Armenians on the “New Reality in the South Caucasus” after “the 44-Day Catastrophe”.

I have sometimes been asked in interviews whether Armenia has accepted the new reality in the Southern Caucasus, brought about by its defeat in the Second Karabakh War, which now has its first anniversary. That is a difficult question, but I believe I can finally answer it: The balance between Armenian delusions and an acceptance of the reality of the situation has been significantly altered by the War. The wishful thinking, and delusions are still there but the scales have shifted to a degree toward the cold, hard facts of the situation. There is denial in abundance and criticism of everyone and anyone that blame can be laid upon: the Pashinyan government and the previous regime, Turkey (of course), Russia, the United States, Israel, Iran etc. But there is also soul searching within Armenian nationalism for the answer about where it all went wrong and how to fix it.

The Armenian journalist and historian, Tatul Hakobyan, has just published a new book entitled, ‘The Valley of Death: A 44-Day Catastrophe’. In it he has “memorialized his observation and analysis in a 360-page war diary.” He previously authored ‘Karabakh Diary, Green and Black: Neither War nor Peace’ (2008, with a number of further editions), and ‘View from Ararat: Armenians and Turks’ (20120. Hakobyan revealed that he is ready to publish a book on Armenia from 1988 to 2020 and another on Armenian/Turkish relations which have very interesting information, largely unknown by today’s Armenian communities. Hakobyan is also the co-ordinator of the ANI Armenian Research Center, which focuses on contemporary Armenian issues. Between 2009 and 2021, he was an analyst at the Civilitas Foundation and a correspondent for its online CivilNet broadcasts. In February 2021 he quit CivilNet, unhappy at state censorship practices within the organisation. On November 2, while in Davit Bek village in Armenia’s southeast, Hakobyan had reported that the Azerbaijanis were approaching the borders of Armenia, while Yerevan was presenting a narrative of victory after victory.

Hakobyan has been touring the US Armenian diaspora and there has been great interest about what he has to say about what went wrong in the 44-Day war and what is to be done? In the space of just over a week Hakobyan spoke to gatherings of Armenians in Richmond Heights (Ohio), Las Vegas,  Pasadena and Fresno. His talks on “the new reality in the South Caucasus,” as Hakobyan has described it himself, have been interesting. There is obvious unease in the diaspora about some of the things Hakobyan is saying but when challenged as to alternatives his critics have been found wanting. There are no replies. They are unhappy in their shattered dreams, but they have no course out of “the new reality” and back to Armenian dreamland.

The discussions are available in YouTube videos recorded during March and April in Chicago this year. I have taken notes from these discussions conducted in English and transcribed them. Some of the comments have been included in reports by the Armenian media, but others have been omitted, perhaps purposely. I am unable to say whether the discussions in Armenian were any different in content. As far as possible I have used direct quotes, with no misrepresentation being intended. The English is occasionally tidied up for the sake of precision, but that is all. I have grouped the arguments under themes for the reader, rather than just transcribing chronologically. This enables points made in the 2 video discussions to be collected together for clarity of focus.

Tatul Hakobyan began his talks by saying that Armenians and Azerbaijanis had been enemies for a long time and had gone to war 5 times in just over a century (1905/06, 1918/20, 1991/94, 2016 and 2020).

He put forward a range of reasons why the last war was lost by Armenia. Those he mentioned included: the economic and military strength of Azerbaijan; Armenia’s losing of the technological contest; Yerevan’s diplomatic failure and loss of friends and allies due to its intransigence in the face of international law; the election of the catastrophic Nikol Pashinyan as leader; the failure to anticipate and make contingencies for the effective Azerbaijani preparations for war; the significant Turkish support given to Baku; and on the battlefield the mistaken belief that Armenians were always going to be superior.

He notes the excellent timing of Baku in launching the war. In late 2020 the world was pre-occupied with covid; the US was in Presidential election mode and domestically focussed; an inexperienced and incompetent Armenian leader, Pashinyan, had come to power; Russia was the only factor Azerbaijan had to overcome and Moscow was, by this time, willing to see Baku alter the situation in the South Caucasus. The war was also perfectly timed, just before the Winter set in, freezing the situation in Azerbaijan’s strategic interest.

As a result of the last war Armenia had “lost 50 per cent of Artsakh” with the result that the 120 km buffer between Armenia and Azerbaijan had been reduced to 0 km and the Goris-Kapan road was now adjacent to Azerbaijan. Speaking about “Syunik province” (Western Zangezur), Hakobyan related that the road built during the 2000s from Goris to Kapan and on to Meghri, “about 70 km now passes through Azerbaijan. In order to drive south, one is forced to see Azerbaijani flags, road signs and soldiers. This indicates that the Armenian-Azerbaijani Soviet Socialist Republican borders were restored.” Hakobyan mournfully commented that this was “the sad reality of war”.

Before the War

Hakobyan told his audience that Armenian had often put misplaced faith in foreign allies in order to accomplish its territorial ambitions, rather than finding “common ground with our neighbours” to settle differences. But despite the wars and the latest defeat, diplomatic relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan/Turkey were both desirable and possible, as was the case even during the worst periods of the past:

“We were determined that the future of Armenia will be decided in Sèvres or other places, and not in Armenia with its neighbours. We went to war and were terribly defeated, losing 30 square kilometers — the city of Ani, the entire Kars province and the biggest city of Armenia at that time, Alexandrapol… Between 1918-1920 Armenia and Turkey had diplomatic relations. The first country that recognised Armenia was Ottoman Turkey. We had two ministers in the Azerbaijan government in 1919 and an Embassy and Ambassador in Baku, while we were at war with Azerbaijan! The first state which opened an Embassy in the centre of Yerevan was the Ottoman Empire. The first state who sent a diplomatic envoy, Ali Mehmet Pasha, was Turkey. Diplomatic relations with Turkey were therefore organised by the founding fathers of Armenia with those, like Talaat Pasha, who had organised the Genocide. So why not now?”

Hakobyan, was asked by the diaspora audience whether the Azerbaijanis were open to negotiations before the Second Karabakh War. He answered in the affirmative. He interestingly makes the point that Armenia’s resources were, in 2021, as in the past, just not sufficient to satisfy the territorial ambitions of its nationalism. And objectives must align with means:

“Since 1991 Azerbaijan has been part of the negotiating process. We have had more than 300 meetings with the Azerbaijanis. The Azerbaijanis wanted peace but we were not prepared to pay for the peace… We believed we could preserve the status quo. Our calculation was wrong. It was disastrous. Our calculations were wrong and disastrous even back in 1920 when we could have talked with the Kemalists but we preferred to have 150,000 sq. kms of Armenia. But we lost all this territory and became part of the Soviet Union. Personally I would like to have Greater Armenia – the Greatest Armenia. An Armenia that stretches from Baku to Istanbul, from the Black Sea to the Arabian Desert, but for 3 million Armenians that is not possible.”

Hakobyan also points out that after the defeats of a century ago there was a lot of soul searching among Armenians about the future, in which the desire for territorial expansion was questioned. However, the revanchist instinct had re-emerged over time:

“After the Treaty of Kars defeat all the Armenian books (e.g. Katchaznouni, Karinian, Lalaian etc.) written subsequently said we did not do our best to have good relations with our neighbours. From 1920 to 1925 we saw this discussion among Armenians, but the discourse was then changed and we wanted a Greater and Greater Armenia again. I think there is no Armenian in the world who does not want a Greater Armenia but this is a dream, not a reality.”

Hakobyan suggests that Yerevan should have learnt lessons from the brief war in 2016. The Russians had attempted to persuade Yerevan that it was time to make concessions to Baku. However, the Armenians prevaricated and then events took another course with the Velvet Revolution and the rise of Nikol Pashinyan.

In answer to a question about whether Russia could have stopped the 2020 war, or prevented it from even occurring, Hakobyan answered:

“In 2016, after the 3 day war (which was really a 12 hour war), the Russians told Sargsyan that the status quo was no longer acceptable. That is how the Lavrov Plan appeared. We said several times that we were prepared to withdraw from 7 adjacent territories but we did not. If we had accepted the Lavrov Plan we would now have a different picture. At least the Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Oblast, 4.4,000 sq. kms, I’m sure would be under the control of Armenia. The problem of Shushi was the key issue. We said “No” to Russian plans every time and Pashinyan and the Velvet Revolution muddied the situation. Armenia had gone back on its commitments… We lost the war because we did not try our best to establish normal relations with Azerbaijan. Now many believe that Levon Ter Petrosyan was right when he said we should have tried to solve the problem back in 1997… We left the Azerbaijanis with three options: 1. Accept the status quo; 2. Continue negotiations; 3. Start a war… Armenia provoked Azerbaijan into this war… This disastrous Pashinyan government did everything to force Azerbaijan into starting a war… We left no choice for Azerbaijan. They started a war and won the war.”

Why Armenia Lost the 2020 War

Hakobyan makes clear his understanding that Armenia had prepared to fight another war on the same lines as in the 1990s, believing that the result would be the same as it was then, against the Azerbaijanis. The delusion of actually expanding the occupied territories took hold, and the Pashinyan government threatened Baku with “new war for new territories” without realising it was a different Azerbaijan they would be fighting:

“This war was not like the war of the 1990s. We were not ready for a new technological war. This was clear after the 2016 war when they used Turkish and Israeli drones… We believed we could defeat them. If Azerbaijan started a new war we would conquer new territories… But it was soon obvious that we were not ready for this type of war.” 

According to Hakobyan, as the war got underway it became clear, in only a few days, when the Azerbaijanis penetrated the Armenian lines and began destroying a large part of its military equipment, that Armenia should have cut its losses and accepted a deal.

There was a question from a viewer about “whether Armenia used its entire military capacity to defend Artsakh?” It was a popular belief among diaspora Armenians during the war that Pashinyan was holding back much of the Armenian army for unexplained reasons. This belief emerged when news filtered through of the Azerbaijani advance causing disbelief that Armenia was fully fighting. Hakobyan made it clear that Armenia had fought as much as it could and it was its own fault the loss was so severe:

“We had a chance to stop the war on 4/5 October if we had accepted the Lavrov plan. Also, in mid-October we had another opportunity, as well as on 19 October. We waited for the breakthrough but Pashinyan and his government continued to lose territory with 5,000 dead. That was a disastrous decision. Armenia used its entire military capacity to defend Nagorno Karabakh, yes! We made disastrous mistakes. Why did we allow women and children to leave Karabakh?… We believed that Russia or Iran would support Armenia, but nobody supported us… No Armenian journalist told the truth during the war. The Armenian government did not allow us to tell the truth. From the fourth day of the war we were losing the war and should have stopped it. When I said that we were losing the war I received more than 3,000 threats saying: ‘You are a Turk, a defeatist, who does not love your country’. We were under the influence of the lies of state propaganda and I could not persuade our journalistic team to tell the truth.”

Future Relations in the Aftermath of the War

The Armenian diaspora was most interested in what Hakobyan had to say about what could be done after the defeat. When it comes to the future, Hakobyan revealed that Armenian revanchist desires had not died within him. They have just become more limited by the shock of the defeat:

“We now have 50 per cent of Artsakh and we have enough power to keep this territory. It is under the control of Russia. Our security is guaranteed by Russia. At least Hadrut and Shushi should be re-occupied by Armenia… This would be a balanced solution. 4.4,000 sq. kms is acceptable… The Pashinyan government is a symbol of our defeat. We must return to the Armenian colony and rebuild our army to do this… The status of Nagorno Karabakh is not important for me. Much more important is to have more and more Armenians living in Nagorno Karabakh and not to leave it. We should keep Nagorno Karabakh as a continuation of Armenia.”

Hakobyan warned the diaspora about the situation that he expects will develop in 4 or 5 years time when the Russian Peacekeeping Mission comes up for renewal under the Trilateral Agreement. He suggested that while some Armenians presumed the Russians would remain permanently in Karabakh he believed that if Azerbaijan insisted on their withdrawal Moscow will oblige and go in 2025:

“The war is not over… After 5 years the Russians will leave the territory as they left Eastern Anatolia in 1915 and Armenia and Azerbaijan in 1991… The Russians and Turks are on good terms. That is always bad for Armenia. I talked to Adam Schiff (prominent Californian pro-Armenian member of the US House of Representatives) about this. He is worried about US influence in the region, with the Turks and Russians being on such good terms… The real war between Armenians and Azerbaijanis started the day after the Soviets left on 26 December 1991…. Armenia should be ready for the new war. Always the defeated party needs to start a war. We have changed places with the Azerbaijanis. We need a new government, to recover the economy and to rebuild the army… We Armenians never give up, we will prevail in the end. We must win, we have no other option!”

Hakobyan, however, insisted that he is still a believer in enhancing relations with both Turkey and Azerbaijan. He argued that this is the only alternative for Armenia if it wishes to be a truly independent state. Currently, the Pashinyan government is going in the opposite direction, according to Hakobyan:

“For the first time since 1991 we delegated the security of Artsakh to Russia. Will the Russian peacekeepers leave in five years, in ten years or will they stay? Or can our ally Russia one day make an agreement with Turkey and again sacrifice that Armenian territory? These are questions that we need to think about incessantly.”

If Armenia does not establish normal relations it will become more and more dependent on Moscow and gradually will be absorbed into Russia:

“Armenia will be much more secure if it has relations with Azerbaijan and Turkey… Georgia tried to ally with the US. What happened? Disaster! We need balanced relations and good relations with Turkey and Azerbaijan. I understand what I am saying is very unpopular in the diaspora. But my understanding comes from history… But the Armenian government is doing nothing. We have an opportunity now for open roads and open borders… 80 per cent of our borders are with Turkey and Azerbaijan. It is not normal to have poor relations with neighbours. There is no other option but to have diplomatic relations. The only other option is to become part of Russia. It is not too late to accept reality. We do not want to be Armenograd.”

Commentary

The views of Tatul Hakobyan and the reactions to them reveal that the War of 2020 has had a significant impact on Armenians. They are having to adjust to the new reality in the South Caucasus brought about by the liberation war. Hakobyan has many interesting things to say about the war, including the admission that Armenia was responsible for it and Yerevan’s had multiple opportunities to prevent it and to end it, prior to its defeat.

Hakobyan mentions how Armenians re-appraised their position a century ago, after their disastrous defeat. But this re-appraisal came about under the influence of Sovietisation and the iron fist of Joseph Stalin. Armenia was put on a new Bolshevik path in 1921 from which a re-assessment of its nationalism was a requirement of survival. And when Stalin gave way to those who treated Armenian nationalism more lightly, it revived, flourishing when the last General Secretary gave the kiss of death to the Soviet Union.

Armenia has suffered defeat in 2020, as it did a century earlier, but its defeat is not so thorough. It feels that if it could survive the catastrophe of 1915 and the power of Stalin it will survive this latest reverse and make a come back again.

In Hakobyan’s view of what happens next it is clear that the irredentist spirit of Armenian nationalism lives on. While territorial ambitions have been curbed by the shock of defeat there is no recognition that Karabakh is Azerbaijan. In fact, there is an unrepentant revanchist desire to re-occupy Shusha and other areas of Azerbaijan. There is the realistic recognition that the Armenian state can never shake off its dependency on Moscow as long as it refuses to make peace and settle accounts with Azerbaijan and Turkey. But while Hakobyan’s desire that Yerevan establishes good relations with its neighbours is to be welcomed, his message that Armenia should rebuild and rearm for war is unhelpful for peace and stability in the region. It does not encourage generosity in Baku in relation to any future settlement.

On the anniversary of the war it appears that the road to enduring peace will be a long and difficult one.

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