Monday, January 12, 2015

Armenians in Russia-Ukraine war - updated

This was originally published in the Armenian Reporter on September 20, 2014 and since updated

Russia-Ukraine war toll: both sides list Armenian names
Armenian church in Makeevka, east of Donetsk. Courtesy image
Washington - A cease-fire agreement signed on September 5 appears to be generally holding in eastern Ukraine, with reports of fighting in the last two weeks limited to occasional artillery exchanges and light arms skirmishes. The lull came days after Russian ground forces stepped up their involvement in the war and effectively routed Ukrainian volunteer units in the areas south of Donentsk and Lugansk. Pro-Russian forces now control a substantial area immediately adjacent to the Russian border, including the two major cities.

The United Nations estimates that more than three thousand people have been killed since the fighting first broke out in April with hundreds of thousands displaced. The fatalities include more than a thousand Ukrainian forces, more than a thousand of pro-Russian/Russian forces, as well as the nearly 300 passengers and crew of the shot down Malaysian airliner and other civilians. The conflict - a hybrid of a Russian military intervention and a Ukrainian Civil War - has pitted former neighbors, friends and even family members against each other.

Not surprisingly, with the large Armenian communities in both Russia and Ukraine, Armenians can also be found on both sides of the conflict.  In Ukraine, about 9,000 Armenians lived in Crimea, at the time of its annexation by Russia last March, and more than 20,000 were resident in Donetsk and Lugansk oblasts, the areas devastated in the months of fighting.

Community history

Sarkis Danielyants led Donetsk
when it was known as Stalino
Armenians began to settle in the area of modern-day Donetsk in the late 18th century, long before the city was established as a significant mining center in the Russian Empire. Founded as a city in 1869, it was first known as Yuzovka, named after British businessman John Hughes who launched the first mines and mills in the area, and from 1924 as Stalino, no need to explain why. For most of the 1930s, Stalino was led by Shusha native Sarkis Sarkisov (Danielyants), who faced the Stalin’s firing squad in 1938 and was cleared of all charges in 1957. Four years later Stalino became Donetsk.

In the 1960s and 70s, a Donetsk-born Armenian Semyon Saratikyants became a leading figure in the mining industry, rising to become Soviet Ukraine’s first deputy minister for coal industry. Following the 1988 earthquake, the local construction company manager Viktor Yanukovich led a relief crew to Spitak, which now has a small square named after him; already as president Yanukovich received an Order of St. Mesrop Mashtots in June 2011. After the Soviet break-up, Russia-born Oleg Mkrtchyan became a key figure in the Donbass metallurgy sector and one of the richest Armenians in the world, with his assets valued at $1.25 billion in 2012.
Mkhitaryan became Ukrainian championship's top scorer
while at Shakhtar Donetsk

Perhaps the most famous Armenian to touch down in Donetsk is footballer Henrikh Mkhitaryan who from 2009 to 2013 played first for Mkrtchyan’s Metallurg and then for Shakhter Donetsk, a club owned by Ukraine’s richest businessman Rinat Ahmetov that even now, in forced exile to Western Ukraine because of the war, remains the strongest club in all the former Soviet Union.

War victims

In a strange twist of fate, the first fatalities during the anti-government protests in Kiev and subsequent violence in Donetsk were both ethnic Armenians. 20-year-old Sergey Nigoyan was one of two people shot dead in clashes with police on January 22. Some 100 more were killed in subsequent clashes in February, including 54-year-old Georgi Arutyunyan. As first fighting began in the eastern Ukrainian town of Slavyansk on April 13, it claimed the life of 28-year-old Ruben Avanesyan, described as a pro-Russia activist, although others claimed Avanesyan was not politically active. (Ruben's brother, Donetsk fashion designer Hayk Avanesyan has since relocated first to Yerevan and then to Kiev.)

As the fighting escalated, Armenians joined both the pro-Moscow and pro-Kiev forces fighting in eastern Ukraine. Some Armenians living in Russia, like 24-year-old Spitak native Artur Gasparyan, volunteered to fight for what they believed was protecting local people from Ukrainian forces. On the opposite side from Gasparyan, was the Gyumri native Armen Nikoghosyan, a civilian surgeon turned frontline medic credited with saving dozens and perhaps hundreds of lives.

Moscow-born 26-year-old Simon Verdiyan was an activist with the previously anti-Putin National Bolsheviks, who volunteered as an aide to a local medical crew in Donetsk. On July 22, Verdiyan was taken prisoner when his ambulance vehicle was stopped by Ukrainian forces; he returned to Donetsk after a prisoners exchange on September 12.

Although, the Russian government continues to deny this, there is much evidence that more than 100 Russian military servicemen were killed in Ukraine, including several who are of Armenian descent. 

20-year-old Armen Davoyan, born in Nizhny Novgorod and serving with the 9th Motor-Rifle brigade, was reported killed in a mortar attack on July 14 after crossing the Russian-Ukrainian border. Robert Arutyunyan from the Black Sea town of Tuapse was reported killed on August 13, when his unit - the Chechnya-based 17th Motor-Rifle Brigade of the Russian army - came under missile fire near Snezhnoe in Donetsk oblast.  And on August 19, 25-year old Artur Danielyan, a junior sergeant with the 247th Airborne Regiment based in Stavropol, was also reported killed in Ukraine.
  
Artur Danielyan, on right, was reported killed last August.
On the Ukrainian side, a volunteer with the Aidar battalion Ohanes Petrosyan was killed in fighting near Severodonetsk, Lugansk oblast on August 27. Around the same time, a Karabakh-born Aleksey Avanesyan, drafted into Ukraine's 55th artillery brigade (Zaporozhye) was seriously wounded near Ilovaysk. Also at the end of August, another Ukrainian volunteer battalion - Donbass - initially reported among its many presumed dead the 29-year-old Artur Cholakyan from Dzerzhinsk in Donetsk oblast, but he has since been identified as a prisoner of warVano Arakelyan, 23 and Oleg Avtandilov, 42 were also listed among more than 800 Ukrainians imprisoned by pro-Russian forces in Donetsk, and Hasmik Arutyunyan, 28 was among more than 500 missing. (UPDATED: Avtandilov was released as part of a prisoner exchange on September 12. At the year’s end Cholakyan and Arakelyan were still listed among some 500 Ukrainians believed to be imprisoned in Donbass; there has been no new information about Arutyunyan.)

(UPDATED in 2015: In mid-January, pro-Russian forces resumed large-scale military operations in eastern Ukraine. On January 22, Jr. Sgt. Albert Sarukhanyan from Krivoy Rog was among Ukrainian soldiers killed near Krasnyi Partizan in Donetsk Oblast. Married with two small children, 31-year-old Sarukhanyan was drafted into Ukraine's 20th Battalion of Territorial Defense (Dnepropetrovsk). 
Igit Gasparyan

On February 10, another enlisted man Igit Gasparyan was killed in action near Gorlovka, Donetsk oblast. Born in Nor Amanos village in Armenia's Ashtarak district in 1986, Gasparyan’s family settled in Bobrynets, Kirovograd oblast in the early 1990s. Last April, he was enlisted into 17th Battalion of Territorial Defense (Kirovograd).  


Also in February, Yevgeni Serdyukov was identified as having been killed in action six months earlier on July 31 near Shakhtersk. The 30-year-old Armenia native was an active member of Dnepropetrovsk's Armenian community; he was drafted the previous March and served with Ukraine's 25th Airborne Brigade.)

Arsen Avakov honors Armen Nikoghosyan for his role
as frontline medic in Ukraine's war effort 
Political figures

Most prominently, 50-year-old Arsen Avakov, born in Baku and with roots in Karabakh, has been a key figure in Ukraine's military effort since becoming the country's Interior Minister in February. An influential business and political figure in Ukraine's second largest city Kharkov for over a decade, Avakov had also been active in the Armenian community, including with the local office of the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU). In his April 24, 2015 facebook posting, Avakov reported that 52 ethnic Armenians had died fighting for Ukraine by that point.

And in Moscow, one of the key ideologues for rebuilding a new Russian empire in former Soviet borders is Sergei Kurginyan, 64, an advisor to several Russian leaders and author of the four-volume work “Essence of Time: Philosophical justification of messianic claims of Russia in the 21st century.” Last July, Kurginyan arrived in Donetsk and publicly challenged leading pro-Russian commander Igor Strelkov (Girkin) after his criticism of Vladimir Putin’s lackluster support for his forces. Weeks later, Strelkov resigned and Russia escalated its military intervention in eastern Ukraine.

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