Nagorno-Karabakh: downed helicopters and Turkish drones?

TB2 drone strikes in Nagorno-Karabakh, 2020 (Ministry of Defense of Azerbaijan)

After almost thirty years of latent conflict, the landlocked region of Nagorno-Karabakh has recently been the theater of violent confrontations. While it is hard to distinguish the truth from propaganda spread by both belligerents, it appears that at least one Mil Mi-8 transport helicopter of the Azerbaijan Air Force was shot down by Karabakh forces. Meanwhile, the Azerbaijani defense ministry boasted its military prowess by sharing footage shot from what looks like a Turkish-made drone.

Like most of the times that this conflict had reheated in the past, the triggering event remains unclear. Both Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan officials said they were reacting to an offensive from the opposing side. What is sure, however, is that on September 27, 2020, Armenian-backed separatists of Nagorno-Karabakh clashed once again with the Azerbaijani forces. The number of casualties, military and civilian, is for now hard to estimate.

The communication services of the Karabakh and Azerbaijan respective ministries of defense have played a war of their own, publishing several statements with contradicting reports of material damage. 

As the first day of conflict was coming to an end, the Karabakh authorities claimed to have destroyed four helicopters and ten Azeri tanks. The crash of at least one helicopter was confirmed by Azerbaijan’s defense ministry, who said the crew managed to escape. Unconfirmed pictures of a Mil Mi-8 transport helicopter have emerged on social media.

Fear of escalation

With both sides claiming to have shot down multiple aircraft, the skirmishes disrupted civilian traffic in the region. “All airports of the Republic of Azerbaijan will be closed for regular passenger flights until September 30, 2020,” announced the press service of Azerbaijan Airlines. After the previous flare-up in July 2020, France had issued a still-active NOTAM, forbidding French air carriers from overflying the border region between Armenia and Azerbaijan until further notice.

After both Armenia and Azerbaijan declared martial law, France and Russia called for an immediate ceasefire and diplomatic resolution, fearing the clash could escalate into open conflict. The civil war that followed the secession of Nagorno-Karabakh in the early 1990s left 30,000 dead.

Less conciliatory, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called on Armenia to end the “occupation” of Azerbaijani territory. “The occupied lands are the lands of Azerbaijan,”  Erdogan declared. The Turkish Foreign Ministry said it would give Azerbaijan “full support.”

On September 27, 2020, a video released by the Azerbaijani Ministry of Defense showing airstrikes on several defense positions led to the suspicion that Turkey could already be actively helping its neighbor. Indeed, the footage seems to have been shot from a Bayraktar TB2, as the interface suggests. The fact that the drone-maker’s CEO himself shared the video on his Twitter account reinforces this hypothesis.

It is yet to be determined if the unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAV) were operated by the Turkish military or by the Azerbaijani forces, but no acquisition of the TB2 by the latter was made public at this point.

With both Russia and Turkey having diverging interests in the Caucasus region, some fear that the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh could escalate into a proxy war between Moscow and Ankara.

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