The Armenian claim, which is so far unsubstantiated, follows days of major fighting with Azerbaijan over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region.
Turkey and Azerbaijan have categorically rejected a claim from the Armenian Ministry of Defense that a Turkish F-16 Viper fighter jet shot down an Armenian Su-25 Frogfoot ground attack aircraft over Armenia proper. Armenia and Azerbaijan have been engaged in a major armed conflict since Sunday over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, as you can read about more in the War Zone’s initial reporting on the crisis. While there is no evidence to suggest this is the case so far, a direct intervention by Turkey on the side of Azerbaijan would represent a major escalation and could prompt other regional actors, such as Russia, to more actively enter the fray.
Shushan Stepanyan, the Press Secretary of the Minister of Defense of Armenia, made the claim in a Facebook post on Sept. 29, 2020. The statement, released in Armenian, English, and Russian, said that the Turkish F-16 had been covering Azerbaijani air operations at the time and that the Armenian Frogfoot’s pilot “died heroically.”
Nagorno-Karabakh has been a major point of contention between authorities in Armenia and Azerbaijan since the late 1980s. It was the focus of a major conflict between the two countries that ended in a nominal ceasefire in 1994, though fighting has continued on and off ever since. At present, the bulk of the region, which is broadly recognized to be part of Azerbaijan, is under the control of the self-declared Armenian-backed Republic of Artsakh.
Azerbaijani authorities subsequently responded by saying that no Armenian plane had been shot down at all and that the incident was merely a provocation. Armenian officials have said that the introduction of Turkish forces, including combat aircraft, into the conflict could trigger a broader response, including the use of the country’s Russian-supplied Iskander-E quasi-ballistic missiles against targets in Azerbaijan.
“The Armenian claim is false,” Fahrettin Altun, a senior aide to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, later told Bloomberg. Turkish officials further lambasted the claim as a “cheap propaganda stunt,” according to that report.
At the time of writing, Armenia has yet to provide any evidence to substantiate the loss of the Su-25 or that a Turkish F-16 was responsible. The English version of Press Secretary Stepanyan’s statement said that “the Turkish F-16 multifunctional fighter, according to the flight data recorder, was located at a depth of 60 km [inside Armenia], at an altitude of 8200 meters.” However, it is unclear how the flight data recorder in the Su-25 could have collected this information. The Frogfoot notably lacks a radar, which would have been the easiest method of recording the presence of other aircraft in the area.
Rudimentary translations of the Armenian and Russian versions of the statement however describe the source of this information as “objective control means,” suggesting that the English version is in error and this claimed information came from another source, such as a ground-based radar site. Regardless, Armenia has not released any associated data to support this assertion.
Stepanyan’s Facebook post also says that the Turkish F-16 was operating from Azerbaijan’s Ganja International Airport. Satellite imagery circulating on social media dated Sept. 27, the day the conflict erupted, does not appear to show any activity associated with the presence of combat jets at that airport, but it remains possible that Turkey could have deployed the aircraft there after the fighting started.
From the very beginning of this recent conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, there have been claims that Turkish F-16s have been taking part in the fighting, but with no substantiating evidence. Turkey did send Vipers to Azerbaijan for an exercise following clashes in the region earlier this year, which was seen as a signal of sorts to Armenia. There’s no indication, however, that those aircraft remained in the country after those drills ended.
Another possibility is that one of Azerbaijan’s MiG-29 Fulcrum fighter jets shot the Su-25 down. As noted, though, Azerbaijani authorities have already disputed that any Armenian aircraft was shot down at all, an implicit denial that they were responsible.
Regardless, there certainly is an air war going in the skies of Nagorno-Karabakh and adjacent areas in Armenia and Azerbaijan. The Azerbaijanis have already made very notable use of their significant fleet of drones, including Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 armed unmanned aircraft and various Israeli-made loitering munitions.
Armenia claims that it has shot down dozens of Azerbaijani drones, as well as a number of helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft, but those figures are disputed and there is limited evidence from which to independently verify any such losses. That being said, Azerbaijan has confirmed that at least one of its helicopters was shot down.
There are also claims that Turkey has facilitated the movement of Syrian militants to the region to fight on the side of Azerbaijan, as well. The Turkish government has denied this and there are allegations that foreign mercenaries are fighting on the Armenian side, as well. However, the use of groups from Syria as proxy forces is something Turkish authorities have already done to bolster the U.N.-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) in Libya.
Still, the appearance of Turkish F-16s in the skies over Nagorno-Karabakh, as well as Armenia proper, would be a much more significant entry by Turkey into the fighting and, if true, could have much more serious ramifications. Armenia is a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), as is Russia.
As its name implies, CSTO members enjoy collective security provisions that Armenian authorities might decide to invoke, citing threats to its undisputed territory from not only Azerbaijan, but Turkey, as well. This, in turn, could potentially compel Russia to more actively take part in the conflict. Russia already maintains a military presence in Armenia, including a detachment of MiG-29 Fulcrum fighter jets. Needless to say, Russian and Turkish forces participating in the fighting would run the risk of the conflict becoming a more serious regional crisis.
The Kremlin has called on its Turkish counterparts to support a new ceasefire plan, President Erdogan, so far, remains steadfastly supportive of Azerbaijan’s apparent attempt to recapture all or at least most of Nagorno-Karabakh. That being said, in conflicts in Syria and Libya, Russia and Turkey have found themselves backing opposing sides and have engaged with each other in those cases on multiple occasions to at least bring temporary halts to the fighting.
It remains to be seen whether any evidence of Turkish F-16s flying the region will emerge, which would certainly have a major impact on how the conflict evolves. In the meantime, the fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh is showing no signs of slowing down.