‘We were desperate, get it?’ After weeks on the run from Azerbaijani encirclement, two Armenian volunteers return home to a country disillusioned with Russia
The war in Nagorno-Karabakh ended the night of November 10 in Armenia’s defeat, expressed in a ceasefire agreement signed with Azerbaijan, brokered by Russia. Thousands of people on both sides of the conflict were killed and hundreds more went missing. Many of these individuals are civilians who volunteered to fight on the frontlines. Meduza special correspondent Liliya Yapparova traveled to Yerevan and spoke with combatants who were forced to retreat, fend off ambushes, and break out of enemy encirclements during the final weeks of the war.
“There was nowhere to hide. A lot of guys were killed.”
The first time Armen Karapetyan regained consciousness after he was wounded was when someone tried to feed him wild blackberries. Having lost no small amount of blood, he was conscious for only a few seconds. He did not recognize the person with the berries.
After some time, the volunteer fighter in the Artsakh armed forces awoke from the cold. He saw a starry sky and tried to grasp how much time had passed. “You don’t see the stars in daytime,” he told Meduza.
That same day, it seems (Armen says he isn’t sure), he held the last sip of his water in his mouth for an unbelievably long time — for a full half hour. He’d exhausted the supply he brought to the front.
Karapetyan doesn’t remember anything more from his first two days after being wounded. “I didn’t think about anything. I knew only that there was no way out,” Karapetyan told Meduza, expressing himself with difficulty. “My life flashed by in bits and pieces. I saw my wife and children. I thought to myself that everything was over, that I was dying. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do to stay alive.”
Later, Karapetyan looked around and realized that he was lying in a field between a blackberry bush and an Armenian tank that had been destroyed or abandoned during the retreat. His comrade-in-arms Levon Atanesyan was hiding behind the tank. “I opened my eyes when I was given water and fed berries,” says Karapetyan. “Levon was picking blackberries from the bush and feeding them to me.”
By October 13, a few days before Karapetyan was wounded, his squad had received an order to retreat from its positions in southeastern Karabakh. The Armenian infantry, suppressed by drones and artillery fire, was the only fighting force holding the front.
After hostilities broke out on September 27, the Azerbaijani army attacked Karabakh’s north and southeast, where the city of Fizuli is located. Armenia responded by sending reinforcements, which managed to halt their opponent.
However, over the course of October 2–4, the Azerbaijani army broke through in the southernmost part of Karabakh — farther south than Fizuli — along the Iranian border. After repelling a strong Armenian counterattack on October 4, Azerbaijani troops continued their offensive along the border and to the north towards the city of Hadrut, which holds the keys to the mountain gorges that lead directly to the center of Karabakh — the cities of Shusha and Stepanakert. Hadrut fell on October 13 after heavy fighting, with the Armenian defense beginning to crumble. The Artsakh army simply did not have enough strength to hold a frontline that had shifted a hundred kilometers.
After capturing Hadrut, Azerbaijani troops moved from the south and west towards the Armenian army’s rear operations in the north and east. Armenia’s sizeable military forces had been steadfastly defending Fizuli for two weeks by that point. Leaving behind some of their equipment, the Armenian forces retreated from Fizuli to the north. Azerbaijani troops reached the outskirts of Shusha in late October. The city fell over the course of November 5–7, leading to Armenia’s defeat in the war.
The Azerbaijani army had advanced deep into the region. Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry released virtually silent video footage from army-occupied villages in southern Karabakh that had been deserted back in the 1990s. With the capture of the strategically important city of Hadrut, the road to the very heart of Nagorno-Karabakh — the cities of Shusha and Stepanakert — was opened up to Azerbaijani forces.
But first they had to take control of Fizuli on the flank of the advance. “We held [the front] for as long as we could,” says Armen Karapetyan, recalling the skirmish that took place just outside the city. “We waited for reinforcements, but our guys weren’t able to come to the rescue.”
Karapetyan’s fellow combatants call him a civilian: the only experience he took with him to the front was from his long-past compulsory military service. Before the war, the 40-year-old volunteer drove a taxi. The patriotic chansons of Nersik Ispiryan, famous for his songs about “a just Armenian retribution” often rang out from Karapetyan’s car (Ispiryan’s chansons are also referred to as Armenian revolutionary songs). Karapetyan’s veteran friends who spoke with Meduza are convinced that the “plea” of Ispiryan’s music drew him to the frontline.
Behind Karapetyan’s detachment stood Shekher, Azokh, and Tumi — villages not yet evacuated. “Our reconnaissance unit informed us that there had been an explosion somewhere from Bayraktars that had missed us. The remaining troops were ordered to retreat to the Armenian battalion, which was stationed in Fizuli itself,” Karapetyan says.
It soon became clear that a retreat to the city was impossible. “Fizuli was already closed off by the Azerbaijanis. We found ourselves surrounded, with our frontlines already being demolished by the enemy.” The Azerbaijani forces were firing upon the retreating Armenian troops. “It was chaos. We were attacked by drones, mortars, bullets, we were also being shot at by BM-21 Grads [a Soviet truck-mounted multiple rocket launcher],” Karapetyan recalls. “I was running on raw emotion, just thinking about surviving and not being taken prisoner. We were supposed to retreat to the north, but we weren’t familiar with the territory and ended up going south — right into the firing line.”
By the time the soldiers realized their mistake, enemy forces had already cut off their path to retreat. Those who tried to escape the encirclement were ambushed by Azerbaijani troops, and Karapetyan’s unit fell into one of these ambushes near Fizuli on October 15. Their convoy passed through a ravine and found itself surrounded. “At first, they didn’t see us [in the ravine], but then they started killing us,” Karapetyan remembers, “There was nowhere to hide. A lot of guys were killed.”
It was only later that Armen Karapetyan learned that the bullet passed through his hip and nearly reached his stomach. The moment he was shot, there was only a sensation — Karapetyan passed his hand over his torso — that “everything here was burning.”
“My leg immediately felt like it was scalding, and then it went numb, and the pain went in the direction of my chest. There was this burning sensation,” Armen told Meduza, searching for the right words. “And there was heat.”
Karapetyan got out of the ravine alongside Levon Atanesyan. “We returned fire and then made our way out through the mountains,” Armen says. “I soon blacked out and Levon just dragged me, so wasn’t left there.”
In the meantime, Azerbaijani forces advanced through the mountains, moving from the south deep into Karabakh, and they launched an operation to capture the republic’s major cities, Shusha and Stepanakert.
Armen fully regained consciousness when advancing Azerbaijani troops reached the field where he and Levon were hiding. “They were passing by, an entire squadron of them,” Armen says. “I waited for all of them to pass, but more kept coming and coming and coming.”
Hiding by the abandoned tank, the volunteers pretended to be dead. “The enemy was passing by and chatting. They even saw us but thought that we were dead, lying there by the tank. It was a pure stroke of luck that they didn’t realize we were alive, and did not kill us off,” Karapetyan says.
Karapetyan is certain that he saw Turkish soldiers on the field. “I heard people speaking Turkish. When I realized that there was no one nearby, I pulled the pin from a grenade and gripped it in my hand,” he said. “That way, if anyone approached and tried to mess with me, I could go out with a bang. I was desperate, get it?”
On October 27, journalists monitoring military conflicts for the Wargonzo project reported on the deployment of Turkish special forces to Armenia’s borders. On November 16, the journalists posted photographs that were taken by Artsakh Defense Army soldiers on the Martuni front. According to Wargonzo, a serial numbered combat knife belonging to a set produced “on special order for an elite unit of Turkish ‘Rangers’” was found on one of the officers who was killed.
Yerevan has repeatedly declared that Turkish special forces took part in the fighting in Karabakh. Baku and Ankara deny the participation of Turkish troops.
It was not until the night of October 18 that they were able to make their way out of the field. “We crawled on our bellies. Levon dragged me, but I also helped him,” Karapetyan said. They’d been crawling for more than 24 hours when they were lost in enemy-occupied Hadrut. As a last resort, Karapetyan telephoned Marat Verdiyan, another fighter who’d accompanied him to the frontlines in late September.
A retired Armenian officer with a bashful smile and a confident spark in his eyes, Verdiyan told Meduza that his days blended together after that conversation. “For two weeks, I didn’t put my phone down,” says Verdiyan, who spent the entire time poring over maps of the region.
Atanesyan and Karapetyan needed rescue not just from the forest but from the entire encirclement. “This whole time, the Azerbaijanis were continuing their attacks on the next village, and the next village, and the next village,” says Marat Verdiyan. “Armen and Levon had to avoid these villages. So they were given orders to go through the woods and to keep off the roads, because the enemy was dressed in our uniforms and even spoke our language. You could easily fall into an ambush.”
Artak Beglaryan, a commissioner of the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, stated on October 24 that Azerbaijani soldiers were disguising themselves in Armenian uniforms. “The Azerbaijani side most likely wants, first and foremost, to mislead Armenian forces and to gain victory as a result,” Beglaryan said.
Speaking to Meduza, Artsakh army volunteer Emil Afrikyan said that Azerbaijani soldiers took Armenian uniforms from captured warehouses and military units. “So we started to draw crosses on ourselves: first of all, so that our faith would protect us, but second of all, so we could distinguish [our own people from the enemy]. We’d put crosses on our backs and on our helmets, using white paint or bandages or Scotch tape. Turks would never draw crosses on themselves, even if they were in our uniforms,” he said.
Artsakh’s troops did, in fact, mark themselves with the cross. Armen Karapetyan put one on his jacket. Elmira Musazade, a correspondent for the Azerbaijani television channel CBC TV, would later make note of these crosses while passing through former Armenian positions in Fizuli. “You can see these identifying marks on Armenian equipment,” she said, pointing out a half-erased cross on the side of a wrecked anti-aircraft gun. “They drew these crosses in order to distinguish their own equipment from others’.”
Over the next two weeks, Karapetyan and Verdiyan spoke only eight times, and their conversations were brief. Karapetyan’s phone needed to last the entire journey and Verdiyan demanded that he keep it off, except for calls. “I would give Armen coordinates for where he had to go, and then he would turn off his phone. As soon as they got there, they would call and receive new directions,” Verdiyan says, describing the precautions they took. “There was no ‘hi’ or ‘how are you doing’ — nothing superfluous. I would immediately ask, ‘What do you see now?’”
Karapetyan and Atanesyan crawled when they were passing through open areas; in forests, they tried to walk. On October 20 or 21, they reached an Armenian checkpoint that had been abandoned during the retreat. The troops had gone in a hurry, leaving water and provisions. “No one would return under artillery fire for a bottle of water. We found canned meat there. It was a feast!” Karapetyan says, laughing with satisfaction.
“Retreat is not defeat,” Armenian Defense Ministry spokesperson Artsrun Ovannisyan tweeted around this time.
Armen and Levon soon started losing their sense of time. They were also beginning to despair: the front was moving too quickly to the north and the center of Karabakh. “Wherever we went, there were enemies all around,” Karapetyan says. “As we were making our way to a new escape point [out of the encirclement], the enemy would already be occupying it. And it was like this every time.” Along the way, they would occasionally come across the bodies of Armenian and Azerbaijani soldiers who had been abandoned in trenches.
At one point, Karapetyan refused to walk any farther. “I can’t talk about this in Russian properly,” he told Meduza. Marat Verdiyan continued telling the story for him: “Armen fell down and said, ‘I just can’t walk, I need to sit down.’” They spoke on the phone and, according to Verdiyan, this was their only conversation that lasted more than 10 seconds.
“I asked them to suck it up. I even had to shout. In the military, you talk rough and dirty to get people off their asses. I didn’t mince words and I reminded him bluntly that he had to be there for his wife Emiliya, his children, his parents, and for his friends, too” says Marat.
“Marat told me that I had to come back [from the war]. And I thought to myself, I had to come back,” nodded Armen.
On October 21, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan announced that the war had reached a turning point. A day later, fighting began on the roads leading to Shusha, the cornerstone of Armenia’s entire defense network in Karabakh.
On October 22, State Duma Defense Committee Deputy Chairman Andrey Krasov told the news agency RIA Novosti that Russia was not planning any military operations in Karabakh and would aim to maintain friendly relations with both Armenia and Azerbaijan.
It was around this time when Armen and Levon came across another trench; they found no food, but there was ammunition. Just in case, they each pocketed two bullets — one for themselves and another to take a last enemy with them.
“Stay out of this. Russia is not going to support anyone.”
During these weeks, as Armenia was suffering defeat in the war, the Kremlin and Russia’s Foreign Ministry were asked on multiple occasions why Russia, with its military base in Gyumri, was not helping its strategic partner and ally in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).
Russia and Armenia are part of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, which offers assistance to member countries facing external aggression. However, as Putin explained, the military alliance was not able to intervene in this case because the war took place on the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is recognized internationally as part of Azerbaijan.
“No one was encroaching on the Armenian Republic’s territory. So this did not give us any right to participate directly in the armed conflict,” Putin stated. Not even a confirmed attack by Azerbaijan on Armenian territory on October 14 served as grounds for Moscow to enter the conflict on the side of its ally.
Moscow was devoting all its efforts to negotiations, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova explained. According to Vladimir Putin’s press secretary, international law did not allow Russia to intervene on the ground.
Later, when the war was over, Vladimir Putin assured journalists during a Russia-24 television news broadcast that “Armenia did not feel abandoned and forgotten, and Russia did everything possible in order for that not to be the case.”
No one in Yerevan who spoke to Meduza would have endorsed this assessment. “Russia could have provided support, but Russia is always late,” said Artsakh army volunteer Emil Afrikyan, who was wounded in battle just before the war ended.
Moscow also blocked attempts by private citizens to influence the fighting in Karabakh. Russian security forces did not allow several groups of mercenaries into the region, thereby inhibiting the Armenian diaspora’s ability to provide military support to the Artsakh army, sources told Meduza.
On October 20, 2020, one of these groups of mercenaries was arrested in Moscow before the men could board a flight to Yerevan. The mission’s mastermind — a former squadron commander from the “Wagner” private military company — intended to transport around 200 people into the conflict zone, using a handful of flights. Meduza learned this information from seven sources, including people with ties to the mission’s coordinators and its rank-and-file participants.
Three sources told Meduza that Russia’s Armenian diaspora had financed the mercenary group.
“The Armenians in Armenia told the diaspora here, ‘Come on guys, give us some money or help us out somehow.’ The way they decided to help out was to send people there,” explains a former colleague of one of the men who was arrested.
However, the men who were planning to travel to Karabakh were first arrested by “guys from [National Guard spetsnaz units] SOBR and OMON” and then interrogated by the FSB, and the special service even “took down their names,” says one of the mercenaries’ acquaintances. According to Meduza’s sources, the reasons for the Russian authorities’ actions were obvious to everyone.
“[The FSB officials] said to them, ‘Stay out of this. Russia is not going to support anyone. We’re not sending anybody over there,’” one source says.
A former colleague of one of the detainees told Meduza that the mercenaries had been put up in an “Armenian hostel” outside Moscow before their flight. “They were picked up and provided with accommodations. The bosses arrived — they were supposed to be their commanders there. And in the morning, at 5 a.m. [right before the flight], all of them were arrested. The guys from [the National Guard spetsnaz units] SOBR and OMON showed up and took them away to the FSB. Even though their bags had already flown to Yerevan,” says Meduza’s source explained. The FSB and the National Guard did not respond to Meduza’s inquiries about the arrests.
Another source who spoke to Meduza says he was approached by members of the Armenian diaspora soon after hostilities broke out in Karabakh, confirming that the diaspora tried to recruit a group of mercenaries in Russia. “Representatives from the diaspora were running all around Moscow with their tongues out. They wanted to buy level-VI bulletproof vests and helmets for the price of knitted t-shirts, stressing that we’re ‘allies,’” said the source. “And they wanted to [organize] an army of Russian soldiers for the price of three kopecks. A bunch of cheapskates. You can guess what kind of people they ended up recruiting.”
The diaspora representatives were also in contact with the Union of Donbass Volunteers (UDV), whose members often take part in unofficial combat abroad. “But they approached even the Union through its fringe members — the ones you don’t always let inside [the UDV building] to go knock back a few drinks,” a source close to the Union told Meduza, laughing. “They didn’t reach out to any serious people. I know the people who signed up [to go to Karabakh], and I can tell you that these are not the best people.”
A source close to the trip’s organizers told Meduza that they decided to recruit a group of mercenaries as it became clear over the course of the war in Karabakh that “Azerbaijan was destroying Armenia.”
“Armenia was waging war like it was 1956. But Azerbaijan — well, really, Turkey — is actually modern. They work their [drone] joysticks on us, and the only thing that they have to do is switch out the operators,” the source explained.
As many as 60 mercenaries who had agreed to fight for 250,000 rubles (about $3,500) a month were supposed to be on the first flight to Karabakh, sources told Meduza. According to two sources, one of the organizers was a man named Kirill, the former commander of the Wagner Group’s sixth riot squadron, who had combat experience in Syria and Libya and whose military call sign was “Chukchi.” (According to the Ukrainian website Myrotvorets Center, which monitors Wagner Group members, there are two men with this call sign, but neither of the men is named Kirill.)
“The ‘musicians’ [‘Wagnerians’] kicked him out, because he was married to the daughter of one of the higher-ups, but he cheated on her,” one of the sources said. Many of Chukchi’s former subordinates were part of the group planning to head to Karabakh. “Roughly 70 percent were from the sixth squadron of the ‘musicians,’” said one of the mercenaries’ colleagues. Other sources — a Wagner Group veteran and a source close to the Union of Donbass Volunteers — pointed out that the mercenary group could have been “rounded out” with none other than members of UDV.
“Chukchi” and another organizer were detained for a few days and interrogated by the FSB. The rank-and-file group members got away with a verbal warning. “They all received a slap on the wrist — a ‘tsk-tsk’ — but those who had recruited them to go to Karabakh were held for questioning,” says a source with ties to the UDV.
During their exchange with the detainees, FSB officials warned them about the consequences of attempting to go to Karabakh. “They said there would be major problems, serious problems, if these stunts continued,” the source said.
This mercenary group may not have been the only one of its kind. Four people told Meduza about mercenaries who were allegedly detained in October as they were about to board a flight from St. Petersburg. “And they practically handed each of them 5,000 rubles in dollars, right there at the airport. But they were supposedly arrested at the border,” says a source familiar with the affair. St. Petersburg’s Pulkovo Airport did not respond to inquiries from Meduza about these arrests, and Russia’s FSB and National Guard ignored Meduza’s inquiries.
“Union of Armenians of Russia” President Ara Abramyan says he hasn’t heard anything about members of the Armenian diaspora hiring Russian military specialists. “It’s not true,” Abramyan told Meduza. “If I had organized this, I would have gotten them where they were supposed to go. Even if it is true, this is just ineptitude on the part of a bunch of amateurs.”
“The Russians are no longer trusted”
On October 20, Armen Karapetyan had to change his bandage. The wound looked noticeably different after a week. It was turning black, whether due to decaying tissue or congealed blood. To disinfect it, the soldiers sprinkled gunpowder on the wound and set it on fire. “Bzz, and [the wound] caught on fire,” Armen said. “Of course, I already thought that I would get gangrene and that my leg would have to be amputated.”
To circumvent Azerbaijani encirclement, the two men decided to try for the northern side of Hadrut. The journey meant trekking through the outskirts of Vardashat (a town already in Baku’s hands) and past the mountain villages of Akaku and Mokhrenes, which would soon fall, as well. During their second week of their escape, Armen and Levon stumbled upon a forester’s home, where they found potatoes and mulberry moonshine.
They were moving slower than their enemy, but they nevertheless managed to reach the front by October 29. They arrived in Lisagor, a village next to the city of Shusha, at the very heart of Armenia’s defenses.
The Armenians had lost the battle for Shusha. Towering over its surroundings, this city on a cliff is a mere 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) from Stepanakert. Shusha’s capture in early November put the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh Republic’s capital within range of Azerbaijan’s artillery. “From Shusha, you can see Stepanakert like the eagle sees its prey,” Artsakh army volunteer Kamo Martirosyan told Meduza.
Armenian units fought in a battle that was dominated by enemy drones, says former Armenian Defense Minister Seyran Oganyan, explaining Yerevan’s defeat in Shusha. The Harop “kamikaze” drones procured from Israel and the Bayraktar TB2 combat drones sent from Turkey on the eve of the war indeed proved successful against Armenia’s flesh-and-blood soldiers. Throughout the war, Armenia was never able to adapt to these weapons.
Artsakh soldiers who spoke with Meduza say they are convinced that Azerbaijan spent four years preparing for the six-week war. Back in 2016, during a brief flare-up of hostilities in Karabakh, Azerbaijan carried out exploratory attacks, working out how it would wage a local military operation.
“And then there was an all-out war in 2020,” says Emil Afrikyan, who was wounded in the final fighting. “When we were there [at the front] in 2016, we saw how they waged war. They were just firing shells from their BM-21 Grad rocket launchers, hoping that they’ll land somewhere and destroy something. Now they fire with millimeter-level precision. No, in this war we were not fighting against Azerbaijani military specialists.”
Afrikyan, who claims to have fought against Syrians outside Hadrut, is convinced that the Azerbaijani army came to Karabakh in 2020 fortified by Turkish military specialists and Syrian mercenaries. The last thing Afrikyan says he expected was that enemy infantry would reach Karabakh’s third line of defense by October 12: the artillery fortifications in the village of Mayramadzor.
“There’s no way their infantry could have reached us, but it did,” Afrikyan said. “That meant that our infantry was simply demolished. They were coming down towards us from two heights — about a thousand people from each direction. The mercenaries had one tactic: to destroy. They were breaking through and it was as if not one of them was going down; they simply wouldn’t go down.”
Did Turkey really send Azerbaijan mercenaries from Idlib, recruited from Islamist groups loyal to Ankara? The Azerbaijani side denies this, but interviews conducted with Syrians inside the conflict zone were published by BBC Arabic, CNN, Reuters, and The Guardian.
The war ended the night of November 10 with an Azerbaijani victory. According to the signed agreement, Azerbaijan received seven districts around Karabakh in addition to the territories that it took possession of during the conflict. These districts had been taken by the Armenians during the first war in Karabakh (1992–1994) in order to establish, in their words, a “security zone.” Before that first war, the districts had been inhabited primarily by Azerbaijanis, who became refugees. Until the six-week war, these districts were home mostly to ethnic Armenians, some of whom burned down their own houses to keep them from Azerbaijani hands.
Armina Mirzakhanyan, who was forced from the city of Karvachar and fled to northern Karabakh, couldn’t find it in herself to set fire to her home. “I simply could not raise my hand to burn what we had worked so hard on,” Armina told Meduza. “We put everything into this home. We built it from the ground up by the Terter River, with the mountains over there and the flower garden over here. And after that damned agreement was signed, we lost everything. Absolutely everything. We left our hearts in the house. There are no words to describe this — it’s as though I’ve already died.”
Armina’s husband, who serves in the Armenian military, left the front for a few days to go to Yerevan to rent an apartment for his wife and children. If Russia’s peacekeepers leave Nagorno-Karabakh, 150,000 people (the breakaway republic’s population before the 2020 war) might find themselves in a similar situation.
“I love the Russian people very much, and I trust Vladimir Putin. But he is really, really late. Why? Why so late?” Armina suddenly asked Meduza in mid-conversation.
Emil Afrikyan agrees. “People will even have to leave Stepanakert. No one will trust the Russians anymore,” he speculates.
When Karapetyan and Atanesyan finally broke out of their encirclement and reached Armenian positions in Lisagor on October 29, Levon called their guide, Marat Berdiyan. “He said they came upon an unnamed cross on a hilltop,” Marat recalls. That same evening, he went to the church across the street from the “Rossiya” movie theater in Yerevan to light a candle. “But the church was closed,” he says. “I just stood by the door for five or 10 minutes, and I prayed.”
Luckily for Armen, the doctors didn’t need to amputate his leg. In fact, he’s recuperating at home because the hospitals are overcrowded with more seriously wounded soldiers and coronavirus patients. After delivering his friend to safety, Levon Atanesyan returned to the front. There’s been no word from him since he left.
Translation by Sydney Lazarus