Using OSINT & Social Media to Track the Nagorno-Karabakh War

Extensive footage on social media has allowed analysts to track precise developments, nearly in real time.

The war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh has quickly emerged as one of the most intense conflicts in recent years, both in terms of destructiveness, with the war showcasing many modern weapons systems, and in terms of intense media output covering the use of these weapons systems.

Warring parties and their militaries have released extensive footage, often in nearly real time, and used the footage as a propaganda tool to rally forces and advance their aims. Much of the footage is filmed on advanced systems including military drones, and released openly online. At the same time, observers of the conflict have closely monitored the nearly ubiquitous social media use by combatants and civilians on both sides of the war.

The largely public nature of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has enabled analysts to utilize emerging techniques like geolocation to identify where and when footage had been taken, allowing combatants’ positions to be tracked nearly as quickly as videos are released. Between footage of drone strikes on armored vehicles, war crimes recorded by their perpetrators and shared publicly online, and news reports from inside fortified defensive positions, the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan has quickly become one of the most documented and catalogued conflicts in recent memory.

The rapid dissemination of footage and an emergent collective of amateur geolocators has made it possible to create a day-by-day record of which positions were captured by the Azerbaijani military and which positions the Armenian military still hold, up to and beyond the November 10, 2020 ceasefire and territorial handover brokered by Russia.

The Azerbaijani Advance

On September 27th, 2020, the day war broke out, geolocators identified airstrike locations almost as soon as their footage was posted on official Azerbaijani military channels. Within several days, it was possible to identify points in the longstanding “line of contact” where Azerbaijani military units had managed to cross the nearly 30-year-old row of trenches, established at the end of the 1988-1995 war, which demarcate the edge of the self-declared “Republic of Artsakh.”

After the first week of conflict, it became clear that the Azerbaijani military had advanced on two fronts: on the northeastern corner of the disputed territory around the towns of Talish and Mataghis, and on the disputed territory’s southeastern corner near the border with Iran.

By October 3rd, Azerbaijani troops had entered Mataghis, raising a flag over a local administrative building in a manner that would become ubiquitous throughout their advances in Nagorno-Karabakh. On the same day, Syrian mercenaries were geolocated just across the line of contact after coming under heavy artillery fire. These fighters were deployed to the region as part of the Turkish military’s extensive assistance to Azerbaijan, which has also included drones, intelligence support, and joint planning in the months before the outbreak of fighting.

By October 7th, convoys of Azerbaijani military vehicles were geolocated on the outskirts of Jebrayil, capital city to the district of the same name. Although Jebrayil had been largely destroyed during the first Nagorno-Karabakh war in the early 1990s, Azerbaijani forces quickly moved into the city and claimed its capture, in what would be the first district capital to fall during the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

This southern front would quickly become the most important of the war, as successive geolocations confirmed a rapid Azerbaijani advance, both through the relatively flat terrain along the Iranian border and across the more mountainous — and populated — areas of Hadrut. By October 13th, Azerbaijani troops had entered the Hadrut valley, and after several days of intense fighting, managed to push Armenian forces out of the town entirely. Around the same time, Azerbaijani forces managed to secure approximately half the border with Iran, pushing up the Aras river as far as the Khoda Afarin Reservoir and the historic bridges just below its dam. On October 14th, footage published by Republic of Artsakh channels showed an artillery barrage on Azerbaijani troops, which confirmed that Azerbaijani forces had seized another district capital at Fuzuli.

By October 16th, footage published by Azerbaijani military channels confirmed swift advances around Mount Ergunash, nearly linking with Azerbaijani units in Fuzuli and suggesting a mass withdrawal of Armenian units from the nearly cut off area between Mount Ergunash and the line of contact. Similarly, rapid advances south of Jebrayil indicated a broad withdrawal of Armenian units from the difficult-to-defend lowland areas in the south of the territory, as Azerbaijani units rapidly advanced dozens of kilometers in only a few days, suggesting limited resistance by Armenian forces. By October 22nd, Azerbaijani troops had reached the last border post before the de jure Armenian border and captured the district capitals of Zangilan and Qubadli in southwestern Karabakh during the same few days.

The Battle for Shusha

Hundreds of videos of airstrikes on Armenian armor showed why Azerbaijani troops had such success: Armenian air defenses proved utterly inadequate, suffering from heavy attrition and unable to stem airstrikes from Turkish-supplied TB2 drones. Alongside geolocations, the plentiful airstrike footage as well as footage showing destroyed and captured vehicles enabled analysts to track losses in military equipment by both sides.

By the end of the conflict, Armenia had lost 224 tanks, 59 armored fighting vehicles, 71 infantry fighting vehicles, 181 towed artillery pieces, 76 multiple rocket launch systems and 28 surface-to-air missile systems. By the ceasefire on November 10th, these losses constituted as much as 40% of Armenia’s pre-war vehicle inventory, a level of attrition which would prove unsustainable.

With the retreat of Armenian forces away from flatter terrain and towards the heavily forested mountains of Nagorno-Karabakh’s interior, Azerbaijani tactics also shifted. Switching away from heavy armor columns backed by intense airstrikes and artillery, Azerbaijan increasingly sought to deploy special forces units, which exploited gaps in Armenian lines to infiltrate the mountainous interior northwest of Hadrut along thin mountain roads and trails. From a conventional military perspective, these units were tasked with disrupting Armenian counterattacks and guiding artillery and drone strikes in advance of larger infantry units, but civilians claim the units had also engaged in atrocities against ethnic Armenian civilians who had not yet fled.

On November 2nd, it became clear what Azerbaijani troops aimed to achieve. Penetrating deep into Karabakh’s interior and arriving on the southern outskirts of Shusha — which had long held a central role in the narratives of both sides about their respective claims to the disputed region — Armenian forces found themselves defending the Lachin highway, Nagorno-Karabakh’s single lifeline from Armenia. By November 4th, footage posted by Armenian military channels showed drone-guided artillery strikes on Azerbaijani troops resting on the highway itself, confirming that the sole logistical corridor for Armenian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh had been cut.

After cutting the Lachin highway corridor, Azerbaijani forces quickly moved to assault Armenian positions near Shusha. Multiple geolocations between November 5th and 9th appeared to show Azerbaijani troops crossing the highway into the densely forested slopes to the north of Shusha, hugging the highway itself, and effectively ambushing Armenian troops attempting to travel from Stepanakert to defensive positions near Shusha’s northwestern gate. Geolocations of one particularly grisly ambush along the highway on the night of November 6th showed as many as 110 Armenian troops who had been killed by Azerbaijani special forces hiding in the wooded slopes just below the northern side of the highway, clearly demonstrating Armenian forces’ inadequate intelligence about their enemy’s positions and advances. With the highway blocked at Shusha’s northeastern gate, Armenian troops defending the town were effectively cut off, and quickly retreated. By November 9th, Azerbaijani troops had clearly gained control of all of Shusha.

Finalizing the Ceasefire

The battle for Shusha proved to be the closing operation of the war. Negotiations brokered by Russia inflicted painful concessions on Armenia, which agreed to cede not only territories conquered by Azerbaijan, but also the remaining districts outside the ethnic Armenian Soviet-era oblast of Nagorno-Karabakh, which had themselves been ethnically cleansed of their ethnic Azeri population during the first war in the 1990s. Nearly 2,000 Russian peacekeepers quickly deployed to stabilize the new lines between territories seized by Azerbaijan or ceded to it under the ceasefire, guaranteeing freedom of movement along the Lachin corridor for civilian traffic between Armenia and Stepanakert. A staged withdrawal of Armenian forces from the remaining territories ensued, as Azerbaijani troops reached Agdam by November 20th, Istisu in Kalbajar by November 28th, and Lachin town by December 1st.

As the warring parties settle into an uneasy peace, the intensity of propaganda and ubiquity of social media use by both sides can now be reflected upon, offering analysts an unparalleled window into day-by-day incidents on the battlefield. Geolocation has proven to be a powerful tool for tracking conflicts, and the war for Nagorno-Karabakh has demonstrated how modern wars can be tracked in real-time.