Armenia’s defeat in the 2020 Artsakh War and the loss of land in Artsakh took place exactly 100 years after the Turkish-Armenian War of 1920. Armenian society started drawing parallels between the fortress cities of Kars and Shushi, and between the deployment of Russian peacekeepers in Artsakh and the collusion between Russia and Turkey that led to the sovietization of Armenia at the end of 1920, with their associated territorial concessions. In addition to these parallels, conspiracy theories started circulating around the fall of Shushi, which were surprisingly similar to the legends surrounding the fall of Kars on October 30, 1920. The pain of loss has led people to take a look at the past to find answers to today’s problems.
The fall of both Kars and Shushi must be looked at in the context of military operations, political events and ongoing Armenian internal divisions, a perspective that is too often missed. Furthermore, public perceptions of the impenetrability of the two fortress-cities had been woven into Armenians’ public consciousness for decades. It is for this reason that allegations of betrayal take root, whether they are confirmed or not.
The reasons for the fall of Shushi have yet to be examined and many issues are not yet resolved. However, the 1920 fall of Kars has been better studied, providing insights (though not a complete picture) about the 100-year-old event. Meanwhile, it is important to note that the public’s perception that events of the past are being repeated today is not correct, and can lead to wrong conclusions. It is likewise dangerous to ignore the events of the past and adopt certain political and geopolitical stereotypes. The best solution is to cover history comprehensively and honestly which, in turn, allows developing an understanding of geopolitical processes, the interests of the region’s countries and possible actions they might take, and personal shortcomings.
Taking into account the similarities being drawn between 1920 and 2020, let us first take a look at the 1920 Turkish-Armenian War in general terms.
The Bolshevik Victory and Geopolitical Changes
When talking about the 1920 Turkish-Armenian War, it is first and foremost necessary to reflect upon several important geopolitical events that were changing the political landscape of our region. The Bolshevik revolution, Russian Civil War and consolidation of power by the communists in Russia sets the context. It is well known that the reigning chaos and anarchy - a result of the 1917 February and October Revolutions - had dismantled the Russian army. At the height of the First World War, Russian soldiers and officers were leaving the Western and Caucasian war fronts and returning to Russia’s heartland, leaving behind their weapons. The Caucasian front, which had reached Trabzon and Yerznka (Erzincan) by 1917, was emptying fast. This was followed by the Ottoman Empire striking back. Within six months, the Turkish army captured Erzurum, Trabzon, Kars, Aleksandrapol (Gyumri) and reached the outskirts of Yerevan, without meeting meaningful resistance. Only with the battles of Sardarapat, Bash Aparan and Karakilise is the Turkish advance halted and the Armenian First Republic established.
In the spring of 1920, the Bolsheviks were able to win the civil war and started to restore the borders of the former Russian Empire. In April of that year, the Red Army entered Azerbaijan. After two years preoccupied with its own affairs, Russia had returned to the Caucasus.
Around the same time, the Kemalist movement formed in Turkey, the main aim of which was to maintain Turkey’s borders; the Ottoman Empire, left defeated after the First World War, was being divided among the Allied nations. This nationalist movement originated in the eastern provinces of Turkey, the region from where the Armenian people were uprooted through genocide.
In April 1920, the Allied Powers signed an agreement in San Remo that included their demands to Turkey. These demands laid the foundation for the Treaty of Sevres, signed several months later. With this treaty, the eastern provinces were to be given to the Armenians. Turkey was not able to reconcile with such a loss of territory and the creation of a Great Armenia. It is not a coincidence that, by April 1920, the 15th Army led by Kazim Karabekir was preparing for war against Armenia.
In the summer of 1920, the geopolitical situation was such that the regional and geopolitical interests of Bolshevik Russia and Turkey were quite aligned. These two countries, which were at war against each other a mere three years earlier, now had a common enemy: the Western Allies, the politics of which were a threat to both of them. Besides this fact, the foundation of Bolshevik ideology was the struggle against imperialism and the liberation of those who had been oppressed and colonized. Kemal was presenting his movement as such, which at that stage fell in line with Bolshevik ideology. Both Russia and Turkey were trying everything to expel Western influence from the region. Hence, they believed that the Treaty of Sevres and the creation of a Great Armenia was a threat to their vital interests.
Reasons for the War and the Defeat
That was the geopolitical situation by the autumn of 1920, when the Turkish-Armenian War broke out. The main accusations as to why Armenia was defeated in this war can be conditionally divided into two main groupings: a) the Armenian army was not ready and not able to protect the country; b) the army fought heroically, however, due to the shortcomings of its political leaders, it was not able to carry out its tasks. The truth, as always, lies somewhere in between: Armenia suffered a heavy defeat in the Turkish-Armenia War due to many military shortcomings, disorganization, as well as the short-sightedness of its political leaders, bad management of the rearguard, maximalism and other reasons.
The First Wave of the Attack
Three months prior to the war, in June 1920, Armenian forces had captured Voghtik (Oltu), which was considered territory belonging to the Armenian state. Its coal mines were of vital importance for Armenia’s economy and infrastructure, which were on the verge of collapse due to being surrounded and lacking energy sources. Afterwards, the Turkish side justified their decision to start a war because of the capture of Voghtik․ Even if Voghtik was not captured, however, the Turks would have attacked Armenia under another pretext. Different sources (including Turkish ones), as well as letters exchanged between Kemal and Karabekir, have shown that the Turkish army had been waiting for an order to attack since April 1920.
The first wave of the Turkish attack started on September 10, 1920, which the Armenian forces were able to hold off. Three days later, however, they were not able to stand the pressure and left Voghtik. It is at this time that the shortcomings of the Armenian army and the rearguard started to become apparent. According to Simon Vratsyan, the Armenians had 2,400 soldiers at Voghtik and Sarikamish, whereas the 15th Turkish Military Brigade had nearly 28,000. “The [Turkish] forces were well fed, had vast amounts of weapons and clothing, which they were receiving from the Italians, the French and the Soviet Russians,” wrote Vratsyan.
This event is important because, for months on end, the Armenian side had been assuring the West that Kemal’s army had barely 10,000 soldiers, was weak and poorly organized. At the end of April 1920, at San Remo, Avetis Aharonyan, who was the head of the Armenian delegation, was telling Lloyd George, Lord Curzon, Marshal Foch and others, “Mustafa Kemal does not have 14,000 soldiers, but far less and most of them are irregular soldiers, farmers, many of them held there by force, all of them poorly dressed and untrained. The data collected by the general staff of our army, which is correct, leaves no room to doubt this.”
Aharonyan also told them that Armenia had almost 25,000 troops. Several months later, the number of the Armenian army was being presented as being much higher. On July 11, during a meeting with Greek President Venizelos, member of the Armenian delegation Colonel Ghorghanyan said that Armenia’s army could reach 40,000.
Meanwhile, Ruben Ter-Minasian, the Minister of Defense of the Republic of Armenia, wrote in his memoirs that in 1919 the Armenian army had around 10,000 soldiers and officers. Another 4,000 soldiers were in reserve military units in different parts of the country. Throughout independence, the undeclared but nonetheless never-ending war with Azerbaijan had caused the Armenian army to be stationed throughout hundreds of kilometers across the state border.
It’s worth noting that Vratsyan observed that, after the war started, Armenia was left completely alone and was not ready to fight. Armenia appealed to the powerful forces of the world, who had until then considered Armenia their junior ally. However, Armenia did not receive any real military or political support from any of them.
The Failed Counterattack and Major Shortcomings
On September 20, the Armenian forces were already retreating from Sarikamish and Kaghzvan (Kağızman in Turkish). Mobilization of men up to the age of 27 began, and a death sentence was imposed for desertion.
On October 14, the Armenian forces launched a counterattack. Governor of Shirak Garo Sassouni writes that the Armenian army was around 12,000 men. Other sources say 8,000. The Armenians did not have a complete picture of the Turkish forces. Sassouni writes that, according to General Movses Silikyan, the Turkish forces were not more than 4,000. Only after the attack did it become clear that the Turks had eminently more forces.
During the attack, the fatal shortcomings of how the Armenian army was managed became apparent. Garo Sassouni writes that several military units started the attack three hours later than planned. As a result, the rest weren’t able to strengthen the positions they had taken and the Turks, regrouping their forces, took back the initiative. Artashes Babalyan, Minister of Social Security, also claims this to be true.
Recruitment for the Armenian army was also not done properly. Those recruited were inexperienced and not used to holding weapons. There were major disagreements among the heads of the military high staff - Generals Silikyan, Hovsepyan and military unit heads, specifically with Sebouh, who was the commander of one of the military fronts of Kars. These shortcomings and disagreements were the reason the counterattack failed. The Armenian side suffered heavy losses without any significant success.
The October 14 counterattack showed the spread of another fatal phenomenon within the Armenian army, which was not listening to orders. Two battalions of the Fifth Brigade left their positions and retreated without being given any orders to do so. Later on, similar incidents took place under the walls of Kars as well. The reason soldiers were not complying with orders was Bolshevik propaganda and general Bolshevik sympathies within the forces. During the May 1920 rebellion, the military units of Kars were actively involved in anti-government activity, and soldiers explained that this was the reason for their retreat during the war. At the beginning of 1921, military unit leader Sebouh noted two reasons for the fall of Kars: Bolshevik propaganda and the inexperience of reservist soldiers. “The last time the Turks attacked, untrained volunteers joined the army from every corner. It was very clear that, when someone does not know how to use a weapon, does not have military training, he will leave and run as soon as he hears the first gunshot. And if he stays, his fate is to be martyred with no impact on the battle…” Sebouh wrote. “The second reason for the failure was the Bolshevik propaganda, which greatly affected the spirit of discipline in the army and disbanded our ranks. The army commanders are at fault for this.”
The Fall of the Fortress-City
It is noteworthy that the other stage of the Turkish-Armenian War, that is the military operations on the Igdir-Surmalu front, was eminently more successful. Dro and the military units of Kuro Tarkhanyan, who had come to aid him, held off the Turkish attacks until the end, retreating only after Kars was captured so as to avoid being surrounded.
On October 25, 1920, after a new attack from the Turkish army, Armenian forces retreated to Kars. The Armenian military command reported to the Prime Minister that the fortress-city could hold off the attack for two to three months. The Armenian military command believed that the Turks would attack Kars directly; however, they unexpectedly took a different approach. Unnoticed by the Armenians, they moved their forces to Nakhichevan, from where they captured Vezi-Kyol through a flank attack. Garo Sassouni states that the Armenian military command “searched” for the enemy for three to four days. Artashes Babalyan writes that the Armenian military command had considered an attack from the eastern flank by the enemy and it had sent unit leader Knazyan with several cavalries on an intelligence mission. Knazyan soon reported that “there is no enemy on the left front and everything is calm.” “Later, it was discovered that Knyaz and his cavalry did not want to take the trouble to reach where they were supposed to go and had returned after only going halfway, saying there was nothing to fear,” wrote Babalyan.
On October 30, by attacking from three different fronts, the Turks took the Radinsky and Lazarevyan forts of Kars, and then the fortress and city. Information about these events is also contradictory. Sassouni writes that the soldiers did not want to fight. Babalyan states the opposite: that the people wanted to fight and sacrifice their lives, however, “their leaders were incompetent and dishonest.”
Within the city, the Turks did not meet any resistance, and a large number of soldiers (according to different sources: 1,500-2,000) were taken prisoner. Those taken prisoner included Armenian Army Generals Pirumyan, Araratyan, Ghazaryan, Colonel Vekilov, as well as Social Security Minister Babalyan.
Heavy Treaties and the Fall of the First Republic
After the fall of Kars, even though the Armenian army was not completely destroyed, and a great part of it had been maintained, it continued to retreat, plagued by low morale. Desertion was taking place on a mass scale. On November 7, Karabekir proposed a ceasefire, which was really more of an ultimatum. The Armenian side was forced to accept the Turkish conditions and left Aleksandrapol. However, soon after, the Turks pushed new conditions, which were that the Armenians had to retreat back to the Surmalu-Araks station-Mt. Aragats-Novo Mikhaylovka-Lorikend border. This was turned down. The attacks continued and, on November 16, the Turks captured Jajur. The Armenian side agreed to a ceasefire and negotiated with the Turks, while at the same time appealing to Moscow for an intervention.
On November 22, 1920, an Armenian delegation headed by Aleksandr Khatisyan went to Alexandrapol to negotiate with the Turks. Ten days later, a heavy peace treaty was signed, according to which Armenia lost nearly 30,000 square kilometres of land (the equivalent of Armenia’s entire current area). Surmalu and Kars would pass to Turkey, and Zangezur and Nakhichevan to Azerbaijan. Armenia could not have more than 1,200 soldiers and had to reject the Treaty of Sevres.
As can be seen, the wars and political processes of 1920 and 2020 have several similarities, which is natural since the main players in our region have not changed in the past 100 years. The political, economic and military problems, and the competition between the world’s powerful axes have not changed either. This is the most important conclusion which should be constantly examined, understood and taken into consideration.
As to the defeat, the best means to overcome its consequences is to comprehensively examine its causes. The expression “history repeats itself” is not a verdict and is subject to review.