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Nagorno-Karabakh War

Related subjects Recent History

Nagorno-Karabakh War
Image:ArmenianFighters1989.jpg
Armenian guerrillas fighting against Azeri forces in trenches in Karabakh.
Date 1988–1994
Location Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenia, and Azerbaijan
Result Military victory by Armenian forces.

Cease-fire treaty signed in 1994 by representatives of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Nagorno-Karabakh (still in effect).

Territorial
changes
Nagorno-Karabakh became a de facto independent republic, while remaining a de jure part of Azerbaijan. Peace talks are held between the two nations to decide the future of the disputed territory.
Belligerents
Nagorno-Karabakh

Armenia

Azerbaijan
Commanders
Samvel Babayan,
Monte Melkonian,
Hemayag Haroyan,
Vazgen Sargsyan,
Arkady Ter-Tatevosyan,
Anatoly Zinevich
İsgandar Hamidov,
Suret Huseynov,
Rahim Gaziev,
Shamil Basayev
Strength
20,000 42,000
Casualties and losses
6,000 dead,
25,000 wounded
11,000 dead,
30,000 wounded
Nagorno-Karabakh is currently a de facto independent republic in the South Caucasus, but is officially recognized as part of the Republic of Azerbaijan.
Nagorno-Karabakh is currently a de facto independent republic in the South Caucasus, but is officially recognized as part of the Republic of Azerbaijan.

The Nagorno-Karabakh War refers to the armed conflict that took place from February 1988 to May 1994, in the small ethnic enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh in southwestern Azerbaijan, between the predominantly ethnic Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh backed by the Republic of Armenia against the Republic of Azerbaijan. As the war progressed, Armenia and Azerbaijan, both former Soviet Republics, became enveloped in a protracted, undeclared war in the mountainous heights of Karabakh as Azerbaijan attempted to curb a secessionist movement in Nagorno-Karabakh. The enclave's parliament had voted in favor of uniting itself with Armenia and a referendum was held with the vast majority of the Karabakh population voting in favour of independence. The demand to unify with Armenia, which proliferated in the late 1980s, began in a relatively peaceful manner; however, in the following months, as the Soviet Union's disintegration neared, it gradually grew into an increasingly violent conflict between the two ethnic groups, resulting in claims of ethnic cleansing by all sides.

The war was the most destructive ethnic conflict in both terms of lives and property that emerged after the Soviet Union collapsed in December 1991. Inter ethnic fighting between the two broke out shortly after the parliament of Nagorno-Karabakh, an autonomous oblast in Azerbaijan, voted to unify the region with Armenia on February 20, 1988. The declaration of secession from Azerbaijan was the final result of a "long-standing resentment in the Armenian community of Nagorno Karabakh against serious limitations of its cultural and religious freedom by central Soviet and Azerbaijani authorities," but more importantly, as a territorial conflict regarding the land.

Along with the secessionist movements in the Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, the secessionist movements in the Caucasus characterized and played a large role in bringing the downfall of the Soviet Union. As Azerbaijan declared its independence from the Soviet Union and removed the powers held by the enclave's government, the Armenian majority voted to secede from Azerbaijan, and in the process proclaimed the enclave the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Full-scale fighting erupted in the late winter of 1992. International mediation by several groups including Europe's OSCE failed to bring an end resolution that both sides could work with. In the spring of 1993, Armenian forces captured regions outside the enclave itself, threatening the involvement of other countries in the region. By the end of the war in 1994, the Armenians were in full control of not only the enclave but also held and currently control approximately 9% of Azerbaijan's territory outside the enclave. As many as 400,000 Armenians from Azerbaijan and 800,000 Azeris from Armenia and Karabakh have been displaced as a result of the conflict. A Russian-brokered cease fire was signed in May of 1994 and peace talks, mediated by the OSCE Minsk Group, have been held ever since by Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Background

The territorial ownership of Nagorno-Karabakh today is still a heavily disputed issue between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Called Artsakh by Armenians, its history spans several centuries, where it came under the control of several empires. Debate, however, is mired mainly in the aftermath of World War I. Shortly before the Ottoman Empire's capitulation in the war, the Russian Empire collapsed in November 1917 and fell under the control of the Bolsheviks. The three nations of the Caucasus, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, previously under the rule of the Russians, declared their independence to form the Transcaucasian Federation which dissolved after only three months of existence.

Armenian-Azerbaijani war

Fighting soon broke out between the Democratic Republic of Armenia and the Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan in three specific regions: Nakhichevan, Zangezur (today the Armenian province of Syunik), and Karabakh itself. Armenia and Azerbaijan quarreled as to where the boundaries would fall in accordance to the three provinces. The Karabakh Armenians attempted to declare their independence but failed to make contact with the Republic of Armenia. After the defeat of Ottoman empire in World War I, British troops occupied the South Caucasus in 1919. The British command provisionally affirmed Khosrov bey Sultanov (an appointee of the Azerbaijan government) as the governor-general of Karabakh and Zangezur, pending a final decision by the Paris Peace Conference.

Soviet division

Two months later however, the Soviet 11th Army invaded the Caucasus and within three years, the Caucasian republics were formed into the Transcaucasian SFSR of the Soviet Union. The Bolsheviks thereafter created a seven-member committee, the Caucasus Bureau (often shortened to Kavburo), which under the supervision of the future Soviet ruler Joseph Stalin, the People's Commissar for Nationalities, was tasked to head up matters in the Caucasus. Although the committee voted 4-3 in favour of allocating Karabakh to the newly created Soviet Socialist Republic of Armenia, protestations made by Azerbaijani leaders including the Communist Party leader of Azerbaijan Nariman Narimanov and an anti-Soviet rebellion in the Armenian capital Yerevan in 1921 embittered relations between Armenia and Russia. These factors led the committee to reverse its decision and award Karabakh to Soviet Azerbaijan in 1921, and later incorporated the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) within the Azerbaijan SSR in 1923, leaving it with a population that was 94% Armenian. The capital was moved from Shusha to Khankendi, which was later renamed as Stepanakert.

Armenian and Azeri scholars have speculated that the decision was an application by Russia of the principle of " divide and rule". This can be seen, for example, by the odd placement of the Nakhichevan exclave, which is separated by Armenia but is a part of Azerbaijan. Others have also postulated that the decision was a goodwill gesture by the Soviet government to help maintain "good relations with Atatürk's Turkey." Armenia had always refused to recognize this decision and continued to protest its legality in the ensuing decades under Soviet rule.

February 1988, the revival of the Karabakh issue

As the new general secretary of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, came to power in 1985, he began implementing his plans to reform the Soviet Union. These were encapsulated in two policies, perestroika and glasnost. While perestroika had more to do with economic reform, glasnost or "openness" granted limited freedom to Soviet citizens to express grievances about the Soviet system itself and its leaders. Capitalizing on this, the leaders of the Regional Soviet of Karabakh decided to vote in favour of unifying the autonomous region with Armenia on February 20, 1988. Karabakh Armenian leaders complained that the region had neither Armenian language textbooks in schools nor in television broadcasting, and that Azerbaijan's Communist Party General Secretary Heidar Aliev had extensively attempted to " Azerify" the region and increase the influence and the number of Azeris living in Nagorno-Karabakh, while at the same time reducing its Armenian population (in 1987, Aliev would step down as General Secretary of Azerbaijan's Politbureau). By 1988, the Armenian population of Karabakh had dwindled down to nearly three-quarters of the total population.

The movement was spearheaded by popular Armenian figures and also members of the Russian intelligentsia, such as the dissident and Nobel Laureate Andrei Sakharov. Prior to the declaration, Armenians had begun to protest and stage workers' strikes in Yerevan, demanding a unification with the enclave. This prompted Azeri counter-protests in Baku. In reaction to the protests, Gorbachev stated that the borders between the republics would not change, in accordance with Article 78 of the Soviet constitution. Gorbachev also stated that several other regions in the Soviet Union were yearning for territorial changes and redrawing the boundaries in Karabakh would thus set a dangerous precedent. Armenians viewed the 1921 Kavburo decision with disdain and felt that in their efforts, they were correcting a historical error under the principle of self-determination, a right also granted in the constitution. Azeris, on the other hand, found such calls for relinquishing their territory by the Armenians unfathomable and aligned themselves with Gorbachev's position.

Sumgait

Ethnic infighting soon broke out between Armenians and Azerbaijanis living in Karabakh. On February 22, 1988, a direct confrontation between Azerbaijanis and Armenians, near the town of Askeran (located on the road between Stepanakert and Agdam) in Nagorno-Karabakh, degenerated into a skirmish. During the clashes, which left about 50 Armenians wounded, a local policeman, purportedly an Armenian, shot dead two Azerbaijani youths. On February 27, 1988, while speaking on Baku's central television, the Soviet Deputy Procurator Alexander Katusev mentioned the nationality of those killed.

The Askeran clash was the prelude to Sumgait pogroms, where emotions, already heightened by news about Karabakh crisis, turned even uglier in a series of protests starting February 27, 1988. Speaking at the rallies, Azerbaijani refugees from the Armenian town of Ghapan accused Armenians of "murder and atrocities including raping women and cutting their breasts off"; these allegations were later disproved and many of the speakers were revealed to be agents provocateurs. Within hours, a pogrom against Armenian residents began in Sumgait, a city some 25 kilometers north of Baku, where some 2,000 Azerbaijani refugees from Armenia were settled. The pogroms resulted in the deaths of 32 people, according to official Soviet statistics, although many Armenians feel that the figures were understated by the Soviet media, as nearly all of Sumgait's Armenian population left the city after the pogrom. Armenians were beaten, raped and killed both on the streets of Sumgait and inside their apartments in three days of violence that was only put down when Soviet armed forces entered the city and quelled much of the rioting on March 1.

The manner of which many Armenians were killed reverberated amongst Armenians who felt the pogrom was backed by government officials to intimidate those involved in the Karabakh movement. Violence slowly began to escalate after Sumgait as Gorbachev finally decided to send in Soviet Interior troops to Armenia in September 1988. By October 1989, over 100 people were estimated to have been killed since the revived idea of unification with Karabakh in February 1988. The issue temporarily absolved, when on December 7, 1988, a devastating earthquake hit Armenia, leveling the towns of Leninakan (now Gyumri) and Spitak, and killing an estimated 25,000 people.

Gorbachev's attempts to stabilize the region were to no avail, as both sides were equally intransigent. Armenians refused to allow the issue to subside despite concessions made by Gorbachev, including a promise of a 400 million rubles package to introduce Armenian language textbooks and television programming in Karabakh. At the same time, Azerbaijan was unwilling to cede any territory to Armenia. Furthermore, the newly formed Karabakh Committee, which comprised eleven members including the future president of Armenia Levon Ter-Petrossian, were jailed by Moscow officials in the ensuing chaos after the quake. Such actions polarized relations between Armenia and the Kremlin; Armenians lost faith in Gorbachev and despised him even more because of his mishandling of the earthquake and his uncompromising stance in regards to Nagorno-Karabakh.

Black January

Inter-ethnic strife began to take a toll on both countries' populations, forcing most of the Armenians in Azerbaijan to flee back to Armenia and most of the Azeris in Armenia to Azerbaijan. The situation in Nagorno-Karabakh had grown so out of hand that in January 1989 the central government in Moscow temporarily took control of the region, a move welcomed by many Armenians. In the summer of 1989, Popular Front leaders and their ever-increasing supporters managed to pressure the Azerbaijan SSR to instigate a railway and air blockade against Armenia, effectively crippling Armenia's economy, as 85% of the cargo and goods arrived through rail traffic (this also cut off Nakhichevan from the rest of the Soviet Union). The disruption of rail service to Armenia was in part due to the attacks of Armenian militants on Azerbaijani train crews entering Armenia, who then began refusing to do so.

In January 1990, another pogrom against Armenians in Baku forced Gorbachev to declare a state of emergency and sent MVD troops to restore order. A curfew was established and violent clashes between the soldiers and the surging Azerbaijan Popular Front were common, in one instance over 120 Azeris and eight MVD soldiers were killed in Baku. During this time, however, Azerbaijan's Communist Party had fallen and the belated order to send the MVD forces had more to do with keeping the Party in power than to protect the city's Armenian population. The events, referred to as " Black January," also delineated the relations between Azerbaijan and Russia.

Fighting spread through other cities in Azerbaijan, including, in December 1988, in Ganja and Nakhichevan, where seven people (four of them soldiers) were killed and hundreds injured when Soviet army units attempted to stop attacks directed at Armenians.

Operation Ring

In the spring of 1991, President Gorbachev held a special countrywide referendum called the Union Treaty which would decide if the Soviet republics would remain together. Newly elected, non-communist leaders had come to power in the Soviet republics, including Boris Yeltsin in Russia (Gorbachev remained the President of the Soviet Union), Levon Ter-Petrossian in Armenia and Ayaz Mutalibov in Azerbaijan. Armenia and five other republics boycotted the referendum (Armenia would hold its own referendum and declared its independence from the Soviet Union on September 21, 1991), whereas Azerbaijan voted in compliance to the Treaty.

As many Armenians and Azeris in Karabakh began an arms build up (by acquiring weaponry located in caches throughout Karabakh) in order to defend themselves, Mutalibov touted support from Gorbachev in launching a joint military operation in order to disarm Armenian militants in the region. Known as Operation Ring, the operation forcibly deported Armenians living in villages in the region of Shahumyan. It was perceived by both Soviet officials from the Kremlin and from the Armenian government as a method of intimidating the Armenian populace to giving up their demands for unification.

The operation proved counter-productive to what it had originally sought to accomplish. The initial Armenian resistance inspired volunteers who flocked from Armenia, and only reinforced the belief among Armenians that the only solution to the Karabakh conflict was through outright armed conflict. Monte Melkonian, an Armenian-American who had served in revolutionary groups in the 1980s and would later rise to be perhaps the most famed commander of the war, argued that Karabakh be "liberated" and contended that if it remained in Azeri hands, the region of Syunik would then be annexed by the Azeris and the rest of Armenia would follow thereafter, concluding that "the loss of Artsakh could be the loss of Armenia." Velayat Kuliev, a writer and the deputy director of Azerbaijan's Literary Institute disputed this, "Lately the Armenian nationalists, including some quite influential people, have started talking again about ' Greater Armenia'. Its not just Azerbaijan. They want to annex parts of Georgia, Iran and Turkey."

Weapons vacuum

As the disintegration of the Soviet Union became a reality for Soviet citizens in the autumn of 1991, both sides sought to acquire weaponry from military caches located throughout Karabakh. The initial advantage tilted in Azerbaijan's favour. During the Cold War, the Soviet military doctrine for defending the Caucasus had outlined a strategy where Armenia would be a combat zone in the case NATO member Turkey invaded from the west. Thus, in the Armenian SSR only three divisions and no airfields had been established while the Azeri SSR had a total of five divisions and five military airfields. Furthermore, Armenia had approximately 500 railroad cars of ammunition in comparison to Azerbaijan's 10,000.

As MVD forces began pulling out, they bequeathed the Armenians and Azerbaijanis a vast arsenal of ammunition and stored armored vehicles. The government forces initially sent by Gorbachev three years earlier were from other republics of the Soviet Union and many had no wish to remain any longer. Most were poor, young conscripts and many simply sold their weapons for cash or even vodka to either side, some even trying to sell tanks and armored personnel carriers (APCs). The unsecured weapons caches led both sides to blame and mock Gorbachev's policies as the ultimate cause of the conflict. The Azeris purchased a large quantity of these vehicles, as reported by the Azeri Foreign Ministry in November 1993, which said it had acquired 286 tanks, 842 armored vehicles, and 386 artillery pieces from the power vacuum. Several black markets also sprang up which included weaponry from the West.

Further evidence also showed that Azerbaijan received substantial military aid and provisions from Israel, Iran, Turkey and numerous Arab countries. Most weaponry was Russian-made or came from the former Eastern bloc countries however some improvisation was made by both sides. The Armenian Diaspora managed to donate a significant amount of money to be sent to Armenia and even managed to push for legislation in the United States Congress to pass a bill entitled Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act in response to Azerbaijan's blockade against Armenia; restricting a complete ban on military aid from the United States to Azerbaijan in 1992. While Azerbaijan charged that the Russians were initially helping the Armenians, it was said that "the Azeri fighters in the region [were] far better equipped with Soviet military weaponry than their opponents."

With Gorbachev resigning as Soviet General-Secretary on December 26, 1991, the remaining republics including the Ukraine, Belarus and Russia declared their independence and the Soviet Union ceased to exist on December 31, 1991. This dissolution gave way to any barriers that were keeping Armenia and Azerbaijan from waging a full scale war. One month prior, on November 21, the Azerbaijani Parliament rescinded Karabakh's status as an autonomous oblast and renamed its capital "Xankandi". In response, on December 10, a referendum was held in Karabakh by parliamentary leaders (with the local Azeri community boycotting it) where the Armenians voted overwhelmingly in favour of independence. On January 6 1992, the region declared its independence from Azerbaijan.

The withdrawal of the Soviet interior forces from Nagorno-Karabakh in the Caucasus region was only temporary. By February 1992, the former Soviet states consolidated as the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). While Azerbaijan abstained from joining, Armenia, fearing a possible invasion by Turkey in the escalating conflict, entered the CIS which would have protected it under a "collective security umbrella". In January 1992, the CIS forces then moved in and established a headquarters at Stepanakert and took up a slightly more active role in peacekeeping, incorporating old units including the 366th Motorized Rifle Regiment and 4th Army.

Building armies

The grave of Karo "the White Bear" Kaqhedjian, an Armenian-American, at Yerablur cemetery. Kaqhedjian was one of many Armenians from the Diaspora who volunteered to go and fight in the Karabakh conflict.
The grave of Karo "the White Bear" Kaqhedjian, an Armenian-American, at Yerablur cemetery. Kaqhedjian was one of many Armenians from the Diaspora who volunteered to go and fight in the Karabakh conflict.

The sporadic battles between Armenians and Azeris had intensified after Operation Ring recruited thousands of volunteers into improvised armies from both Armenia and Azerbaijan. In Armenia, a recurrent and popular theme at the time compared and idolized the separatist fighters to historical Armenian guerrilla groups and revered individuals such as Andranik Ozanian and Garegin Njdeh, who fought against the Ottoman Empire during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In addition to the government's conscription of males aged 18–45, many Armenians volunteered to fight and formed tchokats, or detachments, of about forty men, which combined with several others were under the command of a Lieutenant Colonel. Initially, many of these men chose when and where to serve and acted on their own behalf, rarely without any oversight, when attacking or defending areas. Direct insubordination was common as many of the men simply did not show up, looted the bodies of dead soldiers, and commodities such as diesel oil for armored vehicles disappeared only to be sold in black markets.

Many women enlisted in the Armenian military; however, they more often served in auxiliary roles such as providing first-aid and evacuating wounded men from the battlefields than taking part in the fighting. Azerbaijan's military functioned in much the same manner; however, it was better organized during the first years of the war. The Azeri government also carried out conscription and many Azeris enthusiastically enlisted for combat in the first months after the Soviet Union collapsed. Azerbaijan's National Army consisted of roughly 30,000 men, in addition to nearly 10,000 in its OMON paramilitary force and several thousand volunteers from the Popular Front. Suret Huseynov, a wealthy Azeri, also improvised by creating his own military brigade, the 709th of the Azerbaijani Army, and purchasing many weapons and vehicles from the 23rd Motor Rifle Division's arsenal. İsgandar Hamidov's bozkurt or Grey Wolves brigade also mobilized for action. The government of Azerbaijan also poured a great deal of money into hiring mercenaries from other countries through the revenue it was making from its oil field assets on and near the Caspian Sea.

Former troops of the Soviet Union also offered their services to either side. For example, one of the most prominent officers to serve on the Armenian side was former Soviet General Anatoly Zinevich, who remained in Nagorno-Karabakh for five years (1992 – 1997) and was involved in planning and implementation of many operations of the Armenian forces. By the end of war he held the position of Chief of Staff of the NKR armed forces. The estimated amount of manpower and military vehicles each entity involved in the conflict had in the 1993–1994 time period was:

Entity Military Personnel Artillery Tanks Armored personnel carriers Armored fighting vehicles Fighter aircraft
Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh 20,000 16 13 120 N/A N/A
Republic of Armenia 20,000 170 160 240 200 N/A
Republic of Azerbaijan 42,000 330 280 360 480 170

In an overall military comparison, the number of men eligible for military service in Armenia, in the age group of 17–32, totaled 550,000, while in Azerbaijan it was 1.3 million. Most men from both sides had served in the Soviet Army and so had some form of military experience prior to the conflict. Among Karabakh Armenians, about 60% had served in the Soviet Army. Most Azeris, however, were often subject to discrimination during their service in the Soviet military and relegated to work in construction battalions rather than fighting corps. Despite the establishment of two officer academies including a naval school in Azerbaijan, the lack of such military experience was one factor that rendered Azerbaijan unprepared for the war.

Spring 1992, Early Armenian victories

Khojaly

Officially the newly created Republic of Armenia publicly denied any involvement in providing any weapons, fuel, food, or other logistics to the secessionists in Nagorno-Karabakh. However, Ter-Petrossian later did admit to supplying them with logistical supplies and paying the salaries of the separatists but denied sending any of its own men to combat. Armenia faced a debilitating blockade by the now Republic of Azerbaijan as well as pressure from neighboring Turkey, which decided to side with Azerbaijan and build a closer relationship with it. The only land connection Armenia had with Karabakh was through the narrow mountainous Lachin corridor which could only be reached by helicopters. The region's only airport was in the small town of Khojaly, which was seven kilometers north of Stepanakert with an estimated population of 6,000–10,000 people. Additionally, Khojaly had been serving as an artillery base and since February 23, was shelling Armenian and Russian units in the capital. By late February, Khojaly had largely been cut off. On February 26, Armenian forces, with the aid of armored vehicles in the 366th, mounted an offensive to capture Khojaly.

According to Azerbaijani side and the affirmation of other sources including Human Rights Watch, the Moscow based human rights organization Memorial, and the biography of a leading Armenian commander, Monte Melkonian, documented and published by his brother, after Armenian forces captured Khojaly, they proceeded to massacre several hundred civilians evacuating from the town. Armenian forces had previously stated they would attack the city and left a land corridor for them to escape through. However, when the attack began, the attacking Armenian force easily outnumbered and overwhelmed the defenders who along with the civilians attempted to retreat north to the Azeri held city of Agdam. The airport's runway was found to have been intentionally destroyed, rendering it temporarily useless. The attacking forces then went on to pursue those fleeing through the corridor and opened fire upon them, killing scores of civilians. Facing charges of an intentional massacre of civilians by international groups, Armenian government officials denied the occurrence of a massacre and asserted an objective of silencing the artillery coming from Khojaly. An exact body count was never ascertained but conservative estimates have placed the number to 485. The official death toll provided by Azerbaijani authorities for casualties suffered during the events of February 25–26 is 613 civilians, of them 106 women and 83 children. On March 3, 1992, the Boston Globe reported over 1,000 people had been slain over four years of conflict. It quoted the Mayor of Khojaly, Elmar Mamedov, as also saying 200 more were missing, 300 were held hostage, and 200 injured in the fighting.

A report published in 1992 by the human rights organization Helsinki Watch however stated that their inquiry found that the Azerbaijani OMON and "the militia, still in uniform, and some still carrying their guns, were interspersed with the masses of civilians" which may have been the reason why Armenian troops fired upon them.

The capture of Shusha

Armenian children standing next to the rubble of a building in Stepanakert after a shelling barrage.
Armenian children standing next to the rubble of a building in Stepanakert after a shelling barrage.

In the aftermath of Khojaly Massacre, in Azerbaijan, president Ayaz Mutalibov was forced to resign on March 6, 1992, under public pressure for his failure to protect and evacuate civilians in Khojaly. In the ensuing months after the capture of Khojaly, Azeri commanders holding out in the region's last bastion of Shusha began a large scale artillery bombardment with GRAD rocket launchers against Stepanakert. By April, the shelling had forced many of the 50,000 people living in Stepanakert to seek refuge in underground bunkers and basements. Facing ground incursions near the city's outlying areas, military leaders in Nagorno-Karabakh organized an offensive to take the town.

On May 8, a force of several hundred Armenian troops accompanied by tanks and helicopters attacked the Shusha citadel. Fierce fighting took place in the town's streets and several hundred men were killed on both sides. Overwhelmed by the numerically superior fighting force, the Azeri commander in Shusha ordered a retreat and fighting ended on May 9.

The capture of Shusha resonated loudly in neighboring Turkey. Its relations with Armenia had grown better after it had declared its independence from the Soviet Union; however they gradually worsened as a result of Armenia's gains in the Nagorno-Karabakh region. A deep resentment towards Turkey by Armenia predated the Soviet era and this enmity stemmed in part from the Armenian Genocide. Many Armenians collectively referred to Azeris as "Turks" since they are considered ethnic cousins. Turkey's prime minister, Suleyman Demirel said that he was under intense pressure by his people to have his country intervene and aid Azerbaijan. Demirel however, was opposed to such an intervention, saying that Turkey's entrance into the war would trigger an even greater Muslim-Christian conflict (Turks are predominantly Muslims).

Turkey never did actively contribute troops to Azerbaijan but did send a great deal of military aid and advisers. In May 1992, the military commander of the CIS forces, Marshal Yevgeny Shaposhnikov, issued a warning to Western nations, especially the United States, to not interfere with the conflict in the Caucasus; stating it would "place us [the Commonwealth] on the verge of a third world war, and that cannot be allowed."

A Chechen contingent, led by Shamil Basayev, was one of the units to participate in the conflict. According to Azeri Colonel Azer Rustamov, in 1992, "hundreds of Chechen volunteers rendered us invaluable help in these battles led by Shamil Basayev and Salman Raduev." Basayev was said to be one of the last fighters to leave Shusha. Basayev later said during his career, he and his battalion had only lost once, and that defeat came in Karabakh in fighting against the " Dashnak battalion". He later said he pulled his mujahideen out of the conflict when the war seemed to be more for nationalism than for jihad. During the conflict, Basayev was first introduced to Amir Ibn Khattab. Azerbaijani Ministry of Defence denies involvement of the latter.

Sealing Lachin

Armenian forces in the May 1992 move in to secure the Lachin corridor. The capture of Lachin allowed Armenia to send in supply convoys to aid the Karabakh separatists and also opened up a route for Armenian refugees to evacuate through.
Armenian forces in the May 1992 move in to secure the Lachin corridor. The capture of Lachin allowed Armenia to send in supply convoys to aid the Karabakh separatists and also opened up a route for Armenian refugees to evacuate through.
Members of the Armenian "Dashnak battalion" celebrate the capture of Shusha in front of Ghazanchetsots Cathedral.
Members of the Armenian " Dashnak battalion" celebrate the capture of Shusha in front of Ghazanchetsots Cathedral.
Azeri artillery shelling Armenian positions in the onset of the 1992 summer offensive.
Azeri artillery shelling Armenian positions in the onset of the 1992 summer offensive.

The loss of Shusha led the Azeri parliament to lay the blame on Mamedov, which removed him from power and cleared Mutalibov of any responsibility after the loss of Khojaly; reinstating him as President on May 15 1992. Many Azeris saw this act as a coup in addition to the cancellation of the parliamentary elections slated in June of that year. The Azeri parliament at that time was made up of former leaders from the country's communist regime and the losses of Khojaly and Shusha only aggrandized their desires for free elections.

To contribute to the turmoil, an offensive was launched by Armenian forces on May 18 to take the city of Lachin in the narrow corridor separating Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. The city itself was poorly guarded and, within the next day, Armenian forces took control of the town and cleared any remaining Azeris to open the road that linked the region to Armenia. The taking of the city then allowed an overland route to be connected with Armenia itself with supply convoys beginning to trek up the mountainous region of Lachin to Karabakh.

The loss of Lachin was the final blow to Mutalibov's regime. Demonstrations were held despite Mutalibov's ban and an armed coup was staged by Popular Front activists. Fighting between government forces and Popular Front supporters escalated as the political opposition seized the parliament building in Baku as well as the airport and presidential office. On June 16, 1992, Abulfaz Elchibey was elected leader of Azerbaijan with many political leaders from the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party were elected into the parliament. The instigators characterized Mutalibov as an undedicated and weak leader in the war in Karabakh. Elchibey was staunchly against receiving any help from the Russians, instead favoring closer ties to Turkey.

Escalation of the conflict

Operation Goranboy

On June 12, 1992, the Azeri military, along with Huseynov's own brigade, used a large amount of tanks, armored personnel carriers and attack helicopters to launch Operation Goranboy, a large three-day offensive from the relatively unguarded region of Shahumyan, north of Nagorno-Karabakh, in the process taking back several dozen villages in the Shahumyan region originally held by Armenian forces. Another reason the front collapsed so effortlessly was because it was manned by the volunteer detachments from Armenia which had abandoned the lines to go back to their country after the capture of Lachin. The offensive prompted the Armenian government to openly threaten Azerbaijan that it would overtly intervene and assist the separatists fighting in Karabakh.

The assault forced Armenian forces to retreat south towards Stepanakert where Karabakh commanders contemplated destroying a vital hydroelectric dam in the Martakert region if the offensive was not halted. An estimated 30,000 Armenian refugees were also forced to flee to the capital as the assaulting forces had taken back nearly half of Nagorno-Karabakh. However, the thrust made by the Azeris ground to a halt when their armor was driven off by helicopter gunships. It was claimed that many of the crew members of the armored units in the Azeri launched assault were Russians from the 104th Guards Airborne Division based out of Ganja and, ironically enough, so were the units who eventually stopped them. According to an Armenian government official, they were able to persuade Russian military units to bombard and effectively halt the advance within a few days. This allowed the Armenian government to recuperate for the losses and reorganize a counteroffensive to restore the original lines of the front.

Renewed fighting

An Armenian fighter firing an NSV heavy machine gun, often found on tank turrets, in a trench in Hadrut in the summer of 1992.
An Armenian fighter firing an NSV heavy machine gun, often found on tank turrets, in a trench in Hadrut in the summer of 1992.

In late June, a new, smaller Azeri offensive was planned, this time against the town of Martuni in the southeastern half of Karabakh. The attack force consisted of several dozen tanks and armored fighting vehicles along with a complement of several infantry companies massing along the Majgalashen and Jardar fronts near Martuni and Krasnyi Bazar. Martuni's regimental commander, Monte Melkonian, referred now by his men as "Avo", although lacking heavy armor, managed to stave off repeated attempts by the Azeri forces

In late August 1992, Nagorno-Karabakh's government found itself in a disorderly state and its members resigned on August 17. Power was subsequently assumed by a council called the State Defense Committee which was chaired by Robert Kocharyan, stating it would temporarily govern the enclave until the conflict ended. At the same time, Azerbaijan also launched attacks by fixed wing aircraft, often bombing civilian targets. Kocharyan condemned what he believed were intentional attempts to kill civilians by the Azeris and also Russia's alleged passive and unconcerned attitude towards allowing its army's weapons stockpiles to be sold or transferred to Azerbaijan.

Winter thaw

As the winter of 1992 approached, both sides largely abstained from launching full scale offensives so as to reserve resources, such as gas and electricity, for domestic use. Despite the opening of an economic highway to the residents living in Karabakh, both Armenia and the enclave suffered a great deal due to the economic blockades imposed by Azerbaijan. While not completely shut off, material aid sent through Turkey arrived sporadically.

Experiencing both food shortages and power shortages, after the close down of the Metsamor nuclear power plant, Armenia's economic outlook appeared bleak: in Georgia, a new bout of civil wars against separatists in Abkhazia and Ossetia began, who raided supply convoys and repeatedly destroyed the only oil pipeline leading from Russia to Armenia. Similar to the winter of 1991–1992, the 1992–1993 winter was especially cold, as many families throughout Armenia and Karabakh were left without heating and hot water.

Other goods such as grain were more difficult to procure. The international Armenian Diaspora raised money and donated supplies for Armenia. In December, two shipments of 33,000 tons of grain and 150 tons of infant formula arrived from the United States via the Black Sea port of Batumi, Georgia. In February 1993, the European Community sent 4.5 million ECUs to Armenia. Armenia's southern neighbour Iran, also helped Armenia economically by providing power and electricity. Elchibey's oppositional stance against Iran and his remarks to unify with Iran's Azeri minority alienated relations between the two.

Azeris displaced as internal and international refugees were forced to live in makeshift camps provided by both the Azerbaijan government and Iran. The International Red Cross also distributed blankets to the Azeris and noted that by December, enough food was being allocated for the refugees. Azerbaijan also struggled to rehabilitate its petroleum industry, the country's chief export. Its oil refineries were not generating at full capacity and production quotas fell well short of estimates. In 1965, the oil fields in Baku were producing 21.5 million tons of oil annually; by 1988, that number had dropped down to almost 3.3 million. Outdated Soviet refinery equipment and a reluctance by Western oil companies to invest in a war region where pipelines would routinely be destroyed prevented Azerbaijan from fully exploiting its oil wealth.

Summer 1993, the war spills out

Conflicts at home

Despite the grueling winter both countries had suffered, the new year was viewed enthusiastically by both sides. President Elchibey expressed optimism towards bringing an agreeable solution to the conflict with Armenia's Ter-Petrossian. Glimmers of such hope however, quickly began to fade in January 1993, despite the calls for a new cease fire by Boris Yeltsin and George H. W. Bush, as hostilities in the region brewed up once more. Armenian forces began a new bout of offensives that overran villages in northern Karabakh that had been held by the Azeris since the previous autumn.

Frustration over these military defeats took a toll in the domestic front in Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan's military had grown more desperate and defense minister Gaziev and Huseynov's brigade turned to Russian help, a move which ran against Elchibey's policies construable as insubordination. Political infighting and arguments on where to shift military units between the country's ministry of the interior, İsgandar Hamidov, and Gaziev led to the latters' resignation on February 20. A political shakedown also occurred in Armenia when Ter-Petrossian dismissed the country's prime minister, Khosrov Arutyunyan and his cabinet for failing to implement a viable economic plan for the country. Protests by Armenians against Ter-Petrossian's leadership were also suppressed and put down.

Kelbajar

Situated west of northern Karabakh, out of the boundaries of the region, was the rayon of Kelbajar which bordered alongside Armenia. With a population of about 45,000, the several dozen villages were made up of Azeris and Kurds. In March of 1993, the Armenian-held areas near the Sarsang reservoir in Mardakert were reported to have been coming under attack by the Azeris. After successfully defending the Martuni region, Melkonian's fighters were tasked to move to capture the region of Kelbajar, where the incursions and purported artillery shelling were said to have been coming from. Scant military opposition by the Azeris allowed Melkonian's fighters to quickly gain a foothold in the region and also captured several abandoned armored vehicles and tanks. At 2:45 P.M., on April 2, Armenian forces from two different directions advanced towards Kelbajar in an attack that quickly struck against Azeri armor and troops entrenched near the Ganje-Kelbjar intersection. Azeri forces were unable to halt advances made by Armenian armor units and nearly all died defending the area. The second attack towards Kelbajar also quickly overran the defenders. By April 3, Armenian forces had captured Kelbajar.

The offensive provoked international rancor against the Armenian government, marking the first time Armenian forces had crossed the boundaries of the enclave itself and into Azerbaijan's territory. On April 30, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) passed Resolution 822, co-sponsored by Turkey and Pakistan, affirming Nagorno-Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan's territorial integrity and demanding that Armenian forces withdraw from Kelbajar.

An Azeri man weeping in the ruins of a home in Agdam after an Armenian artillery bombardment.
An Azeri man weeping in the ruins of a home in Agdam after an Armenian artillery bombardment.

The political repercussions were also felt in Azerbaijan when Huseynov embarked on his "march to Baku" from Ganje. Frustrated with what he felt was Elchibey's incompetence in dealing with the conflict and demoted from his rank of colonel, his brigade advanced towards Baku to unseat the President in early June. Elchibey stepped down from office on June 18 and power was assumed by then parliamentary member Heidar Aliev. On July 1, Huseynov was appointed prime minister of Azerbaijan.

Agdam, Fizuli, Jebrail, and Zangelan fall

While the people of Azerbaijan were adjusting to the new political landscape, many Armenians were coping with the death of Melkonian who was killed earlier on June 12 in a skirmish near the town of Merzuli as his death was publicly mourned at a national level in Yerevan. The Armenian forces exploited the political crisis in Baku, which had left the Karabakh front almost undefended by the Azerbaijani forces. The following four months of political instability in Azerbaijan led to the loss of control over five districts, as well as the north of Nagorno Karabakh. Azerbaijani military forces were unable to put up much resistance to Armenian advances and left most of the areas without any serious fighting. In late June, they were driven out from Martakert, losing their final foothold of the enclave. By July, the Armenian forces were preparing to attack and capture the region of Agdam, another rayon nestled outside of Nagorno-Karabakh, claiming that they were attempting to bolster a greater security buffer to keep Azeri artillery out of range.

On July 4, an artillery bombardment was commenced by Armenian forces against the region's capital of Agdam, destroying many parts of the town. Soldiers, along with the civilians began to evacuate Agdam. Facing a military collapse, Aliev attempted to mediate with the de-facto Karabakh government and Minsk Group officials. In mid-August, Armenians massed a force to take the Azeri regions of Fizuli and Jebrail, south of Nagorno-Karabakh proper.

In light of the Armenians' advance into Azerbaijan, Turkey's prime minister Tansu Çiller, warned the Armenian government not to attack Nakhichevan and demanded that Armenians pull out of Azerbaijan's territories. Thousands of Turkish troops were sent to the border between Turkey and Armenia in early September. Russian Federation forces in Armenia countered their movements and thus warded off any possibility that Turkey might play a military role in the conflict.

By early September, Azeri forces were nearly in complete disarray. Much of the heavy weapons they had received and bought by the Russians were either taken out of action or abandoned during the battles. Since the June 1992 offensive, Armenian forces captured dozens of tanks, light armor and artillery from the Azeris. Further signs of Azerbaijan's desperation included the recruitment by Aliev of 1,000–1,500 Afghan and Arab mujahadeen fighters from Afghanistan. Although the Azerbaijani government denied this claim, correspondence and photographs captured by Armenian forces indicated otherwise. Azerbaijan's attempts to recruit from its Lezgin and Talysh minorities was met with stiff resistance. Other sources of foreign help arrived from Pakistan and also Chechnya including guerilla fighter Shamil Basayev. The United States-based petroleum company, MEGA OIL, also hired several American military trainers as a prerequisite for it to acquire drilling rights to Azerbaijan's oil fields.

1993–1994, final clashes

The final borders of the conflict after the 1994 cease-fire was signed. Armenian forces currently control almost 9% of Azerbaijan's territory outside the former Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Oblast.
The final borders of the conflict after the 1994 cease-fire was signed. Armenian forces currently control almost 9% of Azerbaijan's territory outside the former Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Oblast.

In October 1993, Aliev was formally elected as President, and promised to bring social order to the country in addition to recapturing the lost regions. In October, Azerbaijan joined the CIS. The winter season was marked with similar conditions as in the previous year, both sides scavenging for wood and harvesting foodstuffs months in advance. Two subsequent UNSC resolutions were passed, (874 and 884), in October and November and, although reemphasizing the same points as the previous two, they acknowledged Nagorno-Karabakh as a party to the conflict.

In early January, Azerbaijani forces and Afghan guerrillas recaptured part of the Fizuli district, including the railway junction of Horadiz on the Iranian border, but failed to recapture the town of Fizuli itself. On January 10, 1994, an offensive was launched by Azerbaijan towards the region of Mardakert in an attempt to recapture the northern section of the enclave. The offensive managed to advance and take back several parts of Karabakh in the north and to the south of but soon stalled. The Republic of Armenia began sending conscripts and regular Army and Interior Ministry troops to stop Azerbaijani advancements in Karabakh. To bolster the ranks of its army, the Armenian government issued a decree, instituting a three-month call-up for men up to age forty-five and resorted to press-gang raids to enlist recruits. Several active-duty Armenian Army soldiers were captured by the Azerbaijani forces.

Azerbaijan's offensives grew more dire as men as young as 16 with little to no training at all were recruited and sent to take part in ineffective human wave attacks, tactics once employed by Iran during the Iran-Iraq War. The two offensives that took place in the winter cost Azerbaijan as many as 5,000 men (at the loss of several hundred Armenians). The main Azeri offensive was aimed at recapturing the Khelbajar district, thus threatening the Lachin corridor. The attack initially met little resistance and was successful in capturing the vital Omar Pass. However, as the Armenian forces reacted, the bloodiest clashes of the war ensued and the Azeri forces were soundly defeated. Several Azeri brigades were isolated when the Armenians recaptured the Omar Pass, and were eventually surrounded and liquidated.

While the political foundations changed hands several times in Azerbaijan, most Armenian soldiers in Karabakh claimed that the youths, and Azeris themselves, were demoralized and lacked a sense of purpose and commitment to fighting the war. Russian professor Georgiy I. Mirsky also supported this viewpoint, stating that "Karabakh does not matter to Azerbaijanis as much as it does to Armenians. Probably, this is why young volunteers from Armenia proper have been much more eager to fight and die for Karabakh than the Azerbaijanis have." This reality was reflected by a journalist who noted that "In Stepanakert, it is impossible to find an able-bodied man - whether volunteer from Armenia or local resident - out of uniform. [Whereas in] Azerbaijan, draft-age men hang out in cafes." Prior to his death in 1989, Andrei Sakharov also supported this view, famously stating, "For Azerbaijan the issue of Karabakh is a matter of ambition, for the Armenians of Karabakh, it is a matter of life or death."

Final cease-fire

After six years of intensive fighting, both sides were ready for a cease-fire. Azerbaijan, after exhausting nearly all its manpower was relying on a cease-fire to be put forth by either the CSCE or by Russia as Armenian commanders stated their forces had an unimpeded path towards Baku. The borders however remained confined to Karabakh and the immediate rayons surrounding it. Diplomatic channels increased between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the month of May. The final battles of the conflict took place near Shahumyan in a series of brief engagements between Armenian and Azeri forces at Gulistan.

On May 16, the leaders of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Nagorno-Karabakh, and Russia met in Moscow to sign a truce that would effectively call for a cessation of hostilities. In Azerbaijan, many welcomed the end of hostilities, while others felt that a contingent of peacekeeping troops to temporarily remain in the area should not have came from Russia. Sporadic fighting continued in some parts of the region but all sides affirmed that they would stay committed to honoring the cease-fire.

A frozen conflict

NKR soldiers from the 8th regiment rush out of a trench during an exercise operation on the Agdam front on the most eastern side in Agdam.
NKR soldiers from the 8th regiment rush out of a trench during an exercise operation on the Agdam front on the most eastern side in Agdam.
A T-72 tank memorial near the town of Askeran.
A T-72 tank memorial near the town of Askeran.
A memorial fountain near Vaik, Armenia.
A memorial fountain near Vaik, Armenia.

Today, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict remains one of several frozen conflicts in the post-Soviet states along with Georgia's breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as well as Moldova's troubles with Transnistria. Karabakh remains under the jurisdiction of the government of the unrecognized but de facto independent Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh and maintains its own uniformed military, the Nagorno-Karabakh Defense Army. Contrary to media reports which nearly always mentioned the religions of the Armenians and Azeris, the war's religious aspects never gained enough significance as an additional casus belli as it remained primarily an issue on territory and the human rights of Armenians in Karabakh. Since 1995, the OSCE has been mediating with the governments of Armenia and Azerbaijan to settle for a new solution. Numerous proposals have been made which have primarily been based on both sides making several concessions. One such proposal stipulated that as Armenian forces withdrew from the seven regions surrounding Karabakh, Azerbaijan would share some of its economic assets including profits from an oil pipeline that would go from Baku through Armenia to Turkey. Other proposals also included that Azerbaijan would provide the broadest form of autonomy to the enclave next to granting it full independence. Armenia has also been pressured by being excluded from major economic projects throughout the region, including the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline and Kars-Tbilisi-Baku railway.

Most autonomy proposals have been rejected, however, by the Armenians, who consider it as a matter that is not negotiable. Likewise, Azerbaijan has also refused to let the matter subside and regularly threatens to resume hostilities. On March 30, 1998, Robert Kocharyan was elected President and continued to reject calls for making a deal to resolve the conflict. In 2001, Kocharyan and Aliev met at Key West, Florida to discuss the issues and, while several Western diplomats expressed optimism, mounting opposition against any concessions by both countries thwarted hopes for a peaceful resolution.

Refugees displaced from the fighting account to nearly one million people. An estimated 400,000 Armenians living in Azerbaijan fled to Armenia or Russia and a further 30,000 came from Karabakh. Many of those who left Karabakh returned after the war ended. An estimated 800,000 Azeris were displaced from the fighting including those from both Armenia and the enclave. Various other ethnic groups living in Karabakh were also forced to live in refugee camps built by both the Azeri and Iranian governments. Although the issue of amount of Azeri territory controlled by Armenians has often been claimed to be 20% and even as high 40%, the number is estimated, taking into account the exclave of Nakhichevan, 13.62% or 14% (The number comes down to 9% if the territory of Nagorno Karabakh is excluded).

The ramifications of the war were said to have played a part in the February 2004 murder of Armenian Lieutenant Gurgen Markaryan who was hacked to death with an axe by his Azerbaijani counterpart, Ramil Safarov at a NATO training seminar in Budapest, Hungary. Enmity against the Armenians also led to the destruction of thousands of centuries-old Armenian headstones, known as khatchkars, in cemeteries in Julfa, Nakhichevan. This was first revealed in 1998 and temporarily halted but continued on into 2005. In Azerbaijan, Armenia's control of the region is also likened to the Nazi occupation of the Soviet Union during World War II.

In early 2008, tensions between Armenia, the NKR Karabakh and Azerbaian took a turn for the worse. On the diplomatic front, President Ilham Aliyev once again repeated increasingly bellicose statements that Azerbaijan would resort to force, if necessary, to take the territories back; concurrently, shooting incidents along the line of contact increased. The most significant breach of the cease-fire occurred on March 5, 2008, when up to sixteen soldiers were killed. Both sides accused the other of starting the battle. Moreover, the usage of artillery in the recent skirmishes marks a significant departure from previous clashes, which usually involved only sniper or machine gun fire.

Air war

The air war in Karabakh involved primarily fighter jets and attack helicopters. The primary transport helicopters of the war were the Mi-8 and its cousin, the Mi-17 and were used extensively by both sides. Armenia's active air force consisted of only two Su-25 ground support bombers, one of which was lost due to friendly fire. There were also several Su-22s and Su-17s however these aging craft took a backseat for the duration of the war. Azerbaijan's air force was composed of forty-five combat aircraft which were often piloted by experienced Russian and Ukrainian mercenaries from the former Soviet military. They flew mission sorties over Karabakh with such sophisticated jets as the Mig-25 and Sukhoi Su-24 and with older-generation Soviet fighter bombers, such as the Mig-21. They were reported to have been paid a monthly salary of over 5,000 rubles and flew bombing campaigns from air force bases in Azerbaijan often targeting Stepanakert.

These pilots, like the men from the Soviet interior forces in the onset of the conflict, were also poor and took the jobs as a means of supporting their families. Several were shot down over the city by Armenian forces, and according to one of the pilots' commanders, with assistance provided by the Russians. Many of these pilots faced the threat of execution by Armenian forces if they were shot down. The setup of the defense system severely hampered Azerbaijan's ability to carry out and launch more air strikes. The most widely used helicopter gunship by both the Armenians and Azeris was the Soviet-made Mil Mi-24 Krokodil.

The Russian role

Russia, the largest republic of the former Soviet Union, played a dual and often obfuscated role during the war. The hardline members of the Soviet government supported Azerbaijan in the initial stages of the war because "until the Soviet Union's collapse...Azerbaijan was the last bastion of communist orthodoxy in the Caucasus." A contingent of troops during the war consisted of a 23,000-man force housed at the Russian 102nd Military Base near Gyumri. In Azerbaijan, Russian forces sped up the process of withdrawing after the assault on Khojaly and completely withdrew in 1993, one year ahead of schedule. Russian support during the war remained officially neutral. However, despite this stance, both sides accused the Russian military of favoritism.

While Azerbaijan alleged involvement of Russian Army units based in Armenia during the Armenian offensives on Azerbaijani positions, the Armenian side claimed that Russian combatants were volunteers. On September 11, 1992, Azerbaijani forces captured six Russian special forces (spetznaz) troops of the 7th Russian Army based in Armenia near the village of Merjimek in Kelbajar. The men reportedly were paid in Russian rubles by the Armenian Ministry of Defense for action near the village of Srkhavend, Nagorno-Karabakh, in June 1992. Soldiers of Armenian descent serving in the Russian 127th Division based in Armenia were captured in Kelbajar province, Azerbaijan, in January 1994. But, as Markar Melkonian, Monte Melkonian's brother, notes, Russia welcomed the Armenian victories, including Kelbajar's:

The Armenian offensive came at a time of escalating military threats to Russia Washington was eager to push NATO right up to Russia's western doorstep, to set up military bases in Central Asia, and to abrogate the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Chechnya teetered on the brink of secessionist rebellion in the high Caucasus, while...the newly independent Republic of Georgia, was tearing itself up in civil war. And now Azerbaijan, the former Soviet Republic, once again turned its eyes toward Russia's age-old enemy, Turkey....Only Armenia held any promise as a reliable Russian ally in the southern Caucasus.

Although it is well known that Russians among other ethnic groups of the former Soviet Union fought as mercenaries on both sides, official Russian military support relied primarily on the accounts of eyewitnesses. Russian military units were said to have been cooperating with Armenian units when they took Khojaly and similarly with Azerbaijan during its summer 1992 offensive. But even after the 366th regiment was officially withdrawn from Karabakh, many Russian mercenaries kept fighting on the Armenian side, seeing no future in Russia if they returned. A Boston Globe correspondent witnessed in March 1992 "a fair sprinkling of non-Armenian troops in and around Stepanakert." Among them was lieutenant colonel Yury Nikolayevich, who was said to have been the deputy commander of the 366th Motorized Regiment, who went over to the Armenian fighters with a large part of the regiment's military hardware.

Misconduct

Emerging from the collapse of the Soviet Union as nascent states and due to the near-immediate fighting, it was not until mid-1993 that Armenia and Azerbaijan became signatories of international law agreements, including the Geneva Conventions. Allegations from all three governments (including Nagorno-Karabakh's) regularly accused the other side of committing atrocities which were at times confirmed by third party media sources or human rights organizations. Khojaly, for example, was confirmed by both Human Rights Watch and Memorial while what became known as the Maraghar Massacre was first independently affirmed by the British-based human rights organization Christian Solidarity International in 1992. Azerbaijan was also criticized for its use of aerial bombing in densely populated civilian areas.

The lack of international laws for either side to abide by virtually sanctioned activity in the war to what would be considered war crimes. Looting and mutilation (body parts such as ears, brought back from the front as treasured war souvenirs) of dead soldiers were commonly reported and even boasted about among soldiers. Another practice that took form, not by soldiers but by regular civilians during the war, was the bartering of prisoners between Armenians and Azerbaijanis. Often, when contact was lost between family members and a soldier or a militiaman serving at the front, they took it upon themselves to organize an exchange by personally capturing a soldier from the battle lines and holding them in the confines of their own homes. New York Times journalist Yo'av Karny noted this practice was as "old as the people occupying [the] land."

After the war ended, both sides alleged their opponents of continuing to hold captives; Azerbaijan claimed Armenia was continuing to hold near 5,000 Azeri prisoners while Armenians claimed Azerbaijan was holding 600 people. The non-profit group, Helsinki Initiative 92, investigated two prisons in Shusha and Stepanakert after the war ended, but concluded there were no prisoners-of-war there. A similar investigation arrived to the same conclusion while searching for Armenians allegedly laboring in Azerbaijan's quarries.

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