Confidence and Catastrophe: Armenia and the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War
“In war,” Carl von Clausewitz cautioned, “the result is never final.” On Nov. 9, 2020, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan learned this lesson the hard way when he signed a ceasefire that put an end to a 44-day war with Azerbaijan over the territory of Mountainous Karabakh and seven adjoining provinces. It was a crushing defeat that erased Armenia’s victory in the First Karabakh War, a six-year armed conflict that had concluded just over a quarter century ago.
This second conflict came as no surprise. With peace talks stalled, Azerbaijan had, for over a decade, been threatening war and ostentatiously arming for one. Nor was the war’s outcome any surprise. The bigger and better equipped Azerbaijani army, backed by Turkey, overwhelmed the smaller and obsolescent Armenian force. What is a surprise is the way Armenia’s leadership for over two decades remained stubbornly blind to the likelihood of such a debacle ― and even contributed to it by alienating allies and needlessly provoking enemies. One might have expected that as a tiny, isolated, and resource-poor country with a tragic history stamped by violence, Armenia would have taken a more realist approach to diplomacy, displaying hardheaded pragmatism, cunning, and shrewd cynicism. Yet to the contrary, Armenian statecraft has revealed itself as a mix of delusional self-confidence and naïve sentimentality.
A Tragic History
The Republic of Armenia is a small country, roughly 11,500 square miles and just barely bigger than Massachusetts. Yet, every day in Armenia reminds you that Armenians not long ago inhabited a far wider geography. The restaurant advertising “Adana-style” cuisine, recalling a city by the Mediterranean; the “Kilikya”(Cilicia) beer, named after a region in southwestern Turkey; the mosaic on the street in Gyumri that depicts the city of Kars, 80 miles away, across a closed border; the news item about the Armenian Patriarch of Constantinople, located in Turkey’s capital; the television documentary about the Armenian Cathedral of the Holy Cross on an island in Lake Van; and, of course, Mt. Ararat, the national symbol of Armenia. Standing at an elevation of nearly 17,000 feet, the volcano literally looms over Armenia in a way that photos do not capture. Once you see Ararat in person, you immediately understand why Armenians adopted it as their national symbol and reproduce its image everywhere. Yet, Ararat too, lies outside the borders.
As these daily reminders suggest, Armenians have inhabited lands outside the republic for centuries, particularly the highlands stretching from the Caucasus to Anatolia. Their distinct language, unique alphabet, and separate Christian church set them apart from their neighbors. For much of their history, they maintained a precarious existence on the periphery of far larger and more powerful entities such as the Roman, Byzantine, Parthian, Ottoman, Safavid, and Russian empires.
That existence came to a ghastly end in World War I. An emerging world order that acknowledged nations and the nation-state, not imperial dynasties, as its natural and most legitimate units transformed the Armenians of Anatolia into potential sovereigns of that land, and thereby set them up as competitors with their Turkish and Kurdish neighbors. In 1915, to ensure that the Armenians could never follow the example blazed by the Balkan peoples and create an Armenian nation-state in Anatolia, the government of the Ottoman empire put an effective end to the Armenian existence in Anatolia, killing off as many as a million through deportations and massacre.
That horrific experience, memorialized by Armenians as Medz Yeghem, the “Great Catastrophe,” and described commonly as a genocide, was followed by what appeared to be redemption. In May of 1918, with the Russian Empire in ruins and a tottering Ottoman Empire amenable to buffer states in the Caucasus, the Armenians managed to establish a sovereign Armenia centered on the old Khanate of Yerevan. The surrender of the Ottoman Empire that autumn and the victorious Entente powers’ plans to partition it fired Armenian imaginations. Armenian diplomats set off to the Paris Peace Conference to lobby, in the words of Armenia’s first prime minister, Hovhannes Kajaznuni, for “a great Armenia from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean, from the mountains of Karabagh to the Arabian Desert.” The allied powers were sympathetic, and in the 1920 Treaty of Sevres they endorsed a vast Armenia that reached from the Caucasus through eastern Anatolia to the Black Sea.
With a population of a little more than a million, however, the existing Armenia could barely hold on to its territory in the Caucasus. How it could absorb and defend nearly 10 times more territory was not at all clear. Moreover, news of the Treaty of Sevres and the prospect of Armenian rule filled the Muslims of those lands with fear. Turks, Kurds, and others rallied behind Mustafa Kemal to resist the treaty and the partition of Anatolia. Kemal, in turn, partnered with Vladimir Lenin, trading Turkish influence in the Caucasus, particularly in Azerbaijan, to Soviet Russia in exchange for guns and gold. As Kemal’s troops squeezed the Armenian Republic from the west the Red Army rolled over Armenia from the east, the formerly buoyant Armenians surrendered to the Soviet Union in December 1920.
The Treaty of Sevres was dead. Armenia’s diplomats had chased a phantom, one that required them to fight an unwinnable two-front war against the Turks and the Bolsheviks. They lost everything as a result. No one put this point more bluntly than Kajaznuni, who in 1923 penned a powerful denunciation of the grandiose delusions of his political party, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, which had dominated the politics of the first Armenian Republic. “We had created a dense atmosphere of illusion in our minds,” Kajaznuni angrily lamented. Paris, London, and Washington were generous with Anatolian territory, but their priorities were not Yerevan’s. “We had implanted our own desires into the minds of others; We had lost our sense of reality and were carried away with our dreams.” So self-deceived were Armenia’s leaders that they had remained cavalier even as the Turkish army was massing just across the border. “We were not afraid of war because we thought we would win,” Kajaznuni reminded his audience.
Armenia’s Second Chance
Armenia regained its independence some 71 years later when the Soviet Union fell apart. The Soviet collapse coincided with the outbreak of a war for the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region. Soviet authorities had initially assigned the territory to Azerbaijan as a nominally autonomous region. In the final years of the Soviet Union, the ethnic Armenians of Karabakh moved to have the territory reassigned to Soviet Armenia. The conflict grew violent and evolved into a war. Backed by the Republic of Armenia, the Armenian Karabakhis eventually prevailed. The ceasefire of 1994 marked their triumph.
The Armenian victory was enormous. Karabakhis had consolidated control not only over Karabakh but also over seven adjoining Azerbaijani provinces, or 13.6 percent of Azerbaijan’s total territory. The psychological dimension of the conquest was no less consequential. Armenians draw little distinction between Azerbaijani Turks and Anatolian Turks. Many accordingly saw the victory over Azerbaijan as a redeeming win at the end of a century marked by calamities. Once at an academic conference of Turks and Armenians that I attended in 2005, a non-academic observer from the Republic of Armenia who was bemused at the proceedings stood up and exclaimed, “We Eastern Armenians are so different from you Western Armenians! You always see yourselves as victims! But we know ourselves as conquerors!”
Yet, no matter how great Armenia’s victory in 1994 was, it could not be decisive. They had won the battle for Karabakh, but they lacked the means to compel Azerbaijan, a country nearly three times larger in territory and population, to concede all that they wanted. Moreover, their victory violated the principle of territorial integrity, a pillar of the international order. Azerbaijan thus had four U.N. Security Council resolutions calling for the unconditional withdrawal of occupying Armenian forces from the seven Azerbaijani provinces. Absent Azerbaijan’s consent, Armenia could never legitimize its gains in the international arena. This led to a bizarre predicament whereby Yerevan declined to recognize the Republic of Artsakh as a state, even as it supported Artsakh in all imaginable ways and called on others to recognize Artsakh’s sovereignty. A conclusive solution to the Karabakh conflict would require the Armenians to agree to some form of compromise. Ultimately, they proved unwilling to do that.
To facilitate a negotiated solution to the war, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe created the so-called “Minsk Group” co-chaired by Russia, France, and the United States to host peace talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan. As the victor in possession of both Karabakh and seven surrounding provinces, Armenia had tremendous leverage, and in the Minsk Group it had a relatively favorable environment. Armenia’s strategy was simple: As a recent report from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe put it, “maintain the status quo while stalling until the international community and Azerbaijan recognized Nagornyy [sic] Karabakh’s independence.”
Time, however, was one factor not in Armenia’s favor. As a small landlocked country largely bereft of natural resources and with outlets only through Georgia and Iran, Armenia’s prospects for economic growth were limited. Further crippling Armenia’s economy has been its dependency on Russia for security, a reliance dictated by Yerevan’s uncompromising stance on Karabakh. Yerevan is a formal treaty ally with Moscow, hosts Russian military bases, and has Russian troops guarding its borders with Turkey and Iran. That security dependence, however, has carried with it a parallel energy and economic dependence that has constrained Armenia’s development. An anemic economy has caused as much as one-third of Armenia’s population to leave the country in search of employment abroad, further undermining the country’s long-term prospects.
By comparison, Azerbaijan’s future prospects were bright. Just months after signing the 1994 ceasefire, Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliyev inked the so-called “Contract of the Century” to develop Azerbaijan’s Caspian oil fields with a consortium of international oil companies. In the 1990s, Baku hoped the attraction of its energy riches would prompt the West to pressure Armenia to compromise. After those hopes fell through at negotiations in Key West in 2001 and in Rambouillet in 2006, Baku turned to the military option. Its oil and gas exports enabled it to boost its military spending 10-fold between 2006 and 2016. Whereas Armenia’s commitments to Russia bound it to purchase virtually all its arms from Russia, Azerbaijan had the freedom and means to acquire advanced and innovative weapons systems from Israel and Turkey, among others, as well as from Russia.
Baku never sought to camouflage its intention to rearm and retake Karabakh by force if negotiations failed. To the contrary, Baku publicized its buildup with words and images. In the parade celebrating the centennial of Azerbaijan’s armed forces in 2018, the Azerbaijanis showcased their new weaponry, including Israeli drones and Russian thermobaric rocket launchers. Nor did Haydar’s son and heir, Ilham Aliyev, leave any question for parade watchers as to why Azerbaijan was acquiring so many weapons. “We want the conflict to be resolved peacefully,” he announced, but “[i]nternational law is not working.” With the arsenal on parade, Aliyev would show “to the people of Azerbaijan, to the enemy and to the whole world” that Azerbaijan’s army is “ready to restore Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity at any moment.”
Baku’s warnings were not limited to rhetoric. In April 2016, the Azerbaijani armed forces initiated a four-day skirmish. Aliyev took the opportunity during the fighting to air his frustrations. Armenia, he growled, “want[s] to turn this into a never-ending process. They want negotiations to last for another 20 years.” The combat was intense, and deaths were well over a hundred on each side. The Azerbaijani army managed to seize a small amount of territory, some two to three square miles.
Some in Armenia saw the clash as a wake-up call. In May 2016, Samvel Babayan, the former commander of the Karabakh army, implored his listeners to understand that Armenia simply could not compete with Azerbaijan in either financial or human resources. Boasts that in the event of war Armenian soldiers would be “drinking tea in Baku” were idle. More likely, Babayan predicted to his compatriots, the Azerbaijanis would be drinking tea in Yerevan. Another warning came from the journalist Tatul Hokabyan, who said the 2016 skirmish should be “a cold shower for Armenian hot heads.” But others dismissed such criticisms, and only three years later did the Armenian government undertake a half-hearted effort to review combat performance.
In fact, Armenia’s self-confidence was hypertrophying into a pride that echoed the hubris of 1920. Yerevan and Stepanakert (Karabakh’s capital) began openly to advance maximal claims. The seizure of the Azerbaijani provinces outside Karabakh proper had been incidental to the struggle for Karabakh. Kelbajar and Lachin, which ensured connection to Armenian proper, were considered strategically vital, the lands between Karabakh and Iran as valuable, and those between Karabakh and Azerbaijan as dispensable. Stepanakert initially made no definite claims to the lands outside Karabakh. Not unlike Israel that used the Sinai as a bargaining chip with Egypt in 1979, the Armenians initially intended to trade land for peace.
In 2006, however, the Republic of Artsakh formally assumed jurisdiction over all seven adjacent regions. Thereafter, the government began settling Armenians in and around Karabakh, with the goal of consolidating their gains by creating “facts on the ground.” In 2018 the Armenian air force flew the Armenian professional poker player and playboy Dan Bilzerian on a helicopter to Karabakh as part of a planned major investment project. The consensus regarding the adjacent occupied regions changed radically, and the notion of ceding land for peace went from axiomatic to unthinkable.
Feeding Armenian overconfidence was a disbelief in Azerbaijanis’ attachment and commitment to Karabakh. Armenia owed its battlefield success in the first war to greater national cohesion and higher motivation. Asserting sovereignty over Armenian-inhabited lands resonated with a communal memory centered on the loss of such lands. Azerbaijan lacked a comparable sense of mission and urgency to galvanize them ― they were fighting to preserve a status-quo they had taken for granted. Azerbaijani nationalism was still in formation as the Soviet Union broke apart, and internal political divisions and infighting sapped the Azerbaijanis’ war effort.
Armenia, pointing to such things as the semi-nomadic past of many Azerbaijanis and their historically lower rates of literacy, was already inclined to see Azerbaijani nationalism as thin and artificial. As a result, it tended to dismiss the Republic of Azerbaijan as a khanate run by the Aliyev clan, not a nation-state. Some in Armenia assured themselves that Azerbaijan’s inability to effectively mobilize its people and resources reflected an underlying indifference to Karabakh as well as a collective incapacity.
Since 1994, however, the Azerbaijani government has pursued a steady campaign to build a sense of national identity among its citizens. The loss of Karabakh and the need to avenge that loss have been focal points of this nation-building project. The very presence inside Azerbaijan of between 600,000 and 800,000 people displaced by the conflict, or nearly one out every 10 Azerbaijanis, reminded Azerbaijanis daily of their loss. Official channels such as schools, popular culture, and music further drove the message home. In time, the need to reclaim Karabakh became one matter on which all Azerbaijanis could passionately agree.
Disaffecting the Patron
In the spring of 2018, Nikol Pashinyan, a journalist-cum-politician, tapped into widespread discontent in Armenian society to lead a series of popular protests that spurred the collapse of the governing coalition and led to his election as prime minister. Pashinyan dubbed the tumult and his rise to power as Armenia’s “Velvet Revolution,” recalling the so-called “color revolutions” and their promises of more open politics at home and a more pro-Western approach abroad.
The desire to extricate Armenia from the political and economic ruts into which it had fallen was the proper instinct, but given the country’s limited resources, military and economic dependence on Russia, and the clearly growing threat that a better-armed and increasingly frustrated Azerbaijan posed, the achievement of that goal demanded political acumen and sagacity, qualities that Pashinyan lacks. Although Pashinyan outwardly reaffirmed Armenia’s pro-Russian orientation, and the Kremlin responded in kind, by the end of the year Moscow had become alarmed about trends in Pashinyan’s Armenia. The repeated arrests of former Armenian President Robert Kocharyan, whom Putin described as “a true friend of Russia,” irritated the Kremlin. More substantive moves, including the curtailment of intelligence ties with Russia and Pashinyan’s replacement of pro-Russian personnel with thinly experienced loyalists, only upset Moscow further.
Meanwhile, anti-Russian rhetoric was percolating in Armenian circles. Karabakhi leaders grew dismissive, telling their Russian contacts, “We don’t need [you] Russians at all, we can walk to Baku without you.” When the Second Karabakh War erupted, prominent Russians gleefully repaid the contempt, branding Pashinyan a “pro-American marionette” and predicting Armenia would pay a steep price for Pashinyan’s alienation of Moscow. Given Pashinyan’s inconsistency and confusion on foreign policy matters, it is possible that he was not actually pursuing a policy to delink Armenia from Russia for the sake of the West. But his carelessness certainly gave Moscow that impression, which was just as damaging.
While antagonizing Russia, Pashinyan and his Cabinet indulged in maximalist claims. In March 2019, his defense minister, David Tonoyan, famously announced that Armenia’s policy was no longer “land for peace” but “war for new territories.” If Azerbaijan dared to initiate another war, Armenia would take more Azerbaijani territory. Parliamentarians warned Azerbaijanis that if there were to be another war, “We will go all the way to Baku!”
Pashinyan doubled down on maximalism when on a visit to Stepanakert in August 2019 he asserted, “Artsakh is Armenia, and that is it!” A desire to outflank political rivals inside Armenia and Karabakh may have motivated Pashinyan’s call for unification, but it was an incendiary declaration. It amounted to an unequivocal rejection of Azerbaijan’s position and thus the very idea of negotiations.
Pashinyan threw logic and prudence aside entirely а year later in a speech he delivered on the centennial of Sevres, declaring that the treaty is a “historical fact” and “remains so to this day.” The head of the Armenian government was reviving the claim to eastern Turkey but disregarding the fact that Turkey famously nurtures a national paranoia on the theme of Sevres and is 25 times larger than Armenia. As Gerard Libaridyan, a foreign policy adviser to Armenia’s first president, put it, Pashinyan’s address amounted to “at minimum, a declaration of diplomatic war” against Turkey. In addition, as Libaridyan noted, Pashinyan had recast the Karabakh question from one of self-determination into one of Armenian expansionism, another colossal error.
Confronting the Consequences
The defeat in Karabakh has stunned Armenia. The expectations invested in Armenian arms, the goodwill of the democratic West, and the guardianship of Russia have been shattered. Alas, the opposition to Pashinyan has focused its ire not on the brazen diplomatic and strategic recklessness that led Armenia to a calamitous and inevitable defeat but on the decision to surrender. The candidate behind whom Pashinyan’s opponents have rallied, Vazgen Manukyan, persists in propagating fantasies. While addressing a rally in Yerevan on Dec. 5, Manukyan prophesized, “A large force will gather against Turkey, the world will not forgive Turkey for her insolence. If an alliance against Turkey is formed, we will be in it.” Turkey may have enemies, but symbolic resolutions passed in the French National Assembly favoring the recognition of the Artsakh Republic and cooperation with the United Arab Emirates will neither constitute an alliance nor reverse Armenia’s battlefield losses.
Nov. 9, 2020, has become one more bitter date for Armenians who know many. The political scientist Arman Grigoryan warns that unless Armenians take this moment of defeat to soberly reassess their strengths and weaknesses, it will not be the last. Nonetheless, the proponents of the “Armenian Cause” ― the conviction that the restoration of Armenian sovereignty over the entire territory of historic Armenia is both just and feasible ― continue to dominate the public debate. And, as Grigoryan writes, they “have created an image of reality, which reflects not reality, but rather their desires and prejudices.” The description could have been Kajaznuni’s. That states seek to maximize their power in the interest of self-preservation is a central tenet of the theory of realism. Armenia’s example perhaps suggests that historical trauma coupled with limited experience of sovereignty can lead states voluntarily to pursue self-destructive policies.
The future of Armenia, like that of any other country, lies also in the hands of its neighbors. Azerbaijan’s armed forces have won for Baku more options in foreign policy than it has ever had. It no longer exists in Russia’s shadow. Turkish assistance in training and arming the Azerbaijani army were critical to Azerbaijan’s victory, but, paradoxically, Azerbaijan, having accomplished most of its objectives in Karabakh, no longer needs Turkey as much as it did.
How Baku will seek to use its new independence remains to be seen. Aliyev’s continued descriptions of Yerevan, Zengezur, and Goyce (Sevan) as “our historical lands” will generate only loathing in Armenia and instability beyond. More promising is Aliyev’s recognition of the possibilities of peace, cooperation, and development in the future. Like the First Karabakh War, the second has ended with a ceasefire, not a peace treaty, and a rudimentary ceasefire at that. Clausewitz’s admonition that in war “the result is never final” is every bit as relevant to Azerbaijan in 2020 as it was to Armenia in 1994.
Michael A. Reynolds is the director of Princeton University’s program in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies; associate professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton; and senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He is the author of Shattering Empires: The Clash and Collapse of the Ottoman and Russian Empires, 1908-1918.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Armenia encompasses 115,000 square miles. In fact, the country is roughly 11,500 square miles.