January 16

This Day in History

Cold War

Jan 16, 1990:

Soviets send troops into Azerbaijan

In the wake of vicious fighting between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces in Azerbaijan, the Soviet government sends in 11,000 troops to quell the conflict.

The fighting--and the official Soviet reaction to it--was an indication of the increasing ineffectiveness of the central Soviet government in maintaining control in the Soviet republics, and of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's weakening political power.

Strife in Azerbaijan was the result of centuries of tensions between the Islamic Azerbaijanis and the Christian Armenians. Since the Russian Revolution in 1917, the communist regime managed to maintain relative peace between the two groups, but with the gradual weakening of the Soviet Union during the late-1980s, ethnic rivalries began to re-emerge. In its weakened state, the Soviet Union chose to only partially involve itself in the conflict. The approach was unusual--had it occurred under the strict communist regime of the Cold War's peak, such a tense internal conflict would likely have been immediately and forcefully quelled.

In the latest outbreak of violence, Armenians took the brunt of the attacks and nearly 60 people were killed. Armenian spokesmen condemned the lack of action on the part of the Gorbachev regime and pleaded for military intervention. Soviet officials, however, were not eager to leap into the ethnic fray and attempted to downplay the seriousness of the situation in the press. One Soviet official declared that the fighting in Azerbaijan was not a "civil war," but merely "national strife."

Some Gorbachev supporters even voiced the suspicion that the violence in the region was being stirred up by anti-Gorbachev activists merely to discredit the regime. Gorbachev dispatched 11,000 Soviet troops to quiet the situation, and the United States government supported his action as a humanitarian response to the killings and terror.

The troops Gorbachev sent did little to alleviate the situation--over the next two years, ethnic violence in Azerbaijan continued, and the weakening Soviet regime was unable to bring a lasting resolution to the situation. Less than two years later, Gorbachev resigned from power and the Soviet Union ceased to exist.

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