Anatomy of a War: An American General Discusses the Consequences of the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War
Posted on June. 2. 2021
Many Armenians today are, without a doubt, still reeling from and trying to make sense of the recent lamentable results and current political developments in Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh). While many are concerned with the political ramifications following the formal end of hostilities, what of the war itself, namely, its military aspects and implications?
Armen Manuk-Khaloyan, a Ph.D. candidate in History at Georgetown University speaks with former two-star general Mark MacCarley, U.S. Army (Ret.), who first visited Nagorno-Karabakh in April 2016 during the Four-Day War. MacCarley draws on his extensive military experience to provide a preliminary assessment of the recent Forty-Four Day War and to evaluate the respective combat capabilities and performances of the Armenian and Azerbaijani sides. “It’s a sobering conversation that confronts a number of hard truths and realities – about Azerbaijan’s relentless, yet adept, rearming of its military over the last four years with the latest Turkish and Israeli UAVs and missile technology, the shortcomings of the Soviet-era organization of the Armenian armed forces, their outdated tactics and perhaps ill-fated reliance on static warfare, and their overall failure to anticipate the 21st-century transformational way of fighting.“MacCarley is a graduate of the United States Army War College at Carlisle, Pennsylvania and holds degrees in both business (University of Massachusetts at Amherst) and law (Loyola Law School). He most recently served as the Deputy Chief of Staff of the United States Army Training and Doctrine Command, headquartered at Fort Eustis, Virginia.
Question by Armen Manuk-Khaloyan: Let’s get down to brass-tacks. We first met sometime in late 2016 when you had just returned from Armenia. You were there at a time when there were hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. The conflict lasted only for four days but you were able to take the measure of the strength and capabilities of the Armenian forces. Could you please tell me what you saw when you were there?
Answer by Major Gen. Mark MacCarley (U.S. Army, Ret.) VVartkes Yegayan and I were in Armenia from the 1st of April 2016, at a time when there were inklings of possible hostilities between Azerbaijan and Artsakh (Nagorno Karabakh). We were there, initially, to do research regarding issues related to the Armenian Genocide. At that particular moment when we flew into Moscow and from Moscow to Yerevan, the war had not started.
A couple hours after we landed in Yerevan and after I checked into our hotel, I received a call from the Aide-de-Camp of the then Chief of Staff of the Armenian Army, Seyran Ohan-yan. His Aide-de-camp asked if I would be willing to meet with General Ohanyan, right away. At that moment the hostilities between Artsakh and Azerbaijan had just erupted with Azeri forces invading Artsakh. I immediately said yes to the meeting. To this day I can only speculate as to the reason why General Ohanyan extended this invitation to me, a retired United States Army general officer. I met with General Ohanyan at the Armenian “Pentagon.” I had known about his exploits as a commando during the 1988-1994 Armenia and Azerbaijan conflict. General Ohanyan with a small band of true heroes, assaulted the cliffs outside of Shushi and single-handedly – I don’t think he had more than 10-12 men with him — attacked the dug-in Azeri positions, cleared those positions and forced the remaining Azeris to flee. To this day military historians write that the extraordinary effort on General Ohanyan’s part contributed toward ending the hostilities between Azer-baijan and the Armenian people of Nagorno Karabakh.
General Ohanyan had apparently read my military biography and ascertained that I had served as a senior U.S. Army logistician in the Iraq and Afghanistan theaters of war in the years of 2005 – 2006 and 2009 – 2010. After some small talk he asked me if I would be willing to proceed, at my expense, to Artsakh/Nagorno Karabakh and do an assessment of the logistics capability of the Artsakh Army who found itself on the front lines combatting the Azeri invasion, I instantly agreed to do so. I remember his final concluding statement to me. “You American generals, you always fly where you need to go. But, I apologize, General MacCarley. We just don’t have an additional airlift to fly you to Stepanakert. I will offer you a vehicle and security.” We left a few hours later on the 317- kilometer road trip to Artsakh’s capital.
We arrived in Stepanakert, safely, on April 2, 2016, just behind a delegation from OSCE – Organization for Security and Cooperation – which was seeking to broker a ceasefire with the combatants. We immediately went to meet the Chief of Staff of the Artsakh Army who was fully engaged in directing defensive operations against the attacking Azeri Army.
The Artsakh Army Chief of Staff and I talked about the current battle situation. He then gave me permission to assess his Army’s logistics capabilities as it faced off against the Azeris. What he was interested in, was not my assessment of the morale and combat courage of his soldiers. What he really was interested in was whether his army had sufficient logistics capability to sustain combat operations over a period longer than a week – whether his army would have the resources and the ability to provide for its soldiers on the frontline, with the necessities of war- food, water, ammunition, weapons, medical supply, spare parts, fortification materials, and major weapons systems, such as tanks and artillery pieces.
With his permission and in accordance with his request, I moved out to the field to do my assessment. By the time I finished my analysis and returned to Stepanakert, the war had ended in a cease-fire brokered by then Russian President Medvedev.
I told the Chief there were no better soldiers than the Artsakh and Armenian soldiers in terms of valor, commitment, dedication, and selfless service. But I told the Chief, paraphrasing Napoleon, that the folks who significantly help to win a war, today, are the logisticians, the highly skilled technicians and the cyber warriors who can operate drones and take down an enemy’s internet and its communications capabilities. I told him that I saw some things that concerned me as a logistician, for instance, an insufficient number of ground transportation vehicles, significant problems with ammunition resupply, and even challenges with such seemingly simple things as “field feeding.” “Field feeding,” doesn’t sound terribly significant to a war effort, except when you’re a soldier and you have fought for hours and hours and there is no food to eat and there is no water to drink. I saw some food being delivered to the front lines by women from local villages who had volunteered to cook food for their soldiers. I also discussed with the Chief that I had seen remnants of Israeli drones (much less sophisticated than the drones employed in 2020) that the Azeri’s had used to some advantage in that 2016 conflict.
I later brought these same observations to the attention of the Speaker of the Artsakh Parliament and when I returned to Yerevan to the then Chief of Staff for the Republic of Armenia’s then President Serzh Sargsyan. I opined that the Armenian Army of Artsakh was stuck using a Soviet Russian model of armed combat This model had worked extraordinarily well for the Soviets in the Second World War and during the Cold War. But times had changed. To successfully wage war in the 21st Century, an army had to be able to maneuver to defend and to be able to fight in all domains: on the ground, in the air, in space, and in the cyber environment. It had to be able to supply and resupply its forces “on the fly” under the extreme conditions of combat, The Armenian Artsakh Army could not expect victory over Azerbaijan forces if the majority of its forces fought in fixed positions – resembling World War I type fox holes. I suggested that the military leaders of Artsakh and Armenia consider making indirect contact with NATO and the United States military and hire Western civilian military consultants who could teach NATO/US Army Logistics Tactics, Techniques and Procedures, discreetly, to the Armenian armed forces, so as not to antagonize the Russians.
I now humbly opine that these observations as well as others from several military experts from the Western World, identified in 2016, should have raised a lot of red flags amongst Armenian policy makers and military leadership.
Question: General, what is your current assessment or critique of Artsakh/Armenian military actions in this recent war of 2020. Major Gen. MacCarley: Armen, I tried to get back to Armenia, really Artsakh in late September 2020, but was unable to enter the country, due to a shortage of flights, COVID, and the conditions on the ground in Stepanakert. So, I can’t really answer your question with complete accuracy. If permitted, I do intend to return to Armenia to interview senior leaders in the Armenian and Artsakh military and personally assess the geography of the ground war.
I guess the biggest criticism I would have, however, is that the Artsakh/Armenian forces did not learn all the lessons of 2016, i.e., the effectiveness of drones and tactical missiles, the true impact of waging cyber war, the necessity of insuring robust combat logistics resupplies and the importance of ground maneuver as opposed to foxholes as the best form of defense. It was common knowledge readily available from various Western defense journals that, after 2016, the Azeris went to some of the better weapons suppliers in the world to include the Israelis and the Turks and purchased state of the art drones and cyber tools. The Armenians did not develop a coherent defense strategy which incorporated going on the offensive in order to defend Armenia and Artsakh’s territorial borders.
There appeared to be a clear reluctance on the part of Armenia’s leadership, Prime Minister Pashinyan, in particular, to commit the full resources of the Armenian Army to defend Artsakh. Mr. Pashinyan had exclaimed at the beginning of his administration and, again, at the outset of the war that, “We will never surrender a meter of Artsakh’s territory.” Yet the Armenian military did not put everything into the field to include its ballistic missiles which would have allowed it to go on immediate offensive operations— hate to use this word but it’s the right word— to deliver pain to the Azerbaijan homeland in order to make clear that if the Azeri forces did not withdraw and stop their aggression, their continued participation in this war would result in major destruction to its economy and infrastructure. I speculate that Prime Minister Pashinyan did not do all that was necessary to defend Artsakh and, in turn, Armenia, because of his “on and off again” relationship with Russia. His reticence to fight “hard” could equally be attributable to his absence of experience in combat operations and the absence of understanding of the art and science of war.
In comparison to the Armenian political and military leadership, Azeri President Ilham Aliyev, showed military and strategic genius. He fashioned a strategy to reconquer large swaths of Artsakh using 21st weapons systems. He envisioned a blitzkrieg type ground campaign preceded by swarms of state of the art, but comparatively low cost, unmanned air vehicles intended to destroy Artsakh’s fixed fighting positions. Such an UAV onslaught was impossible for Armenian forces to shoot down. By first using drones as unmanned fighting platforms, Azerbaijan conserved its manpower for the final assault against Shushi, not wasting its soldiers in needless bloody assaults against the Armenians heroes in their trenches. Aliyev intuitively embraced the famous 19th Century German military philosopher and strategist, Carl Von Clausewitz ‘s foundational description of war and armed conflict: “It is of course well known that the only source of war is politics—the intercourse of governments and peoples. … War is simply a continuation of political intercourse, by other means.” Aliyev mobilized the Azeri people to make all manner of sacrifices to recover what the Azeris considered their ancestral lands, while concurrently subordinating Azerbaijan’s sovereignty to Turkey in his quest of those clear strategic objectives.
Question: With all disclaimers in mind, had the Armenians declared full mobilization to include employing all the logistical resources of the country, had they deployed their ballistic missile systems, and had they more adroitly used their Sukhoi 30 fighter-bombers, would you agree that the situation on the ground at the end of eight weeks of fighting would have been far better for the Armenians in terms of Artsakh territory retained.
Major Gen. Mark MacCarley: Yes. I should say, further, that the Western World forsook Artsakh/Armenia when the war broke out. While Pashinyan initially turned to the West for help, no French fighter aircraft nor any American military equipment, logistical supplies, or even military advisers or civilian military contractors found their way to Armenia. The only NATO advisors were situated with Azerbaijan’s patron, Turkey.
Question: What’s next?
Major Gen. Mark MacCarley: That is the quintessential question. I have to admit, I’m an outsider. I haven’t had an opportunity to interview the senior leaders in Armenia for my anticipated book on the war. I do look forward to an invitation to conduct the necessary academic research. The political geography, as a result of the war, of the southern Caucasus has significantly changed. Armenia is now beholden to Russia for interceding and imposing a ceasefire before the total capitulation of Artsakh and the loss of its military. Azerbaijan now holds a vice-grip over almost two-thirds of Artsakh and the former buffer zone with Armenia. The Azeris are itching to seize more of Artsakh with the tacit support of Turkey’s Erdogan. In the face of the geopolitical realities on the ground, Armenia/Artsakh has to commit to drafting, adopting and resourcing a real national security strategy. It has some strategic choices. It can tender an even greater percentage of its hard-won sovereignty to Russia and accept its status as an obsequious Russian satellite state. For Armenia, the Russians have never left the country after 1988-89. Russia still maintains multiple military facilities on Armenian soil. The Russians have made it clear that they and they only protect Armenia’s borders with Turkey. Today, Russian “peacekeepers” have established an enhanced presence in Artsakh and the lost territories, ostensibly just for the next five years.
In the alternative, Armenia could embrace a new realpolitik relationship with Iran, an Islamic theocratic state, as a counterpoint to Turkey’s hegemonic intentions. Of course, a very public and robust relationship with Iran and its present government would not endear Armenia to the West.
Or, as this author sincerely hopes, Armenia could more fully embrace the West, assuming the West (the United States in particular) has the reciprocal appetite for agreeing to secure the territorial integrity of Armenia in exchange for Armenia’s agreement to allow, for instance, the forward positioning of US or NATO forces and military equipment on Armenian soil as an offset against the threatening assertiveness of Russia and Iran.
There is now some limited opportunity for Ame-ricans of all diversities and for American Armenians, especially, to positively influence Armenia’s strategic reassessment of itself as a country and as one of the two remaining sovereign democratic states in the Caucasus region.