LORDS OF WAR
In 1992, in response to the worsening armed conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, the Organisation for Security and Co- operation in Europe requested participating states to impose an embargo on arms deliveries to forces engaged in combat in the territory.391
Since then, this request has not been repealed. It represents a voluntary multilateral arms embargo. Despite this, a number of Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe participating states have supplied arms to the protagonists since 1992. And, of course, arms and munitions have readily found their way into the hands of the embargoed Artsakh Defense Army.
Yet this illegal business has not just proliferated and stoked strife in the Caucasus region, but taken Nagorno-Karabakh as a key component of its trade in death and destruction.
It is the story of the beginnings of how illegal arms helped fuel the Nagorno- Karabakh conflict, and the quarter century of stand-off since then. It is the story of how Armenia came to be so inherent to the global arms trade, via a beginning in Nagorno-Karabakh. It is a story that mirrors the industry’s effect on nations, regions and territories across the world.
And it is a story that affects us all.
There is a strong correlation between organised crime and war. The crime-conflict nexus results from conflict providing opportunities for organised crime through the state’s diminished law enforcement ability, along with the economic hardships which civilians face, a factor in Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh as political elites have enriched themselves at the expense of ordinary people and the economy.
This reality is also fuelled by the abundance of groups, political elites, paramilitary and criminal, who all need to generate revenue in order to sustain themselves.
How the crime-conflict nexus has affected Armenia has become all-too apparent. A society awash with arms. In more contemporary times, the brother of Armenia’s former Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamyan, Henrik Abrahamyan, was arrested for illegal arms procurement and possession,392 the discovery of arms’ cashes in Etchmiadzin, 18 kilometres west of Yerevan, and a scandal when Armenian ‘hero’ of the Nagorno-Karabakh war and Republican Party MP Manvel Grigoryan was arrested after the authorities discovered large quantities of military aid in the former general’s residences,393 have all typified the widening grasp of a nation flooded with illegal arms and arms dealing.
These examples illustrate a nation whose immediate post-independence history was one dominated by war and conquest. The bloody Nagorno-Karabakh war set Armenia on a path to militarisation, awash with arms.
Yet the effect has been far from just domestic, and serving to prolong the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute. In their book The South Caucasus – Security, Energy and Europeanisation, published by Routledge, Meliha Altunışık and Oktay Tanriseve note that: ...The beneficiaries of this illegal trade are warlords who also maintain different official positions in government institutions of Armenia and are among those who strongly oppose the resolution of the Nagorno- Karabakh conflict, because the beneficiaries of the arms deals do not want to lose a source of income, as is the case with other illegal activities.
A report of February 15th, 2013, submitted to the Security Council on the illegal arms trade in Libya by the expert group established by the United Nations Security Council found that Armenian agents are among those who violated the arms embargo in the Libyan case (United Nation Security Council 2013, pp. 19- 21, 63, 65). This fact is also a serious violation of the international obligations that Armenia has taken, specifically the principles of the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty, whereby Armenia undertook the obligation to reduce and not to disseminate conventional arms.394
Armenian fingerprints have appeared in a variety of locations. The result of the conflict, the creation of a 4,400 square kilometres unrecognised Republic of Artsakh, sitting largely out of reach of global law and order platforms, has been to create space for the illegal arms business to thrive. In 2001, a United Nations meeting on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms heard that: The territories occupied by Armenian armed forces, including the Nagorno-Karabakh region, are now centres for illegal arms transfers and terrorist smuggling activities.395
From the rumbling conflicts of Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen, to the ongoing Mexican Drug War, and to trouble spots as geographically diverse as Myanmar, Ukraine, Libya and the Central African Republic. Amid all these, Syria continues to be the hub of global misery. In March 2018, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based war monitor, estimated that 511,000 people had been killed in the Syrian war since it began, seven long years earlier.396
The war in Syria has become the world’s worst man-made disaster. A humanitarian calamity in Syria has affected millions of lives. More than half of Syria’s pre-war population has been forced to flee, including 6.3 million internally displaced persons.397 There are more than five million refugees living in refugee camps in the Middle East and Europe.398
“Small arms do not only make easy the taking and maiming of lives, but also kill economies and the social bonds on which every kind of collective institution and progress rely,” says United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein.399
Across the Middle East arms fuel strife. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, at least three million Iraqis have been displaced as a result of civil strife.400 In Yemen, the United Nations believes that more than 10,000 civilians have perished from the fighting401 and the International Organisation for Migration and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that around three million Yemeni civilians have been displaced from their homes since the beginning of that conflict.402
An analysis published by Geneva-based humanitarian think tank, Assessment Capacities Project, warned of persistent humanitarian crises highlighting hotspots in Somalia, Nigeria, Mali, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, Sudan and South Sudan, among others.403
Little more optimism can be drawn from The Asia Foundation’s most recent ‘State of Conflict and Violence in Asia’ report, which has chapters that detail the armed insurgencies, terrorism and conflicts that have befallen Afghanistan, Myanmar, Pakistan and the Philippines.404
A clear factor in the rise of these tragedies is that the trade in irregular and black market arms has fuelled the rise of violent and extremist groups in numerous countries. This illicit industry has enabled terrorist groups to thrive in countries affected by conflict and violence.
Although the international Arms Trade Treaty sought to regulate the international arms business, a flow of arms and weapons to violent and extremist groups that continues to fuel bloody conflicts, it has been hampered owing to a lack of ratification by some member states of the United Nations.405
And, the willingness of some to enrich themselves through the business. Where once conflicts were fought by armies with heavy arsenals, a prevalence of small arms has allowed this to change dramatically.
As Dr. Hanif Hassan Ali Al Qassim, chairman of the Geneva Centre for Human Rights Advancement and Global Dialogue writes: “It has brought the war closer to people. The pattern of modern warfare has changed. Battles that were once fought on the unpopulated shores of Normandy and in the desert of El Alamein are now being fought in the urban centres of Gaza, Mosul, Baghdad and Aleppo, affecting the lives of millions of civilians... The disproportionate use of force has caused immense suffering leading to abuse and to the killings of civilians. Collateral damage has emerged as an acceptable term to justify errors and the indiscriminate use of force.”406
Dr. Al Qassim urges ratification of the Arms Trade Treaty and for states to comply with its provisions so as to end an illegal arms trade that is currently estimated to be valued at around $10 billion per year.407
Perhaps only this will, ultimately, deny weapons and arms from ending up in the hands of extremist groups such as Islamic State, the Taliban, Boko Haram and Hezbollah. That said, as recently as 2010 the Armenian President’s Office and Foreign Ministry declined to comment on reports that the United States accused Armenia of re-exporting weapons to neighbouring Iran, the godfather of Hezbollah and deeply implicated in the Yemen crisis.
This is the story of a veritable Walmart in the illicit arms trade.
All this began with the creation and, since then, the maintenance of a dystopian crime nightmare for the forces of law and order. While Armenian and Nagorno-Karabakhi political figures have stood by, impassive, crime godfathers have utilised the space afforded them.
This has accounted for Nagorno-Karabakh’s emergence as a hub in the heroin business, both cross border by land and, as we witnessed, via Stepanakert’s airport.
Yet the remoteness of the territory means that the world’s gun runners have also been able to use it to their advantage. Airports and landing strips are the key links in the chain of a global trade. Be it drugs or illegal arms, clandestine airstrips underscore the size and audacity of international crime organisations. The beautiful, wind-swept remoteness of Nagorno-Karabakh belies its status as a ‘heroin corridor’, connecting Afghan cartels to the streets of Western Europe.
Asking how these air operations continue to function unchallenged, a senior United States law enforcement official based in Europe, who cooperated on this title and asked not to be named, asked me rhetorically: “Why would they? Politicians, military men and senior officials are part of it.”
Google Maps provides only part of the picture. There are some grey zones, cut by Google from its Maps service around the world. In Nagorno-Karabakh most of these are along the line of contact with Azerbaijani and Armenian forces. There are some grey zones in the inner parts of Karabakh as well. Yet this is only a part of a story that the same official calls an “opaque netherworld of illicit aviation, one that is very hard to detect.”
Nagorno-Karabakh is sparsely inhabited. Remote. Beyond the purview of international law enforcement. Across the territory’s 4,400 square kilometres, clandestine airstrips, far away from any populated areas, pop up in pastures and farmlands. These flat tracks are between 550 and 1,100 yards in length and because drug planes can be as small as nimble single-engine Pipers, they are easily landed on a stretch of pastureland that has been pre-checked for holes and other impediments.
He adds: “These are almost untraceable. These landing strips can be created in an hour on a field, or even a piece of track road, be used, and disappear from view with minimum camouflage, a few tree trunks, or an old car shell. Literally there is nothing to see, even if half an hour earlier a Cessna has landed, been refuelled or unloaded, and taken off again.”
The decades-old Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan should have been resolved through diplomacy, or even just the application of basic international law. Instead, a generation has passed and the hapless international community has been remarkably neutered. Perhaps more could have been achieved if all the international shakers in this tragic story had even wanted an enduring peace. And if, wrapped in an almost perennial state of ‘frozen conflict’, Nagorno-Karabakh had not been so useful.
Not everyone has been a loser in this story.
When he died in 2011, The Guardian wrote of the repellent Armenian Sarkis Soghanalian: For a man who lived his life in the shadowy, secret world of arms deals and spooks, Sarkis Soghanalian, who has died aged 82, never stopped talking. About his deals, his connections. To government agents, prosecutors and journalists. In private, on television. Often to keep out or get out of jail. Most of what he said, while well-informed, was self-serving; much of it was difficult to prove and some was hard to believe.
Over two decades, Soghanalian was the world’s largest private arms dealer – involved in Lebanon, Nicaragua, Angola, the Iran-Iraq war. A short, rotund figure, Soghanalian revelled in being described as “the merchant of death”.
“That name does not bother me a bit,” he explained.408
Perhaps it should have. For although Soghanalian enjoyed a somewhat romanticised view of his life and achievements – he was reportedly the inspiration for the role played by Nicholas Cage in the 2005 movie Lord of War409 – the character of Yuri Orlov enjoyed better looks and more charisma than Soghanalian.
The two did share an overwhelming trait though, a willingness to supply arms to any cause, any despot, any murderous group or any gang. Soghanalian fuelled the emergence of worldwide terrorism. He was not ashamed.
Born into an Armenian family, he would go on to be recalled by The New York Times as: ...a larger-than-life arms dealer who provided weapons to Saddam Hussein and many other dictators and rebels, worked closely with American intelligence...410
A major arms supplier to Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, he was convicted for an arms deal to Mauritania in 1981 and sentenced to prison in 1993 for smuggling helicopters to Iraq in violation of United Nations sanctions. He is also said to have supplied Exocet missiles to Argentina, which were later used in the Falklands conflict to sink HMS Sheffield.
Soghanalian was already the world’s biggest purveyor of illicit arms when his homeland came calling. And with a profitable opportunity.
As the disintegration of the Soviet Union took place in late 1991, competition for Nagorno-Karabakh became an increasing reality. The conflict was already spiralling out of control, but when Soviet era forces began breaking up, this bequeathed both the Armenians and Azerbaijanis an arsenal of ammunition and armoured vehicles. Both sides sought to acquire weaponry from military caches located throughout the region.
Many Soviet troops joined the deepening melee on the side of Armenian separatists.
While Baku was defending what appeared to be its national integrity – international law defined the territory as being Azerbaijani and it remained ethnically so – for Armenia, and especially the Armenia diaspora around the world, the cause was more of a cause célèbre, a point of reference for the Armenian people as a whole.
Today there are estimated to be 11 million ethnic Armenians around the globe,411 while just three million live in Armenia itself.412 The cause of ‘Greater Armenia’, expansion beyond recognised borders and the assumption of a far broader ‘homeland’ remained a dream.
It was one to which Armenians home and abroad were willing to contribute. Hundreds of millions of dollars poured in through donations to appeals for relief aid.
As both sides launched themselves into a Caucasus arms race, Yerevan would reach out to Armenia’s most famous son – Soghanalian. He would not be found wanting, although his interest came with a hefty profit margin for himself. Soghanalian sent 26 planes to Armenia in the wake of the 1988 earthquake413and, beyond the immediate emergency, they continued to fly in and out of Yerevan ferrying non-material cargoes. This period marked the beginning of the Armenian nationalist movement and the first stirrings of a serious separatist effort in Nagorno-Karabakh.
The conflict, supported by a generous response from the diaspora, quickly outgrew its early ‘Karabakh Armenian villager with a hunting rifle’ stage, and was upgraded through stocks of modern tanks and armoured personnel carriers, heavy artillery and rockets.
While post-Soviet arms stocks certainly fuelled the conflict, in Stepanakert today Soghanalian’s name is mentioned with almost reverent tones. People speak of him almost as a Robin Hood-style character, flouting the international establishment and their arms sanctions, and cleverly able to support the downtrodden Armenians.
That particular vision of him nonsense, of course. For one thing, Robin Hood never paid himself a 200% mark up. Soghanalian’s allegiance to Armenia extended to how much it bolstered his bank balance.
If true, however, his contacts into the likes of Bulgaria’s VMZ and the Czechoslovak Armament Works in Prague and Brno, ensured escalation, a widening trail of death and destruction, and succeeded in tipping the military balance in Armenia’s favour.
Across the border his arms flowed from Armenia. Tonnes of weapons also came in by air, dropping into remote airstrips and then flooding onto the battlefield.
In May 1992, Armenians forcibly gained control over Karabakh414 and then even appeared to attack the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic415, an Azerbaijani enclave separated from Azerbaijan by Armenian territory. Fear of possible action by Turkey, Russia and others led to demands for action by the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe, now the Organisation for Security and Co- operation in Europe, and the United Nations.
Armenia and its separatist forces stepped back from that fight. But they had won the war.
A ceasefire took effect on the night of May 11th, 1994.416 Large scale fighting ceased but the withdrawal of troops, return of refugees and deployment of peacekeepers, which Moscow hoped would largely be a Russian-dominated Commonwealth of Independent States entity, never occurred.
Today Armenian forces continue to control some 20% of Azerbaijani territory417 and almost one million Azerbaijanis live as Internally Displaced Persons.418
Four United Nations Security Council resolutions were passed in 1993 to call for the withdrawal of local Armenian troops.419 Despite this, in the years that have passed, a post-cleansed population of some 150,000 people have begun to feel increasingly secure.420 To this backdrop the authorities having built local administrative structures and held elections.
According to Thomas de Waal, writing in Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan Through Peace and War, one of the most seminal books on the issue, some 6,000 Armenians died, and 20,000 were wounded, many with life-changing injuries – in addition to some 30,000 Azerbaijani deaths.
Measuring the cost of acquiring these 4,400 square kilometres of real estate can be measured in lives lost. But that was incidental for Soghanalian.
According to records at the Czechoslovak Armament Works, some $12.5 million in arms were sold to the dealer during this period. Soghanalian himself noted, given the uniqueness of his service, often overcoming international sanctions and delivered courtesy of one of his planes, his mark-up was mind- blowingly high.
Soghanalian was a businessman, and for each life claimed by the conflict he did very well indeed.
He would not be the last and while a great many arms dealers, Armenian and foreign, would benefit both from the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and the swathe of grey territory it created as a helpful spin-off.
When ethnic-Armenian international trader, Paul Mardirossian, was extradited from Panama to New York to face charges for his involvement with a veritable armoury of weapons, the United States Drug Enforcement Administration special agent in charge, Derek Maltz, said: “Mardirossian commanded a global empire of weaponry and sought to arm and fund insurgents and terrorists around the world. With [Mardirossian] out of business and in a United States courtroom, the world is a safer place.”421
In a briefing paper titled ‘Why the United States needs an Arms Trade Treaty’, Oxfam notes that: ...the United States Government has also urged governments, such as those of Armenia and Yemen, to better tackle arms brokers.422
One of those involved with Yerevan was Viktor Bout, named by The New York Times as ‘by most accounts the world’s largest arms trafficker’.423 He would later be convicted in a Manhattan federal court of conspiracy to kill United States’ citizens and officials, delivery of anti-aircraft missiles, and providing aid to a terrorist organisation, and was sentenced to 25 years imprisonment. In a 2010 interview with Germany’s Der Spiegel, his wife, Alla Bout admitted that he travelled to Armenia.424
In addition to the human detritus that is the unconscionable model of a modern independent arms dealer, state actors have also been happy to be a part of the situation.
In the Caucasus, the Kremlin has cleverly guaranteed that it has its cake, and eats it too. The primary tool of international diplomacy on the issue has been the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s Minsk Group, tasked to settle the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The Minsk Group has a co-chairmanship mechanism comprising Russian, United States and French co-chairs, which began operating in 1996.425
Yet, one may ask how, having accepted a role as part of the Minsk process, Russia can actively, and somewhat aggressively, sell copious amounts of deadly weapons to both sides, ensuring perhaps that both feel emboldened, yet at the same time Moscow is positioning itself as an arbiter.
The European Council on Foreign Relations notes that: The flare-up in Nagorno-Karabakh in April 2016 again raised questions as to the extent of Moscow’s influence and role in the South Caucasus. It is quite clear that Karabakh is the only post-Soviet de facto state that is not under Russia’s control. There is no common border, no Russian troops in Karabakh, and no direct relations with Moscow. But even so, the simmering conflict provides Russia with tremendous leverage in the South Caucasus – a region Moscow considers to be its backyard.426
That leverage steadily increases.
On November 14th, 2016, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree on the creation of a joint Russian-Armenian military force.427 It will patrol Armenia’s entire land border, and it contains a mutual defence clause. Any attack on Armenia will be viewed as an attack on Russia, and vice versa.
The agreement also allowed Armenia to purchase Russian arms at domestic prices, further bolstering its military capabilities, although the nation can barely afford them at any price.
Moscow is Yerevan’s self-proclaimed ally. The two enjoy ever-closer bilateral ties. And they have built relations through the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, a grouping of post-Soviet states somewhat comparable to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. Russia’s quite open support for Armenia gives it all the moral standing over Nagorno-Karabakh as the United States has over Palestine, particularly under President Donald Trump.
And that moral deficit continues to grow. On March 29th, 2018, PanARMENIAN.net reported: Russia will begin supplying arms to Armenia under a new defence loan agreement worth $100 million in 2018, deputy director of the Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation, Vladimir Drozhzhov, told reporters on Thursday, March 29th, according to RIA Novosti. Speaking at ArmHiTec-2018, an international exhibition of arms and defence technologies currently underway in Yerevan, the Russian official said the delivery is slated for this year.
Armenian Defence Minister Vigen Sargsyan said earlier that Yerevan intends
to acquire weapons of “strategic deterrence” from Moscow with the new loan. In December 2017, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan signed the law on the ratification of the agreement on the $100 million defence loan with a maturity of 15 years. Besides, in June 2015, an agreement was signed to provide Armenia a state export credit worth $200 million to purchase Russian-made military products. 18 contracts were signed within the framework of the loan, Armenia’s defence ministry reportedly said.428
Russia’s continued intrusion into a not-so-frozen conflict in which it was supposed to be an arbiter, in favour of one side, has created division and rancour. Yet while the Kremlin has consistently and determinedly undermined peace, there are also others who have not wished to see a settling of the dispute. Why kill the goose that lays the golden egg?
Or several of them.
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