By Prof. Z. S. Andrew Demirdjian, Los Angeles, 29 Nov 2021
“Another such victory over the Romans,
and we are undone [ruined].”
The Pyrrhic War (280-275 B.C) between the Greeks and the Romans helps shed instructive light on the Second Artsakh War…of Azerbaijan-Turkey invasion of Artsakh. The Greeks were led by Gen. Pyrrhus. Pyrrhus, who later became the king of Epirus, was a skilled commander with a strong army fortified by war elephants, a rarity at that time. He enjoyed initial success against the Roman legions, but suffered heavy losses even in these victories. According to Plutarch, Pyrrhus’s army fought valiantly for three days and won. But, when the general counted the death toll on his soldiers, he said, “If we are victorious in one more battle with the Romans, we shall be utterly ruined”. Thus, hollow victory’s has been tagged Pyrrhic victory—a victory that “inflicts such a devastating toll on the victor that it is tantamount to defeat.” The devastating toll can run the gamut from an enormous number of casualties, the wasting of resources, destruction of equipment, high financial costs, and damage to civilians and their infrastructures.
Is there a similarity between the events between the Turkic invasion of Artsakh in 2020 and the Epirus vs. Roman war in 280-275 B.C.? To answer the question, we would need more information about the two wars. As the ancient war raged, General Pyrrhus could not call up more men from home and his allies in Italy were becoming indifferent (just like the Armenian ally Russia did).
The Romans, by contrast, had a very large pool of military manpower and were able to replenish their legions even if their forces were depleted in many battles. Thus, the expression “Pyrrhic victory”, a term for a victory that inflicts losses the victor cannot afford in the long term. In other words, even though General Pyrrhus won the war, it cost him many thousands of men, turning his victory into a defeat.
Does it sound a bit like the Second Artsakh War/Turkic Invasion? At the end of the 44-day war, Azerbaijan was hailed victor and Artsakh as the loser. Let us inspect the war’s outcome and its implications.
On Sunday, September 27, 2020 Azerbaijani and Turkish forces, assisted by jihadist terrorists, Pakistani volunteers, and a host of other foreign mercenaries brought mainly from Syria and Libya by Turkey, began an unprovoked attack on the Republic of Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh) with artillery barrages and attack drone strikes. A huge victory was attributed to Azerbaijani’s combined forces.
After the war, Azerbaijan reported its casualties as 2,700 while Artsakh had suffered 5,000. However, according to the former Armenian Prime Minister Hrant Bagratyan, the losses on the Azerbaijani side exceeded 18,000. Bagratyan based his figures on an Internet site in Holland. Additionally, Bagratyan gathered the news from the opposition media in Azerbaijan. Interestingly enough, the opposition leaders in Azerbaijan supposedly have been visiting the cemeteries and counting the fresh graves. Bagratyan firmly believes that Azerbaijan/Turkey did not have a sufficient number of soldiers to capture Shushi.
Does Bagratyan’s claim have any foundation in fact? The only corroborating evidence I found after an extensive search is in similar remarks made by Mr. Matthew Bryza (the former U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan) during several interviews.
In an interview on Oct. 2, 2020, Bryza stated: “I don’t think Azerbaijan wants to go much beyond this, consolidating its hold on these retaken territories,” Bryza explained. “The further it goes, not only is it more expensive and riskier, but their supply lines are extended and the whole operation becomes much more complicated.”
Despite being a confirmed Turkophile, Bryza has stated during interviews that when Azerbaijani forces were close to Shushi and when Putin proposed a ceasefire, President Ilham Aliyev opted for it because he did not want to suffer more casualties and also wanted to maintain a positive image of himself in the international community. Perhaps the Azeri dictator also wanted to avoid being accused of unjustly and raping a tiny nation of 150,000.
The fact is that had Aliyev the opportunity to take all of Artsakh, including the seven regions around it, he would not have hesitated to carry it out willingly and vengefully. Something must have discouraged him, such as “not enough force left” to continue the fight as was stated by Bagratyan and alluded by Bryza. Moreover, Bryza indicated that “an advance by Azerbaijan forces to retake Stepanakert would have to cross treacherous hilly terrain, as well as deep gorges with steep cliffs.”
Shushi is situated on top of a mesa with steep sides. Capturing it would have been fighting an avalanche for the Azerbaijani forces. Besides, if Aliyev could have taken over the whole of Artsakh, he would have not hesitated out of compassion toward Armenians.
When Azerbaijani forces came close to Shushi, President Arayik Harutunyan of the Republic of Artsakh, called PM Nikol Pashinyan of Armenia and informed him that the enemy was within five kilometers from Stepanakert (capital of Artsakh) and he needed reinforcement. The loss of men on Armenian side was too high from the start of the war and Artsakh failed to replenish those fallen. As a result, Artsakh was also eager to a ceasefire when help from Yerevan had failed to come to the rescue.
Had Artsakh generals a decent military intelligence system, they would have found out that Azerbaijani forces were weakened and thus could not take Shushi since it commanded a strategic position over the adversary. Artsakh had a definite advantage over the invading forces. Intelligence about the depleted Azerbaijan forces would have changed the outcome of the war.
Based on Bagratyan’s report and Bryza comments that Azerbaijani forces had overly extended themselves when they came near Shushi, Azerbaijan bluffed its way to getting almost 75 percent of Artsakh’s territory through the concessions made by Armenia and Artsakh leaders during the lopsided agreement on Nov. 9, 2020.
It is worth mentioning that Aliyev seems to be a congenital liar and his minister of war has always misrepresented the truth by minimizing their losses. Therefore, it is very likely that Aliyev pretended to be in control to intimidate the Armenians into surrender or accepting substantial concessions.
Although decoy drones created confusion among the Artsakh forces and the attack drones played havoc with the Artsakh army, the Artsakh Defense Forces reportedly must have caused way a greater number of casualties than the winner of the war, rendering Azerbaijan a Pyrrhic victory.
When the theater of war moved from the low lands of Artsakh to higher terrain, Azerbaijan had difficult time fighting on high ground. As well, usually the attacking army incurs more casualty than the defending one.
Yes, there seems to be some parallels between the Epirus-Romans and Artsakh-Azerbaijani wars if we decide to stretch our imagination beyond the realm of impossibility. If Aliyev’s objective were to win at any cost, then it is an unqualified victory. On the other hand, if he valued the lives of his force and decided to win with the least number of casualties, then it is a Pyrrhic victory. Since he signed the ceasefire on Nov. 9, it can be imputed that he did not want to incur any further losses of his men by going after Shushi and Stepanakert. By using the contingency approach, Azerbaijan was defeated on account of its enormous losses just as Gen. Pyrrhus’s victory contained defeat.
In the final analysis, the type of victory depends on the ultimate objective of the aggressor, such as on Aliyev’s objective for attacking Artsakh. However, if the toll mattered, then it is a Pyrrhic victory for he had lost too many soldiers to get to the gates of Shushi, which would be tantamount to defeat in victory.
Let’s talk about some of the implications. Pyrrhic victory would serve as a warning to the aggressor: if you continue messing up with Artsakh militarily, the consequence would cost you dearly in terms of men and equipment, which would open the Aliyev administration to criticism by the opposition and even to a rally to replace him.
Aliyev’s opposition would have reason to blame his leadership for sacrificing so many of Azerbaijan’s youth and coming out of the war as a loser for his costly Pyrrhic victory and for scarring the landscape of Azerbaijan.
To win the war, Azerbaijan resorted to the “total war” strategy in which his forces went not only after the Arstakh Defense Forces but also bombed the unarmed Armenian civilians. The people of Artsakh will never ever accept to live under Azeri hegemony.
Aliyev’s only alternative would be ethnic cleansing. However, genocide for Aliyev’s legacy would forever tarnish his image as a 21st-century Talat Pasha.
All considered, I tend to believe Aliyev fought a Pyrrhic war and had a Pyrrhic victory. The type of victory depends on the ultimate objective of the aggressor, such as Aliyev’s objective for attacking Artsakh. I believe if he had the chance to take over not only Artsakh but Armenia proper (Erevan Khanate/Yerevan marz, Lake Sevan, and Zangezur (Syunik marz) he would have done so. But, he did not have enough forces to continue. In his attempt to take all, he had depleted his forces.
If you think Aliyev spared Artsakh further devastation, I would question your logic—If he could take all, he would not have hesitated for a wink. Something must have stopped him from achieving a total victory– “to teach Armenians a lesson” or “Nagorno-Karabakh is Azerbaijan”.
Like their decoy drones, Azerbaijan bluffed that it was ready and capable of attacking Shushi. Lacking military intelligence, Artsakh failed to find out the situation with Aliyev’s overextended or depleted forces. As a result, Artsakh feared to lose more territory, and hastily signed away so many of Armenia’s ancestral lands to be again under the rule of cruel conquerors.
Aliyev’s Pyrrhic victory enabled us to learn that Artsakh Defense Forces had fought valiantly against a large and well-armed army. The Armenian soldiers truly showed their mettle, their courage, and determination to defend Artsakh. A well-deserved memorial should be erected in honoring the Armenian soldiers who fought bravely to protect the homeland.
Although Aliyev has meditated the onslaught since his experimental sneak attack in April of 2016, if Artsakh had anti-drone devices to counter Azerbaijan’s use of illegal cluster bombs, white phosphorous, and other prohibited munitions during the 2020 war, Azerbaijan would have become a dead duck and made Aliyev choke on his words: “Azerbaijan will once again break their [Armenians’] back with its iron fist”.
There is another factor that the author has not considered. A few days after Nov 9 there was a news item in the New York times (a reliable source ) that on November 9 Putin called Aliyev to stop his march (as the article mentions he was 5 km from Stepanagert ). To enforce his demand a Russian missile landed in a park in Baku. That was why according to the Times that the Azeri forces stopped their attack.