Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan chairing Security Council Meeting on Monday, November 15

Pashinyan Replaces Defense Minister in Wake of Renewed Hostility on Border

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YEREVAN – Armenian President Armen Sarkissian signed a decree dismissing Defense Minister Arshak Karapetyan on Monday morning, November 15, on recommendation from Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. The move follows reports of yet another attempt by Azerbaijani forces to penetrate the Armenian border in Syunik Province.

Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, center, addressing the Armenian defense community along with former Minister of Defense Karapetyan, right, and his replacement, Suren Papikyan

According to the Ministry of Defense, Armenian and Azerbaijani forces have been engaged in a series of intense firefights over the weekend near Syunik’s Ishkhanasar area, directly adjacent to occupied Karvajar, which was transferred to Azerbaijani control following last year’s ceasefire. Videos emerged on the internet on Sunday, November 14 purportedly showing Azerbaijani soldiers negotiating with Armenian servicemen in Armenian positions, some at least 1.5 km (1 mile) inside sovereign Armenian territory. Others showed Azerbaijani infantry fighting vehicles in the distance, apparently advancing towards Armenian trenches.

This incident comes at a time of increased border tension between Armenia and Artsakh. Last week, Azerbaijan announced that it would be installing customs checkpoints on the small 3 km length of road it controls along the Goris-Kapan road, effectively blocking it to local traffic. This move has been interpreted by many analysts, as well as Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, within the context of increasingly desperate attempts by Baku to put pressure on Yerevan to sign a peace treaty on their terms before Armenia completes its post-war recovery. Armenia has so far resisted attempts to start border demarcation or accept a loss of status for Artsakh. Armenia has responded by building a series of new by-pass roads across Syunik province to secure domestic and international traffic.

The presence of light armored vehicles was denied by the Ministry of Defense on Sunday, though it did acknowledge that Azerbaijanis had “attempted to capture Armenian positions” without specifying their fate. The ministry did insist that no Armenian soldiers were killed or wounded during the incident and that Russian peacekeepers were on site to help de-escalate the situation.

Still, news of Karapetyan’s sacking as defense chief prompted questions regarding the events which unfolded the previous day. Karapetyan, who served in the role for just over 100 days had ironically been appointed to the position under similar circumstances, coinciding with a fatal shootout on the border near the town of Yeraskh in July. A long-serving career officer, Karapetyan left the Army to become defense advisor to Nikol Pashinyan following the revolution. Thought to be one of the prime minister’s trusted advisors, and known for close ties to the Russian defense community, he was promoted to minister of defense as part of the new cabinet formed after last June’s election. Karapetyan also triggered a minor diplomatic incident last week when he travelled to Stepanakert to meet with his Artsakhian counterpart, provoking the ire of Baku.

Pashinyan confirmed that Karapetyan’s dismissal was directly related to the weekend’s border incident in a televised meeting of the Security Council on Monday morning. “ I invited Mr. Karapetyan in the morning to thank him for his work as minister of defense,” the prime minister announced, adding that he appreciated his efforts but that a change in leadership was necessary to better deal with this crisis. Karapetyan was replaced in the role by Suren Papikyan, currently serving as deputy prime minister.

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Pashinyan thanked the former minister for his efforts yet again during a joint press conference at the Ministry of Defense where he also introduced Papikyan to the army brass. He repeated an earlier statement that the military establishment needed fresh leadership. “We have a clear idea of what steps need to be taken in order to navigate the country out of this challenge,” the prime minister said. Karapetyan, in turn, expressed his confidence in the abilities of his replacement, calling on his ministry to “do everything you can to support the new minister in his important work.” Papikyan responded by saying he was ready to take on this difficult responsibility, adding “I will work day and night to serve the Republic of Armenia.”

Papikyan, 35, is a former academic who made a name for himself after the 2018 revolution by undertaking a series of massive infrastructure development projects in Armenia. While minister of infrastructure and territorial administration, his ministry repaved hundreds of kilometers of decaying Soviet-era roads across the country connecting previously underserved communities, including the road that loops around Lake Sevan, as well as new aqueducts, and power lines. His office also oversaw the retrofitting of dozens of public buildings across the country to meet new seismic safety standards.

Perhaps as relevant as his recent reputation as a competent manager, Papikyan, a long-time member of the governing Civil Contract party, is also seen as belonging to the prime minister’s inner circle. Critics have long accused Pashinyan of delegating sensitive decision-making to a small clique of his political allies which he considers trustworthy rather than experts deemed better experienced to deal with these issues. Recent key appointments of allies – such as Ararat Mirzoyan as minister of foreign affairs, the diplomatically inexperienced Lilit Makunts as ambassador to the United States and former Deputy Prime Minister Tigran Avinyan as board member for the economically strategic Zangezur Copper Molybdenum Combine, suggest a dearth of readily-available talent or experience at the government’s disposal.

Still, the appointment of non-military candidates to the post of defense minister is far from uncommon in the world. The majority of currently-serving defense ministers in NATO member-states have no military backgrounds whatsoever. US President Joe Biden even provoked some controversy when appointing recently retired army officer General Lloyd J. Austin III as secretary of defense this year, with critics voicing concern that a time-honored US tradition of separating the military and political spheres was being overturned. As Duke University specialist on military-civilian affairs Peter D. Feaver argued, the founders of the US sought to keep the profession of arms out of politics for a reason. They sought to ensure that civilian leaders “have a right to be wrong,” but also to keep the military professional and nonpartisan.

Indeed, Papikyan is not even the first non-military officer to be appointed to the largely bureaucratic role of minister of defense. Vigen Sargsyan, as part of the process of being groomed for office by ex-president Serzh Sargsyan, served in the role between 2016 and 2018. The minister of defense role is traditionally a political appointment which coordinates with the Army General Staff, which must, by law, be headed by a ranking military officer, and the National Security Council to make national defense policy, articulate military doctrine, and coordinate arms procurements.

Following a meeting of the National Security Council, which includes the prime minister, defense minister, and chief of the Army General Staff, held on the morning of November 15, a communiqué was released confirming that Azerbaijani forces had indeed advanced into sovereign Armenian territory and assaulted at least four Armenian entrenched positions. The press release also acknowledged that the Azerbaijani assault was supported by armored vehicles, in contrast with the previous day’s denial by the ministry of defense. The letter goes on to say that the Azerbaijani intruders were repulsed back across the border to their starting points and Russian peacekeepers were brought in to help de-escalate the situation.

The Security Council also called on the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO: a defense alliance of which Armenia is a part) and the international community to take note of “the ongoing aggression of the Azerbaijani Armed Forces and actions directed against the sovereignty, territorial integrity and regional security and stability of the Republic of Armenia.”

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