Armenia: The Case for Realpolitik

The International Affairs Review
Jan 13 2022

On November 16, 2021, Azerbaijani Armed Forces initiated a military offensive along the eastern border of Armenia’s Syunik Province. While the latest provocation worsens the open-ended demarcation process in the South Caucasus, or lack thereof, it reflects a microcosm of a decades-long, elite-driven tendency towards political crisis and communal violence over conciliatory negotiations. The outcome of the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War shifted the regional balance of power by giving advantage to a stronger Azerbaijan and inflicting an existential threat to a weaker Armenia. The shortcomings of Armenia suggest the failures of a border policy predicated on emotive thinking, not materialistic aims, which now demands an application of realpolitik in decision-making. Forsaking normative expectations, the pragmatism of realpolitik embodies the pursuit of egoistic interests of the state in a world defined by structural restraints, a remedy for Armenia’s deterministic path.  

History of Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict 

The First Nagorno-Karabakh War, an outgrowth of the 1991 independence referendum, resulted in an Armenian consolidation of Karabakh and the surrounding Azerbaijani territories. Afterward, the Minsk Group—co-chaired by France, Russia, and the United States—mediated a temporary peace, upon which to discontinue inter-ethnic violence, with an intention to later formalize a long-term political settlement. An uneasy impasse kept the region intact until September 27, 2020. 

The 44-day Second Nagorno-Karabakh War, sparked by an Azerbaijani ground offensive, uprooted the post-1994 status quo. Militarily, Azerbaijan gained all seven districts lost during the first war, in addition to some delineated areas of Nagorno-Karabakh. An amalgam of advanced weapon systems and primitive practices characterized the warfare; the exemplified methods include unmanned combat drones and extrajudicial decapitation of POWs. On November 10, 2020, Russia brokered a tripartite armistice ending this war that resulted in approximately 6,000 combat deaths. The Nagorno-Karabakh ceasefire underwrites a reciprocal exchange of prisoners and corpses, the establishment of transport links between Azerbaijan and the landlocked Nakhichevan enclave, and a withdrawal of Armenian forces from territories controlled since the 1990s. Before the deadline for territorial transfers, thousands of Armenians fled, often burning their property to prevent Azerbaijan from inheriting their possessions. A force of nearly 2,000 Russian peacekeepers operates under a mandate to enforce the ceasefire.      

External Actors: A Tool for Asymmetric Warfare 

During the Minsk Group mediation attempts, Armenia instrumentalized its control over the internationally recognized Azerbaijani districts to negotiate a pathway to independence for Nagorno-Karabakh. Due to lasting resentment from territorial losses, Baku insisted on re-establishing pre-war boundaries and the right of return for natives. To accomplish this, Azerbaijan relied upon a destabilization strategy by attrition, forcing Armenia to slowly disperse and exhaust state resources as low-intensity fighting permeated the region’s shared borders. However, Russia managed to balance power by distributing armaments somewhat equitably to prevent military asymmetry. 

Notwithstanding these limitations, Azerbaijan’s oil wealth allowed national defense expenditures to exceed Armenia’s spending by threefold in 2020. Leading up to the offensive, Azerbaijan purchased an estimated $120 million worth of Turkish military equipment. Both Turkey and Israel supplied Azerbaijan with a fleet of aerial reconnaissance vehicles that decimated Armenian air defenses and ground units. Complimenting the air campaign, the lesser-known tactic Azerbaijan weaponized during the war includes the importation of Turkish-backed insurgents from the Syrian National Army, whose function was to absorb corporal costs on the battlefront. Non-Russian partners continue to capture a larger share of the Azerbaijani defense market, whereas Armenia maintains an unshakable arms dependency on Russia. 

Since the ceasefire, Azerbaijan ratified a far-reaching partnership, the Shusha Declaration, with Turkey pledging security assurances and greater economic integration. A strengthening of Azerbaijani-Turkish relations signifies Turkey’s geostrategic aspirations to integrate into the emerging Eurasian infrastructure. By doing so, it would reshape the regional balance of power and put Russia (and Armenia) at a disadvantage.  

Armenia in Crisis Mode

One day after the terms of capitulation were agreed upon, thousands of Armenian civilians besieged and vandalized government buildings to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. Footage soon circulated online of Ararat Mirzoyan, the Speaker of the National Assembly, being forced from his car and beaten. Political unrest in Yerevan contrasted with victory celebrations in Baku. With Armenia’s ruling class paralyzed, Azerbaijan’s areal pursuits expanded westward, establishing customs and military checkpoints along Armenia’s main transit route with Iran, the Goris-Kapan highway. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev looks to actualize ‘ancestral claims’ over the provinces of Syunik and Gegharkunik, where Azeri troops have secured access to former Armenian mineral deposits of gold, silver, and various metal ores. Simultaneously, Azerbaijani forces initiated cross-border shootouts along the Yeraskh-Sadarak borderline between Armenia and Nakhichevan.

Azerbaijan’s multi-pronged incursions on Armenia Proper represent the latest rendition of a war of attrition, created to extract more concessions from a debilitated opponent. The coup-de-grâce stems from the proposed Zangezur overland corridor through Armenia that would reduce travel time and transportation costs for goods and persons moving between Azerbaijan and Turkey in comparison to the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway. For Armenia’s isolated economy, regional integration presents a tradeoff of economic amelioration for ceding sovereignty. As President Aliyev clarifies his intention to (forcefully) incorporate Syunik into ‘Greater Azerbaijan,’ Armenia’s domestic crisis worsens. 

A Realpolitik Approach   

From 1994 to 2020, the political strategy among elites in Yerevan rested on a process of acclimation, not demarcation, which culminated in historic losses and a re-traumatization of the national consciousness. Armenian complacency diverged from an unresolved enmity in Azerbaijan over the first war’s outcome. Since then, Armenia has found itself a casualty of internal jealousies, while neighboring states have applied tactical principles to amass asymmetric capabilities. Azerbaijan’s growing discontent illustrates a new security concern—simply put, revanchism drives foreign policy in Baku. The presence of Russian peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh forms the sole deterrent to a renewal in large-scale fighting, yet small-scale assaults percolate under Russian oversight. Given Armenia’s material constraints and international passivity to ongoing abuses, Azerbaijan’s offensive movements remain undeterred. A widening imbalance forestalls the maturation of final peace.  

With the present conditions, Armenia’s leadership should forgo idealist dogma with a renewed focus on calculated decision-making. The means by which to fortify security depends on a delicate balancing act, whereby Yerevan diversifies its portfolio of military allies without drawing a rebuke from Moscow. In tandem with bilateral defense partnerships, the current humanitarian crisis requires a pragmatic courting of the European Union for financial assistance. Unlike Azerbaijan, Armenia can leverage its nascent democratic credentials to sustain foreign direct investment from Brussels. For Pashinyan, to counterbalance EU funds by upholding the Velvet Revolution’s reform agenda entails further reassurance for Russia concerning geopolitical alignment. Most importantly, operating within an international self-help system necessitates Armenia to acquire strategic autonomy through military modernization. Fending off border assaults, without reprisal attacks in the contested areas, serves the immediate goal of upholding Armenian sovereignty while allocating more time to shore up operational capabilities for future contingencies. If Armenia’s dark history holds one constant, moralizing accomplishes nothing. Instead, the desire for security guarantees materializes through the sole utility of military power.

Joshua Himelfarb is a first-year graduate student in International Affairs at the George Washington University. His academic interests are in energy security, economic development, and Europe and Eurasia. His past research explored material and ontological insecurities between post-Soviet republics. Contact can be made at [email protected].

You may also like