The Battle of Shusha City and the Missed Lessons of the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War
There has been no shortage of attention paid to the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War. Commentary and analysis have produced a range of claims about what the six-week-long war means for the future of combat. What has been almost completely left out of these discussions is how the war offers stark reminders about the urban character of warfare in military campaigns.
While the situation in the disputed region has been called a frozen conflict, major combat actions between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces have occurred over the region several times in the modern era—to include from 1988 to 1994 and in 2014. When Azerbaijan attacked into Nagorno-Karabakh in September 2020, the world watched closely.
Most of the reporting and analysis on the war focused on the technological superiority of the Azerbaijani military. Some commentators claimed that the advanced technologies and tactics used by Azerbaijan to decimate Armenian forces—such as the Turkish Bayraktar TB2 medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) unmanned aerial vehicle or Israeli Harop loitering munition (often called a kamikaze drone)—and use of proxy forces demonstrate a change in the character of warfare, show that the relevance of armor and static militaries may have come to an end, or provide the best hint of the future of war.
Despite all the coverage, the lessons missed about the Nagorno-Karabakh War are the ones showing how urban warfare remains a key part of modern combat. The most important battle of the Nagorno-Karabakh War occurred in the city of Shusha. Once Shusha fell, Armenia surrendered and entered a lopsided agreement, ceding massive amounts of their previously held territories.
City on the Hill
The greater Shusha region, consisting of the city of Shusha (Shushi in Armenian) and ten surrounding villages, sits within the heart of Nagorno-Karabakh. The city has been at the center of Azerbaijani and Armenian fighting for centuries. It holds cultural significance to both groups.
Often described as the “cradle of Azeri culture,” Shusha was home to Azerbaijani intellectuals, poets, and writers and houses important cultural sites such as mosques and mausoleums. It also holds Armenian religious and cultural history, serving as a fortress city in the Middle Ages and still home to famous Armenian sites such as the Ghazanchetsots Cathedral, the church of Kanach Zham, and a monastic convent. The city has changed hands multiple times.
Most recently, Shusha was forcefully taken by Armenia in 1992. At that time, the area was estimated to have contained over twenty-three thousand Azerbaijanis and just over sixteen hundred Armenians. During and after the battle, most of the city was destroyed and much of the Azerbaijani population was killed, was expelled, or fled. At the start of the 2020 war, the city’s population was reported to be around five thousand people, almost all ethnic Armenians.
Shusha sits perched high above other towns and cities in the region. Its views and mountainous terrain give it a strategic advantage with which the entire occupied region can be kept under control. The city is also a formidable natural fortress. Steep cliffs drop off from the edges of the city on three sides and a lone major road passes north to south along the western edge of the city. The largest city in the disputed territory, Stepanakert, is fifteen kilometers to the north along this winding road, but the straight-line distance between the two is just a few kilometers, and Shusha has the advantage of sitting several hundred meters above Stepanakert in elevation.
The city’s location provides an ideal defensive buffer zone for Stepanakert—not only the largest city in the region but also the capital of the Armenia-backed and self-proclaimed Republic of Artsakh—and a critical defensive node along the Lachin corridor, a mountain pass and road that provides a link from Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh. Given its undisputed cultural significance and key geographic advantage to both Azerbaijan and Armenia, controlling Shusha was a major objective of both parties during the 2020 conflict.
Taking the City in 1992
When Shusha last changed hands in 1992, Armenian forces seized it from the defending Azerbaijanis. By that point in the First Nagorno-Karabakh War (1988–1994), rampant fighting in the region had been waging for four years. One of the main reasons for the mission to seize Shusha was because Azerbaijani forces were firing heavy artillery at Stepanakert from it and reportedly moving to launch a ground attack from the Shusha region.
The Armenian operation to seize Shusha started in April 1992 with several weeks of artillery fire targeting Azerbaijani defensive positions and city fortifications. Next came multiple small attacks in the surrounding villages to draw the defenders of Shusha out of their fortifications and reduce the overall strength of the city’s defense. The Armenians eventually cut off and isolated the few hundred remaining defenders in the city—including by reportedly scaling cliffs. By the time they realized they were under full assault, the Azerbaijani defenders were unable to use their artillery to repel the attackers because the two sides’ forces were too close to one another.
The successful main assault, which began on May 8, included an estimated one thousand soldiers supported by dozens of armored vehicles, tanks, and helicopters. Despite heavy street fighting, to include tank-on-tank engagements, the city fell within twenty-four hours.
Taking the City in 2020
In September 2020, Azerbaijani and Armenian forces used tanks and launched airstrikes across the line of contact, the unofficial border between Azerbaijan and the Armenian-controlled Nagorno-Karabakh. The early fighting clearly demonstrated Azerbaijan’s military superiority, especially in open terrain when using advanced unmanned aircraft systems and long-range munitions.
In October 2020, after gaining control over most of the previously Armenian-controlled territory south of Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan crossed the line of contact and started moving ground forces further west. By mid-October, Azerbaijani conventional forces had captured a key Armenian-controlled town, Hadrut, as they moved toward the Lachin corridor connecting Armenia with Nagorno-Karabakh.
By October 22, the Azerbaijani Lachin offensive had closed to within six miles of the town of Lachin and the vital corridor. The loss of the corridor would have severed any means by which Armenia could support forces inside Nagorno-Karabakh. In retaliation and most likely to divert pressure away from the Lachin corridor, Armenian forces launched a counterassault using dismounted forces in the heavily wooded mountain areas and set ambushes along main supply routes, even capturing seven Azerbaijani BTR-70 armored personnel carriers.
At some point between October 28 and October 30, Azerbaijani special operations forces deployed to isolate Shusha and disrupt the city’s defense. According to some reports, four hundred of these Azerbaijani forces marched for five days through the forests and ravines, being especially careful to avoid the heavily guarded Lachin corridor and surrounding villages. They divided into groups of one hundred, reportedly so that they could approach the city from multiple directions and toward different objectives.
Many of the soldiers climbed, without fire support, the steep rocks and cliffs left unguarded by the defending Armenians who seemed to believe the Azerbaijani forces would mainly attack up the main roads. The cover of darkness, ongoing Lachin offensive, and failed imagination of the defenders appeared to enable the Azerbaijani special operations forces to make their decisive move to covertly pierce the Shusha defense through seemingly unpassable forests and mountainous terrain.
On October 30, military clashes were reported just five kilometers east of Shusha. The city had already been under sporadic artillery fire since early September, causing most of the city’s residents to flee to neighboring Stepanakert. At this stage of the battle, the defending Armenian forces still held the tactical advantage as they had control of the mountains surrounding Shusha. Azerbaijani forces were ambushed and suffered heavy losses in the ravines leading up to the city and when they attempted to approach the city by road, they were exposed to frequent artillery, rockets, and far ambushes.
Late on November 4, reports came in that Azerbaijani light infantry were fighting for the road that nears the village of Dashalti at the bottom of the Shusha’s southern cliffs. By that day, Azerbaijani forces had also secured the mountain range south of Shusha and key portions of the Lachin corridor connecting Shusha to the town of Lachin. Azerbaijani forces also increased the shelling of the Armenian defensive positions surrounding the city with mortars.
Late in the evening of November 5, some of the Azerbaijani special operations forces had reached the main road and were able to block reinforcements attempting to aid Shusha’s defense. This, combined with the destruction of a key bridge over the Hakari River, meant little, if any, aid would come to Shusha as the town was clearly surrounded from at least three main directions. The Armenian authorities, recognizing the loss of control over the area, closed the Lachin corridor to civilian traffic—leaving eighty reporters trapped inside the battle zone.
On November 6, Azerbaijani conventional troops reached the outskirts of the town. Early morning reports surfaced that Argishti Kyaramyan, the former head of the Armenian National Security Service who had been appointed the military commander responsible for organizing of the defense of Shusha, had left the city. Not long after reports of Kyaramyan’s departure emerged, Azerbaijani forces penetrated Shusha. Once inside, they established additional blocking positions and ambush sites around the city to further prevent the defending Armenians from being reinforced or resupplied. Other soldiers also successfully captured Dashalti, the village just south of Shusha, providing immediate access to the main road into Shusha.
As Azerbaijani forces began to enter the city, they engaged the defending Armenians at close range in heavy street fighting. The Armenian forces inside the city were reported to comprise over two thousand troops, along with armored vehicles and heavy artillery. The Azerbaijani dismounted forces destroyed several tanks and BMP infantry fighting vehicles using rocket propelled grenades and portable antitank guided missiles. They also used heavy fires, reportedly including the Belarussian Polonez multiple launch rocket systems and artillery pieces that were at this point relocated closer to the city’s boundaries.
On November 7, foggy weather struck the area. This significantly limited Azerbaijani forces’ use of aerial observation and strike assets that had given them such an advantage throughout the war. The inclement weather prevented the employment of the TB2 Bayraktar unmanned aerial vehicles, enabling Armenian forces to maximize the use of their armored vehicles—T-72 tanks, and BMP-2 infantry fighting vehicles—for counterattacks inside the city.
Despite the counterattack, the Azerbaijani forces held their ground. They formed a defensive line in the Shusha forests and after repulsing three Armenian counterattacks, returned on the offensive, capturing the building of Shusha Executive Power and beginning to drive out Armenian forces, deliberately clearing buildings and larger areas in the city. The battle for Shusha ultimately came down to building-to-building close combat.
On the morning of November 8, the Artsakh Ministry of Defense reported that intensive fighting had taken place through the entire night along the length of the front line surrounding Shusha. Armenia also claimed that its forces had downed three Azerbaijani TB2 Bayraktar unmanned aerial vehicles and had destroyed twenty armored vehicles and four tanks throughout the day.
On November 9, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev declared total victory and control over Shusha, a move that was initially refuted by Armenia. But on November 10, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan signed a lopsided peace deal that included surrendering all areas of Nagorno-Karabakh that had been taken by Azerbaijan during the conflict—to include Shusha.
The Urban Warfare Lessons
The lessons of the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War have yet to be fully discovered. This analysis required translating multiple foreign reports and news stories, validating social media announcements and video posts, and piecing together an accurate picture from the partial and sometimes conflicting reports from the frontlines. Military analysts, international relations scholars, and other groups have begun to highlight the unique aspects of the war—from the dominance of a modernized Azerbaijani military equipped with the latest types of drone and fire support platforms to geopolitical practices of proxy warfare by Russia, Turkey, Iran, and others to the use of social media to influence multiple different groups in modern information warfare campaigns.
The war also highlights major urban warfare lessons that deserve attention. These lessons include the following:
Cities remain operational and strategic objectives in war. The capture of Shusha was a major strategic victory for Azerbaijan, and it ultimately decided the outcome of the war. Once Shusha fell, Armenia was forced to surrender out of fear that Azerbaijani forces would be able to target and possibly seize the territory’s capital, Stepanakert, just a handful of kilometers away. Cities have always been operational and strategic objectives in war. They are the centers of political and economic power for nations. They also start, grow, and expand along trade routes, key passes through ground that is otherwise challenging to maneuver through, or coastlines where ports connect global naval supply lines. In short, they are very often built on key terrain, and at the very least they offer control over important lines of communication. As cities grow in number, size, and complexity, some argue that military forces should simply avoid them and the unique challenges they pose. Shusha shows that this is simply not an option. They are unavoidable and militaries must prepare to operate in them to be effective in any war.
A full suite of modern, joint force capabilities is needed to seize and hold decisive urban terrain. Air superiority, bombing, long-range precision strikes, and unmanned aircraft systems are all enabling warfighting capabilities. It was not just the latest attack drones that won the Nagorno-Karabakh War. Urban warfare is also not solely an infantry fight. The decisive operation of the war, the physical capture of Shusha, required combined arms capabilities that leveraged special operations forces, fires, armor, engineers, and infantry in both the shaping and decisive operations. This was especially apparent by the use of fires, mobile protected firepower, and infantry units to clear urban terrain in building-to-building combat. Put simply, it required ground forces to seize and hold terrain and a host of other capabilities to enable it.
Militaries must prepare for both urban offense and defense operations. Both the 1992 and the 2020 battles for Shusha show that militaries must be capable of offensive operations to seize decisive terrain—especially cities—in military campaigns. Equally so, they show that any military that seizes terrain must also be able to defend it. In 2020, had the Azerbaijani forces that seized Shusha not been able to defend it from the determined Armenian counterattacks, their gains would have been lost. The defense of urban terrain may also buy time for a military waiting for another supporting country or the international community to come to their aid. Both battles for Shusha also show that when defending urban terrain, the defender must have layered defensive plans that include broad imagination and wargaming. Both Azerbaijani (1992) and Armenian (2020) forces left the cliffs surrounding the city unguarded assuming they were impassable.
As analysts and researchers study the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War, they will continue to unearth valuable and wide-ranging lessons for the future of war. Whether the brief conflict signals a change in the character of warfare is perhaps not yet clear. But one thing in particular certainly is: the war shows that militaries must be prepared to fight for—and fight in—cities.
John Spencer is chair of urban warfare studies at the Modern War Institute, co-director of MWI’s Urban Warfare Project, and host of the Urban Warfare Project Podcast. He previously served as a fellow with the chief of staff of the Army’s Strategic Studies Group. He served twenty-five years as an infantry soldier, which included two combat tours in Iraq.
Harshana Ghoorhoo is pursuing a bachelor of science in international relations at the School of Diplomacy and International Relations at Seton Hall University. Harshana was a research intern at the Modern War Institute and is currently conducting research that assesses how the level of trust in AI systems impacts tactical readiness on the battlefield.
The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
This article originally appeared in MODERN WAR INSTITUTE on 14 July 2021.