The conflict broke out in the late 80s on the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh that was part of Azerbaijan, but was mainly populated by Armenians, although many Azerbaijanis also lived there. The aim of the Armenian side was to join Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia or to create an independent state, the Azerbaijani side fought for territorial integrity of its republic.
As the conflict was gradually escalating, heavy weapons started to be used – originally they were old antiaircraft guns, used by civil services to combat hail, and now also to fire at the enemy's settlements. Units of Soviet Army and interior ministry troops, involved to suppress the conflict, also became a source of armament, including artillery and armored equipment. Helicopters of Soviet Army, internal and frontier troops – Mi-8, Mi-6 and assault helicopters Mi-24 were widely used in Karabakh at that time. The main tasks of airforce were to accompany military columns and deliver strikes at illegal armed units and subsequently also provide with necessary supplies the military units blockaded by fighters. The Soviet Army and the Internal Troops took a clear anti-Armenian position up to the collapse of the USSR.
Armenian pogroms and attempt of armed removal of Communist authorities started in Baku in January 1990.
Several days later, the Soviet Army, breaking the resistance of the fighters, entered the city. The army aviation carried out the escort. A Mi-24 was shot down by anti-hail cannon near Ganja. Slaughter of Armenians in Baku caused mass escape of Armenians from Azerbaijan (370,000) and Azerbaijanis from Armenia (135,000) – a sort of "ethnic cleansing" in both countries. Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenian-populated Shahumyan region that soon became an arena of fierce military operations were an exception.
Originally, the main fighting force in Karabakh was Azerbaijani OMON, numbering 10,000 members (80 percent of them were Russians), which was supported and secured by the military. OMON completely blocked the Armenian communications, as well as conducted operations against Armenian villages – general checkup of documents, arrests and deportations of Armenians. Azerbaijan's Mi-8 civilian helicopters were also widely used at that stage of fight. For instance, on January 20, 1990, an OMON detachment was redeployed to the region of Malibeyli village by fifteen helicopter flights. Similar flights were conducted to Shushi, Khojaly and Gervent.
At the same time, the authorities completely disregarded the existence of fighters groups of Azerbaijani Popular Front, in fact, the same fighters. Since the Karabakh Armenians did not have land communication with Armenia, Armenia's civil aviation was the only means to deliver food, medications, weapons, ammunition and volunteers there, as well as to evacuate the wounded and refugees. However, the USSR internal troops, which were quartered in Stepanakert, on the whole "respected" the legal government of Baku and fought against Armenian separatists, tried to sharply limit the number of such flights – up to taking the armored equipment to the runway. Following protests by Yerevan, those restrictions were removed by the order of Moscow and then everything repeated itself again. In April 1990, to maintain communication with the outside world, Martakert residents constructed a dirt runway surface to host An-2.
However, on May 21, Azerbaijani workers, under the protection of SA, ploughed up the runway and destroyed the equipment. The situation in Armenian settlements became critical because of lack of food, it was impossible to do agricultural works because of sniper fire and armed attacks. Aviation was the only means of delivery. Armenia's civil aviation brought into play An-2, Mi-8 and Yak-40. It was claimed that at least one An-2 was downed by enemy's ground fire. Army helicopters also participated in humanitarian operations. Armenian Yak-40 en route from Yerevan to Stepanakert crashed near Farraj village, Lachin region, on August 1, 1990. 39 passengers and 4 crewmen were killed. The USSR Gosavianadzor conducted the investigation in cooperation with Azerbaijan's representatives who declared that the black box was sent to Moscow and according to the official conclusion, "the plane crashed after losing its bearings in poor visibility." However, the Armenian side questioned the impartiality of the investigation, claiming that on August 6 the black box, opened or smashed, lay near the debris of the plane. According to eyewitnesses, the plane was simply overcrowded as after the landing, the captain (of course, for a bribe) took aboard dozens of passengers.
On September 18, Mi-24 assault helicopters attacked targets in the Armenian villages of Noragyugh, Mekhtishen and Berkadzor, Askeran region. Obviously, the helicopters belonged to the Soviet Army and aimed to suppress the weapon emplacements of Armenian fighters. It is not known whether or not the fighters were affected, but a woman was killed and seven people were wounded in Noragyugh.
On September 23, 1990, Azerbaijani OMON launched an attack on the village of Chapar, Martakert region. Besides small arms, grenade launchers and mortars, the attackers used civilian helicopters to drop hand grenades on the village. The Armenian side lost six soldiers in the fight. On September 25, two civilian helicopters "bombed" Stepanakert, as well as the villages Shosh and Karin. Thus, a Mi-8 landed near the Armenian village of Karachinar on October 14. The local residents thought it was an Armenian helicopter that delivered cargo, went to the landing site and came under the fire of Azerbaijani OMON members who arrived by the helicopter. Two people were killed and seven wounded.
On April 30, 1991, OMON stormed practically the last Armenian villages on the territory of Azerbaijan – Getashen and Martunashen. Soviet troops, moved closer, blocked the villages, after which seven tanks and army helicopters fired at them for two hours. Then OMON attacked and broke into the villages. 15 Armenians were killed and 45 arrested, the men were evacuated to Armenia by buses, while the women and children (several months later) were moved to Stepanakert by army helicopters.
From May 13 to late July 1991, Azerbaijan's interior ministry (with active support from USSR interior ministry troops and Soviet Army) conducted the Operation Ring in Nagorno-Karabakh. A series of army operations were carried out under the pretext of "passport regime checks," which resulted in general deportation of 24 Armenian villages of Karabakh. Attack helicopters were widely used during the Operation Ring for various air assault operations.
In particular, around 11:00am on May 15, 1991, near the Armenian villages of Spitakashen and Arpagyaduk (Hadrut region), Azerbaijani OMON's airborne forces were landed from Mi-8 helicopter of USSR internal troops that carried out two flights from Jabrail with 20 minutes' interval, to "check the passport regime." In fact, it was a regular act of "citizens' voluntarily leaving their permanent place of residence," and citizens signed to it obediently. After that, of course, a fire broke out, quite accidentally, and Spitakashen burned down.
In the collapsed country, the army units quartered in the conflict zone, were gradually losing control of the situation.
Moreover, they were often attacked and shelled by both hostile sides and often returned fire.
Attack helicopters were also used to suppress the weapon emplacements of fighters, at least there are reports that Mi-24 struck the Armenian positions in July-August 1991, and on July 20, when the Armenian fighters attacked near the village of Buzuluk, Shahumyan region, three Mi-24 were damaged and a pilot operator was wounded.
In August 1991, the Soviet Union de facto collapsed and on September 2, 1991, Nagorno-Karabakh proclaimed the establishment of an independent state, recognized only by Armenia. Because of the collapse of the USSR, Armenia and Azerbaijan enlarged their arsenals not only with armaments seized and stolen from the collapsing Soviet Army, but also with those officially passed to both countries.
On January 28, 1992, a Mi-8 of Azerbaijan Airlines (AZAL) carried out a flight from Aghdam to Shushi which was blocked by the Armenians, with 30-40 people on board.
The helicopter was hit by a portable air defense system missile during the approach landing and collapsed far from residential districts. All those on board were killed.
At the beginning of 1992, Azerbaijan received a squadron of Mi-24 (14 helicopters) and a squadron of Mi-8 (9 helicopters) in Sangachal airdrome, and Armenia received a squadron of 13 Mi-24 which was part of the 7th Guards Helicopter Regiment and was based near Yerevan. On February 19, 1992, for the first time Azerbaijani Mi-24 appeared over the battlefield, striking the Armenian positions near the village of Karagaly. The pilots were former Soviet ones who switched to contract service in the Azerbaijani Armed Forces and acted skillfully against the armored equipment and weapon emplacements of the enemy. In March, the Armenians said they had downed two Mi-24 helicopters.
The first "air fight" occurred soon. On March 3, 1992, the Russian military transport helicopter Mi-26, accompanied by attack helicopter Mi-24, delivered 20 tons of flour to the Armenian village Gulistan and took out women, children and wounded. The Mi-26 had not yet reached Armenia when it was attacked by camouflaged Azerbaijani helicopter Mi-8. But the attack was spoiled by the Mi-24. Nevertheless, the flight ended tragically – a portable air defense system missile, launched from the ground, hit the Mi-26, it caught fire and collapsed near the Azerbaijani village Seydilar. Out of 50 people on board, 12 were killed.
The 366th motorized infantry regiment, based in Stepanakert (capital of Karabakh), was soon involved in the fights on the Armenian side as it had constantly come under fire from Azerbaijan equally with the Armenian population.
Besides, the regiment was practically the only source of heavy weaponry for the Karabakh Armenians.
During the first four months of 1992, the Azerbaijanis seized from the 4th general army 14 tanks, 96 IFVs, more than 40 APCs and BRDMs, 4 BM-21 launch vehicles and that armament immediately appeared in the front, creating a serious fire superiority. The Armenians also received certain trophies, but it was impossible to transport the military equipment to Karabakh. The Russian command made a decision to withdraw the 366th regiment from Stepanakert together with the armament, but the decision was openly opposed by the Karabakh authorities who expected to seize all the arms. From February 27 to March 7, 1992, a successful operation was conducted to evacuate the 366th regiment blocked by the Armenians; the army aviation was widely used – Mi-6 and Mi-26 helicopters and Mi-24 attack helicopters. On those days, one of the Mi-24 helicopters was shot down by ground fire and was forced to land.
On April 8, 1992, the Azerbaijani aviation received its first fighter aircraft – attack plane Su-25 which was hijacked by senior lieutenant Vagif Bakhtiyar oglu Kurbanov (Azerbaijani by nationality, born in 1967, graduate of Borisoglebski Pilots College) from Sital Chay airdrome where the 80th Separate Assault Air Regiment was based.
With the help of two of his compatriots, airplane technician, lieutenant Mammadov and aircraft mechanic, warrant officer Kuliyev, the pilot prepared the attack plane for flight and flew to Yevlakh civilian airport from where he started to carry out operation flights a month later. The Russian ministry of defense reported that it was ordered to destroy the deserter plane, and the 982nd Fighter Aviation Regiment, based in Vaziani airport in Georgia, in April 1992 kept ready a couple of MiG-23 to intercept the Azerbaijani attack plane, but whether or not there were any real attempts of interception is not clear, at least starting from May 8, the Su-25 regularly bombed Karabakh.
The main target was Stepanakert and the neighboring villages, but the effectiveness of those air raids was unique – the residential sector and civilians were affected by the strikes, while the Armenian military units virtually had no losses. During two days of air raids (May 8 and 9, 1992) by Kurbanov's Su-25, 30 Armenian civilians were killed and 120 wounded. On May 8, 1992, the Karabakh Armenians launched an attack on Azerbaijani town Shushi. The town, which was 11 km from Stepanakert, and the neighboring villages were of strategic importance to the Azerbaijanis and enabled to effectively fire at Stepanakert from anti-aircraft guns, Alazan and BM-21 launch vehicles. The latter inflicted huge losses to the Armenians. Shushi was stormed swiftly and the attackers received in the town the Armenian church that was turned into a depot of Grad rockets and other ammunitions. Although the Su-25 mainly used aerial bombs during the air raids, the Armenian sources claim that the pilot used guided missiles to strike the captured Shushi.
Kurbanov tried to hit the church – it was to cause detonation and throughout of ammunitions. The Armenian sources say nothing about the outcome of the strike, he must have failed to hit. By the way, the commander of the 80th Separate Assault Air Regiment described Vagif Kurbanov's professional skills as very moderate. On the same day, May 8, four Azerbaijani Mi-24 helicopters fired at Stepanakert from unguided missiles. Two helicopters attacked the villages of Myurishen, Avdur, Krasni Bazar and Norshen (Martuni region). Presumably, it was Kurbanov's Su-25 that launched a rocket attack on the Russian attack helicopter piloted by major Alexander Gorchakov. As the officer said, his helicopter flew over the clouds and he had no doubt that it could be attacked only from air.
On May 9, Azerbaijani helicopters attacked the village of Shosh and Vagif Kurbanov's attack plane intercepted and shot down the Armenian Yak-40 that was taking out the wounded from Stepanakert. The Yak-40 crew managed to land the burning plane and save the passengers. Most probably, the plane was discarded. The May battles were decisive for both sides. The Azerbaijani aviation was very active in May, with reports of many air raids on Karabakh settlements. For instance, on May 10, four helicopters attacked Stepanakert and its airport, Askeran and the villages of Garov and Krasni also came under fire from helicopters, the Su-25 also "did some work" in those villages. The next day, May 11, Azerbaijani helicopters again struck Askeran, the Armenian villages of Dagraz and Aghbulag were also hit. Kurbanov targeted the town of Martuni on that day.
On May 12, the Su-25 bombed the villages of Shosh and Khramort, Askeran region, as well as Verinshen and Hay Paris. The helicopters attacked the village of Dagrav in Shahumyan region. The Armenians, stepping up the attack, came to the town of Lachin and took it by storm on May 18, breaking through the blockade and creating so-called "Lachin corridor" connecting Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. That strategic success caused a new wave of strikes by Azerbaijani aviation on Karabakh's towns and villages – the Su-25 bombed the town of Martuni four times on that day. Kurbanov's actions were supported by helicopter pilots.
On May 19, the helicopters fired at the villages of Marat and Chaylu, Martakert region, and the attack plane fired at the villages of Haterk and Zagli, Martuni region. The next day, four Mi-24 helicopters carried out a raid in Shahumyan region, targeting Buzluk, Erkej and Manashid. On May 25, the Su-25 heavily shelled Martuni and on May 26, it shelled Buzluk. On the same day, the four Mi-24 helicopters again appeared in Shahumyan region, storming Manashid and Verinshen.
The use of Azerbaijani aviation in May 1992 revealed an interesting peculiarity – Mi-24 helicopters were used not only for delivering strikes on towns and villages, they effectively helped their own troops since they had experienced pilots (as it is known, most of Soviet helicopter pilots passed through the Afghan war). At the same time, the Su-25 attack plane, also perfectly adapted for fire support of troops, engaged in exclusively "strategic bombing" of towns and villages. Such use of attack planes was typical throughout the war and perhaps chiefly aimed not so much to break the morale and combat potential of Karabakh defense forces as to force the Armenian population to leave Karabakh. Azerbaijan's barrel and rocket artillery, continuously delivering strikes on civilian entities, had the same aim, which, by the way, was failed to be fulfilled.
Official transfer of armaments of the 4th general army to Azerbaijan started in May (according to the instruction of Russian ministry of defense of June 22, 1992, № 314(3)022, a total of 237 tanks, 325 armored vehicles, 204 IFVs and APCs, as well as 170 artillery systems, including Grads, were transferred to Azerbaijan). Besides, the sharp shortage of military personnel was eased to some extent by about 300 officers and warrant officers of former Soviet Army entering for service in the Azerbaijani army. The battle-worthy Azerbaijani OMON was strengthened by volunteers from Chechnya, Kazakhstan, Ukrainian nationalists, as well as a great number of conscripts hastily trained by Azerbaijani and Turkish officers.
By June 1, 1992, Armenia received 54 tanks, 40 IFVs and APCs, as well as 50 guns. The seizure of Lachin corridor enabled to transfer that equipment to Karabakh, where before that the Armenians had just a few combat vehicles seized from the 366th regiment and Azerbaijani OMON, as well as a couple of self-made armored cars. However, in the May battles, the Azerbaijani army lost more than the half of its armored equipment (mainly hijacked and seized from garrisons of former Soviet Army) – often because of incompetent operation, while the Karabakh Armenians seized quite good trophies and received help on Lachin corridor. The Azerbaijani troops passed to the offensive on June 12. It was reported in June that three Armenian Mi-24 attack helicopters broke into Kubatly region of Azerbaijan and fired at Azerbaijani troops.
Two Armenian helicopters were shot down and made a forced landing on the Azerbaijani territory and their crews were taken captive. On June 13, 1992, the Azerbaijani Air Force sustained a serious loss – Vagif Kurbanov died after being shot down. The television showed the wreckage, among which was the typical fin of Su-25 with the Azerbaijani flag. Kurbanov's bombings of Armenian settlements were prized – the pilot posthumously received the highest award in Azerbaijan – the title of the National Hero of Azerbaijan.
At the same time, it was in that period when the Azerbaijani aviation sharply increased its fighting capacity. Four air regiments of Air Force and Air Defense were based on the territory of the republic – the 80th Separate Assault Air Regiment in Sital Chay (Su-25), the 82nd Fighter Aviation Regiment of Air Defense in Nasosnaya (MiG-25PDS), the 976th Bomber Aviation Regiment in Kurdamir (Su-24) and the 882nd Anti-Aircraft Rocket Regiment in Dallar (MiG-25RB and Su-24MP). After the collapse of the USSR, all of them passed under the jurisdiction of Russia, but Azerbaijan that was in need of weapons sharply increased the pressure on Russian garrisons. All means were used – requests, persuasions, bribery, ultimatums, taking hostages from Russian officers' families, armed attacks. Under the circumstances, aviation equipment started to be transferred to Russia; it took place on June 9-10, 1992.
The main part of the equipment was withdrawn successfully, but the Azerbaijanis also received something, mainly in non-flying condition, partly because of the sabotage of bribed Russian officers.
Many unpleasant things happened on those days, but the eyewitnesses remember an episode that occurred in Nasosny airport. Chief of headquarters of the 19th separate army of Air Defense, major general N. Repin oversaw the transportation of expensive equipment fearing that otherwise it could be pilfered and wasted. (Unfortunately, his apprehensions came true). The evacuation became complicated because of acute shortage of transport aircrafts. In addition, attacks by Azerbaijani fighters could be expected at any moment.
Major general Tymoshenko (head of the army's political department) appeared at the airport and demanded to provide a plane for his household belongings brought by a KamAZ with a lengthened platform. All persuasions were in vain. Appeals to the reason, honor and conscience of the former party fellow were useless. The argument that the first and foremost task is to save the military property did not convince, either.
Colonel V. Skulsky's attempts (by the order of the chief of army headquarters) to remove the KamAZ with the general goods and chattels from the runway were vain. Like an inveterate blackmailer, Tymoshenko issued an ultimatum – no single unit of the equipment will be removed from the airport unless he is given a plane. The threat worked – the blackmailer received a transport aircraft An-12. The general's things were evacuated successfully. The cargo of air defense forces had a worse fate. Its most part fell into the hands of Azerbaijani expropriators. In addition, there are several facts to the effect that some high-ranking officers of Transcaucasian Military District not only maintained friendly relations with the separatist leaders, but also participated in the formation of national armies. Transport aircraft was actively used. As an example, we will cite reports of counter-intelligence agents:
"12.05.92. A batch of armaments – 400 submachine guns (40 boxes with 10 guns in each) and 80 boxes with cartridges – were transported from Novo Alexeyevka Airport (Tbilisi suburb) to KALA Airport (Azerbaijan).
The transportation, implemented by the order of deputy commander of Transcaucasian Military District, lieutenant general S. U. Beppayev, was carried out by two planes – Tu-134 from OSAE (military unit 78782) and Il-20 (reconnaissance) from ORAO RU of Transcaucasian Military District (military unit 15282). After reaching the place, the arms and ammunition were received and transported by representatives of Azerbaijani ministry of defense, led by chief of headquarters, general Musayev. The fact was made public and condemned by the squadron servicemen. In their opinion, in case the information reaches the Armenian side, Armenia's leadership will have weighty reasons to justly accuse the Russian servicemen of assisting Azerbaijan."
By the way, at the mentioned airport of air defense Nasosnaya, the Azerbaijanis seized several dozens of interceptors (perhaps up to 30) of MiG-25PD. Probably, colonel Vladimir Kravtsov played a considerable role in it. He carried out the disbandment of the air defense regiment and later became general and commander of Azerbaijani Air Force. Deputy commander of the reconnaissance aviation regiment in Dallar, lieutenant colonel Alexander Plesh acted in a similar way. Perhaps it was he who informed the Azerbaijanis about the marked ferrying of planes to Russia and subsequently received the position of commander of squadron of Azerbaijani Air Force. Somehow or other, the Azerbaijanis burst into the territory of the airport on June 9, blocked the runway and disrupted the flight of eight MiG-25RB by cutting their tires. In total, the Azerbaijanis seized 16 MiG-25RB and Su-24MP reconnaissance aircrafts at the airport. Besides, reports say that the trophies included an Il-76 sent to secure the evacuation. It is quite possible as currently the Azerbaijani Air Force has seven Il-76M and MD.
The Su-24MP reconnaissance aircrafts have no aiming equipment for bombing, but the Azerbaijanis in principle could install bomb racks for bombs and unguided rocket hangers, especially as Azerbaijan had an aircraft repair and overhaul factory, which, however, specialized in MiG-25.
In that case, the aims can be attacked "by eye" since it is impossible to miss the aim across the city. The MiG-25RB and its modifications are intended for striking big fixed objects, as well as for conducting photo and radio technical reconnaissance. While characterizing the attacks of reconnaissance-strike MiG-25RB, it was mentioned that the attacks were conducted without the use of complex aiming systems that often go wrong and require qualified maintenance and spare parts. However, the claims that the MiG-25PD interceptors dashingly chopped the Armenian tanks by R-60 air-to-air thermal rockets should be treated with distrust. It is very difficult to imagine how the pilots of high-speed, unmanoevred interceptors, which have not so good downwards vision, found single tanks and IFVs in the mountains, dived and launched an attack on them, and it is not known whether the homing head of R-60 rocket is capable of taking the thermal radiation of a working tank engine. And what if the engine is cold? Besides, the splinter (!) fragmentation warhead weighing 3.5 kg is not the best means to fight against tanks. So, most likely, the rumors about "tank fighter MiG-25PD" are somewhat exaggerated.
Most likely, there was only one Su-25 in Azerbaijan, hijacked by Kurbanov. However, the Armenians claim that three Su-25 planes were downed by late August 1992.
There is no doubt about the number of planes – Azerbaijan recognized two planes in June-July and another one was downed by the Armenians on August 20 (it was MiG-25 of Yuri Belichenko).
The pilots of the first two planes died, including Azerbaijani Kurbanov. On July 19, 1992, the Armenians delivered a counterblow to the attacking enemy troops, retaking part of the territory occupied by the Azerbaijanis. Despite the bad weather, the Azerbaijani aviation intensively struck the Armenian columns, headquarters and artillery positions.
According to the commander of ZU-23-2, a Russian mercenary, at sunset he personally downed one out of two Azerbaijani low-flying Su-24 planes that tried to destroy the annoying battery of D-30 howitzers. It got dark soon, so the search for the pilot was organized only the next morning. In the mountains, they found only a parachute, a seat, and the debris of the exploded plane – several kilometers away.
According to information received from the captives and confirmed by Yuri Belichenko later, the pilot managed to bale out and using an inflatable raft, go down the river to the territory of Azerbaijan. The pilot was a Russian lieutenant colonel who fought in Afghanistan before that.
The plane's name is in quotes as that author writes only about "Su-24" and "MiG-25," and Su-24 should have two pilots. Perhaps it was the second Azerbaijani plane downed in June-July, although it was considered that Kurbanov and the pilot of the second plane both died. Pulling up the reserves, the Azerbaijani army stopped the advance of the Armenians. The Armenians saddled the heights near Martakert and overhanging the plain. The heights constantly came under fire from Grad rocket launchers and artillery and Azerbaijani Mi-24 carried out raids two or three times a day. Anti-aircraft cover of Martakert heights was provided by two ZU-23-2, one of which, a captured one, was assembled on a Ural. Since their slant range of fire is only 2-2.5 km, they covered only one hillock and the other fighting groups relied on portable air defense systems. Mi-24 crews' use of thermal traps reliably protected them from outdated Strela rockets.
The helicopters acted in groups – 4-6 helicopters – making a "carousel" over the Armenian positions. The Mi-24 circled and in turn dived to the target, while the others watched and protected each other from fire from the backward semisphere. On August 8, several helicopters conducted a feint and another couple of helicopters, coming up at a low height, damaged the Ural with an anti-aircraft gun. It was finished off with a rocket several days later.
Eight 57 mm С-60 anti-aircraft guns arrived in Karabakh from Yerevan through the Lachin corridor. Two guns were airlifted to Martakert heights to strengthen the air defense, but in the very first fight against the helicopters, Azerbaijani Mi-24 sneaked up to the position at a low height and hit one gun. However, the well-prepared calculation of ZU-23-2 took vengeance on the enemy by destroying another Mi-24 in the same fight. After artillery preparation and attack on the helicopters, Azerbaijani tank battalion, with the support of Grad rocket launchers and a large infantry, went into the offensive, smashing the Armenian forces and throwing them back dozens of kilometers away from Martakert heights.
While withdrawing, the Armenians left both 57 mm anti-aircraft guns (the one put out of action and the intact one), one out of the two Urals belonging to the anti-aircraft battery was burned by the helicopters and the other one was left by the Armenians in panic. According to Armenian reports, two enemy helicopters were downed on that day.
The initiative completely passed to the Azerbaijanis and they considerably pressed the Armenians, taking about 25 percent of Nagorno-Karabakh's territory by September 1992. In August 1992, it was noted that the Armenians used several Mi-24 helicopters and in September, the Azerbaijanis declared that they destroyed one of them. The second Armenian Mi-24 was downed on November 12, 1992. Captain Yuri Belichenko, shot down on Azerbaijani MiG-25PD on August 20, was taken prisoner (some reports said it was MiG-25RB and it was downed on August 31, but it was misinformation).
After the pilot was taken prisoner, it became known that there were mercenaries from former pilots of USSR Air Force in the Air Force of Azerbaijan. According to Belichenko, as a rule, the pilots made two flights a day – they flew, worked for 20 minutes and came back. They took a rest and worked for another 20 minutes. They relaxed in the evening.
In August, Belichenko and his fellow worker carried out the first operation flight – they dropped 50 kg bombs at the village of Kasapet. They used MiG-25, "reprofiled from fighter to bomber" (perhaps at a repair facility), so it is about an earlier unknown modification that can be symbolically called MiG-25PDS-B. And this is not a newspaper hoax – subsequently, Azerbaijan acknowledged that its losses included not only two MiG-25RB, but also a MiG-25P.
On August 20, captain Yuri Belichenko carried out his 16th operation flight. He had a plane ticket to Kiev in his pocket and wanted to take his family to Baku. "It is these thoughts that let me down, I relaxed, was inattentive and as a result, was shot down." They baled out successfully, the pilot got rid of the parachute and went to "his people," to the north-east, using a compass. He came across three gunners in the forest.
Initially, the Azerbaijani aviation was opposed by a very weak air defense of the Armenians numbering six ZU-23-2 anti-aircraft guns, four self-propelled ZSU-23-4 Shilka, four 57 mm C-60 anti-aircraft guns and several dozens of outdated portable air defense system missile Strela-2M.
The already mentioned eight 57 mm C-60 anti-aircraft guns arrived later and ZU-23-2 in Ural and a ZSU-23-4 Shilka were seized from the Azerbaijanis. These low-altitude means could not effectively oppose the enemy air raids and the Azerbaijani aviation practically on a daily basis struck Stepanakert. Sometimes several raids were carried out daily. Sometimes Azerbaijani planes acted in pairs. An altitude of over 4 km was often used and although the bombing was low precision, that altitude ensured the invulnerability of planes. Another tactics was sometimes used. The planes went by a false route, then made a detour and at the height of 100-200 meters struck the town from an unexpected direction. The losses among the population were considerable.
From August 1992, the Azerbaijani planes began dropping RBK-250 and RBK-500 (one-shot bomb container) with fragmentation sub-ammunition (known as pellet bombs). On August 23, Stepanakert was bombed by three Su-25 planes.
One of the 500 kg bombs hit a five-story dormitory building, where refugees from Martakert region lived. 14 people were killed. On August 31, 20 RBK were dropped on the Karabakh capital, leaving 16 dead and 121 wounded.
It is known that Russian crews were unlawfully involved in military operations on one or another side. Thus, helicopter pilots major Sergey Sinyushkin and captain Yevgeny Karlov, appearing beyond the control of the command, agreed "for a reasonable pay" to carry out an operation flight in the interest of the Azerbaijani army. Unfortunately for the pilots, the flight turned out to be the last one for them. Both of the unlucky mercenaries "died a hero's death."
It was reported that on September 4, 1992, Azerbaijani MiG-21 was removed by means of portable air defense system missile and its pilot was taken prisoner. Perhaps it was Anatoly Chistyakov who also appeared in Stepanakert prison. Mi-24 helicopter became another victim of Armenian anti-aircraft gunners on September 18.
Despite the considerable progress of the summer offensive in the north of Karabakh, the Azerbaijani General Staff clearly understood that general success would be achieved only after blocking the Lachin corridor. Therefore, in mid-September, the mountain rifle regiment of Azerbaijani army, getting over the Karabakh mountain ridge, launched an attack on Lachin from the north. The 2nd Army Corps of Azerbaijan, under the command of major general Dadash Rzayev, failed to get over the last 3-4 km to Lachin.
Besides striking towns and settlements, the Azerbaijani Air Force started to be used more frequently to support their troops, destroy the enemy's strong points and in October 1992 attempts were recorded to bomb Armenian columns in the Lachin corridor. It is also worth mentioning about the strike on the electric power plant in Armenia. Azerbaijani Air Force met no resistance in the air as Armenia had no warplanes at that time. However, with the equipment of former Soviet Army transferred to Armenia, the Karabakh Armenians managed to create a powerful air defense system, supplementing the existing anti-aircraft guns, Shilka anti-aircraft weapon systems and portable air defense system missiles with Osa and Krug mobile rocket launchers, which immediately affected the losses of Azerbaijani aviation.
It is difficult to say from where came the second Su-25, downed on October 10, 1992 near the village of Malibeyli after a strike on Stepanakert. The pilot baled out, but his parachute did not open. Unlike Belichenko and Chistyakov, one more mercenary had a bad luck – little remained of him, only his name, Alexander, was identified through scraps of documents.
According to western data, on December 7, 1992, the Azerbaijanis lost a Mi-24 and another Su-25, shot by ground fire in Martuni region. By the beginning of 1993, the Azerbaijanis had eight Mi-24 (out of 14 that were received) and Armenia had 11 such helicopters (out of 13).
On January 15, 1993, Armenian Air Defense forces managed to shoot down a MiG-21 of Azerbaijani Air Force. In February 1993 the Karabakh defense forces launched an attack in Martakert region. Following heavy snowfalls Azerbaijani tanks and IFVs lost the ability to move and Armenian mobile detachments came to Sangar reservoir, cutting the road to Kelbajar. So, the 2nd Army Corps of Azerbaijani Army appeared to be squeezed between Armenia and Karabakh on both sides and cut off from Azerbaijan by Karabakh mountain ridge insurmountable in winter (altitude of up to 3,700 meters).
Azerbaijani army's attempt to launch a counter-offensive in Martakert region in mid-March failed. On March 25, the Armenians launched Kelbajar operation during which the 2nd Army Corps of Azerbaijan was smashed. The personnel, leaving behind the heavy equipment (15 tanks and IFVs), left in the direction of Ganja through Karabakh mountain ridge.
Azerbaijan declared that the main strike came from Armenia and the auxiliary strike came from Karabakh. Somehow or other, the Kelbajar operation put Armenia and Azerbaijan on the brink of open war. As a result of the operation, the Armenians took control of almost the half of Armenia-Azerbaijan border and opened for themselves a second road from Armenia to Karabakh.
Immediately after taking Kelbajar, Karabakh forces attacked Fizuli, trying to cut off from Azerbaijan the southern Kubatli force of Azerbaijani army. Although they were stopped 4-5 km from Fizuli, Azerbaijan had to draw up all reserves there. Consolidating their grip on the approaches to Fizuli, the Armenians launched an attack from Lachin corridor to the south, Kubatli, throwing back the enemy 25-30 km.
Colonel Suret Huseynov's 709th brigade started anti-government mutiny on June 4, 1993 in Ganja, demanding to remove president Abulfaz Elchibey (the brigade was formed on the basis of the disbanded 23rd motorized infantry division of Soviet Army). He was supported by some other units which also began advancing to Baku. Although it did not result in serious fights between mutineers and government forces, the president resigned and Heydar Aliyev, who came from Moscow, took up his powers.
While the Azerbaijanis engaged in intestine "showdowns," the Karabakh Armenians launched an attack on Aghdam –chief base of Azerbaijani army in the war against Karabakh.
Ammunition depots of former Soviet Army were in the town, there was a tank brigade (or what remained of it) and a repair base, besides, from the roads at the town crossing it was possible to launch an attack both on Stepanakert and Martakert.
Long-range artillery shelled Stepanakert from the outskirts of Aghdam. By June 18, 1993, a group of 40 Armenian tanks, with the support of Grad rocket launchers, infantry and Mi-24 helicopters, reached the outskirts of Aghdam and started bypassing the town from the north. Stubborn fighting for Aghdam fortified area went on for more than a month and Aghdam was taken only on July 24-25.
Now, the only potential threat for Karabakh was the so-called Zangilan arch in the south of Karabakh, formed by the towns of Fizuli, Jabrail, Kubatli and Zangilan. In Kubatli and Zangilan regions, the Azerbaijani army had approximately two infantry regiments which theoretically could pose a threat to Lachin. However, the reinforcement and supply of that group could be possible only through frontline Fizuli and Jabrail. On August 18, 1993, the Armenians seized Fizuli, on August 19 Jabrail, cutting off the southern force of Azerbaijani army.
At 7:13am on August 19, three Azerbaijani planes struck the town of Kapan in the southeast of Armenia, killing ten people. Settlements in Martuni and Hadrut regions of Karabakh were attacked on the next days.
Armenian forces continued smashing the enemy's southern force – on August 25-31, fights took place on the approaches to Kubatli and Zangilan. On September 1, the Armenians downed a Mi-24, Kubatli fell on the same day and then Zangilan was taken.
On September 16, 1993, a helicopter of Azerbaijani Air Force flying from Nakhijevan region (cut off from Azerbaijan by the territory of Armenia) was shot from the ground near Zangilan and had to violate the border of Iran, where it landed. After a warm welcome by local authorities to the crew and passengers, the helicopter was allowed to return to Azerbaijan.
The outcome of the 1993 summer campaign for Azerbaijan may be described in one word – catastrophe. Country's seven regions were completely or partially occupied by the "Armenian expedition corps," as the Karabakh people are called in Azerbaijan. Although officially Armenia did not take part in the war, it was clear that the 200,000 Armenian population of Karabakh could not create such a battle-worthy army without an active support from without. Azerbaijan was again flooded by refugees from the occupied territories, around 300,000-500,000 people, according to different estimations.
The Azerbaijani army was exhausted and demoralized. Unfortunately, the date is unknown when the following list of Azerbaijani Air Force's losses was first presented:
A total of ten warplanes.
Presumably, it is dated to 1993 and probably it is a list of losses officially acknowledged by Azerbaijan. The types of planes and modifications of MiG-25 are indicated very precisely. Even an expert would find it difficult to distinguish the debris of MiG-25P from MiG-25RB. The types of planes mostly do not coincide with those presented by Armenian sources in 1992-1993.
The summer catastrophe led to the appointment of new minister of defense of Azerbaijan. He was "Afghan" lieutenant general Mamedrafi Mammadov, who brought discipline to the army with tough methods. Up to shooting for conscription dodging, desertion and abandonment of positions. The army prepared for a new attack.
The Azerbaijani troops for the first time launched an active attack in winter – in late December 1993. Military operations started simultaneously in three directions. In the north, Azerbaijani troops took Omar pass and occupied several villages in Kelbajar region. Aghdam and Martakert were stricken in the east. Fizuli and Horadiz, which borders upon Iran, were stricken in the south. But the attack came to nothing by mid-February and Karabakh forces, getting reinforcement, reestablished control of most of the lost positions, including Horadiz.
On January 23, 1994, Armenian helicopter gunships struck an Azerbaijani settlement near Karabakh borders. On the same day, a couple of Azerbaijani planes bombed the Armenians and they reported about destruction of one of the planes (of course, it was "Su-25") and detection of the place where the plane fell. Azerbaijan refuted the report.
On February 17, accompanied by reconnaissance aircraft Su-24MP, with the help of portable air defense system missile Strela-2M, an Azerbaijani MiG-21 was downed over Vedi region of Armenia and its pilot was taken captive.
In 1994, it was noted that Armenia got warplanes. It is known that four Su-25 planes were transferred by Russia as part of military cooperation within CIS and they apparently participated in fights against Azerbaijani troops and a Su-25 was reportedly downed by the enemy. The western press registered Armenians' destruction of their own Su-22 on January 18, 1994. Most likely, it is the same incident and a Su-25, which Armenia had, was downed, unlike Su-22, which is an export modification of Su-17.
On March 25, 1994, two Azerbaijani planes dropped cluster bombs on Armenian positions near Horadiz, and Azerbaijani soldiers were also affected. On the same day, Armenian air defense forces prevented a raid on Stepanakert.
In April 1994, the Azerbaijani army launched a fresh attack. Thus, on April 10, Azerbaijani planes dropped three bombs on Stepanakert, one of which was a pellet bomb. Other settlements were also hit. Television showed a footage clearly showing the characteristic silhouette of Su-25.
Two days later, on April 12, two planes again bombed Stepanakert, killing two and wounding 38 people. One of the planes was downed over the village of Chila and its pilot baled out. On the whole, the attack did not bring any considerable success. The Armenians released a statement on April 21, saying that in a week of fighting they killed about 600 enemy soldiers, seized 8 tanks, 5 IFVs, 15 armored vehicles, as well as downed an Azerbaijani plane (probably on April 12).
On April 23, 1994, a group of seven Azerbaijani planes delivered a powerful strike on Stepanakert, but one of the planes (Su-25) was downed by air defense forces. The Azerbaijani side admitted that it lost one plane on that day, claiming that the plane had an accident. The pilot baled out and is at the base.
On May 12, 1994, the sides concluded a truce, which, despite individual shootouts, is observed up to the present day. From November 21, 1991 to May 12, 1994, Karabakh capital Stepanakert (11 square kilometers) was hit (according to Armenian information) by about 21,000 Grad rockets, 2,700 Alazan rockets and 1,900 artillery shells.
Azerbaijani air force dropped on the town 180 RBK bomb containers (one-shot bomb container with fragmentation sub-ammunition) and about one hundred 500 kg fragmentation high-explosive bombs, including 8 ODAB bombs.
On the whole, it can be said with confidence that the First Armenian-Azerbaijani War ended in the Armenian side's victory. The Armenians are in full control of Nagorno-Karabakh, as well as Kubatli, Zangilan, Jabrail, Fizuli, Kelbajar and Aghdam regions of Azerbaijan, and created so-called "security zones" there.
The Azerbaijani population (over 350,000 people), fearing reprisals, left those territories (the conflict stood out for particular cruelty of both sides towards the population of the other nationality). The only Armenian territories held by Azerbaijan are Shahumyan region and the Armenian part of Khanlar region, but these territories were not part of Karabakh and their Armenian population was deported during the conflict.
Undoubtedly, strategically necessary occupation of neighboring regions, justified for Karabakh people, on the other hand, creates definite prerequisites for Azerbaijani army's attempts to regain control of these territories, as well as Nagorno-Karabakh and, naturally, resumption of hostilities.
It is clear that Azerbaijan will hardly put up with the loss of one-fourth of its territory, but throughout the war, the Azerbaijani army, despite the numerical superiority and better equipment, had major losses – human losses and losses of armament, demonstrated poor battle training and moral qualities.
The Nagorno-Karabakh defense forces, for their part, also try to raise fighting efficiency of their army, in many respects thanks to assistance of Armenia. On May 9, 1995, Stepanakert hosted a military parade to mark three occasions – 50th anniversary of victory in the Great Patriotic War, 3rd anniversary of liberation of Shushi and 1st anniversary of truce in the war with Azerbaijan. The parade featured tanks with dynamic armor, IFVs, a self-propelled anti-aircraft missile system OSA, anti-aircraft missile system Krug, several ZIL trucks with rockets for anti-aircraft missile system C-125, as well as a couple of Mi-24 helicopters. Any attempt by Azerbaijan to win back the occupied territories will meet a serious resistance.
While Azerbaijan has distanced itself from military ties with Russia, Armenia actively cooperates with Moscow and gets tangible dividends from it. Suffice it to remember the receipt of four Su-25 planes, sensational scandal regarding supply of T-72 tanks, as well as information about possible transfer of modern fighters and anti-aircraft missile system C-300 to Yerevan. As of now, the Armenian air force has five Su-25 planes, one MigG-25 and two L-39, seven Mi-24R attack helicopters, three Mi-24K, seven Mi-8MT helicopters and a fleet of training aviation.
Undoubtedly, in case a new war breaks out in Karabakh, that equipment may be used to support Nagorno-Karabakh defense forces.
At the same time, as of the beginning of 2001, Azerbaijani air force had four Su-17 planes, five Su-24, two Su-25, five MiG-21, 31 MiG-25, three MiG-25UB, a helicopter regiment with 15 attack helicopters and Mi-24 helicopters, as well as a large fleet of transport aviation. Meanwhile, no less than 33 warplanes stand in hangars, unfit for use because of absence of spare parts and components. So, theoretically, Azerbaijan has serious military-technical and numerical superiority over the Karabakh defense forces.
However, the Azerbaijani army is at the stage of establishment, there are almost no battleworthy units, no military industrial complex has been created so far. Endless military defeats in the early 1990s, mutinous commanders, fight for power in Baku, clannishness – all this prevented the creation of a new type of Azerbaijani army. Azerbaijan may continue to purchase weapons by selling oil, but it will not be soon when it will achieve quality superiority over the Nagorno-Karabakh army. Dismissed top officers of Azerbaijani army constantly declare through local media that the current leadership of defense ministry purchased overpriced and obsolescent armament and military equipment. In all likelihood, these statements are well-founded. Thus, among other airplanes, four Su-17 planes were purchased in Ukraine. But after arrival at the site, it turned out that they were Su-17M4 front reconnaissance aircrafts. Therefore, Ukrainian specialists arrived in the country soon, and headed "remodernization" of the planes into fighter-bombers by homemade method. It should be added that these planes are decommissioned in Ukraine and Russia…
So, the comparison of military potentials of the conflict sides in Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict zone shows that the self-proclaimed republic for the present has enough resources to ensure its sovereignty by military means. At the same time, a military solution of the conflict should nevertheless be viewed as unlikely at this point.