Of all the wars sparked by the fall of the USSR, the Artsakh Liberation War is, without a doubt, THE war that absolutely HAD to be fought. Rarely in history have Good Guys and Bad Guys been so clearly identifiable, the cause so just, the odds so impossible, the heroism so undeniable and the victory so amazing. In fact, not only was Artsakh’s self-liberation the one undeniable post-Soviet Good War, it was also the war that put an end to the Soviet Union in the first place. Above and beyond these things, the story of Artsakh’s liberation puts paid to all bleating about the impossibility of liberating Medinat Yehudah and the supposed unviability of such an entity. From this story we can draw valuable lessons regarding strategy and tactics. Those who lack emuna can gain two more things from this story – the realization that Yesha’s position is neither unique nor unalterable and the realization that brains, bravery, skill and will count for more than mere numbers of barbarians in green headbands. Those of us who trust in Hashem know that if we plan well, struggle with all our might and pray hard, in that order, we will win. Those whose emuna is weak need examples. Therefore, let us provide examples.
Artsakh is a mountainous region to the East of what today is the Republic of Armenia. The Russians call it Nagorno-Karabakh. For centuries, this area has been the heart of Armenian resistance to foreign invasion. It is the only part of historical Karabakh that is still populated by Armenians. Most of the rest is occupied by a gigantic squatter camp called “Azerbajan”. This squatter camp’s artificial identity was largely invented by the Soviets in the 1930s as part of Stalin’s divide-and-conquer strategy for controlling the unruly Armenians. The population consists of descendants of various Moslem invaders, mostly of Turkic origin. Most of the Armenian population of what was turned into Azerbaijan was murdered by the Turks in 1918-1920. The rest were murdered and/or expelled in 1988-1989.
There are about 8 million Azeri squatters and, as is often the case with Moslems, they sit on a large lake of oil. The population of Artsakh is about 130,000. Nonetheless, try hard as they could, the Azeri squatters could not conquer Artsakh.
After the Soviet conquest of Armenia in 1920-1921, Artsakh was placed under the control of the Azerbaijan SSR. However, the Soviet authorities quickly found this situation to be untenable. As long as the region was ruled from Baku, the discrimination against the Armenians was too overt. This bred incessant rebellion. In order to pacify the region, Stalin isolated the core of Artsakh into an Autonomous Region within the Azerbaijan SSR, effectively ruling it via viceroys sent from Moscow. Extensive territories were cut off, handed to Azerbaijan proper and settled by Azeri squatters. This separated Artsakh from the Armenian SSR. Despite recurring efforts on the part of Artsakh’s Armenians to reunite with the Armenian SSR, this is where things remained until the late 1980s. The Soviet system’s suppression of religion and ethnic identity kept things down to a dull roar. The remote and mountainous nature of the region greatly helped. Nonetheless, the systematic policies of the Soviet government succeeded in reducing the Armenians of the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region from 100% of the population to roughly 66%.
With the impending fall of the USSR, ethnic and cultural identities began to revive. Masses disappointed with the false promises of Soviet communism began to look for new things to believe, triggering the most large-scale search for identity in the history of mankind. In virtually all cases the search for identity on both individual and group level led to the traditions of one’s ancestors. Russians flocked to Orthodox churches. Residents of the Don region began to proudly call themselves Cossack. Lithuanians refused to speak Russian or use the Cyrillic alphabet. In this resurgence, the artificial identity of the Azeris began to take on more and more Islamic overtones. They were reverting to type as genocidal, jihadist Shia fanatics. The Armenians of the region watched these developments with growing alarm. Determined not to fall victim to yet another Genocide, the Armenians began to covertly arm themselves.
In 1987, the people of Artsakh openly demanded reunification with Armenia. Strikes and demonstrations paralyzed the region. The situation continued to escalate. Unrest in both Armenia and Azerbaijan began to drive a population exchange. In February of 1988, the Azeris launched a series of large-scale pogroms against Armenians throughout the Azerbaijan SSR. In response, the people of Artsakh took up arms in a guerilla war of national liberation, expelling and killing Azeri squatters wherever they could find them. Corruption within the Soviet military and covert aid from the Armenian Diaspora permitted the irregular forces of Arsakh, called “Fedayi”, to rapidly improve their combat power by acquiring arms via direct purchase, smuggling and raiding.
Observers during this early stage of the war noted the presence of foreign-born volunteers and quantities of dollars in the hands of the Armenians in Artsakh. Both came from Armenians in the West. The volunteers, though not very numerous, brought a wealth of expertise and suitcases full of cash. The hard currency was especially welcome, since it went a lot farther than the worthless Soviet ruble when it came to buying weapons and equipment. Men like Karo Kahkejian served as a core around which the disparate bands of Fedayi could rally to form large-scale military units. The most valuable foreign volunteer was Monte “Avo” Melkonian, a colorful character who had managed to participate in the Iranian Revolution, serve with the Peshmerga, fight in the Lebanese Civil War and serve a lengthy prison term in France for assassinating several Turkish diplomats on behalf of ASALA. Monte Melkonian would become Armenia’s Mickey Marcus.
As the Fedayi gained strength, the war intensified. Open large-scale fighting broke out in 1990. Despite massive punitive actions by Soviet Ministry of Interior troops and Azeri police, the Fedayi would not surrender. In 1991, Soviet authority in the Caucasus simply collapsed under the pressure of ethnic conflicts, first among them being the ongoing war in Artsakh. Soviet soldiers simply refused to fight. Soviet officers openly sold arms and supplies to the highest bidder. Ethnically non-Russian soldiers left their units to join their people’s national military organizations. While Soviet Army and Interior Ministry units in the region still existed on paper, in practice they ceased to exist almost overnight.
In the autumn and early winter of 1991, the people of Artsakh voted for independence in a national referendum. The North Karabakh Republic was proclaimed in January 1992.
At its birth, the Artsakh Republic faced long odds. In the Soviet conception of WW III, the Soviet forces in the Caucasus would stand on the defensive while the Soviet Group of Forces in Germany rolled through the Fulda Gap and drove toward the English Channel. Armenia would be the battlefield where Soviet troops faced any potential NATO advance from Turkey, while Azerbaijan would be the giant rear area supply dump and staging ground for counterattack at Army Group level. As result, the vast majority of military equipment and supplies in the region was to be found in Azerbaijan. For example, only 500 railroad cars’ worth of ammunition could be found in all of Armenia while Azerbaijan’s warehouses were filled to bursting with 10,000 railroad cars’ worth of ammunition. Virtually all rail links to Armenia ran through Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan had cut these links in 1989. Armenia and Artsakh faced near starvation. Azerbaijan controlled the primary road link between Armenia and Artsakh, which runs through the Latchin corridor. Artsakh was cut off, surrounded, outnumbered and massively outgunned.
By way of military forces, Artsakh possessed roughly 20,000 Fedayi armed mostly with small arms. Opposing these disparate and often ill-disciplined bands was an Azeri army of over 45,000, armed with hundreds of tanks and armored vehicles and bolstered by a flood of new equipment bought with oil money. As the war progressed, the Azeri government would supplement its regular army by hiring hordes of mercenaries. Foremost among the mercenaries in savagery and combat effectiveness would be the Chechen bands led by Shamil Basayev. This war would complete Basayev’s transformation from common bandit to ruthless mercenary to jihadist superstar.
However, the warriors of Artsakh had four things the Azeris lacked. These things were skill, will, balls and brains. Simply put, while most everyone on both sides had served in the Soviet Army, the average Armenian was likely to have toted a rifle, driven a tank or cocked a cannon during his service. If you found a non-Slavic soldier in the Soviet combat arms, odds are he would be Armenian or Georgian. On the other hand, the average Azeri went looking for the easiest posting he could find. This and his abysmal level of education and motivation would generally find him shoveling dirt in a construction battalion, peeling potatoes in a field kitchen or, if he was “technically inclined”, driving a truck in a transportation company. In other words, 20,000 poorly armed Armenian soldiers were facing 45,000 well-armed Azeri REMFs. Also, the Azeris, like most Moslems, could not organize an orgy in a whorehouse. Their rulers spent as much time fighting among themselves as they did directing the war. The infighting produced contradictory orders, misdirected supplies and confused objectives.
The other thing in Artsakh’s favor was the dawning realization in newly-independent Armenia that the Azeris were not going to stop. If Artsakh fell, the Azeris would keep rolling right into Armenia, joining hands with their brethren in Azeri-occupied Nakhchevan before turning north toward Yerevan. The end result of any Azeri victory would be the extermination of the Armenians. The Armenian Republic urgently needed a buffer state. The Nagorno-Karabakh Republic could be that state. The moment this realization dawned on Armenia’s ruling elite, Armenia began to supply Artsakh with arms, equipment, funds and volunteers. With the collapse of Soviet power, it became easier to move funds into Armenia. Money began to pouring in from the Armenian Diaspora. This compensated somewhat for the Azeris’ oil wealth.
Finally, there was the mountainous terrain of Artsakh. For all the superiority of the Azeris in quantity and quality of equipment, almost all of it would be road-bound. When it came to climbing steep hills to face Armenian infantrymen at bayonet point, the Azeris suddenly found their courage deserting them. What this meant was that, though Azeris would win clashes and occupy numerous towns and villages, they would never really control the ground. Fedayi would continuously disrupt their supply lines and launch major offensives by infiltrating around Azeri positions. The Azeris also discovered many of the unpleasant realities of mountain warfare, such as that mortars dug in on a reverse slope can drop rounds all day onto attacking troops on the forward slope, while the attacker’s heavy artillery, with its flatter trajectory, will continually overshoot the defenders and fall far behind them or undershoot and fall among the attackers. For all their initial bluster and on-paper superiority, the Azeris had no idea what they were doing and, above all were not willing to die for Artsakh. The Armenians DID know what they were doing and WERE willing to die for Artsakh. The difference showed from day one.
This is not to say that the war was a cakewalk for Artsakh. Numbers are numbers and heavy equipment is plenty dangerous, even if operated by incompetents. Azerbaijan’s oil money bought competent Russian mercenaries and psychotic Chechens who lacked nothing in infantry skills. The front swung back and forth several times. At times, Artsakh seemed on the verge of annihilation, but the tenacity of its people would always win through in the end. Armenia’s regular army ultimately abandoned all pretenses and liberated the Latchin corridor. With the opening of a major road link between Artsakh and Armenia, the Armenians of Artsakh were able to secure heavy equipment of their own.
As the fighting dragged on, Azerbaijan’s casualties became so severe that 16-year-old boys were conscripted. By the spring of 1994, Azerbaijan’s military had nearly ceased to exist due to casualties, desertion and collapsing morale. Armenian forces had an open road toward Baku. But, logistically and politically, they could not take it. Supplies were running out, thousands were dead, the men were exhausted and Turkey and Iran were openly threatening to intervene.
The final cease-fire was signed on 16 May 1994. After six years of war, Artsakh was free. Not only did the brave warriors of Artsakh keep all the territory they had started with, but they had nearly doubled their country’s size. The war had turned nearly two million Azeri squatters into refugees.
Today, the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic is not officially recognized by any government, not even Armenia. Nonetheless, Artsakh is perfectly fine. Armenia recognizes the value of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic as a buffer state. For example, because Artsakh is not a signatory to the CFE treaty, Armenia can arm Artsakh while pretending to abide by the constraints of the CFE. Azerbaijan, though signatory to the treaty, openly flaunts its limitations. Needless to say, Armenian diplomats never fail to point out Azeri violations of the CFE. The border between the two countries is open to trade. Armenian troops are stationed in Artsakh as part of a basing agreement. Artsakh’s military, benefitting from Armenian aid and the help of the Armenian Diaspora, is a powerful complement to Armenia’s own.
Azerbaijan is flush with oil money and awash in jihadist propaganda. Shia mosques staffed by Iranian-trained imams are on every corner. Hezbollah operates almost openly. Azerbaijan has formed alliances with Turkey and Iran. It is importing ultra-modern military hardware as fast as it can, far faster than either Armenia or cash-strapped Artsakh. To our great shame, the moronic Israeli regime is among Azerbaijan’s military suppliers, facilitating the cause of global jihad and arming an Iranian ally solely because certain members of Israel’s ruling elite stand to line their pockets with wads of Azeri cash. Another war is coming. But then again, when your neighbors are Moslem, war is always coming. Perhaps next time the Armenians can expel another 2 million squatters and double their territory yet again.
So, what do we learn from the story of Artsakh?
First lesson: Don’t knock the Diaspora. There are 8 million Armenians outside Armenia. Two thirds of Armenians live in the Armenian Diaspora. When Azerbaijan imposed a blockade, it was these Armenians who kept their country going by sending money and volunteers. The people of Artsakh fought non-stop for 6 years. Granted, some funds were obtained by smuggling and some business activity continued. Monte Melkonian even imposed a tax on wine smugglers, payable in fuel and ammunition. But the vast majority of funds to buy food, fuel, weapons, ammunition, uniforms and everything else Artsakh needed came from Armenians in America and Europe willing to open their wallets for their brothers in need. Without them, Artsakh would not have survived.
Few Armenians living in America dropped everything the way Karo Kahkejian did and came all the way from Fresno to fight and die for their people. But those few were worth their weight in gold. Karo Kahkejian brought a core of fighting men and enough cash to raise and equip an entire infantry battalion, the famous “Crusaders”. Monte Melkonian was worth an infantry battalion all by himself. But most only gave their money.
The Armenians of Artsakh did not call their brothers in America a bunch of names because these failed to come to Artsakh, nor did they hold them in contempt for it. They did not call futilely for an impossible mass influx of Armenians from the West. They did not expect millions to instantly abandon their lives and families and come to their ancient homeland. Instead, they thanked their brothers for opening their wallets, put the money to good use and then asked for more. The Armenian Diaspora gave them more, and more and more and more. The Diaspora’s dollars paid for Artsakh’s victory.
When the battle for Medinat Yehudah is joined, few American Jews will drop everything to come fight for their country. The author will come. Some of those who read this blog will come. But most will not. This is human nature. Nonetheless our Diaspora, ten million strong and wealthier than any other Diaspora in the world, will certainly open its wallets to help Medinat Yehudah in her hour of need. The same black-hatted Boro Park bochurim who refuse to come and fight will give the shirts off their backs and will go door to door day and night with tzedakkah boxes in order to buy the fighting men of Medinat Yehudah everything they need to continue the struggle. Money buys the sinews of war. Without money, Medinat Yehudah will die as surely as without fighting men. Those who hold the fundraisers in contempt only show their ignorance and stupidity.
When the American volunteers come, they will come with loads of equipment and suitcases full of money. Most of them will have no military experience whatsoever. But they will have a will to fight and die. And among them will be men with surprising experience and unshakeable will. The Diaspora’s volunteers will provide a contribution far out of proportion to their numbers.
Second lesson: Take help from any quarter you can. In Armenia’s bleakest hour, when Azeri troops were rampaging through Shushi and Azeri cannon in Nakhchevan rained indiscriminate death upon all in range, when the economy collapsed and defeat followed defeat, Russia extended help in the form of equipment and supplies. Yes, the Russians had an ulterior motive. Yes, they wanted, and still want, their empire back. Yes, they wanted to use Armenia as a proxy against the Islamic threat emanating from Iran and as a proxy against the meddling influence of the West in Russia’s Near Abroad. But all of this was beside the point. Armenia needed tanks and rifles and helicopters and ammunition and fuel. It did not matter why these were provided. When Russian volunteers came to fight in Artsakh, the Armenians did not look at them askance. They simply took help from wherever it came. Yes, they watched the Russians closely. Yes, they were weary of their motives. But they did not reject what was given to them.
When the battle for Medinat Yehudah is joined, when Arab cannon rain torrents of shells on Shilo and Ariel, when the men and women of Medinat Yehudah fight desperately block by block to hold Ma’aleh Adumim, when defeat follows defeat and all seems lost, Evangelical Christians will offer funds, equipment and volunteers. Hundreds if not thousands of Americans with funny accents and Christian bibles in their backpacks are likely to come and fight for our country. Yes, they will have ulterior motives. Yes, some of them will try to convert Jews. Yes, they want us all to become Christian and they always will. Yes, tomorrow they may turn against us. But this is no reason to reject their help today. Hashem has caused them to support us for a reason. Like all things in the world, they are His tool. We would be both stupid and ungrateful to Hashem if we were to reject our Evangelical allies. We would also be stupid to forget the world of difference between “ally” and “friend” and doubly stupid if we fail to guard against missionary activity, for example by placing the Christians into separate units.
Third lesson: Snowballs grow when they roll downhill. When the people of Artsakh saw the incredible odds against them, they did not whine about the need for miracles, nor did they beg for the army of the Armenian Republic to come save them. They did not wait for foreign volunteers or for Armenians from Armenia proper to join them. They simply took up arms and did what had to be done. Their tenacious resistance proved the viability of their newborn state. Armenia saw their value as a buffer state and helped them. Others joined them because they saw that victory was possible. Soon, the whole thing snowballed toward victory.
When Medinat Yehudah demands independence, at first there will be no help from any quarter. But as the Jews fight on, a funny thing will happen. Israeli youth will come and join the Jews of Yesha. Volunteers and money will come from abroad. Certain circles within the Israeli elite will realize the value of a Jewish buffer state and will extend help. The snowball will grow. Ultimately, with the help of Hashem, the snowball will become an avalanche and there will be victory.
And the fourth and final lesson of Artsakh is simply this: If you will it, it is no dream. Artsakh is free. Artsakh has been free for 16 years. Medinat Yehudah can be free also, if we but plan well, fight hard and trust in Hashem.