On the collapse of the 1918 First Armenian Republic and the 1921 Russo-Turkish Treaty of Kars
December 20, 2021
By Eddie Arnavoudian
The Collapse of the First 1918-1920 Armenian Republic
III. The 1920 Turkish offensive against Armenia and the fall of Kars
On 24 September 1920 Turkey launched its offensive to retake the Armenian controlled and strategically critical city of Kars and the 60,000 square kilometers of surrounding territory that had passed to Armenia after the 1918 Mudros Armistice. Advancing rapidly Turkish forces reached Kars on 24 October. By 30 October, almost without a shot fired this naturally almost impregnable, heavily fortified, militarily well-equipped city was captured. Desertions had melted army ranks and its military and political leadership suffered a paralysis of incompetence.
The surrender of Kars was the greatest Armenian military disaster of the 20th century.
It destroyed all hope for the future of the First Republic and called into question the very future existence of an Armenian state. Besides the recapture of the Kars and nearly 60% of Armenian controlled territory, within days Turkish forces also seized the town of Alexandropol (now Gyumri). Savage massacres, rape, arson, and destruction ensued leaving at least 30,000 dead.
Ataturk’s triumph was sealed by the Treaty of Alexandropol, which, reminiscent of the 1918 Batum Treaty, once again threatened to reduce Armenia to an unsustainable minor Turkish protectorate. The Armenian nation was squeezed back into a tiny space around Yerevan and Lake Sevan. Required to end all military conscription, Armenian armed forces were limited to 1500 soldiers with the right to possess no more than eight cannon and twenty machine guns. Turkish political officials, based in Armenia, were granted powers to oversee and enforce these clauses. Meanwhile Armenian railway and transportation links were to be put under Turkish control and the Turkish military acquired rights to carry out operations in Armenia.
As the Turkish noose tightened Armenia’s Western ‘allies’ offered not an iota of help. Soviet Russia too, albeit in informal alliance with Turkey, played no direct role in the Armenian-Turkish War. Roubina Piroumian speaking of some ‘demoralization’ in the army caused by Armenian ‘Bolshevik propaganda (RP264)’ makes no reference to any Russian state or military role in the fall of Kars. Levon Khurshutyan, always ready to attribute Armenian misfortunes to Soviet Russia, here speaks differently. The catastrophe was clearly self-inflicted with responsibility put squarely at the feet of the Armenian army and state.
‘The Armenian people in 1918, hungry and poorly equipped, hurled back Turkish forces to register brilliant victories in the heroic May battles. In 1920, the fantastically well-armed, well-clothed and well-fed Armenian army failed to carry out its duty to the homeland (LK 200-201).
A shocking but truthful examination of the internal, systemic causes of the fall of Kars is offered by Gevorg Yazichyan’s excellent essay - ‘The True Causes Behind the Fall of Kars (1920)’ (in ‘Studies on Strategy and Security’, ed Armen Ayvazian, 684pp, Lusakn, 2007). A critique ‘of the large literature’ on the subject that concerns itself primarily with ‘external-diplomatic causes’ at the expense of the domestic, national realities that prevailed this essay brings to the fore the question of Armenian responsibility, focusing on the Armenian military and political leadership’s incapacities and incompetence.
Within a month of the Kars capitulation, to prevent the total annihilation of the Armenian state at the hands of the Ataturk regime the ARF government voluntarily and peacefully passed the reins of power to Armenian Bolsheviks backed by the Russian Soviet military.
IV. Soviet Russia, Turkey, and the First Republic’s international relations
Almost everything that unfolded in Armenia throughout the years of the First Republic did so in the web of complex and tense international relations, most particularly those between Soviet Russia and Turkey, both powerful presences in the region. Their ambitions and actions and their relations would have an indubitable and often decisive impact on Armenian affairs. State and nation building therefore, besides decisive domestic social, economic, and political measures, required the development of appropriate foreign relations and alliances with those powers objectively most able to benefit the First Republic. But here again, in what together with domestic police was a second critical sphere of action, the Armenian leadership proved incapable of negotiating the intricacies of Russian-Turkish relations to its own benefit.
The collapse of the Tsarist and Ottoman Empires, the victory of the Bolshevik movement in Russia and the rise of Kemal Ataturk’s imperialist-nationalist movement gave birth to very particular Soviet Russian and Turkish relations. Both were engaged in what were very different battles against the Allied powers. Headed by Kemal Ataturk, imperialist Turkish elites fought to retain exclusive control of the last remnants of the Ottoman Empire that Britain, France, and the USA hoped to carve up among themselves and their allies. Soviet Russia meanwhile was in the midst of a desperate effort to defeat Allied-supported anti-Soviet White forces. Short term strategic and tactical considerations pushed Russia and Turkey together. Nevertheless, their relations, agreements and treaties were by no stretch of the imagination free of tensions and contradictions, especially so in the Caucuses where both sought to wield direct control or strategic influence at each other’s expense .
The Turkish state, in alliance with the Azerbaijani Musavat regime was unquestionably the primary threat to the Armenian state’s and nation’s existence. It had organized the Armenian Genocide. Now it was intent on retaking the Kars-Ardahan region and also had eyes on eastern Armenia, the conquest of which would offer it a passageway to the oil fields of Baku. Yet the First Republic’s government made no effort to exploit and develop possible antagonisms between Russia and Turkey. It made no attempt to drive a wedge between Turkey and Russia, to sway Russia away from Turkey and towards Armenia.
Did Armenia have anything to put on the table? It didn’t have any natural resources or any ports. But perhaps if allied to Soviet Russia it could field, if united and inspired, an army that could reinforce and strengthen the Bolshevik front and be a countervailing power to the anti-Armenian and anti-Bolshevik Azerbaijani Musavats and Georgian Mensheviks. The Armenian ARF government dismissed such options. Instead of possible accords with Soviet Russia, the First Republic spent two years ‘engaging in struggle against it (RP234)’ and cultivated relations with the Soviet government’s most virulent enemies, the anti-Soviet Southern Russian Front, the Whites and General Denikin (RP149-154)!
More damagingly still the Armenian leadership did nothing that would strengthen the hand of substantial pro-Armenian circles in the Soviet government that, with enhanced influence, could have secured means to ease Turkish pressure on Armenia. At best the Armenian government vacillated miserably, at a time when Russia urgently needed stable strategic allies.
Placing all of its very few eggs in the Western imperialist, anti-Soviet basket the ARF government only reinforced the Russian-Turkish alliance. Despite 60 years of the Great Powers’ ruthless betrayal of Armenian interests, in the vain hope of securing their aid and support the Armenian leadership continued to slavishly bend the knee to Britain, France and increasingly the USA. ‘The government of the Republic of Armenia opted’ Khurshutyan writes ‘for an anti-Soviet Western orientation (LK113)’ and this despite the fact that ‘the Allies and Armenia failed to agree on any practical measures to implement the Treaty of Sevres and save the Armenian Republic (LK111).’
Despite the Soviet State’s and its armies’ geographical proximity to Armenia and the Caucuses, the first official Armenian-Soviet governmental negotiations occurred only in May 1920! Yet even as these commenced and indeed even before the triumph of the Bolsheviks the ARF had nailed its anti-Bolshevik colors to the mast and tied its cart to the Western imperialist bandwagon (RP142, 147, 151). During the years of the First Republic entranced by hopes for ‘Allied and US material assistance’ as well as Western ‘political promises’, the Armenian government did not ‘consider it necessary to initiate official negotiations with Moscow (RP207).’ Piroumian elaborates:
‘With hopes placed on the Allies, the Armenian leadership was worried that developing its relations with Bolshevik Russia would cause dissatisfaction among the Allies and lead to the thwarting of their promises (RP207).’
The mind boggles in the face of such naïve illusions in promises from the mendacious West that had already broken more than a thousand and one pledges and promises! As the Republic neared its end accords were indeed negotiated between the Armenian and Russian governments (RP210-215). But by then it was too late. Pro-Armenian personalities in the Soviet state were marginalized and moreover the Soviet leadership had little ground to trust the heads of the anti-Bolshevik Armenian Republic .
‘Considering Armenia a friend of White (anti-Soviet) Russia’ and ‘an opponent of Soviet Russia (RP152)’, the Soviet government had no cause to be charitable to Armenian demands or expectations for defense or solidarity. When Soviet Russia was in a position to arbitrate and negotiate border and territorial disputes between Armenia and Azerbaijan, as they indeed were, pressure would be on them to lean towards Azerbaijan, and especially so after April 1920 when the latter moved early under the Soviet umbrella.
Inevitably as Kemal Ataturk prepared his assault on Kars and Ardahan, Armenia was once again abandoned by the West. Armenian ‘requests for weapons and provisions’ produced ‘no practical assistance’ with the Allies offering ‘only’ the usual ‘sympathetic words and promises (RP251).’ Armenia was also isolated from Russia, the sole regional power potentially at odds with Turkey and capable of staying Ataturk’s hand. But Russia then had nothing to gain from intervening on behalf of an uncompromisingly anti-Soviet Armenian government! Soviet Russian support for an anti-Soviet Armenian state would have been not only senseless but would have entailed dangerous risks for Russia.
Soviet Russia was thus on the sidelines when Turkey attacked and took Kars.
Immediate developments thereafter are matters of fact, despite unending contentious interpretations and explanations of how these facts came about. Whether as a result of an aggressive Russian military invasion or local Communist insurrection or a combination of both, the leadership of the beleaguered First Republic handed power to the pro-Bolshevik Armenian Communist Party thus halting further attack on Armenia by Ataturk’s nationalist forces. A much-diminished Armenian state survived, under the Soviet umbrella.
Within a year the Soviet-Turkish October 1921 Treaty of Kars drew and formalized the current Turkish-Armenian borders. It recognized Kars as part of Turkey but enforced a Turkish withdrawal from Alexandropol. Pronouncements and denunciations of this Treaty as the fruit of Soviet betrayal and treachery, as the final step of a Russian-Turkish plot to slice up and destroy Armenia seriously miss the mark.
Immediately as he entered the political arena Kemal Ataturk had made his intention of seizing Kars and Ardahan for Turkey, categorically and uncompromisingly clear whatever the cost (LK8, 9; RP297). He would brook no opposition and refused to countenance any concession whatsoever to Armenia or anyone else. He insisted, on the pain of endless war, that Kars and Ardahan were inviolable parts of Turkey. The First Republic’s surrender of Kars-Ardahan therefore presented Soviet Russia with a fait accompli for which it was not responsible and which it would find impossible to reverse. Any 1921 Soviet Russian insistence on a Turkish withdrawal from Kars-Ardahan would have been fraught with the risk of a war that Russia could not afford. Soviet Russia was in no position to alter the status quo. It was in no position to wage war against Turkey to retake Kars that anti-Soviet Armenian leaders had given away to Kemalist Turkey in the first place!
Had Armenia retained control of Kars and Ardahan in the September-November 1920 Armenian-Turkish War, the terms of Russian-Turkish-Armenian relations would have been entirely different. An Armenian victory against Ataturk’s forces in 1920 would have created facts on the ground favorable to Armenia. One can even conjecture that within this context a Soviet-Armenian First Republic alliance with a larger Armenia as a buffer zone for Soviet Russia against Western meddling there would have been no 1921 Kars Treaty, a treaty that merely rubber-stamped Turkish-created facts on the ground.
* * *
The experience of the First Republic, its failure to attend to and solve pressing issues confronting the common people and its inability to compensate for domestic and internal weaknesses with a wise and calculated international foreign policy is instructive for the Third Republic now itself undergoing endemic crisis exacerbated following its catastrophic defeat in the September-October 2020 44-Day War.
The character of Soviet Russian-Turkish relations merits separate and detailed consideration. One cannot however refrain from a few observations. Whatever may have pressed them into temporary alliances there is, to put it mildly, a sharp unsavory aspect to public, diplomatic Soviet evaluations and presentations of Kemal Ataturk and his reactionary, racist, imperialist, nationalist movement. The Soviet misrepresentation of Ataturk as a progressive, even quasi-proletarian anti-imperialist was total fabrication. Ataturk resisted US, British and French imperialism not in the name of the common people of what remained of the Ottoman Empire, nor even in the name of the Turkish people and the independence of Turkey.
Kemal Ataturk’s nationalist movement was driven by a neo-imperialist, national-chauvinist determination to preserve control of the last remnants of the Ottoman Empire exclusively for exploitation by the Turkish ruling classes. To this end it sought not only to push back European imperialist forces from Ottoman imperial territories, but to finally cleanse Western Armenia of its native Armenian population, to continue the subjugation of the Kurdish people, and to complete the ethnic cleansing of Smyrna and the Pontus Greeks.
Ataturk’s movement was the manifestation of a reactionary and proto-imperial Turkish bourgeois nationalism. Soviet misrepresentations were perhaps devised to conceal this truth so as to render the Soviet alliance with Ataturk’s Turkey more palatable to Soviet and international pro-Soviet public opinion.
To their eternal shame some Armenian communists mindlessly parroted Soviet Russian slogans going so far as to claim that in 1920 invading Turkish armies were not ‘pillaging bandits’ but ‘Turkish workers, comrades of the Armenian peasants, soldiers and workers (LK170)’! Inexcusable tripe! Armenian communists were clearly too weak and rootless in the Caucuses, especially after the execution of Stepan Shahumyan, to develop their own particular, independent, and more realistic local evaluation of Ataturk and his relation to the Armenian and other people of the region. The unforgivable mouthing of deceptive Soviet Russian diplomatic rhetoric naturally gave the impression that sections of the Armenian communist movement was no more than a passive outlet for Soviet Russian foreign policy, worse still an outlet that the Russian government did not need in order to secure its collaboration with Kemal Ataturk.
Whatever diplomatic dance the Russian Soviet government performed with Kemal Ataturk’s Turkey, however it is argued, there is one area in which Soviet Russian policy did unquestionably counter the interests of the international common people that Soviet power purported to represent and fight on behalf of. This was Soviet Russia’s incorporation into its state-military-political structures of some of the senior organizers of the Armenian genocide including Enver Pasha and Nouri Pasha (LK22).
It is perhaps worth recalling that in opposition to the ARF’s pro-Western or at best hopelessly vacillating orientation, Armenian Bolshevik Stepan Shahumyan as early as October 1917 had offered a comprehensive alternative for Armenian international relations. Aware of consistent Western imperialist and Tsarist betrayal of the Armenian people he urged immediate recognition of and alliance with the new Soviet power by all forces in the Caucuses – socialist or otherwise – as in the best interests of the local people and of local national self-determination. (See History of Armenian Critical Thought Part VII – The Armenian Bolsheviks). Significantly Shahumyan’s proposal was designed in part to secure the continued presence of Soviet Russian troops on the 1917 Armenian-Turkish borders, that at the time gave Armenia control of a larger swathe of Western Armenia than the Kars and Ardahan region alone. Shahumyan argued passionately for this strategy but to no avail. The ARF and the Armenian political establishment remained stubbornly pro-Western.
Eddie Arnavoudian holds degrees in history and politics from Manchester, England, and is ANN/Groong's commentator-in-residence on Armenian literature. His works on literary and political issues have also appeared in Harach in Paris, Nairi in Beirut, and Open Letter in Los Angeles.