The Second Karabakh War: Lessons and Implications for Russia (Part Two)

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 18 Issue: 7

Captured Armenian 2S1 Gvozdika on parade in Baku, December 10 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

*To read Part One, please click here.


Russian experts and commentators have sought to draw key military lessons from the Second Karabakh War (September 27–November 9, 2020), which concluded in a decisive victory for the Azerbaijani side, actively supported by Turkey (see Part One in EDM, January 5, 2021). However, last year’s deadly conflict in the South Caucasus also had important informational-ideological, geopolitical and economic implications for Russia.

In the informational-ideological realm, most Russian observers evaluated the outcome of the war as overtly negative for Moscow and exceptionally beneficial for Ankara, whose prestige and “soft power” (pan-Turkism), they predict, are now likely to skyrocket among Turkic-speaking peoples. Importantly, as the main theaters/venues where Turkish influence is bound to grow, many Russian experts mention not only the independent former Soviet republics (mainly Azerbaijan and the countries of Central Asia) but also many non-ethnic-Russian citizens of the Russian Federation itself (, November 11, 2020). For instance, Konstantin Makienko, the deputy direct of the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, has argued that since Armenia—Russia’s “client and ally”—found itself on the losing side, whereas Azerbaijan and its Turkish ally clearly won, Ankara’s influence in the post-Soviet space (especially parts with large Islamic populations) will grow exponentially and supplant Moscow (Vedomosti, November 10, 2020).

In the geopolitical domain, Russian experts have indicated two important troublesome aspects. First are the Karabakh war’s implications for the Donbas region. Specifically, some commentators have contended that the results of the conflict in the South Caucasus could (possibly, and probably not immediately) encourage Ukraine to attempt to “solve the issue” of occupied Donbas in a military way. Interestingly, Russian sources expressed visible concerns over recently held military drills in Ukraine. According to the exercise legend, the Ukrainian Armed Forces were practicing liberating parts of Donbas. The most important part of these exercises involved Ukrainian forces actively relying on Turkish-supplied unmanned aerial combat vehicles (UCAV)—one of the main (if not the key) component that secured Azerbaijan’s military success last autumn (, November 18). Other analysts also noted that Ukraine’s mounting activities in areas near the Donbas frontline—for example, boosting the overall number of military formations in the area—may indicate Kyiv’s desire (using the example of Azerbaijan) to try to launch a military operation in the future (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, December 6, 2020).

The second oft-repeated set of geopolitical concerns is related to Turkey’s growing ambitions in the South Caucasus and Central Asia. According to renowned Russian expert Dr. Andrey Kortunov, this new configuration creates a new reality whereby “the main security threats to Russia no longer stem from the western direction, but rather from the south—the Greater Caucasus region and, ultimately, from Central Asia as well” (, October 4, 2020).

Lastly, in the economic domain, concerns expressed by the Russian expert community mainly revolve around the following question: to what extent will Turkish-backed Azerbaijan’s military superiority affect the international reputation of Russian-produced weaponry? One such analysis argues that the results of the military engagements in Karabakh introduced fresh doubts about the actual capabilities of Russian-produced radio-electronic and Electronic Warfare (EW) battlefield assets. Specifically, the director of the Institute of the World Economy and International Relations of the Russian Academy of Science, Fedor Voytolovskii, asserts that the conflict “demonstrated the potential of the Turkish defense-industrial complex very clearly… Turkey will be able to attract many potential buyers on the global weapons market” (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, November 26, 2020). Undoubtedly, such an outcome would negatively affect Russia’s position in this lucrative economic space.

Another important detail on the subject appeared in the Russian media late last year. Namely, as a result of its military defeat and disgruntlement over the performance of the Russian EW/radio-electronic weapons that Armenian forces had been relying on, Yerevan is reportedly now determined to stop purchasing this type of equipment from Moscow, switching instead to German suppliers. According to Russian sources, “[A]bsolutely all means of radio-electronic confrontation, including the Repellent system [designed for collecting signal intelligence on enemy UAVs and suppressing their control systems], turned out to be useless against Turkish drones, whereas a portion of these complexes were simply destroyed.” Other Russian experts, however, claimed that instead of blaming the Russian EW technology, Armenia could have acquired Krasukha complexes, which “have proven their effectiveness in Libya and Syria” (, November 26, 2020). In any event, should Yerevan’s military-political leadership opt for Western suppliers—whether because of real deficiencies of the Russian EW assets, or for internal political reasons—that shift would represent a huge reputational loss for Russia and a large economic blow for its domestic arms manufacturers since other potential buyers (with far more impressive economic capabilities than Armenia) might be discouraged from dealing with Moscow.

Similarly, Russian experts have voiced concerns over the quality of domestically produced armored vehicles and anti-missile/anti-aircraft systems. According to Azerbaijani sources, more than 350 Armenian armored vehicles were destroyed and/or captured during the fighting around Karabakh last fall—a number comparable with some of the world’s largest military operations, including the Battle of Prokhorovka (1943) and the Battle for the Golan Heights (1973). These staggering numbers were so high despite the fact that main battle tanks were not involved in military operations in large quantities in the Second Karabakh War. Crucially, according to President Ilham Aliyev, the Azerbaijani armed forces destroyed an impressive quantity of other Armenian (Russian-produced) weaponry, with the total cost of this lost equipment exceeding $3 billion. Inter alia, this included S-300 surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems with radio locators (seven pieces), an Oborona radio-location station (one), Tor missile systems (five), Osa short-range anti-air systems (forty); KUB mobile SAM systems (four), a KRUG medium-range SAM system (one); Zastava UAVs (fourteen), as well as S-125 SAM systems (two). Moreover, all in all, 19 pieces of EW/radio-electronic equipment were destroyed. Taking this into consideration, Russian experts argue that “the Russian side needs to come up with some explanations as to how such large quantities of weaponry ended up destroyed in a such a short interim,” otherwise, this could be taken negatively by current and potential buyers of Russian arms (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, December 6, 2020).

So despite some cheerful rhetoric coming out of Moscow’s state-sponsored information outlets, reputable Russian experts are, indeed, concerned about the implications of the Second Karabakh War beyond the military realm, to include potential geopolitical, economic and reputational losses for Russia. It remains to be seen to what degree their fears will come to pass over the coming months.