The Battle of Shusha: Warcraft Has Changed, but Soldiers’ Sweat, Courage and Daring Remain Key to Military Success
Climbing cliffs and steep slopes fully armed but with minimal other equipment takes a lot of skill, strength and training. However, according to analysts, such manoevres by as many as 400 Azerbaijani special forces troops were a key factor in the pivotal 2020 Battle of Shusha. Image: hurricanehank/Shutterstock
The 2nd Karabakh War of 2020 was a game-changer in military tactics. The campaign’s culmination - the Battle of Shusha - was a particular landmark of strategy, combining new technology with time-honoured grit and daring. Speaking with Mark Elliott on the Caspian Podcast, ex-soldier and leading analyst of urban warfare, John Spencer, outlined numerous ways in which students of war-craft have learned important lessons from both the war and the battle.
Of crucial importance through most of the war were ‘loitering drones,’ small weaponized flying cameras that easily evade air defence systems yet can bide their time and then make suicide attacks on enemy infrastructure. Spencer also revealed that one of the new, perhaps unexpected failings of defenders in the 21st-century battlefield has been the carrying of mobile phones whose signals could unwittingly give away their positions to sophisticated surveillance techniques.
A ‘loitering drone’ as exhibited at a Kyiv (Kiev) arms fair in 2021. Image: Oleksiichik/Shutterstock
Curiously it was largely in working from posted videos from both official sources and illicit soldier-cams that historians and analysts have been able to piece together a relatively complete picture of the war’s progress. There’s little doubt that the Battle of Shusha was critically important both strategically and in terms of morale.
Shusha’s a place of enormous cultural significance for Azerbaijanis who have a whole raft of poems, songs and mugham compositions eulogizing the city built by the Khan of Karabakh – Pahah Ali Khan in 1751. Meanwhile, in terms of geography, this small city is a natural fortress, surrounded on three sides by cliffs and steep inclines. On the north side, the gradient is gentler, sloping down over around 10km to the region’s biggest city, Khankendi (Stepanakert to its Armenian inhabitants). That was the “capital” of what was at that point the breakaway, unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. Home to the largest proportion of Azerbaijan’s ethnic Armenians, Khankendi is completely overlooked by Shusha. Thus a capitulation of Shusha would herald a situation from which – without air superiority – the Armenian defenders’ position would become essentially hopeless. However, for the attacking army, any attempt to launch an assault on Shusha would have seemed perilous, with the only major approach being that northern funnel – defenders being relatively easily supplied from Khankendi.
During the period of occupation when Armenia was in control of the city, a tank monument was installed outside Shusha. The monument seems poignant now, metaphorically representing the un-preparedness of the Armenian forces during the 2020 battle in which heavy armour was not the lead factor. Image:Mato Z/Shutterstock
The key to the conflict proved to be remarkably “old school” – an attack that combined feints and heavy bombardment with extreme, Hollywood-worthy daring. It seems that an estimated 400 members of the Azerbaijani Special Forces broke up into small self-sufficient groups carrying minimal food and water to get into position around Shusha’s edges secretly. By scaling the toughest slopes and cliffs, in at least some cases, they took the defenders completely unawares. “This is something that a movie should be made about,” says Spencer, “not only how they came up but also how they got there without being discovered.”
An additional problem for the attackers was that fog rolled in at a crucial moment. This prevented the Azerbaijanis from fully using their superiority in air surveillance. Still, in the end, the attack appears to have been sufficiently multi-directional to confuse and overwhelm what has been reckoned to have been a defending force of around 2000 well-armed Armenian troops.
At a critical stage of the battle, fog rolled in blanketing Shusha. Image:haykazuni/Shutterstock
All hopes now are that a lasting peace will follow the war. However, warns Spencer, if it doesn’t, then the Azerbaijanis should take nothing for granted. Both sides will learn by studying the two battles of 1992 and 2020, but “defenders better close the ‘failure of imagination gaps’” or it could all happen again in the future.
John’s new book Connected Soldiers: Life, Leadership, and Social Connections in Modern War is slated for publication in May 2022. Meanwhile, you can read his and Harshana Ghoorhoo’s seminal article about the Battle of Shusha through the website of West Point’s Modern War Institute, which also hosts a more in-depth podcast about the conflict.