used to hit the command posts.15, of Israeli construction. This type of aircraft can fly for seven hours and roam the battlefield waiting for radio emissions. At that point, autonomously, it directs itself with a vertical or oblique trajectory towards the target, destroying it with the explosive charge it carries. Then, the attack continued hitting the armored reserves deployed in the thinning areas and in the waiting areas using, this time, UAVs of Turkish origin: the Bayraktar TB216. It is a drone with an autonomy of 27 hours, capable of flying up to eight thousand meters of altitude, barely visible even to radar and silent, armed with air-to-ground missiles. The videos circulating on the internet, taken by these same remotely piloted aircraft, show the targets framed with high definition cameras and their destruction upon the impact of the missile.

Once the commandability of the forces was neutralized and the mobile units of the reserve were hit, the attack on the defensive positions and the conquest of the towns began. There were also bombings on the civilian population, the use of cluster bombs, prohibited by international conventions and perhaps indiscriminate acts of violence. In this way, little by little, the foothills of the Nagorno Karabakh mountain range, a real buffer zone of the self-proclaimed republic, fell into the hands of the attacker and when the Lachin corridor was threatened and the city also fell of Shusha, twenty kilometers from the capital, Stepanakert, the situation for Artsakh has become truly critical, looming a humanitarian crisis of vast proportions.

At this point, in the equidistance between the parts of the West; in the impossibility of the Minsk group to generate a shared solution, Putin led the contenders to the ceasefire agreement, thus restoring order in the backyard!

And as we write, the strength of peacekeeping Russian makes contact with the ground and already watches over the vital Lachin corridor; while refugees who had sought refuge in Armenia begin to return to their lands.

Evolution of weapons and strategies

On the military level, in addition to the role of UAVs already mentioned, undoubtedly decisive, it must be noted that information technology (IT) will be increasingly present on the battlefield with the digitization of systems.

If in the last two decades the command and control technologies (C2) based on the aforementioned IT have matured: command posts on the network, generation of "situation map"17 computerized, updated in real time (COP: common operational pictures), the ISTAR operational function (information, surveillance, target acquisition and recognition) can also be automated and connected to C2. In particular, with the rapidly evolving artificial intelligence, increasingly efficient IT systems will be able to independently manage the collection and merging of information, the designation of objectives, the distribution of the same to the sources of fire and the verification of the effectiveness of the action (sensor to shooter process).

The technological challenge consists in managing numerous sensors and radar tracks at the same time, which involves a large amount of data to be processed in a short time. In this way, a military unit, deployed in an area of ​​operation also compartmentalized by land morphology or because it is urbanized, is totally connected to the network. Every single element - from the soldier on foot to the combat vehicle and then to the reconnaissance and target acquisition sensors on the ground and in flight (field devices, drones, sounding balloons, aircraft and satellites) - collects information and sends it to network nodes, where sufficiently powerful computers interpret them, catalog them, merge them and assign priorities by deciding what to do. That is, they automatically give the order of fire to the most suitable source: aircraft, artillery, combat vehicle or single man on the field. Then, the computer evaluates the effect of the action and stores the process in mass memory.

And what role does man play? While IT would tend to flatten the command and control structures, the command lines, nevertheless the command action remains central. The commanders at the different levels will supervise the processes, establishing the policy to be adopted based on the rules of engagement (fire policies), to graduate the effects. It should also be considered that these technological solutions could monitor the action, leaving a recorded trace, useful for verifying the compliance of the action with the mandate given to the force in the field and therefore with the laws that regulate conflicts: a very important function from a point of view. ethical view.

A frequent criticism of this highly digitized system is that the more complex the technology, the more it can be subject to being degraded by technological attacks, such as cybernetic ones. Indeed, as systems develop, countermeasures evolve. Already the actions carried out with UAVs can be neutralized with countermeasures as well as passive (camouflage, protection) also active, such as jammer: electromagnetic emissions capable of obscuring the target or disorienting the aircraft. But the counter-measures are followed by counter-counter measures aimed at making these weapons and command and control systems resilient.

Then, ignore technological evolution involves risks to be assessed with the care that the national interest requires. Because not developing fundamental operational capabilities almost always reduces or nullifies the credibility of the military instrument and makes one unprepared to support the future conflict.

Not to be left behind

These brief notes describe different situations which also have the peculiarity of raising ethical doubts in common: the geopolitical question of the self-proclaimed republic of Artsakh, unresolved for almost thirty years; foreign interference in a local conflict and the presence of paramilitaries, who fight not bound by the laws of war (we had seen it in the Balkans, now we find it also in Syria, Libya and the Sahel); the propaganda that makes the reality on the field indistinguishable, with very convincing videos on social media; finally, the availability of innovative weapons and military systems, capable of generating a qualitative leap. But this is the reality that surrounds us, which we need to know how to take note of.

The question then is whether we are ignoring this reality, perhaps because they are focused on other priorities: Covid 19, public debt, political instability. Therefore, the summary that we deduce is an invitation to consider all these aspects and search for formulas that are congruent with national interests, maintaining an ethical vision and respecting that of the competing parties. Because, and this is an incontrovertible fact, competition continues to animate international relations, conflict in the regions of most direct interest has grown and dangerous tendencies to revise national borders are emerging, which is always a source of instability.

In this context, military policy, in indicating the evolutionary lines of the armed forces, faces the challenge of having to be far-sighted, increasingly in a moment of technological development such as the one we are experiencing. Armed forces, integrated into the Atlantic and European context, will only remain a deterrent tool, as needed for stability and peace, if they are upgraded to essential operational capabilities. Conversely, the inattention to technological evolution in the military field, as history shows, it will be a harbinger of geopolitical marginalization, which the West, assertive in considering man and his dignity as central to the system of life and relationships, cannot afford.

We are in full revolution in military affairs18, to which, as mentioned at the beginning, many are working hard (China stated in its White Paper to tend to become a winning military power in the dimension of Cyberspace): a sort of military 5G that we will suffer shortly, if not able to adapt with the necessary timeliness. The limited availability of financial resources also shows the centrality of alliances, NATO and the European Union, in which to bring together scientific research and investments, to generate efficient forces in defense of the common interest and at the service of a vision based on the shared values ​​of the West.

In terms of more pragmatism, the key factor is that you stay behind in the sensor-to-shooter challenge19”Means losing operational capacity and therefore of deterrence, not only in environments war fighting (of war), but also of Crisis Responce Operations, or rather peacekeeping missions, which remain an essential path to the pacification of disputed realities, as Putin has just confirmed in the Transcaucasian scenario just described. The sensor to shooter it is therefore today the key factor on which terrestrial forces already compete.

Gen. EI (res.) Antonio Venci

1 Nagorno Karabakh is a mountainous region of western Azerbaijan, included in the territory of the self-proclaimed Republic of Artsakh, a geographical entity with a predominantly Armenian population, not recognized as an independent state.

2 Technologies that generate a strategic advantage to those who own them: big data, quantum computers, innovative materials, etc.

3 Italy, present in the OSCE Minsk Group, maintains an equidistant position between the parties, hoping for a peaceful solution to the territorial dispute. On 11 November 2020, the MAECI issued the following press release: "In response to the humanitarian emergency caused by the escalation of hostilities in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, the Italian Cooperation System, on the recommendation of the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, Emanuela Del Re, contributed 500.000 euros to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Thanks to the Italian contribution, the ICRC will be able to strengthen its activities in providing essential humanitarian services, such as food and shelter, to the more than 75.000 displaced persons affected by the conflict, on both sides of the contact line, and in collaboration with both the Armenian Red Cross and with the Red Crescent of Azerbaijan.

4 Nova Agency. A contract between Azerenerji and Ansaldo Energia was signed on 18 December via videoconference, which provides for the reconstruction of four substations in areas recently liberated from the military occupation of Armenia's military forces: the districts of Agdam, Kalbajar, Gubadly and Fuzuli. In the coming weeks, a press release reads, the opening of a branch of Ansaldo Energia in Baku is expected. (18.12.20)

5 Some states define the violence against the Armenians of 1915 (followed by those of the 90s) by the Ottoman Empire 'genocide'. Turkey rejects this definition by framing the deportations of the Armenian populations in the need for national defense during the First World War, when entire battalions of that population served in the Russian army. Pope Francis on April 800, 12 recalled the massacre of Armenians (Christians) "generally regarded as the first genocide of the twentieth century"The sentence, pronounced during a liturgical celebration of the Armenian rite in St. Peter's for the centenary of the Armenian martyrdom, sparked the immediate reaction of Turkey, which withdrew its ambassador.

6 The estimated population is 150.000. The conflict we are talking about has generated 70.000 refugees, who are now partly returning to their homes. (2020)

8 Now the Lachin Corridor, which constitutes the only link between Artsakh and Armenia, is manned by Russian peacekeepers, on the basis of the "ceasefire" agreements entered into between Armenia and Azerbaijan with Russian mediation, on the 9th November 2020. Running this road through the city of Shushi, now in Azerbaijani hands, the agreement also provides for the construction of a link road to bypass the town and ensure traffic to Stepanakert. In this way, a connection and supply route between Artsakh and Armenia is guaranteed.

9 On 9 November 2020, a Russian helicopter was shot down while flying over the border line between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Two pilots were killed, a third crew member was saved. Azerbaijan took responsibility by apologizing for the incident.

10 In the Joint Declaration of the Heads of Delegation of the Co-Chair Countries of the OSCE Minsk Group, an explicit request is made: "... the Heads of Delegation also ask for the full and prompt departure from the region of all foreign mercenaries and invite all parties to facilitate this departure".

11 From Erdogan's speech given in Baku on the occasion of the military parade celebrating the military victory of 10 December 2020 (Agenzia NOVA 25.12.20)

12 Sumgait is an Azerbaijani industrial city located on the Caspian Sea, north of Baku. In 1988, bands of Azerbaijani residents there unleashed a pogrom against the Armenian community. There was devastation, deaths, injuries and rapes to an extent that reawakened the memory of the sufferings suffered by the Armenians in the period of the Great War. Peter Kuciukian. Gariwo Network. (2021). Again we report: "In that year the Nobel Prize Andrei Sakharov, human rights activist and eminent scientist (married to an Armenian), in a letter addressed to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev on the pogroms of Sumgait he wrote: “If before the events of Sumgait someone could still have doubts, after this tragedy there is no moral possibility to insist on maintaining the territorial belonging of Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan. The lists of Sumgait's victims have not been published, which casts doubt on the accuracy of the official figures relating to the number of victims. There is no information on the investigation. Such a crime cannot fail to have organizers. Who are these?". Francesco De Palo. (2021)

13 LUISS Observatory on international security. (01.01.21)

14  Robin Forestier-Walker. Aljazeera (13.10.20)

15 Shaan Shaikh, Wes Rumbaugh. Center of strategic and international studies. (2020)

16 Ibid.

17 The situation / information card, consisting of a topographic map also showing the position of the units deployed on the ground, the directions of movement and attack, the defensive positions, etc. today it can be achieved with digital systems distributed within the command posts, if not also in the networked laptops of the soldiers deployed in the field. In this “virtual” configuration, the situation / information card takes the name of Common Operational Picture (COP).

18 Firearms, permanent armies in the service of nation states after the Peace of Westphalia, mass conscription, industrial revolution and binomial tank and ground attack aircraft, nuclear weapons, military information technology, can be considered as many revolutions in military affairs, or , moments of rupture in the progress of operations generated by the irruption of a new fact. A forward-looking military policy should observe technological evolution, how this affects war fighting and tend to avoid reaching the next conflict unprepared.

19 Sensor to shooter, literally from target identification to firing action: a process that the automation of command and control procedures together with those of reconnaissance, surveillance and objective acquisition makes it faster. It confers the advantage by allowing the rapid identification of even more targets simultaneously, the engagement, the designation and the neutralization. Such processes are also valid for conflict control alone, without necessarily using lethal fire, as occurs in crisis response operations (CROs). See also (2021) and

Photo: ARMENPRESS / AZERTAC / Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation / Ministry of Defense