A year on, the relevance of lessons of the war in Nagorno-Karabakh keeps growing for Ukraine

On 26 October, the Armed Forces of Ukraine used Turkish Bayraktar drones on the battlefield for the first time. After the positions of the 93rd brigade and the village of Hranitne, Volnovakha district, Donetsk region, had come under enemy howitzer fire, Armed Forces Commander-in-Chief Valery Zaluzhny ordered striking Russian 122mm howitzer positions with a drone, after which the shelling stopped.

The German Federal Foreign Office expressed concern about the increase in the intensity of hostilities in eastern Ukraine, as well as the report by the Ukrainian Army’s General Staff that the Ukrainian Armed Forces had used a drone in response to artillery shelling, the killing of one soldier, and the wounding of another. Later, the same statement was made by the French Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs.

In turn, Ambassador of Ukraine Andriy Melnyk reacted sharply: “The Ukrainian side categorically rejects the warning of the Foreign Office as Ukraine has a ‘legal right to self-defence if its territory is bombed day and night with heavy Russian weapons, killing civilians and soldiers.’ The Ambassador added that the German government, “instead of expressing concern about the dramatic situation in the occupied territories,” should “redouble its efforts to convene a Normandy format meeting in Berlin.”

Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine Dmytro Kuleba commented, “First, Ukraine did not violate anything. Second, we observed the necessary communication procedures through the Joint Centre for Control and Coordination with the OSCE in order to exercise the right to self-defence.” The Minister pointed out that European partners should be concerned about the fact that howitzers had been fired on the Ukrainian military, although they must have been withdrawn far from the contact line as stipulated in the Minsk agreements.

Germany and France were probably more concerned about the growing likelihood of the conflict escalating into a hot phase because of the use of heavy weapons by the parties than about the actual drone use by the Ukrainian Armed Forces. But the Ukrainian side must be understood as well. It cannot suffer losses helplessly. And the international diplomatic efforts to stop Russia from daily killings and destruction in the territory Ukraine are clearly not enough.

It is symbolic that the episode with the use of Bayratkar drones took place on the anniversary of another war, the so-called second Nagorno-Karabakh war, or the 44-day war, which in turn became an important episode of the long-standing Armenia–Azerbaijan war. The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict was generally considered hopeless, with no solution. For decades, the OSCE group with three co-chairs from Russia, the United States, France and other participants – Belarus, Germany, Italy, Finland, Turkey, and Sweden, as well as Azerbaijan and Armenia – also symbolically called the Minsk group, showed inability to find a way out. And then Azerbaijan seized the moment, took advantage of the strong allied support of Turkey, and liberated the occupied territory by force almost completely. Bayratkar drones were a certain symbol of victory, numerous videos of the use of which clearly showed the world the superiority of the Azerbaijani army.

The experience of the 44-day war teaches several very important things, primarily that if you need a helping hand, you will find one at the end of your arm. Of course, resolving a difficult problem peacefully, with the least possible losses, is a priority, and it is difficult to overestimate the role of the international community’s diplomatic efforts in this process. But one cannot rely solely on the the good will of the other party and the skills of the mediators, because good will is often lacking and the mediators are powerless or, worse, indifferent, having lost interest in the problem after many years at a dead end.

The development of the modern Azerbaijani army and equipping it with cutting-edge high-precision weapons protected it, above all, from the probability of missing a military strike and being defeated. Both in Nagorno-Karabakh and the occupied part of Donbas, the Russian Federation is a key participant in the conflicts. Armenia has relied on Russia as a guarantor of its security. Russia keeps and manages the units in the occupied territories of Ukraine. One cannot be weak in relations with Russia, which is much more powerful than its neighbours, as weakness leads to defeat.

By the way, there is another important lesson of the 44-day war. Russia did not dare to intervene on the side of Armenia but imposed its peacekeepers a footstep away from the complete de-occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh, which again put the problem situation on hold at a new level. It always happens when a party to the conflict pretends to be a mediator. In the case of the war in Donbas, we see the same efforts. It is clear that Azerbaijan and its key ally Turkey have agreed to do so to prevent Russia from being humiliated completely, to allow Russia to save face and position in the South Caucasus, as normal relations with Moscow are important for Baku and Ankara. As long as the Russian Federation remains a mediator in the negotiations on Donbas, not a party to the conflict, we should not hope for its termination.

It is obvious that Ukraine, in the territory of which hostilities are taking place, is the least interested in escalation, as it will directly suffer from it, unlike other participants in the Normandy format. By keeping the enemy on the front at the cost of constant casualties and at the same time initiating the negotiation process, our country is doing everything possible to end the war. Berlin and Paris can hardly evaluate their own contribution as “excellent”, especially when Moscow makes every effort to keep this wound of Ukraine open.

Indeed, Bayraktar drones in the sky of Donbas remind Ukrainians of Azerbaijan’s victory in a seemingly hopeless case, inspiring hope. Diplomacy, unfortunately, has not offered such hope long since.

Leonid Shvets

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