FIFTY SHADES OF RUSSIA OVER THE ARMENIAN MILITARY:
THE UNTOLD STORY OF A SNIPER RIFLE
Dr. Can Kasapoğlu,
Director, EDAM Security and Defense Research Program
- On October 27, 2020, the Azerbaijani Ministry of Defense released footage displaying a sniper rifle at an Armenian combat position in the frontline. The YouTube video has soon become a critical piece for open-source intelligence analysis. The upload revealed that the tactical weapon in question was Russia’s T-5000 sniper rifle.
- The T-5000, with a maximum range of 1,5kilometers, is manufactured by the Russian Orsis firm. Orsis is allegedly linked with Russia’s former deputy prime minister and current director of Roscosmos, Dmitry Rogozin. Rogozin remains a strong figure among the contemporary Russian political-military elite.
- In 2019, Orsis was blacklisted by Yerevan due to fraud allegations. The decision was later dropped by the Armenian court upon Russia’s pressure on the Pashinyan administration. Some press sources even claim that Orsis had shadow stakeholders within the Armenian top military-bureaucracy.
- As to the T-5000 sniper rifle presence in the Armenian front line, two main possibilities loom large. a) First, Wagner, or another group of private military contractors (PMC) with organic ties to the Russian security apparatus, might be operating alongside the Armenian units in the Nagorno-Karabakh frontier. Examples of such Russian PMC activity have been seen in Ukraine, Syria and most recently, in Libya. b) Second, following the removal of Orsis from the Armenian blacklist back in December 2019, the Russian arms producer has completed its million-dollar arms sale to Armenia. While the first scenario would point out to a change in Russia’s engagement within the ongoing war, the latter would, once again, showcase Moscow’s hegemony over the Armenian military establishment, towering over the incumbent Pashinyan administration.
- Given the irregular and undisciplined withdrawal of the Armenian formations in the recent weeks, coupled with Orsis’ diligent legal and political pressure campaign in Yerevan, the second scenario stands more realistic.
The Russian High-End Sniper Rifle at the Armenian Frontline
On October 27, 2020, footage released by the Azerbaijan Ministry of Defense showed some weapons and platforms abandoned by the Armenian troops in the hot zone. A sniper rifle, shown below, deserves attention between the 2;31 – 2;37 seconds of the upload.
The sniper rifle is seen in the video released by the Azerbaijan Ministry of Defense[i]
The arm in question is a T-5000 sniper rifle manufactured by the Moscow-based Russian firm Orsis. The weapon has six variants. The longest-range version is effective up to 1,500 kilometers[ii]. T-5000 is primarily used by the elite sniper teams of the Russian military and intelligence apparatus[iii].
Russian Arms Company Orsis and Armenia Activities
Following the 2008 Russia – Georgian War, Russia has started an extensive reform program that included sniper capabilities[iv]. T-5000 is the product of these efforts.
Moscow’s support to Orsis dates back to the military modernization plans in the 2010s, architected by former Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin. Interestingly, Rogozin’s son was the head of Orsis at that time. Over the last two years, the company’s interest in the Armenian weapons market has been more visible, and, ambitiously controversial. Remarkably, in 2019, Orsis was blacklisted due to corruption allegations and was excluded from a major arms bid in Yerevan[v]. Plausibly, anti-corruption policy priorities and the pro-Western stance of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan were underlying factors behind the decision. Furthermore, several Armenian news outlets even claimed that some military-bureaucrats in the Armenian Ministry of Defense have intervened in the tender in favor of Orsis. Another notable claim was that Deputy Minister of Defense Makar Gambaryan asking for, or receiving, bribe from Orsis. The investigation in question remained inconclusive due to the ‘lack of evidence[vi]’. It was also claimed that the Armenian Aspar firm, in partnership with the Italian small arms giant Beretta, would have been a very promising competitor in the same tender, but was kept down by the pro-Orsis / Pro-Russian circles at the Armenian military ranks.
Moscow, from the outset, reacted very harshly to the blacklisting of the Russian arms firm, asking for a clear explanation from the Armenian Minister of Defense David Tonoyan. Subsequently, Orsis filed a legal suit which, eventually, led to its removal from the blacklist by late 2019. In early 2020, the firm filed another lawsuit against several Armenian Ministry of Defense officials. In the meantime, Rosoboronexport, the official defense import/export agency of the Russian Federation, stated that an agreement was reached for the sale of a $ 1.5 million-worth T-5000 sniper rifle package to a ‘foreign country’[vii].
Military – Strategic Assessment
Snipers play an important role in the Soviet-Russian school of warfighting and operational art. The ‘sniper clan’ in the Russian doctrinal order of battle should not be confused with other marksman elements, generally equipped with the Dragunov (SVD sharpshooting rifle with a range of 800m) and are organic parts of ground troop formations. Russian elite sniper teams are equipped with more advanced weapons. Carrying rifles with very long effective ranges, Russian sniper teams are deployed hundreds of meters behind the first contact lines. They conduct sophisticated tasks, such as disrupting the adversary’s maneuvers, pushing enemy troops into suitable target positions for land-based fire-support elements (artillery and multiple-launch rocket systems), and saving time for friendly maneuvering units. In addition, in the Soviet-Russian military tradition, elite snipers function as natural reconnaissance and target acquisition assets in the battlefield. Lastly, Russian intelligence services also attach special importance to sniper capabilities[viii].
In recent years, the hybrid warfare campaign in Ukraine has provided a ‘laboratory’ for Russia’s sniper development programs. In fact, about one-third of the Ukrainian security forces’ casualties were caused by sniper-fire of the Russian elements and pro-Russian separatists. Orsis T-5000 has been one of the game-changer tactical weapons used in the Moscow-backed operations in eastern Ukraine[ix]. Before Ukraine, the most recent intensive employment of the Russian sniper elements and concepts took place in the Russo – Chechen wars of the 1990s.
The Soviet-Russian military school enjoys a strong influence over the Armenian war machine. Yerevan attaches special attention to sniper capabilities and uses them frequently along the line of contact. Such conduct, so far, has claimed the lives of a large number of Azerbaijani personnel in the frontier. Besides, the Russian and Armenian sniper teams recently drilled alongside during the Kavkaz 2020 Exercise. Finally, the Russian Southern Military District has often used Armenia as a training ground for its snipers.
Overall, Armenia, for a long time, has been Moscow’s ‘sniper development backyard’.
Scenarios and Open-Source Intelligence Assessment
In sum, how to best explain the presence of the Orsis T-5000 sniper rifle in the Armenian lines?
- The first thing that comes to mind is that the Russian ‘private’ military company Wagner, or another similar actor, has sent reinforcements to the Armenian combat troops in the hot zone. Indeed, there are some unconfirmed signs of Wagner activity in the conflict zone. Russian clandestine snipers now operate in Ukraine, Syria, and Libya. Thus, if the scenario in question is actually happening, the current clashes seem to have added yet another front to the Turkish-Russian proxy war rivalry. In addition, such a scenario would suggest that the Russian military intelligence (GRU) has opened a new front after Ukraine in the former Soviet space, which would mark a geopolitical turning point beyond its military-tactical nature. One nuance regarding the mentioned scenario could be that the 102nd Russian Base in Armenia might have been directly involved in the conflict. Still, Moscow would, most probably, not resort to such an intervention, which can lead to serious diplomatic consequences if Russian personnel is killed in the occupied Azerbaijani territory fighting alongside the Armenian forces or captured by the Azerbaijani military.
- The second explanation suggests that the ‘foreign buyer’ for the $ 1.5 million weapon sale stated by Rosoboronexport in December 2019 was in fact Armenia and that Yerevan has transferred some of the Orsis-manufactured T-5000 sniper rifles to the ongoing Karabakh bonanza. This explanation might also pertain to – direct or indirect – involvement of Dimitry Rogozin, and his ‘myrmidons’ in the Russian defense sector, in the Armenia – Azerbaijan conflict.
- The Orsis T-5000 sniper rifle in the front line was abandoned by its user – and it was abandoned without being trapped – upon the Azerbaijani offensive. From a military standpoint, this remains very telling as to the ‘user’ of the rifle and reduces the possibilities of the Russian GRU-related marksman presence in the Armenian line. Recently, the Armenian combat formations have been withdrawing irregularly and without discipline in many conflict areas. The Azerbaijani military’s increased operational tempo and drone warfare edge have been the underlying factors in this respect. After all, the Azerbaijani Armed Forces have released hundreds of visuals from the captured Armenian weaponry, including main battle tanks and armored personnel carriers, left behind on the battleground. The abandoned Orsis T-5000 was probably a part of the ongoing undisciplined withdrawal trend of the Armenian conscripts and reservists.
- The T-5000 incident, once again, highlights the Russian influence over the Armenian military elite and defense ministry bureaucracy. The Pashinyan administration has not been able to exclude a Russian small arms company from even a modest procurement tender on fraud allegations, and the Armenian court had to give in upon Moscow’s political pressure. Following the war, it seems that Armenia will look like more of a garrison satellite state of the Russian Federation, and will look so in a more pronounced fashion than it has been up until now.
[i] Azərbaycan Respublikası Müdafiə Nazirliyi, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tMd7787OqDg&feature=youtu.be, Accessed on: October 28, 2020.
[iii] Caleb Larson, “Meet the Orsis T-5000: The Deadliest Russian Sniper Rifle You’ve Never Heard of”, The National Interest, Mart 2020, https://nationalinterest.org/blog/buzz/meet-orsis-t-5000-deadliest-russian-sniper-rifle-you%E2%80%99ve-never-heard-135257, Accessed on: October, 28 2020.
[iv] Roger McDermott, “Russia Expands the Role of Army Snipers”, Jamestown Foundation, March 2012, https://jamestown.org/program/russia-expands-the-role-of-army-snipers/, Accessed on: October 28, 2020.
[v] [v]https://jam-news.net/scandal-erupts-over-armenian-defence-ministry-weapons-tender/, Accessed on: October 29, 2020.
[vi] https://news.am/eng/news/560038.html#.XkT0lSpEHVc.twitter, Accessed on: October 29, 2020; https://hetq.am/en/article/121530, Accessed on: October 29, 2020.
[viii] The US Army Asymmetric Warfare Group, Russian New Generation Warfare Handbook, 2016, pp.19-21.
[ix] Vera Zimmerman, “The Role of Snipers in the Donbas Trench War”, Jamestown Foundation, February 2020, https://jamestown.org/program/the-role-of-snipers-in-the-donbas-trench-war/, Accessed on: October 28, 2020.