Operation Ring (Template:Lang-ru) was the code name given to the May 1991 military operation conducted by Soviet Internal Security Forces and OMON units in the region of Shahumyan, north of the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast of the Azerbaijan SSR. Officially dubbed a "passport checking operation", the stated goal launched by the Soviet Union's internal and defense ministries was to disarm Armenian militia detachments which were organized in "[illegally] armed formations." The operation involved the use of soldiers who accompanied a compliment of military vehicles, artillery and helicopter gunships to be used to root out the self-described Armenian fedayeen.
However, contrary to their stated objectives, Soviet troops and the predominantly Azeri soldiers in the OMON and army forcibly depopulated many Armenians living in the twenty-four villages strewn across Shahumyan to leave their homes and settle elsewhere in Nagorno-Karabakh or in the neighboring Armenian SSR. British journalist Thomas de Waal has described Ring as the Soviet Union's first and only civil war. Some authors have also described the actions of the joint Soviet and Azeri force as ethnic cleansing.
The Nagorno-Karabakh movement that had originally begun in Armenia during the late 1980s called for the Karabakh enclave to be united with that country despite it being behind the borders of Azerbaijan. With a population that was 75% Armenian, official petitions were sent by Armenian leaders to the Soviet government in Moscow in order to address the issue but were rejected by General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev. The demands to annex the region came in the middle of Gorbachev's reform policies, Glasnost and Perestroika. First implemented in 1985, when Gorbachev came into power, the liberalization of political and economical constraints in the Soviet Union gave birth to numerous nationalist groups in the different Soviet republics who insisted that they be given the right to secede and form their own independent countries.
By late 1989, the Communist Parties of the republics of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania had largely been weakened in power. In Nagorno-Karabakh, the intercommunal relations between Armenians and Azeris had worsened due to violence and pogroms. Gorbachev's policies hastened the collapse of the Soviet system and many Armenians and Azeris sought protection by arming themselves with Soviet military weaponry. His preoccupation in dealing with the numerous demands by the other republics saw the disappearance of vast amounts of assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, and other small arms munitions stored in caches throughout Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Foreseeing the inevitable conflict that would precipitate after the Soviet Union would finally disintegrate, Armenian volunteers from both the Republic and the Armenian diaspora flocked to the enclave and formed detachments of several dozen men. Gorbachev deemed these detachments and others in Karabakh as illegal entities and banned them in a decree in July 1990. Despite this promulgation, these groups continued to exist and actively fought against Azeri "special-purpose" militia brigades. The volatility of the attacks led the Soviet government to position military units in the Armenian capital of Yerevan and along the five-kilometer gap between the Armenian border and Nagorno-Karabakh.
Origins of planning
In 1991, Gorbachev set March 17 as the date of the All-Union referendum that the republics would take part in to decide the Soviet Union's fate. Offering to grant greater autonomy to the individual republics, Armenia, Georgia, along with several other republics, vowed not to take part in the referendum and instead seek independence from Moscow. Meanwhile, Azerbaijan's Communist Party head, Ayaz Mutalibov, continued to support Gorbachev's attempts to keep the Union together and took part in the referendum; with 92% of voters agreeing to remain a part of the Soviet Union. Mutalibov's staunch loyalty to Gorbachev allowed him to garner backing from Moscow and, in effect, he now had the support to discourage the aspirations of Armenians desiring to unite with Armenia or to force them to leave the region altogether.
The operation's codename, Ring, referred to the encirclement of the towns of Getashen and Martunashen by the Soviet MVD and armed forces. A date in late April was chosen for the commencement of the operation which called for Soviet troops to surround the towns and search the villages for both illegally procured weapons and Armenian guerrilla fighters. Reacting to the growing violence, Gorbachev had also assigned units of the Soviet 4th Army's predominantly Azerbaijani 23rd Motorized Rifle Division along the Armenian-Azerbaijani border to serve as a buffer force. The 23rd Division and other elements of the Fourth Army were selected along with the Azerbaijani OMON to take part in Ring.
Although the execution of Operation Ring wasn't proposed to Soviet government and military officials until mid-April 1991, Mutalibov insisted in an interview that such plans had been originally formulated as late as 1989. Since the late winter of 1991, the Azerbaijani OMON, known as the "black berets", had been engaging in various "acts of harassment against Armenian villages in the enclave, including raids on collective farms and the destruction of...communal facilities." Of the Shahumyan district's 20,000 inhabitants, 85% were ethnic Armenian. While Armenian volunteers pledged to defend and protect civilians living in Shahumyan from Azeri incursions, many of them were told to stay away by the inhabitants themselves to save the villages from ruin and to otherwise placate the entire district from violence.
On April 30, the Soviet troops and OMON converged towards Getashen and Martunashen, which were approximately twenty-five kilometers north of Karabakh, meeting little, if any, resistance on the way. Accompanying the normal ground troops were an assortment of tanks, armored personnel carriers, artillery and attack helicopters. While approaching the villages in Shahumyan, the military would announce their intended actions with a loudspeaker and called for the inhabitants to display proof of their citizenship (known as a "passport-regime" check) in an effort to root out the fedayeen groups led by Tatul Krpeyan, a local schoolteacher. The following ultimatum was issued to residents in a village in Shahumyan:
Within one hour, all citizens of this village will be required to go through a passport regime. Comrade citizens, we implore you to show no resistance to the MVD. Should you choose to ignore this warning, the MVD will take the strictest measures to defend itself. I repeat, we will use the strictest measures to defend ourselves, the strictest measures. We will be waiting for you at the location of this loudspeaker one hour from now.
However, this served only as a pretext as civilians were subjected to grueling interrogations and many were taken out of their homes and beaten. The troops also arrested several adult males, often without any conclusive evidence, who they accused of being members of the militia. Additionally, if there was no response by the villagers to the ultimatum issued by the troops, an artillery barrage was launched above and over the village itself to further intimidate the civilians.
After Soviet units completed the operation in the towns, they ordered a full-scale deportation of all resident Armenians in the two towns, helicoptering them to Nagorno-Karabakh's capital, Stepanakert, and later to Armenia proper. Supplanting the previous occupants were Azeri refugees who had fled from Armenia to Azerbaijan during the previous three years of fighting. Initial public outcry denounced the launching of the operation as the Soviet and Azeri governments went on to defend it, stating that the villagers of Shahumyan were providing aid and harboring the militias in their homes. The Armenian government along with the Soviet media, including Pravda and the Moskovskiye Novosti condemned the operation and described the acts of violence carried out by the army and OMON as excessive and unnecessary; the operation continued until the first week of May.
On May 7, a second operation was conducted by the same units, this time in a town in the northern Armenian town of Voskepar. Under the same pretext as the previous operation, the joint forces entered Armenia with tanks and other armored vehicles claiming that militia units were staging attacks from that area into Azerbaijan. The operation was conducted in a similar manner but with deadlier results. In addition to the arbitrary arrests of twenty men in towns surrounding Voskepar, a bus carrying thirty Armenian policemen was attacked by elements of the 23rd Division, killing eleven of them and arresting the rest. The OMON units also took part in razing and looting the outlying villages around Voskepar. Residents were similarly forced to leave their homes and thus ceded them after signing a form which stated that they were leaving their homes at their own admission.
The second operation provoked further anger from the Armenian government which saw the operation as an encroachment against its sovereignty. Armenia's president, Levon Ter-Petrosyan claimed that the Soviet government was exacting retribution against his country for not taking part in the All-Union referendum by depopulating the towns. Reacting to media reports of unprovoked atrocities by the OMON, four members of the Russian parliament intervened on behalf of the Armenians, arriving in Voskepar on May 15. Anatoly Shabad, the leading parliamentary member, secured the return of the captured Armenian policemen as the Soviet forces desisted from continuing out the rest of the operation. In total, five thousand Armenians were deported from Getashen and Martunashen, with an estimated 20 or 30 of them killed. Krpeyan was killed in fighting with the Soviet troops in Getashen.
On July 4, Gorbachev declared that the region was stabilizing, essentially bringing the operation to an end. In both military and strategic terms, Operation Ring was largely abortive. The stated objectives of disarming the Armenian volunteer groups failed. Despite the wide presence of the helicopter gunships and armored vehicles, the militiamen managed to elude and effectively evade capture. Ring, however, managed to reinforce the ethnic divides between Armenians and Azeris, "virtually precluding the possibility of further coexistence between the peoples within" Azerbaijan's borders. Approximately 17,000 Armenians living in Shahumyan's twenty-three villages were deported out of the region.
Gorbachev and other Soviet officials maintained that Ring was necessary to prevent the region from further escalating into chaos and as the militias' presence contravened the July 1990 presidential decree. According to Shabad, however, the operation's objectives were impractical and Gorbachev had been misled on the circumstances of the enclave at the time:
Evidently Mutalibov had persuaded Gorbachev that there was a powerful partisan army of fedayeen there and that its actions would lead to the secession of Armenian populated territories from Azerbaijan, that they were bandits and that they had to be liquidated. And Gorbachev – it was a great stupidity on his part of course – agreed to this operation. He probably understands now that an operation of that sort was doomed, it was impossible. We see in Chechnya that a war against partisans is an empty undertaking.
Armenia fiercely contested the legality of the operation and within two months, declared its independence on September 21 and seceded from the Soviet Union, with Azerbaijan doing so nearly a month earlier (on August 31). Within several months, the fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenia grew worse, precipitating in the open-phased segment of the Nagorno-Karabakh War.
In June 2006, the film Destiny (Template:Lang-hy; Ճակատագիր) premiered in Yerevan and Stepanakert. The film stars and is written by Gor Vardanyan and is a fictional account of the events revolving around Operation Ring. It cost $3.8 million to make, the most expensive film ever in the country, and is the first such film made about the Nagorno-Karabakh War.
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