AZERBAIJAN’S ARMED forces may be busy waging war over Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed enclave run by Armenia. That did not stop them from setting aside scarce helicopters and tanks to star in a music video, complete with khaki-clad singers, guitarists and a drummer. The bellicose heavy-metal tune, accompanied by a montage of bombing raids, would not be out of place in the Eurovision song contest, and is part of a crude attempt by Azerbaijan’s corrupt and autocratic government to rally people round the flag.
The real war, which began on September 27th, has been less telegenic. Hundreds of people, most of them soldiers, are already believed dead. The fighting is the worst since 1994, when ethnic Armenian forces seized Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding Azerbaijani districts after a conflict that saw tens of thousands killed and a million people displaced. Azerbaijan claims to have taken a dozen villages in the Jabrayil district, one of seven that ring Nagorno-Karabakh and were occupied by Armenian forces. Azerbaijani cluster munitions have struck Stepanakert, the capital of the breakaway province. Armenian forces have shelled Ganja, Azerbaijan’s second-biggest city. Both sides seem to have used ballistic missiles, and a few stray rockets have landed in next-door Iran.
Ceasefire calls by America, the European Union and Russia—which has a defence treaty with Armenia and a base there, but sells weapons to both sides—have fallen on deaf ears. Turkey, meanwhile, has exhorted Azerbaijan to continue its offensive and offered its ally unconditional support. “We say again to our Azerbaijani brothers,” Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said on October 5th, “that we stand by them in their holy struggle until victory.”
The support has been more than rhetorical. Evidence is mounting that Turkey has sent hundreds of Syrian mercenaries to fight for Azerbaijan. Videos of Syrians on the front lines are circulating on social media. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group, says that 72 of them have already died in combat. The use of mercenaries indicates the difficulty in mobilising Azerbaijan’s youth to fight for a small, mountainous region populated by ethnic Armenians that it lost 30 years ago.
In Armenia, by contrast, men of all ages, even with no military background, have been enlisting for action. As Thomas de Waal, an expert on Nagorno-Karabakh, says, “Armenia’s statehood and its independence are inseparable from Nagorno-Karabakh. It is Armenia’s Jerusalem.” For Azerbaijan, the loss of Nagorno-Karabakh was traumatic. Its government is now trying to regain its national pride with military action, Mr de Waal adds.
Militiamen, artillery duels and rocket attacks hark back to an older way of war. But Azerbaijan’s success against more professional Armenian forces stems from an oil-fuelled arms-buying spree that has yielded high-tech weapons from Russia, Turkey and Israel. “Even though the overall count of Armenian and Azerbaijani heavy weapons is now more or less equal,” notes Pavel Felgenhauer, a Russian defence analyst, “Azerbaijan’s military boasts a definite qualitative technological edge.”
Evidence of that can be seen in four large launchers visible behind the band in Azerbaijan’s tub-thumping video. They contain the Harop, an Israeli-made “loitering munition”—essentially, a kamikaze drone—capable of cruising independently for hours before smashing into a radar, or returning home to land. In 2016 the Harop struck a bus full of Armenian reinforcements. Video footage from the current fighting suggests it is in use again.
That in itself is surprising. “The general understanding among experts used to be that drones wouldn’t play a big role in inter-state wars, as they are vulnerable to anti-aircraft fire,” says Ulrike Franke of the European Council on Foreign Relations, a think-tank. That is probably true in wars involving big powers like America, China and Russia. It has proved mistaken in lesser conflicts. When Turkey launched an offensive in northern Syria in February, it used its TB2 drones to destroy hundreds of Syrian armoured vehicles. That carnage is repeating itself in the Caucasus. Azerbaijan has methodically knocked out a hefty proportion of Armenian air defence, artillery and armour using its own fleet of TB2s.
Turkish and Azerbaijani tactics point to a new, more affordable type of air power. Drones make an especially big difference for countries with small air forces, points out Ms Franke. Warplanes are expensive to buy, maintain and operate; that is why Armenia and Azerbaijan have just 52 between them. The TB2, costing a few million dollars and lacking a pilot, is expendable. In Syria and Libya, several of Turkey’s TB2s were shot down by the Russian-made Pantsir S1, a short-range air-defence system. But the drones destroyed several of those systems, in turn. The trade-off is worth it, says Rob Lee of King’s College London, “like trading a pawn for a knight” (assuming that a country has a suitably large pool of drones). “The TB2 should drive home to European armed forces what such systems can do to ground forces that lack adequate air defences,” says Franz-Stefan Gady of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a think-tank in London.
The value of drones is not just their destructive potential, but also their ability to document their kills. Both sides in the conflict have released dramatic footage of drones and soldiers destroying enemy tanks. They have learnt from Turkey, which flaunted its aerial exploits in Syria and Libya. “Turks are masters of propaganda,” says Aaron Stein of the Foreign Policy Research Institute. “They do a great job of using these images, shoving them onto social media and dominating the narrative.”
The TB2’s high-definition cameras give Azerbaijan an edge in that contest. Its tank-killing snuff movies are slicker affairs, set to Wagnerian music. If Azerbaijan is reluctant to press home its advantage at the cost of high casualties on the ground—as the use of Syrian fighters may suggest—then winning a propaganda war may be the next best thing to winning a real one. ■
This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the headline “Heavy metal”