Danny Donabedian

Dangerously Omitted Information: Challenging Sassounian’s Narrative of the Artak Tovmasyan Case

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By Danny Donabedian

Harut Sassounian is an established, rather well-known political analyst and critic of Armenia’s current leadership and administration. He has claimed, on numerous occasions, to offer fair and balanced accounts of noteworthy and relevant events that pertain to or impact Armenia’s domestic, economic, and political spheres. While that meticulous judiciousness may occasionally be the case, in his recent article, “Armenia’s Leaders Ignored Investor’s Offer to Build Military Vehicles Before the War,” that could not be farther from the truth.

In the article Sassounian attempts to prove two points: 1) Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and his administration are incompetent and uncaring and 2) they inspire neither the investors nor investments needed to bolstering Armenia’s economic prospects and future. To vindicate his politically-motivated opinion, Sassounian claims the current leaders completely and utterly botched a lucrative business opportunity with an Armenian that would greatly improve the economic lot of the country. Despite his excellent command of English diction, Sassounian’s article is filled with numerous key omissions that would otherwise discredit, if not outright refute, the narrative he presents to his readers. More dangerous, however, are the falsehoods weaved throughout the piece, as the example of Artak Tovmasyan Harut introduces is grossly misrepresented. In fact, there is more to the story then what Sassounian lets on and Sassounian goes so far as to provide incorrect information to his readers. Prior to that, however, it would do readers well to briefly skim his article (Mirror-Spectator, June 12, p. 19) in order to do his words justice. His column has also been reproduced online elsewhere (here, here and here).

Firstly, let us speak of the STREIT Group and its history. Contrary to Mr. Sassounian’s claims, it is not just technically a Canadian company that merely has minor branches or smaller offices in other countries. The company had its humble beginnings in Ontario, Canada, starting as a small business working out of the small garage of a Russian immigrant and former police officer named Guerman Goutorov. The primary development and growth of the company followed Goutorov’s and STREIT’s move to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where according to the US department of commerce and the STREIT’s own website, its head office and central headquarters were established and it became based out of. STREIT does have a branch in Canada, but it is foremost Emirati corporation whose growth was dependent on the funding of its Emirati components. In addition to its headquarters being in the UAE, most of their armored vehicles are also produced at that location. Given Canada’s positive reputation in the Armenian community, perhaps Mr. Sassounian felt that his readers would care more if Armenia wasted an opportunity to benefit from a Canadian corporation, rather than one stemming from the UAE. Giving the STREIT group the title of a Canadian corporation gives more credence to the magnitude of the alleged notion of a lost investment. While not exactly harmful, it is a slight manipulation of the facts that should have been corrected by stating it is an Emirati corporation with a branch in Canada whose CEO is a Canadian citizen.

The second folly is the overestimation and aggrandization of the military and economic value of the STREIT group. Harut Sassounian claims that the vehicles produced by STREIT carry critical national security implications, but this is left baseless as he fails to prove what precise military use, if any, and capacity STREIT’s armored vehicles offer to the armed forces of Armenia. Without proof that these vehicles are superior to or as effective to the ones already present in the arsenal of the country’s armed forces, one can instead conclude the STREIT vehicles offer no known actual military advantage compared to the armored vehicles Armenia already owns, purchases, and operates. Moreover, Mr. Sassounian ignores potential structural shortcomings and assumes the flawlessness of the STREIT vehicles when he states: “These armored military vehicles would have been very useful during last year’s war with Azerbaijan, saving the lives of countless Armenian soldiers.” Like many other armchair general pundits, Sassounian fails to conduct a sufficient analysis of the capacities of STREIT’s military hardware to support that conclusion.

The STREIT vehicle line consists of Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles (MRAPs), armored personnel carriers (APCs), sports utility trucks (SUTs), and light combat tactical all-terrain vehicles (LATVs). The MRAP STREIT offers is the STREIT Group Typhoon, which was initially designed to resist improvised explosive devices (IEDs) encountered during the Iraq war. It was later discontinued due to structural weaknesses and the tendency to lose control and induce casualties to passengers, especially in hilly or uneven terrain, to which Nagorno-Karabakh is no stranger. MRAP vehicles were initially constructed for the purpose of aiding troops in offensive operations whereby soldiers had to enter mined enemy territory, and thus would prove less handy to a war focused on territorial defense of Artsakh, where intention to expand and grab more land is absent.

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Compared to the clunky MRAPs and poorly armored LATVs, in support of Sassounian’s point, the APCs and possibly the SUTs produced by STREIT would be expected provide greater utility amidst battles. Before adopting Sassounian’s conclusion prematurely, however, one would need to identify whether the STREIT APCs like the Cobra would be superior to the modern Russian-made GAZ Tigr APCs employed by the Armenian armed forces. Compared to the STREIT vehicles, the GAZ Tigr has the added benefit of being capable of incorporating other Russian military armaments already in Armenia’s arsenal, including but not limited to specific radar systems and surface to air missile launchers.

In conclusion, if STREIT’s vehicles are not superior to the current assets, at best, additional armored STREIT vehicles in Armenia’s arsenal would solely be capable of serving as second-rate, emergency-use or auxiliary vehicles in war. In the best-case scenario, they could replace the vehicles destroyed or lost in battle, while at worst they would possess penetrable, inadequate armor incapable of resisting enemy projectiles, thus jeopardizing the lives of Armenian soldiers if they ultimately prove unreliable and penetrable in combat. Indeed, the weekend he authored the article, in order to assess whether the armor of the vehicles could hold up and save “the lives of countless Armenian soldiers,” Mr. Sassounian did not check or assess whether the STREIT APCs could resist the blast of an armor-piercing smart micro munition high explosive (MAM-C) or thermobaric (MAM-L) missile. Rather than make premature statements on matters of defense, it would have been obligatory to carry out an investigation as to whether the STREIT vehicles possess or lack that capacity to resist the deadliest tools in Azerbaijan’s arsenal: the subset of Bayraktar TB2 missiles capable of puncturing vehicles (like tanks) that are significantly more heavily armored than APCs or MRAPs, be it from STREIT or from another arms supplier. So whether they’d be able to save “countless” lives as Sassounian claims, particularly concerning deadly attacks from Bayraktars above, the overwhelming cause of Armenian human and equipment casualties during the recent NK war, the answer would clearly be: No.

The pedestrian idea that armored troop transport vehicles have complete utility in battle and would save countless lives ignores the fact that during the war, the larger size of the vehicles made for easier targets for laser-guided loitering munitions, as evidenced by the drone footage released by the Azerbaijani military. In the armored vehicles STREIT and other similar defense contractors produce, soldiers are not spread out meters apart but are bunched together. If using the drone footage as evidence, we can see the proximity of the soldiers inside these vehicles proved to be a wartime liability following the sundering and disruption of Armenia’s air defense system. By blowing up an armored vehicle, a single Baykraktar missile could eliminate up to a dozen of Armenian soldiers rather than just a scattered few. This is precisely why on numerous occasions amidst the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war, battle-wise Armenian soldiers often opted to reposition on foot, as the strongest odds of survival frequently consisted of traversing by foot when the airfield was a haven for drones. Later videos published by the Azerbaijani military confirm this to have been the case, recording large caches of tanks and troop transport vehicles being left behind. Some of these vehicles were paraded in Azerbaijan’s despicable victory park. But all proper analyses are nuanced, rather than one sided. It may very well be that the armored vehicles STREIT produces could become useful, but only if hegemonic domination of the battlefield shifts from air to ground and a hard counter to the Bayraktars is acquired. The only other useful scenario would be STREIT vehicles serving a different purpose altogether — the bare minimum of being impromptu or improvised ‘mobile-bunkers’, i.e. barriers or covers for soldiers engaged in small arms fire in urban combat environments.

However, given the lack of expertise on military analysis, the omission of analysis on Sassounian’s part is not as inexcusable as the failure to mention the easily pondered geopolitical consequences of a STREIT factory. STREIT military vehicles are Standardization Agreement (STANAG) 3 NATO certified. A NATO-graded certification is not handed out like confetti. If the STREIT factories were built in Armenia, there would need to be repeat inspection and tests of their products by NATO investigators. The challenge therefore would be whether the creation of a STREIT factory is thereby legal and not in violation of Armenia’s contractual agreements with the Collective Security Treaty Organization. And if it was in fact legal, given Armenia’s membership in the military alliance, would there not be potential unwelcome political ramifications or consequences in allowing NATO personnel direct access to the hardware built in and employed by a CSTO member state? Sassounian fails to explore this possibility and the legal or geopolitical hurdles that could obstruct such a deal. That’s not to say NATO-Armenia cooperation is impossible, as NATO delegations have visited the country with the intention of bolstering cooperation with Armenia, maintaining friendly relations, and addressing areas of military edification on some other occasions. But no event is without some degree of geopolitical consequences, and one would be wise to note the infrequency of such visitations, none of which reach the level of cooperation whereby NATO investigators would visit and have direct access to armament factories in a CSTO member state.

There is another matter altogether. Why would STREIT choose Armenia in particular? While I see no reason to doubt that Tovmasyan’s stated intention of establishing an Armenian branch is intended to contribute to his homeland, motivations are often plural, multifarious, and intertwined. Geopolitics could be at play behind the scenes, and STREIT’s utility to NATO’s interest of curbing CSTO geopolitical influence is a line of thought to be explored.

Let’s consult a case study. STREIT works very closely with Kremenchuk Automobile Plant, a Ukrainian armored vehicle producer, in producing vehicles that have seen combat operations against Russia and Russian-backed separatists in Crimea and Donbas. The plant also sells armored vehicles to NATO superpowers like the United States. For these reasons, one can surmise the proposal for the construction of a STREIT factory in Armenia was submitted with the intention of partially drawing Armenia away from future Russian arms purchases and towards Western companies, at least in this subsection of military hardware consisting of armored personnel carriers.

But there is a fifth factor to consider. Does the STREIT Group occasionally circumvent the law for the sake of personal profit? The company has been mired in multiple controversies three years prior to reaching out to Armenia. Firstly, STREIT’s US branch knowingly failed to acquire proper licenses for their exported military vehicles and carried out at least nine unlicensed exports leading to fines being levied onto the company by the United States government, with both the aforementioned CEO and president of the STREIT Group being charged for their role for providing false statements to the government and for being complacent in making illegal transfers and re-exports. This would not be the sole occurrence. According to the UN Security Council, the STREIT Group was also involved in violations of arms embargoes against Sudan and South Sudan. Coupled with poor glass door reviews which describe working for the company as a nightmare, reports written by those working for the company reveal STREIT refused to pay workers for months on end in 2014 and 2015, inspiring strikes and protests by employees. Sassounian claims the introduction of STREIT factories would create hundreds of jobs, but he should have checked whether those jobs would be properly compensated, without any stolen labor from the citizens of Armenia. Instances of misconduct by STREIT is a reason for concern, and it is not the immaculate company Sassounian paints it as. The government of Armenia is no stranger to this information, and the incompetence lies not with them but with Sassounian for not doing his due diligence in assessing the company’s controversies.

While Armenian Minister of the Economy Vahan Kerobyan did author a Facebook post about the deal, Sassounian omits that there was also an Armenpress article about the case, with Armenpress being a government-affiliated newspaper. Sassounian displays inexcusable pettiness when he insults Kerobyan as just a “mathematician” who supposedly lacks qualification whereas in fact, Kerobyan’s career history includes numerous successful startups, various CEO positions, and formal work in Armenian banks and non-profits like the All-Armenia Fund that have contributed to Armenia’s economic growth and development. If he is a man of integrity, he should offer an apology to Kerobyan.

A seventh factor is perhaps the most damning and the final nail in the coffin to Sassounian’s “perfect example.” Armenia was willing to accept the STREIT proposal, but the factory would have to be built on land other than that Yerevan plot occupied or owned by the Armenian ministry of defense. For whatever odd or unknown reason, STREIT refused. If STREIT was truly sincere about opening a factory in Armenia, they would have been inclined to accepting any suitable plot of land, including plots outside of Yerevan that would have been apt for STREIT’s manufacturing supply chain. Their demand for a specific, very expensive plot of land in Yerevan indicates they had ulterior motives. So, it isn’t Kerobyan who is misleading the public as Sassounian claims to his readers. Sassounian provides an outright mistruth to readers by writing the government didn’t sit down with Tovmasyan and offer STREIT alternative deals when, in fact, Kerobyan indicates the government did, but it was not accepted by STREIT.

Perhaps it would have been important for Sassounian to touch upon these seven factors, as these controversies add to any justified, rational hesitancy the Armenian government may have exhibited surrounding the matter of Tovmasyan’s proposal. There should be zero tolerance for omitted or false information that consequentially and untruthfully denigrate political opponents, for such confutative confusions set back the Armenian cause. Articles like Sassounian’s recent piece only waste the time of factcheckers, all the while fooling members of our community. Reality is always more complex than what political pundits would like to make it seem, and it does the world no justice to simplify nuanced matters. While welcoming and encouraging constructive, effortful, evidence-based criticism towards all groups and actors in order to reach more effective policies to guide the development and preservation of the Armenian state, it is important to identify factual mistakes and poorly written criticisms for the common good of the community. Despite his article’s flaws, perhaps it was harsh to imply it was deliberate disinformation on Sassounian’s part. Rather than crafty spite, it could be a misinformed failure to properly investigate all the facts of the Tovmasyan incident and arrive at an evidence-based, fair conclusion.

Or to put in a way to pay homage to his favorite word, Sassounian’s article was nothing but a show of incompetence.

Danny Donabedian is an Armenian-American and Watertown native. He graduated from Harvard College in 2019 and aspires to pursue a career in global health and health policy. He is passionate about identifying and evaluating cost-effective and high-impact health, economic, and educational interventions. 

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