New Vision of the Land Battle. Russian Lessons Learned - Nagorno Karabakh

During the Nagorno Karabakh conflict, the Artsakh was often suffering from artillery shelling involving 130 mm M1954 (M-46) guns, effectively neutralizing the ground targets.
Photo. Azeri MoD

Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict in Nagorno Karabakh, which was making headlines in the autumn of 2020, has become a subject of numerous studies, carried out by analytical bodies around the world. The innovative operational activities that were undertaken by Azerbaijan, and a massacre of the Armenian armoured and mechanized units evoked several questions regarding the future conflicts and how they would be managed. The conflict in Nagorno Karabakh was dubbed as a tanks-drone war in Russia (voyna tankov i dronov). Numerous analysts identified that as a premise for future conflict.

The Nagorno Karabakh conflict has also become a subject of study for Russian analysts. Voyennaya Mysl [Military Thought] journal published an analysis of military activities in the armed conflicts of the 20th and 21st century, within the scope of developments in strategy, operations, and tactics, trying to forecast the trends in the future conflicts. A study by P.A. Dul'nev, S.A. Sychev and A.V. Garvardt is particularly interesting, as it covers the land elements tactics in the Karabakh conflict1.

Conflict Profile

Discussing the conflict, the authors indicate the unique nature of tactics adopted by the Azeri army who radically departed from the tactics used initially, with classic front strikes carried out by company and battalion tactical groups. The aforesaid tactics were moderately successful in the field, for instance in the Cəbrayıl district - south part of the frontline, along the Araks River. The Azeri side suffered from quantifiable losses in equipment, due to the ambushes or anti-tank squad operating in front of the front line of defence.

As several analogies emerge here, the situation may be compared to the WWI western front - where attacks against points of resistance generated significant losses, with minor, often temporary, territorial gains. The Azeri forces referred to the tactics that had been quite successfully used by the German assault elements of the infantry (Stosstruppen), starting from 1916. This set of tactics assumed mass use of small infantry elements infiltrating the adversary, creating confusion in his defensive effort. The mobile groups and raid elements (MG-RO, Rus. mobil'nyye gruppy, and reydovyye otryady) of varying sizes, from a squad to an infantry battalion, were based on broad employment of almost all SOF elements remaining at disposal of the command of the Armed Forces of Azerbaijan.

The GM-RO tactics of elements equipped with firearms, light mortars, ATGMs and MANPADS made optimal use of the mountainous areas that were hard to access, along with the passive defence tactics of the Armenian units - single points of resistance and local counter-attacks, in case of enemy penetration. The reactivity of the Artsakh made it possible for a deep infiltration, effective disorganizing and blocking of the activities, with the use of ambushes, artillery, and UAVs, as well as provision of effective support and reinforcements. Ultimately, the isolated points of resistance had to surrender to armoured-mechanized tactical elements, with aggressive involvement of GM-RO, attacking the Armenians from other directions.

The Russians indicated that apart from the MG-RO, the Azeri forces also broadly employed UAVs - aerial reconnaissance-strike complexes (Rus. razvedyvatel'no-udarnyye \[razvedyvatel'no-ognevyye\] kompleksy, RUK [ROK]), based on mixed flights of UAVs (strike, reconnaissance, EW). The mass employment of TB2, Orbiter UAVs, and Sky Stryker, Harop, and Orbiter-1K loitering munitions led to the destruction of virtually all air defence assets and inflicted major losses to armoured and mechanized units, and the artillery. The impunity of the UAVs supported by the MG-RO led to effective tactical isolation of defensive perimeters and points of resistance of the Artsakh defensive elements. The Armenian manoeuvring elements - armoured and mechanized units deployed up to 15 kilometres from the frontline, could not have reached the front to effectively begin an organized and timely counterattack, to efficiently support the defensive effort. Attempts to carry out counterattacks were made by the Artsakh MBT elements near Cəbrayıl (10th--11th October) and Zəngilan (20th--21st October) - resulting in major losses among the counterattacking forces, loss of territorial gain, without any major impact on, or hampering of the Azeri offensive.

The use of UCAVs in circumstances when the Armenian air defence system was disintegrated made it possible for the Azeri to attack targets everywhere, within the enemy-controlled area, effectively preventing delivery of supplies and reinforcements.
Photo. Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Defence

The Russian assessment suggests that the employment of UCAVs also made it possible to limit the use of conventional tactical aviation assets. This also led to a major increase in the effectiveness of artillery shelling - tube and rocket artillery assets that could have acted against the enemy through joint fires, across a short timeframe, remaining out of reach for the Armenian side2.

During the Nagorno Karabakh conflict, the Artsakh was often suffering from artillery shelling involving 130 mm M1954 (M-46) guns, effectively neutralizing the ground targets.
Photo. Azeri MoD

The Russians also point to the fact that the Armenians disregarded some of the experiences gained throughout the last decade:

a. Points of resistance were arranged in a way that did not take into account the capabilities of modern strike and reconnaissance assets; b. The available camouflage was being used routinely, or were ignored entirely in some cases; c. The points of resistance frequently had no covered and fortified firing positions and trenches that would prevent aerial strikes and observation; d. minefields were not dense and deep enough; e. several potential paths leading towards the defended area were not subjected to any engineering barrier-work.

One of the serious mistakes indicated by the Russians in the analytical study discussed here was the routine use [as in the case of the URAL-375D command vehicle here] or ignoring camouflage.
Photo. Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Defence


Generally, the Russian expert examination of the Nagorno Karabakh conflict did confirm the importance of the already known, and identified new trends in land tactics, and made it possible to issue recommendations on the enhancement of combat methods employed in joint forces setting.

  • The tactical solutions applied by the Azeri side do follow the tendency observed by the Russians, to spatially expand the battlefield and extend the combat environment. The experts suggest that this would bear a key relevance for further development of land tactics since battles would be further dispersed and volumetric in the future. This trend has been confirmed by the broad use of GM-RO by Azerbaijan, with those elements being able to operate semi-autonomously, away from their forces, but in close cooperation with forces and assets of other branches of the military.
  • The involvement of UAVs, artillery, EW, and information warfare in tactical activities of the infantry made it possible to penetrate the enemy lines deeply and has brought a multi-domain character to the joint forces setting.
  • The Russians came to a conclusion that systems should be put in place in the Russian military that would make it possible to reshape the forces and assets used for the given mission into an actual, synergy-driven joint forces system, regardless of the structural denomination, subordination, or levels of training.
  • Even though not all of the experiences gathered during the second war of Nagorno Karabakh are universal, as some refer just to highland warfare, the Russians emphasize the trend of departure from linear, to spatially dispersed combat elements. The said trend was evident in Karabakh, as both sides were driven to make all elements maximally autonomous, through the establishment of autonomous tactical groups.

Based on the Nagorno Karabakh experience, the Russian authors provided a force structure proposal, with the following elements:

a. Assault echelon (position-based) (Rus. shturmovoy (pozitsionnyy) eshelon), that is tasked with taking over the key facilities (hence, position-based), decisive for disintegrating the enemy defence; b. Strike-maneuver echelon (Rus. udarno-manevrennyy eshelon), tasked with deployment and successful activities behind the enemy lined (raids, ambushes), covering of the flanks, manoeuvre-based defence, and as a counter-landing asset; c. Joint Operations echelon  (Rus. eshelon kompleksnogo vozdeystviya), working on force integration, aimed at reduction of enemy potential to the level allowing completion of tasks assigned, minimizing the casualties and loss of equipment/armament; d. Support echelon (Rus. eshelon obespecheniya), providing support in combat and securing the operations; e. Airborne echelon (Rus. vozdushnyy eshelon), tasked with strike and recon missions, supporting the tactical groups of the land echelons.

The Russians suggest that division as above, based on the tasking, makes it possible to effectively arm ad equip the tactical squads of the echelons listed and development of operational methodology and proper training activities.

The aforementioned modular combat deployment concept defined by the Russian analysts, considers the following tactical domains to be the most important ones, for further development of the Russian land tactics:

a. Examination and implementation of methods for preparing and using the autonomous tactical elements in combat, along with methods for synchronizing these activities, within the framework of an established plan of the land operation; b. Establishment of organization and introduction of aerial unmanned strike-reconnaissance complexes [RUK-ROK], of varied structure, making it possible to act against enemy targets across his lines, also deep behind them; c. Development of methods for force and assets integration, as those forces are involved in activities targeting the enemy (multi-domain impact); d. Development of a comprehensive air/missile/space defence system, and effective methods for defending own forces from airstrikes, which is relevant when in war with an enemy who has a strong air component at his disposal, also involving UAVs, and - in the future - cruise missiles.

The detailed outline suggested that the development of forms and methods adopted for tactical operations in the Russian land component should be focused on gaining the following capabilities:

a. Rapid disorganization of the enemy defence, achieved through neutralization of critical targets, defeating of the main forces briefly via synchronized land operational activities (assault, raids, recon) and airstrikes, as well as tactical landing operations across the dispersed battlespace, with the use of high tech assets; b. Organization of effective air defence systems, and tactical camouflage, ensuring effective protection of own forces from an airstrike. c. Effective implementation of a recon-strike cycle (Rus.  razvedka--- porazheniye); d. Gaining a high level of situational awareness of own elements; e. Organization and cooperation between heterogeneous forces, and assets, and maintaining their resilience in adverse tactical conditions; f. Complementing the capabilities of land forces with the use of robotic systems (Rus. robototekhnicheskiye kompleksy, RTK), be it land-based, or aerial ones, of different purpose, especially when engaged in high loss level operations; g. Establishment of new elements of own forces with particular attention paid to specific tactical circumstances providing a capacity to redistribute tasks between them during the combat operations, in real-time, based on real-time data on the status of every element, mission status - for completed and assigned objectives, and taking into the account the results of operational modelling for combat development; h. Increasing survivability of the individual weapons systems achieved thanks to information transfer capability regarding data on the adversary, within elements, in the event of fault or neutralization of any subsystems (command communications, navigation, targeting, etc.); i. Organizing an effective system for multidimensional support of the land operations.


The Russian lessons, learned from the 2020 Nagorno Karabakh conflict show a comprehensive and modern approach towards joint operations in a modern setting. Although operations in Nagorno-Karabakh were nothing new, tactics-wise (infiltration), a well-thought-over implementation of legacy tactical solutions and adaptation to the terrain, fused with the use of modern weapons systems, does prove the innovation when it comes to Azeri tactics.

Implementation of the organizational and tactical solutions suggested by the authors, and embedding them within the training curriculum would be another element of modernization in the Russian Armed Forces. One shall assume that, as a result of those changes, the Russian land forces would be better suited to work on a dispersed battlefield, increasing their efficiency in completing the assigned tasks, departing from conventional forms of operations so characteristic for the previous era.

Even though the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict was taking place in a mountainous area primarily, Poland shall conduct an in-depth analysis of infiltration tactics and capacity available to the adversary, when fighting a Polish defensive formation in the Kaliningrad area for instance. One should also pay attention to the modular force model proposed by the specialists of the Moscow Armed Forces Academy, especially when it comes to the use of unmanned systems in air and ground support.

Paweł Makowiec, PhD, Territorial Defence Department of the University of Land Forces, Wrocław. The opinions in the present article do not constitute the official stance of the University, they are private views of the author.

[1] P.A. Dul'nev, S.A. Sychov, A.V. Garvardt, Osnovnyye napravleniya razvitiya taktiki Sukhoputnykh voysk (po opytu vooruzhennogo konflikta v Nagornom Karabakhe) [Eng. Main Directions for Development of Tactics for the Land Forces (based on experiences of the armed conflict in Nagorno Karabakh)], Voyennaya Mysl’, No.11, Moscow 2021.; the authors belong to the academic cadre of the Military Scientific-Training Centre for the Land Forces of the “General Military Armed Forces Academy” in Moscow - a counterpart of the Polish University of Land Forces [AWL]. [2] The Azeri have grouped all of their Dana M-1 howitzers (36 examples) to form a brigade-level artillery element used to conduct concentrated shelling against the attacked structures.