the home of online investigations

You can support the work of Bellingcat by donating through the following link:

Azerbaijan’s Militarization and the Status of Nakhichevan Autonomous Republic

October 4, 2017

By Masis Ingilizian

Translations: Русский

The peace process between Armenia and Azerbaijan was severely weakened due to the April 2016 four-day war, with further complications due to Azerbaijan asserting its military prowess through a build-up in its exclave of Nakhichevan. This military build-up in Nakhichevan has led to Armenia becoming a more hesitant partner in the OSCE mediation efforts. Additionally, the four-day war has caused Armenia to shift its perception of the role of the West and Russia–who were reluctant to restrain Azerbaijan’s actions in the brief war–in the process of seeking resolution in the ongoing conflict between the two Caucasian nations. Over a year since the four-day war and through the ongoing Azerbaijani military build-up in the Nakhichevan exclave, it has become clear that Armenia is moving towards a change in its strategy with dealing with its neighbor.

2013 imagery of the garrison via Google Earth

During the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in the 1990s, both nations took the opportunity to occupy the smaller enclaves within their respective territories that belonged to the other nation, leading to minor battles erupting outside the Nagorno Karabakh battlezone. Both parties raced to secure borders in order to create a fait accompli that would ensure a favourable demarcation line during future clashes. However, on the Nakhichevan border, geopolitics quickly put a stop to these incursions, as the major powers attempted to limit the battle space in order to avert a larger conflict between the superpowers. Turkey announced it would declare war if Armenia continued its expeditions along the Nakhichevan border, and Russia responded by saying that “we would be on the brink of a new war” if any other nation intervenedThis deterrence has been one of the main factors in holding both nations back from renewed conflict over the exclave and was also a contributing factor to Azerbaijan’s reluctance to militarize the exclave up until 2012. As a result, the border was inactive till that year, with only rare clashes, demonstrating how larger nations are able to restrain smaller foes from achieving their strategic goals. While other factors also contributed to the abrupt end to fighting and to the inactivity on the border, understanding the shifts in strategic interests and how they are contributing to the changing status quo can give us more insight into the ever-changing environment – changes which could radically alter the outcome of a potential, if not likely, future conflict.


Azerbaijan’s television broadcasts and official videos on Nakhichevan’s military preparedness have shed more light on developments in the exclave. Along with war games with Turkey in the exclave, this renewed show of might indicates an Azerbaijani military  rejuvenation. Google Earth imagery of Nakhichevan reveals a steady military build-up since 2012, in contrast to the minimum fire power indicated by Google Earth history prior to that year. Also significant is the Nakhichevan Separate Combined Arms Army established by President Aliyev in 2013. In the light of this build-up, Azerbaijan’s shift in policy, and the April 2016 4-day war, a resumption of violence on the Armenia-Nakhichevan border is a real possibility in the case of war.

Even without Nakhichevan entering a future conflict, the exclave will play a major role in a future war by potentially diverting Armenian troops from the Karabagh front, a tactic that would favour Azerbaijan. An exclave that previously had no role in any possible future hostilities is now becoming part of the extended battlefield. While the major powers have used a soft approach to contain the battle space to Nagorno-Karabakh, the military build-up in Nakhichevan has apparently broken this unspoken understanding.

Aerial view of the Nakhichevan garrison. Historical imagery on Google Earth shows us that, in 2008, the garrison is almost empty.

Display of a consistent build-up throughout the garrison. This 2013 imagery details various tracked vehicles, towed artillery and air defence systems.

The unspoken accords regarding the status of the exclave are not formal agreements; however, they provide a clear picture of the alliances and deter Armenia and Azerbaijan from drawing the major powers into a future conflict. Nakhichevan’s border with Turkey provides it with quasi-political protection by Turkey as the large power ally for Azerbaijan. The exclave’s lack of land access to Azerbaijan has forced it to find additional protection — in this case Turkey. At the same time, Armenia’s treaty with Russia currently allows Armenia to ask for Russian assistance in the case of an attack by an aggressor, including an attack by Azerbaijan via Nakhichevan (see: Shougarian, Rouben (1997). “Yielding More to Gain the Essential: The Factor of Timing of the Russian Armenian Treaty in 1997”, Tufts University.). This has effectively created an unspoken truce between Russia and Turkey, which, along with their support for their smaller allies Armenia and Azerbaijan, respectively, is indicative of a lack of will to engage in warfare on the Russian-Turkish front, irrespective of combatants.

Theoretically, the exclave’s potential role in a renewed conflict could tip the balance in Azerbaijan’s favour. However, this potential advantage needs to be weighed against the isolation of the exclave, which provides Armenia with an advantage.

In the case of a resumption of hostilities, Azerbaijan’s main objective would be to use Nakhichevan as a platform to hit strategic targets in Armenia proper. One of these targets is Armenia’s S300PS systems, a sophisticated air defence system that protects the skies of Nagorno-Karabakh and also deters Nakhichevan’s air force from their operations. A number main roads are also within range, including one that links Karabagh with Armenia. These roads lie within direct range of Azerbaijan’s Nakhichevan-based artillery. Another major concern for Armenia is that its capital—Yerevan—is well within firing range of Azerbaijan’s MLRS and, while it is risky for Azerbaijan to strike a major city, this scenario still needs to be taken into account by Armenian military decision-makers.

The yellow pin placemark pins the Nakhichevan garrison in the exclave, the strip of territory lying between Armenia and Iran with a north-western border with Turkey. The red circular range rings represent the range of S300PS in Armenia, protecting the Nagorno-Karabagh region to the northeast as well as most of Nakhichevan.

Any attempt to strike the S300PS could potentially trigger an all-out war, which would require both nations drawing on larger forces rather than their reserves. For Armenia, this scenario would require practise-makes-perfect training to ensure sufficiently quick teardown times to relocate the batteries. This manoeuvre is achievable, as the batteries are designed to be relocated within 30 minutes (see: IMINT Analysis V1N3 April 2011). However, if the batteries are struck and become unoperational, this could provide the Azerbaijani Air Force with less sophisticated air defense assets to deal with in an air campaign against Nagorno-Karabagh’s forces. In addition to this difficulty, the mountain chain that runs along the entire length of the border between Armenia and Nakhichevan is around 4 to 6 thousand feet higher than the lowlands of the Nakhichevan plains, providing a natural barrier limiting Azerbaijan’s capacity for striking targets accurately.

The two yellow triangles depict the location of the S300PS, located well within the borders of Armenia proper (Picture courtesy Sean O’Connor). These air defense assets provide a sophisticated air defence umbrella over Nagorno-Karabagh (not shown on the map) as seen with the red circles in the previous picture. In a possible scenario of a second front in the next war, the S300PS systems (yellow triangles) are strategic targets for Azerbaijan from the Nakhichevan exclave. The Red triangles around Yerevan are also a sophisticated air defence assets which are also in range from Nakhichevan, not to mention Yerevan’s vulnerability.

Other targets from Nakhichevan include main roads that act as supply lines to Karabagh from Armenia. Strategic targets such as these roads are often first on the strike list and will be contemplated in a resumption of hostilities, creating a larger theater of war than originally anticipated. However, this scenario could quickly get out of hand if the Azerbaijani military decides to hit strategic targets, resulting in a potential all out war. Also, Smerch MLRSes have been identified in Nakhichevan and, with a 90 km range, these can strike at the heart of Yerevan. Furthermore, the mountain range that extends along much of the Nakhichevan border ends in the north, 20km short of the junction of the Turkish and Armenian borders, providing Azerbaijan with tactical ground to fire into Armenia from Nakhichevan. This also provides an opportunity for ground troops from both nations to enter from flat land.

On the other side of the picture is the geographical isolation of Nakhichevan, which carries its own risks for Azerbaijan in any resumption of hostilities. While the militarization of the exclave allows for a potential strike against strategic targets in Armenia, this would come at the cost of a massive retaliation from the Armenian side. It would therefore be unwise for Azerbaijan to sacrifice the whole region in the hope of getting Turkey involved or in the hope of diverting Armenian troops away from Nagorno-Karabakh. Nakhichevan’s geographical isolation would provide Armenia with an easy opportunity to fire into Nakhichevan from vantage points held by its military. It would also allow Armenian troops to easily seize mountain-top posts of the exclave as a buffer, as was seen in 2014 when Armenian troops established control over previously unmanned heights inside Syunik in the Nakhichevan direction during a well-planned surprise night raid.

A change has also been noted in Azerbaijan’s policy towards Nagorno-Karabakh, leading to a shift away from the negotiation process towards settling the conflict through military means. Azerbaijan’s attack on regions within Nagorno Karabakh itself (which fall under self-determination clauses) in the 4-day war raises the question as to why the superpowers, especially Russia, has allowed Azerbaijan to test the limits of what it can get away with. Its attack on regions other than the disputed territories (which are marked for return under the principles written for a negotiated settlement) is evidence that Azerbaijan had freer rein than previously.

Furthermore, Russia, who plays the role of peacemaker between the two nations, simultaneously continues to arm both sides. Russia’s renewed interest in Azerbaijan and the sale of the S300PMU2 to Baku, an enemy of its ally, raises several questions, in particular why Russia is so hesitant to use its arms sales and status as a superpower as leverage in influencing Azerbaijan’s military policy towards Nagorno-Karabagh.

Bellingcat has been tracking military developments in the Nakhichevan exclave, covering artillery, tanks, close air-support aircrafts and attack helicopters. Various confirmed reports of the presence of Turkish-made TR-300MLR and Smerch MLRSes have been noted. Considering the status quo of the exclave to date and the accords that hold it back it from entering a conflict, its military build-up is concerning.However, this build-up is not surprising when seen in the context of the various shifts in strategic interests in the region, as seen with the sale of a state-of-the-art air defense system to Azerbaijan by Armenia’s ally, Russia. Therefore it is possible that the major powers have lost some of their influence over Azerbaijan’s military policy, providing Azerbaijan with free reign to push the boundaries of many unspoken accords including the militarization of Nakhichevan, as seen with the unfolding developments in current and historical imagery.


The reality on the ground has shifted from when many of the negotiating principles were drawn up and, with the larger powers playing their own game, it seems their lack of committed to the peace process will leave Armenia and Azerbaijan to battle it out themselves.

Masis Ingilizian

Masis Ingilizian is a researcher at the Australian Institute for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. He was previously a regular contributor for the publication IMINT Analysis edited by Sean O’Connor. His research focuses on the Caucasus, Iran and Russia, spanning the fields of strategic warfare, geopolitics and geostrategy. Masis tracks developments in the Nagorno-Karabagh conflict and provides ongoing insight into the geopolitics and growing tensions in the region, using imagery and photos for analysis. He also writes on the foreign policies of both Russia and the West.

Join the Bellingcat Mailing List:

Enter your email address to receive a weekly digest of Bellingcat posts, links to open source research articles, and more.


  1. Luke

    Surely the two key strategic factors not discussed are the permanent presence of Russian troops in Armenia and the possession of Iskander missiles by Armenia. These factors significantly change the options or considerations for both sides.

  2. Khan

    I really like, that there is only one citation in the text and it is…. Armenian. OK. Nevermind, Armenians like to cite Armenians. What is important, however, is partial lack of understanding on the part of the writer of the region he is describing. For example, the status of Nakhchivan is still defined by the Treaty of Kars and Moscow Treaty (1921), where Turkey is a guarantor of Nakhchivan’s security and it is formally under Turkish protectorate to this day. Nakhichevan has been militarized since the end of the war in 1994, there is always been a military unit there no smaller than a brigade. Plus, the recent build-up in Nakhichevan is not connected so much to the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict, but to the Iskander missile systems that threaten Azerbaijan larger cities. So the Smerch systems have been positioned there to threaten Yerevan, as the author points correctly. But this is a counter-reaction to Iskanders. Azerbaijan is not interested to attack Armenia first, as then it will trigger Russian response because Russia is legally obligated to do that, as again correctly mentioned by the author. Nagorno-Karabakh, on the other hand, is the territory of Azerbaijan and is recognized as such. That is why Azerbaijan will try to confine war only to its own territory. Nakhichevan is a precaution for Azerbaijan in terms of the possibility of retaliation, should Armenia start attacking Azerbaijan’s territory beyond Nagorno-Karabakh, as it had threatened to do so previously. The article, on the other hand, is based on the assumption that Azerbaijan is in the position to attack Armenia first. Or so it seems. If that is true – then I think you are wrong.

    • Masis Ingilizian

      Firstly, to an extent I agree that Azerbaijan might confine their resumption of hostilities to the Nagorno Karabagh region but I do state that the use of Nakhichevan as a platform to strike targets in Armenia in the next round of conflict is possible. This article is based on a how Azerbaijan will use the exclave to its advantage in a future conflict, and I am clear that this is in a resumption of hostilities not that Azerbaijan will, big difference so your comment is kind of pointless. I apologize for my rudeness but you haven’t read carefully what my article asserts… Secondly I do agree that arming Nakhichevan is a reaction to the Armenian Iskanders, that is understandable but that scenario and theory is a recent turn in events, and doesn’t fall under the pattern of events connected to the build up of military in Nakhichevan which was seen from around 2012. The delivery of the Iskanders to Armenia was very recent, very recent. And I never said Nakhichevan was completely empty with military and arsenal, read carefully, I am expressing that a massive militarization effort has began since around 2012 with one of the factors leading to the process, being a shift in status quo. Lastly, my article is not based on the assumption that Azerbaijan will attack first, again read carefully, my assumption is that the superpowers have lost their influence over Azerbaijan, nothing to do with someone attacking first.

  3. Valery

    The problem is that Armenia claims not only the historical enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, but also a number of adjacent areas, which de jure are the part of Azerbaijan, explaining that by the requirements of safety, etc. The truth is on neither’s side.

  4. steve

    valery, you must be a turk/ azerbaijani, no such thing as truth, especially when it comes to turks.
    very simple, all of this is armenia ! period !

    • Marcus

      “Valery”, like other Turks/Azeris, uses a European name to hide his identity and to appear to be a neutral third party. Not only Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabagh to Vakert) is part of Armenia but so are Nakhichevan, Shahoumian and environs, Mount Ararat, Kars, Ardahan and the rest of “eastern Turkey”. To the uninformed or people hostile to Armenians, this list can reflect Armenian land “greed”. The fact is these lands plus Cilicia were grabbed from the Armenians by the Turks and Turkic Azeris. The return of these Armenian lands to Armenia is a rectification of the injustice done to the Armenians and the genocides which Turkbeijan inflicted upon Armenians for centuries.


Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)

You can support the work of Bellingcat by donating through the following link: