Downing of Russian Helicopter by Azerbaijan May Compel Moscow to Do More to End Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict
Azerbaijan’s shooting down of a Russian Mi-24 Hind helicopter gunship over Armenia could result in Moscow exerting more influence over the two warring parties to push for a lasting ceasefire in the bitter Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
On Nov. 9, Azerbaijani forces near the country’s border with Armenia fired a man-portable air defense missile (MANPAD) at the Russian Hind helicopter operating inside Armenian airspace. The ensuing crash killed two crew members and injured the third.
Baku immediately claimed it was an accident, apologized to Moscow, and offered compensation for the dead.
What Russia will do in the coming days remains unclear.
Moscow has good relations with both Baku and Yerevan. However, it might not respond to this incident all too lightly.
While details remain sketchy, the helicopter went down near Nakhchivan, which the BBC has pointed out is presently not the site of any fighting in the ongoing conflict. Furthermore, it was clearly targeted while operating within Armenian airspace.
That’s a big deal.
Russia maintains a military base in Armenia’s second city Gyumri. Moscow recently reassured Yerevan that it would give it “all necessary assistance” under the terms of a military agreement between those two countries if Armenia’s territory is directly threatened by this conflict.
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The targeting of the Hind within Armenia’s airspace could well be construed as constituting a direct military threat to Armenia’s sovereignty. Azerbaijan claimed its forces did not know the helicopter was Russian but nevertheless seemed to have purposely targeted an aircraft while it was still flying within Armenian airspace.
The fact the helicopter was one of its own could motivate Russia to apply decisive pressure on both sides to end the fighting as soon as possible. That could be very significant since Russia is the only power believed capable of bringing this conflict to an end given its ties with, and influence over, both sides.
It’s unclear if Russia will react by pressuring Azerbaijan. Moscow slapped sanctions on Ankara after Turkish F-16s infamously shot down a Russian Su-24 Fencer after it briefly violated its airspace during a bombing run over northern Syria on Nov. 24, 2015. The shootdown killed both pilots and infuriated Russian President Vladimir Putin.
While it’s still far too early to determine, there is, nevertheless, some notable comparisons and distinctions between the two cases that are worth bearing in mind.
For one, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan did not rush to apologize to Russia over the incident after it happened. It wasn’t until the following summer that he publicly expressed sufficient regret for what happened. Russia then began relinquishing pressure on Turkey and start cooperation with it in Syria. In stark contrast, almost immediately after Azerbaijan realized its forces had hit a Russian helicopter it scrambled to apologize to Moscow. In the coming days it will likely try and demonstrate its willingness to cooperate closely with any investigation.
Russia’s response to the Su-24 incident might give us some indication of what it might do in Armenia. Back then, it promptly deployed its much-vaunted long-range S-400 air defense missiles at its base in western Syria, which had hitherto only been guarded by much shorter range point air defense missiles. This effectively closed off Syrian airspace to the Turkish Air Force, which justifiably feared Russia was itching to avenge itself by targeting one of its F-16s over Syria if given the chance.
Even long after relations thawed following Erdogan’s expression of regret, Turkey has continuously had to seek Russia’s permission to operate its military aircraft in Syria’s airspace to the present day.
Perhaps a Russian deployment of S-400s to Gyumri could send a similar, albeit much less threatening, message to the two adversaries in this conflict. Upon deploying the systems, Moscow could then advocate a temporary grounding of all military aircraft in both countries as the first step toward the establishment of a durable ceasefire.
Azerbaijan relies heavily on its Israeli and Turkish-built drones to target Armenian ground forces and give air support to its own forces. If Russia deploys S-400s and urged a temporary no-fly zone over the battlefield, Baku would likely comply. After all, it wouldn’t want to antagonize, or even displease, Moscow right after killing Russian military personnel. Russia could also insist that Armenia temporarily ground its air force as well so it wouldn’t appear that it’s unduly reprimanding Azerbaijan.
This latest conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh is well into its second month. The longer it drags on the more likely it will be to suck in foreign powers. Perhaps this latest development could give Russia the impetus it needs to bring an end to this increasingly dangerous and destructive conflict.