Citizenship and Conflict

Under the Gun in Armenia

Fin DePencier
January 26, 2022
Say you grew up in one country with your immediate family, where you were educated and are now enjoying a promising career. And then another country, the country of your ancestors, a poor and vulnerable place in a tough geopolitical neighbourhood, falls into dire straits. Beset from nearly all sides, its very existence threatened, it could really use help from anyone with skills, experience and energy. And your skills are indeed military. Unfortunately, the country of which you are a citizen isn’t especially fond of the country of your forebears. In fact, it’s quietly backing the other side. What would you do? Fin DePencier reports from Armenia on the moral dilemma of a Canadian citizen who answered the call of his ancestral homeland.
Citizenship and Conflict

Under the Gun in Armenia

Fin DePencier
January 26, 2022
Say you grew up in one country with your immediate family, where you were educated and are now enjoying a promising career. And then another country, the country of your ancestors, a poor and vulnerable place in a tough geopolitical neighbourhood, falls into dire straits. Beset from nearly all sides, its very existence threatened, it could really use help from anyone with skills, experience and energy. And your skills are indeed military. Unfortunately, the country of which you are a citizen isn’t especially fond of the country of your forebears. In fact, it’s quietly backing the other side. What would you do? Fin DePencier reports from Armenia on the moral dilemma of a Canadian citizen who answered the call of his ancestral homeland.
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It’s 19:00 in Yerevan, Armenia, and former Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) Captain Viken Djelalian is giving a lecture to members of the Metsn Tigran militia. Barely a year earlier he was still working as a signals officer at Royal Military College St.-Jean in Quebec when war erupted between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is populated by ethnic Armenians. An Armenian-Canadian born and raised in Montreal, Djelalian’s family escaped Turkish persecution during the Armenian genocide of 1915, settling in Syria and then Egypt, and eventually making their way to Canada in the 1960s.

Djelalian joined the CAF in 2013 as a signals officer and worked at various command posts. But by 2020 he was already considering asking for release from the CAF. Despite having an apparently bright future in Canada’s military, he no longer felt he could commit himself to the forces’ mission, given the Canadian government’s posture towards the new war involving his ancestral homeland. Djelalian felt it amounted to tacit support for Azerbaijan and Turkey.

“My way of contributing”: Montreal-raised Viken Djelalian (left) went from a Canadian Armed Forces Captain with a promising career to private citizen offering military instruction to volunteer reserve groups in Armenia following the loss of its 2020 war with Azerbaijan. (Source of photo: Fin DePencier)

Knowing that what he intended to say and do was strictly prohibited to an active CAF member, Djelalian filed his release paperwork in late 2020. “I was restricted to actions approved by the chain of command,” he explains. “Interfering in genocidal acts of Turkey was against Canada’s foreign policy.” On the day his release was approved last April, he took a one-way flight to Armenia, where he’s been living ever since, providing courses to various organizations in Armenia’s decentralized militia network.

Part of tonight’s lesson: commander’s critical information requirements, or CCIR. This concept grapples with when it would be appropriate for troops in lower-level units to involve a senior commander, or even the Prime Minister of Armenia, Nikol Pashinyan, in a wartime decision. The exact answer is classified. But it’s an eternal issue for military organizations. Consider for example that in the leadup to D-Day in 1944, Allied commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower selected Normandy over Calais as the landing site. But “Ike” wasn’t dictating decisions below that, much less micro-managing how the troops would run up the beaches. Djelalian’s point: some decisions can only be authorized at a certain level of command, or by a specific person at that level. The intent of this lesson, he explains, is to “enable streamlined decision-making through clarified delegation of responsibilities.” It’s knowledge Djelalian acquired over his CAF career, which he has molded into a doctrine tailored for the training and organizational realities of the Armenian militias.

Djelalian stresses that he isn’t breaking any Canadian law and everything he teaches is open-source information. “I do not present myself as an active member of CAF,” he points out. “I do not have any knowledge of the regional conflicts that I acquired as a member of CAF. Basically, all my views and opinions have been gathered through my formal education and years of observation. I make sure that all the information I share is readily available online for public use and is issued by official government sources.”


He’s primarily focused on the effective deployment of combat first aid, or combat casualty care among fighting units. That is less passive than it sounds. Rather than merely bandaging up the patient, the unit’s first goal must be winning the firefight it’s in, and then planning an evacuation. “For that to work,” Djelalian explains, “You need to understand areas of operations, command relationships of attachments, command post operations, stages of operating capacities, conducting pre-deployment inspections, logistics lines, and enemy electronic warfare capabilities. You must have a certain delegation of responsibility and develop leadership – as opposed to authority – read a map, use a compass, and understand operational requirements in the complex environment of war.” Djelalian believes Armenia would be better able to defend itself were its military to adopt this Western-style combat doctrine.

Some of the organizations he works with are branded as NGOs or volunteer reserve groups. But they all have the same basic purpose, which is to support Armenia’s overstretched and inadequate military with civilian volunteers should total war resume. Recruitment in these organizations has swelled since the 2020 war and an increasing number of women and older citizens are joining their ranks along with military-aged men. Djelalian is among hundreds of diaspora-Armenian military professionals who have repatriated to assist in their training.

To support their country’s military forces, some Armenian women willingly undergo military and combat first-aid training. Among them is Adelina Vardanian (right), a medical student at Yerevan State University. (Source of photos: Fin DePencier)

The militias’ uniforms, equipment and skill-sets all vary wildly. Some are from small community protection units from vulnerable border areas, others prepare Armenian teenage boys for conscription at age 18. The militias are made up mostly of men, with a few women, including Adelina Vardanian. She was a medical student at Yerevan State University when war erupted, and she quickly volunteered to work at a battlefield hospital. “I joined Metsn Tigran as I strongly believe it’s vital that every single Armenian knows the basics of using a gun and providing first aid,” she says. “I saw many deaths that wouldn’t happen if correct first aid was provided. I saw young boys losing arms and legs because of the same reason.”

Another Armenian-Canadian, who wishes to remain anonymous, is wearing the distinctive CAF woodland pattern known as CADPAT, depicted in the accompanying photo. He confirmed that he isn’t nor has ever been a CAF member, but purchased the uniform at a military supply store in Toronto. “I am a citizen of both Armenia and Canada, [but] I have not participated in any actions against Canada or Canadian citizens,” the man vows. “I have duties as a citizen in Armenia as well, born and raised here.”

“The art of staying alive” is both a common Armenian saying and the name of the militia that this Armenian-Canadian dual citizen is instructing. While vowing not to harm Canada’s interests, he believes he must help Armenia. (Source of photos: Fin DePencier)

The man currently works as an instructor for a militia named VoMA, an acronym for the Armenian phrase voghj menalu arvest, meaning “the art of staying alive.” The name captures the psychology of the Armenian nation, a once-impressive empire which, after losing this war and having been whittled to the bone over many centuries, is certainly on the defensive. Armenia’s current population is under 3 million and per capita GDP is barely $5,300.

The 2020 war ended in a humiliating defeat for Armenia. With its troops in Nagorno-Karabakh surrounded and facing slaughter, that November Armenia was forced to sign a deeply unfavourable Russian-mediated ceasefire agreement. The war and its aftermath are described in this C2C article. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1990, conflicts were immediately sparked between many of the newly independent nations over ethnic boundaries, among them Armenia and Azerbaijan. Armenians were able to claim victory in the first Nagorno-Karabakh war in 1994,  establishing it and several surrounding provinces of Azerbaijan as the independent republic of Artsakh. But this was not the end of history, and while Armenia became complacent with its winnings, Azerbaijan plotted revenge.

The 2020 Armenia-Azerbaijan war resulted in Armenia losing 75 percent of its territory in and around Nagorno-Karabakh. Despite the presence of Russian peacekeepers, Azerbaijan’s president threatens to march on Yerevan itself. (Map for C2C Journal by Kitty McLeod/Artboard)

Over the next 25 years, Azerbaijan embarked on an extensive military modernization, financed by its significant oil wealth. One of the country’s largest customers, Israel, sold Azerbaijan cutting-edge weapons including Humvee-style armoured vehicles and Kamikaze drones, also known as loitering munitions. But what proved the most decisive acquisition was a fleet of T-2 Bayraktar drones from Turkey, Azerbaijan’s patron-state. Successive Armenian governments, meanwhile, neglected the country’s military. Armenia made the dubious decision to purchase outdated Russian-made fighter jets, then inexplicably failed to equip them with modern munitions, even once the 2020 war started.

The Armenian air force never flew a combat mission during the war, a source of significant internal controversy and suspicion. Armenia also continued using outdated Soviet-era doctrine, but without the support structure from Russia which that doctrine assumed. Azerbaijan not only fielded vastly superior weapons but had tactical and strategic guidance from the modernized Turkish military. Turkish military officers operated Azerbaijan’s newly acquired drones and used them to slice through Armenian defences.

Azerbaijan’s crucial acquisition: Turkey’s Bayraktar T-2, a long-endurance unmanned combat aerial vehicle, here seen armed with guided missiles, gets its targeting precision from Canadian L3Harris WESCAM technology (sensor package visible on belly of aircraft). It proved decisive in Armenia’s defeat.

Unbeknownst to nearly all Canadians, these drone strikes were made possible by Canadian sensor technology. Azerbaijan’s Bayraktar’s were using a thermal imaging system made by L3Harris WESCAM, a Canadian manufacturer of stabilized imaging systems (and a subsidiary of global defence contractor L3Harris Industries, Inc.). The use of this technology in Nagorno-Karabakh was supposedly prohibited under the Canadian export agreement. After a drawn-out “investigation,” Canada cancelled permits for high-tech arms exports to Turkey. But these had already been banned until six months prior to the war, when the Justin Trudeau government mysteriously approved the permits.

As a NATO member, Turkey’s direct involvement in the war put Canada in an awkward position. The Trudeau government had declared its neutrality. But the WESCAM exports suggest otherwise. “When Turkey attacked Armenia, there was no mandate for any NATO country to come to the aid of Armenia,” says Djelalian. “I believe this is what the Kremlin wanted to prove. That is why [Russia] let it happen. NATO lost the moral high ground, and nobody cared.” In effect, Djelalian asserts, Canada was siding with the aggressors.

Valued customer: Total Canadian military exports to Turkey. (Source: “Killer Optics Exports of Wescam Sensors to Turkey – A Litmus Test of Canada’s Compliance with the Arms Trade Treaty”/Ploughshares Special Report)

Serving in the CAF or any other military entails so-called “unlimited liability” – risking one’s life for the mission. Djelalian wasn’t willing to risk his for a CAF mission that, he profoundly believed, was antithetical to Armenia’s survival. “This is not the first time Canada has sided with genocidal regimes, in lieu of democratic free states,” he charges. “When Canada goes overseas, it cooperates with its allies. So, who are Canada’s allies in Asia Minor? Turkey and Azerbaijan.” These countries pose an existential threat to Armenia. While Russia has guaranteed Armenia’s defence on its western border with Turkey, not so regarding Azerbaijan, which has shown an appetite for territorial expansion.

Since the mid-90s Armenia did forge formal ties with NATO, joining several working groups and supplying peacekeepers to NATO’s never-ending stabilization mission in Kosovo. Yet when the chips were down, Armenia received nothing for its efforts. “The primary purpose of NATO is to deter Russian influence. The second purpose is to strengthen military cooperation of its member states,” Djelalian notes. “There is nothing in there about human rights, self-determination of non-NATO sovereign states. The Erdogan and Aliyev regimes [of Turkey and Azerbaijan] have a green light to freely target Kurds, Armenians, Assyrians, Arameans, Yezidis…”

Bitter tears of war: The 2020 conflict delivered death of civilians as well as combatants plus colossal destruction of housing in the regions of Ganja (bottom left) and the Republic of Artsakh (bottom right). (Sources of photos: (top left) Courtesy of Armenian Defense Ministry; (bottom left) Javid Nabizade, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 International)

Djelalian became convinced he had to do something to aid Armenia. But given Canada’s de facto foreign policy plus the constraints he was under, what could this be? “I believe that someone who releases from the CAF to work for the Red Cross, or the UN is doing nothing more than a career change,” Djelalian asserts. “The career change is sometimes sponsored and facilitated by host organizations.” His dilemma, he explains, is that “In my case, I would have not found a venue of cooperative agreements to transfer from the CAF to work in Armenia.”

So, he felt the honourable as well as legally correct approach was to quit the CAF and go to Armenia as a private citizen. “I can’t comment on what the Armenian military does or adopts,” he says. “Volunteering with NGOs is my way of contributing. Everybody has to do something. Teaching how to use a compass and leading a discussion on comparative doctrine is my way of contributing.” Carefully balancing his involvement in this way, he feels, recognizes his ongoing legal and moral obligations to Canada, the country where he was born and where his family lives in safety, and to his former employer.

Armenia remembers: Pictured, (left) memorial to fallen Metsn Tigran militia members in Yerevan, (right) new burials in Yerablur Military Memorial Cemetery, Yerevan. (Source of photos: Fin DePencier)

On a foggy Sunday somewhere near Armenia’s pleasant and peaceful capital of Yerevan, Djelalian is drilling half his trainees on using a map and compass while the other half are around the corner at the shooting range. He’s teaching them how to generate a range card, which outlines what sectors of fire a soldier is responsible for in a defensive posture. Many of these men fought in the 2020 war and know another could erupt at any moment.

Armenia’s capital of Yerevan, peaceful and safe – for now.

What’s left of Nagorno-Karabakh for Armenia is a small, wedge-shaped exclave centred on the city of Stepanakert and surrounded by the Azerbaijani military. Many suspect Armenia is fated to lose the rest. Despite its Armenian population, most of the world already recognizes it as part of Azerbaijan. The exclave doesn’t even show up on google maps and Azerbaijan has pressured google to remove its Armenian names (this short video shows the shifting boundaries in 2020). Armenia’s meagre and battered forces couldn’t withstand another onslaught. Instead, a Russian peacekeeping presence is the only thing preventing Azerbaijan from capturing the entire territory.

Russia’s peacekeeping mission hasn’t been entirely successful. Skirmishes in the Armenian provinces of Syunik and Gegharkunik are frequent, and last November escalated into a full-scale battle before Russia forced another ceasefire. Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev frequently threatens not only to retake Nagorno-Karabakh but to march his army right into Yerevan. Despite being Armenia’s ostensible ally through the post-Soviet Collective Security Treaty Organization, Russia has declined to provide direct military support for Armenia. With a weak military and no reliable allies, Armenians know they not only need to apply every resource at their disposal – they need all the help they can get, from wherever it might come.

Fin DePencier is a Canadian journalist and photographer who is based in Armenia and covers conflicts around the world.

Source of main image: Shutterstock.

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