Friday, 20 November 2020 09:31

How Did Armenia So Badly Miscalculate Its War with Azerbaijan

 

How Did Armenia So Badly Miscalculate Its War with Azerbaijan?

 

The National Interest

 

November 14, 2020

 

The long-term damage resulting from Armenia's miscalculations outlined are plain to see. While part of the damage is physical, even more significant is the mental damage: Armenia’s feeling of military superiority is now broken, and its feeling of isolation palpable.

 

Svante E. Cornell

 

Since the Armenia-Azerbaijan war erupted again on Sept. 27, Armenia has suffered significant military setbacks at the hand of Azerbaijani forces. Not only has it lost most of the originally Azerbaijani-inhabited territories it occupied in 1993: Azerbaijani forces have made inroads into Nagorno-Karabakh, capturing the strategic and symbolic city of Shusha on Nov. 8.

 

Armenia seems to have been taken by surprise, something that is particularly puzzling given its increasingly assertive and belligerent rhetoric against Azerbaijan in the past several years. Why did the conflict not play out the way Armenian leaders imagined? The reason lies in a series of grave miscalculations, whereby Armenia’s leadership misread almost everything about this conflict: the broader international environment, the Russian response, Turkey’s role in the conflict, as well as the domestic dynamics of their adversary, Azerbaijan.

 

A deep paradox was always built into the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict. Armenia has a third of Azerbaijan’s population, lacks its natural resources and key geopolitical location. But it won the war in the early 1990s, largely because of two factors: Azerbaijan’s internal turmoil and Russian backing for Yerevan. These factors helped Armenia win control over Nagorno-Karabakh as well as much larger territories surrounding that enclave, home to almost 750,000 Azerbaijanis who were forced to flee.

 

In Armenia, this victory laid the groundwork for a sense of military superiority that lasted until last month. But diplomatically, it soon became clear Armenia had bitten off more than it could chew. In large part because of the nation’s tragic history, Armenia had benefited from substantial international goodwill. But Yerevan’s territorial advances and ethnic cleansing of Azerbaijanis in 1993–94 changed that perception. By 1996, resolutions in international organizations like the UN and OSCE had made it clear that every other country in the world endorsed the return of all occupied territories to Azerbaijan and a solution to the conflict that would give the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh self-rule but deny them outright independence.

 

Meanwhile, the sheer scale of the territories Armenia occupied ensured that neither Azerbaijan’s leadership nor its society would come to terms with the situation. Instead, a powerful sense of revanchism built in Azerbaijan, and Baku invested a serious portion of the country’s windfall oil revenue into the country’s military. The growing disparity between the two countries became increasingly untenable: it was like a string that can only be pulled so far without breaking. Armenia responded by deepening its military dependence on Russia, which it saw as a guarantor of its military advances.

 

For some time, Armenia convinced itself that time was, in fact, on its side. After the twin shocks of 2008—the war in Georgia and the global financial crisis—its bet on Moscow even appeared rather shrewd. The West had proved unable to prevent the military defeat of its darling in the Caucasus, Georgia, and the financial crisis led to a gradual disengagement from the region on the part of western nations. Kosovo’s independence the same year created a second Albanian state in the Balkans, which Armenians saw as a precedent for Nagorno-Karabakh. Their hopes were further buoyed by Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, which shared similarities with Armenia’s incorporation of Nagorno-Karabakh two decades earlier. As a result, Armenia came to view OSCE-led negotiations on the conflict mainly as a stalling tactic and did not appear to see the necessity of serious concessions in exchange for peace.

 

In April 2016, an escalation of tensions led to a “four-day” war in which Azerbaijan, for the first time since 1994, regained control of some occupied territories. Importantly, while Moscow negotiated a ceasefire after a few days, it did not intervene to stop or roll back Azerbaijan’s advances. This should have caused alarm bells to ring loudly in Yerevan. But, strangely, Armenia’s position instead hardened.

 

The first change was semantic. Many Armenians gradually began to refer to the occupied territories around Nagorno-Karabakh as “liberated territories”—a major shift, since they had previously been held as a security buffer and negotiating chip to secure Azerbaijani concessions on the status of Nagorno-Karabakh. No longer: Armenia now indicated it might not be willing to return these territories at all, ignoring the four UN Security Council resolutions that called for their “immediate and unconditional” return to Azerbaijan.

 

When Nikol Pashinyan acceded to power in spring 2018 following a “Velvet Revolution,” he first appeared willing to restart the peace process. Tellingly, the Azerbaijani elite welcomed his arrival: Baku passed up the opportunity to launch military operations during Armenia’s internal turmoil. Hoping to have a partner for peace, Baku appeared willing to give Pashinyan time to consolidate his power. When Aliyev and Pashinyan met in Dushanbe in October 2018, they agreed to de-escalate tensions. The prospects for peace looked better than they had in a long time.

 

But then something changed. In May 2019, Pashinyan repudiated the OSCE’s “Madrid Principles,” which had served as the basis for negotiations since 2007. He also sought to change the very format of negotiations, demanding the involvement of the local leadership in Nagorno-Karabakh in the talks. But speaking in August 2019 in the capital of Karabakh, he then stated that ”Karabakh is Armenia, period,” and rekindled the theme of unification of Armenia and Karabakh that had sparked the conflict in the late 1980s. These two statements were not only contradictory—if Karabakh is Armenia, why should it have a separate seat at the table—but also appeared to remove any space for negotiations on the territory’s status. There were other signs of the shift. Pashinyan’s wife, Anna Hakobyan, who had started the “women for peace” movement in 2018, this summer dressed up in military fatigues holding a submachine gun in an effort to promote military training for women. Their son also volunteered to serve in the occupied territories.

 

Armenia’s military strategy also changed: the same year, Defense Minister David Tonoyan—whose power and influence grew rapidly within the government—stated that Armenia now rejected the land-for-peace logic that had served as the basis for negotiations, and adopted instead a strategy pursuing “new wars for new territories.” This was coupled with assertive moves that changed the situation on the ground: Armenia relatively openly began to resettle ethnic Armenians from Syria and Lebanon into the occupied territories, creating new facts on the ground and adding to the sense of urgency in Baku. Yerevan’s position was best summarized in Pashinyan’s BBC Hard Talk interview of August 2020, which led exasperated host Stephen Sackur to conclude that “you clearly are not a peacemaker.”

 

But Armenian leaders then went even further: they took steps that, perhaps inadvertently, drew Turkey more directly into the dispute. When fighting erupted this July on the undisputed Armenia-Azerbaijan border way north of the conflict zone, it triggered fears in Turkey that Armenia was threatening the energy infrastructure in the very vicinity of the flareup carrying Azerbaijani oil and gas. Then, in early August, Armenia’s president and prime minister both made a point of commemorating the hundredth anniversary of the Treaty of Sèvres, which would have carved out an Armenian state out of eastern Turkey—a treaty that has for a century been a rallying cry for Turkish nationalists.

 

These developments suggest at least four grave miscalculations on the part of Armenian leaders.

 

First, the rhetoric of “liberated territories” reflects a deliberate attempt to take advantage of the weakening of international law and institutions. For two decades, Azerbaijan had centered its efforts on using diplomacy and international pressure to undo Armenia’s attempt to change international borders through military force. A weakening international order appeared to give Armenia a free hand to maintain its control over these lands indefinitely. What the Armenian leadership neglected to see is that this same international order also deterred Azerbaijan from abandoning diplomacy and pursuing a military solution. In 2019, President Ilham Aliyev noted that a world was emerging where “might is right,” intimating that Azerbaijan would act accordingly if it could not achieve its goals through diplomacy. Similarly, Armenia did not realize the implications of its failure to achieve international recognition for its occupation of Azerbaijani territory. As recent events have made clear, as long as the fighting remains centered on internationally recognized Azerbaijani territory, there is little that western or other powers will do aside from issuing habitual calls for restraint and negotiations.

 

Second, and perhaps more importantly, Armenia failed to internalize the fact that it could not take Russian support for granted. Russian influence over Armenia had grown so strong that Vladimir Putin saw little risk in also courting Ilham Aliyev and working to draw Azerbaijan into the Russian orbit. Students of Russian strategy had long understood that the Kremlin viewed its influence on Armenia as a lever to achieve influence over Georgia and Azerbaijan, both of which carry much greater geopolitical significance. Several years ago, Moscow began selling large amounts of weaponry to Azerbaijan. Baku certainly paid higher prices than Yerevan, but this move should have caused Armenian leaders to fundamentally question their strategy of dependence on Russia, as Russia also worked hard to entice Baku to join Russian-led organizations like the Eurasian Economic Union. But no such rethink happened in Yerevan, even after Russia failed to intervene during the 2016 flare up.

 

Like a poker player with a bad hand, Yerevan instead raised the stakes in a rather transparent bluff that Baku ultimately decided to call. While it remains possible that Moscow will step in and rescue Armenia, it is highly unlikely. Putin deeply distrusts Pashinyan and the way he came to power, and appears content to see him slapped in the face—perhaps in the hope that the ancien régime will return to power in Yerevan. It is notable that Ilham Aliyev this past August moved to purge the remaining pro-Russian forces inside his government and openly complained to Putin of Russian military supplies to Armenia. Putin’s cautious approach may reflect a need to play nice with Azerbaijan in order to retain some levers of influence over the most strategically important country in the Caucasus. Armenian leaders may have fundamentally failed to see that Russia, for all its bluster, is a declining power globally as well as regionally. While things could change, Russia so far appears to see little benefit from intervening decisively in this war, and even appears to seek to use the flareup to insert Russian peacekeepers into the conflict zone. All in all, Armenia was much more isolated than its rhetoric would have suggested.

 

Third, Armenian leaders failed to correctly analyze the growing linkages between the South Caucasus and the Middle East, and particularly Turkey’s role in the region. Since 2015, a powerful nationalist force has been ascendant within the Turkish state, and increasingly sets the parameters of Turkish foreign policy. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan—himself an Islamist rather than a nationalist—has been pushed in a more nationalist direction, which has led Ankara to challenge Moscow both in Syria and in Libya. For Armenia, the fact that Turkish drones outsmarted Russian air defenses, at least in the Libyan case, should have led to considerable alarm and signaled the need for great caution. In spite of clear warning signs, like Erdogan’s February 2020 statement that Karabakh matters as much to Turkey as it does to Azerbaijan, Armenian leaders failed entirely to anticipate the shift in Turkey’s position on the conflict. In fact, through steps like their embrace of the Treaty of Sèvres this summer, they accelerated that shift.

 

Finally, Armenian leaders failed to grasp the recent internal transformation of Azerbaijan. For many years, Ilham Aliyev was hamstrung by the presence of various oligarchs around him. But in the past several years, Azerbaijan’s leader has embarked on a far-reaching purge seeking to make the state more efficient. Aliyev was liberating himself from the shackles of the regime he took over from his father seventeen years ago. Armenian leaders appear not to have understood that Aliyev’s more assertive approach would affect Azerbaijan’s most pressing problem, the unresolved conflict over and the occupation of Azerbaijani territories, although Aliyev had many times signaled his great frustration over this situation.

 

Why, then, did Armenian leaders commit these grave miscalculations? Several reasons come to mind. The world has changed rapidly in recent years, requiring considerable flexibility and analytical skill to process the implications of the interaction between global and regional processes. Armenian leaders appear to have instead become complacent and internalized their own propaganda. Still, this does not account for the scale of their failure, which can only be explained by a deeper analysis of Armenian domestic politics.

 

It is now clear that Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan—who lacked political experience before being thrust into a position of power as leader of street protests in 2018—failed to comprehend the geopolitics of his country and region. But he was also constantly undermined by Armenia’s previous leadership, which in turn was aligned with the leadership in Karabakh, and maintained privileged relations with Moscow. This created a highly unstable situation, in which Pashinyan sought to outbid his rivals by adopting an increasingly hardline nationalist position to consolidate his power. Indeed, his call for unification was perhaps mainly targeted at the leadership in Karabakh and intended to shore up his popularity among Armenians there as well. If so, then he grossly underestimated the impact his words would have in Baku.

 

As of this writing, the parties have signed a cease-fire deal that cements Azerbaijan's military victory while maintaining some level of Armenian control over parts of Nagorno-Karabakh. The long-term damage resulting from Armenia's miscalculations outlined here is plain to see. While part of the damage is physical, even more significant is the mental damage: Armenia’s feeling of military superiority is now broken, and its feeling of isolation palpable. It should now be clear that Armenia can only be secure if it achieves lasting peace. Weakened as Pashinyan already was, it is difficult to see how he emerges unscathed from this episode, and calls for his resignation are mounting. More deeply, whether Pashinyan stays or goes, it remains to be seen whether Armenia will learn from this misadventure and embark upon a serious attempt to sue for peace.

 

Svante E. Cornell is the Director of the American Foreign Policy Council’s Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, co-founder of the Institute for Security and Development Policy and a Policy Advisor to JINSA’s Gemunder Center for Strategy.

 

 

Read 8723 times Last modified on Friday, 27 August 2021 09:37

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News

  • New Article Series on Changing Geopolitics of Central Asia and the Caucasus
    Wednesday, 24 November 2021 11:53

    Eurasia

  • CACI Initiative on Religion and the Secular State in Central Asia and the Caucasus
    Sunday, 24 January 2021 13:53

    In 2016, the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program launched an initiative on documenting the interrelationship of religion and the secular state in the region. This initiative departed from the fact that little systematic reserch had been undertaken on the subject thus far. While there was and remains much commentary and criticism of religious policy in the region, there was no comprehensive analysis available on the interrelationship of religion and the state in any regional state, let alone the region as a whole. The result of this initiative has been the publication of six Silk Road Papers studying the matter in regional states, with more to come. In addition, work is ongoing on a volume putting the regional situation in the context of the Muslim world as a whole.

     

    Case Studies

    Each study below can be freely downloaded in PDF format.

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    Azerbaijan's Formula: Secular Governance and Civil Nationhood
    By Svante E. Cornell, Halil Karaveli, and Boris Ajeganov
    November 2016   




    2018-04-Kazakhstan-SecularismReligion and the Secular State in Kazakhstan
    By Svante E. Cornell, S. Frederick Starr and Julian Tucker
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    1806-UZ-coverReligion and the Secular State in Uzbekistan
    Svante E. Cornell and Jacob Zenn
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    2006-Engvall-coverReligion and the Secular State in Kyrgyzstan
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     Event video online

     

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    Articles and Analyses

    Svante E. Cornell, "Religion and the State in Central Asia," in Ilan Berman, ed., Wars of Ideas: Theology, Interpretation and Power in the Muslim World, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2021.

    Svante E. Cornell, "Central Asia: Where Did Islamic Radicalization Go?" in Religion, Conflict and Stability in the Former Soviet Union, eds. Katya Migacheva and Bryan Frederick, Arlington, VA: RAND Corporation, 2018.

  • Basic Principles for the Rehabilitation of Azerbaijan's Post-Conflict Territories
    Wednesday, 07 October 2020 09:01

    Rehab-coverIn 2010, the CACI-SRSP Joint Center cooperated with Eldar Ismailov and Nazim Muzaffarli of the Institute for Strategic Studies of the Caucasus to produce a study of the methodology and process for the rehabilitation of the occupied territories in Azerbaijan. The study was written in the hope that it would prove useful in the aftermath of a negotiated solution to the conflict.

    Such a resolution nevertheless did not materialize. At present, however, it appears that some of these territories are returning to Azerbaijani control as a result of the military conflict that began in late September, 2020. While it is regrettable that this did not come to pass as a result of negotiations, it is clear that the challenge of rehabilitating territories is as pressing today as it would be in the event of a peaceful resolution - if not more, given the likelihood that such a solution would have included a time-table and provided the Government of Azerbaijan and international institutions time for planning.

    It is clear that the study is a product of a different time, as much has changed since 2010. We fully expcect many updates and revisions to be needed should the recommendations in this study be implemented today. That said, we believe the methodoloy of the study and its conclusions remain relevant and would therefore like to call attention to this important study, published in English, Russian and Azerbaijani versions.

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    BASIC PRINCIPLES FOR THE REHABILITATION OF AZERBAIJAN’S POST-CONFLICT TERRITORIES

     

  • Resources on the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict
    Monday, 05 October 2020 08:19

    Resources on the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict

     

    The Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program have a long track record of covering the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict. This page presents the key resources and most recent analysis. 

    In 2017, Palgrave published the first book-length study of the International Politics of the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict, edited by Svante Cornell. The book concluded by arguing that if international efforts to resolve the conflict are not stepped up, “the ‘four-day’ war of April 2016 will appear a minor skirmish compared to what is sure to follow”.

    In 2015, CACI & SRSP released the Silk Road Paper  “A Western Strategy for the South Caucasus”, which included a full page of recommendations for the U.S. and EU on the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict. These are reproduced below:

    ------------------

    Develop a substantial and prolonged Western initiative on the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict.

    o This initiative must be led by the United States, in close consultation with its European partners – primarily the EU Commission and External Action Service, and France. Barring some process to reinvigorate the Minsk Process – a doubtful proposition given Western-Russian relations in the foreseeable future – Western leaders must be prepared to bypass that process, utilizing it where appropriate but focusing their initiative on developing direct negotiations between the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders.

    o The U.S. and its European partners must abandon the practice of relying solely on the Minsk Group co-chairs to resolve the Karabakh conflict. These diplomats have contributed greatly to formulating a workable framework agreement. However, strong and sustained U.S. Government leadership from the top level is needed to complement or, failing that, to replace the Minsk Process. In practice, this means the expressed support of the President, involvement of the White House, and leadership manifested in the appointment of a distinguished citizen as Special Envoy for the resolution of the conflict.

    o The EU must take a more clearly defined and substantial role in the process, by integrating to the highest degree possible the French co-chairmanship of the Minsk Group with EU institutions. While Washington will need to take the lead on the political side, it would be natural for the EU to take the lead in organizing an international development program for the currently occupied Azerbaijani provinces and Karabakh itself. That effort, too, would need to be led by a senior EU figure.

    --------------------------------------------

    In 2011, CACI & SRSP helped launch an extensive study of the steps needed for the post-conflict rehabilitation of Azerbaijan's occupied territories, in cooperation with Eldar Ismailov and Nazim Muzaffarli of the Institute for Strategic Studies of the Caucasus. The monograph "Basic Principles for the Rehabilitation of Azerbaijan's Post-Conflict Territories" can be accessed here

     

    More background resources:

    Svante E. Cornell, "Can America Stop a Wider War Between Armenia and Azerbaijan?", The National Interest, October 2020

    Brenda Shaffer and Svante E. Cornell, Occupied Elsewhere: Selective Policies on Occupation, Foundation For Defense of Democracies, January 2020. 

    Brenda Shaffer and Svante E. Cornell, "The U.S. Needs to Declare War on Proxies", Foreign Policy, January 27, 2020

    Svante E. Cornell, “The Raucous Caucasus”, American Interest, May 2017

    Svante E. Cornell, Small Nations and Great Powers: A Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict in the Caucasus, RoutledgeCurzon, 2001.

    Svante E. Cornell, The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict, Uppsala University, 1999

    More recent analysis:

    Turkey Seeks to Counter Russia in the Black Sea-Caucasus Region,” Turkey Analyst, 10/5/20, Emil Avdaliani

    Turkey’s Commitment to Azerbaijan’s Defense Shows the Limits of Ankara’s Tilt to Moscow,” Turkey Analyst, 9/25/20, Turan Suleymanov & Bahruz Babayev

     “Cross-Border Escalation between Armenia and Azerbaijan,” Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 9/25/20, Natalia Konarzewska

    Russia and Turkey: Behind the Armenia-Azerbaijan Clashes?”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 8/31/20, Avinoam Idan

    Armenia and the U.S.: Time for New Thinking?”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 10/2/19, Eduard Abrahamyan.

    Why Washington Must Re-Engage the CaucasusCentral Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 7/8/19, Stephen Blank

    Azerbaijan’s Defense Industry Reform”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 5/7/19, Tamerlan Vahabov.

    Military Procurements on Armenia's and Azerbaijan's Defense Agendas”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 3/27/19, Ilgar Gurbanov

    Armenia's New Government Struggles with Domestic and External Opposition,” Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 3/20/19, Armen Grigorian.

    Bolton's Caucasian Tour and Russia's Reaction”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 12/17/18, Eduard Abrahamyan.