Benyamin Poghosyan: The realistic policy of Armenia towards Nagorno Karabakh

The 2020 Karabakh war has dramatically changed the geopolitical status quo in the South Caucasus. Discussions have been underway in Armenia and the Armenian Diaspora about the reasons for the catastrophe and those responsible. Most probably, military defeat will be a key topic during the upcoming June 2021 snap parliamentary elections. The thorough analyses of what happened before, during, and after the war are mandatory tasks to be fulfilled. However, the key for Armenia now to elaborate a new policy towards the Karabakh conflict, taking into account the war results. The most significant issue here is to develop a realistic policy based on accurate calculations, Armenia’s resources, and the interests of external players; otherwise, Armenia may face another catastrophe.

The realistic policy of Armenia towards the Karabakh conflict should be based on several assumptions.

  1. Armenia will not be able to change the new status for its favor in the short/mid-term perspective (5-7 years). It means that any changes that may occur during that period will be only in favor of Azerbaijan, and as a result, Baku will control territories not taken during the 44-day war and force the remaining Armenians to leave Nagorno Karabakh. In this period (until 2027-2028), Armenia’s essential task is to keep the current status quo in Nagorno Karabakh to prevent Armenians’ forced removal from territories currently under Russian substantial influence/control.
  2. In the longer run (up to 15 years perspective) current status quo is unacceptable for Armenia, as it will inevitably result in the slow death of Nagorno Karabakh (Artsakh) with either massacre or forced removal of Armenians from the region.
  3. Armenia’s strategic task in a long-term perspective (from 2028 to 2035) is to change the status quo in Nagorno Karabakh in its favor. At a minimum, it means to push back Azerbaijan beyond the borders of the former Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Region and to widen the corridor connecting Armenia with Nagorno Karabakh. Thus, during the upcoming seven years, Armenia should keep the status quo and prepare for changing it after 2028.

Now let us discuss each assumption and the ways to realize the goals mentioned there.

The defeat in the 2020 Karabakh war combined with the impact of COVID – 19 pandemic triggered a deep economic and political crisis in Armenia. The political crisis will continue well beyond the June 2021 elections, and as of now, there are no clear paths to overcome it and bring stability. The economic downturn continues, and political crisis will hamper efforts to fix the situation quickly. Armenian army has suffered severe losses and needs time for modernization. Thus, in upcoming years, Armenia has no chance to challenge Azerbaijan seriously. Yerevan should concentrate its efforts on keeping the current status quo.

Russia is not interested in changes in the new status quo, and the same applies to Turkey, at least under Erdogan’s leadership. Azerbaijan may dream about taking Stepanakert and force Armenians out from there, but Baku lacks the resources to challenge Russia directly. Azerbaijan will embark on the “strategic patience” doctrine, seeking to solidify its gains and looking forward to a favorable moment to push away Russian peacekeepers and Armenians out of Nagorno Karabakh.

Armenia should base its strategy to keep the status quo in Nagorno Karabakh for upcoming years on several key pillars. The first pillar is friendly relations with Russia. Yerevan must refrain from involving itself in any overt or covert anti-Russia policies triggered by any external actor in the region. The second pillar is the preservation of Minsk Group and its co-chairmanship. Given the growing tensions between the US and Russia during the first months of the Biden administration, these two tasks seemingly contradict each other. However, despite all harsh rhetoric against Russia, Washington understands that the US global hegemony is over and will not come back, and the US needs platforms for dialogue with Russia in the evolving multi-polar world. The OSCE Minsk Group co-chairmanship has been one of the unique formats of the US, Russia, and France dialogue since 2014 and all three are interested in having such a platform in the future.

Meanwhile, in its discussions with the US and France, Armenia should send a clear message that it is interested in keeping the co-chairmanship format and firmly believes that it may serve as a platform for dialogue between three UN Security Council permanent members. Another clear message from Armenia should be the statement that neither Yerevan nor Nagorno Karabakh will benefit if Nagorno Karabakh becomes a hot spot of great power competition and an arena for a “zero-sum” mentality. Of course, Armenia has zero ability to influence the decision-making process in Paris and Washington. However, it should send a clear message to both capitals that any actions to weaken Russian positions in Armenia or Nagorno Karabakh, remove Russian peacekeepers from Nagorno Karabakh, or replace them with international forces under the UN mandate will help neither Armenia nor Nagorno Karabakh. Armenia’s position should be clear – Yerevan wants to see OSCE Minsk Group co-chairmanship as a platform for the US, Russia, and France dialogue and not the arena for great power competition infused with a zero-sum game mentality.

Meanwhile, in the long term perspective (7-15 years) current status quo will not secure the future of Nagorno Karabakh. First of all, no one can guarantee that Russian troops will stay in Nagorno Karabakh forever. Despite all rhetoric popular in the West that Russian soldiers never leave after deployment, Russian indefinite presence in Nagorno Karabakh is not guaranteed. Russian soldiers may leave due to different reasons, but the outcome will be the same – total massacre or forced deportations of Armenians and final loss of Nagorno Karabakh. Armenia will have no chances to push back Azerbaijan militarily and protect Nagorno Karabakh within its current borders, and no other power in the world – the US, France, Germany, China, India, or EU/NATO will start the war with Azerbaijan to save 100000 Armenians living in Nagorno Karabakh.

Nagorno Karabakh population understand this very well, and if no clear path is on the horizon to change the status quo in favor of them, we will witness an increasing emigration from Nagorno Karabakh to Armenia and beyond. Furthermore, even Russian presence will not prevent provocations against Armenians, such as attacking the cars traveling between Nagorno Karabakh and Armenia or between Stepanakert and other cities in Nagorno Karabakh. Thus, if no clear strategy is elaborated to change the current status quo in Nagorno Karabakh, the only outcome will be the loss of Nagorno Karabakh in 10-15 years.

In this context, the question may arise, what Armenia should do in the coming seven years to change the current status quo to its favor later. The critical remedy here is the stable economic growth of the country. Economic growth is the only way to stop emigration from Armenia itself and have the necessary resources to modernize the Armenian military. Without a booming economy and strong military, no one will take Armenia’s challenge to the current status quo seriously. Before the COVID – 19 pandemic Armenia’s economic growth had four main pillars – mining, agriculture, tourism, and IT. The COVID-19 pandemic ruined the tourism sector worldwide, and in the best case scenario Armenia will restore its 2019 level only in 2022-2023. Mining has adverse severe environmental effects, and given the small territory of Armenia, its future expansion is not desirable. Thus, in the coming 5-7 years, Armenia’s key focus should be the rapid development of its export-oriented agriculture and IT sectors. Since its independence, Armenia has been suffering from a trade deficit, and it should significantly increase its exports to have any chances for stable economic growth. To create an export-oriented IT sector, the Armenian government needs to facilitate Armenian IT companies’ entrance into such untapped markets as China and India. Armenian companies should create mobile and web applications for these markets and seek to become a platform for European companies to work there. In the agriculture sector government should focus its attention on such fields as precise agriculture, which will significantly increase profits by using sensors, drones, and mobile apps; intensive orchards; and hydroponic and aquaponic farming. Simultaneously, Armenia should seek to develop close relations with all powers that are unhappy with Turkey’s growing assertiveness in a wide area covering South Caucasus, Black Sea basin, Eastern Mediterranean, and MENA region. China, India, France are the potential candidates interested in stopping Turkey in the South Caucasus. Despite personal chemistry between President Putin and President Erdogan, Kremlin understands that Russia and Turkey will be frenemies in the best case scenario and adversaries in a realistic scenario. Thus, Armenia should seek to deepen its relations with those four powers offering its services in preventing the future growth of Turkey’s influence in the South Caucasus.

Benyamin Poghosyan

Chairman, Center for Political and Economic Strategic Studies (Yerevan, Armenia)

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April 2021
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