The 2020 Artsakh/Nagorno Kharabakh War revealed a number of problems in the Armenian Armed Forces—one of which was the inability to conduct an effective call-up of reservists. Once military and political leaders understood that formal mobilization of reservists did not work, this approach was replaced by jokats—the use of volunteer groups, with 40 men in each. But this strategy was also ineffective because the groups were not really integrated in the Armed Forces, personnel lacked training, and their commanders were inexperienced. After the war a new trend arose—the development of non-state volunteer units. The best known is Voma, which was formed in 2014 and participated in the 2020 Artsakh/Nagorno Kharabakh War, but there are several others, such as Tigran Mets and Azatazen. The idea of civic engagement and activity “coming from below” to fulfill functions the state is not able to perform effectively may sound like a good alternative but it can bring challenging problems and significant risks.
This article outlines the operational, material, and legal risks associated with volunteer battalions and proposes some solutions to address these issues.
The problem of integration and armament
Units such as those described above rely on civilian volunteers willing to undertake training activities—normally in the evening or at weekends. Some of these groups, including Voma and Tigran Mets, are on combat duty along the border with Azerbaijan.
The units are highly motivated, but because they conduct almost all training activities on their own and do not have much interaction with the regular army they largely operate outside the command-and-control chain (C2). This is definitely not the best use of some of the most motivated people in the country.
There are also problems with the equipment the groups use. Their clothing and individual armour are sometimes better than those used in the Armed Forces, but they can’t use any armaments except small arms (mostly assault rifles) during training. A lack of training on crew served weapons and most modern equipment makes these groups a challenge to effectively integrate with their regular army counterparts.
The third concern is that the units are entirely reliant on private finance. At present the will exists among donors in Armenia and the diaspora to support such projects—and let’s hope that won’t change. But hope is not a term that sits comfortably in military planning and the security architecture of a country in such a hard-threat environment, especially given the fact that the deployment and operations of combat-ready groups is extremely expensive.
Volunteers can be prosecuted or killed in Azerbaijan
A major problem of the non-state volunteer units is that they are not protected by existing war conventions. A volunteer member captured by Azerbaijani forces during border clashes or military conflict may not be considered a prisoner of war (POW). As a result, the Baku regime will at best prosecute them for terrorism, being a mercenary, and so on, and at worst execute them on the battlefield. Acquiescing in this situation would be to opt out of moral responsibility for the fate of Armenian soldiers.
The situation described above is not hypothetical. Azerbaijani authorities and military personnel have openly executed Armenian POWs, as evidenced by videos and photographs of such crimes coming from pro-government Azerbaijani sources—mostly via Telegram and other social media platforms.
Another case that makes plain the grave danger for militia-type troops is the ongoing prosecution by the Azerbaijani authorities of POWs captured during the 2020 Artsakh/Nagorno-Karabakh War, despite the fact this is against international penal law conventions.
It is worth noting that the international community supports the Armenian position—the most recent execution of POWs was condemned by many countries, including the United States. Moreover, most formal and de facto mediators of the Armenian–Azerbaijani conflict are working for the release of Armenian POWs and on occasion Baku has been sending them back to Yerevan. But if irregular troops were imprisoned or executed there might not be such strong support from the international community.
Another international issue that may arise is the potential difficulty created for defense procurement by countries, mostly Western ones, conducting the arms trade responsibly. At this point Armenia is not procuring weapons in those countries, but there is a trend towards diversification since the Russo-Ukrainian war and the ongoing informal freeze of military–technical cooperation between Moscow and Yerevan. Using irregular privately financed armed groups is not the best way to demonstrate responsibility and high standards of deployment, maintenance, and operation of any Western weapons that theoretically could be procured by Yerevan.
The existing situation is not optimal for Armenia’s security. At the same time there are signs of some positive processes taking place: the core personnel of several volunteer units are signing official short-term contracts with the Armenian Ministry of Defense and starting combat duty on the border with Azerbaijan, which technically makes them part of the Armed Forces. This also allows volunteers to acquire military-class small arms from the army in the course of their duty. Yet at the same time it cannot be said that units are really integrated in the state’s defense institutions.
The most famous recent example of the formation and use of volunteer units is in the Russo-Ukrainian conflict, which started in 2014. At that time the Ukrainian Armed Forces were in a very bad shape with most troops out of action, so a process of forming volunteer battalions was launched, partly similar to recent developments in Armenia. The key difference was the initial participation of the Ukrainian state in forming such units—all of them were either part of newly appeared National Guard (part of the Ukrainian Internal Affairs Ministry) and Territorial Defense troops (organized by the General Staff), or the Armed Forces. Some of the units had and still have private financing, but that does not cover 100% of operational costs—it is more to augment rather than replace the state’s financial capabilities.
As Armenia at the moment is forming its own Territorial Defense troops, there is an optimal way of integrating the existing volunteer units into the state system. They should become formal battalions of Territorial Defense. At the same time the units should preserve their names, commanders, part of their internally formed traditions, as well as their support from donors which should be organized the way which is not creating mixed loyalties and priorities. At the same time these troops should also be financed by the government at the same level as other newly formed “pure” Territorial Defense battalions and private help should be something auxiliary and conducted through official pipelines. Simultaneously, the activities of independent volunteer units should be strictly prohibited and an official pipeline for forming such units in future should be set up.
Leonid Nersisyan is a defense analyst and research fellow at APRI Armenia. He is co-author of the books Waiting for the Storm: The South Caucasus and Storm in the Caucasus.
These views are his own.