Inside the world of private war

·13 min read

ARMASH, Armenia — “Davai! Let’s go!”

With that, the makeshift militia groups begin to charge up the hill. Two clumps of would-be fighters — one mostly teenagers, the other men in their 20s — emerge from the bushes and proceed, hunched over in columns, toward a trench position.

Aram, the trainer and United States Air Force veteran leading this exercise, watches carefully. “Let’s see what approach they chose,” he says. “It’ll probably just be Syrian terrorist tactics: swarm and disperse,” he laughs.

When the first of the two groups, advancing over more open ground, closes in on the trench, two concealed defenders pop up, their empty Kalashnikovs pointed straight at the on-comers.

“Stop!” Aram shouts at the group. “You’re all caught directly in the line of fire,” he reprimands the larger, exposed group of attackers. “You should have stopped and pinned them with fire while they” — he gestures at the smaller group advancing along the ridgeline — “got into flanking positions. If this were a real battle, you’d all be dead.”

This scene unfolds in Armash, an Armenian village only a few kilometers from the border with Azerbaijan. It’s part of training conducted by the Phoenix School of Bravery, a small organization of military veterans who fought in last fall’s Armenia-Azerbaijan war. Over the next few months, Aram, Phoenix’s founder and head, will drill the villagers on defensive tactics and combat operations, such that if need be, they can employ them themselves.

The latest war with Azerbaijan may be over, but few in Armenia are convinced it will be the last. Now, they are making sure they’re prepared for what’s next.

The rise of the private military contractor has been something of a global phenomenon in recent years. The concept of an army-for-hire has been around almost as long as war itself, but in the decades since the end of the Cold War, the business model has evolved substantially. The first iterations in modern years were the ex-Soviet helicopter pilots who ran missions in the former Yugoslavia and across the former USSR itself, including in the First Karabakh War (1991-94). But it is the South African outfit Executive Outcomes, which was heavily active in the civil wars in Angola and Sierra Leone in the early and mid-'90s, that is widely credited as the first “professional” private military contractor. The United States has utilized its share of contractors, such as the infamous Blackwater in Iraq, while Russian groups, especially the well-known outfit Wagner, have expanded from their operations in Syria to missions as far-flung as Mozambique and Venezuela.

Now, Armenia has joined the trend. Disillusioned with the sorry state of training and preparation they saw in the Armenian army, dominated by Soviet-era tactics, a swath of veterans have started their own initiatives. At least six different paramilitary organizations have sprung up, many with evocative names such as “The Art of Staying Alive” or “Statehood as a National Value.” The first of these, known by its Armenian-language acronym VOMA, actually predates the war; during the fighting, it organized trainings for various volunteers and dispatched units to the front lines.

Aram (not his real name) comes from this background. Though of Lebanese-Armenian descent, he served in the U.S. Air Force as a special forces officer for 13 years, participating in missions in Iraq, Afghanistan, and central Africa, among other places. When war reached his ancestral homeland last fall, Aram heeded the call: He flew into Yerevan days after the war began and deployed with a volunteer unit in southern Karabakh.

He was not impressed by what he saw.

“Most of the military personnel and volunteers had no idea how to fight,” Aram explains from Phoenix’s headquarters in a Yerevan suburb. “They had no information about the enemy, nothing. Even the generals were fighting a war from the 1950s."

Aram served with a detachment in one of the most heavily contested areas of the war, Karmir Shuka, also known as the Red Bazaar. Positions changed hands frequently as intense fighting, nearly hand-to-hand at times, saw Armenian troops repulse repeated Azerbaijani assaults. Both sides suffered heavy casualties.

“Our unit at Karmir Shuka was about 300 [people],” Aram says. “We had good positions to defend, but we lost about 3 kilometers because we didn’t have support — no artillery, no airstrikes,” he explains. “Knowing that these people [in my unit] were almost untrained, I couldn’t put them on the sort of special operations tactics that would be required to retake that territory.” The 3-kilometer-wide stretch he speaks of is what would become Azerbaijan’s springboard in its assault on Shushi, the hilltop city that sits at the heart of Karabakh. When Shushi fell on Nov. 9, it marked the end of the war and Armenia’s defeat.

It was during these battles that Aram met most of those who would become his fellow instructors with the Phoenix School of Bravery. The dozen or so trainers are split evenly between locals and foreigners: another Lebanese, one French, one Russian, and one Syrian, among others.

Aram took some time off after the war. “I couldn’t handle all the toxic politics,” he says. Then, he got to work.

Phoenix was founded in January. By April, they were already on their second group of trainees, the first having completed its three-month crash course. Aram explains that they train “about 40 at a time” at their Yerevan facilities.

It’s elsewhere, though, that the priority work occurs. In border villages such as Armash, locals are enlisting Phoenix to help them protect themselves if the army should prove unable.

As the sun beats down on Armash’s main square one summer day, the trainees assemble. They number perhaps four dozen, ranging from their mid-40s down to their early teens, and a few even younger. In the mayor’s office nearby, Aram and the others lay out the day’s plans.

“We approached [Phoenix] for training because we’re so close to the enemy,” village mayor Hakob Zeynalyan says. “Tigran found them on Facebook,” he adds, gesturing to the man on his right.

Tigran Matevosyan, 41, cuts a solemn figure beside him. “In the 1990s, our village suffered terribly,” he explains. “Civilians died, and now today, the government isn’t prepared to take the measures to secure the village. Thankfully, our mayor and Aram understand this."

Many of those present at the training, including Matevosyan, are veterans of the recent war. Five Armash locals were killed fighting in Karabakh in the 1990s war, and another five in the last one. For Matevosyan, last fall’s humiliating defeat was a wake-up call. “It didn’t even seem like we fought in Artsakh [the Armenian name for Karabakh] in this war,” he says. “We just retreated, retreated constantly.”

“When I came back to Armash, I understood that something had to change,” he adds. “When I found Phoenix, I knew they were the answer.”

The generational impact of the decadeslong conflict is clear. The youngest member of the group arrayed there is 12-year-old Amalya, a happy but quiet young girl who holds herself proudly. Her father, in his late 50s, fought in the first war. Her brother fought in this one. He was one of the five who never came home.

“Now she wants to learn first aid, in [her brother’s] honor,” says Aram. “She’ll never be on the field, of course, but if they’re in a bunker during an attack, she can help in some way.”

Under Aram and Matevosyan’s guidance, the trainees on the square march out toward a nearby hillside. The arid slope is crisscrossed with several newly dug trenches, carved out during last year’s war amid fears fighting would spread to their front. “Just yesterday, we heard [an Azerbaijani] drone flying over the village,” says Aram as they march.

The threat has taken on additional significance in recent months. Regular clashes between Armenian and Azerbaijani troops in the border areas have increased sharply since May, when several hundred Azeri servicemen occupied two different parcels of Armenian land. Starting in July, clashes spread to the Nakhchivan border area, within sight of Armash. Azerbaijani troops fire down daily on the neighboring village of Yeraskh, astride the border itself. They have killed multiple Armenian soldiers to date.

As the group arrives at the trenches, another Phoenix trainer, Raffi, forms them into small groups. Raffi is a Beirut-born veteran of both the Lebanese army and last year’s Karabakh war. “We’re going to be practicing something called the echelon tactic,” Raffi says. “It’s a small-unit tactic, aimed at covering ground quickly while maintaining a large field of fire. It’s common among NATO and Israeli forces."

He points at four of the volunteers. “Tigran, Arzum, Arman, Hayk!” he calls out. The four men each gather a half-dozen of their comrades and fan out into small groups. At Raffi’s next command, they advance up the hillside in staggered formations, hunched over with their unloaded Kalashnikovs sweeping from side to side.

This drill also involves a defending force, concealed across different points in the trenches. “It’s a trap tactic,” says Aram. “Half of the [defending] team is here, the other half is over there, and they’re going to aim to pin [the attackers] in the ravine, in the kill zone.”

This time, the attacking team prevails. One group makes it up along the ridge side without being spotted, emerging above the trench at a clear advantage that ends the exercise. “They’re learning,” says Aram, evidently pleased with the progress.

The tactics on display here are of a different sort than the massed infantry assaults of the Soviet doctrine the Armenian army relies on. They emphasize small-unit tactics, something that characterizes the modern battlefield, Aram says. “Modern-day warfare means you have to be able to operate in groups of 10 or 12," he adds. "NATO militaries make heavy use of squad tactics, and we [Armenians] need to be able to as well.”

Soon, Aram has the makeshift militia form up for shooting drills. These are undertaken using a set of metal targets farther up the hillside. The instructor goes first: Taking a knee, Aram easily strikes the steel cutouts, one after another, each with a single shot, before handing off to the first of the volunteers.

As the shots ring out, Matevosyan reflects on the necessity of these exercises. “If this war taught us anything, it’s to stay spread out,” he says. “The entire war, people were always in groups of 50 or 60. It never changed, and I don’t know why.”

Azerbaijani drones, which wreaked such destruction on the Armenian forces, provided the bulk of this lesson. Nearly every day of the war, Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Defense released new videos of precision-guided munitions annihilating Armenian tanks and vehicles — and eventually, clumps of soldiers themselves. The most devastating weapon in Azerbaijan’s arsenal, the Turkish-made TB2 Bayraktar, destroyed at least 100 Armenian tanks alone.

“On the very first day, they destroyed our air defense systems,” says Matevosyan, an observation borne out by open-source evidence. “After that, it was just rifles against Bayraktars.”

Aram has his own thoughts on how it came to this. “For 30 years, we [Armenians] were happy that we won in 1994. We didn’t get ready, and we lost,” he laments.

“And now, people are saying that [Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan] is a traitor and just sold us out. The reality is that every government, from 1991 until now, is to blame,” he adds.

“The people should also be blamed,” Aram continues. “Because we, as Armenians, we were so arrogant, so proud, that we forgot about what was coming,” he says. “That’s our mistake, and no one else’s. We can’t rely on anyone but ourselves.”

The failure to capitalize on the first war’s improbable victory, either diplomatically or militarily, clearly frustrates Aram deeply. “If you make a difference, make sure that difference lives on,” he says. “You might take two steps forward, but if you’re not ready [after that], you’ll fall 20 steps back. That’s what happened to us."

Meanwhile, even amid the virulent hatred between the two sides, there’s still some memory of what existed before. “When I was a kid, there were Azeris living here [in Armash],” Matevosyan recalls. “I remember one of the Azeri kids stealing my soccer ball. So, you could say I’ve been fighting Azeris from a young age,” he laughs.

His next comment is more serious. “That boy’s father was a great man,” he says. "Very kind, with a conscience. When the Azeris had to leave, he cried. He said, ‘I can’t live in Azerbaijan, they don’t like [Azeris from Armenia] there.’ He went to Moscow. He almost considered himself Armenian."

That, however, was a long time ago. The litany of war crimes during the recent war — along with Azerbaijan’s extreme racial rhetoric, such as President Ilham Aliyev’s refrain that “we are chasing [the Armenians] like dogs” — has poisoned whatever friendship was once possible between the two peoples.

Even in Armenia’s villages, it has not gone unnoticed. “You’ve probably seen how they made this park in Baku,” says Matevosyan, referring to Azerbaijan’s “Military Trophies Park.” It opened in April and features “trophy” displays that include helmets taken from dead Armenian soldiers and twisted caricature models of Armenian fighters.

“They brought their kids there to play with [the models], to pretend to kill them,” Matevosyan says. “This way, the kids are brought up learning that it’s honorable to attack Armenians, to murder us. How in God’s name can we ever have peace with such people?” he asks.

Two of the younger volunteers, Hayk and Armen, both 17, echo Matevosyan’s thoughts. “We want to be ready when the next war comes,” says Hayk when asked about his motivation for attending the course. “As long as [Azeris] are our neighbors, there’ll be war,” adds Armen. “They don’t think of us as human.”

The sun begins to dip behind Mount Ararat in the distance, and the training day is coming to a close. The Phoenix trainers gather the volunteers on the square again for some final exercises.

“I have a plan for about five years now,” says Aram, looking out toward Nakhchivan. “We’ll train the villages here first, and then move down to the south. Each village next to each other forms a chain, and we make sure that it’s an unbreakable chain."

Their goal is to train 2,000 to 3,000 locals a year, as well as part of the Armenian army’s special forces (“about 150” individuals, according to Aram). Government contracts have already been negotiated. This is where Phoenix’s plan diverges from those of other private military contractors in the post-Cold War era. Unlike Blackwater or Russia’s Wagner, the group is not merely guns-for-hire in a coming conflict. Rather, it's aiming to act as a force multiplier by increasing the capabilities of Armenia’s population itself — a goal born out of a sense of patriotic duty, not profit motives.

For Aram and Phoenix, it’s just a matter of practicality.

“If you want peace, you have to prepare for war,” he says. “I don’t want to be optimistic or pessimistic. I’m just providing what our government didn’t for the past 30 years.”

Neil Hauer is a Canadian journalist writing on Russia and the Caucasus, based in Armenia.

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Tags: Armenia, Veterans, Syria, Middle East, Asia

Original Author: Neil Hauer

Original Location: Inside the world of private war

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