Quo Vadis Armenia? (Where are you marching Armenia?)
(Updated and retitled due to the addition of postscripts.)
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.”
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.
Postscript I – Storm in the Caucasus, a Russian Analysis
Ruslan Pukhov, Director of the Russian agency CAST, recently appeared on the Armenian channel CivilNet to talk about the new book, ‘Storm in the Caucasus’ about the 44 Day War. The interviewer asked him to explain why Armenia lost the 44 Day War. Interestingly, both Armenian and Azerbaijani media have not reported many of his points. Pukhov pulled no punches in the interview and was very straight with his answers. Here they are summarised below:
- The war was lost before it begun, but it did not need to be such a catastrophe for Armenia. Shusha/Shushi, for instance, should have been easily defendable.
- Armenia did not prepare properly for the war even though it had 25 years to do so. It did not have defence in depth that would have made Karabakh a fortress and much more costly to recapture. It relied on a fixed line of defence.
- Azerbaijan took best military practice from around the world, exercised with the best, learning from militaries which were superior to them. The Armenian military remained in the Soviet mode, in which initiative was traditionally lacking and commanders waited for direction.
- Armenia under-estimated Azerbaijan with a reliance on past victories and myths from the first war. Azerbaijan under-estimated Armenia, to its own advantage in the second war. This enabled the Azerbaijanis to take high losses in the first week of the war but to continue advancing despite this.
- Armenia still hasn’t learnt the lessons of the 44 Day War.
- During the first week of the war the Armenian defence held up well and inflicted heavy casualties on the Azerbaijani forces. However, Azerbaijan was able to move into a higher gear, concentrating forces and sharpening activity with great effect. From then onwards the Armenian defence collapsed. There is no evidence, as some Armenians suggest, that this was the result of a taking over of command by the Turks. This is wishful thinking and another example of Armenians under-estimating Azerbaijanis.
- The main reason why the war was a catastrophe for Armenia is because “Yerevan did not come to the war”. This was not because Armenia itself was in danger of being attacked by Azerbaijan. Such a thing would have been so dangerous for Azerbaijan that it would never have been considered. Azerbaijani dominance of the air and use of highly effective drone warfare certainly deterred the movement of forces from Armenia along limited routes where they were sitting ducks.
- However, the main reason why Yerevan did not mobilise fully and throw its army and population into the defence of “Artsakh” was that neither the political leadership or people thought it worth fighting and dying for the territory. This may have been a result of general disenchantment with the Armenian state itself and a primary focus on its reform rather than defending territory that was considered too much. The Armenian diaspora, has also began treating Karabakh as a “theme park” – nice to visit but not to live in.
- If Yerevan had mobilised and committed more forces to the war there would probably have still been an Azerbaijani victory but it would have been much more costly and the war would have been longer in duration. Shusha would have been capable of being held by Armenian forces, given its excellent defensive position.
Postscript II – Pashinyan’s New Reality
In December 2021 Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan shocked Armenians across the world with the revelation that they were not being told the truth about the direction negotiations were taking in the years prior to the War. He did this presumably needing to inform them of the weak hand he had been dealt by his predecessors, before he was blamed for making concessions that had already been made by those now criticising him. He particularly referred to the right of return of the Azerbaijani population of the former entity of Nagorno-Karabakh to their homes as part of conflict resolution. Such a principle, he emphasized, acknowledged that Nagorno-Karabakh was not as many Armenians thought it was, or were told it was, an exclusively Armenian entity, but was, in fact, a shared space, historically.
(Note: Pashinyan did not state the obvious, of course: that the highlands of Karabakh had had a mixed population for at least the last 2 centuries, before it, and 7 surrounding areas were completely ethnically cleansed of Muslims in 1993-4. The former Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast had been artificially created/engineered/gerrymandered out of a wider Muslim-majority area by Stalin to produce an overwhelmingly Armenian entity in the early 1920s. However, by the late 1980s it still had an Azerbaijani population of around 22 per cent. The 145,000 Armenians and 41,000 Azerbaijanis of the NKAO, at this point of time, before the clearance of the Muslim population, were in fact surrounded by a population of 800,000 Azerbaijanis.)
Here is what Orkhan Amashov writing for Azernews said of the Pashinyan bombshell:
“Armenian society is still regurgitating and cogitating some of the statements made by Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan during his recent online press conference…
The key part of the “truth-revealing” strategy employed by Pashinyan during the press conference was based on the tenet that, under the successive governments of [former presidents] Kocharyan and Sargsyan, some of the disturbing, yet essentially vital, elements of the talks were held back from the people. The overarching principle was that he, as a responsible and conscientious leader, found himself heavy-laden with the ungrateful task of informing his people of a gloomy reality.
Using a voice imbued with pathos, the Armenian prime minister admitted that, at no stage during the negotiations, was the former area of the Soviet-era Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast considered to have been an exclusively Armenian entity and “it was recorded that an Azerbaijani population also lived in Nagorno-Karabakh, and the protection of their interests was on the agenda of the negotiations.”…
Pashinyan’s view, or rather admission, is that given the nature of the negotiations and points of reference, the chances of “independence” for the former Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast had been completely exhausted, prior to his premiership.
It is crucial to bear in mind that the final legal determination of the region in question was subject to safety caveats. It was imperative that Azerbaijan would agree with any “independence” referendum and that, without its consent, no outcome would be recognised. In addition, such a referendum was duty-bound to be “legal”, and “legality” here, inter alia, automatically meant conformity with Azerbaijani laws; to be more precise, compliance with the Azerbaijani Constitution; in other words, with the prevailing legal order applicable to the situation…
The situation is evolving at a dizzying pace. Within the space of a very short time, Pashinyan has transformed from being a thwarted and deluded man, fighting a rearguard action, irresponsibly claiming that “Karabakh is Armenia and full stop”, to a man steeped in reality, admitting that the area of the former Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast had long exhausted its chances of being outside Azerbaijan, this meagre chance having passed long before his own premiership.
The sharp contrast is striking. But why? As to Pashinyan’s motives for being so candid, one could assume that he is pursuing two interrelated objectives. Firstly, by revealing the sheer incompetence of his predecessors, both in terms of the way they managed the so-called negotiations and developed the army, which was proven to be not up to scratch during last year’s war, given the lack of active Russian support, he shifted the blame to his current opponents. Secondly, and more importantly, his admissions could form part of a larger attempt to prepare Armenians for a completely new reality, in the light of which a comprehensive and lasting peace with Azerbaijan could be achieved.
Pashinyan came to power as a populist and countercultural political figure and is known for his textbook talent of producing empty, substance-free slogans designed to steer public emotion, both at home and in the diaspora for some time. As a former so-called journalist, he knows how to scribble half-truths and to prevaricate to the ultimate degree, if necessary. During the Second Karabakh War, he consistently lied to his countrymen by denying the obvious. But he is also a re-elected man with a domestic agenda and some carefully considered plans for his country. To implement these, he will need to forge a sustainable peace with Azerbaijan. Perhaps the rationale for his recent dose of truth serum lies in the vital inevitability of leaving the Karabakh issue in the past, so as to progress to the future.”
Postscript III – Saving Artsakh through a colonisation effort (from Dr. Benyamin Poghosyan Armenia weekly) After a fierce criticism of Pashinyan the following alternative strategy is suggested:
“There is another part of Armenian society, and also quite significant, which is ready to take actions and even sacrifices to prevent the loss of Artsakh… The first step towards the prevention of the loss of Artsakh could be the establishment of the “Save Artsakh” fund with a straightforward goal – to have at least 30 percent more Armenians living in Artsakh in 2027 than now and at least 50 percent more Armenians living in Artsakh in 2030 than now. This simple and clear goal will unite significant numbers of Armenians both in Armenia and the Diaspora, including the middle class. One of the options to increase the population of Artsakh could be the offer of a financial bonus for every Armenian who would like to relocate to Artsakh to do the work which he is doing now in Armenia or abroad…
This is only one option, and definitely, there could be others to boost population growth in Artsakh. If Artsakh has at least 50 percent more Armenians in 2030 than now, it will ruin the Azerbaijani strategy to change the demographic situation and eventually transform Artsakh into another Nakhichevan. Russian troops will probably be deployed in Artsakh at least until 2030, so the basic security of Armenians living there will be guaranteed. Meanwhile, if the Armenian population increases, it will provide a solid base for Russia to keep its troops in Artsakh after 2030. The upcoming green economy revolution and the relative decrease of the role of oil and gas after 2035 may create problems and trigger instability in Azerbaijan, thus forcing Baku to shift its focus on the domestic situation and probably abandon its plans of destroying Artsakh.”