Moscow Defense Brief

How South Caucasus Was Armed

Vladimir PETROV

When the Soviet Union ceased to exit, it left behind a very explosive legacy - the property of its Armed Forces. Hence, ownership issues with respect to this property among former Soviet republics now sovereign states should have been one of the greatest concerns for the political leaders in the newly independent states. However, an analysis of the legislative foundation of the process - including international agreements and internal legislation in CIS member countries - in the context of the developments of the last decade of the 20th century in the former Soviet Union indicates that they largely failed to tackle this job. I am sure that many losses could have been avoided, if a reliable mechanism for dividing military assets had been worked out on time.

The problem is especially vivid in the South Caucasus - an arena for numerous ethnic conflicts that developed into large-scale armed clashes involving heavy armaments. Russian army units and institutions that were and still are deployed in the region unwillingly became central players in these events and have been frequently named among the chief perpetrators of the bloodshed. Various publications and statements claim that the Russian military had sold arms on a mass scale. Therefore it is extremely important to objectively evaluate the role of the Russian Armed Forces in the movements of army property in the South Caucasus.

Legal foundation for army property division

Undoubtedly, the aforementioned processes began before the collapse of the Soviet Union. Soviet republic leaders started focusing their attention on army property already in the late 1980s. In 1991, the command of the Transcaucasian Military District (abbreviated to ZakVO in Russian) was instructed to submit detailed reports to the local authorities about the army units and institutions deployed in the South Caucasus and this was meticulously done. At the same time the top government bodies in the three republics of the South Caucasus passed legal acts unilaterally declaring the property of all units and formations of all USSR militarized services deployed in their territories to be property of their republics:

  • The 10.09.1990 law of the Republic of Armenia on state property.

  • The 11.11.1991 decree of the president of the Republic of Georgia "On arms, ammunition, means of transportation, military hardware, military bases and other military property of the Soviet Army stationed in the territory of the Republic of Georgia" and the 25.11.1991 resolution of the Supreme Soviet of the Republic of Georgia "On arms, ammunition, means of communications, military hardware, military bases and other military property of the Soviet Army, border forces, Navy stationed in the territory of the Republic of Georgia."

  • The 9.11.1991 resolution of the Supreme Council of the Azerbaijani Republic No. 211-12 "On the armed forces of the Azerbaijani Republic."

This was one of the causes of the numerous violent seizures of armaments, military hardware and other property of army units by Georgian, Azerbaijani and Armenian militarized formations often inflicting casualties upon Russian (Soviet) servicemen and their families. Thus, in summer 1992, the Azerbaijani Defense Ministry, following a resolution by the Azerbaijani president on the privatization of units and formations in Azerbaijani territory, forwarded an ultimatum demanding control over vehicles and armaments of the 135th and 139th motorized rifle regiments of the 295th motorized rifle division. In the spring of 1992, Armenian armed formations took the commander of the 7th army hostage to force the Russian command to return a squadron of Mi-24 helicopters to Armenian territory, which had been transferred to the airdrome in Tskhinvali, Georgia, in an attempt "to save it from privatization."

Seemingly, efforts were made to retain the control of former Soviet troops. The CIS United Armed Forces were formed for the transitional period by the 30.12.1991 agreement of the Council of CIS Heads of State on armed forces and border troops and the 20.03.1992 agreement on the United Armed Forces for the transitional period. The objectives were to guarantee the security of member countries, retain controllability over troops, prevent conflicts and coordinate a reform of the former Soviet Armed Forces. However, unity was not achieved.

On January 16, 1992, Pavel Grachev, first deputy Commander-in-Chief of the CIS United Armed Forces at the time and chairman of the State Committee of the Russian Federation for Defense Issues, reported the intentions of Armenia and Azerbaijan to form their own armed forces to Commander-in-Chief Marshal Yevgeny Shaposhnikov. Hostilities were already under way in Nagorno Karabakh. Increasing amounts of arms and ammunition were required, there even appeared a need for tanks.

Russia started forming its own Armed Forces in March 1992, when the Defense Ministry of the Russian Federation was formed by presidential decree No. 262 of March 16 "On the Defense Ministry and Armed Forces of the Russian Federation." On May 7, 1992 the president signed decree No. 466 "On the formation of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation." Under the decree the Armed Forces comprised military command bodies, formations, military units, institutions, organizations and educational institutions of the former USSR Armed Forces deployed in Russian territory as well as army and navy groupings outside the Russian Federation, but under its jurisdiction, including ZakVO forces. Already then the leadership of the Russian Armed Forces tried to implement the principle that the materials of troops under Russian jurisdiction was their property.

There was no multilateral agreement in the CIS on the division of the USSR movable property until October 9, 1992, when member countries signed the Bishkek agreement on the mutual recognition of rights and regulation of property relations. In the agreement, the parties recognized "the transfer of property rights, conducted in accordance with their national laws, including financial resources, enterprises, institutions, organizations and their structural units and divisions of former central subordination located in the territories of the sides." It also established that the issues of property belonging to the Armed Forces, Border, Interior Ministry and Railway troops would be settled in separate agreements between the sides.

However, even that was evidently insufficient to settle the very difficult relations between Russia and the newly independent states. The future of army property was discussed among other things in the CIS Military Security Concept, approved at the same summit in Bishkek. The Concept recognized the existence of "mutual claims of independent states and new national formations to each other, the ambiguity of the interpretation of ownership questions for a certain part of former Soviet property, including military, the uncertainty of the status of certain troops under Russian jurisdiction temporarily deployed in other countries of the Commonwealth." Nevertheless, no bilateral or multilateral agreements were signed on the division of military property later, which means everything was once again left up to chance.

In international law, such issues are regulated by provisions of the April 8, 1983 Vienna Convention on Succession of States in Respect of State Property, Archives and Debts. The convention implies that, in the event of the appearance of a new independent state or the division of a state, the unmovable state property of the predecessor state is transferred to the successor state on the territory of which it is located, while movable state property (if it is unrelated to the activities of the predecessor state with regard to territories being objects of legal succession) is transferred to successor states in fair proportions. But as neither the Russian Federation, nor its neighbors in CIS are parties to this convention, its provisions are not binding for them.

However, Russia did sign international agreements with all South Caucasian countries on the future of former Soviet military property. Only two agreement texts can be found in databases: the 06.07.1992 agreement between Russia and Armenia on the conditions and terms for transferring the following to Armenia: weaponry and military hardware of disbanded units and formations of Russian Armed Forces deployed in Armenia; and the 10.07.1992 agreement on the conditions and terms of the transfer to Armenia of part of the weaponry, military hardware and materials of the Russian Federation deployed in Armenia.

In addition to intergovernmental agreements, there were also agreements between ministries, namely:

  • A letter of intent on a list of military formations and facilities (signed by the defense ministers of Russia and Armenia supposedly in May 19921),

  • A protocol on the transfer of ZakVO military units and facilities deployed in the territory of the Republic of Georgia (signed by the defense ministers of Russia and Georgia on 30.04.1992),

  • A letter of intent on lists of military formations and facilities (signed by the defense ministers of Russia and Azerbaijan on 29.04.1992).

Even though said agreements listed specific army units and ZakVO facilities that the Russian side was bound to transfer to the South Caucasian states and the schedule of the transfer, they were declarative and extremely brief (1-2 typewritten pages), which is probably impermissible for settling such vital matters. Due to the legal sloppiness of these documents, later the defense ministries leadership had to supplement them with verbal explanations specifying the list of transferred weaponry and the transfer mechanism. Of course, this practice did not contradict the 1969 Vienna Convention of the Law of Treaties, but it can hardly be called expedient when applied to the transfer of enormous quantities of weaponry. Besides, the mechanism of such transfers was not regulated at the level of the Russian Defense Ministry. Officials responsible for documenting arms transfers were forced to apply provisions of the Instructions on Accounting Armaments, Vehicles, Property and Other Materials approved by the USSR Defense Minister order No. 260 in 1979. The instructions had not been intended to account for transfers of military property between the Russian Armed Forces and militarized formations of former Soviet republics that had become foreign states. The absence of a strict order of such transfers coordinated with the military authorities of those countries gave ample abuse opportunities to Russian military officials who could benefit, for instance, from the difficulty of control over these operations by corresponding foreign agencies. Under an advanced criminal agreement with officials from those agencies, they were able to record bigger quantities of transferred arms in documents than actually delivered and pocket the difference.

So we can recognize that the transfer of armaments of ZakVO and other military formations to South Caucasian countries did have a legal foundation though admittedly deficient.

How ZakVO was divided

The district spread over the territories of all three South Caucasian states and existed under that name until September 1992. It comprised two general-purpose armies and one army corps. The South Caucasus also hosted units and formations subordinate to the central command: the 19th air defense army, the 34th Air Force army, paratroopers, the Caspian flotilla and Black Sea Fleet naval brigades. A total of over 1,000 military formations and institutions, as well as border troops of the former USSR KGB and USSR Interior Troops were deployed there.

After they were placed under Russian jurisdiction, energetic organizational and personnel measures were taken to disband the units and formations of the district, the 19th army and the 34th army and withdraw some of them to Russian territory. The latter two armies were deployed mainly in Azerbaijan and Georgia (Armenia hosted only small advanced radio technical units of the 10th army but no units of the 34th army) were fully disbanded. The armaments and other property of most of the disbanded units were transferred to South Caucasian countries, mainly in 1992. Other units and formations of Russian Armed Forces in Armenia and Georgia were transformed into the Russian Military Grouping in the South (abbreviated to GRVZ).

Azerbaijan had been the deployment area of units of the 4th army that consisted of four motorized rifle divisions (23rd, 60th, 296th and 75th) and prescribed army units that included missile and air defense brigades and artillery and rocket regiments. It also hosted the 49th arsenal of the Main Rocket and Artillery Department of the Russian Defense Ministry, which contained over 7,000 train-car loads of ammunition to the excess of one billion units. The transfer of the property of the 4th army (except for part of the property of the 366th motorized rifle regiment of the 23rd division captured by Armenian armed formations in 1992 during the regiment's withdrawal from Stepanakert)2 and the 49th arsenal was completed in 1992. Thus, by the end of 1992, Azerbaijan received arms and military hardware sufficient for approximately four motorized rifle divisions with prescribed army units. It also inherited 50 combat aircraft from the disbanded 19th Air Defense Army and naval ships.

Units of the 6th army comprised the core of the Soviet force in Armenia. The army consisted of three motorized rifle divisions (127th, 15th, 164th) and prescribed army units identical to the 4th army. As a result of the explosion at the ammunition depot in Balaovit in1991, the 7th army lost its prescribed stocks.

In 1992 when the 7th army was disbanded, Armenia inherited weaponry and other materials belonging to the 15th and 164th divisions and several prescribed army units. Russia was left with the 127th division which was transformed into the 102nd military base of GRVZ in 1994. At the same, time under agreements between Armenia and Russia, the deadline for the transfer of weapons to Armenia was set for 1995. In actual fact Russia fulfilled its obligations to Armenia only in 1996.

As for Georgia, Russia was bound to transfer to it the armaments and other property of the 10th tank division in Akhalatsikhe, the 6th and 8th fortified areas of the 31st army corps. This was mainly done in 1992. In Georgia Russia retained the 145th and 147th motorized rifle divisions (later transformed into the 12th and 62nd bases of GRVZ), the 405th motorized rifle regiment of the 10th tank division moved from Akhalatsikhe to Vaziani and transformed into the 137th military base of GRVZ, and also former prescribed army units - an air defense brigade, various storage facilities etc.

Judging by Soviet standard requirements for all types of armaments for motorized rifle and tank divisions, the amount of SALW transferred to South Caucasian countries alone can be counted in hundreds of thousands of units. It should be noted that, as a rule, the Russian military tried to give away weaponry of lower quality, the service life of which had expired or that was of no use for their troops. The possibilities of withdrawing property to Russian territory were quite limited, because, due to numerous armed conflicts in the Caucasus, direct railway communications between ZakVO (GRVZ) and Russia had been interrupted. It would have been simply ruinous to airlift heavy weaponry.

Russia's ownership of the movable property at GRVZ military bases was legally documented only in 1995, in the 15.09.1995 treaty with Georgia on Russian military bases in Georgia and the 16.03.1995 treaty with Armenia on the Russian military base in Armenia.

We should also name one more international treaty, which many analysts of the problems of arms proliferation in the South Caucasus refer to. It is the Agreement on the Principles and Procedures for the Implementation of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE Treaty) and the Protocol on Maximum Levels for Holdings of Conventional Armaments and Equipment of the Republic of Azerbaijan, the Republic of Armenia, the Republic of Belarus, the Republic of Kazakhstan, the Republic of Moldova, the Russian Federation, Ukraine and the Republic of Georgia in connection with the CFE Treaty (known as the Tashkent accords) signed on May 15, 1992 in Tashkent by the countries - legal successors of the USSR in relation to the CFE treaty. For some reason it is believed that these agreements served as a foundation for Russian arms transfers to countries in the South Caucasus. However, the texts of the accords contain nothing of the kind.

The Tashkent accords set maximum levels (quotas) of conventional armaments for each CIS country3 . The accords state: "Upon mutual agreement and in keeping with the reduction liabilities and other requirements of the Treaty and its associated documents, the Contracting Parties shall transfer to each other conventional armaments and equipment that are subject to reduction." However, it does not follow from the accords that Russia was in any way obliged to transfer such armaments. It simply had the right to do so, and such transfers could be conducted in the framework of dividing movable property by way of legal succession, or in the framework of military-technical cooperation. Likewise, by virtue of these agreements, Russia could demand that South Caucasian countries return such armaments to it, especially as in the process of dividing former Soviet Army property. Azerbaijan, for instance, inherited more tanks, combat vehicles and artillery than the ceilings set for it. Armenia, on the contrary, gave up part of its tank quota for the benefit of Russia and does not have the 220 tanks prescribed to it. The obligation to transfer armaments followed only from the abovementioned protocols of April-May 1992 and the July 1992 agreements with Armenia, because the volume of transferred weaponry under them was determined by the structure of military units and formations (divisions). On the other hand, the Tashkent accords only set the ceiling on heavy armaments that could be transferred to South Caucasian countries under these protocols, or under other intentional treaties potentially signed with Russia or as a result of deliveries under military-cooperation contracts.

In our opinion, the Tashkent accords contained a reasonable provision aimed at preventing an armed conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan because it established parity in heavy armaments between them. If they observed their quotas, nobody would have unilateral advantage in armaments. On the other hand, "the fair shares" of former Soviet republics in Soviet military property could not be equal because Azerbaijan had a population of about 8 million and Armenia 3 million. By the way, the agreement on the distribution of Soviet assets abroad defined this share numerically: Azerbaijan - 1.64%, Armenia - 0.86%. A similar approach could have been applied to military property evaluated in monetary terms.

Assessment of division processes

When we evaluate the steps Russian military officials took to transfer armaments to countries in the South Caucasus, we should take into account the following important circumstance. Arms transfers as the transition of property rights to armaments from one country to another have two forms:

  • Arms transfers (in this case by Russia) by way of implementing international treaties on the division of the movable property of the former Soviet Union between countries - legal successors of the USSR,

  • Arms transfers in the framework of Russia's military-technical cooperation with foreign nations.

It is absolutely evident that these are two different types of relations. However, they are often groundlessly confused. What Russia was bound to transfer to other newly formed sovereign states in keeping with their mutual commitments with regard to the movable property of the former Soviet Union is sometimes described as arms delivery. In the legal sense, an arms delivery is a civil law contract related to military-technical cooperation that in its turn is an element of a country's foreign economic activities.

At the present time, judging by everything, the Russian Federation does not have any commitments to countries in the South Caucasus as far as the division of former Soviet Army property is concerned.

Russian top military officials are accused of allegedly arbitrarily delivering (transferring) the aforementioned weaponry, because Russian legislation on military-technical cooperation with foreign states prescribes that military-use goods may be transferred to foreign states only under government decisions4 .

However, Russian legislation does not contain any regulatory acts that would specify the government bodies responsible for the implementation of the aforementioned international treaties or their powers, even the powers of the Defense Ministry, in the sphere of dividing former Soviet military assets between successor countries. For this reason all the treaties on the transfer of armaments to countries in the South Caucasus listed above were legally binding. Besides, it was the Russian Defense Ministry that had been assigned functions of the contracting side bearing the main responsibility for the fulfillment of CFE Treaty provisions by Russia5. However, the powers of the Defense Ministry to implement provisions of Article 4 of the treaty were not specified, which did not rule out the possibility of transferring heavy armaments to foreign countries in the framework of implementing the CFE Treaty and Tashkent Accords under decisions of the Russian Defense Ministry leadership without confirmation from the federal government.

Consequently the question of the possible abuse of power by Defense Ministry officials in arms transfers to countries in the South Caucasus may be raised only if they had transferred more weapons than international treaties had provided for.

In this connection we can say with a high degree of probability that at least Azerbaijan received more than it should have under the protocol and under the Tashkent Accords.

Why did that happen? It is difficult to say now whether it was a result of abuse of power by Russian military officials or anything else. Practice has shown that even a full-scale criminal investigation would be of little help here. Firstly, because of the passage of time, and secondly, because none of the sides that received armaments would be likely to admit having bribed the Russian military. In addition, there are reasons to believe that the then top political and military leadership of the South Caucasian countries may have authorized such bribery.

It has been claimed that Russian military officials received fantastic bribes. For instance, that $20 million was allegedly paid in July 1992 to the command of the 23rd motorized rifle division of the 4th army for the transfer of the armaments of the said division to Azerbaijan. The story also says that the bribers made a big mistake, because the transfer of arms and other property of the division to the Azerbaijani Defense Ministry began in June 1992 in keeping with the 22.06.1992 directive of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, meaning that the division commander received money for what he was bound to do anyway. Besides, the headquarters of ZakVO controlled the property transfers and received almost daily reports on its progress.

Commanders on location directly responsible for the property transfers received fairly clear instructions about the procedure of transfers, including the amount of weaponry. However, the transfers were often conducted under strong pressure from the local authorities. Under those conditions the commanders were simply forced to give away everything to save the lives of their subordinates and their families, i.e. act under extreme circumstances. For instance, the withdrawal of the 366th motorized rifle regiment from Stepanakert in March 1992 was planned and carried out as a real combat operation involving attack helicopters and formations of the 104th air-borne division stationed in Gyanja.

In keeping with the 26.06.1992 Russian government resolution No. 407 "On measures to prevent actions against the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation," unit commanders were allowed, in case of unprovoked armed attacks on Russian army units, cantonments and other facilities, servicemen and their families, to take adequate measures by way of self-defense to stop such aggressive actions and even to open fire on the attackers. How could army depots and arsenals been effectively guarded with such a disastrous shortage of personnel? For instance, on July 1, 1992 all large-scale reductions ZakVO was supposed to have a staff of some 60,000 servicemen but in actual fact had no more than 30,000. Besides, many local servicemen defected to the newly formed militarized formations of their own republics and before leaving gave the armaments they had been in charge of to their compatriots whenever it was possible6.

In our opinion, complex as the situation in the South Caucasus was, especially in 1992, ZakVO troops remained quite controllable for the Russian military command. Controllability improved after the formation of the GRVZ after the bulk of the weaponry of the disbanded units had been transferred to South Caucasian states and it had become much easier to guard the remaining property. A significant improvement in the living standards of Russian servicemen stationed in the South Caucasus in the mid-1990s permitted the GRVZ command to radically reduce the problem of theft of arms by Russian servicemen. Regular accounting and control over armaments was established and measures to prevent theft were taken. In 1997 a Russian Defense Ministry commission conducted a full-scale inspection of the documents of all services of the GRVZ. Evidently the GRVZ armaments department managed to give a full account of the transfer and turnover of the ZakVO/GRVZ armaments beginning with January 1, 1992. It is true that the financial crisis in 1998 once again undermined the living standards of Russian servicemen in the South Caucasus and provoked a rise in crime rates related to illicit arms trade. However, there was no theft of arms by the Russian military.

The seizure of arms from the Russian military by unlawful and quite lawful armed formations constitutes a different matter. Incomplete GRVZ lists of weapons stolen since 1991 contain 64 grenade launchers, 1,736 pistols, 46 rifles and carbines, 1,768 assault rifles and 130 machineguns. The bulk of the weaponry seized at that time has not been recovered and remains in illegal turnover. Due measures have not been taken on criminal cases opened by Russian military prosecutors and submitted to local law enforcement bodies.

There used to be a practice of transferring arms "for temporary use" to local militarized formations, sometimes not quite legitimate. Commanders of Russian units received requests for such transfers from the lowest command of such formations. To this day, the command of the Russian forces has failed to recover a significant part of this weaponry. Many of these weapons spread to conflict zones in various ways.

* * *

Summing up the above, the following conclusions may be drawn:

  • The claims that after the disintegration of the Soviet Union the Russian military "sold their arsenals on a mass scale" in the South Caucasus are groundless. In 1992-1996 there was a more or less planned transfer of armaments and other property of Russian military units to the countries in the South Caucasus in keeping with corresponding international treaties.

  • It is possible that part of this property fell into the hands of militarized formations of South Caucasian countries, some of them illegal, through the criminal deeds of certain Russian military officials on location. However, the leadership of the Russian Armed Forces did not authorize their actions and the criminally-transferred weaponry constitutes an insignificant share of all the property transferred from Russian army units. Consequently it is wrong to describe them as a key source of illicit arms trade in the South Caucasus. The presence of troops in a certain place and definitely is not a necessary condition of illegal turnover arms there, if the troops are reliably controlled. The South Caucasus was armed to the extent that met the appetites and ambitions of the leaders of local political elites and the degree of their decency.

1 The date is absent from the text of the protocol.

2 In a television interview Armenian President Robert Kocharian confirmed that he "began the war with nine tanks." The same number of tanks seized by Armenian rebels is named in ZakVO and Russian Defense Ministry documents.

3 By the way, equal quotas were assigned to Azerbaijan and Armenia, namely: main battle tanks - not more than 220, armored combat vehicles -no more than 220, large caliber artillery systems (100 mm and more) no more than 285, combat aircraft - no more than 100 and attack helicopters - not more than 50.

4 Beginning with 1995, the Russian Defense Ministry does not have the right to independently deliver armaments to foreign states. See. Presidential decree No. 1008 of October 5, 1995.

5 Resolution of the Council of Ministers - government of the Russian Federation No. 92 "On measures related to the implementation of the CFE Treaty", 02.02.1993

6 Armenians, Georgians and Azeris constituted 60-70% of the district personnel, primarily in the Q service.

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