The Second Karabakh War (September 27–November 9, 2020) resulted in a decisive military victory for Azerbaijan, which was actively supported by Turkey in the bloody conflict against Armenia. Since the ceasefire, Russian military and foreign policy experts have sought to assess the results of this conflict for Russia, particularly considering Moscow’s position as the key military-political ally of Yerevan. However, there has been no unanimity in those evaluations. While some claimed that both Russia and Turkey came out on top as a result of the autumn fighting in the South Caucasus (Lenta.ru, November 12, 2020), many others have argued that Moscow`s success was not as strongly pronounced or as far-reaching as the one achieved by Ankara (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, November 29, 2020). At the same time, a small portion of Russia’s expert community openly claimed that the victory of Azerbaijan (and Turkey) represented a clear defeat for Moscow, in a way resembling Russia’s military-political and diplomatic failures suffered between 1904 and 1914 (Topwar.ru, November 16, 2020). Leaving aside the issue of winners and losers, it is instructive to weigh the lessons (and implications) that, according to Russian analysts, Moscow may draw from this conflict. Specifically, indigenous experts have concentrated on military lessons, on the one hand, and geopolitical, economic informational-ideological aspects, on the other hand.
From a military perspective, one common detail dominating many such analyses by Russian defense experts is the lauded effectiveness of Turkish-produced unmanned aerial combat vehicles (UCAV) that, in many ways, secured the Azerbaijani side’s victory (after having also shown similar successes in Syria and Libya). As such, those analytical writings frequently focus on ways to potentially neutralize or at least decrease the effectiveness of enemy UCAVs. Specifically, in his piece for Rueconomics.ru, prominent military expert Colonel (ret.) Mikhail Khodarenok pays attention to two crucial elements. First, he asserts that in order to preserve the Russian Armed Forces’ competitiveness in this new type of war—where the role of UCAVs will markedly increase—Russia will need to upgrade its systems for radiolocation reconnaissance (to track flying targets and instantly collect all necessary data) and military aviation (especially helicopters and fighting jets). He stresses that improving these two elements will result in a dramatic decrease in the efficiency demonstrated by UCAVs, since “it is a slow moving, poorly maneuvering target that can be easily destroyed.” Second, Khodarenok points out that in elaborating anti-UCAV measures, it would make sense for the Russian military leadership to assume a more “complex [kompleksnii] approach” toward Russia’s entire anti-aircraft/missile defense system (Voyska Protivovozdushnoy—PVO). Namely, he states that Russia’s PVO, in its current state, lacks so-called “passive repelling” (passivnoye otrazhenie) abilities—an operational mode in which PVO units are not acting on their own but actively rely on all existing branches of the Armed Forces. Khodarenok notes that the Russian leadership must solve these issues “immediately”; otherwise, the strategic initiative will be lost (Rueconomics.ru, October 15, 2020).
Another report, by Voyennoye Obozreniye contributor Maxim Klimov, articulates additional issues/lessons to be taken into consideration (Voyennoye Obozreniye, November 14, 2020). First, “the outward façade does not always reflect real combat readiness.” In other words, the author argues that while Azerbaijan devoted a massive effort into structurally transforming its armed forces, the military-political leadership of Armenia was “preparing its army for military parades.” Allegedly, Russia is making the same mistake in the domain of naval power, where public demonstrations of glittering new ships have long overshadowed a lack of true preparation for possible conflict (Voyennoye Obozreniye, July 31, 2020 and September 28, 2020).
Beyond those arguments, Klimov highlights two key implications of the new battlefield role for drones and, especially, UCAVs. First, he expresses doubts about Russia’s ability to effectively deal with these unmanned aerial systems. In particular, he questions the Kaliningrad-based PVO network’s capability to ward off a coordinated “swarm” attack of UCAVs—especially if the first wave is deliberately composed of “easy” targets (old and primitive models) in order to expose the locations of the Russian PVO elements, while the subsequent wave is comprised of the most-up-to-date UCAVs. Second, he emphasizes, Russia is seriously behind the leading players in the realm of UCAVs: its own heavy models in this class—such as the Okhotnik, Grom and Altius—are not yet ready for serial production (Voyennoye Obozreniye, November 14, 2020; RIA Novosti, December 5, 2020).
Finally, the Voyennoye Obozreniye analyst warns of “the detriment of rabid propaganda” on one’s own combat readiness and the accuracy of one’s assessments of military threats. Namely, Klimov states that the impact of the Armenian defeat was aggravated by “continuous lies disseminated by the Armenian military-political leadership.” While state-controlled media were claiming “one victory after another on the battlefield,” the subsequent shock caused by the defeat—particularly after the abandonment of Shusha (November 8)—resulted in public ire, the growth of anti-government moods, and a near toppling of Yerevan’s political leadership (Voyennoye Obozreniye, November 14, 2020).
An additional important examination comes from prominent military expert Aleksey Ramm, who argues that last year’s Karabakh conflict revealed the outcome of a battlefield matchup between the most advanced Turkish-produced UCAVs and Russian radio-electronic jammers. According to Ramm, while the radio-electronic assets exported to Armenia that took part in the engagements proved their general effectiveness, several aspects need to be taken into consideration. First, the Pole-21E anti-missile jamming device demonstrated a relatively low level of maneuverability, meaning that its maximum effectiveness can only be reached when paired with the Silok-02 anti-drone complex. Second, the R-330ZH Zhitel jamming communication station (successfully employed by Moscow-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine since 2016) does not seem particularly useful in a conflict defined by the growing employment of UCAVs, since “contemporary drones are now able to overcome systems of this type” (Nvo.ng.ru, December 4, 2020).
In conclusion, two aspects should be underscored. First, from a purely military prospective, given Azerbaijani and Turkish success on the battlefield, Russia is likely to ramp up its efforts to identify new ways of countering UCAVs. And second, from an ideological-propagandistic angle, the Russian military-political leadership is likely to reevaluate its information warfare strategy of routinely belittling or dismissing the West’s and its allies’ (especially Ukraine’s—see EDM, November 16, 2020 and December 15, 2020) defense and military-analytical capabilities. Indeed, continually nurturing the image of a weak/hapless opponent could backfire for Russia if the elites in Moscow begin to internalize this propaganda.