Vahan Zanoyan

Realism, Vision and Defeatism: Right and Wrong Lessons from the War


By Vahan Zanoyan

The devastating defeat of Armenia and Artsakh in the 44-day war has understandably led to an avalanche of analyses, controversy, finger pointing, misinformation and a never-ending cycle of blame and counter-blame. Having been misled that victory was at hand during most of the war, the nation is in shock. Even though little is known about the specific details of the war, there seems to be no shortage of explanations and conclusions from all sides on both social media and news media.

But perhaps the most dangerous phenomenon that has resurfaced is an old mindset best known by its proponents, First President Levon Ter Petrosian and his one-time advisor, Gerard (Jirair) Libaridian. In a nutshell, this mindset advocates that Armenia should look realistically at its strengths and weaknesses vis a vis its adversaries, not confuse wishful thinking with a strategy, abandon ambitions that are clearly beyond its means to achieve, embrace peace and coexistence with its neighbors, trade territory for economic and physical security, avoid the slightest provocation, military or diplomatic (such as mentioning the Treaty of Sevres) directed at Turkey or Azerbaijan, and hope that by thus appeasing them, it shall enjoy peace and prosperity. The mindset claims that Armenians suffer from a political culture that relies on dreams and that we allow our illusions to guide our judgement. Recently, the Ankara-based Turkish think tank, AVIM, published a commentary presenting Libaridian’s views, calling them a sober wake-up call and praising Libaridian’s pacifism, foresight and the accuracy of his predictions. Clearly, this mindset is music to Turkish ears, and for good reason.

What makes the Ter Petrosian/Libaridian mindset especially dangerous today is that it has resurfaced with a vengeance and with a “we told you so” addendum, which, given the enormous losses of the war, has begun to find resonance with an already demoralized, disillusioned and confused public. After all, we just lost a war they said we could never win, which to many unsuspecting observers, proves not only that they were right, but that their reasoning was right, too. This is dangerous because nothing could be further from the truth.

Let me start with the concept of realism. To assess a given situation correctly, as it really is, with no interference from emotions and prejudices, and to accept facts as they are, is being realistic. However, to assume that today’s realities will be the realities of tomorrow, that we have no power to shape or change them, that external circumstances either do not change, or, as they change, they do not present opportunities for changing one’s circumstances, is not realistic. It is based on a static view of the world. The ‘Static Mindset’ is not about just accepting, but also succumbing to the realities of the moment. In short, it is defeatist. It lacks the vision and ambition to realistically shape a different future than the present. No political leadership can serve the nation it leads with a Static Mindset, because having a realistic vision for the future and the determination to pursue that vision are prerequisites for effective political leadership.

Yes, we lost the war, but not for the reasons the advocates of that mindset give. We lost the war because right after the victory and Bishkek ceasefire agreement of 1994 we did not consolidate our gains through international legal measures and through intensive, deliberate and goal-oriented diplomacy to secure the status of Artsakh and reverse the prevailing international acceptance that it is an integral part of Azerbaijani territory. Because we stayed intoxicated with our victory far too long and failed to upgrade our military. Because we spent the last 26 years in complacency and corruption. Because we did not have a clear and attainable vision of an economically advanced, militarily defensible, prosperous Armenia and Artsakh, nor enough dedication to our statehood to pursue such a vision. Because Armenia’s political and military leadership happily lingered in the tired assumption that Armenia could always rely an external guarantor of its security, ignoring the ways in which the world, the region, and the circumstances of that presumed guarantor were changing. Because we did not invest in our capabilities and in strengthening the country, and our political leadership throughout independence, taking the prevailing status quo for granted, was more interested in enriching itself than in building the state and populating all of the territories under Armenian control.

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The advocates of Static Mindset were not realistic in everything. Their belief that if Armenia appeased Turkey and Azerbaijan it would enjoy peaceful, harmonious and mutually beneficial neighborly relations with those two countries, was and still is fallacious. It is no secret that Azerbaijan’s future territorial ambitions are larger than what it has achieved in the last war. Turkey, in large part because it is yet to acknowledge and come to terms with the Armenian Genocide, still openly demonstrates genocidal intentions, with no retribution or rebuke from the international community. It is as critical to be realistic in assessing the true intentions of our neighbors, as in assessing their capabilities.

The wrong and most dangerous lesson that we can draw from the war is that it could never have been won, and therefore it can never be won in the future, and therefore Armenia should simply accept its fate, make further concessions if asked to, adjust to the new realities on the ground and accept them not only as today’s realities, but also as the fate of future generations.

The correct lesson to draw is the exact opposite: The war could have been won if we had invested the last 26 years in getting ready for it. Ironically, the war may even have been avoided if we had been truly ready for it, because, if we had been truly ready for it, we would have won the war before it even began.

It is incumbent on any political leadership in Armenia to have a realistic, sober, unemotional assessment of where the country stands today. But it is also within the political leadership’s responsibility to extend that realism to an assessment of the most ambitious potential that the country has, and to have the will, determination and selfless dedication to strive for that potential at any cost. Realism does not preclude imagination, ingenuity, vision, daring, ambition and courage. Quite the contrary, these characteristics are part and parcel of the true realist.

“In order to be a realist, you have to believe in miracles,” said David Ben Gurion, the first Prime Minister of Israel. The state he founded seventy-three years ago overcame odds of survival not much better than those of Artsakh, and thrives today.

February 2, 2021

Vahan Zanoyan is a retired global strategic and energy advisor to numerous governments and multinational corporations.

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