On 9 May Victory Day is celebrated in former republics of Soviet Union and some European countries. But in Armenia it is not only the day of commemoration of the victory of the Soviet Union over Nazi Germany, but also the liberation of the city of Shusha in Nagorno-Karabakh during Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
Seizure of the fortress of Shusha is considered unbelievable until this day. There are even people out there stating that capture of Shusha in one day would have been impossible even if Armenians assaulted it with significantly exceeding forces.
There have been some hearings about some kind of betrayal or intentional surrender. Azerbaijan’s government claims that Shusha has been “sold” to Armenians by Rahim Gaziyev, the Minister of Defense of Azerbaijan at the time.
Gaziyev has been sentenced to death for high treason, but managed to flee to Moscow. His deputy was arrested for the same occasion.
Later Gaziyev told the reporters of the Russian newspaper Moskovskij Komsomolets that losses of Shusha and Lachin have been accompanied by struggle for authority in Azerbaijan.
According to him, there have been an appropriate plan and sufficient resources for the conflict, but not the right background for effective defense.
In fact, the success of the operation of Shusha’s capture has become possible due to the skill of Armenian commanders and soldiers and, in some measure, rich military experience of Armenian nation.
Knowledge of situation near and in Shusha allowed Armenian command to take even smallest of details into account. They have been intercepting enemy communications, interrogating captives and have known about some kind of conflict in Azerbaijan’s army.
Capture of Shusha has been the first significant military victory of Armenian formations during Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, being substantial for Armenians. Significance of the capture of Shusha has been in the fact of Stepanakert being under bombardment from the fortress.
In February 1992 two BM-21 “Grads” were moved to Shusha to shell Stepanakert under Rahim Gaziyev’s order. The city was out in the open and represented an easy target for fire.
Some Azerbaijani officers later stated that there hasn’t been any timing or planning for bombing, anyone could have just started shooting the “Grads” at the target. Hundreds of shells fell on Stepanakert, causing destruction and panic.
According to the accounts of former residents, shelling has been either indiscriminate or intentionally aimed at civilian targets.
The order concerning the operation was signed on 4 May and contained details about enemy’s forces and required actions of Armenian units. Operation was codenamed “Wedding in the Mountains”.
According to the order, Azerbaijani forces consisted of 1200 people which were deployed inside the city and surrounding villages.
The tasks of Armenian forces were to eliminate the enemy on approaches to Shusha, capture Shusha and free the city of greens (conditional name of enemy). There were four predetermined directions of attack:
- Shusha, commander A. Karapetyan;
- Direction “26” (north), commander V. Chitchyan;
- Direction to Lachin, commander S. Babayan;
- Direction to Kesalar (northwest), commander M. Ohanyan, commander of reserve units Yu. Hovhannisyan
The operation was entrusted to Arkady Ter-Tadevosyan, nicknamed “Commando” or “Commandos”, who didn’t have any political ambitions. According to him, the goal was to encircle Shusha and imitate attacks on surrounding villages to distract Azerbaijani forces.
After the seizure of Khojaly transfer of weaponry from Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh has become possible, potentially easing progress of the operation. Another helping fact has been Azerbaijan’s unawareness about the timing and location of the main attack.
The assault began in 12:30 AM on 8 May. According to estimations, the operation should have been completed in 3-4 days. Armenians hoped to spread panic in Azerbaijani forces and make them leave the city without fight.
Troops multiple times imitated offense for distraction, so Azerbaijan’s command didn’t even believe when the actual operation had started. Another confusing touch was the usage of only reserve forces in the initial phase of the attack.
Large unit, including ex-president of Republic of Armenia Robert Kocharyan, was put close to an open road to the west of Shusha. Soldiers had been ordered to not fire on those fleeing from the city, but they had to not let reinforcements get in as well.
The main burden of the operation has been put on units approaching the city by mountain trails from north and east. Those were the same roads Azerbaijani forces had themselves used to close in to Shusha to capture it before.
Soon after engaging into battle from only one direction Armenian forces simulated retreat. Encouraged by false success, Azerbaijani commanders moved additional personnel to the supposed line of Armenians’ attack, ready to destroy opposition and even capture Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Azerbaijan’s side was certain that Armenian forces would not be able to attack from all directions at once. That has been the moment when main forces of Armenians came into play, leaving no time for the enemy to regroup.
The flight of the most of the city’s defenders was fatal, and commandant Elbrus Orujev decided to retreat, not having enough personnel to fight back. Shamil Basayev, Chechen militant Islamist and a leader of the Chechen movement, was among those who escaped the city. The unexpected strike spread panic into Azerbaijani soldiers, and dependence of Armenian headquarters on surprise proved itself correct
By the evening of May 8 the operation of Shusha’s capture has been generally completed. Around noon of the next day Azerbaijani 1 fighter aircraft and helicopters bombed Armenian units, Shusha and Stepanakert.
Later it turned out that the purpose of that attack was to destroy military warehouses left in Shusha in an attempt to wipe out whole city, but the plan failed. On 9 May Armenian antique city-fortress was liberated. The fight went on for one day, around 300 people have been killed.
Assault of Shusha from 8 to 9 May 1992 has been the first phase of Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The operation concluded in claiming the city and surrounding territories. Shusha was the most important military stronghold that Azerbaijan held in Nagorno-Karabakh. Its loss marked a turning point in the war, and led to a series of military victories by Armenian forces in the course of the conflict.