One hundred years ago this week the Armenian Dashnaks in Erivan presented Bolshevik Russia with a present for Nowruz – a clear road into the Southern Caucasus. This present was designed to take advantage of the Azeris at a moment of their celebrations, catching them by surprise, and deliver them into the hands of Soviet Russia whilst grabbing the Karabakh territory of Azerbaijan for Erivan.
What it did was seal the fate of Georgia and Armenia as well and present all 3 Transcaucasian peoples with nearly three quarters of a century of Soviet rule.
The first condition of the defence of the Southern Caucasus from the Bolsheviks was the unity of the Transcaucasian Republics, and this was impossible due to the insatiable desire of the Armenians to take territory off both Azerbaijan and Georgia to create an ever-larger Armenian state.
As Lord Curzon, the British Foreign Secretary, at San Remo, discussing the defence of the Caucasus with other Allied leaders, on 20 April 1920, said:
“The Armenians had forces which might be estimated at 20,000 to 30,000 men. These were unfortunately being employed in fighting neighbouring states. Efforts were being made to put a stop to this…”
And there was a direct link between the Armenian agressions against their neighbours and the disabling of the defence of Transcaucasia in the early Spring of 1920 as the Armenian push against Karabakh diverted the bulk of Azerbaijani forces from the defence of their Northern borders.
On February 29th Oliver Wardrop, the British Commissioner for Transcaucasia, relayed the following information to the British Foreign Office from Tiflis:
“Azerbaijan Minister for Foreign Affairs continues acting in strict conformity with agreement of November 23rd and has not (undecipherable) advanced against Zangezur or elsewhere. But since November 23rd Armenian troops in that district have destroyed about twenty Mussulman villages and from January 19th Armenian troops with irregulars were marching to Shusha destroying villages. Azerbaijan Government are sending small force to prevent further destruction of life and property and restore state of things existing before November 23rd.”
Wardrop warned the Foreign Office on March 4th that:
“Action of Armenian troops against civil Mussulman population at Kars district and elsewhere is rousing very strong feeling In Azerbaijan. I consider presence of Allied officers in regions affected matter of urgency. I believe Azerbaijan Government wish loyally to carry out agreement of November 23rd. They ask for Immediate appointment of Allied Commission to enquire and act locally.”
The agreement of November 23rd was an attempted peace treaty, brokered by Britain, which suspending territorial hostilities between Armenians and their Georgian and Azeri neighbours. However, whilst the Azeris and Georgians observed it loyally, the Dashnaks violated it continually.
With the Red Army assembling on the northern border of Azerbaijan, the Dashnaks saw their chance of grabbing Karabakh. They broke the agreement with the Azeris, which was brokered in order to assist the defence of the Southern Caucasus, and began an uprising against Baku’s authority.
On the night of the Nowruz holiday of 22-23rd March, the Armenians mounted a large-scale armed uprising against the Azerbaijani government in Karabakh. Azerbaijanis were suddenly attacked in a number of places. Around the same time regular Armenian army units attacked Zangezur. The Armenian section of the Karabakh police, without warning, treacherously murdered their Azerbaijani colleagues, as they celebrated the traditional holiday.
This massacre was part of a surprise assault by Armenian forces on Shusha which was rumbled by the Azerbaijanis, mainly due to poor co-ordination on the part of the attackers. They seized the approaches to Shusha, Khankendi, and the Askeran fortress and began to attack the Azeri part of Shusha and burn houses. General Andranik and his Dashnaks had already attempted to seize Shusha three times without reprisals being taken against the Armenians in the town, but this time, the fact that the Armenians attacked Azeris during their holy time, when they were off-guard, embittered the conflict further.
The Azeri population and units of the Azerbaijan Army began a counter-offensive against the Armenian quarter of Shusha and burned almost the whole Armenian part of the town. Both sides suffered great losses, running into the thousands, although the Armenians certainly suffered much more. The final Dashnak attempt to capture Shusha therefore culminated in the killing of many Armenians, who were believed by locals to have assisted the assailants, and the expulsion of the entire community. Shusha, which had been a great cultural centre and regional capital, never really recovered from this terrible event.
Oliver Wardrop had presented a rosy picture to his government on the prospects of the Southern Caucasus states standing together to resist the Bolsheviks. He had been foremost in trying to achieve collaboration between Georgia/Azerbaijan and Armenia to achieve such an end, with the object of impressing on his government the necessity of bolstering such a defence with substantial assistance. Now the Armenian assault in Karabakh threatened everything he had worked for.
Oliver Wardrop sent a telegram to the Foreign Office on March 28th warning that: “Hostilities on a large scale between Azerbaijan and Armenians seem almost inevitable.”
He concluded that the Armenian push against Azerbaijani territory in the western highlands would undo all his work aimed at a collective defence of Transcaucasia and result in a “catastrophe which would open Trans-Caucasus to Bolsheviks”.
It was too late. Although the Azerbaijani national army had managed to defeat the Dashnak thrust into Karabagh and press into Zangezur they did so by having to concentrate their territorial defence to the west, leaving the road to Baku open to the Red Army. This was undoubtedly the correct decision as it largely preserved Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity for 70 years when, without Allied support, a defence of the state itself would have been problematic.
It was the presence of an expansionary Armenian state in the Caucasus that poisoned relations in the region, leading the Southern Caucasus open to Bolshevization.