Armenian forces repel yet another Azerbaijani assault in Tavush

Drones play significant role in fighting

(Photo: Armenia’s Ministry of Defense)

YEREVAN—Azerbaijani special forces attempted to capture a section of the Armenian front line on Tuesday night, ending almost five days of relative calm. According to Armenian Defense Ministry (MOD) Spokeswoman Shushan Stepanyan, the assault was repelled with an unknown number of casualties inflicted on the intruders. No Armenian casualties were recorded. 

This report has been denounced by Azerbaijan as false. “There were no new attacks, let alone casualties, from our side,” declared Stepanyan’s Azeri counterpart, Vagif Dargahli. “The Armenian report is yet another disinformation.” However, the Armenian military has revealed that several Azerbajiani servicemen who participated in the raid remain trapped in the no-man’s land between the opposing lines. A search is being conducted to retrieve them. According to reports, calm has since returned to the region, with the occasional sniper fire being heard.

The position in question, —known to Armenians as “Anvakh” (Fearless) Ridge—nestled on the border between Tavush and the adjacent Azeri province of Tovuz was also the target of a previous disastrous Azeri assault on July 16 at the tail end of the latest round of fighting which broke out 10 days ago and killed four Armenian and 12 Azeri servicemen, as well as one civilian. The repeated targeting of the site has led some Armenian analysts to speculate about the position’s strategic importance to Azerbaijani military objectives. 

On Tuesday, the Armenian Ministry of Defense displayed a number of downed Azeri Air Force Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) at a press event in Yerevan. According to the MOD, the Azeri Airforce lost a total of $150 million worth of foreign-supplied drone equipment. On display were several Israeli-made Elbit SkyStriker, Harop, Thunder-B and Orbiter combat drones, including, as analyst Emil Sanamyan pointed out, at least some trophies that appear to have been shot down during the 2016 Four Day War, with at least one dating from 2011. Additionally, the medium-size, multi-payload Hermes 900 which Armenia claimed to have shot down last week, was notably absent from the display. Baku, in turn, says it downed two Armenian UAVs—a claim which has been denied in Yerevan. 

Remains of the Azerbaijani UAVs downed by units of the RA Armed Forces presented to Armenian media on July 21

UAVs have played a significant role in the most recent round of fighting on the border, exemplifying the increased reliance that both militaries have placed on them in the last decade. UAVs are now employed in multiple roles when deployed in operational theaters including reconnaissance missions, artillery spotting and—more recently—lethal payload delivery. Azerbaijan became the first country to successfully employ an Israeli-designed ‘suicide drone’ during the 2016 fighting when one was deployed against a military utility vehicle traveling to the front line. That incident gained further controversy when Israel’s Justice Ministry later revealed that what the firm described as a “demonstration” was actually a strike that injured two ethnic Armenian fighters, leading to a temporary ban on exports of such weapons systems. 

With over three dozen drone kills claimed since 2011, Armenia holds a global record for the number of Israeli-made UAVs shot down, leading some to question the effectiveness of the technology. The Armenian Air Defense Command asserts that domestically-modified 9K33 Osa surface-to-air missiles allowed them to down the sophisticated Hermes 900 UAV. However, perplexed analysts have also inquired about evidence of certain UAVs being captured intact—rather than shot down—suggesting that Armenia has been able to hack them in-flight. Alternative theories include loss of contact or poor handling by remote pilots. The recent fighting was also notable for featuring the first combat-use of domestically-manufactured Armenian UAVs which reportedly successfully carried out the kill-mission on Azerbaijani Major-General Polad Gashimov––the highest-ranking Azeri officer to ever die in action. Armenian drones were also involved in damaging or destroying at least three Azeri armored vehicles which were seen being retrieved from the battlefield with special equipment.

Claiming victory, Armenia called on Azerbaijan to avoid similar bouts of adventurism in the future and pledge to maintain peace. “We hope that after the failure of its latest military adventure Azerbaijan will be more responsible in maintaining and strengthening the ceasefire regime,” said Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Anna Naghdalyan on Tuesday. She echoed a suggestion by Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan last week, that new mechanisms be implemented to avoid conflict escalation, including international monitoring missions and a direct line of communication between the opposing militaries. 

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is said to have been conducting shuttle-diplomacy between the two sides, pleading for an immediate end to the skirmishes and a halt to artillery fire and drone attacks. The Moscow-led CSTO’s lackluster response, which failed to blame Azerbaijan for the incident, was not well-received in Yerevan which is also a member-state. 

Margarita Simonyan, the ethnic-Armenian head of Russia Today (the Russian state-owned news service) suggested that the CSTO’s response was appropriate given Armenia’s “anti-Russian sentiment.” She accused Armenian authorities of provoking Russia by arresting former-president Robert Kocharyan and refusing to recognize the invasion of Crimea. “Russia has every moral right to spit on you and grind you into the ground,” she wrote on her Telegram channel. CSTO member-states have a treaty obligation to come to the aid of all other member-states in the event of military aggression by foreign states.

Adding fuel to the fire, the CSTO’s official Twitter account tweeted a link to Simonyan’s remarks, thus giving them credibility. However, the tweet was quickly removed, and an apology was issued. Citing a technical error, the post read, “The opinion of [Simonyan] is completely contrary to the official position of the CSTO Secretariat.”

The CSTO has yet to condemn Azerbaijan’s invasion of Tavush.

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Raffi Elliott

Columnist & Armenia Correspondent
Raffi Elliott is a Canadian-Armenian political risk analyst and journalist based in Yerevan, Armenia. As correspondent and columnist for the Armenian Weekly, he covers socioeconomic, political, business and diplomatic issues in Armenia, with occasional thoughts on culture and urbanism.

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