The Azeri Aggression: the 1991-1994 War

Quite soon after the people of Artsakh stood up to defend their rights it became clear that the primary objective of the Azerbaijani government was not to take control of an Armenian village or a town or two, moreover was not to “re-establish order”. They conducted a policy of burning grounds, aimed at the killing and driving out of the Armenians, at the destruction of the homes, schools, orchards and fields, of depriving the Armenians of any possibility to return to their places of residence where they have been living for thousands of years. When defence forces were formed by the villagers, who dug themselves into trenches to stop Azeri attacks, Azeris shot past the defence trenches, into the villages with the aim to deprive the population of a place to live. When long-range artillery was brought into use, the concept of border villages became obsolete; the attack could then reach everyone. Even when the population was deported, and did not go far finding shelter in the forests and putting up tents or building temporary dwelling, Azeris did their best to burn these tents and destroy the “homes” dug in the ground.

The hostilities against Armenians can be broadly divided into two phases. The first phase started with stealing the cattle of Armenian villagers, destruction of their harvest, setting fire to different buildings and kidnapping people. This happened when the Soviet Union still existed. It would not allow larger-scale hostilities, such as deportations without its permission and kept general order by means of the army, but had become too weak to keep a tight grip on law and order. In many cases the central government in Moscow connived with the Azerbaijani authorities. At that stage, the aim of the Azeris was not to take a village and keep it. It was to kill as many Armenians as possible and withdraw before the Soviet army appeared. From the second half of the year of 1991, Azeris started using artillery against Armenian villages and when the Soviet army withdrew, the borders of Artsakh with Azerbaijan turned into a frontline.

Artsakh before the full-scale military actions. Source: Armenia: A Historical Atlas, by Robert H. Hewsen 

It is nevertheless difficult to name a date for the beginning of the 1991-1994 war in Artsakh. It is hard to say that it started with a particular clash or bombardment; it was rather like a fire set in many places.

Another peculiarity of the Artsakh war was that it did not start between armies. These were formed during the course of the war. 

The Artsakh liberation movement is usually divided into the following periods: 

22.02.1988 – 19.01.1990 -- Started with the assault by an eight thousand strong Azerbaijani mob from Aghdam (Agdam) on Askeran and ended with stopping their assaults on Northern Artsakh villages as well as with the pogroms and the deportation of the Armenian population of Baku;

30.04.1991-18.05.1992 -- Started with Operation “Ring” and ended with bringing down Azerbaijani stronghold in Lachin and re-establishing road access to the Republic of Armenia; 

12.06.1992-20.01.1993 -- Started with wide-scale massive attacks by Azeri armed forces on the Askeran, Shahumyan, Martakert, Martuni and Hadrut regions of the NKR and ended with bringing them to a halt at Martakert, with creation of an overall balance of forces in the military arena;

05.02.1993-01.11.1993 -- Started with a wide-scale counter-attack by the NKR Self Defence Forces and ended with the destruction of Azeri formations in Horadiz, Kubatli, Jabrail, Fizuli and Zangelan;

15.12.1993-17.05.1994 -- Started with a massive attack by the Azerbaijani forces along the entire front line and ended with a ceasefire lasting till (2016) 2020. 

However, generally when the ‘first’ war in Artsakh is mentioned, the period of 1991-94 is meant.

Utilizing the weapons and ammunition of the USSR's 4th Army headquartered in its territory, Azerbaijan engaged in wide-scale military actions against Nagorno Karabakh which broke into a full war that continued - with varying success - from the autumn of 1991 until May of 1994. At times almost 60 percent of the territory of Nagorno Karabakh was occupied, while the capital city of Stepanakert and other residential areas were almost incessantly subjected to massive air and artillery bombardment. 

Karabakh was forced to build its own Defence Forces simultaneously fighting Azeri aggression. Life in the NKR completely focused on defence. The NKR State Defence Committee was formed on August 14, 1992 and took charge of the country.

The Defence Forces of the NKR were able to liberate the city of Shushi, in May of 1992, and open a corridor into the Lachin region, reconnecting the territories of the NKR and Armenia, thus partially neutralizing the three-year blockade of the NKR. 

In June-July of 1992, the Azerbaijani army captured the NKR's entire Shahumyan region, a great portion of the Martakert region, and portions of Martuni, Askeran, and Hadrut. The US Congress in August 1992, adopted a resolution condemning the actions of Azerbaijan, prohibiting government to government economic assistance to Azerbaijan. 

The NKR Defence Army succeeded in liberating previously captured territories from Azerbaijan and, during military engagements, occupied a few Azerbaijani regions bordering the NKR that had been used as firing grounds against the Armenians. The creation of the security zone precluded the immediate threat facing the peaceful population of the NKR. 

With international mediation, on May 5, 1994, Azerbaijan, Nagorno Karabakh and Armenia signed the Bishkek Protocol which called for a ceasefire. The ceasefire was finally agreed on and, entering into force as of May 12th, was still by large effective till (2016) 2020. 

In 1992, the OSCE Minsk Group was formed to help resolve the Karabakh conflict. Under its auspices, a negotiating process has been created to prepare for the OSCE Minsk Conference that has the duty of finding a final political solution to the conflict of Nagorno Karabakh.