Journalists shelter from Azerbaijani artillery shelling in the town of Martuni, Nagorno Karabakh. Photo: Shant Sevag
After a month of conflict and three failed ceasefires, Armenians gird themselves for a punishing winter war. Tom Mutch reports from the frontline around Stepanakert
We were driving down the Lachin corridor, the narrow road that connects the self-declared Republic of Artsakh to Armenia proper, when the shells fell. For about 30 seconds we could hear the boom of artillery fire echo in the hills around us. The sky was thick with the sound of shells ricocheting. “Oh sh*t!” my driver, a lanky man in his early 30s shouted, “they weren’t supposed to be this close yet!”
A few minutes later, our driver pulled over to a small hamlet to pick up a hitchhiker. A heavy-set Armenian man of 67, dressed in a grey suit jacket and jeans jumped in. He was wielding an AK74 with three extra magazines taped to its side. His name was Shahen and there was revenge in his eyes.
As we drove off, he told us how, several days ago, Azeri troops had stormed and captured his village near the province of Hadrut. He had just dropped off his wife and daughter to safety in Armenia, while his son and grandson were fighting on the frontline. Now he was out for revenge. He told us his plan was to sneak into an enemy military camp and take as many enemy soldiers with him as he could before he was inevitably gunned down.
His story is one of many that captures the brutality, desperation and savagery of the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan that broke out on 27 September over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, also known to locals as Artsakh.
When we pulled into its capital of Stepanakert, Shahen jumped out and thanked us. I shook his hand and never saw him again.
In peacetime, “the city is gorgeous, calm, with the cleanest of skies,” Anna Grigoryan, a 22-year-old from Stepanakert, told me. Now those clear skies had given Azerbaijan’s artillery and drones perfect visibility to strike military or civilian targets. “It was such a beautiful place,” she said with the glint of a tear in her eye.
In many ways, it still is. Every morning, the few locals that remain take brooms and shovels to sweep the streets of broken glass. They string patriotic banners that read ‘Artsakh is Strong’ over the front of broken sections of walls and windows. Even in their darkest hours they take pride in the appearance of their city.
If you look around a central square, there will be a flawless circular apostolic church built of rose brick. A dule of doves will loiter on the roof of a nearby building. The day before I arrived, they even staged a wedding in a damaged church. Then the sound of explosions wring out in the hill and you remember that this is currently the world’s deadliest war.
The ceasefire was over by lunchtime. A press officer in military gear beckoned us to follow him and showed us to a huge crater in a field next to the village of Shushuran. “Ceasefire has become a funny word here,” he said. The shell was estimated to have hit at around 9 am, an hour after the ceasefire’s official start.
Nagorno Karabakh is officially considered part of Azerbaijan by every country in the world. But, having wrestled it from Azerbaijan in a brutal war that killed around 30,000 people between 1992 and 1994, the territory is de facto governed from Armenia’s capital, Yerevan, and populated by ethnic Armenians who consider it to be part of their ancestral homeland.
While there have been sporadic clashes over the territory since, the current outbreak of fighting is by far the worst since the first war. Official figures show that around 1,000 Armenian soldiers have been killed, while Azerbaijan refuses to provide figures. The soldiers fighting reckon that the true figure is at least double that, with an equal number of casualties on the Azerbaijan side. Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has tried and, so far, failed to broker peace said that up to 5,000 people could already have been killed in a month – this is of a combined population of 13 million. To give some scale of the destruction, around 4,500 US troops have died in Iraq since the 2003 invasion and its various insurgencies.
The southern town has seen some of the worst destruction. Outside the heavily bombed former mayor’s building, a posse of stray dogs fought over the leftover scraps the soldiers had left for them. The inside of the building was covered with the wreckage of desks and door frames. Every step was accompanied by the crack of broken glass.
Many of the buildings that have been targeted are civilian, although most civilians have since been evacuated into Armenia. One good omen for the troops is that the statue of Monte Melkonian in the square outside has remained miraculously unharmed. ‘Monty’ as he is affectionately known, was one of the most effective commanders in the first war and is a hero to Armenians.
As we drive back from Martuni, a huge bang goes off beside our van. Looking outside, a rocket has exploded and white smoke is pouring from a hole less than a hundred metres to our left. Our driver slams down the accelerator and we take off at what must be close to 150km an hour. As we were skidding around corners burning rubber, we saw three smaller pillars of smoke in the hills above us – drones, most likely, but with the intensity of the fighting no one can be quite sure. Our driver, who we started to nickname Michael Schumacher, drove at this click for another 15 minutes, well after we were out of danger. I suspect he was quite enjoying it.
Thursday was the worst day. The siren, which had previously gone off once or twice a day, went off almost constantly. My hotel lobby was full of bored soldiers chain-smoking, playing cards or chess. Then, around 9pm, a massive explosion on a mountain above Stepanakert lit up the sky. A message went out to all journalists saying that an Azeri – Azerbaijani – infiltration unit, which had been raining hell on us, had been located and destroyed by local forces.
Friday was the first quiet day in a long time.
Progress of the First ‘Video Game’ War
Back in our hotel in Stepanakert, as the siren rung out, no one panicked. A few eyes rolled as we slowly ambled down the hotel stairs to the bomb shelter. As we sat around the table, Arshak Hayryan, a veteran who commanded troops in the first war, recalled “back then, we fought in the hills with AK47s and captured tanks. Now it is all drones, drones, drones. The Turks don’t fight fair”. Some say it is like a video game, with enemy soldiers behind joysticks and computers.
Discussing the war with locals and troops, things were not going well. Rather than fight on foot against well-dug and well-trained Armenian forces, Azerbaijan’s weapons of choice have been precision-guided artillery directed by large fleets of drones. As Armenia has precious little in the way to defend against these attacks, it has lost a great deal of military hardware in mere days. This has included a rapid loss of territory in the Southern flatlands, which has raised a war fever in Azerbaijan that gives President Ilham Aliyev no reason to back down.
International attention is focused on COVID-19 and the US Presidential Election – there is little bandwidth to devote to a war somewhere that most people don’t know exists.
Whether Azerbaijan can continue this advance in the more heavily forested and mountainous regions of the interior of Nagorno Karabakh, remains to be seen.
Two offensives will prove particularly crucial to the outcome of the war.
The first is the ongoing push towards the town of Shushi, which overlooks Stepanakert and is important for both strategic and symbolic reasons. If Shushi falls, Stepanakert will be within range of not just artillery, but sniper fire. It is also the site of what Azeris say is their cultural capital in the region. Its capturing by Armenians in the first war was the beginning of the tide turning towards their victory.
The second is the Azeri attack on Lachin. If it can cut Lachin, this will block the only major supply route from Armenia into Karabakh, allowing for the region to be slowly squeezed of resources. With the Russian border presence, this is the most likely flashpoint for the war to escalate.
In the meantime, both sides have accused the others of war crimes. Amnesty International has documented four uses of cluster munitions by Azerbaijan, and one by Armenia. When I was in Stepanakert, I witnessed the now infamous bombing of a maternity ward. I was also part of a journalist convoy that was narrowly missed by Azeri rockets. This happened with disturbing regularity, suggesting that journalists are being deliberately targeted to deter them from working here.
Armenia is fighting enormous odds in this war, but it is not blameless. A bitter irony is that Azerbaijan’s technological advantage is harming its own civilians. Two Azeri cities, Ganja and Bardu, have been hit by Armenian missiles causing dozens of civilian casualties. While the Armenians have not deliberately targeted civilians, their old Soviet weapons means that it is difficult to use them with precision in populated areas. It is civilians who pay the price.
“It is Azerbaijan’s fault – they put their military equipment near civilian installations deliberately, using their people as human shields” one soldier told me. “They talk all the time about Ganja, but they have targeted Martakert, Shushi, Martuni and Stepanakert making them unliveable.”
The Artsakh Ministry of Defence provided a list of what it considers to be legitimate military targets in Ganja and Barda, including an Army Corps headquarters, a tank brigade and a variety of logistics and repair centres. True as it is, that must be little comfort to the families of the ‘collateral damage’.
Regardless of the blame game, the intensity of this war is unbelievable. “You say ‘don’t worry be happy’, we say ‘don’t happy, be worry’,” Arshak told me with a grin. Apparently, it is now a common phrase among the troops here. It also has a double meaning as ‘worry’ is apparently a strong curse word in Armenian.
I never thought I would be so happy to see the Russian Army. As our car was stopped at a checkpoint, I read the Cyrillic on the soldier’s uniform and saw the white, blue and red of the national flag. After taking in heavy fire on the road and swerving to avoid an unexploded rocket, we knew we were safe in Armenia.
It was the biggest relief I have felt in my life. I have previously reported on Russia’s annexation of Crimea, its funding of war in Ukraine and interference in Western democracies. But, at that moment, its soldiers could have been the Riders of Rohan.
While the war is ostensibly only about the occupied territories, many international observers recognise that its significance extends across the whole region.
Credible reports have shown that hundreds of Syrian mercenaries have been transported by Turkey to fight for Azerbaijan in the conflict.
Russia has mainly kept out of the conflict. Although it is bound by a treaty to protect Armenia if the mainland comes under attack, because it officially recognises Karabakh as a part of Azerbaijan, it has been reluctant to step in until now. Its soldiers wait on the border, near the town of Goris.
One journalist confided in me that he knew Russia’s provision of aid, in terms of weapons and supplies, was substantially greater than it publicly admitted. But many Armenians believe that Russia has abandoned them. Neil Hauer, a Canadian writer who has lived in and covered the region for years, told me: “I never thought I’d be hoping for a Russian intervention in the Caucuses. But here we are.”
City of God
In Yerevan, the mood was defiant but gloomy. Armenians share a conviction that this war is an existential struggle for the survival of their nation against an age-old foe.
One Government official told me, pointing to Turkey’s support for Azerbaijan: “Imagine if the Germans had never apologised for the Holocaust, and then they invaded Israel. This is what this war feels like for us. The world says ‘never again’ for Jewish people. Why not for us?” The Armenian genocide is still denied by the Turkish Government – but if the mass executions and deportations that caused around 1.5 million deaths do not count as a genocide, nothing does.
Now, as the Armenian official describes, people see Turkey and Azerbaijan – which call themselves ‘one nation, two states’ – as wanting to continue the work started by the Ottoman Empire in 1915.
“We are a young democracy of three million people fighting two dictatorships of 90 million,” he added.
The organisation Genocide Watch has declared an emergency, warning that Armenians in Nagorno Karabakh face potential ethnic cleansing on an enormous scale. Adding to this fear are independently verified videos which have shown captured Armenian troops being executed and even beheaded. In Armenia, there is even a small but growing minority who think that inflicting enough civilian casualties in Azerbaijan will force President Aliyev to call off his attack.
If the war spreads, both sides have the weapons to cause immense suffering on a scale never before seen in the region. A worst-case scenario could bring about a war between Russia and Turkey.
Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August, a classic account of the outbreak of World War One, describes how events developed with such speed and ferocity that a war people thought was unthinkable broke out over a tiny area of the Balkans that the world had cared little about.
Is Stepanakert the Sarajevo of 2020?