Fifteen soldiers were killed today. Another three were wounded, two of whom are in critical condition. They were not killed by enemy fire. They were simply trying to stay warm.
In the early morning hours of January 19, a soldier stationed at a military unit in Azat, a village in Armenia’s Gegharkunik region, decided to pour gasoline from a five-liter canister into a wood burning stove. Not only was this decision void of any logic, it was a violation of safety protocols.
As the soldier poured the gasoline into the stove, his hand caught on fire. In a panic, he allegedly threw the burning canister from his burning hand in the direction of the sleeping quarters of the barracks. It is not difficult to imagine what ensued.
The public fury and outrage is justified and legitimate questions are being posed, such as, why do Armenian soldiers have to heat their barracks with wood-burning stoves? Where did the soldier get the canister of gasoline that according to a December 21, 2022 order by the Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces was prohibited to use to light stoves along with other flammable liquids? Did the soldiers pool their money to buy the gasoline or was it provided to them by their commanding officers? Were fire safety protocols in place? Did the building have fire exits? Fire extinguishers? On the surface, these would appear to be normal questions, however, anyone looking at the images of the destroyed barracks will see that these protocols, had they even been in place, would not have saved lives. The decrepit building had one entrance, metal bars on the windows and looked more like a typical village home than an army barracks.
During the cabinet meeting today, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said that simple compliance with this order “would have prevented the accident.” Perhaps, but the issue is a much deeper, systemic one. This tragedy, the deadliest non-combat incident in the history of Armenia’s Armed Forces, is a case study in criminal negligence and indicative of the complete and absolute failure of the country’s military leadership and its system of administration.
As many security experts will point out, defense reforms are complex, especially following the deadly war in 2020 that resulted in catastrophic losses, both human and material. To expect that Armenia would be able to modernize its military in a short period of time could be considered unrealistic or unfair, but expectation to provide basic conditions and equipment for conscripts and professional servicemen is not a question of fairness, but rather the bare minimum.
This incident is a reflection of the overall sense of irresponsibility and ineptness that dominates the Armenian military, a closed institution, with opaque decision-making mechanisms that lack clarity and accountability. As an example, since September, the position of the Chief Military Inspector has been vacant. Following the tragedy, the commander of the Second Army Corps and eight officers were dismissed from their positions. Later in the day, Garegin Poghosyan was appointed as the new commander. There are calls for the resignation of Defense Minister Suren Papikyan. Even if he does, will the persistent, inherent problems and failures over the last three decades of the Armed Forces be resolved? It is understandable that for reasons of national security, sensitive information cannot be made public. But after Armenia’s defeat in 2020, the shortcomings and abuses that almost everyone knows about but dares not say out loud and today’s horrendous tragedy, the public has a right to demand not only justice and accountability, but a real attempt at reform and not only lip service. The institutional status quo cannot continue.
The death of 15 young men has added another layer of trauma for a population still reeling from the 2020 Artsakh War and over two years of what can only be coined as “death by a thousand cuts” by Baku, who has been employing hybrid warfare tactics to draw Yerevan into another major escalation. The enemy is not only at our gates, they are on sovereign Armenian territory. They are blockading the Lachin Corridor, the only lifeline Artsakh has with the rest of the world, placing 120,000 Armenians under siege, a situation that promises to escalate into a humanitarian catastrophe. The threat of ethnic cleansing, or new attacks and incursions by Azerbaijan is very real. We can no longer afford to hear platitudes or witness incompetence by the military brass or the government. Today’s tragedy must serve as a catalyst for significant radical reforms and the public must be uncompromising in its demand for them.