What was the cause of the war between the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic and the Republic of Armenian in 1918-1920?

Disagreements existed between Armenians and Azerbaijanis even during the time of the Transcaucasian Commissariat, a counter-revolutionary bourgeois-nationalist government of Transcaucasia (Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia) that was established in Tiflis on November 11, 1917, by Musavat, Dashnak, Menshevik, and Social Revolutionary parties as the first government (confederation) of independent Transcaucasia following the October Revolution in Russia, with the aim of strengthening unity between the three nations in the South Caucasus. There were serious confrontations and misunderstandings between members of the multiethnic government of the Transcaucasian Commissariat over certain political and social issues before the independent Azerbaijani, Armenian, and Georgian republics were established in the South Caucasus. Due to the ongoing political processes and controversies, the Transcaucasian Commissariat was therefore abolished in May 1918, and Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia declared their independence.[1]

On 29 May 1918, the government of the newly-established Azerbaijan Democratic Republic (ADR), which advocated peace and order in the South Caucasus, ceded Iravan, a historic Azerbaijani city and capital of the former Iravan Khanate, to the Republic of Armenia as its capital city because of the desire to enter to united Caucasian Confederation in the future and dismiss the demand of Armenians on Karabakh. The ADR also expressed its intention in June 1918 to peacefully resolve the border dispute with the Republic of Armenia. However, these good-willed intentions of the ADR did not prevent the transformation of the tension into a military conflict between the two republics.[2]

In light of the ongoing political processes in the international sphere, Armenia made territorial demands on Azerbaijan in the context of its desire to create a “Greater Armenia.”  It, therefore, initiated an ethnic cleansing policy against the Azerbaijani population in the Karabakh, Nakhchivan, and Zangazur regions of Azerbaijan. As a result of cunning, crafty political propaganda and strong military support, in July 1918, Nagorno-Karabakh was proclaimed as an independent unit at the First Congress of Armenians of Karabakh, held between July and September 1918. The Armenian government was established to govern the entire territory of the region. In the autumn of 1918, Armenian military forces under the command of Andranik occupied part of the Zangazur region of Azerbaijan. Andranik then began the process of forming a ‘little Armenia.’ It was expected that Shusha would be the capital of this state of Armenia. After the liberation of Baku on September 15, 1918, the Islamic Army of the Caucasus partially managed to prevent Armenian atrocities in this part of Azerbaijan. However, events took a different course at the end of October. On October 30, 1918, the Ottoman Empire signed the Treaty of Mudros with the Entente powers of the First World War. Article 11 in this treaty forced the Ottoman Empire to withdraw the Islamic Army of the Caucasus from Azerbaijan, as well as from Karabakh, Nakhchivan, and Zangazur, and this gave Armenians the chance to continue their atrocities and vandalism and threaten the territorial integrity of the ADR,[3] which was unable to enlist regular military forces in a short period of time. In this context, the activities that were carried out to defend the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan in that complicated situation by the ADR government and by patriotic-political forces in Nakhchivan, Karabakh, and Zangazur are admirable. The establishment of the Araz-Turk Republic on November 3, 1918, in Nakhchivan, therefore, took on vital importance for stopping Armenian aggression against territory that belonged historically to Azerbaijan. The Araz-Turk Republic functioned until March 1919 and covered the Nakhchivan, Sharur-Daralayaz, Ordubad uyezds, and Sardarabad, Ulukhanli, Vedibasar, Gamarli, Mehri, and other regions of Azerbaijan.[4]

As it seems from the above-mentioned fact, the situation in Western Azerbaijan prior to the end of the First World War was highly complicated and challenging for the ADR government. Meanwhile, after the end of World War First, British Empire was also intended to create a stronghold for strengthening its position in the South Caucasus. Therefore, they began to support Armenians in using them in this respect. The deployment of a small number of British military personnel to Nakhchivan in January 1919 and the statement by British Foreign Secretary Lord Curzon about protecting and liberating Armenians, therefore, inspired the Armenian military forces. They, therefore, expanded their assault toward the Karabakh, Nakhchivan, and Zangazur regions of Azerbaijan.[5]

Armenia conversely took advantage of the British Empire’s friendly attitude. It began to introduce its idea of a ‘Greater Armenia” by starting a campaign based on territorial claims against its neighboring nations, mainly the Karabakh, Nakhchivan, and Zangazur regions of Azerbaijan. In order to halt Armenia’s intentions of annexing these territories to the Republic of Armenia, the government of the ADR proclaimed these territories to be an inseparable part of Azerbaijan at an emergency meeting on January 15, 1919. Since it attached great importance to establishing state power in the southwest of the country, the ADR government set up the Karabakh Governor-General’s Office in the Zangazur, Shusha, Jabrayil, and Javanshir regions and appointed Khosrov bey Sultanov as governor-general of those territories. The British commander in Baku, General Thomson, also later confirmed the sovereignty of Azerbaijan over these territories on April 3, 1919. After six months of political, financial, and military preparations, Khosrov bey Sultanov managed to defeat the Armenian-Dashnak forces in successful military campaigns over the July 19-25, 1919 period. As a result, the Armenian community recognized the sovereignty of the ADR’s government over these territories. The seventh Congress of the Karabakh Armenians was thus convened in Shusha on August 13, 1919. The congress concluded with a 26-point agreement on August 22. Under the terms of this agreement, Karabakh Armenians recognized Nagorno-Karabakh as part of the ADR.[6]

However, with the withdrawal of British military forces from Azerbaijan in the second half of 1919, the situation took a different course. The pro-Armenian statements of the government of the United States of America, which wanted to strengthen its position in the South Caucasus after the withdrawal of the British Empire, had a significant influence on the political situation in the region. Although the USA recognized Karabakh and Zangazur as part of the ADR, it tried to create a neutral zone in the Nakhchivan and Sharur-Daralayaz regions of Azerbaijan and to control that zone with Armenians. This US policy failed as a result of the comprehensive and coordinated political efforts of the ADR government. However, it paved the way for renewed military operations in Zangazur. Armenia began its territorial claims against these regions of Azerbaijan, violating the August 22 agreement. The number of Azerbaijani refugees from Zangazur reached around 60,000 at that time. The ADR government was therefore obliged to send a detachment to Zangazur in late October 1919, under the command of General Javad bey Shikhlinski. The campaign lasted about two months. It turned out that the Armenian population was well-armed, trained, and ready to fight. Reinforcements from Shusha were sent to General Shikhlinski’s detachment. Armenia panicked and urged the great powers to stop the movement of ADR troops and offered a meeting between the ADR and the Republic of Armenia. With US mediation, an agreement was signed between the Prime Minister of Armenia (Khatisian) and the Prime Minister of Azerbaijan (Usubekov) on November 23, 1919, in Tiflis, with the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Georgia and Colonel Rhea of the United States as witnesses. The text of the agreement was as follows:

  1. That the Governments of Armenia and Azerbaijan pledge themselves to stop the present hostilities and not resort to force of arms.
  2. That the Governments of Armenia and Azerbaijan agree to take effective measures for repairing and re-opening, for peaceful traffic, the roads leading into Zangazur.
  3. That the Governments of Armenia and Azerbaijan pledge themselves to settle all controversies, including boundaries, by means of peaceful agreements pending the decisions of the conference convened in the following paragraph. In case this is not possible, then to select a neutral party as arbiter, whose decisions, both governments agree to abide by, said neutral party for the present being col. James C. Rhea, U.S. Army.
  4. That the Governments of Armenia and Azerbaijan pledge themselves to immediately appoint an equal number of delegates to meet in conference in Baku on Wednesday, November 26, and to sojourn to Tiflis on December 4, where the meetings of the conference will discuss all questions which are the cause of dispute or friction between the two Governments and will have full authority to settle all such questions by agreement or arbitration.
  5. That this agreement becomes effective on the date of signing and becomes permanent when ratified by the parliaments of the two governments, and the prime ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan hereby bind their respective governments to faithfully support and carry out all the details of the above agreement, in evidence of which they place their respective signatures to this agreement, etc.[7]

Although clashes between the two sides were to be suspended, controversial issues, including those related to border issues, should be resolved peacefully through negotiations, and the Azerbaijani detachment should return to the place of deployment following the agreement mentioned above. Armenia nevertheless grossly violated the agreement, sent troops to Azerbaijani territories, and arranged a monstrous massacre of Azerbaijanis in January 1920.[8] Jalil Sultanov, a member of the ADR Parliament, wrote the following on this matter in his third telegram, sent on January 23, 1919, to the ADR Parliament directly from the battlefield:

The Zangazur uyezd was evened with the ground by the regular army, which arrived from Iravan with ten cannons and numerous machine guns. There are roughly 10,000 soldiers in the regular Armenian army. The population, desponded to receiving aid from the Government, appeals to all Azerbaijani Turks. According to the information received, tomorrow, Armenians will attack the Jabrayil uyezd from Zangazur. Their goal is to join with the Karabakh Armenians and subsequently interrupt our communication with Nakhchivan, thus solving both Karabakh and Nakhchivan issues once and for all. It is high time to stop protesting on paper and expose the real face of the Armenian traitors, who have annihilated over 200,000 Muslims of Zangazur.[9]

Therefore, all potential ADR military regiments were directed to these regions of Azerbaijan in order to halt Armenia’s increasing aggression. A special regiment was formed and arrived in Aghdam on March 26, 1920, under the command of Major General Habib bey Salimov, Chief of General Staff of the Azerbaijani Armed Forces of the ADR. Some Aghdash and Zagatala regiments military units were also sent to Karabakh. The successful counterattack of the defense forces of the ADR began on April 3, and they entered Shusha on April 5. After ten days of fighting, the ADR military forces exterminated all the strong Armenian military units based in the region, and control over Karabakh was restored on April 12. Only small military groups of Armenians remained in the region, which increased their activities when the Red Army came close to the northern border of Azerbaijan.[10]

Generally speaking, by the end of April 1920, the ADR regiments had succeeded in restoring Azerbaijani sovereignty over territories that were recognized as part of Azerbaijan under the November 23, 1919, agreement. However, the military intervention of the Bolshevik’s Red Army into Azerbaijan on April 28, 1920, stopped the success of the military regiments of the ADR in completely restoring the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan. On April 28, 1920, the Red Army occupied Baku, the ADR government was forced to resign, and control was transferred to the Bolsheviks.[11]

[1] Azərbaycan Xalq Cümhuriyyəti (AXC) Ensiklopediyası (Two volume), Vol. 1, (Bakı: Lider nəşriyyat, 2004), pp. 28-29.

[2] Məmmədova, Həvva, Azərbaycan Xalq Cümhuriyyəti dövründə Yuxarı Qarabağ ərazisində vəziyyət: erməni terrorizminin güclənməsi (1918-1920) (Bakı: Nağıl-evi nəşriyyatı, 2006), pp. 23-24.

[3] Süleymanov, Mehman, “Qafqaz İslam Ordusunun digər fəaliyyətləri və missiyasının sona çatması,” in Süleymanov and Rıhtım (eds.), Azərbaycan Xalq Cümhuriyyəti və Qafqaz İslam Ordusu (Bakı: Qafqaz Universiteti nəşri, 2008), pp. 357-392.

[4] Ağayev, Mehman, Kurtuluş Savaşı Yıllarında Türkiye-Azerbaycan İlişkileri (İstanbul: IQ Kültür Sanat Yayıncılık, 2008), pp. 104-114.

[5] Maqsudov, F., və Əliyev, İ. (eds.), Azərbaycan Cumhuriyyəti (1918-1920) (Elm nəşriyyatı, 1998), p. 190.

[6] Hasanli, Jamil, Foreign Policy of the Republic of Azerbaijan: The Difficult Road to Western Integration, 1918-1920 (Routledge, 2014), pp. 178-180.

[7] Hille, Charlotte, State Building and Conflict Resolution in the Caucasus (BRILL, 2010), pp. 168-169.

[8] AXC Ensiklopediyası, Vol. 1, (2004), pp. 56-57. See also: Azərbaycan tarixi, Vol. 5, (2008), pp. 447-457. See also: Ağayev, Kurtuluş Savaşı Yıllarında Türkiye-Azerbaycan İlişkileri, pp. 115-132. See also: Məmmədova, Azərbaycan Xalq Cümhuriyyəti dövründə Yuxarı Qarabağ ərazisində vəziyyət, pp. 49-51.

[9] İsgəndərov, “1915-1920-ci illərdə Azərbaycanda Türk və Müsəlmanlara qarşı həyata keçirilən soyqırımlar,” pp. 88-89.

[10] Məmmədova, Azərbaycan Xalq Cümhuriyyəti dövründə Yuxarı Qarabağ ərazisində vəziyyət, pp. 58-63.

[11] AXC Ensiklopediyası, Vol. 1, (2004), pp. 46-48.