From the very beginning of the modern phase of the national liberation movement of Armenians of Nagorno Karabakh, Azerbaijan has opted for solving the conflict by force and rejected any political dialogue. Armenian pogroms (massacres) in Sumgait in February 1988 became one of the first manifestations of Azerbaijan’s policy of intimidation towards the people of Nagorno Karabakh, and were followed by a wave of Armenian pogroms in different towns of Azerbaijan. Simultaneously, starting from 1988, Azerbaijan has imposed a blockade on Nagorno Karabakh, and unleashed terror against its population by attacking the villages, arresting the male population, stealing cattle and destroying crops. In the beginning, attacks against Armenian villages were carried out mostly by paramilitary units of the Popular Front of Azerbaijan which started to form in August 1989. A series of attacks were organized against the military units of the Soviet Army located in Azerbaijan in order to seize weapons and provide these groups with military equipment. From 1990, OMON units (Special Purpose Police Forces of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Azerbaijan), armed not only with small firearms, but also by armoured vehicles, joined the fighters of the Popular Front of Azerbaijan.
In an effort to finally resolve the Nagorno Karabakh problem by force, the Azerbaijani authorities in April-August 1991, with the support of the internal forces and the USSR Ministry of Defense forces conducted large-scale military and police operation ''Koltso'' (Ring) on the deportation of the Armenian population of the border villages of Artsakh, which became a prelude to the subsequent full-scale aggression by Azerbaijan against the NKR.
On September 25, 1991, the first shelling of capital Stepanakert by Azerbaijani armed formations from Shushi and the neighboring villages took place. Already in November massive and regular shelling of Armenian civilian settlements began1.
The fact that the largest warehouses of weaponry and ammunitions of the Transcaucasian military district of the former Soviet Army, as well as most of its heavy military equipment and aviation potential, were located in the territory of Azerbaijan was an additional factor contributing to the militarization of Azerbaijan and its choice to solve the conflict by force. For instance, heavy weaponry (tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, armored personnel carriers, large-caliber artillery) deployed in Azerbaijan was exceeding those in Armenia by 15%. Azerbaijan’s advantages over Armenia in terms of ammunition stocks were even more impressive. In total, there were 11 thousand carriages of ammunition in Azerbaijan's warehouses, while Armenia had only 500. The warehouse in the Aghdam region alone (with 728 carriages of artillery missiles, 245 carriages of reactive missiles and 131 carriages of small arms), seized by Azeri armed units on February 23, 1992, was enough to conduct high-intensity military operations on a daily basis for an entire year.
Taking advantage of such military potential, Azerbaijan’s leadership embarked on forming its own armed forces. On September 5, 1991, the president of Azerbaijan signed a decree on establishing its Ministry of Defense. An eight-member (of which three from the opposition) National Defense Council was established by another presidential decree on 29th of September, 1991. On 9 October, the parliament of Azerbaijan adopted a law on the formation of the national army, allocating three months for that purpose. A month later, on November 9, the first battalion of the Azerbaijani army was created in Shushi, and on November 19 another was formed in Lachin (Berdzor)2. At that time about four thousand OMON troops and several thousand militants of the Popular Front of Azerbaijan were engaged in the military operations against Nagorno Karabakh.
In the process of army-building Azerbaijan also received support from Turkey. On October 11, 1991, Doğan Güreş, Chief of the General Staff of Turkey, arrived in Baku for an official visit and, together with Volkan Vural, the Turkish ambassador to the USSR, met the newly-appointed Defense Minister of Azerbaijan Valeh Barshadly.
All these factors helped to form a consensus between the authorities and the oppositional Popular Front of Azerbaijan in favor of a military solution to the conflict. Having a significant military superiority over Karabakh, Azerbaijani side counted on achieving a quick victory.
The escalation of military offensives made the organisation of defence and improvement of existing structures a necessity for the NKR. Throughout the republic self-defence detachments were formed on a voluntary basis and a headquarter to consolidate and coordinate their activities. In early 1992, more than ten self-defense units were formed in Artsakh, which were later re-organised into companies with a total number of 1000 people. It became one of the important steps towards creation of a regular army. In subsequent years the number of servicemen in the Defence Army of the Nagorno Karabakh Republic increased several times.
On February 24, Presidium of the Supreme Council of the NKR adopted a decree on the legal status of the Republic's armed formations, bringing them under a united command. Serzh Sargsyan was appointed the Chairman of the Self-Defense Committee.
Under the conditions of a total blockade and incessant shelling of Armenian settlements from the Azerbaijani positions, the NKR armed forces were faced with a hard task to:
- cease Azerbaijani military positions around Stepanakert, which kept the city under constant artillery fire;
- re-open the roads that linked NKR regional centres with the capital city of Stepanakert;
- establish control over Stepanakert airport; and
- break through the blockade and establish safe land communication with Armenia.
On 9 May 1992, the Karabakh army succeeded in liberating the city of Shushi, and a couple of days later, on 18 May, established a corridor linking Artsakh with Armenia through the region of Berdzor (Lachin).
However, as in May 1992 Azerbaijan received 325 tanks, 344 infantry fighting vehicles, 78 amphibious infantry fighting vehicles, 38 military reconnaissance vehicles, 329 armored personnel carriers, 343 howitzers and self-propelled artillery, 63 ‘Grad’ multiple launch rocket systems, 52 mortars, 35 MIG jet fighters, 7 frontal bombers, a Su-25 jet aircraft and 52 L-29 military jet trainer aircraft, 18 Mil Mi-24 attack helicopters and 15 military transport helicopters and around 100 air defense missile systems through the distribution of the combat military equipment and ammunition of the former Soviet army, the situation on the frontline drastically escalated. Azerbaijan had significantly exceeded limits on various weapons envisaged by the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe. Numerous attempts of international supervisory bodies to compel Azerbaijan to comply with the treaty failed3. In mid-1992, about 40 thousand people had been drafted into Azerbaijani army. In the summer of 1992, 21 thousand soldiers and officers were deployed in the zone of military operations. Apart from them, OMON units (around 4,000 persons) and armed units of the Popular Front of Azerbaijan (around 7,000 persons) were actively engaged in military operations4.
Acquiring significant superiority in military equipment and manpower, the Azerbaijani army embarked on a new large-scale offensive on June 12 ,1992 and, with the participation of the forces of former Soviet 4th Army stationed in Azerbaijan, occupied the entire Shahumian region and a part of Martakert region. Nearly 40% of the territory of NKR came under the occupation of the Azerbaijani troops; about 66 thousand people became IDPs. In the village of Maragha only, Azerbaijani servicemen killed 100 civilians.
In connection with this expansion of aggression and in order to prevent further occupation of territories, on August 12, the Presidium of the Supreme Council of the NKR, headed by Georgy Petrossyan, the Acting Chairman of the Supreme Council, adopted a decree on introducing martial law in the Republic. A mobilization of men from the age of 18 to 45 began. On August 14, by the decision of the Presidium of the Supreme Council, the State Committee of Defense (SCD) was established, to which entire executive power and partial legislative powers were transferred. The SCD, headed by Robert Kocharyan, was designed to mobilize all the human and material resources of the republic, bring all enterprises, establishments, organizations, as well as political and public potential of the country into compliance with the situation of a war.
After regrouping, the forces of the NKR Defense army succeeded in stoping the advance of the Azerbaijani army by the autumn of 1992, and reached a breakthrough at the frontline in 1993. In spring- autumn of 1993, Karabakh army has inflicted upon the Azerbaijani army a series of heavy defeats along the Qelbajar-Aghdam-Kubatly-Zangelan-Djebrayil line and was able to ensure secure borders for the NKR. In December 1993, the Azerbaijani troops made another attempt to take the initiative on the frontline, yet the assault failed again and ended in heavy losses for the Azerbaijani army.
On the verge of total military defeat and facing loss of power, Azerbaijani leadership was forced to conclude a termless ceasefire agreement in May 1994, through Russian mediation.
1. In the period of November 1991- 27 January 1992, Armenian settlements were subjected to artillery bombardment for 80 times, during which 2737 rockets and shells were fired, as a result 627 buildings were destroyed, 47 people killed and 167 injured. (С. Золян. Нагорный Карабах: Проблема и конфликт. - Ереван. Издательство «Лингва», 2001 (Suren Zolyan. Nagorno Karabakh: The Problem and the Conflict. Yerevan. “Lingva” Publishing house, 2001))
2. Arif Yunusov. Azerbaijan: The Burden of History - Waiting for Change. In the collection 'The Caucasus: Armed and Divided. The Spread of Small and Light Arms in the Caucasus and its Humanitarian Consequences'. Ed. by Anna Matveeva and Dankana Hizkoka, Saferworld, April 2003.
3. Виктор Баранец. Генштаб без тайн. - М.: Вагриус, 1999. (Viktor Baranets. The General Staff without Secrets. Moscow. Vagrius, 1999)
4. Arif Yunusov.Azerbaijan: The Burden of History - Waiting for Change. In the collection 'The Caucasus: Armed and Divided. The Spread of Small and Light Arms in the Caucasus and its Humanitarian Consequences'. Ed. by Anna Matveeva and Dankana Hizkoka, Saferworld, April 2003.
Leyla Yunusova. The Future Belongs to the Professional Army. Зеркало, August 10, 2002