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Artsakh Defence Army (ADA)

Introduction & Overview

The Artsakh Defense Army (ADA) is the military of the unrecognized Armenian breakaway Republic of Artsakh, also known as Nagorno-Karabakh, located within the borders of Azerbaijan. Created during the First Karabakh War (1988-1994), the Artsakh Defense Army has seen both victory and defeat. Its primary goal is to protect the region’s Armenian population from Azerbaijan and Turkey and eventually to obtain international recognition.

History & Foundations

Situated between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the southern Caucasus, Karabakh, including the majority-Armenian sub-region of Nagorno-Karabakh, has been contested for over a century. In the aftermath of World War I, Armenia and Azerbaijan fought bitterly for control of the territory. After both republics were subsumed by the Soviet Union, the final say went to Moscow and Joseph Stalin, then Commissar on Nationalities. Stalin decided the entire region, including Nagorno-Karabakh, would belong to Azerbaijan (1). Soviet officials later turned Nagorno-Karabakh into a nominally autonomous oblast within Azerbaijan, but the issue was not formally settled.

In the late 1980s, Artsakh began pushing to join Armenia. In fury over calls for secession, Azerbaijanis committed several pogroms against Armenians. Soviet authorities objected to Armenian calls for independence, cooperating with local Azerbaijani forces to deport Armenians from the region in what was known as Operation Ring. The different Armenian armed units which began fighting back would eventually evolve into the Artsakh Defense Army (2).

The collapse of the Soviet Union followed in 1991, with Artsakh voting to secede and Azerbaijan immediately laying siege to the area. Artsakh eventually turned the tide and achieved victory in 1994, with Russia brokering a ceasefire. However, the Armenian victory did not come with international recognition; diplomatic efforts failed to resolve the region’s status, paving the way for a four-day war in 2016 and the 44-day conflict in 2020.

Armed with Israeli and Turkish drones and with the aid of Syrian mercenaries, Azerbaijan launched an offensive in September 2020, recapturing large swaths of Nagorno-Karabakh. A Moscow-brokered ceasefire once again ended the conflict, this time with Baku (Azerbaijan) victorious. Artsakh, now reduced to an area smaller than the original Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast, has been patrolled by Russian peacekeepers since (3).

Ideology & Objectives

The ADA’s primary goal remains the defense of Artsakh. Debate on how to settle the territory’s status is split among its population. In one survey, 46 percent of Artsakh residents viewed an independent state as the best option, followed by 24 percent seeking to join Russia, and 23 percent wanting to join Armenia. Virtually no respondents accepted a scenario where the territory was under Azerbaijani control (4).

Instances of torture, mutilation, and execution of Armenian soldiers and civilians committed by Azerbaijani forces makes any sort of union with Baku a non-starter for Artsakh’s residents (5). Azeri President Ilham Aliyev’s words that Armenia is “not even worthy of being a servant” only compound Armenians’ apprehensions that they are facing another genocide. The mass killing of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians from 1915-1923 by the Ottoman Empire continues to linger in the mind of Armenians and fuels the sentiment they express today.

Approach to Resistance

The ADA has itself been accused of war crimes. In the first war, Armenian forces pushed beyond Nagorno-Karabakh, occupying seven adjacent territories and displacing hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijanis and many Kurds in the process. These territories were recaptured by Azerbaijan in 2020. In 1992, at least 200 Azerbaijani civilians were killed by Armenian troops in the city of Khojaly (6).

Though it started as a group of poorly armed volunteers, the ADA has evolved into a relatively conventional army. Its success in the first war is credited to the experience of Armenians from the Red Army (7) as well as good leadership from the likes of Monte Melkonian (8). Given the presence of Russian peacekeepers and the disproportionate military power enjoyed by Baku, the ADA is currently forced into a defensive posture.

Military & Political Capabilities

Following its defeat in 2020, the ADA now numbers around 12,000 soldiers - half its number when comparing it to before the war. Armed mostly with upgraded Soviet equipment provided by the Armenian Army, the ADA’s arsenal consists of light arms, heavy artillery, tanks, and armored vehicles. The Armenian army also has short-range ballistic missiles, including SCUDs and the Russian Iskander. Armenia, with its smaller GDP, faces difficulties upgrading its military compared to Azerbaijan. With the Azerbaijani area of Nakhchivan and Turkey to the west, Armenia cannot fully focus its forces towards Artsakh, and is hesitant to deploy its small air force to the fight (9).

Politically, Artsakh’s greatest tool is the Armenian diaspora. Motivated and vocal, Armenians across the globe pressure governments over their support for Azerbaijan and have raised millions in financial support for Artsakh (10).

International Relations

In 2022, Armenia signed a document with Azerbaijan pledging to respect each other’s territorial integrity. What this means for Artsakh is hard to discern, particularly because abandoning the region would be deeply unpopular domestically (11).

Struggling with the war in Ukraine and needing Azerbaijan’s oil market, Russia seems unlikely to come to Artsakh or Armenia’s rescue. Despite Armenia being a member of the Russian-backed CSTO military alliance, Russia did not support Yerevan when Azerbaijani forces invaded Southern Armenia in September 2022. Both Paris and Washington attempted to take advantage of Russia's deteriorated standing in the region (12). This has not yet resulted in military support for Armenia nor a push by other governments to give Artsakh a more formal status.

Turkey, a staunch supporter and supplier of Azerbaijan, also sees an opportunity as Russia focuses its attention on Ukraine and away from the Caucasus. It has held meetings with the Armenian government to normalize relations, a move Armenia hopes would deter another military attack. The meetings have so far yielded nothing concrete, except perhaps greater Turkish influence in the region. Turkey, which seeks the creation of the Zangezur corridor, connecting themselves with the rest of the Turkic world, has political reason to support Azerbaijan’s maximum demands (13).

Help for Artsakh could come from India (who sells weapons to Armenia due to Pakistan’s ties with Azerbaijan) or Iran. Iran fears Azerbaijani expansionism due to its own Azeri minority population and the economic influence it would lose from the Zangezur corridor. As one Armenian put it, “if we have to choose between annihilation as a nation or sanctions from America (from cooperating with Iran), I prefer the latter.” (14)

Azerbaijan began a blockade of the road connecting Artsakh and Armenia in December 2022. So far, international powers seem unable or unwilling to do anything to resolve the situation (15). With basic supplies in the area running low and with the threat of military escalation ever present, Armenians may have no one to turn to but themselves.

Works Cited (Chicago-style)

(1) - Waal, De Thomas. Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan Through Peace and War. New York: New York University Press, 2013.

(2) - Ibid.

(3) - “Nagorno-Karabakh: Seeking a Path to Peace in the Ukraine War's Shadow.” Crisis Group, September 6, 2022.

(4) - Civilnet. “Armenians Continue to Rule out Any Status for Karabakh within Azerbaijan, New Poll Finds.” CIVILNET. CIVILNET, January 10, 2023.

(5) - Abramian, Jackie. “A Year after Unleashing War Crimes against Indigenous Armenians, Azerbaijan's Threats and Violations Continue.” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, November 9, 2022.

(6) - Waal, De Thomas. Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan Through Peace and War. New York: New York University Press, 2013.

(7) - Stronell, Alexander. “Learning the Lessons of Nagorno-Karabakh the Russian Way.” IISS, March 10, 2021.

(8) - Waal, De Thomas. Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan Through Peace and War. New York: New York University Press, 2013.

(9) - Erickson, Edward. “The 44-Day War in Nagorno-Karabakh Turkish Drone Success or Operational Art?” Army University Press. Accessed January 18, 2023.

(10) - Waal, De Thomas. Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan Through Peace and War. New York: New York University Press, 2013.

(11) - Geybullayeva, Arzu. “Armenia and Azerbaijan Recognize Each Other's Territorial Integrity.” Global Voices, October 10, 2022.

(12) - Avedian, Lillian. “US and France Condemn Azerbaijani Attacks on Armenia, While Russia Apparently Absent.” The Armenian Weekly, September 28, 2022.

(13) - Zaman, A. (2023, January 31). Turkey rises, Russia fades as Iran and Azerbaijan clash over Armenia. Al-Monitor. Retrieved February 5, 2023, from

(14) - Ibid.

(15) - Avedian, Lillian. “Pashinyan Says Russian Military Presence ‘Threatens Armenia's Security.’” The Armenian Weekly, January 11, 2023.

Additional Resources


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