Could Azerbaijan Really Shoot Down a Civilian Plane in Karabakh?
As Nagorno Karabakh's first civilian airport gets set to open on May 9, Azerbaijan is threatening to "annihilate" any Armenian planes that use it. Azerbaijan argues, of course, that Karabakh belongs to them and the Armenians who now occupy it do so illegally. The shoot-down threat is almost certainly an empty one: it would be an act of war, before Azerbaijan is apparently ready and done in a way that would get international sympathies strongly on the Armenian side.
But, assuming they were serious, could Azerbaijan do it? Azerbaijani military experts say they would use surface-to-air missiles like the S-125 or S-200, according to the news agency APA:
Air Defense Troops’ experts declare that they are able to carry out measures against each military and civil aircrafts flying to Azerbaijan’s Khankendi airport. If close location of Khankendi airport to the front-line is taken into consideration, Air Defense Troops can annihilate those aircrafts by using C-125 or C-200 complexes. At the same time, it is possible to destroy navigation system of those aircrafts by using modern radioelectronic methods, and annihilate them without using any force. According to the words of experts, at present, Azerbaijan’s air defense systems can control not only the flights over Nagorno Karabakh, but also all the flights over Armenia. Civil aircrafts fly especially at altitudes of 8-10 km, their speed is lower than the military ones. Moreover, aircrafts rising from Khankendi may be annihilated till the level of maximum altitude.
Armenian experts counter that those air defense systems would have to be moved close to the border to be used against aircraft landing in Stepanakert/Khankendi (the Armenian and Azeri names, respectively, for the capital city of Karabakh, where the airport is opening). And that would render them vulnerable to an Armenian attack. According to Artsruni Hovhannisyan, quoted in regnum.ru (in Russian):
"In the arms of Azerbaijan are mostly missile systems S-200 and S-125, which more or less modern, but the fact is that they must be brought very close to the contact line, a distance from which they can be shelled. These complexes are not small devices that could be secretly moved up to the border. Their movement is sure to be noticed by Armenian intelligence."
In any case, Azerbaijan appears to be walking back from its threat. From RFE/RL today:
"Azerbaijan did not and will not use force against civil facilities, unlike Armenia, which has earned notoriety for terror and war against the civilian population,” Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry spokesman Elkhan Polukhov told local news agencies.
That's for the best.
(h/t to Emil Sanamyan for help with the research on this.)