The Karabakh War of 1918-1920

The Karabakh War of 1918-1920

and the “resolution” of the conflict under the Soviet authorities

Though 2020’s 44-day conflict is now called the Second Karabakh War, while the 1990’s liberation is considered the First, the fight for Karabakh between Armenia and Azerbaijan started much earlier: in 1918, when two countries declared independence.

Text : Tigran Zakaryan    Photo : 

Armenia and Azerbaijan both declared their independence on the same day of 28 May 1918. Yet these two entities had very much overlapping territorial claims with sporadic interethnic violence on the ground, supported and manipulated by Turkey, whose troops were moving to Baku from different directions. In the beginning of 1918, before the independence, the situation in Karabakh was relatively stable with local Armenian and Muslim communities having established a modus vivendi and a joint committee with a Georgian Iosif Kobiev as the head in charge of local provincial administration.
Yet the situation changed with the proclamation of Azerbaijan’s independence, which laid claim on Karabakh as well as Nakhijevan and Zangezur (modern Syunik in Armenia). On the other hand the advancing Turkish troops invaded several villages in the east of Mountainous Karabakh and massacred the population of a strategically located village in the west on the road leading from Goris to Shushi. The newly created Azerbaijani government’s aim was to establish firm control over the whole governorate of Elisabethpol (which included Karabakh, Zangezur and northeast of the present Republic of Armenia) with the help of the Turkish troops. Meanwhile a conference of the Karabakh Armenians held on 22-24 July in Shushi proclaimed the region as part of Armenia and elected a provisional government under Yeghishe Ishkhanyan from the ARF.

The Cabinet of the Armenian Republic

While the Turkish army along with the Azerbaijani nascent armed forces was busy attacking and invading Baku from the local Armenians who proclaimed soviet power – in hope for an eventual support of Red Russia – Karabakh was spared major violence. Turkish troop commanders stationed in Aghdam repeatedly sent ultimatums to the local Armenian authorities demanding submission to the Azerbaijani government, which was declined in yet another congress of the Karabakh Armenians on 6 September. However, in merely a few days the situation in the Caucasus changed with the fall of Baku to the Turk-Azerbaijani forces, followed by a bloody massacre of the Armenians in the city.



The Karabakh Armenians had to convene another congress on 17-22 September, which in view of the desperate situation for the local Armenians decided to agree to the passage and stationing of the Turkish troops in Shushi. The invading Turkish and Azerbaijani troops were systematically looting Armenian villages on their way, while disarming and killing local inhabitants. Turkish military authorities upon entering Shushi detained around 60 local Armenians notables and set to completely disarm the local population. Meanwhile the Armenian population outside Shushi, beyond which the Turkish power hardly extended, vehemently declined submission to Azerbaijan, took up arms engaging with the invader in lower-scale skirmishes. One of them, an ambush set near the village of Msmna in the south of Karabakh on 18 October 1918 was particularly deadly for the invaders, who leaving dozens of killed and a substantial quantity of ammunition, artillery and machine guns in the field, found refuge in Shushi.

Armenian army in Holly Echmiadzin, 1918

In less than two weeks after that incident the exhausted Ottoman Empire recognized its defeat in the Great War and had to withdraw all its troops from the Caucasus, including Karabakh. British forces instead were deployed in Baku with an aim of playing an important part in the British Empire’s policies in the region. 



Meanwhile Armenian general Andranik (Ozanyan) whose small army nominally was not a part of the Armenian armed forces, made an attempt to invade Karabakh. He managed to suppress the local Tatars and Muslim bands, who, reinforced with weapons and instructors left behind by the retreating Ottoman army, offered fierce resistance. By 1 December 1918 Andranik had overcome all the obstacles and Shushi was within arm’s reach, however by that time was received a message from the Azerbaijani government and the British commander in Azerbaijan and North Persia William Montgomery Thompson, urging to withdraw and delegate the issue of the territorial arrangement to the remit of the Paris Peace Conference. In fact the British wanted to maintain stability in the Caucasus which might serve as a bulwark against Bolshevik Russia, while expecting that Armenians could find satisfaction in having territories to the west of the Caucasus (Western Armenia) included into the Armenian state.
Britain substantiated its pro-Azerbaijani policy with ominous warnings to Yerevan that ignoring British requests could lead to withdrawing from a “pro-Armenian” stance in the peace negotiations. Great Britain, indeed supported Armenian government’s efforts in establishing its control westwards towards the 1914 border of the Russian Empire, however on the other hand in Karabakh and Zangezur it was pro-Azerbaijani. At some point the British even backed the idea of the transfer of the Armenian population from Karabakh to the east. 

A comic about Andranik Ozanyan published in the New York Journal-American, 1920



With British blessing Azerbaijan in January 1919 appointed Khosrov-bek Sultanov, a clear armenophobe, Pan-Turkist as the governor Karabakh and Zangezur, the latter being by then under the control of Andranik’s Armenian forces. To this the government in Yerevan responded with a vehement protest and declaring both districts as “inalienable parts of Armenia”. Once again representatives of the Armenians in Karabakh convened in February 1919 in Shushi to decline this appointment and urging for annexation to Armenia. They also tried to send a delegation to Baku where the British troops’ headquarters in the Caucasus was stationed with an aim of suggesting peaceful ways of the resolution of the conflict. In fact incorporation into Armenia was not the delegation’s sole proposal, but they had also several compromise deal projects, including a return to the self-governance that existed before the independence of Armenia and Azerbaijan, or alternatively, establishing a British governorate either in the Armenian part of Karabakh or both parts of it, under two separate entities. The Armenian government seemed to agree to compromise resolutions, finding it best under the circumstances. However in the talks of February-March 1919 it became evident (and the British command made no secret of it) that “governor” Sultanov enjoyed the support of the British and Yerevan’s official protest on that matter was ignored. 

Andranik’s squad in Zangezur, 1918

Meanwhile the British, despite their earlier assurances that the territorial disputes between Yerevan and Baku were to be settled at the Paris Peace conference, put a lot of effort trying to persuade the leaders in Armenia and Karabakh to accept Azerbaijani rule over the region. They held talks with the officials in Yerevan and Shushi, however these did not bring about the desired outcome.



Meanwhile Azerbaijan made an attempt at bringing Karabakh into submission by force. In June 1919 a large band of Tatar and Kudrish cavalry under the command of Khosrov-bek Sultanov’s brother attacked the Armenian village of Ghaybalishen near Shushi massacring hundreds of innocents, and continuing their murderous way into other surrounding Armenian villages. These actions sparked an immense Armenian indignation which forced the Azerbaijani leaders and their British patrons to have Sultanov recalled from Shushi. It was expected that he would be arrested and put to trial for his actions, yet in an unfathomable twist of fate he was released and dispatched back to Karabakh, returning to his business with redoubled energy. In the meantime it was announced that Great Britain is soon withdrawing its troops from Azerbaijan and the whole of the Caucasus, which, of course immediately gave room to the government in Baku to pursue its anti-Armenian policies with new vigor.



The Armenian population of Karabakh felt the looming danger of physical extermination. While some – chiefly the urban population concentrated in Shushi – were for some kind of a compromise, which might include a recognition of Azerbaijani sovereignty over the region, others in the villages as well as members of the ARF and the local Armenian National Council were of the opposite opinion.

Khosrov bek Sultanov

Both sides launched negotiations with a preliminary agreement reached in Baku between the representatives of Karabakh Armenians and the Azerbaijani authorities. Despite initial promises Azerbaijani authorities in Shushi were becoming growingly impatient and new instances of violence occurred throughout the province ending up with an ultimatum by Sultanov issued in mid-August which required a submission to the Azerbaijani authorities with certain provisions.



The 7th congress of the Karabakh Armenians, discussing their predicament, made a most reluctant decision agreeing to recognize Azerbaijani sovereignty over the region temporarily until the Paris Peace Conference would decide upon the future fate of the region.
The agreement was signed by the Karabakh Armenian and Azerbaijani representatives on 22 August. The agreement seemed to be consolidated by a meeting between Armenian Prime Minister Khatisyan and his Azerbaijani counterpart Usupbekov in Tiflis in November of the same year, during which they agreed to resolve all territorial disputes through peaceful means. Yet it was easier said than done. Days following the statement by the heads of both states the violence once again erupted in Zangezur, where the local Armenian forces under Nzhdeh repelled attacks by local Muslim bands and in a counteroffensive invaded several villages to the southeast of the province. 

Government House of the Republic of Armenia, 1918-1920

Meanwhile the situation in Karabakh itself could hardly be called calm, as Armenians were being continuously disarmed against the backdrop of steadily growing insecurity and instances of attacks on their lives and property. A new strain of violence started with the Azerbaijani governor Sultanov’s new ultimatum issued in mid-February 1920, in which he demanded an unconditional annexation of the province to Azerbaijan. In the meantime pressure and violence against local Armenians, including politically active elements surged again.
The Karabakh Armenian representatives gathered once again in an 8th conference, which failed to assume a joint position on the matter. While part of them, gathered in Shushi under the direct control of Sultanov and being subject to pressures by him, conceded to his demands, a majority of the representatives gathered in a nearby village of Shosh, rejected those demands urging for a unification with Armenia.



Once again, the answer was violence. In March 1920 Azerbaijan concentrated most part of its troops – trained and partially commanded by former Ottoman officers and reinforced with irregulars – in Karabakh. Local Armenians hoped for support from Armenia, however the authorities in Yerevan were not prepared or able to provide quick assistance to Karabakh Armenians. While armed bands of Karabakh Armenians managed to keep the enemy away from most parts of the Armenian villages, the city of Shushi was in a most vulnerable position. This is where on 22-26 March occurred a violent massacre, which claimed the lives of some 10,000 or even more Armenians, changing the ethnic composition of the city’s population for good.

Shushi after massacre of 1920

Meanwhile the support, which the Karabakh Armenians were hoping for, even though belated, came in April 1920. Gen. Drastamat Kanayan (Dro) the appointed governor of Syunik and Karabakh, moved his troops into Karabakh, establishing control over the most part of the province and forcing Sultanov and his troops to find refuge in the besieged city of Shushi. A new conference of the Karabakh Armenians in the village of Taghavard was held, which proclaimed the province’s unification with Armenia and established a local government.
Yet this state of affairs continued for only a brief period as the situation in the Caucasus region was rapidly changing. Making use of the fact that the bulk of Azerbaijan’s military forces was concentrated in Karabakh, Soviet Russian troops with virtually no resistance on their way entered into Baku and proclaimed Azerbaijan a soviet republic on 28 April. 
The newly established Moscow-backed soviet Azerbaijani government issued ultimatums demanding a withdrawal of Armenian troops from the province, while units of the Soviet Russian army moved into Karabakh entering Shushi on 12 May 1920. Days after that Dro had to evacuate the province, leaving his provisions and military supplies to the local defense forces. Meanwhile the local Armenians decided to proclaim soviet power in the province as well. In retrospect one might argue why the local Armenians ultimately gave up the idea of joining the province with the Republic of Armenia, yet it is worth to remember that a Bolshevik insurrection was underway in Armenia proper in those days and the sovietization of the country was a highly possible scenario, in case of which Karabakh could be a province of the future Soviet Armenia. 

Armenian troops in Baku, 1918

In any case the soviet coup in Armenia failed while Soviet Russia and Armenia in a special agreement on 10 August recognized Karabakh, Zangezur and Nakhijevan as disputed territory and agreed on the deployment of the Red Army units in those provinces. Following the disastrous war with Kemalist Turkey and the loss of a considerable part of territory, the government of Armenia agreed to transfer the power to the Soviets on 2 December 1920.



In fact the Red Army had been invading Armenia since 29 November, when a group of Armenian Bolsheviks who came along with those army units declared Soviet power in Armenia.

Red Army entering Yerevan,1920

Although initially the Azerbaijani authorities immediately declared on the “settlement of territorial disputes” with the newly soviet Armenia, this could be understood as nothing short of a trick by Moscow to win over the large masses in Armenia. Those assurances would soon be forgotten, as Moscow’s grand strategy in the Caucasus was to firmly establish itself in the region, while trying to possibly use the Turkish and Muslim factors against the British and other allies who could threaten the Soviet power in Russia. The treaties of Moscow and Kars signed in 1921, which were essentially two identical Russian-Turkish treaties, established the current border of Armenia and Georgia with Turkey, which sealed huge Armenian territorial concessions to Ankara.

Kirov, Mikoyan and Orjonikidze with Red army in Baku, 1920

Meanwhile the anti-Bolshevik insurrection in Armenia of February 1921, which for a brief period expanded to the south of Karabakh as well – under the local guerilla commander Tevan Stepanyan – was crushed with an effect of establishing a firm Soviet Armenian control over Zangezur which was a part of previous Azerbaijani claims. 

Tevan Stepanyan’s squad, 1921



The decision on Karabakh came in July 1921 in Tiflis where the Caucasus Bureau of the Communist Party of Russia convened. Quite oddly, the territorial dispute between the two nominally sovereign countries (at least Soviet Russia and Kemalist Turkey recognized both Soviet Armenia and Soviet Azerbaijan as independent nations) was settled by a local committee of a political party, headquartered in a third country. Moreover the decision was made through gross procedural violations.
While on 4 July 1921 the Committee’s decision was in favor of Armenia, a day later, under the personal pressure of Stalin, then People’s Commissar of Nationality Issues, the Bureau revised its own decision of the day before and handed over the province to Azerbaijan at the whim of the future “father of the peoples”.
The Karabakh issue over the period of 1918-21 became a victim of geopolitics, while great powers – whether the British or Soviet Russians – invariably backed Baku’s claim over the province for the sake of their own regional and global interests.

Singing of the Treaty of Moscow, 1921

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